Short Story Club: “A Tiny Feast”

Seconds out, round two: this week’s short story is “A Tiny Feast” by Chris Adrian. And the commentary round-up begins with Perpetual Folly:

I hate cancer stories. There are too many of them and it is too easy to make them overly sentimental and melodramatic. But this one is different. This one is so highly original (in a Shakespeare-derivative way) that it overcomes all of my objections. I think this is one terrific story.

Patrice Sarath:

loved this story, for the fantasy and the heart and the humor and the humanity and the sorrow. If you love good fantasy, you will pick up a copy of the April 20 New Yorker. You will not be disappointed. For some reason I always get my New Yorker way the hell past the time the rest of the country does (maybe it has trouble clearing customs? Thank you Rick Perry) so it might not be available on newsstands anymore, but do your best.

I hope that this is nominated for a World Fantasy award, as well as an O’Henry and any other literary award out there. I wish that the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror were still being published, because this story would have pride of place. Thankfully there are other Year’s Best fantasies. David Hartwell and Katherine Cramer, are you listening? Please read this story and reprint it. Please.

Jacob Russell:

Chris Adrian’s “A Tiny Feast” is an almost miraculous realization of the mystery of death, of the power of its visitation, of how it astonishes us into recognition of love–how is it possible for anything to be at once, “so awesome and so utterly powerless?”

Oh, and how do we account for the strange ways of medicine and therapeutic care, the magic of which is not love… but indifference?

Paul Debraski:

The supernatural quality of the story takes the edge off of what is, in fact, a story of a child dying of cancer. But since the point of view is that of immortal beings who simply cannot comprehend the details of medicine, cancer or suffering, it takes some of the pain away from the plot and focuses it on the parents’ frustration. The immortals feel grief for the first time and don’t know quite how to deal with it. And when they finally do return home, they feel just as lost as they felt with their new feelings.

I really enjoyed this story, it was quite odd, but very well done. I also appreciated how it showed the suffering that parents go through at a distance, allowing the suffering to seem more real for being so confusing. I can’t imagine what cuased the full inspiration for it.

And three Torque Control readers, first David Hebblethwaite:

I think this piece is wonderful, in more than one sense of that word. Adrian does a superb job of working through the ramifications of his fantastical idea. Most obviously, perhaps, there’s going to be humour in the juxtaposition of traditional faeries and modern society – and so there is: witness, for example, the method Titania finds for playing a Carly Simon LP, before ‘[singing] to the boy about his own vanity’; or the times when the faeries’ glamour drops, and the medical staff become dazzled by the very presence of Titania and Oberon.

Yet there’s another, less playful, side to ‘A Tiny Feast’. Adrian makes some telling observations (‘The doctors called the good news good news, but for the bad news they always found another name’), but the heart of his story concerns the emotional trajectory of the characters, and Titania in particular. At first, the boy is just another changeling to her (she never even gives him a name); gradually, though, she comes to care about him – but the story-logic by which the faeries live has the final say. It makes the tale not only a fine piece of fantasy in its own right, but also a striking metaphor for how we may react to the terminal illness of a loved one.


“A Tiny Feast” by Chris Adrian is a darkly comic rendering of the cancer ward. Anyone who has logged a bit of time in the foreign world that is a cancer ward[1] will recognize a lot of these moments (the one that hit home the most for me was walks with the iv stand), the strangeness that Titania and Oberon feel and their alien reaction is not far from what any family feels. It is their comic frustration that makes them their most human.
While it encapuslizes the helplessness of a parent with a sick child- that’s exactly the problem – Titania and Oberon have been too normalized at this point. It was the jarring conflict between our world and theirs (and mine and the cancer ward) that made this story work for me.

