Super Sad True Link Story

And finally finally: don’t forget that next week around these parts is going to be about sf by women. In particular, if you haven’t voted in the ongoing poll, please do email me your top ten sf novels by women from the last ten years (2001–2010). Deadline 23.59 on Sunday 5 December, results all next week.

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Short Story Club Post-Mortem

So, another round of short story club is complete. For reference, here are the links to the various stories and discussions:

As previously mentioned, I’d now like to open the floor for a more general discussion. There are two topics here. The major one is the stories themselves — which ones you liked, which you didn’t, what patterns or trends you spotted. And the minor one is about the logistics of the club — too many stories? Too few? Too similar? All feedback welcome.

London Meeting: Colin Harvey

The guest at this year’s final BSFA London meeting is Colin Harvey, author of Winter Song and Damage Time, and editor of the recent anthology Dark Spires. He will be interviewed by Dave Mansfield.

As usual, the meeting will be head in the upstairs room of The Antelope: 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

There will be people in the bar from 6-ish, with the interview starting at 7. The meeting is free, and open to any and all — not just BSFA members — and there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes.

Why I Write Reviews

If it weren’t for the existence of many fine writer-critics, I would sometimes be tempted to start believing that fiction writers just don’t get reviewing. A case in point: a post by Jason Sanford titled, “Why we write literary reviews“. It feels a little unfair to object to a post that concludes that reviewing is a valuable and worthwhile activity, but I can’t let that “we” stand, because while I’m sure what Jason Sanford says is true for Jason Sanford, it’s at best partially true for me; because I suspect the same is true for many other reviewers; and because the post as a whole traffics in assumptions about the nature of purpose and reviewing that I think undermine the whole enterprise.

To the point, in fact, where I could disagree with just about every sentence in the post that isn’t purely factual. For instance, on negative reviews, Sanford writes: “I basically refuse to waste my time reviewing bad stories”. The error here — beyond ignoring the fact that the decision, or assignment, to review is usually made before you know whether a story is good or bad — is to consider it a waste of time to review a bad story, when such a policy makes it impossible for a reader to form a full picture of Sanford’s taste (which precludes them from accurately weighting his judgments), and helps to bias the public picture of the sf field away from reality (which does more than theoretical damage). Moreover, negative reviews are apparently easy to write because “When you read a bad story, the flaws almost beg for sarcastic comments and ridicule”; the mistake here is to assume that sarcastic comments and ridicule make for a good negative review, when the opposite is much more likely to be the case.

But the central frustration of Sanford’s post is the assumed nature of the relationship between fiction and criticism, which colours everything else. I think it’s clearest in the fifth of his six reasons for reviewing:

A need to draw attention to the reviewer. This is another irritating reason to write a literary review. Reviewers who want attention should instead write their own stories, although that’s also a lousy reason to write fiction. While there is nothing wrong with critiquing from your own point of view—indeed, that’s hard to avoid because criticism and opinions are such personal affairs—reviewers should never forget that true criticism isn’t about them alone. Yes, it is their reaction to the story. But the story also exists apart from them. Only a fool forgets that.

This characterisation of reviewing — as, ideally, a pure and ego-less activity performed by willing supplicants at the altar of fiction — seems, at best, naive. Obviously, showboating should be avoided, as in the case of negative reviews filled with cheap snark noted above. But, equally obviously, of course reviewers want attention; reviewing is an act of communication, it takes a certain amount of ego just to stand up and say your piece in public, and we want to know that our communication is valued. I want to know that my communication is useful — less in the sense of persuading people to pick up a book, since although that’s always a pleasure it’s a limited if not illusory power, and more in the sense of prompting further thought, of contributing to or generating a conversation.

More importantly, critiquing a story from your own point of view isn’t just “hard to avoid”, it’s central to the entire project. Contra Sanford, I assert that “the story” does not exist apart from the reader, it exists in the interaction between the reader’s mind and the words on the page — if short story club achieves nothing else, it demonstrates that! — and that communicating a personal aesthetic experience is a vital element of a successful review, perhaps the most vital element.

