Hugo Nominee: “The Tear”

Unsurprisingly, given that (a) it first appeared in an SFBC-only anthology and (b) it wasn’t in the Hugo voter packet until recently, there’s not much talk of substance about this one out there, that I could find at any rate. Maybe we can rectify that. Here’s what I did find:

Rich Horton:

My favorite story of the year is Ian McDonald’s “The Tear”. Gardner Dozois’s introductory material suggested that it has sufficient ideas and plot for many writers to make a trilogy from. In fact, one could argue that that is not entirely a strength of the story — there would have been nothing wrong with a more leisurely treatment of some of the stories situations.

It’s set in a future McDonald has visited before, in which the Galaxy (and perhaps beyond) has been colonized by the Clade — a vast variety of beings, all apparently based originally on Homo Sapiens, but with genetic modifications (and sometimes more extreme changes) to allow human life to spread to many different environments. On Ptey’s planet most people develop different “aspects”: completely separate personalities that take over when needed. Ptey — or the aspects he has become — play a vital role in a crisis involving a curious group of beings fleeing an implacable enemy. The story keeps leaping to radically different futures, following different aspects of Ptey, through parallel love affairs, centuries long space journeys and battles, meetings with new branches of humanity — it is fascinating, tragic, hopeful, imagination-stuffed, and powerful.

That short review doesn’t really do the story justice. There is a well-depicted central love affair. There is some play with the nature of the “aspects” Ptey’s people develop that I found fascinating. The depictions of the first visitors to Ptey’s planet are really cool. The notion that all these very different beings are human is not at all new but nicely handled. There is a certain ambiguity as to how “good” the good guys necessarily are. (But application of one main rule — “killing people is bad” — does clarify things somewhat.) I just really loved the story.

What’s good here — well, what I’ve said. And it’s as imaginatively stuffed a story as we usually see, though to be fair Rosenbaum and Doctorow’s story (see below) is also pretty stuff that way. What’s bad — as I hinted, perhaps sometimes things are a bit rushed.

Abigail Nussbaum:

Ian McDonald’s “The Tear” is a major departure from his habit, over the last few years, of writing offshoots to his novels River of Gods and Brasyl. A far-future space opera, it follows the character Ptey from his childhood and early adulthood on the planet Tay and into space, where he is first the guest of an alien race visiting Tay, then a fugitive from their enemies, then the alien visitor of another race, and finally the prodigal son returning to his ravished home world. Except that all of these aliens are humans–evolved or artificially altered into radically different forms–and that Ptey is only Ptey for the first few pages of the story. His people have a tradition of ‘manifolding’–creating new, subtly different, aspects of their personality within themselves, different people sharing the same body and carrying on their own, separate lives–and later on Ptey transforms again through exposure to alien technology. The multiplicity of personalities who are all essentially the same person is obviously intended to track with the multiple forms humanity takes in the story, from Tay’s socially-mandated schizophrenia to its visitors’ virtual existence to the accelerated aging of the inhabitants of a generation ship Ptey hitches a ride on. This is an interesting point, but it seems a little flimsy for such a long story, especially given the thinness of the its plot–Ptey leaves home, Ptey comes home. Even more problematic is the fact that McDonald doesn’t quite pull off the feat of making Ptey’s different iterations feel like different versions of the same person–they either come off, in the first half of the story, as completely different people, or, in its later parts, as the same person playing different roles in different social settings. “The Tear” is interesting and well written (though McDonald’s prose often veers from merely ornate into baroque, which occasionally made for a tough slog) but since the whole story hinges on the device of Ptey’s transformations–it is even divided into chapters according to the changes in his aspect–the unconvincing execution of that device renders “The Tear,” if not quite inert, then at least seriously underperforming.

John DeNardo:

Ian McDonald’s “The Tear” presents a water world culture that encourages multiple personalities – specifically eight- upon entering adulthood. At that time, its members relocate to a “Manifold House” where their other identities are born. This story follows the life of the protagonist born as Ptey, a male identity that is eventually replaced by eight others over the course of the story. Ptey’s passage to adulthood includes dealing with girls, a friend who cannot become multiple (Cjatay, a so-called “Lonely”), and – perhaps more prominently – the alien Anpreen that orbit the neighboring world for fuel. Ptey learns a terrible and dangerous secret of the Anpreen and their reason for emigration – a secret that forces him, against cultural taboo, to assume a ninth personality so that he can join them in their travels. Things only get worse for poor Ptey when the Anpreen situation comes to a boil. This is a very brief skimming over the central story, which itself is brief in comparison with the mind-numbing ideas being tossed about like balls in a lottery machine. Too many ideas may have taken the edge off this story, but it definitely has a most epic feel to it, the scope of which still has my mind reeling in wonder.

Nicholas Whyte, and some other people, liked it; Walker of Worlds and Visions of Paradise couldn’t finish it. As usual, I’ll post my thoughts as a comment.

Down Memory Lane

I got this from Martin who got it from Larry (see also Adam‘s post); the idea is to list the books that shaped you as a reader. I did something similar when Farah Mendlesohn was running her survey a couple of years ago, but it’s always an interesting exercise. My memory is as bad as Martin’s, if not worse, so I’ve gone for 2-year brackets as well, and I couldn’t swear that I’ve got everything in the right place. Commentary in square brackets where I couldn’t help myself.

