Short Story Club: “A Tulip for Lucretius”

Not much discussion about this story out in the wilds of the internet, or at least, not that I could find; just James:

As I can’t, as yet, put down my thought in a coherent sense, I’ll resort to lists. Please forgive me.

The downsides of the story in my opinion are:

— Large chunks of infodumpy-ness. It’s a short show, with a lot of tell.
— Complicated religious arguments. For someone not versed in religion, or even used to thinking about religion, it can be difficult to follow.

The upsides:

— It made me think!
— Some great ideas.

And Maureen:

So, is there too much crowding into this story? Is it actually going anywhere? Or is it suggesting that it all comes round again, no matter how far into the future you go? Human/post-human impulses being what they are, we/they inevitably pursue certain ideas, certain tracks, same thing, different version? Or is he suggesting that no matter how much you try to strip life of meaning in order to survive, in the end you need meaning in order to survive.

And I think that means I like this story, because it engages me intellectually in a way that most of the others so far haven’t. It is making me think about what I believe in. I’m not sure if that is something I actively demand of fiction, or rather, I’ve not been aware in the past that I demand that of fiction (and sometimes, shock, horror, I really do just want to be entertained) but this story seems to be inviting me to take up a discussion.

But I still think it has some structural problems.

Responses?

30 Responses to “Short Story Club: “A Tulip for Lucretius””

  1. Adam Roberts Says:

    I liked the opening; and the whole section from ‘In my early teens…’ through to ‘…left the Dominion for good’ is engaging enough (I especially like the narrator’s reaction to reading Lovecraft), But after that it becomes rather dessicated, and under-worked. Citing ‘the prisoner’s dilemma’ is not a substitute for actually dramatising or fleshing out the situation, and the final conflict reads as too bloodlessly schematic.

  2. Chance Says:

    But after that it becomes rather dessicated, and under-worked. Citing ‘the prisoner’s dilemma’ is not a substitute for actually dramatising or fleshing out the situation, and the final conflict reads as too bloodlessly schematic.

    Completely agree – I felt like he was rushing through the plot to get to the ending he wanted without developing the necessary story that might make it a satisfying arc.

    The best part about this story was that it got me to reread “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.”

  3. Niall Says:

    The best part about this story was that it got me to reread “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.”

    … which I have never read (and had never heard of before, in fact). What’s the relationship?

  4. Chance Says:

    This story is an homage to “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny – it’s one of his early classics. I recommend you run off and read it right away.

  5. Niall Says:

    This story is an homage to “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny

    Sorry, I got that much; I was asking for something a bit more specific. Particularly since I don’t have a copy of the story.

  6. Chance Says:

    You can read it on the internet. (I was deliberately not providing details because I think it’s more worth your time to read the Zelazny than the MacLeod.)

  7. Lois Tilton Says:

    Deliberately drawing a comparison between your own work and a classic is a risky move.

  8. Rich Horton Says:

    I think Niall’s next assignment (to himself, that is) should be to read THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME, VOLUME I from end to end.

    (I’m not saying it’s all great stuff, because it’s not — for instance, the Heinlein choice (“The Roads Must Roll”) is one of his weaker stories — but it’s all essential SF history stuff. And some is great. (For me, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is definitely one of the best.))

    As for MacLeod’s story, I wanted to like it, and I liked lots of it, but I too felt the ending stuff a letdown. I need to reread it to speak more coherently, though.

  9. Rich Horton Says:

    Though I must say I feel stupid in that it took me forever to figure out that MacLeod was riffing on “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”, even though both the title and the first line are pretty obvious hints … I did figure it out eventually, however.

  10. Matt Hilliard Says:

    Well, the story feels more like an outline in some places, but it’s got a lot more substance than some of the earlier stories we’ve done here. I enjoy SF that engages religious ideas, so the initial discussion of Calvinism and the main character’s conversion to atheism got me interesting. Unfortunately the rest of the story didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

    I have to say, if I hadn’t read some of MacLeod’s novels and known a bit about him, I’d suspect the main character was a religious person’s charicature of an atheist: sells his own soul on a whim, spends the trip masturbating (except when he breaks into the comm system), immediately shacks up with a random person he hardly knows, then attempts to incite genocide.

