Hugo Nominee: “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled”

This is it: the final story. Read it here and comment below …
Rich Horton:

“From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled …” is fascinating SF about a human embassy to an alien city. The city is attacked, and everyone killed but one human, who escapes in the company of one of the aliens, wearing a spacesuit whose intelligence is based on his now-dead lover. The story deals with economics, with the biology and culture (and economics) of the aliens, and with the dangers of crossing an unfamiliar planet — it is intelligent, full of adventure, original, wry. This is really fine smart SF, and I particularly liked the economic slant to the whole thing. It’s not a breathtaking story, and I rank it behind most of this ballot, but it’s strong work.

Aliette de Bodard:

In “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled …” by Michael Swanwick, Quivera is a diplomat sent from Europa to a planet peopled with insect aliens—and most particularly to Babel, greatest of the alien cities. When Babel falls to the hands of other cities, Quivera and the alien Uncle Vanya have to carry the library of Babel—the only record of that civilisation—to safety, without being caught by the soldiers hunting them.

This is one of the two standouts of the issue. Swanwick keeps a taut pace throughout the narration as his protagonists try to rally the safety of another alien city, and he succeeds in making the aliens a fundamentally different species for whom the reader can still grieve. The ending is unexpected and a bit hard to accept at first, but in retrospect, it is perfectly in keeping with both the story’s theme and the various characters involved

Tpi:

Story starts straight away in action. Human station on an alien planet has been attacked, and sole survivor, his AI survival suit with a personality modeled on his girlfriend killed on the attack and an alien must make a hasty escape. The start of the story is a bit confusing, as fairly little back-story is given. The story improves a bit towards the end, when it comes a bit easier to understand just what the hell is going on. I wonder if this story is a part of some series?

Matt Hilliard:

Out of all the nominees this one is the most traditionally structured story, which these days is somewhat rare for this length (of course it just barely slides in under the novellette wire length-wise). The world was interesting and the writing was effective. In fact, pretty much everything was great except the story actually being told, which wasn’t all that interesting to me. Unfortunately I exalt plot over other things so this left me feeling vaguely disgruntled, but it’s worth still worth reading.

Best SF:

The opening paragraph is a doozy – it describes the titular city on Europa, and does so quite beautifully across several sentences, and then kicks into a higher gear as the narrator describes herself : a simulation of one of the humans killed in the destruction of the city, and then the story starts with a “Here’s what it was like…”

It’s an opening that you could use over the first month of a Science Fiction Writing 101 course, and the rest of the story lives up to that standard. The narrator, Rosamund, is embedded in the hi-tech suit of one of the survivors of the meteorite strike – Carlos, her lover. She has to care for him using the suit’s advanced medical capabilities to get him to the point of being in a state to be brought back to consciousness, and we follow them as she guides him, and one of the strange, definitely non-human race on the planet. In order to escape the armed warriors of his race, Uncle Vanya has to undergo the unkindest cut of all – “The first thing we have to do is castrate you..” is the kind of line you can only come up with after some years in the business. Swanwick takes the unlikely trio through an alien world, effectively getting across the alieness of Uncle Vanya through his speech patterns, and cleverly intertwining the action with backstory.

And the ending is just terrific – with Rosamund left embedded in the spacesuit, hanging up in a locker. It’s a story that is simply top class.

Russ Allbery:

Swanwick stories are often at a bit of an angle to the rest of the genre, and this one is no exception. The plot, once you dig it out of the story, is full of classic SF tropes of alien contact, diplomacy, misunderstanding, and cross-cultural confusion. There are some fun branching syntax diagrams of alien speech patterns thrown in, which I greatly enjoyed probably because they’re similar to, but more subtlely done than, something I played with in my own writing. But the story is told from the perspective of a protective suit worn by the nominal protagonist and is full of weird diversions and fun descriptions of how the suit works. It also has an unexpected ending that fits its viewpoint. Without the charming perspective, it’s a rather forgettable story, but the perspective makes it worth reading. (7)

John DeNardo:

“From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick starts with a meteor strike on a human city on an alien planet of millipede-like creatures. The human named Quivera is guided to safety by his armor suit AI, which is based on Rosamund, the woman with whom he had an affair. Quivera’s trek through the dangerous steam jungles of the planet with “Uncle Vanya” (a native millie with low social status) leads to several interesting discussions about their two economies: the humans based on information, the millies’ based on trust. As much as I usually dislike economics in my sf, I have to say this didn’t bother me a bit, as it offered up a nice contrast to the two characters whose relationship begins as one of mutual utility, but evolved in the face of their predicament and adventures.

Das Ubernerd:

Swanwick’s story also uses an ancient SF theme: two seperate aliens that cannot trust each other are forced together by circumstances to join together in order to cross dangerous territory. In this case it’s a human from a libertarian distopia joining with an alien from a society that holds trust as the highest virtue. Together they’re on the run from the destruction of the alien’s city which was betrayed and they carry with them a library containing information beyond calculable value. What makes this story work is the ambiguousness of it; while both character’s hold their society’s values in great esteem they also recognize the limitations of it even before the story begins. So while it plays with the “learning about other cultures” theme there is an undercurrent that both already know those lessons. It also helps that the story has a unique viewpoint: a ghost AI that runs one a spacesuit. It’s a subtle story that has some interesting layers and I appreciated it for that.

Abigail Nussbaum:

Johnson’s story makes for an interesting counterpoint to Michael Swanwick’s “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled,” which is good old fashioned Proper SF, set in the far future and on an alien planet, and featuring interplanetary intrigue, cataclysmic destruction, fights to the death, a mad scramble across hostile, alien terrain, and bug people. Swanwick is a pro at this stuff, and “Babel” finds him very much on top of his game. It’s exciting and well-done, cramming a hell of a lot of exposition, action and description into every single sentence until it draws a meticulously detailed portrait of two civilizations, their history, their cherished values, and the often fraught interactions between them. Still, given all the pyrotechnics and grand adventure involved in getting us to its end, “Babel” is somewhat underperforming.