8
Heidi and sequels, Johanna Spyri
Little House on the Prarie series, Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Adventure series, Willard Price
The Famous Five series, Enid Blyton
The Magician’s Nephew, CS Lewis [and the rest of Narnia, of course, but for some reason it's this, and to a lesser extent The Silver Chair, that stay with me]

10
The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
Swallows and Amazons, and most of the sequels, Arthur Ransome
A Rag, A Bone and a Hank of Hair and Trillions, Nicholas Fisk
The Animals of Farthing Wood, Colin Dann
The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien

12
The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K Le Guin
The Complete Robot, Isaac Asimov
A lot of Peanuts, Charles M Schulz
An awful lot of Dragonlance, especially the Chronicles and Legends trilogies, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman [I could have included "even more Dragonlance" on my next list]

14
Foundation and sequels, Isaac Asimov
The Chrysalids, John Wyndham
Rama and sequels, Arthur C Clarke (and Gentry Lee)
Various Calvin & Hobbes anthologies, Bill Watterson
The Amtrak Wars and Fade-Out, Patrick Tilley

16
Interzone, ed. David Pringle
Voyage, Stephen Baxter [although I had been reading him for some time before this]
Axiomatic, Greg Egan
Red Mars and sequels, Kim Stanley Robinson
The Reality Dysfunction and sequels, Peter F Hamilton

18
The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
The Stone Canal, Ken MacLeod
Asimov’s Science Fiction, ed. Gardner Dozois
A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge
Final Fantasy VII, Squaresoft [this was the hardest of the age bands to do; I think I stopped reading for a couple of years when I went to university. But I spent many an hour playing FFVII, and it sits very close to the book-space in my head.]

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Reminder: “The Tear” discussion

Given that the next Hugo-nominated novella in the schedule, Ian McDonald’s “The Tear”, has never been available online, and was only recently added to the Anticipation Hugo voter packet, I suspect an even more resounding silence than last week. Nevertheless: I’ll be rounding up opinion that I can find about “The Tear” on Sunday, and discussion would be welcome.

London Meeting: Jaine Fenn

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London Meeting is Jaine Fenn, author of Principles of Angels and Consorts of Heaven; she will be interviewed by Kari Sperring (author of Living with Ghosts).

As usual, the interview will start at 7pm, though there will be people in the bar from 6-ish; the meeting is free, and open to any and all, though there will be a raffle (with sf books as prizes).

The venue is the upstairs room of The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

Hugo Nominee: “The Political Prisoner”

As previously noted, the story doesn’t appear to be available online. I will note, however, that this story has also been a Nebula nominee, is currently a Sturgeon nominee, and will appear in Dozois’ year’s best; so it really is, according to several different constituencies, one of the best stories of the year. What did reviews make of it?

Charlie Anders at io9:

Once again, the best thing in the current Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is a very political novella about spying during wartime. [...] “The Political Officer” and “The Political Prisoner” both take place in a future society of quasi-Russian religious zealots that have terraformed a new planet the hard way: with their bare hands. They’re locked in a conflict with the Adareans, who have spliced non-human DNA to allow them to do things like photosynthesize (much like the enhanced Rebirths, in Reed’s “Five Thrillers.”) In “the Political Officer,” which is on the F&SF website, Max is a propagandist and spy, sent aboard a spaceship to spread the official party line and keep tabs on the Education Department’s rivals, the Intelligence Department. It’s very Gogol-esque. The ship is on a spy mission against the Adareans, but then it comes across a trade ship sporting some new technology that could give the humans an edge in their coming war against the Adareans

In the sequel, “The Political Prisoner,” Max comes back to Jesusalem, just in time for the battle between Political Education and Political Intelligence to heat up. He’s caught on the wrong side of things, and winds up part of a purge of Political Education supporters. He’s bussed out to a gulag, where he and his fellow prisoners are terraforming a new section of the planet, just like their religious zealot ancestors did. It’s incredibly rough work: carting rocks out to the ocean, and then carting back a ton of seaweed to help fertilize the dead ground. It’s not at all the way you picture terraforming, with huge machines or glowy lights. But it’s probably closer to the way actual terraforming would go. Max is forced to live among the Adareans and starts to understand more of their hybrid culture. It’s a worthy sequel to “Political Officer,” and a worthwhile read in its own right, despite a slightly disappointing ending.

Rich Horton:

My original review noted that “The Political Prisoner” violates Mundane Manifesto guidelines by positing a future interstellar human society tied together (at least to an extent) by FTL travel. (The review began by considering the Interzone Mundane SF issue.) Worse, it’s set on a planet not terribly advanced technologically (in some ways) from the 20th Century. There’s no denying such a future isn’t terribly plausible. But really this is an artificial construction — a stage set — for examining its central idea (and for telling a story). “The Political Prisoner” is a sequel to “The Political Officer”, and like that story it draws to some extent on Soviet history for its plot and situation. The title character in both stories is Maxim Nikomedes, an internal spy for one branch of the authoritarian government of the planet Jesusalem — that is, a man who spies on other factions of the government. Here he is swept up in political turnover and sent to a work camp. The main SFnal element here is that the work camps, instead of being in Siberia, are instead terraforming camps. But the heart of the story is the depiction of Nikomedes — not a nice man, but among even worse men, so queasily sympathetic.

What’s good here — mainly the portrait of Nikomedes, and the fairly plausible situation he ends up in, and its bitterly inevitable working out. What’s bad — well, as I hint at above, there’s not much SFnally exciting going on. There really is fairly little point in the story being SF at all. This is very well done stuff, but for an SF (or Fantasy) award, I want to have been thrilled by the central idea. (Or, alternately, the story could be so brilliant in other ways that that was less important … but that sets the bar for brilliance a lot higher.)

Jason Sanford:

My new story of the week is “The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay from the August 2008 Fantasy and Science Fiction. [...] Finley’s descriptions of the harsh reality of a reeducation camp–which is modeled on those infamous gulags of the old Soviet Union–are simply awe-inspiring, as are his descriptions of what people will do to survive in such a death-inducing environment.

However, the most amazing aspect of the story is Max himself. As a political officer, Max has a unique view on why all of this is being done to him. For example, when prisoners are killed as a way to teach everyone to stay in line, Max is both horrified at the sight and appreciative of the political skill of the man doing the killing. Likewise, he is now seeing the fruits of his own political work. For example, decades ago he created a derogatory term for a group of genetically altered humans; now Max hears people bandying this term around as they hate these altered people with an outsized passion. Max is vain enough to take pride in this outgrowth of his work–and old enough to also be ashamed. It is in this conflict between what Max has done in the past, and the changes he is undergoing in the reeducation camp, which makes the story such a winner. This story will likely be reprinted in some of the “year’s best” anthologies, and I highly recommend it to all readers.

