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”.)

Hugo Nominee: “Truth”

Last of the novellas. The usual round-up:

Abigail Nussbaum:

Like “The Political Prisoner,” Robert Reed’s “Truth” uses an SFnal premise to tell a mundane story about present day ills, but with a great deal more success. Carmen, a high ranking CIA interrogator, arrives at a top secret facility deep under the Kansas prairie to take over the interrogation of Ramiro, the US government’s most dangerous and valuable prisoner. Captured while crossing the Canadian border with a trunk full of uranium, Ramiro has revealed himself, through knowledge and quirky biology, to be a time traveler, a member of an army of ‘temporal jihadists’ bent on world domination. The story’s action is mainly a series of mind games Carmen plays, not only with Ramiro but with her superiors and underlings, through which Reed paints a portrait of a world in the grips of a terrifying, dangerous paranoia, and which has been driven–in part, but not solely, due to the threat represented by Ramiro–to even greater excesses and atrocities than our own. “Truth” is obviously Reed’s reply to the 24 scenario of a terrorist who knows the location of a ticking time bomb, but his answer isn’t as simple as decrying torture so much as it is to suggest that absolute truth is inherently unknowable, that neither the most brutal torture nor the most delicate psychological probing can lead to a full comprehension of another person’s character and motives (an observation which is nicely, and for the most part subtly, reinforced by recurring references to quantum phenomenon).

Given this obvious bias, the true nature of Ramiro’s mission is pretty easy to guess (though the story’s final twist took me completely by surprise), but his interactions with Carmen, and her bitter observations about the state of her world, are so intense and well crafted that the inevitable ending is a pleasure to get to. Unlike Finlay, Reed isn’t afraid to let his main character be stupid or wrong, and unlike Maxim Nikomedes, or, indeed, her own bosses, Carmen doesn’t assume that her experience and jadedness give her a complete understanding of her world–an understanding which, Reed concludes, is impossible. It is probably no coincidence that Carmen is a woman in a male-dominated environment, surrounded by men who believe that they can achieve, or already possess, such an understanding, and who keep hammering away at Ramiro and making short-sighted decisions based on the information he gives them and the belief that they can act intelligently on it, instead of stepping back and looking at the big picture. “Truth” is a clever, and surprisingly vicious, skewering of this illusion of control.

Lois Tilton:

Carmen is the interrogator of a very secret prisoner who has admitted to being part of a jihadi group from the future, sent to destroy the twenty-first century world. For twelve years, ever since he was discovered with the makings of a nuclear device, the resources of the US have been devoted to the search for the other terrorists, to find them before it is too late. This, we learn, was the secret reason for the US invasion of Iraq, for the bombing of Iran. The prisoner claims he has no information about the plans of the other terrorists, no knowledge of where they will strike next. Now the original interrogator has committed suicide, and the narrator is brought in as his replacement, to discover the truth that drove him to his death.

No one had ever predicted ‘temporal jihadists,’ as Abraham’s agents were dubbed. Uranium-toting terrorists suddenly seemed like a minor threat by comparison. Collins’ first interview resulted in a secret and very chaotic panic roaring through Washington. Black ops funds were thrown in every direction. Ground was broken for half a dozen high-security prisons scattered across the world. But then some wise head inside Langley decided that if time travelers were genuine, then there was no telling what they knew, and if they were inspired, there were probably no limits to what they could achieve.

This is a chilling story made even more horrific by its connection to recent events in our own world. The fact that it has been told before, in different ways, does not blunt its impact; rather, it confirms its truth.

Rich Horton:

Robert Reed’s “Truth” is explicitly a post-9/11 story. In a way that makes it as fresh a story as any on this list, if we accept “True Names” as a riff on an older story, and if we acknowledge that for all its extravagance and color “The Tear” is working out SFnal models that have bee around for quite some time. (Though in “Truth” we still see a dialogue with older SF — something always present, seems to me, with Robert Reed, one of the field’s great assimilators (compare Robert Silverberg) — here I did think at times of James Blish’s VOR, for example.) The story is told by an investigator come to a secret US installation to take over the interrogation of a man help prisoner since just after 9/11, when he was found trying to smuggle nuclear material into the United States. He has certain remarkable characteristics and knowledge that have convinced some that his story is true : he is part of an invasion team from the future, trying to remake — or punish — history. Most of the novella is spent considering the question of the “truth” of what this prisoner is saying, and wondering how he or his cohorts might be affecting the decaying situation outside the installatio holding the prisoner.