Underpinning the story is a discussion of the economics of the two species–humans, represented by the diplomat Quivera, have an information-based economy, while that of the bug-like Gehennans, represented by the sole survivor of the recently destroyed Babel with whom Quivera flees its ruins, is based on trust–but Swanwick’s descriptions of of these systems are messy and difficult to follow, and I found myself unpersuaded by his conclusions. “Babel” ends with one half of its unlikley partnership sacrificing himself to save the other, and in order to safeguard the precious (in many different senses) cargo they are carrying, but it’s left to us to decide whether the survivor acted as an adventure hero would and honored his friend’s dying wish, or whether he cashed in on an unexpected windfall. Obviously Swanwick is trying to undermine the adventure plot, and remind us that in the real world, it’s cold hard numbers, profit and loss, that drive our decisions, but this feels like a petty sort of ‘gotcha!’ to the readers, whom Swanwick has worked hard to invest in the adventure aspect of his story only to snatch the rug out from under them at the last minute. I can’t help but compare “Babel” to last year’s Hugo-nominated novelette, “The Cambist and Lord Iron” by Daniel Abraham, which so much more intelligently and elegantly managed to fuse adventure and economics into a single, satisfying whole, without ever resorting to wagging its finger in the readers’ faces as Swanwick seems to be doing.

British Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Survey

Earlier this week, Liz posted the agenda for tomorrow’s BSFA/Science Fiction Foundation AGM event. Those of you who were paying attention may have had your curiosity piqued by this item:

10:05 BSFA Panel – Launch of the British Science Fiction and Fantasy Survey 2009: chaired by Niall Harrison, and featuring Nick Harkaway, Paul Kincaid, Juliet McKenna, Kit Whitfield, and Paul McAuley

This is entirely Mark Plummer’s fault. A little over a year ago, he posted me a copy of a fanzine he picked up at Orbital, produced for Mexicon III, a UK convention held so long ago (1989, to be precise) that information about it available online is limited to a few cryptic mentions in Ansible. Mark sent this ‘zine with a note:

Niall — I picked up the enclosed at Eastercon. I can’t remember if I’ve thrust a copy at you before [he hadn't] but in case not I thought it might interest you. Also, I note — with no ulterior motive — that next year will be twenty years since Paul’s survey, a convenient round number for a suitable fan to contemplate updating…
Mark

I didn’t actually read the note all that closely when it arrived, and I put the fanzine on the Pile Of Stuff To Read without looking too closely at it, either. Skip forward a couple of months, and I pick it off the pile as my “something else to read in case I finish my book” for a Eurostar journey.

It turned out to be no normal convention ‘zine. It’s about a hundred pages long, for starters, and consists almost entirely of the results of a survey of working British sf and fantasy writers, orchestrated and analyzed by Paul. The questions were, as the introduction put it, deliberately broad — Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy? Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so, what is it? And so forth — with the answers to each considered in separate chapters of the ‘zine.

As Mark quite accurately predicted, the idea of repeating this survey, twenty years on, appealed to me. And now I am doing just that. The results will be turned into a standalone publication for BSFA members towards the end of this year. The plan is to include the original survey, as well, since obviously a large part of the aim is to see what, if anything, has changed.

So that’s what the panel tomorrow morning is about. We’re going to be talking about, essentially, writerly identity — how writers perceive their work; how others perceive it; how that changes, or doesn’t, over time and from place to place. Do come along! Only the AGMs are limited to BSFA and SFF members; the rest of the day’s panels and talks are open to all.

In the meantime, I’ve been sending out surveys to every active British writer of sf or fantasy that I can think of, and find contact details for. In keeping with the spirit of the original survey, I’m casting my net wide, to get as wide a spectrum of opinion as possible. So I’m including writers published within the genre, and writers published by mainstream houses (or as YA); writers from other countries resident in the UK, as well as UK-born writers resident in other countries. Because there has to be a threshold somewhere, my arbitrary definition of “active” is “has published at least one sf book, or more than three sf stories in semiprozine-or-higher-level publications, this decade”. If you meet these criteria, would like to participate, and I haven’t contacted you, please email me! I have a list of publishers to write to this weekend — I keep thinking of more — but as I say, I want as many responses as possible, from as broad a range of writers as possible.

Hugo Nominee: “Evil Robot Monkey”

… aka the penultimate discussion. The story is here — and at 942 words, if you’ve got time to read this post, you’ve got time to read the story (is it the shortest piece ever to be nominated for a Hugo?).

Abigail Nussbaum:

Misunderstood robots also appear in Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey,” which beats “Article of Faith” hands down in terms of prose and its ability to elicit emotion, but which also isn’t really a story at all but piece of one, a thousand-word vignette in which Sly, an uplifted monkey, rails against his handlers and their refusal to ackowledge his personhood. Kowal is a good enough writer that Sly’s plight is compelling, but that doesn’t change the fact that “Evil Robot Monkey” doesn’t do anything beyond establishing that plight, or that it does so in ways that are both trite and familiar. Once again, this premise, of artificial creations gaining a measure of personhood only to see it, and their desires and aspirations, denied, has been at the heart of a significant portion of classic science fiction, and in order to be worthy of a Hugo nomination I think a story ought to do more than simply tip its hat to these works and then stop. In a way, I find Kowal’s nomination even more baffling than Resnick’s. Hugo voters either like him or his particular brand of sentimental pap, but as far as I know Kowal hasn’t amassed that kind of following yet, and it’s hard to imagine a non-story like “Evil Robot Monkey” arousing enough passion to make it onto the ballot on its own rather flimsy merits.

Rich Horton:

At less than a thousand words this must be one of the shortest Hugo nominees ever. It’s about an uplifted chimp, doing pottery but forced to be on exhibition and thus driven to a rage by the taunts of schoolchildren. Quite simple, but convincing and bitterly moving.