Ian Sales:

I don’t get this story; I don’t get why it’s science fiction. Finlay might as well have set it in Nazi Germany. Or Stalinist Russia. Or any totalitarian regime which slaughtered great swathes of its population in the name of something or other. ‘The Political Prisoner’ may be set on another planet, and the forced labour is supposedly part of the terraforming required to make the world more habitable, but that’s as close as it gets to sf. Setting a story on another planet does not make it science fiction.
[...]
In my comments on Nancy Kress’s ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ (see here), I mentioned the open mechanism which drives science fiction stories. That mechanism is absent in ‘The Political Prisoner’. Its workings do not need to be laid bare because everything is on the surface. Nikomedes is in the wrong place at the wrong time, Nikomedes can’t reveal his secret affiliation, Nikomedes gets sent to a reclamation camp and his past experiences help him survive, Nikomedes gets rescued. There is no idea which needs to be explicated, no idea upon which the plot is carried, no idea with consequences which can be explored.

I’ve not read Finlay’s ‘The Political Officer’, but I can only imagine that those who liked it voted for ‘The Political Prisoner’. Because on its own, there’s nothing in it that’s strikes me as award-worthy. There are enough examples of one group of people horribly treating another in recent human history, without having to go to all the trouble of writing a science fiction novella on the subject. Especially since ‘The Political Prisoner’ doesn’t actually say anything insightful or worthwhile. Nikomedes survives several months in the reclamation camp, then the head of Intelligence turns up and rescues him. Nikomedes asks that the prisoners he had been bunked with, the ones who had been doing the hardest labour, are released. Because, he says, “There’s been enough killing.” Oh dear.

‘The Political Prisoner’ is definitely the weakest of the three novellas I’ve read so far. And, like the Kress, I can’t quite understand why it was nominated in the first place.

Aliette de Bodard at The Fix:

“The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay is a sequel to “The Political Officer,” which was published in 2002 in F&SF. Set on a planet where a rebellion turned the government from religious to secular, “The Political Prisoner” features Max Nicodemes, a political officer who works for the Department of Political Education, which is in charge of propaganda. Max’s boss, Mallove, has political ambitions of his own-especially now that Drozhin, the man who spearheaded the rebellion, reportedly lies dying. When purges shake the city, Max finds himself stranded in their midst.

This is the longest story of the issue, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Finlay’s fast-paced narrative makes the pages fly by, and Max’s ordeal is believably chilling, as are the politics underpinning the purges. When the story moves into the reclamation camps, where political prisoners work on terraforming the arid environment, it takes on echoes of similar camps in the 20th Century (gulags, but also penal labour camps such as the Japanese ones in WWII), and thus a special relevance-proving, sadly, that even in space and in the far future, mankind’s ability to inflict pain on one another is boundless. Recommended.

Russ Allbery:

I’m not much of a fan of Finley’s other work, but this one was a pleasant surprise. Lucky, that, since this very long novella is much of the issue.

This is a follow-up story to “The Political Officer,” which I haven’t read. Max Nikomedes is a political officer in a very religious colony world. At the start of the story, he’s been arrested due to changes in the political winners and losers in the government. From there, matters go from bad to worse, and he ends up in the prison camp system with a group of aliens, genetically-engineered offshoots of humanity that had been a convenient war target to rally the population. It follows the normal pattern of a prison camp story, of desperation and defiance and psychological struggle, but it’s well-written, hard-hitting, and didn’t become monotonous. The subject matter won’t be to everyone’s taste, and it’s not clear how much the SF setting adds to the story, but it’s well-told within its type. (7)

Lois Tilton at IROSF:

The use of Russian-sounding names helps evoke a strong sense of the Stalinist purges and the gulag. Jerusalem’s origin was as a fanatical theocracy, but doctrinal disputes have by now been replaced by raw power struggles. While Max is the consummate pragmatist, a man who can tell the boss he is betraying, “Sir, if you want me to be disloyal, I will be,” yet there is an idealist at his core; he can not help thinking that even this purge may ultimately be for the greater good, if not his own. A fascinating and complex character in a well-drawn scenario where the struggle for survival tests humanity to the breaking point.

So: any other comments?

Mr H & Mr H discuss The City & The City

The City and the City coverAttentive readers may remember that I was a bit sceptical about China Mieville’s new novel when I started it. I didn’t end up any less sceptical when I finished it, but struggled to articulate my reasons in a review (subsequently aborted). More recently, Dan Hartland also read it, and asked me if I would like to discuss it. This post is the first part of that discussion; you can find the second part over at Dan’s place, here. Bear in mind that of necessity our discussion assumes knowledge of the nature of the book’s setting, which I’m not sure is yet quite common knowledge. There aren’t many in-depth reviews out there yet, either, but this IROSF review by Eric Gregory will give you a flavour of the book, without fully revealing the gimmick (it’s cruel of me to call it a gimmick, but there you go). But if you already know what I’m alluding to, or don’t mind knowing, then read on …

Niall:

My problem is, I’m not sure I have anything to say that would be productive enough to be worth dialoguing about. I suddenly realised, when I was writing my abortive review of the book, what it reminded me of — a graphic novel I read last year called Rumble Strip, which is about contemporary society’s obsession with cars. There’s a brilliant section about how believing in road markings — believing that lines of paint on the ground denote actual boundaries — is a necessary absurdity, essential to keeping the whole system going. The book points out that our shared belief in those lines of paint is so strong that driving across them — even in, say, an empty car park — always carries a transgressive thrill. And I read that, and while intellectually I already knew what it was telling me, the book brought out the emotion of the situation in a way that made it fresh.