The most irritating sentence in the paragraph, however, is the third. “Reviewers who want attention should instead write their own stories.” What’s objectionable here is not just the too-common canard that reviewers are frustrated fiction writers; it’s the suggestion that reviewers should want to write fiction, that fiction is in some undefined way inherently the superior activity, the true end-point of the urge to write, the only form of writing worthy of attention, that reviewing is but a stepping stone to that goal.

As I say, I’m happy to accept this is true for Sanford. It’s not true for me. Because I assert that reading is an inherently creative act, I also assert that reviewing is a creative act — which is to say I assert that it is inherently a literary act, worthy of attention and consideration as such. The notion that a review has no value as an independent work is easily dismissed with reference to the work of someone like John Clute, but the more nuanced argument that a review is lesser because it cannot exist without a prompting work is also something of a red herring; fiction hardly emerges from a vacuum, after all. To the extent that all reviews, in transcribing the experience of the reviewer, necessarily re-tell and mis-tell their subject, they are productively creative. And the other side of this, of course, is that to the extent that all fiction is a response to things in the world, it is usefully critical. (Consider Farah Mendlesohn’s definition of science fiction as “an argument with the universe” as a description of all fiction.) To cast reviewing as inherently a lesser activity than fiction because it is more obviously a secondary activity is, I suggest, to misunderstand the nature of both.

There’s much more to disagree with in Sanford’s post — the paragraph on “A need to pontificate” as a reason for reviewing could easily generate another post of this length — but almost all of it comes back to this view of the relative worth of the two activities. Even when Sanford is discussing “A need to expand the understanding of a story”, his reasons for the desirability of doing so have to do almost entirely with its potential utility for fiction writers: “if I, as a reviewer, understand what made one novel special then perhaps my own fiction writings will take a giant step forward. Or perhaps new writers who read my review will apply this understanding to their own fiction.” Perhaps indeed; but as a reason to write reviews, such a priority seems rather skewed. For my part, I can’t improve on Gary K Wolfe: “One writes reviews because reviews are what one writes: they are essays about literature, and literature is worth writing essays about.”

A couple of weeks ago, Jo Walton pointed out that there was once, and I think for one year only, a “Best Book Reviewer” Hugo category, and suggested reviving it. Most of the time I think this would be a bad idea: we have too many Hugo categories as it is. But posts like Sanford’s make me wish it did exist, in the hope that it might make people think a bit more deeply about the art of criticism, and its value.

Short Story Club: “Throwing Stones”

Plenty of comment for the final story, starting with Lois Tilton:

This is a lovely fantasy, mannered and sensuous. There is also a subtle subtext about the nature of gender roles that rouses echoes of our own culture.

Karen Burnham goes into more detail:

Baker offers a beautiful tale of identity, politics, power, and love, all intertwined together. Tuo feels just slightly alien, slightly Other, in an effectively disconcerting way. The gender power reversal works well, and the relationship between the goblin and the man, both physical and emotional, queers gender on several levels. Of course, much is left to the imagination of the reader. But in an allusive tale, the poetry of the prose is key, and lines such as:

I leaned forward and pressed my lips to the slick skin of his forehead; it tasted of salt and fish and something acrid I could not identify. The immediacy and honesty of it hit me like a gust of dry wind blowing fog from water.

show a mastery of craft — the repeated use of water imagery, the contrasts of dry wind and lake fog, and the overall rhythm of the piece all come together to make this tale well worth reading.

Matt H wasn’t so impressed by the gender reversal:

This is a story about a society with inverted gender roles, but the story feels like it was written about a woman in a male dominated society, then had all gender references inverted in revision. Certainly it doesn’t read any differently than its opposite, except perhaps to readers so new to the genre that they haven’t encountered a story challenging gender roles before. The story finally approaches interesting territory as the narrator is given a transient female body via magic, but the author seems like she’s in a hurry to reach the ending by this point and nothing much is done with it.