Tpi:

Extremely short story about monkey working with potter’s wheel. Pretty good, but nothing special. I really don’t understand why this story was nominated over so many other good stories, I can’t find it special in any way. Nice little mood piece, but that’s it.

Ian Sales:

The title is a silly joke – the monkey in the story is a live Chimpanzee. A “smart” chimp, in fact. Who makes pots out of clay. The story is around four pages long in the mass market paperback Solaris anthology. It is mildly amusing and mostly inconsequential. It’s not even the best story in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 2.

Matt Hilliard:

An unusally short story that despite being short manages to have a bit more to say than the other nominated monkey story. Like basically any story of this length, it has one thing to say. It does a pretty good job saying it. I don’t think that’s really award-worthy, though.

John DeNardo:

Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey” (originally reviewed in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 2 edited by George Mann) is an affecting snapshot in the life of a chimp with an implant in his head that increases his intelligence. Unfortunately for him, that lands him in the “hellish limbo” of being “too smart to be with other chimps, but too much of an animal to be with humans.” He becomes the subject of ridicule of children in what is presumably a school where he spends his time behind a pottery wheel. The interesting premise is delicately overlaid with emotion by having a single human show the chimp some compassion, resulting in a quick-and-dirty sf short story that is both charming and memorable.

Charlie Jane Anders:

…the story is awesomely depressing. It’s a great examination of art and the creative process, and what it feels like to be an artist who’s looked at merely as a curiosity or as a momentary amusement for child barbarians. And art as a containment device for impotent rage.

Joe Sherry:

Oh, this is a beautiful and heartbreaking story. In fewer than 1000 words Mary Robinette Kowal just killed me. The opening paragraphs paints a picture of a monkey in a pen trying to do nothing more than make pottery but because Sly is a monkey, people think it is okay to hit the glass walls of his pen. The pottery brings the monkey peace. The other aspect of the story that wrecks me is the conversation between Sly and Vern, the handler, about what happened and why and what the consequences are.

Damn, “Evil Robot Monkey” is good. It’s so short, but the story is exactly as long as it needs to be. The story lingers.

So: lingering, or forgettable? Inconsequential, or accomplished?

London Meeting: Ian Whates

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London Meeting is Ian Whates, writer and (as Newcon press) editor of various anthologies, including Celebration for the BSFA last year. He will be interviewed by Simon Gilmartin.

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.

Tracking

The David Gemmell Legend Award:

The DGLA will be presented for the very first time in 2009 for the best Fantasy novel of 2008. The award will be given to a work written in the ‘spirit’ of the late, great David Gemmell, a true Master of Heroic Fantasy.

The shortlist:

ABERCROMBIE, Joe – Last Argument of Kings (Gollancz/Pyr)
MARILLIER, Juliet – Heir to Sevenwaters (Tor UK)
SANDERSON, Brandon – The Hero of Ages (Tor US)
SAPKOWSKI, Andrzej – Blood of Elves (Gollancz)
WEEKS, Brent – The Way of Shadows (Orbit)

The winner:

Andrezj Sapkowski wins the Gemmell for Blood of Elves.

The stats:

Some stats: 10,963 votes overall, from 71 countries… Winning book, Sapkowski’s ‘Blood of Elves’ polled 2,309 VALIDATED votes

The ceremony, one:

The event got underway with fantasy author (and friend of the late David Gemmell) James Barclay coming out on stage and booming out Druss’ speech to the men before the battle at Dros Delnoch in Legend in an impressive and theatrical manner. Deborah J. Miller and Stan Nicholls were the main comperes for the evening and did a sterling job. Stan’s wife came out to give an excellent tribute to David Gemmell, and then Mr. Barclay returned for the charity auction. Seeing people having to sit on their hands for fear of spending too much money was quite amusing, with the signed, mint-condition first edition of Legend (which went for £500) being the highlight of the evening. The featured charity, Médecins Sans Frontières, raised quite a lot of money on the night, which was great.

The ceremony, two:

Mark and I had the great pleasure of helping out at last night’s David Gemmell Legend Awards. It was an amazing evening and it was lovely seeing fans, publishers, authors, agents and the press turn out for the inaugural event.

The winner of the overall prize was Andrzej Sapkowski – author Blood of Elves. Personally I’ve not read it – yet – but I am sure I will get around to it!

Below are some snaps we took whilst at the event, helping out and fangeeking.

Reaction:

This makes me rather happy, as out of the finalists, his Geralt novel, Blood of the Elves, is the only one that I liked without reservations. Nice timing on learning about this, as I received my copy of his second series, the Hussite Wars trilogy-opening Narrenturm, yesterday afternoon. While it’ll have to be a while before I review it (I have another Spanish-language book I’m reading and reviewing, as well as me being in the midst of translating a recent interview with that second author), I do plan on reading it this weekend and early next week.

But still, it’s good to know that this work of “heroic” fantasy was chosen to be the winner. I guess the millions in Europe and the thousands in the Anglo-American sphere have spoken, huh?

The Guardian:

“Our winning author is already a huge star in Europe and winning the award will hopefully ensure new readers experience his work in the excellent English translation from Gollancz,” said Deborah J Miller, award administrator and author of the Last Clansman and Swarmthief series. “Genre fantasy is often dismissed as being simply gung-ho or macho, as people outside genre circles tend to imagine it’s all about epic battles, weapons and warriors – in fact, it is all of those things and so much more. Contemporary fantasy fiction is about far more than escape to other realities. Freed of the constraints and preconceptions of other kinds of fiction, it holds up a mirror to reflect on this world and time through the prism of vivid characters and enthralling drama that engage the imagination like no other genre.”

Damien G Walter:

I would be the first to agree that there are many examples of contemporary fantasy that hold up a mirror to our world. Unfortunately the Gemmell shortlist are not among them. Thats not a condemnation of the books. They are good, exciting ‘F’antasy of the epic and heroic kind. I like Joe Abercrombie’s series particularly for its slightly knowing attitude to its subject matter and sense of humour. But these are not books of great reflection on the world as it is. And they are definitely not books to win over non-genre readers to the cause, as they will tend to confirm rather than dispell most of the prejudcies those readers hold.