The City & The City wants to be that writ large, I think. It seems to me that for the book to work, you have to be convinced by the central conceit — you have to believe, even if only temporarily, in the separated coexistence of Beszel and Ul Qoma as Tyador Borlu believes in it, as necessary even if absurd – and unfortunately, I never was. Which leaves me intellectually appreciating the neatness of “unseeing” and the rest as refractions of real-world behaviours, but not emotionally engaged by most of the book. Sometimes, yes — I found any scene with driving in is terrifying, because it taps into the same knowledge as Rumble Strip, except here you have a sustained, deliberate transgression of the rules. But mostly, I just didn’t think it scaled. Yes, I “unsee” homeless people sometimes; not that I’m proud of doing so. Yes, people can live in the same physical cities and, metaphorically, in entirely different places. No, I don’t believe that metaphor can be formalized in the way that The City & The City asks me to believe it can.

What did you think?

Dan:

Hmmm.

Well, I think that you’ve cottoned on to what Mieville is up to — not that it wasn’t blatantly obvious — but, at the same time, he reminds us very early on that “this city is not an allegory”. With that warning in mind, I didn’t worry too much about whether the behaviours on show in Ul Qoma and Beszel ‘scaled up’ from our own urban villages; instead, I tried to see whether or not they made sense in and of themselves. Undoubtedly they do — the book is very successful in making sense of its wild conceit. As you say, the concepts of unseeing and unsensing are very neat, and all the cross-hatched city stuff very well drawn: I believed that Borlu believed in it and, more importantly, lived by it.

To that extent, I’m not sure the reader has to believe in the cities as Borlu does for the book to be a success — do we believe in the Ring as Frodo does? Of course not. And yet, of course, LotR is not set in our world. Explicitly, The City & The City is — or rather, it is set in a parallel world as close to ours as not to matter. People write books, use telephones and board planes in Borlu’s world as they do in ours; they speak the same languages, have the same emotions. For me, that’s where the book trips up — it situates its metaphor in a milieu too familiar. I didn’t believe in, as you say, the necessity of the separation because I didn’t believe the cities’ inhabitants would — not because people can’t be conditioned to accept something so absurd, but because people would never have made the separation, or sustained it, in the first place. Unusually for Mieville, I just didn’t buy the sophistication of his politics.

He thanks Farah Mendelsohn in his acknowledgements, and that makes me wonder if The City & The City fails because it is more excercise than fleshed-out world: this fantasy is a portal quest (Copula Hall), yet it is also immersive (because we begin in the world and our POV character is part of that world); at the same time, it is intrusive — Breach and one city exist constantly at the edge of perception for inhabitants of the other — and liminal, since that gap between our world and the fantasy is never properly resolved. Is The City & The City less a novel and more a deliberate taxing of the taxonomy?

Niall:

To take your last point first: ah, I hadn’t thought of it like that! It’s certainly plausible that he was familiar with and playing with Mendlesohn’s taxonomy, particularly since he’s borrowed at least one term from the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy. (Crosshatch: “in many fantasy tales the demarcation line is anything but clearcut, and two or more worlds may simultaneously inhabit the same territory … in a novel like M John Harrison’s A Storm of Wings (1980 US) the entire landscape is a crosshatch … In other words, when borderland conventions are absent, there is an inherent and threatening instability to regions of crosshatch.”) And the book clearly plays with other conventions of fantasy, too, such as the specialized vocabulary — Breach, unseeing, topolgangers, all the rest — which I think is one of the ways in which The City & The City attempts to shape our thinking, as readers: it takes the familiar geeky joy of getting to grips with worldbling and attempts to make it do some work. On the other hand, Mieville has also said that one of the impetuses behind the novel was that it was written as a present for his mother, who liked mysteries; so presumably it is intended to succeed on that level as well.

But your second paragraph nails the problem, for me: my argument with the book is precisely in the extent to which it is not fantasy or allegory. If The City & The City had been set in an invented world, or if it had created a secret, mythic world within our own, I suspect I would have found it (paradoxically) easier to believe in. But all the trade agreements, and the stuff about tourism, and the mention of a Chuck Palahniuk novel set in the cities — all of this repeatedly and explicitly places them in our world, and undermines my ability to believe that people could, as you say, ever have made that separation or sustained it.

I’m harping on about belief because I do think it’s central to the book — and in particular to the ending. You say you didn’t buy the politics of the novel: clearly, in addition to commenting on urban blindness, it’s also a comment on international relations. What did you take it to be saying, on that front? On the one hand, the selective ignorance of Borlu and everyone else in the cities can be seen as a false consciousness, called out as such by some of the political radicals, and by the foreign businessman at the end of the book: the inhabitants of the cities should realise that they are stronger united than divided, but they never will. On the other hand, you can see it as an argument for the necessity and value of borders, the distinct cultures of Beszel and Ul-Qoma being preserved by the separation. (Either way the businessman is a hypocrite, blind to his own blindnesses, but that’s neither here nor there.) But while in principle I’d like to be able to take the ending as holding these two ideas in tension, in the way that it holds the two cities in tension — because both arguments are to some extent valid — in practice the former reading seems very much stronger. I do believe that Borlu believes in the cities; I just think he’s a complete dolt for doing so. Which doesn’t make him a terribly satisfying narrator to spend time with.

[End of part one. In part two: more on politics, detectives and doltishness!]

Reminder: “The Political Prisoner” discussion

This week’s Hugo-nominated novella is “The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay. Rather unsportingly, F&SF appear to no longer have the story online; between that and various conventions taking place this weekend, I can imagine that discussion will be light. Still, the post will go up at the usual time on Sunday.

