Hugo Nominee: “The Tear”

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

Rich Horton:

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

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

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

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

Abigail Nussbaum:

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

John DeNardo:

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

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

Down Memory Lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reminder: “The Tear” discussion

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

London Meeting: Jaine Fenn

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

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

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

Hugo Nominee: “The Political Prisoner”

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

Charlie Anders at io9:

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

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

Rich Horton:

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

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

Jason Sanford:

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

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

Ian Sales:

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

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

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

Aliette de Bodard at The Fix:

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

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

Russ Allbery:

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

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

Lois Tilton at IROSF:

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

So: any other comments?

Mr H & Mr H discuss The City & The City

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


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

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

What did you think?



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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Reminder: “The Political Prisoner” discussion

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