Sam Jordison:

But even SF fans have it easy compared to followers of fantasy. These are the people Red Dwarf fans sneer at for being nerdy. They are the zit-ridden little brothers of the SF geeks, whose even-less-healthy obsessions include trolls, giving Anglo-Saxon names to phallic weapons, and maidens with magical powers.
[...]
But this list also shows some of fantasy’s strengths. The presence of Abercrombie and his witty send-up of the genre proves it might not be as po-faced as many suppose. Meanwhile, its international composition (with one New Zealander, one Brit, two Americans and one Pole) gives some idea of fantasy’s cross-cultural appeal – as does the fact that the impressive 10,963 people who voted on the shortlist did so from 74 different countries.

Mark Charan Newton:

So where is the wider analysis of the Gemmell Award books? Why hasn’t anyone cranked-open these bad boys (and girls – we are gender neutral here!) to open up a wider discussion on the merits of the books against each other, a real show-down to get people talking about what’s in the books, rather than talking about the people holding them?

I love reading fantasy fiction and all that it can offer, from the fast entertainment to the deep reflection, the challenging content. That sensawonder. But I think we can get caught up in the aesthetics of fantasy as a genre, rather than the content of the individual books. We’re asked to celebrate all that’s good about fantasy – and I’m totally for that – and I think the forums and blogs celebrate the genre well. The community throngs.

But how can we persuade those who look down upon us to treat fantasy literature with more respect if we’re not respectfully discussing these great books in detail ourselves?

BSFA/SFF AGM day

As previously announced, this Saturday is the BSFA/SF Foundation joint AGM day, featuring talks, panels, and the AGMs for both organisations. The guests are Paul Kincaid for the SFF, and Nick Harkaway for the BSFA. Attendance is free, and the AGMs are conveniently positioned to give non-members a long lunch break. The AGM is once again at Conway Hall, and all events will take place in the small hall on the ground floor.

Timetable:
10:00 SFF speaker Welcome
10:05 BSFA Panel – Launch of the British Science Fiction and Fantasy Survey 2009: chaired by Niall Harrison, and featuring Nick Harkaway, Paul Kincaid, Juliet McKenna, Kit Whitfield, and Paul McAuley
11:00 SFF Guest – Paul Kincaid
12:00 BSFA AGM
12:30 Lunch break
13:30 SFF AGM
14:00 BSFA Guest – Nick Harkaway
15:00 SFF Closing Panel – tba
16:00 BSFA speaker Closes

Posted in BSFA. 4 Comments »

Hugo Nominee: “Article of Faith”

We weren’t keen on the last Mike Resnick story we discussed. Will this one be any better?
Lois Tilton:

Reverend Morris gets a new janitorial robot for his church, but this one is too logical; it takes the premise of religion to conclusions that the reverend is not prepared to accept.

“I wish to become a member of your church.”
“But you’re a robot!” I blurted.
“If God is the God of all things, then is He not also the God of robots?” said Jackson.

But faith is not a matter of logic, as Reverend Morris should have known.

This is a tragic tale that some readers might consider a bit sentimental, yet it asks some very apt and pointed questions about religion. I find the unanimous reaction of the congregation to the presence of a robot to be a bit extreme–or rather, a matter for which the setting has not prepared me. We see nothing of the place of robots in the society outside the church; most of the story is a dialogue between Morris and his robot.

Abigail Nussbaum:

We begin our odyssey with perennial Hugo nominee Mike Resnick. The narrator of “Article of Faith” is a priest who at the beginning of the story takes ownership of a new cleaning robot for his church, and, on a rather poorly explained lark, starts giving it religious instruction. When the robot asks to participate in church services the priest, and later his congregation, react with horror and confusion. The premise of “Article of Faith” begs comparison with a whole raft of Asimov robot shorts of a roughly similar ilk, and Resnick’s construction of the robot character–anthropomorphic, human-named, soft-spoken, deferential but insistent on puzzling out the logical inconsistencies in the narrator’s theology–is also heavily reminiscent of Asimov’s robots. Which means that on top of failing in the traditional Resnick ways–plodding prose, obvious and predictable plot, shameless and blatant manipulation–“Article of Faith” fails by falling so very short of Asimov’s standards.

Asimov was no great stylist, and his characters were paper-thin, but his robot stories had a lightness to them, an effervescent wit and gentle humor that are completely absent from Resnick’s clomping, heavy-handed immitation of him. Add to this a simplistic and borderline reactionary treatment of religion–when arranging the wedding of a pregnant parishioner, the narrator muses that “it’s not my job to judge them, only to help and comfort them,” which sounds plenty judgmental to me; when the robot questions why services are held on Sundays instead of Tuesdays, the narrator’s “first inclination was to say Force of habit, but that would negate everything I had done in my life,” which, oh God, I don’t even know where to start; then, of course, there’s the blatantly telegraphed ‘forgive them for they know not what they do’ (no, really, he uses the actual quote) ending. There’s been a discussion of Resnick’s nominated novelette “Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” at Torque Control, during which there’s been some attempt to pin down just what it is that makes him such a bad writer. A lot of good suggestions have been made, but to my mind his greatest failing is and has always been the one encapsulated by “Article of Faith”–his ability to take a subject that underpins some of science fiction’s seminal works, write his own spin on it which is neither innovative nor unusual nor particularly good, and send it out into the world without a hint of embarrassment or self-awareness.

Matt Hilliard:

It wouldn’t be a Hugo ballot without a horrendous short story, and here it is. For the life of me I can’t imagine how this could have been considered award-worthy. I think there need to be more SF stories that seriously examine religion rather than merely dismiss it, but this…this gives the religious SF story a bad name.