What’s good — very intelligently written — and well written, too. And philosophically and politically thought-provoking. What didn’t quite work — somehow I was never quite convinced. Which is an unfair point, doesn’t tell you much, but it’s what I felt. Perhaps its a reaction to the current economic crisis, but the situations displayed in “Truth” somehow seemed almost irrelevant to me. And, as Abigail Nussbaum said, while I was reading it I was quite impressed, somehow the story didn’t quite stick with me.

Bottom line: in very different ways, two other Reed stories impressed me more than “Truth” last year, though neither got a Hugo nomination. (These are “Five Thrillers” and “Character Flu”.) Good as “Truth” is, I feel it falls short of greatness.

John DeNardo:

Robert Reed’s “Truth” is a claustrophobic take on time travel and terrorism. Most of the scenes are interrogations between Carmen, a top-level CIA agent, and Ramiro, the prisoner who claims be to one of a large group of terrorists from the future. Ramiro’s claim bears out; his biological makeup uses unexplained tech and he is able to predict astronomical events and horrendous catastrophes. Carmen’s job is to learn about Ramiro’s fellow temporal jihadists and their mysterious unseen leader, Abraham. It’s a tough job since Ramiro has already withstood years of torture. The story’s claustrophobia stems from the setting: a secret underground government facility with multiple layers of tightened security. It’s here that the story unravels, as experienced interrogator and crafty prisoner play what they see as a game – one person hiding the truth, the other looking for it. In a sense, the observing reader gets to play along as well, making this story an engaging mystery, though a bleak one to be sure.

Russ Allbery:

The second novella of the issue, this is apparently a companion piece to the earlier “Veritas” (which I haven’t read). It’s about a time traveller who has been captured by the government and the investigation into what his plans are, in a near-future world torn by war after US military action in Iraq progressed to attacks on Iran and a nuclear war between Pakistan and India. But more directly, it’s a story about interrogation.

The heroine of the story is one of the top government interrogators, newly sent to the top-secret underground facility holding the apparent time traveller to take over from the previous interrogator. The meat of the story is a beautiful tracing of her methodical approach to the problem, her dogged unwinding of the mysteries of this man and of her predecessor, and the slow working out of what is actually going on. It’s one-on-one psychological combat and is thoroughly engrossing. As always for a Reed story, there are some excellent twists, including a profoundly rewarding one at the end. The best story of the issue, and one of the better ones by Reed in a while. (8)

Val Grimm:

Just as the reality of Robert Reed’s “Old Man Waiting” (Asimov’s, August 2008) evolved as the reader moved through the story toward the last-minute twist, so too “Truth” takes most of its motion from disclosure, although at times the intricate twists and turns of fake outs and minor revelations feels more like a drawn-out striptease than a plot. Like Sanderson’s piece, this is a glamorous spy story, one where the characters have remarkable abilities, although in this case those skills are intellectual, emotional, and strategic rather than physical or psionic. There isn’t much combat happening onscreen (plenty of it off screen) except for the symbolic, chess-like duel between our protagonist and her opponent, Ramiro. Although it’s thick with references to the “War on Terror” and the apparatus thereof, and some of its point is the danger of embarking on that sort of war, literal or figurative, this piece feels nostalgic, with references to Moscow and the appearance of an underground military facility. Perhaps this is merely an artifact of the parallels Reed draws between the “Cold War” and his series of hot flashes…for most of the time his world is very American, very unbalanced politically speaking (China is crippled by a civil war). Then again, the sophistication of the “bad guys,” as I will call them, reads more like a Gorkyesque top-down conspiracy than a grassroots insurgency. Interesting, nostalgic, occasionally slow and briefly didactic, but nonetheless engrossing.