    The whole genocide thing at the end was the strangest part. The main character claims that using the Dominion’s own rules they should be put to death, but he does this through rhetorical handwaving. If the Dominion were actually master-race Nazis then his argument would make sense, but they aren’t. It’s not that MacLeod doesn’t understand the whole image of God business because the Catholic character does a decent job trying to explain it to the main character. Of course, in the next paragraph the main character says they didn’t commit genocide because they are genetically engineered to be better than humans, and again that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny: It doesn’t take genetic engineering to get a human revolution that doesn’t end in genocide.

    Glancing at it again, perhaps he advocates genocide to scare the authorities enough to cause a crackdown that will in turn spark a rebellion? If so he never spells it out, and seems to think he won the exchange with Declan on logical grounds.

    The villains here are part of a long, hallowed SF tradition of lumping together everyone the author doesn’t like into a single society, then having a main character who agrees with the author in every area destroy it. The Dominion is a strange combination of Puritains, antebellum plantation slavers, an Orwellian surveillance state, and (according to the main character at least) Nazis. Why does a society with nanomachines, AIs, and robots capable of assembling habitat domes need human servants of any kind? How did they get a tradition of servants in the first place, when that’s essentially extinct already today? Maybe this is explained in related works, since it’s been a couple years since I read the novels set in this universe, but I’m skeptical.

  11. Niall Says:

    And just to prove it’s not just references to old stuff I don’t get: there are novels set in this universe?

  12. Ted Says:

    Niall, you’d never even heard of “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” before?

    I’m speechless.

  13. Niall Says:

    Afraid so. Well, I may have come across reference to it, I suppose, but not so’s it stuck in my mind (evidently). Actually, come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve ever knowingly read a word of Zelazny. Remember, I’m a child of the British Boom …

  14. Matt Hilliard Says:

    I thought this is set in the “Fall Revolution” universe of “Star Fraction” et al. based on my extremely dim recollection of “Stone Canal” taking place on Mars and the way the narrative seemed to refer to other proper noun entities in an allusive way.

    However it looks like his recent work hasn’t involved that setting and he doesn’t mention any connection when he mentioned the story on his site, so I was probably wrong.

  15. Ted Says:

    The Stone Canal takes place on New Mars, a Mars-like planet in a distant solar system.

  16. Abigail Says:

    Not much to add here. I agree with others who have noted that this is the meatiest of all the stories we’ve discussed, mainly because it takes the trouble to worldbuild which even previous science fiction stories hadn’t done, preferring to take a more intimate look at a single SFnal McGuffing. On the other hand, James is right that this is an extremely talky story, and especially given how dramatic the events it describes are it seems like a very poor choice for MacLeod to tell about them rather than show them.

    Matt says “if I hadn’t read some of MacLeod’s novels and known a bit about him, I’d suspect the main character was a religious person’s charicature of an atheist,” which amused me because I’d forgotten that the story was by MacLeod till I checked the comments here, at which point its antipathy to religion made a lot more sense. I’d call the narrator anything but a caricature of an atheist – he is, in fact, a failed atheist, because the terms in which he pursues his crusade of rationalism are explicitly religious. On the other hand, the story is more than a little ambivalent towards pure rationalism, as demonstrated in the final paragraph, which views the desire to retrieve the body of a loved one as a moral failing.

    There’s some meat here, in other words, but the ideas aren’t sufficiently explored, and the style doesn’t inspire me to dig any deeper.

  17. Niall Says:

    this is the meatiest of all the stories we’ve discussed

    So if this is the case, why has it generated one of the slowest discussions? My slightly devil’s-advocate answer: because it lays everything out for you, there’s nothing suggestive about it.