Rich Horton:

This story has a quite familiar plot. It’s told by a minister who has a robot that cleans his church. The robot shows some curiousity about religion, and the minister tries out his sermons on the robot. Naturally, the robot decides he has a soul, and wants to discuss religion — and he sees flaws in his pastor’s arguments, too. This really is a very 50s sort of idea, and the problem is, it’s not explored in an very original way. And indeed, I found the resolution inadequately set up, and quite unsatisfying. For all that we have seen plenty of “robot gets religion” stories before (including such famous works as the SF Hall of Fame story “The Quest for Saint Aquin” by Anthony Boucher, and also Robert Silverberg’s “Good News from the Vatican”) there’s no reason that the theme couldn’t still be used for a good story. And as far as it goes Resnick’s treatment isn’t awful, just unfinished, and too routine. So while I can see the story being published and all, I am rather puzzled by the Hugo nomination.

Ian Sales:

I thought this was appalling: dated, dull, and wholly predictable. A new robot joins the staff of a small-town church and ends up wanting to worship. Cue arguments on whether robots have souls. Yawn. And who writes stories featuring these sorts of silly pulp sf robots – because, let’s face it, if the robot is a stand-in for a foreigner, i.e., not-one-of-us, then why not actually use a foreigner and give the story more impact?

Tpi:

A robot working for a priest in a small congregation gets taste of religion. Another well written, pretty typical Mike Resnick story. The allegories a more that a bit heavy-handed, and there are some major problems with logic. A robot which is supposed to be absolutely logical (as stated in the story) doesn’t find anything contradictory or illogical in the bible? And falls for religion?

Joe Blaylock:

“Article of Faith” isn’t the most deeply moving Resnick story I’ve ever read or heard. That would probably have to be “Down Memory Lane”, a 2006 Hugo nominee. Still, this story struck a nerve. I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about the Bodhisattva’s Vow to aid all sentient beings. It sounds good, but it begs the question: What is a sentient being? Despite its trivialization as a trope of popular television series, films, and Hugo Award-winning short fiction, this moral conundrum has real consequences.

For example, it’s generally considered poor form to eat ones’ neighbors. So how do you decide what you can ethically eat? One could take the Genesis 9: 2-4 approach, and say, “Anything slower than me is food. Except for a few restrictions.” If one really wants to save all sentient beings, though, this might seem awfully selfish. Do you save them by eating them? I guess that depends on what you grok their purpose to be.

Of course, deciding who and what counts as having a soul (in popular parlance) doesn’t begin nor end with deciding what to eat. It informs every facet of how we choose to relate to the rest of the world. While Resnick’s written stronger stories, I think that he indirectly (accidentally?) captured this in “Article of Faith”. The fate of the robot, the minister, and even of the town, all seem intertwined with what the people choose to accept. To me, the story felt almost like an environmental piece.

But perhaps I’m reading into it over much.

Scott D. Danielson:

Mike Resnick has a way of revealing truths about ourselves that are often uncomfortable. That they are truths and that he can present them so well in fiction is why I like his writing so much. The Kirinyaga series of stories, “The 49 Antarean Dynasties”, and “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” are three of my favorite Resnick stories. From the latest issue of Baen’s Universe, Resnick offers another story that left me shaking my head at the truth of it.

Janice Clark:

Can a robot have a soul? Is it capable of worship? Should it be allowed to worship with people? In “Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick, Reverend Edward Morris is faced with those questions when Jackson, his church cleaning and maintenance robot, begins studying religion.

It all starts innocently enough. Rev. Morris’s old maintenance robot has just been replaced by a new one, whose programming apparently makes him the ideal servant: courteous, attentive, and anxious to please. Bit by bit, Rev. Morris answers Jackson’s questions regarding religious practices, and eventually invites the robot to critique his sermons, pointing out obvious errors or logical inconsistencies. To facilitate this process, he has Jackson read the Bible. Shocked when Jackson expresses a desire to join the church, Rev. Morris tries unsuccessfully to convince Jackson that robots are soulless machines, different from humans. The pastor, a thoughtful and compassionate man, gradually comes to respect Jackson’s well-reasoned arguments:

“You can be switched off,” I pointed out. “Ask any roboticist.”
“So can you,” replied Jackson. “Ask any doctor. Or any marksman.”

There’s the meat of the story: who gets to decide who or what is acceptable to God? Unfortunately for Jackson, Rev. Morris’s parishioners are far less tolerant than their spiritual leader.

Aliette de Bodard:

In “An Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick, Reverend Edward Morris is faced with a problem: Jackson, the robot in charge of keeping the church clean, has decided that it believes in God and wants to be a member of his congregation.

Though this is well written and reads smoothly, the questions of faith and prejudice it addresses are not new (addressed, for instance, by Jack McDevitt in “Gus” or Isaac Asimov in “The Bicentennial Man”). In fact, they felt quite dated and didn’t offer a fresh enough take on the subject to be memorable.

John DeNardo:

“Article of Faith” concerns a subservient robot that works in a church and begins to question the pastor about religion. I’ve heard lots of griping about this story but I’m not exactly sure why. The worst that could be said about is that the “robot wants to be human” theme has been done numerous times before — even by Resnick himself in his wonderful story “The Big Guy” – but even that assessment depends on one’s personal reading history. As it is, Resnick’s dependable easygoing style delivers a story that doesn’t disappoint.

Forests of Hands and Teeth and Bones

The Forest of Hands and Teeth coverThe Forest of Hands and Teeth opens with an arresting image: the narrator, Mary, recalls a long-lost photograph of a relative standing in the ocean, and notes that what really endures is not the detail, but the impression of “a little girl surrounded by nothingness”. The relevance of this image quickly becomes clear. Mary’s village lives under siege, surrounded by a forest filled with monsters, protected by fences, guards and patrols. The monsters in question are ex-humans, creatures of “tattered clothes, sagging skin [...] horrible pleading moan[s], and [...] fingers scraped raw from pulling at the metal fences” (2). They get that way as a result of being bitten by one of the infected. To call them zombies, as they never are within the pages of the book, is accurate but loses a nuance of tone: the other void that surrounds Mary is an absence of knowledge, so (among other things) she is never given the chance to know the word “zombie”, or to use it. To her, the monsters are the Unconsecrated. And they are seen, not as mindless, but rather as singled-minded: their unlife is unendingly, unrelentingly, “only about one need, one desire” (184).