And for the last time, over to you. How does it compare to the other nominees?

Reminder: “Truth” discussion and short story schedule

And so we reach the last of the Hugo-nominated novellas, Robert Reed’s “Truth”, which you can read online here. I’ll be travelling on Sunday afternoon, so the post will go up on Sunday evening.

And as a reminder, the schedule to get through the remaining short stories before the voting deadline (“Exhalation” having been already covered):

17 June: “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson
21 June: “Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick
24 June: “Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal
28 June: “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick

On Reviewing, Round 63

It may appear to verge on the perverse for me not to have mentioned this conversation until now; in fact it’s down to a combination of lack of time and, for once, not having much to add. But for those who haven’t seen it yet, here are as many of the iterations of the latest discussion about reviewing as I’ve been able to track down:

  • A new group blog has launched, Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics, which, as this Mind Meld at SF Signal explores, initially had a slightly confused remit. Quoth Andy Remic: “I chose the name “Ethics” not because I wanted to explore the ethical contexts of novels or films, but because I wanted to make an ethical stand against the motherfuckers who, to my mind, are systematically ruining the SFFH genres”.
  • Martin Lewis asks who are the motherfuckers?
  • Jeff VanderMeer and Evil Monkey comment
  • So do David Moles and Cheryl Morgan; other participants in the SFFE blog show up in the comments to the latter post.
  • Meanwhile! Kathryn Cramer responds to the discussion of “mostly positive” reviews policies that took place here a couple of weeks ago by explaining why she feels that what people like about books is more interesting than what they don’t; and posts one of David Hartwell’s NYRSF editorials from a few years ago on the same sort of topic.
  • Elsewhere (well, at Strange Horizons), Martin Lewis reviews Mark Charan Newton’s new book, Nights of Villjamur, and an impassioned discussion about the merits (or otherwise) of his negative review ensues
  • Abigail Nussbaum’s summary of and commentary on the discussion to this point
  • James Nicoll makes several livejournal posts springing off some of the above links
  • Karen Burnham reviews Jay Lake’s Green at SF Signal and adds a disclaimer about her connections with the author and his work; further discussion follows
  • Larry at OF Blog of the Fallen dissects Martin’s review, and adds commentary on the whole discussion
  • Hal Duncan offers two typically thorough posts: Ethics and Enthusiasm — featuring a taxonomy of criticism! — and More on Critique, in which he responds to comments on the first post by Abigail and by Matt Cheney. To the extent that I’ve digested them (we’re talking well over 10,000 words, here), I agree with the first more than with the second, but both are worth investing time in.

And that — I think — brings us current, except perhaps to note that I have my own negative review at Strange Horizons today, of Nancy Kress’s Steal Across the Sky; and that it has become apparent to me that by selecting Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold as the next book I’ll review for SH, I’ve made something of a rod for my own back. On the one hand, Strange Horizons‘ well-known bias against epic fantasy means I’m bound to hate it; on the other hand, Strange Horizons‘ equally well-known pro-UK bias means that I’m obliged to love it. Bet you can’t wait to see how I thread that needle.

UPDATE: The ethicists are now the enthusiasts.

Hugo Nominee: “True Names”

This week’s story. This week’s commentary:

Abigail Nussbaum:

A literary collaboration between Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum seems, at first glance, like a dubious proposition, but I congratulate whoever it was–the authors themselves, or Fast Forward editor Lou Anders–who came up with the idea, because the result of this marriage, “True Names,” is a complete triumph. As I said in my Hugo ballot post, it combines both authors’ strengths and favorite topics–Rosenbaum’s penchant for surrealism and literary pastiche, not to mention the basic building blocks of his Hugo-nominated short story “The House Beyond Your Sky,” and Doctorow’s fascination with the way that social structures and conventions both shape and are shaped by politics and economics, and with post-singularity concepts of self (of course, now that I’ve spelled out which parts of the story I think were contributed by each author, it’ll probably turn out that I’ve got them completely backwards). This, no doubt, is to make “True Names” sound extremely strange, which it is, dizzyingly so at points. But it is also, fundamentally, a swashbuckling adventure, complete with sneering villains, threats of world domination and destruction, doomed love, a prince on the run from his guardian with his wise tutor, and battles to the death. In what I assume is a sly meta-reference, near the middle of the story one of the characters performs in a play which recasts her life into its canonical form, and has her swinging a cutlass on the deck of a pirate ship.