However:

all that said, I found myself won over to large degree upon finishing the story. Nothing about the writing jumped out at me as really superlative, but as a whole I was impressed with the execution: the slimy, amphibian true form of the goblin, the narrator’s hatred for his own body, the way the goblin’s chaos infects and destroys the narrator’s life in a way that he observes but doesn’t see as important, and then the implication that the goblin is here acting as an agent of Ru, the very goddess in whose name the matriarchs suppress the men in their society. These elements weren’t enough to turn this story into one more to my particular tastes, but they did make it unexpectedly enjoyable to read.

For Chad Orzel:

It’s very well written and paced, and what we see of the world is nicely detailed. But it seemed a little too obviously to be making a Point, and as a result didn’t really connect with me. Despite the fact that it’s a well put together story, I still found myself doing the “Yes, you’re very clever, now move it along,” thing, and that’s never good. But, of course, the usual disclaimers apply– it’s entirely possible that this is an idiosyncratic reaction on my part.

The one thing that struck me as a real flaw in the story, and not just something that failed to work for me, was the passivity of the narrator. I mean, this is supposedly a person who has embarked on a dangerous plan to subvert the basis of his whole society, and yet he never takes any initiative, ever. He doesn’t approach the goblin until the goblin notices him first, he just sort of falls into the relationship with the goblin without really wanting it, and he doesn’t really have a plan for how to get into the Temple structure until the goblin practically pushes him into it.

Maria Lin appears to disagree:

You could call “Throwing Stones” a romance, as the whole of it centers upon the relationship between these two characters. Baker manages to make slimy, froglike creatures sensual, which is some feat. Both the narrator and Luo are reserved, calculating people, but for the narrator at least the strength of emotion pushes through and makes things more complicated. By the end of the story the narrator has entered training in the temple, but their conspiracy has yet to be revealed, and the relationship between himself and Luo remains uncertain.

Because “Throwing Stones” leaves the stone still poised to be thrown in the end, the reader is left to come to their own conclusion about what will happen when our protagonist starts making ripples in his society. Baker has written a neat story with a sympathetic narrator that is worth checking out. She is also apparently working on a novel set in the same world, so if this story appeals you might have more to look forward to.

And for Pam Phillips:

The story attempts to turn our expectations about gender upside down, like the customers at the teahouse being powerful women, or the narrator blaming his/her shyness on being male (rather than just being born shy). And yet, I still mostly read both the narrator and the poet as men. Both feel stifled by the society they live in. Tuo wants the narrator to “throw a stone” into the lake of civilization, raising ripples that will someday lead to change.

But what is the change they want? The way the women in Jiun-shi are keeping (at least some) men from being what they want to be, suggests that no matter what, one side will oppress the other. Or maybe the idea of a city ruled by women is just trying to get us to think about how our world feels to some people. And this is where trying figure out what this story wants to be gets all slippery on me.

So, as ever, the floor is open. And pop back next Friday for a general discussion of the short story club — favourites and least favourites, what worked and what didn’t.

Short Story Club Reminder: “Throwing Stones”

For our final story, it’s back to Beneath Ceaseless Skies, for “Throwing Stones” by Mishell Baker.

Discussion will be on Sunday as usual. To pick up on a suggestion from a couple of weeks ago, though, I’m also inclined to do a general overview-of-short-story-club discussion later in the week — next Friday, maybe?

Short Story Club: “Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory”

Some quite divergent opinions for this story. We start with Rich Horton, in the June Locus:

I was impressed last year by Paul M Berger’s Interzone piece “Home Again”. Now he contributes a brilliant story to Fantasy, one of the stories of the year so far, “Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory”. Loran, an old elven warrior, has taken Jessica, a young human, as his wife, and the pair visit a tourist attraction, the ruins of the Gray Fort, one of the last human redoubts in the long war that ended with humans enslaved. We learn of the pair bond between the two, such that they both feel and sense what the other does, and some of human/elf history that led to the current debased state of humans. The title artwork is a very clever invention, and nicely reflected in the story’s two parts, one from the POV of each character. The direction the story takes is on the one hand predictable, but nicely executed, and with some ambiguities and surprises that give it freshness and depth.