The order of Sisters that controls Mary’s village, much like some religious institutions today, isn’t so very keen on uncontrolled desire. Oh, they speak of freedom: “There is always a choice,” they proclaim. “It is what makes us human, what separates us from them” (34). And it is in putative service to this maxim that infected individuals are not summarily executed, but are allowed to decide whether they want to be killed, or released into the forest to join their new brethren. But other kinds of choice are in short supply. An unmarried woman has precisely three options: live with her family; marry into another family; or join the Sisterhood. Of necessity, Mary ends up plumping for door number three, which in turn leads her to new knowledge about the world in which she lives: right up to the point at which her village is overrun by the Unconsecrated, and she is forced to flee into the forest, making use of a forbidden network of fenced pathways, of uncertain origin and unknown destination.

This second half of The Forest of Hands and Teeth is to my mind rather better than the first, because Carrie Ryan has constructed an affectless, somewhat numbed voice for Mary, and I think it handles action rather better than reflection. Here, for example, Mary grieves for her mother, infected in the novel’s first chapter and released into the Forest shortly thereafter:

I lie on the floor with my eyes closed and body limp, trying to feel my mother’s hands in my hair as I repeat the stories she used to tell me over and over again in my mind. I refuse to forget any details and I am terrified that I already have. I go over each story again — seemingly impossible stories about oceans and buildings that soared into the heavens and men who touched the moon. I want them to be ingrained in my head, to become a part of me that I cannot lose as I have lost my parents. (20-1)

It’s telling, I think, that Mary refers to the detail of the stories she’s recalling but that Ryan — writing in first-person present, note — refuses to give us those details. We are kept on the surface, away from the core of Mary, away from the depths of her feelings. As a result, those feelings are never evoked with as much intensity as the situation seems to deserve; the horrific claustrophobia of the village, for example, is never as overwhelming as I would have liked. Indeed the village itself is never described in any but the most generic terms. The Cathedral from which the Sisterhood rules is simply “an old stone building built well before the Return” (7). Abstracting a tone from a cluster of real-world references is one thing, but an excess of Significant Capitalization does not an Atmosphere make.

But the style works rather better when the Unconsecrated are on the rampage. Then, the immediacy, the focus on surfaces and the progression from one action to the next makes much more sense. More than once, Ryan is able to establish and maintain a sense of urgency that is sustained precisely by the lack of meaningful introspection; no thought, only action, detailed in something akin to slow motion: “Beside him on the platform men pull at bows, letting loose arrows towards targets somewhere behind me. I can feel the compression of an arrow splitting the air as it cuts next to my head. I don’t know if the arrow was meant for me or for something behind me and I refuse to look over my shoulder to find out. Reality is too much to bear at this moment and so I shove it aside” (128). The problem with this, of course, is that as well done as it is, it’s one of the only real virtues of the novel, and it’s something that films, television and computer games — visual media — will always do rather better than prose fiction. And there is a sense that The Forest of Hands and Teeth is waiting to be made into a film. The action sequences are Hollywood-polished — and, indeed, when Mary suddenly demonstrates heretofore unhinted at l33t zombie beheading skillz, Hollywood-improbable.

Equally, the relationships are Hollywood-superficial. At the heart of the book’s keystone romance, between Mary and one of the village men, Travis, is something ambitious and challenging, I think. Mary’s love for Travis is never justified or elaborated; it is simply a given. Equally, Travis’s love for Mary goes unexamined until quite late in the book with, in the meantime, paroxysms of adoration — “‘Oh Mary,’ he says, thrusting his hand into my hair and cupping my head [...] ‘Mary,’ he whispers. I can feel the movement of his lips” (89) — substituting for anything resembling conversation, or any sense of a meaningful connection between two individuals. Their desire, in other words, is the same selfish, short-sighted, and ultimately unsatisfying kind of desire as that which drives the Unconsecrated. Whether or not it is even a choice, in the meaningful, human sense identified earlier is in doubt. The trouble is that the novel never quite commits to saying this out loud, as it were; for all the casual gruesomeness and violence that comes with the Unconsecrated, this sort of unconsecrated desire is apparently beyond the pale, or the page: the passion that might make Mary and Travis’ mutual obsession convincing is missing, replaced with coy allusions to waking up in each others’ arms.

Too, there seems to me to be something not quite successful about Ryan’s refiguring of zombies. When Danny Boyle and Alex Garland used them to express mindless rage in 28 Days Later (2002), they famously embodied this change as intensity, as speed. Ryan’s Unconsecrated, in contrast, are not particularly differentiated to achieve her metaphoric purpose; instead she borrows familiar traits. (There is even a fast zombie, confirmation if any were needed that the Boyle/Garland variant has become a trope in its own right.) And so they continue to also stand for death, for “the fear of death always tugging at you. Always needing you, begging you” (214). The problem with this layering is twofold, I think. First, it doesn’t just say that single-minded desire will destroy you; it suggests that something like the Sisterhood is needed to keep it at bay. Second, death really is a slow, shambling inevitability; and so an ending that offers an escape to what appears to be a genuinely safe haven, even if that escape comes at a cost, even if it affirms the fundamental selfishness of your protagonist, cannot help but fail, on some level, to satisfy.

Bones of Faerie coverImmediately after reading The Forest of Hands and Teeth, I happened to pick up Janni Lee Simner’s Bones of Faerie. On the face of it, the two books are not dissimilar, but the comparison is not kind to Ryan’s novel. Like The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Bones of Faerie is a post-apocalyptic narrative, told in the first person by a young woman who, when we meet her, is living in a village that has regressed to pre-industrial technology and social structures, from which she journeys out into the world beyond. Both protagonists struggle with the absence of their mother. Both books are stylistically straightforward. (Both, at least in the editions I own, happen to have striking Stephenie Meyer-esque iconic-image-on-black-background covers. And both, as if you couldn’t guess by this point and if you care, were written as Young Adult fiction, and are their authors’ first books for the YA audience.) And, like Ryan’s novel, Bones of Faerie opens with an arresting image, this time of the narrator’s baby sister abandoned by their father, for bearing the “hair clear as glass from Before”, that signals the touch of faerie. “We knew the rules,” Liza says.