“True Names”‘s actual setting, however, can best be described as, but is probably much more complicated than, a computer. In the vastness of space, two entities, Beebe and Demiurge, fight for dominance and for the raw material they can convert into processing power. Demiurge is monolithic, all its subroutines guided by a single agenda. Beebe is chaotic, with different sub-entities taking on lives of their own and vying for control, spawning new and subtly altered copies of themselves on a whim. And, it soon becomes apparent, both Beebe and Demiurge have the power to model each other, and sometimes the whole universe, in order to predict their enemies’ actions. We end up, therefore, with several different iterations of each character, only some of whom exist in the ‘real’ world. Like “The Tear,” then, “True Names” is a story about individuality in a world in which personality is easily edited and copied, but Rosenbaum and Doctorow pull off the trick McDonald wasn’t quite up to, and easily distinguish between different versions of their characters while maintaining a coherent core for each one. This is, however, far from their greatest accomplishment with this story, which on top of being a genuinely exciting adventure is both clever and cleverly put together–the sheer mass of information required to fully grasp the rules under which the characters operate is nearly overwhelming, but Rosenbaum and Doctorow not only make it easy for us to learn their world, they make it fun. Perhaps most importantly, it is the only story on the ballot which feels truly, meaningfully SFnal, telling a familiar story in a setting that is so strange that it forces us to see that story through new eyes.

Mentatjack:

I’ve not done my quota of lists on this blog, so here are my reasons why True Names is AWESOME.

  1. It’s short. It can be read in a sitting or listened to over the course of a couple commutes.
  2. It’s not TOO short. It’s a novella, if you’re frustrated with me being vague.
  3. It’s written like Bach’s inventions. Simple components combined and recombined into beautiful complexity—simple is relative, of course.
  4. Quantum Computers Rock!
  5. Modeling Universes is FUN
  6. Sock puppets are almost as cool as muppets. Actually the sock puppet might be cooler if it was a goddess
  7. Galactic battles SO enormous they can only be described via metaphor.
  8. Go is the best game ever, and the game played in this story is one of the most seamlessly integrated I’ve ever encountered in a science fiction story.
  9. It introduced me to Ben Rosenbaum … actually the name sounded familiar. I’ve heard 3 of his stories on Escapepod. If you like True Names you’ll dig “The House Beyond Your Sky,” (or vice versus) and the other two stories, while VERY different, are quite spectacular. I’m totally grabbing a copy of The Ant King and Other Stories when it’s released.
  10. It got me excited enough to write this list, and I haven’t even finished listening it. I’ll update this after I finish listening to it on my drive to work.
  11. update: I finished this on the way to work. So, imagine reality is the reality of The Matrix and then imagine there are other realities competing for computation. That’s the simple idea I mentioned in point 3, and Cory and Ben layer it upon itself beautifully. It’s wild having events happen at the scale of galaxies, yet still be a very personal tale. I could see that the abstract convolutions could turn a few people away, but if you can follow a Tarantino flick, then you’ll be able to follow as the secrets of the universe reveal their secrets and their secrets’ secrets.

Rich Horton:

The longest and arguably most ambitious of these entries is “True Names” by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum, nearly a novel according to Hugo rules. Perhaps this is a new entry in Doctorow’s ongoing series of riffs on famous SF stories. It concerns a far-future set of civilizations, mostly living in virtual environments. (That being the main nod to Vernor Vinge’s famous model — otherwise there is less thematic connection to the predecessor stories than in Doctorow’s “I, Rowboat”, “I, Robot”, and “Anda’s Game”, and for all I know, it’s not really intended to be a Vinge riff.) One civilization is democratic, consisting of numerous entities vying for control, while the other is more or less totalitarian, ruled by a single strict program. The two polities battle across the Galaxy, not always noticing the threat of a third virtual environment, which seems lifeless but unstoppable. The plot involves computer program sex (sort of) and heroism, and questions about reality versus simulation — at multiple levels — and it’s fast-moving and interesting but for me it fell into the trap of excessive abstraction. I never quite believed in — nor always understood — what was going on. Nonetheless, it’s quite a thought provoking effort.