Tokyo Cancelled

Tokyo Cancelled cover“Listen closely”, one of Tokyo Cancelled‘s nameless narrators urges us, “for there are some moments when another’s life breaks the rules of what is familiar” (227). They go on to describe, in great detail, the moment when one character, Natalia, a merchant, falls in love at first sight with another character, Riad, a sailor. The setting is a coffee shop in contemporary Istanbul. Later in the story, when Natalia and Riad have been separated by circumstance — the ship on which Riad travels has been impounded in Marseille due to “financial irregularities”, and he has no way of getting a message to Natalia to let her know why he has not returned — there comes “another moment to which we must devote an unnatural degree of attention” (243). In the middle of the night, without waking up, Riad is wracked by great heaving coughs; and gradually, still without waking up, he expels a live sea-bird onto the pillow beside him. The linking of the two scenes is telling: they are alike, is the implication, in that both are impossible magics, devices of stories, not features of real-life. It’s a self-critical association that makes the introduction of that bird one of the more striking deployments of the fantastic in Tokyo Cancelled; but in other ways, it is typical. In particular, it is described with calm authority, and integrated into the narrative with confidence — leading, in this case, to the tantalizing possibility of a happy-ever-after for the star-crossed lovers.

Oh, but I enjoyed this book, picked up on a whim earlier this year. The most obvious comparison to draw is probably with David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (1999) – another sparklingly multifaceted debut collection, with just enough connective tissue to be disguised as a novel; another book that sets itself a globe-encapsulating mandate, carried through with clarity and readability – with the difference that Rana Dasgupta’s book is rather more full-throated in its use of the fantastic. So I was a little surprised, digging around, to find that it has been little discussed within the sf field; indeed, the only review I’m aware of is that by John Clute in Interzone 198 (May 2005). But put it this way: Tokyo Cancelled is not short of moments that break the rules of what is familiar. And, the narrator of “The Rendezvous in Istanbul” insists, such moments “cannot be followed with the humdrum attention we usually grant to the world” (227); although what really makes Dasgupta’s stories remarkable is not that they demand our attention so directly, but that they make us willing to give it so freely.

A brief prologue, designated “Arrivals”, sets the stage: unable to reach its destination due to a snowstorm, a 747 is diverted to an airport in “the Middle of Nowhere” (1), from where most of the passengers are shuttled off to hotels for the night. Thirteen are left behind, all nameless and described in the barest of sketches. To pass the time they decide to tell each other stories. “Everyone knows stories!” one says. Simple geography, it seems, is another way of breaking the rules of what is familiar: one traveller enthuses that “You just have to tell me how you travel to work every morning in the place where you live and for me it’s a fable! it’s a legend!” Followed by: “Sorry I am tired and a little stressed and this is not how I usually talk but I think when you are together like this then stories are what is required” (7). If “fable”, and the style and tone that word conjures, is more relevant to the rest of the book than more naturalistic, if excitable, run-on sentences, then that, we understand, is part of the conceit.

It quickly becomes clear that Dasgupta knows what he’s doing: the first story, “The Tailor”, plays with expectations of fables in a productive fashion. Much in the manner of Daniel Abraham’s “The Cambist and Lord Iron”, it is a non-fantastic tale told within a structure familiar from fantasy. A playboy prince, “Not so long ago, in one of those small, carefree lands that used to be so common but which now, alas, are hardly to be found” (9; that “alas” is ironic, I think), goes for a drive in the country, and commissions a fine coat from a village tailor. The tailor works on the coat for several months, going heavily into debt to complete it, but when he travels to the prince’s palace to deliver the completed product, he is rebuffed: he has no paperwork, no purchase order to prove his legitimacy. Bankrupt, unable to find an alternate buyer rich enough to afford the coat, he is forced to become a beggar. There are several more twists from here, adroitly done, but the ultimate outcome is never in doubt: the tailor proves his character and his honesty by telling a story for the king, a story that, we are told, possesses “all the thirteen levels of meaning prized in the greatest of our writings” (20). At the end of the tale, a style and a tone have been established that will, with some variation — though not, of course, as much as you’d expect if thirteen real people were really telling stories — see us through the rest of the book, and around the world from London to Delhi to Buenos Aires to New York. And a marker has been put down: stories are not weightless.

That frame unavoidably colours the other stories. “The Billionaire’s Sleep”, for example, told in much the same voice as “The Tailor”, feels chaotically organic in the best sense: the story of a rich Delhi businessman who has everything but sleep, which before you quite realise what’s happening becomes a story about time and music and Rapunzel, it is imbued with an invigorating thinking-out-loud, never-look-back creativity. It presents as the most extravagant story in the book. Yet step back, and it is very much of a piece with its counterparts. There is a deliberate (I think) mismatch between the seemingly innocent style, which implicitly (and in “The Tailor”, explicitly) harks backs to times and places that no longer exist (and may never have done), and the content, which is often thrustingly contemporary. “The Billionaire’s Sleep” features cloning, ruminations on the dislocating effect of jet-lag, and the economics of telephone call centers; many of the other stories play on the same tension, and the net result, which the various eruptions of the fantastic into the book reinforce, is a kind of flattening of distinctiveness. To be clear, “The Billionaire’s Sleep” is set in Delhi, there are markers of Delhi-ness — place names, details of cuisine or custom — scattered through the text; but this Delhi feels much the same as many, perhaps most, of the other locations in the book. I take this muted polyphony to be deliberate, a comment on contemporary global experience (as perceived by those, like our narrators, who can afford at least semi-frequent air travel, at any rate). It flirts with blandness, if you like, as a way of provoking a reader to think about what is similar and different about any given pair of stories; a contrasting strategy could be found in Nam Le’s The Boat (2008), which attempts to reassure its readers that different people in different cultures are always distinct, and in doing so (ironically) flirts with cliche.