And a dissenting opinion by Evan at Association List:

I thought that this one was well written, but otherwise failed on most other levels. I have to admit some bias, in that I have essentially no interest in fantasy specifically featuring fairies. It’s a trope at this point that has been so brutally overused that it’s hard to imagine it having any sort of resonance with anyone at this point. I realize that my point of view clearly isn’t shared, so I’ll try to put it aside. The story imagines one of the changelings taken by the fairy court, Oberon and Titania and the whole lot, getting leukemia and going into treatment. In terms of playing the conflict in a humorously deadpan way and depicting the process in an accurate way, the author gets high marks, but as a story it never really gets anywhere, or says anything, or really has any characters. Any one of those could be fine, of course, but at some point the story just falls down, when you decline to provide your readers with any reason to care.

If we’re to read this straight, Oberon and Titania are fairies and so at least somewhat alien and distanced from human concerns. It’s never clear why either of them should care about this particular changeling over any other, other than he’s sick. The author never bothers to make them human characters, nor does he manage to make them convincingly alien. They speak on one hand from a desire for the story to move forward, and on the other from a desire by the author to make the story humorous.

Over the course of the stories, interactions are detailed, scenes are set, jokes are constructed and delivered. The boy sickens, recovers, sickens more, and dies. Nothing else actually happens. No point is delivered, nor is one possible to infer, given the half-assed inhumanity of the characters.

It strikes me that the author had a neat idea for a story, then didn’t realize that his conceit didn’t have legs enough to stand alone at such length. Maybe he had some inkling, hence the jokiness, the places where it’s overwritten. Halfway to Rembrandt Comic Book territory, more or less. Still, in the end, it stacks up to more or less nothing interesting, and the author, while clever and skilled, simply isn’t writing at the level where you’ll stick around to listen to him talking about anything, just because the prose is so good.

And so we reach the end without me having said much interesting or clever, but I feel that the conceit here doesn’t stand up to criticism any better than it stands up to reading; that it is, in fact, a conceit and only provides the critic with his thinnest gruel, stylistic analysis. I am hoping that I’m missing something, and that some of the other commenters will provide a view of the story that illuminates a more interesting angle from which to view the story.

Over to the rest of you: what did you think? Why?

Le Guin on Atwood

I would like to believe that the gambit Ursula Le Guin deploys in her review of The Year of the Flood works:

In her recent, brilliant essay collection, Moving Targets, she says that everything that happens in her novels is possible and may even have already happened, so they can’t be science fiction, which is “fiction in which things happen that are not possible today”. This arbitrarily restrictive definition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.

Who can blame her? I feel obliged to respect her wish, although it forces me, too, into a false position. I could talk about her new book more freely, more truly, if I could talk about it as what it is, using the lively vocabulary of modern science-fiction criticism, giving it the praise it deserves as a work of unusual cautionary imagination and satirical invention. As it is, I must restrict myself to the vocabulary and expectations suitable to a realistic novel, even if forced by those limitations into a less favourable stance.

Since she ends up calling the book “extraordinary”, however, it seems that it doesn’t count for that much in the end. On the other hand, she calls the book “extraordinary”, which bodes well for me as a reader.

Short Story Club Reminder: “A Tiny Feast”

This week’s short story club story is “A Tiny Feast” by Chris Adrian. As before, I’ll post on Sunday evening to get the discussion going.

(Although it seems as though we could almost get another weeks’ worth of discussion out of “The Best Monkey” — 81 comments, at the time of writing, including one from Daniel Abraham here. Thanks to everyone who’s joined in!)

Iain Banks on Open Book

Pointed out to me yesterday: last Sunday’s Open Book features an entertaining interview with Iain Banks about his new novel, Transition. As you’d expect, the sf/non-sf divide comes up, but this time it comes up because Transition is being marketed as a non-M novel, yet features parallel worlds and similar excitements. (And, in fact, in the US, it is an M-Banks novel.) Full marks to Muriel Gray for this exchange:

GREY: You’re one of Britain’s most popular and best-loved and best-selling writers, and yet something that really really annoys me personally is that you’ve never been nominated for one of the big literary prizes yet. Why do you think that is?