Don’t touch any stone that glows with faerie light, or that light will burn you fiercer than any fire. Don’t venture out alone into the dark, or the darkness will swallow you whole. And cast out the magic born among you, before it can turn on its parents.

Towns had died for not understanding that much. My father was a sensible man.

But the memory of my sister’s bones, cracked and bloody in the moonlight, haunts me still. (2)

There is, no doubt, an essay I need to write at some point exploring the kinds of combinations of fantasy and science fiction elements that work for me and the kinds that do not: for now, suffice to say that a story set in a world devastated by war between humanity and Faerie hits the sweet spot, and hits it good. It helps that Simner is constantly inventive and effective in her portrayal of this altered world; small stuff, mostly, such as the magically evergreen trees (“Mom said before the War, leaves had changed color in autumn [...] it would take a fire now to make any tree release its grip that easily”, 8), or crops that resist being harvested (“In the distance, corn ears moaned as townsfolk pulled them free”, 9); and every so often, another arresting image:

A moth flew toward the fire and through the flames. It flew out again with the veins in its gray wings glowing orange. Moths were drawn to light and always took some away with them when they found it. (29)

I find that an extraordinarily concise, delicate and effective evocation of strangeness; and Simner sprinkles the pages of her characters’ quest with this sort of thing, bringing the landscape of her novel alive in a way that I never felt with The Forest of Hands and Teeth. On the other hand, compared to Ryan’s set-pieces, Simner’s attempts at action are much less tense and visceral — though this is not to say that Bones of Faerie is without drive. For a portal-quest fantasy (which it undeniably is), the story is pleasingly brisk. Driven by the suspicion that she has been touched by magic, and fearful of what her already authoritarian father, in particular, would do to her if he found out, in short order Liza flees into the woods around her village, is rescued by the inhabitants of another village (who turn out to have embraced magic, rather than shunned it), learns more about the world, and sets out on a quest to rescue her mother, who she believes is trapped in Faerie. The instant acceptance — or indulgence — of Liza’s choice is only one of the ways in which Simner’s hews closely to the cliches of portal-quest stories: for Liza does turn out to be a child of special potential, born to important parents, and responsible for Healing the Land.

It’s how well Simner works within this framework, and how she finesses it, that makes Bones of Faerie. There is, for example, a charming moment when Liza overhears some other characters, and the reader realizes they are engaged upon their own story, which for them is just as important as the one we’re reading. Simner’s faeries, also, are pretty much just humans with magic, not given to tricks or spite any more or less than the regular kind. It’s a pleasingly fresh approach that allows Simner to comment gently on prejudicial assumptions. And perhaps most importantly, while magic has undeniably reshaped the land, it cannot be done away with. “Magic destroyed the world,” Liza tells one of her rescuers. “Indeed,” he replies. “And now it’s the only tool we have to mend it” (80). It’s a pragmatic approach, one that feels true to the way the world really evolves; and it means that to heal the land is not to restore it to some ideal state, but to accept and accomodate its evolution. The image Simner uses to communicate this accommodation, when it comes, is both delightful in itself, and delightfully well-chosen in the context of the rest of the novel.

The counterpoint to all this delicacy comes in visions that afflict Liza, increasingly as the book wears on: stark flashes of places she has not been and events she could not have seen. Many are of the war: “Dirt churning like flour in a sieve, and the people slipping from view one by one, their hands grasping air to the last, leaving behind only dirt and roots and jagged bone” (161). Most brutal of all is the uncovering of what humanity is capable of in response. It is a darkness that shades but never distorts the book: again there is the sense of a framework being carefully used, of everything in its proper place and most effective proportion. A less charitable way of saying this is to suggest that in both subject matter and emotional focus, Simner’s book is arguably less adventurous than Ryan’s; Bones of Faerie is straightforwardly a book about loss and renewal. So Liza, of course, is possessed of generic amounts of practicality and pluck, and learns to control the magic lurks within her, and there is an undeniable inevitability to the way in which she confronts her father at the novel’s climax. But the confrontation is more plausibly choreographed than, for example, any of Mary’s heroics in The Forest of Hands and Teeth, with the result that Liza’s catharsis is no less freeing for being expected, while Mary’s release feels like a betrayal. That difference between the two books, in the end, outweighs any number of similarities.

Hugo Nominee: “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”

On to the short story nominees! Kij Johnson’s story is here, and I expect you all to read it in your lunch hour. Commentary:

Rich Horton:

This is a sheer delight. Aimee is the operator of an act featuring 26 monkeys, who perform various stunts, then disappear. The story, of course, isn’t about the monkeys disappearing — it’s about Aimee, and how she got there, and her boyfriend, and their future, if they have one. I liked the not quite whimsical telling — the sense that there is much serious matter behind the sweet surface. The monkeys and their act are nicely described, Aimee and her boyfriend seem real. And the ending is handled just right. Sometimes a story simply grabs me, and that’s what happened here.

Ian Sales:

While this is clearly a good story, it’s not the sort of genre fiction I normally enjoy. The premise is whimsical, the treatment is whimsical, and I’m not a big fan of whimsy. Nevertheless, it’s one of the stronger stories on the shortlist.

Lois Tilton:

Aimee has a monkey act, and her big trick is making 26 monkeys disappear from a claw-footed bathtub onstage. The problem is, she doesn’t know how they do it. But really, it isn’t a problem at all.

Neat.

Val Grimm:

in “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss,” Kij Johnson assembles a beautiful mystery which, although it may seem predictable or familiar at first, has a flower (instead of a sting) at the end of its tail.