The most obvious sort of difference on display in Tokyo Cancelled is geographic: Dasgupta’s stories range over Eurasia, Africa and the Americas, though with a slight bias to the first of those. One kind of similarity can be seen as a deliberate counterpoint to the spread of settings: the protagonists are predominantly traders, or entrepreneurs — individuals for whom engagement with the machinery of commerce is a part of self-identification, in other words — who tend to be in some sense displaced from their home. Another kind of similarity is harder to rationalize — these stories are overwhelmingly about heterosexual men – and somewhat limits Tokyo Cancelled‘s claim to capture contemporary experience in any complete fashion, except insofar as the class of person it depicts is perhaps still more often male than female. It is nevertheless depressing to recognise how often womens’ role in these stories is shaped by sex; when Natalia meets Riad in Istanbul, for instance, times are hard and she’s allowing herself to be kept as a mistress. In “The Bargain in the Dungeon”, Katya, an unwanted child dumped on a train by her rural Polish parents, finds success in Warsaw working as a seamstress whose products, particularly bedcovers, have psychic and physiological healing powers. After a time, she is challenged by a mysterious woman to put her power to greater use. “It is time to leave behind your bedspreads,” she is told, “and apply yourself more deeply to the drama of the human soul [...] You must wake people up, with new pain and uncanny pleasure, with a world they do not know, though it is all around them” (307). This means going to work in the titular dungeon, a sort of magical S&M brothel in which Katya uses her powers to tap into the fantasies of her clients, and develops a fascination with one of them that leads, as you might expect, to nothing good.

The story is one of the less impressive of Tokyo Cancelled‘s offerings; it feels perfunctory. But at least Katya is nominally in control of her destiny. In “The Doll”, a Tokyo salaryman, Yukio, persuades his partner’s wealthy father to finance his business plan — he wants to own something that generates wealth. The stress involved in getting his company off the ground leads Yukio to neglect his partner; and as a way of coping with that stress, he constructs a female doll from creepily authentic artificial limbs, and gives her a computer for a brain, at which point she promptly becomes self aware. The doll is blind and immobile, but online, and becomes an object of uncanny attraction both for Yukio and for any other man who comes into contact with her, exerting a succubus-like level of control over their thoughts. There are certainly aspects of the story that are well done — the slow slide from Yukio’s initial, straightforward, honest goodness to dangerous and distasteful obsession, for a start — and it is, arguably, Tokyo Cancelled‘s central story. It’s the one that takes place in Tokyo, after all; the one that most cleanly conflates the technological and the fantastical; the one that most explicitly showcases the distorting effect of work on modern life. (And trivially, it’s located pretty much half-way through the book.) But its one-sidedness, the uncomfortable sense that it’s deploying a cliche about Japan (fetishization of technology) to no particularly original effect, and an ending that unconvincingly gestures towards consolation, means that it is, in the end, a failure.

I need now, I think, to give a sense of why I found the book as a whole so intoxicatingly distinctive, in spite of the above flaws. Two stories in particular stand out. The themes of “The Memory Editor” — that predictions never come true in the way that you want or try to anticipate; that it is worth striving to be content inside your own skin, and mind — are familiar, but the execution is mesmerizing. Set in London, the story’s protagonist is Thomas, the third and youngest son of a wealthy banker. Early in the story, he meets an old woman who claims to have been born with all her memories and, thus, to be able to remember the future; and she tells him that she knows that Thomas’ wealth will one day make his father seem poor. This makes Thomas cocky, and leads him into a disagreement with his father, as the result of which he is banished from the family home. Shortly thereafter he is recruited to work as a researcher for Memory Mine, the owners of which are convinced that “average memory horizons” are on the verge of shrinking to zero and who, as both a precaution against such mass amnesia and a calculated cornering of a new market opportunity, are collating citizens’ personal information — from the public domain, from other corporations, and from government surveillance projects — into packages, narratives, that can be sold back to those who forget. And lo, it does come to pass, first in a dream:

Suddenly he looked up; and through the window he saw a beautiful thing floating slowly down to the ground. It was magical and rare and he felt a deep desire to own it. He ran down the stairs and out into the garden, and there it was floating above him: a delicate thing, spiralling exquisitely and glinting in the sun. He stood under it and reached out his hands. Spinning like a slow-motion sycamore seed, it fell softly and weightlessly into his palms. It looked as if it was of silver, beaten till it was a few atoms thick and sculpted into the most intricate form: a kind of never-ending staircase that wound round on itself into a snail shell of coils within coils. He looked at it in rapture. How could such a beautiful object have fallen from the sky! He was full of joy at this thing that had chosen him and fallen so tamely into his hand. (43)

And then more prosaically. Memory Mine makes a killing. All of this is told with emotional directness, and an irresistable clear certitude that comes in part from a constant expansion, a raising of the stakes of the story until — for example — we can be told, offhand, that the coming of mass amnesia triggers an economic collapse, and that “the two blights swept entire continents hand in hand” (45). And yet Dasgupta is able to bring his story back to Thomas, his father, that old woman, and a satisfying resolution, without seeming to strain at all.

“The Changeling” similarly marries sweep and intimacy, to perhaps even more penetrating effect. “Parisians,” we are told, early in the story, “have traditionally treated their changeling population with resentment” (257); and we’re off to the races, in an immersive alternate history in which changelings — immortal creatures who adopt human form for a short period of time, and are mortal while they do — are indeed an accepted fact of life, although not a welcome one. A little while ago, it was determined that “neither liberty, equality, nor fraternity could be extended to creatures that had no long-term loyalty to the nation or even to the species” (259); changelings in high places are driven out, and the rest live in secret. The protagonist, Bernard, is one such, working as an investment banker, and happily married until the day his wife discovers the truth of him. Cast out, he wanders the city, and ends up helping an injured Moroccan man, Fareed, to a room in a hotel. The scenes that follow — a changeling afraid of mortality confronted with a dying mortal man — are extremely well-judged, but they are just the start. As in “The Memory Editor” and “The Billionaire’s Sleep”, the story contorts and ultimately opens out in exhilarating fashion, transmuting and, it seems, subsuming the story of a Parisian changeling without ever losing sight of the fact that it is, at heart, a meaningful story about learning how to die well.