BANKS: I think possibly it’s because I’ve always got a foot in both camps as it were. Put it this way, I think if I’d kept my nose clean, if I hadn’t written science fiction, if I’d got away with The Wasp Factory as piece of a youthful indiscretion and if I’d written respectable novels since then, then maybe you know I’d have had a chance, a crack at the Booker prize by now!

GREY: You see, I have to interrupt you there. “Respectable novels”, referring to science fiction as not respectable, that’s Margaret Atwood territory –

BANKS: — well, quite, yeah

GREY: — the woman who refuses to admit she writes science fiction, she calls it “speculative fiction” so she continues to win prizes. This enrages me! Science fiction is perfectly respectable.

Alas, nobody has seen fit to send me a proof copy this time, so it may be a while before I get to it. Sounds promising, though.

Vector 260: Fantasy and Mythology

A bit belated, this, for which I apologise. While I was away on holiday, the latest BSFA mailing should have dropped through members’ doorsteps. If you haven’t received it, let us know; it should have looked like this:

And the contents of Vector:

Torque Control — editorial
Letters — or, this issue, letter; keep ‘em coming, though
Of Time and the River — Paul Kincaid on Robert Holdstock
Across the Dickian Multiverse — Hal Duncan interviewed by Tony Keen
Euripedes Bound: Hal Duncan’s use of Greek tragedy — Tony Keen
Other Views — Gwyneth Jones interviewed by Tanya Brown
First Impressions — book reviews edited by Kari Sperring
Progressive Scan — a column by Abigail Nussbaum
Foundation’s Favourites — a columnn by Andy Sawyer
Resonances — a column by Stephen Baxter
The New X — a column by Graham Sleight

There’s a little discussion of the issue in the BSFA forum. And inexcusably not credited in the issue is Drew Brayshaw, whose photograph provides the basis for the cover.

Also in the mailing, as the photo shows, is the latest issue of Focus, and the latest BSFA Special booklet: SF writers on SF film: from Akira to Zardoz, edited by Martin Lewis, who has posted about the booklet here. Adam Roberts has posted his contribution, on Blade Runner, here.

Last, but certainly not least: Matrix Online has relaunched. with oodles of features and reviews.

Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism

Hoshruba The Land and the Tilism coverHoshruba is an exhausting delight. “It has consumed whole generations of readers before you”, warns the introduction to this volume, and while obsession is probably what was meant, used up works as well. My immediate feeling on turning the last of these four hundred and thirty pages of story, so remorselessly crowded with incident and imagery, was simply of being spent; and The Land and the Tilism is merely the first of a projected twenty-four comparably-sized volumes that will bring the complete work to the English-speaking world. (It is a mere five volumes in the original Urdu; but each somewhere in the region of 1,500 pages long.) Not necessarily in terms of the scope of the events described, but certainly in terms of their sheer number and duration, as an epic epic fantasy — for that is what it is and, lacking the knowledge to review it in its historical or cultural context, that’s what I’m going to review it as here — it knocks just about anything else you can think of into a cocked hat.

Some background. (Shamelessly recycled, I should note, from that introduction, elegantly composed by translator Musharraf Ali Farooqi.) You should have heard of The Adventures of Amir Hamza, a chronicle of the exploits of the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, told in India as part of the dastan genre of oral epics. It was first collected, and no doubt at least partly composed, in the mid to late sixteenth century, incorporating many pre-existing fictions and legends, at the request of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. By the nineteenth century, however, it had become somewhat familiar. As Farooqi tells it, a group of storytellers in Lucknow decided to liven up the story with “an injection of local talent” — meaning that they would introduce into the tale elements from Indian and Islamic fantastical and folk traditions, in particular magic and magic-users, to run alongside the existing Arabian and Persian tropes.