Aimee lost everything and replaced it with a sideshow. Twenty-six well-behaved, exceptionally intelligent monkeys pile into a bathtub and disappear, to return hours later to the bus which is their home with all sorts of odd items. She and her boyfriend, Geof, are just along to drive it seems, and like Bastian of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, she wanders as though she’s used up all her wishes and no longer remembers who she is:

Fairs don’t mean anything, either. Her tiny world travels within a slightly larger world, the identical, interchangeable fairs. Sometimes the only things that cue Aimee to the town she’s in are the nighttime temperatures and the shape of the horizon: badlands, mountains, plains, or city skyline.

The ending may seem predictable, and in some ways, what you expect is what happens. Why and how—and what it means for the future of the monkeys, the bathtub, Aimee, Geof—less so. The thing that ultimately gives meaning to this tale of slipstream serendipity may surprise you with tears.

Russ Allbery:

This is an excellent story. It’s about a woman who owns a monkey show, except the show basically runs itself and all the monkeys know what they’re doing and have ever since she bought the show for $1. They’re remarkably intelligent, come and go as they please, and at the end of each show, they disappear out of a bathtub on stage and are gone for hours, only to return at the show bus. The emotional reactions of the main protagonist are exceptionally well-written, with deep emotions hiding under the light and somewhat amusing situation. Johnson throws in some twists in the plot and doesn’t take it in expected directions, and the ending, while maybe a bit saccharine, worked perfectly for me. The best story of the issue and quite possibly deserving a Hugo nomination in short story. (9)

Abigail Nussbaum:

Kij Johnson, meanwhile, does seem to have something of a following. Last year, praise for her story “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” seemed to be on everybody’s lips. I read “Trickster Stories” when it was nominated for the Nebula and found myself underwhelmed. It was charming and well-written. I was impressed with the way Johnson handled her inventive premise, neither shortchanging nor belaboring it, and couldn’t help but be taken in by the gentle melancholy that suffused the story. But I didn’t particularly like it, nor did I see why it had garnered such praise. I’m telling you all this because my reaction to “Trickster Stories” is also, word for word, my reaction to “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss,” Johnson’s story on this year’s short story ballot. It’s a nice piece with a slightly surreal premise–Aimee owns a carnival act in which 26 monkeys disappear into a bathtub–but so gentle and unassuming that it’s hard to believe that, once again, so many people have fallen in love with it. There’s nothing wrong with “26 Monkeys,” and Johnson’s voice and style are unusual enough that I can sort of see how she might deserve recognition for them, but I can’t help but think that there are much stronger, more interesting, more passionate stories out there that ought to have had her spot on the ballot. Still, I’m willing to admit that this is probably a case of me being the wrong reader for the story.

And a very detailed reading of the story by Juliette Wade, with comments from Johnson:

Kij Johnson has chosen to juxtapose Aimee’s carnival act – absurd, quirky and inexplicable as it is – with Aimee’s terrible grief as a result of terrible events in her life. As the story progresses, Johnson manages to bring the two sides together in a marvelous way, so that they are less contrasting and more congruent.

If she had gone another route, and taken us closer to Aimee’s point of view, it would have been easy for us to get mired in the grief itself – and this would have made it far more difficult to grasp the thematic content of the story. By keeping narrative distance, Johnson avoids the trap of protesting too much. She allows us to share Aimee’s sensitive observations of the details of her life, and by showing us Aimee’s fear of touching her own grief, Johnson allows readers to add their own depth to her story by accessing personal experiences of grief, and of the grieving.

This is more than just a wonderful story. It kept me guessing, and it made me think. And now it has also given me an opportunity to think about third person omniscient in a whole new way.

Your thoughts?

Quote of the Day

China Mieville:

Middle Earth was not the first invented world, of course. But in the way the world is envisaged and managed, it represents a revolution. Previously, in works such as Eddison’s, Leiber’s, Ashton Smith’s and many others’, the worlds of magic, vibrant, brilliant, hilarious and much-loved as they may be, were secondary to the plot. This is not a criticism: that’s a perfectly legitimate way to proceed. But the paradigm shift of which there may be other examples, but of which Tolkien was by a vast margin the outstanding herald, represents an extraordinary inversion, which brings its own unique tools and capabilities to narrative. The order is reverse: the world comes first, and then, and only then, things happen–stories occur–within it.

So dominant is this mode now (as millions of women and men draw millions of maps, and write millions of histories, inventing worlds in which, perhaps, eventually, a few will set stories) that it’s difficult to see what a conceptual shift it represented. And it is so mocked and denigrated–often brilliantly, as in the ferocious attack by M. John Harrison, that outstanding anti-fantasist, wherein he describes worldbuilding as the ‘great clomping foot of nerdism’–that it’s hard to insist that it brings aesthetic and epistemological possibilities to the table that may be valuable and impossible any other way.

This is a debate that needs to be had. These are stories contingent to a world the reader inhabits–full of ‘ideal creations’ that the writer has given, in Tolkien’s words, ‘the inner consistency of reality’. Whatever else it is, that is a strange and unique kind of reading. Tolkien not only performs the trick, indeed arguably inaugurates it, but considers and theorises this process that he calls ‘subcreation’, in his extraordinary essay ‘On Fairy Stories’. It is astounding, and testimony to him, that his ruminations on what is probably now the default ‘fantasy’ mode remain not only seminal but lonely. Whether one celebrates or laments the fact, it is an incredibly powerful literary approach, and the lack of systematic, philosophical and critical attention paid not to this or that example but to ‘subcreation’, world-building, overall, as a technique, is amazing. To my knowledge–and I would be grateful for correction–there is not one book-length theoretical critical work, or collection, investigating the fantastic technique of secondary-world-building–subcreation. This is astounding. In Tolkien, fully 70 years ago, by contrast, we have not only the method’s great vanguard, but still one of its most important and pioneering scholars.

(And four other reasons why “Tolkien rocks”.)

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