Stories like these are all the more satisfying because, in this book, they retain the element of surprise: Dasgupta never loses sight of the distinction between the fantastic and the merely extraordinary, and indeed plays with that distinction quite effectively. In a story like “The Lucky Ear Cleaner”, for example, which could begin and end with its title, it’s hard to believe that there is no charm hanging over the protagonist, hard to realise that sometimes luck is just in the eye of the observer; while at the other end of the scale, it’s hard to believe that a story like “The House of the Frankfurt Mapmaker” has become as untethered from reality as it has, that it’s not going to come in to land in the way that its predecessors have, but will instead head off for the deepest part of the woods, further up and further in. (It’s a story about making sense of the world that becomes a story about a world that refuses to make sense.) The story-night frame helps with this project, adding an immediate level of dislocation, separating us from home and preparing us for something different. Similarly, the displacements experienced by the book’s protagonists — from their past, as in “the Memory Editor”, or from other people in “The Doll” and “The Rendezvous in Istanbul”, or from home in many of the stories, such as “The Tailor” and “The Bargain in the Dungeon” and “The Lucky Ear Cleaner” — are not just story-generating devices, but are also used to generate a baseline of estrangement from which the fantastic can readily emerge (or not). The end result is a vision of the world in which wonder and modernity are intimately coupled, and fully incorporated into the texture of (an incomplete selection of) human experience. Familiar truths are newly revealed. It’s worth listening to.

Sci-Fi London 8

A belated report on what I did a couple of weekends ago: a trip to the Sci-Fi London film festival. Currently held in the extremely plush Apollo West End, the programme is a mixture of classic SF, newer independent works, panels, film all-nighters, and short films. The latter is one of my favourites, because there are few opportunities to see short genre films, and there’s always a few brilliant films, plus you get a bonus short in front of every feature. This year the short film programme included not one but two sets of sub-15 minute shorts, a feature on the short films of Israel, and even a programme of “long shorts”, for those films which were a little too long to be in the short film competition.

The “long shorts” were first, and ended up containing some of my favourite films of the weekend. Arcadia is a shining example of how well an ultra-low-budget short can work. The sets are made of cardboard – literally, as every set looks to have been built as a tiny cardboard set, with the actors green-screened in. At first it’s distracting, but I stopped noticing the fuzzy edges and the cardboard props, and enjoying the weird and charming film. The very ending is perhaps a little predictable, but too many shorts lose their way near the end for me to fault this one, and the penultimate scene manages to tie everything together in a couple of well-chosen lines.

In Afterville, the countdown which started when spaceships which landed in Italy fifty-one years ago is about to hit zero, and no one knows what will happen when it gets there. It’s reminiscent of Last Night, the Canadian film about how people face the end of the world, except they’re facing uncertainty and not certain death (and consequently it’s less depressing). Clearly made on a much higher budget than Arcadia, they’ve put the effort into some excellent effects shots of both the spaceships and the near-future tech, and it’s shot well enough to pull off a long, dialogue-free walkthrough of a half-deserted Turin. Once again the ending doesn’t quite hold up, with the focus on two young Italians reconnecting rather than on the exciting spaceships, but it just about pulls it off. It’s also notable for featuring Bruce Sterling as a scientist/futurist, who appears to be playing himself. In Italian.

Do It, by contrast, is not only not science fiction it’s not very good. Bernie is a lowly store clerk in Los Angeles, who often fantasizes about cleaning up the streets but never acts out his fantasies. When he learns the Mayor is visiting his store, he decides that killing him will solve all the problems, and he has three days to get the courage to act. It’s another well-made film, with a washed-out and industrial vision of LA, but not SF unless you think that Bernie’s visions make it fantastical. The main problem is that Bernie is a pretty unpleasant character to spend a half-hour with – he fantasizes about cleaning up the neighbourhood, but that equates to befriending prostitutes, imagining himself beating up black guys, and judging the customers of the pharmacy where he works, and he blames all of his personal problems on the Mayor as well. The film doesn’t take sides on whether Bernie is a violent and dangerous figure or someone to be applauded, but the plot is very slim, and as a character piece it has a central character I don’t want to spend any time with.

Soulmates is much more lightweight – a terrible couples counsellor must use his skills to avoid being possessed by an old woman’s ghostly lover. It’s quite funny, but not really funny enough, and it’s the only one of the four I felt could have been done at shorter length without losing anything.

I only saw half of the short short films, and there were no real standouts as there have been in previous years. Too many films don’t seem to have an ending, or a plot – I can see that if you’re making a short film to showcase your skills, the focus may not be on the writing, but too many of the films were let down by stopping rather than finishing – Jerome’s Weakness, an atmospheric and creepy film about the resurrection of a dead child, was technically good but seemed to stop about a minute before I expected it to end. The Day the Robots Woke Up is a cute animation with 50s-style robots roaming around abandoned London and a slightly forced narration all in rhyming couplets, which won the audience award; Marooned? is an entertaining take on live-action roleplay and 50s SF, which no one liked but me; and Die Schneider Krankheit is a bonkers fake newsreel film about a space chimp who brings a deadly virus back to Germany, which can only be treated using a huge turtle-leech-lizard creature which sucks your blood.

Focus On: Israel is intended to be the first in a series highlighting the short films of different countries (next year is Poland): there was an introduction from Uri Aviv, director of the Icon Festival, followed a series of ultra-low budget, incredibly depressing films, of which the least depressing was about the Grim Reaper wanting to give it up. (Aviv assured us that not all Israeli film is this depressing.) My favourite was Circuit, a short animation about a bomb-disposal robot, but the two entries made for the 48-hour film challenge did good things on a very low budget, and were better and more coherently plotted than the bigger-budget War of Salvation.

The only feature film I saw was Cryptic, another low-budget time travel film which gets compared to Primer and is inevitably not as good. Interestingly this one was originally scripted as a much higher budget special effects heavy film and they removed a lot of the flashy effects. It’s focused on a teenage girl who changes her timeline by communicating with her younger self on a mobile phone, and spends a lot of time dealing with teenage drama, while the time-travel is a magical MacGuffin. I did like that the protagonist was a young woman who didn’t get rescued by someone else, but in fact rescued her younger self and changed her life for the better.