But the new tales had to be indisputably part of the Amir Hamza cycle, for that was what audiences wanted, and were used to. The man who, in the mid-nineteenth century, probably came up with what can perhaps, crudely, be thought of as an unauthorized spin-off series (at least until authorization was provided by the approval of the audience) was one Mir Ahmed Ali. He seized on the defeat of a renowned enemy of Amir Hamza, the giant Laqa, as his point of departure. While Amir Hamza pursued Laqa, he decided, some of Hamza’s associates and relatives would find themselves entangled in events in a magical land; and these splitters would become the subjects of the new tales. By the time another Lucknow storyteller, Muhammad Husain Jah, was commissioned to produce the first (or first enduring) written version of the epic, the first volume of which appeared in 1883, Hoshruba had been a storming success for several decades. Jah’s books, on which the present translation is based, were best-sellers.

So this is clearly a notable work. The set-up runs roughly thus: out on a hunting trip, one of Amir Hamza’s sons, Prince Badiuz Zaman, accidentally kills one of the guardian sorcerers of the magical realm of Hoshruba, and in consequence is imprisoned by Afrasiyab, the Emperor. Hoshruba, we are to understand, is an immense tilism, a place created by infusing inanimate matter with magic. Most tilisms (it seems) are modestly sized, and created for a specific purpose — enchanting some bandits and preventing them from attacking you, say. Hoshruba is vastly larger, divided into three regions (Zahir, Batin and Zulmat, the manifest, hidden and dark regions), to the point where it is capable of containing other tilisms within itself. Nevertheless, Amir Hamza launches a campaign against Afrasiyab, after consultation with his diviners reveals that one of his grandsons, Prince Asad, is destined to conquer Hoshruba with the help of five tricksters. (Central to this is the acquisition of Hoshruba’s material key: as with all tilisms, control the key, and you control the fate of the tilism.) Hamza’s childhood companion Amar Ayyar is called up as lead trickster and, before long, the interlopers are fomenting rebellion within Hoshruba. The bulk of this volume (and, I presume, the bulk of Hoshruba) details the wax and wane of their struggles against Afrasiyab.

It proceeds like this:

… we return to Afrasiyab, who, after sending his reply, recited an incantation and clapped, whereupon a wisp of cloud materialized in the skies and descended to the ground. The sorcerer Ijlal, who was a king of one of the sixty thousand lands of Hoshruba and commanded an army of forty thousand sorcerers, dismounted that cloud, bowed to Afrasiyab, and asked, “Why has my master sent for me?” Afrasiyab said, “Lord Laqa has arrived in Mount Agate. He is being pestered by some creatures who have earned divine wrath and condemnation. Go forth and destroy them and rid Lord Laqa of their evil.” Ijlal answered, “As you please!” He rode the cloud back to his abode and commanded his army to get ready to March. Then he prepared himself for the journey and warfare and mounted a magic dragon. All his sorcerers also sat on magic swans, demoiselle cranes, flamingos, peacocks and dragons made of paper and lentil flour. Wielding tridents and pentadents and carrying their apparatus of sorcerery in sacks of gold cloth hanging from their necks, they departed toward Mount Agate with great pomp and ceremony, dripping wax over flaming, chaffing dishes and burning gugal to cast spells. (36-7)

Now we come to both the delight and the exhaustion. To deal with the latter first: Hoshruba is, much of the time – and not terribly surprisingly – episodic to the point of formulaic, and thus predictable. Moreover episodes are short and numerous. There are some of what we might call arc elements, but Hoshruba is predominantly what Farah Mendlesohn has called a “bracelet fantasy”; there is no necessary connection between the overarching quest and the individual adventures that take place. You can have as many links in your chain as you want, and the most common links in Hoshruba’s chain are encounters with sorcerers or sorcerersses, summoned by Afrasiyab to deal with Asad’s rebellion. So for all his grand introduction, twenty pages later Ijlal has been outsmarted by Amar Ayyar, realized Laqa is a false god, and converted to the True Faith; after which I’m not sure we ever hear from him again. And that’s actually pretty good going for a magic-user in this book. Most have had their heads cut off before half that many pages have elapsed.