What’s good here — tons of imaginative ideas, lots of rigorous thought behind the setup. And an ironic and well thought out conclusion. What didn’t work for me — as I said, much of it simply seemed too abstract. Too much the authors telling us what we should think about what was going on rather than making us believe it. And, I’m not sure I understood everything. Which, I hasten to emphasize, is as much or more my fault than the authors’. Pace much discussion of Greg Egan’s Incandescence, there are some stories that demand a lot of their readers (in different ways for different stories). And it’s not a fair argument to say that the burden is entirely on the writers to make a story accessible to all readers, or even most. If a story is properly told in such a way that only a subset get it, that’s fine, particularly if telling it differently would ruin it. Heck, that’s the case for much of the SF genre when so-called “mundane” readers encounter us! That said, in all honesty, if the story didn’t work for me, I can’t vote it ahead of stories that did. But I respect those who did get it.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro:

Fast Forward 2‘s showy centerpiece is the novella “True Names” by Cory Doctorow & Benjamin Rosenbaum, presented in hyper-widescreen. This is a story so densely populated with “—al” ideas (ontological, epistemological, SFnal, computational, mythological, legal, cryptographical, take your pick) that it’s probably as close to actually being made of computronium as a contemporary SF story can be. Many of these ideas (those which I understood, or think I understood) tickled my brain and commanded my respect, and as an exercise in extreme imagination I found it impressive—but as a work of fiction it is the one piece in Fast Forward 2 that failed to keep me entertained or engrossed. “True Names” presents a Universe in which three highly advanced forms of AI, Beebe, the Demiurge and Brobdignag compete for computation and ideology. […] the power struggle between them, as experienced by the characters of Alonzo, Algernon, Paquette, Nadia and others, sometimes as emulations inside each other’s entity matrices, serves as the springboard for the novella’s central, and abstract, preoccupations. I found myself unable to develop any attachment for the characters or their simulations: the dialogue was too stultified with adolescent-sounding techno-avatar-isms like, “But Alonzo, she’s so hot!” and their behavior comprised more of wide-eyed naivete and sardonic posturing than any real emotion. This left me skating on the sheer and audacious profligacy of concepts. What I found was a beautiful museum collection, a magnificent display of pre-existing ideas arranged in fabulous geometries and twisted into pleasing, recombinant strategies of exuberance, only lacking the one arresting moment of originality that can take our breath away. This might seem like a strange claim on my part. Perhaps “True Names” is so Far Out, in setting, that I found myself not caring sufficiently about how Far Out it was. Not even the Solipsist’s Lemma could save me.

Paul Raven:

By dint of sheer size alone, the centrepiece of Fast Forward 2 is Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “True Names”, an implicit homage to Vernor Vinge’s seminal novella of the same title (often credited as being one of the first fictional appearances of a recognisable technological singularity as well as one of the earliest works to have a fully realised ‘cyberspace’ as its setting, three years prior to Gibson’s Neuromancer). No surprise, then, that it’s a crazy bells-and-whistles epic of big ideas that pits three different post-singular societies against each other on a galactic scale. Because of that, it’s sure to be the sort of story you love or hate; fans of Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes, Stross’s Accelerando and some of Doctorow’s own material are going to lap up the multiple iterations of the same characters, the nested and interlocking simulated realities, and the sheer ebullient geekery of the whole thing. I enjoyed “True Names” a great deal, but there’s a case to be made that the flux of characters and situations (and the firehose of ideas) could be hard reading for a reader more accustomed to conventional narratives; it might also have been a little shorter. But considered as an imaginative sensawunda geek-out, “True Names” raises the bar for the subgenre.