There was also the pub quiz, in which our team Ultimate Awesome Fist Explosion came third, avoiding the tie-breaking dance-off which is probably a good thing. They got an Xbox and a crate of beer; we got a Star Trek: Enterprise promotional kite. Maybe next year we will triumph.

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Hugo Nominee: “The Erdmann Nexus”

The story is here; so, on with the commentary.

Rich Horton:

“The Erdmann Nexus” seems a bit old-fashioned: almost explicitly channeling Theodore Sturgeon. Indeed elsewhere I called it, a bit meanly, “warmed-over Sturgeon”. But mean or not, read “To Marry Medusa” and “The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff”, let’s say, then read “The Erdmann Nexus”. For all that both Sturgeon stories marry moments, whole sequences, of utter brilliance with some real disappointing elements, there’s just something special about them that isn’t present here. Anyway, Henry Erdmann is an aging physicist living in a nursing home, who is scared by brief strokelike incidents — but no brain damage is involved, and eventually there are apparent links to the memories of other residents of the home. And soon he learns that many of his fellow residents are indeed having similar episodes. The resolution — signaled from the beginning — is not surprising: elderly people are evolving into a higher consciousness. Kress does take this familiar idea in a slightly unexpected direction at the end — and there is a subplot involving a young attendant and her abusive husband that I found involving — but there’s no denying that not much really new is going on here.

So: what’s good: slightly unexpected ending. (But even so, one that didn’t thrill me.) And an interesting subplot that alas wasn’t enough of the story. What’s bad — not enough here new. A certain inevitability of the working out of things.

Ian Sales:

Unfortunately, hiding the extraordinary’s explanation, and only revealing it at the end, doesn’t work because it makes for an uninvolving narrative. And, for all its many viewpoints, ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ is pretty dull. [...]

Kress throws in a framing narrative, describing a sentient spaceship approaching Earth, but it seems entirely gratuitous. The plot certainly doesn’t require it. And the mentions of split photons, quantum entanglement and emergent complexity just obfuscate. When an author holds the explanation close to their chest, it has to be a damned impressive explanation to redeem the story. Kress’s isn’t. We’ve seen it before, in both science fiction and fantasy. [...]

The single-note characterisation in ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ doesn’t help either – gossipy granny, bible-basher, ex-ballerina who pines for her past, blue-collar retiree out of his depth…. And detective Geraci – Kress might as well have named him Goren since he’s plainly based on Vince D’Onofrio’s character in Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Val Grimm, at The Fix:

I haven’t seen Cocoon or anything else most folks would probably compare Nancy Kress’s “The Erdmann Nexus” to, so bear with my cultural illiteracy. Although I haven’t seen this specific plot before, it feels familiar and a bit predictable (I can’t reveal quite why without spoilers, so bear with me). That said, I didn’t particularly care because the characterization was so strong. I don’t usually get attached to characters in novellas the way Kress managed to get my empathy engaged here; there usually isn’t enough room. But what she tells us about Henry and Carrie and some of the other central characters makes them solid and interesting, and the interactions between her dramatis personae are ultimately what make the story. In a way, and not just because it is a mystery, it feels like The Westing Game, with each character or group of characters getting their own moment in the spotlight, each vignette fitting into the whole neatly.

Russ Allbery:

Kress isn’t a writer I particularly look for, but she’s a competent writer and rarely writes a bad story. This is one of her better ones, mostly because of the detailed and varied characterization of the residents of a nursing home. The focus is Henry Erdmann, a retired physicist, who takes the role of detective in figuring out mysterious ailments linked with visions and apparent mental powers that the residents begin to experience. It’s a Nancy Kress story, so unsurprisingly there’s a theme of human evolution and transcendence, but there are also moments of character conflict that reminded me of Connie Willis. That’s a rather good mix. I found the ending a bit unsatisfying, but the story was solid entertainment. (7)

SF Gospel:

In the story’s final pages, our third-person omnipotent grants us some glimpses inside several characters’ minds as they are given the choice to join the group mind or continue their . For Erin Bass, the experience is defined within the terms of her spirituality. It is “satori… oneness with all reality.” Similarly, a nameless woman in Shanghai interprets the experience of joining the transcendent mind as “the gods entering her soul.” What, then, does Gina Martinelli experience? Unlike Bass, she does not see the experience through the lens of her faith. She experiences transcendence, but does not see Jesus there. She concludes: “If Christ was not there, then this wasn’t Heaven. It was a trick of the Cunning One, of Satan who knows a million disguises and sends his demons to mislead the faithful.” She rejects the group mind, opting to wait for the Second Coming outside of the collective intelligence.

What does this say about faith and religious experience? If two non-Christian characters are allowed to interpret their experiences in the vocabulary of their faith, why isn’t the Christian character allowed the same leeway? My guess is that Kress’s intention was to show that non-Western religions have provided a vocabulary that is better suited to describing transcendent experiences than Christianity has. But that simply isn’t true—from Pseudo-Dionysius to Meister Eckhart to Philip K. Dick, Christianity is chock full of mysticism that would allow for the kind of collective experience this story describes to be described quite well. Of course, Gina is presented as having a particularly narrow kind of faith. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs here—after all, I complain about the close-mindedness of conservative Christianity pretty frequently, and ignorance of the history of mysticism is certainly part of that close-mindedness. But even I will allow that conservative Christians have their own strands of mysticism, as the growing popularity of Pentecostalism shows. I would expect that even as stereotypical a Bible-thumper as Gina Martinelli would be able to see her faith reflected in the totality of all existence. To describe a transcendent experience with culturally-specific terms—”satori,” “the gods”—and to refuse to allow a character from a different faith-tradition to have the same kind of culturally-specific interpretation strikes me as a double-standard. It’s a quibble, really: Martinelli is a pretty minor character, and Kress’s story is characteristically good. Nevertheless, that kind of detail does tends to rankle.

Elsewhere, Colin Harvey liked it and Nicholas Whyte was unconvinced. Your thoughts?

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