Equally the book’s idiom, lavish to the point of hyperbole, can when read over a relatively short period become repetitive. Descriptions of beauty, in particular, suffer from diminishing returns. One princess is “the gazelle of the desert of beauty and a prancing peacock of the forest of splendour” (12); another is “an inestimable pearl of the oyster of love … the sun of the sky of elegance and beauty” (78-9); upping the stakes, of a third woman we are told that “no one had ever seen or heard of such splendour [no one who hasn’t read the preceding hundred pages, at least] … It seemed that her thighs were kneaded with powdered stars” (100); on the other hand, the beauty of a fourth “was so astonishing that even charming fairies were fit only to be her slave girls” (189), which seems almost mild by comparison.

As viewed with contemporary expectations of a prose narrative, these characteristics can be tiring. Particularly in the second half of the volume, once the story is up and running, there is little sense of progress. There is no map of the tilism, and judging by the way various characters zip back and forth between different locations, it may be a landscape in flux, anyway. Individual locations – cities, mountains and forests, mostly – can be strikingly described, but aside from the over-arching tripartite division of Hoshruba, there’s little sense of how the various jigsaw pieces we’re shown fit together. Nor is there much character development; there are, evidently, a great many sorcerers and sorcereresses in Hoshruba willing to try their luck against Asad and Amar (the list of “characters, historic figures, deities and mythical beings” is a healthy nine pages long), and even those who are converted to the True Faith show little sign of the interior life we expect of characters nowadays. (Technically they are persuaded to pledge allegiance to the True Faith; magic, in Hoshruba, is the province of divinity, which is why the tricksters and other followers of the True Faith have none, and if Afrasiyab’s minions genuinely converted, they would lose their magic powers and be useless to the rebel cause.) Equally, Asad and, particularly, Amar are definitionally infallible: there is no suspense about the fact of their triumph, sanctioned as it is by God, only in the detail of how it is achieved.

But that, of course, is the key to the delights of Hoshruba. Its pleasures are almost entirely immediate and local to whatever part of the story you happen to be reading: the detail of each individual adventure, or location, or character, and the constant arms race of tactics between Amar Ayyar’s tricksters and Afrasiyab’s sorcerers. The elaborately metaphoric idiom – “His mind dove into the sea of trickery and presently emerged with a pearl of thought” (110) – is to be revelled in, and is not without some self-awareness. (A list of Amir Hamza’s feared commanders includes Karit Shield-Whirler, Jamhur World-Conflagrer, and … Saif the Ambidextrous?) As is the narrative’s ludicrous casualness with huge numbers. Afrasiyab’s home base, an enormous tower called the Dome of Light, houses twelve thousand sorcerers on its first tier alone. At one point, there’s a passing mention of eighteen thousand princesses, which must be quite a family tree. And armies the size of Ijlal’s or larger are regularly disposed of in a sentence or two — this is, in one sense, the bloodthirstiest book I have ever read.

Many cultural details, Farooqi notes – styles of dress for example – are drawn from the contemporary surroundings of those who originally composed the epic. But there is, too, a constant flow of fantastic imagery; not for nothing is the tilism’s name drawn from the words for “senses” (hosh) and “ravishing” (ruba). Often, magic is instantiated in seemingly mundane items: “Sorcerers from both sides recited spells and exchanged magic citrons and limes, magic steel balls, clusters of arrows and needles, and garlands of chillies” (168). There are silver forests, rivers of blood, gemstone mountains and crystal cities, and magic beasts of every kind, as suggested in the above quote. There are magic slaves of steel, on horseback, and sorceresses who live as lightning bolts. It’s noticeable that none of these are described with the elaboration brought to bear on the characters’ appearance or actions. None of them, in other words, are described in such a way as to make them vivid and exciting; they are simply stated with the assumption that they are exciting.