For Pam Phillips the story is

the sort of story I was hoping to find when I decided to join the Short Story Club at Torque Control.

A elf, Loran, and his human wife, Jessica, visit a ruined fort. From the first words, the story does an excellent job of portraying how the bond between them allows them to share sensory input, but not thoughts.

Their conversation is filled with suggestions of an epic history, war, conquest, and resistance. Loran is so arrogant, you just know he has underestimated his wife. That we confirm when we read Jessica’s side of the story. I like the Rashomonization in getting different meanings from the same events, but I could live without the verbatim repetition of dialogue.

Only after the story is allowed to take shape, do we get to the conceit that spawned it: a stereogram that can only be comprehended by a bonded pair. This stereogram is wonderful enough, but the best part is the way it pays off in the ending.

Excellent.

And for Matt H it’s the best so far:

Perhaps the most interesting part of the setting, and probably the concept the author meant to actually show in the story’s “stereogram”, is the nature of the colonial government. Loran’s narrative makes it very clear that the Elves only respect strength and were in fact disappointed when they finally defeated humans. Unlike the colonial powers of our world, they don’t seem to be extracting labor or natural resources. There’s likewise no equivalent of the White Man’s Burden, or at least, not since the war ended, since they see humans as only being worthy of respect when they are capable of fighting the Elves. Yet Loran says that in his role as a sort of regional governor he is responsible for “teaching” the humans under his control. What could he want to teach them, then, if not to fight back again? It seems like we are meant to conclude that he has essentially planned his own murder. Although this level of manipulation seems well beyond his ability to comprehend human psychology, even Jessica’s despite the link between them, at least we can say he shaped the outline if not the detail of what happened. Thus what might have seemed like a rousing stick-it-to-the-man ending becomes fairly ambiguous. As readers we’re predisposed to be sympathetic to Jessica’s stand, but when we realize that in doing so she’s adopting the values of the colonial power, suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a good idea. Loran has made her into a William Wallace when humanity would be better served by a Mahatma Ghandi.

But Lois Tilton is ambivalent:

The narrative follows the stereogram pattern by relating the story first from Loran’s point of view and then Jessica’s. What’s going on here is subversion of the notion of the noble High Elf, as Loren regards himself, revealing them as a race that would destroy another civilization to give its people the perverse gift of recovering their own capacity for martial glory – and themselves a partner for war that they could consider worthy even as they destroy them. Loren’s own words indict him even more thoroughly than Jessica’s version of the events. I love the vision of the ruined fort, the scene of former glories, even knowing that the vision is false. But too much of this story depends on the notion of the marital pair-bond, which I can’t help finding contrived.

As is Chad Orzel:

I ended up being unimpressed with this, and I’m not sure exactly why. Mostly, it’s that I could see exactly where it was headed from about the point where the brain-sharing thing was explained, and knew it exactly by the time she picked up the dagger. The shift in perspectives was not that much of a revelation, and the whole thing unfolded with a sense of inevitability rather than a sense of wonder.

But again, as I say, I’m not really sure why my reaction to this is a jaded “Meh”– it’s not like there’s a huge glut of psychically linked elf stories on the market, and as a technical matter, it’s well done. Berger also deserves credit for having a return of magic without turning it into a My Awesome Werewolf Boyfriend kind of story.

It’s just… Something about the way it all unfolded wound up feeling, for me, more like the completion of a checklist than a compelling story. Remark about technology making humans weak, check. Remark about our world being too amazing to be true, check. Change in perspective making “courtship” seem really creepy, check. One of linked couple able to hide thoughts and plans from the other, check. And so on.

I’ll be interested to see where everyone else comes down on this one.

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