And though each engagement between the tricksters and the sorcerers follows the same template – Afrasiyab calls up his latest minion (sometimes with an army, sometimes without); Ayyar or one of the other tricksters uses their skill at disguise (using magic paints and lotions) to lull said villain into a trap, at which point they use an egg of oblivion to render them unconscious, and either cut off their head, or stick a needle through their tongue to prevent spell-casting and convert them to the True Faith – over this template many elaborate variations are laid, to the point where the frantic complexity of some of the later episodes approaches farce. This sorcerer will set up a magic slave to shout out the true name of anyone who approaches; that sorcerer will reveal true faces in a magic mirror; another sorcereress will use magic water to prepare the ground in such a way as to render the tricksters unconscious; or Afrasiyab will consult the Book of Sameri, which reveals the truth of whatever is passing. (Once the existence of this tome is revealed, you do wonder why he ever does anything without consulting it first, however.) Sometimes one or more tricksters will be captured, only to be rescued by their companions before the coup-de-grace. At other times there will be a pitched battle between Afrasiyab’s latest army and whoever is on the rebel side at that point. Some characters, inevitably, do survive, and over the course of the book a substantial cast accumulates on both sides. On the rebel side the most notable is probably the sorceress Mahrukh Magic-Eye, mother of Prince Asad’s love, while on Afrasiyab’s side the most entertaining are certainly the five “beautiful, adolescent” trickster girls. Amar Ayyar and his colleagues immediately fall in love, and try to steal kisses from their beloveds; “the trickster girls,” we are told, “would let them come close then bite them” (214). The minxes.

As Anil Menon notes in his review, to allow the claim that the cover and website make for Hoshruba as “the world’s first magical fantasy epic” requires some contortion. But it does have a lot of the tropes – the quest, the secondary world, the dark lord – and in one crucial respect it is absolutely of a piece with the modern genre: this volume isn’t even close to being complete in itself. In fact, because Hoshruba – for all its frustrations, repetitions, and inconsistencies – is never less than engaging, when it does simply stop, even though we were forewarned, it’s a bit of a shock. You emerge, blinking, back into the world, because the truth of Hoshruba is that, like all good fantasies, it is itself a tilism: it infuses these inanimate pages with magic. It may be a while before I feel ready to tackle volume two but it is, in the end, a delight to be exhausted.

Short Story Club: “The Best Monkey”

Here we go then: first short story club discussion, for Daniel Abraham’s “The Best Monkey“.

As anticipated, not huge amounts of detailed discussion of this story to date. Here’s Rich Horton in the May Locus:

The next best story here [and one of his recommended stories for the month] is more traditional near future SF: “The Best Monkey” by Daniel Abraham, which intriguingly speculates on the nature of beauty,on its ties to sex, on how what we perceive as elegant might be hardwired with what we perceive as a good mating prospect. And what might result if those perceptions were altered. All this revealed as a reporter tries to track the secret behind a strangely successful corporation.

Variety SF:

Good concept, but average execution.

Similarly, Jonathan Cowie:

In the (near?) future a net journalist (or the equivalent) who summarises and distils news is asked by his boss to become an investigative reporter. A company has grown fast and is rumoured that its secret is Roswell technology. Could this be true or is there some other explanation? At its heart ‘The Best Monkey’ is an interesting enough story but, for my taste at least, its assembly could be improved.

John DeNardo at SF Signal:

A shady corporation is the subject of a reporter’s investigations in “The Best Monkey” by Daniel Abraham. The protagonist, Jimmy, works for a news corporation who is trying to go from news aggregator to news source and he gets a lead on said company’s exploration into experimental research. Abraham weaves in other interesting elements, like Jimmy’s prior relationship with the company’s research director and generation differences noted by the aging Jimmy, but the core examination of perception and beauty is the foundation of the story. (3.5 stars)

Mark Watson at Best SF:

A strong science thriller – a struggling journo in new-media publishing finds his past catching up with him, as an old flame whose career has far outstripped his, is the target of investigative journalism. He has to face up to where his life has gone (or not) in dealing with his ex-lover, and he finds out just what she has lost in order to get where she has gotten.

Liviu at Fantasy Book Critic:

Another superb story, this time about a mysterious corporation called Fifth Layer which dominates current tech with extraordinary inventions that are unorthodox and inelegant, but work. There is talk of the Roswell theory, namely that Fifth Layer is a front for secretive aliens, so older investigative reporter Jimmy is put on the case since a senior executive of Fifth Layer was his girlfriend thirty years ago. Highlight of the anthology for idea-based sf.

Eric Brown in The Guardian says it is a:

psychologically insightful thriller about an investigative journalist’s inquiries into the career of a former lover

Aside from leaving me thoroughly depressed (again) about the state of short fiction reviewing in this field (where’s the engagement with the story’s argument, folks?), none of these do a lot for me. However! A couple of people have already done their club homework. So here’s Chance:

So you know your ex-? The one who is beautiful and ended up way more successful than you? Turns out she’s not human any more so you win! Go on and delete her contact info now. (Do we really need another story where the successful woman is defective or evil or just-not-right somehow?)

“The Best Monkey” by Daniel Abraham is a story about what it means to be human and the not very plausible premise is that you need to be able to appreciate symmetric beauty to truly human. (Minus points for the Clarke’s law bit at the end.)

Jimmy works in a dead end job where he’s called to investigate the secret of his far more successful ex-lover Elaine. Intercut between interviews with people who have had their sense of symmetry turned off are convenient flashbacks where Jimmy and Elaine discuss her personal philosophies on how humans should pull out all the stops and see how far they can go, and pattern making and beauty.

So she shuts off the part of her brain that appreciates symmetry and voila! she starts thinking differently. And at the same time it makes her alien and repugnant to Jimmy.

And a thorough reading by Maureen Kincaid Speller, which I will only quote in part:

… one thing this story seems to lack so far as I’m concerned is a plausible progression from the recognition of the wrongness of Fifth Layer designs, through Jimmy’s recognition of Salvati’s discovery of the effects of eliminating a desire for symmetry to the realisation that, actually, Salvati is pretty much the same as she always was, except insofar as her philosophy has become a reality, and she is entirely willing to take whatever risks are necessary to gain the edge.
But we don’t know who or what Jimmy is. We’re not even really invited to think about it, in the same way that we’re not really invited to think about things, just notice them. And that, perhaps, is the biggest disagreement I have with this story. All these things are laid out but Jimmy has no view, and as a result for the reader there is nothing to really engage with. In the way, the elements of the story are laid out but there’s nothing that can be easily enaged with. It’s all shoved together and, superficially, like ‘Lucite neo-futurist kitsch’, the story looks the part. Dig into it, and there isn’t so much going on. A lot is signalled, but in a way that feels like Abraham is using a ‘fill this bit in for yourself’ shorthand rather than because he is being sparing with descriptions. ‘Blinkcasts’, ‘accretors’ and ‘neural nets’ all sound nicely familiar and comfortable, but I don’t think Abraham is using them to evoke the world so much as to avoid having to evoke it; they’re furniture, not reality. In fact, they’re precisely what Jimmy protests about: neo-futurist kitsch. This easy sliding together of components pervades the whole story, in fact. Jimmy never struggles for his story. It turns up in neat ‘blinkcast’ chunks as he goes looking for it, all slotted together in its frame. One is left with a faint sense of being as manipulated as Jimmy is, but again, I don’t think that’s a matter of performance so much as expedience.

And with that, it’s over to everyone else. What did you make of it?


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