    I enjoyed the story, though (like most?) I think the ending is somewhat weak, and mostly attribute that weakness to being a bit rushed. (I don’t think MacLeod is a natural short fiction writer; he’s had a few shorter pieces I like, but by and large I find his strengths are more apparent at novel length.) But it’s fairly transparent. It doesn’t really go anywhere in my head, doesn’t unpack or open up. The Dominion is Bad, and the Synths are Good — basically, though as you say, the last paragraph is a bit ambivalent. Although, on that:

    On the other hand, the story is more than a little ambivalent towards pure rationalism, as demonstrated in the final paragraph, which views the desire to retrieve the body of a loved one as a moral failing.

    Surely it views — or encourages us to view — the feeling that the desire to retrieve the body of a loved one is a moral failing as a moral failing, not the desire itself?

  18. Lois Tilton Says:

    I don’t regard this as a moral failing so much as a failing of rationalism as the narrator conceives it. Which suggests to me that despite all the talk talk talk, the narrator really hasn’t given a lot of thought to materialism and rationalism and their implications.

    The problem that I find with the ending is that while we are told that the narrator loves, we never see or feel this love. The narrator’s encounters with his lover are primarily occasions of infodump, more scenes of talking, with no evidence in the text of what these two people mean to each other, their emotional bond. Only in the final paragraph – “Oh, by the way, I loved this other person.”

  19. Abigail Says:

    Niall:

    Surely it views — or encourages us to view — the feeling that the desire to retrieve the body of a loved one is a moral failing as a moral failing, not the desire itself?

    Yes, sorry, that was an awkwardly worded sentence. The narrator views the desire to retrieve Geneva’s body as a moral failing, which is meant to indicate a different kind of moral failing to us, one that calls his beloved rationalism into question.

    it’s fairly transparent. It doesn’t really go anywhere in my head, doesn’t unpack or open up

    I can’t help but notice that in your defense of even the most reviled stories in this series you’ve consistently suggested alternate or ironic readings and the existence of unreliable narrators, so I’m wondering what sets this story apart.

  20. Niall Says:

    Charming way of putting it. From my point of view, your readings are the “alternate” ones, after all. :-p But my only answer is the one I just gave — I can’t find anything below the surface of this one. I can’t see any suggestion that the narrator is unreliable, nor can I see what reading the narrator as unreliable gets us. Can anyone else?

  21. Abigail Says:

    From my point of view, your readings are the “alternate” ones, after all

    Fair enough – sorry if that came off as snide. But you have been pretty consistent about rejecting face-value readings of previous stories. And clearly the narrator is unreliable – as you yourself say, the final paragraph brings into questions his conviction and moral certainty, and undermines the anti-religion slant of the rest of the story.

  22. Niall Says:

    OK, well, we disagree somewhat after all, since it would never have occurred to me to describe the story as pro- or anti-religion in the round. One of the things I like about it, actually, is something I thought was well-done in The Night Sessions, which is that religion is treated as another kind of political system as much or more than it is a belief system; and that it’s specific. So obviously the Dominion is mad, but that clearly doesn’t mean that, eg, the Catholic church is. The ending just reinforces that, to my mind — it doesn’t undermine an anti-religion slant, because there’s no such slant to undermine, it just confirms that adherence to different systems always has benefits and costs, and the advantage of increased rationality in this particular situation is (not unexpectedly) balanced by a disadvantage in terms of disapproval of emotional responses that we would consider … well, perhaps not healthy, but part of the normal human continuum. The story’s even-handedness is one of the reasons I say it leaves nowhere else to go; it just is what it is.

  23. Matt Hilliard Says:

    I guess I can see the last paragraph as a bit of a critique of rationalism, although I’m still a little skeptical. When I was reading the story I was too distracted by the (bizarre in my opinion) preceding line “We are slightly more rational than the human…” since there’d been no discussion of any real differences in the way Synths think. The main character held his rationalist opinions before he became a Synth, after all. He seems to identify the Dominion with “humans” as if that’s the full spectrum of human thought. Maybe that’s true in the somewhat post-apocalyptic future he’s ultimately found himself in, but it wasn’t for most of his life, so it seems odd to me.

    I guess my issue here is that at the very end of the story the main character seems to suddenly talk about everything in, well, racial terms, Synths vs. human, and frankly from the evidence in the story this isn’t a very rational distinction to make. The Catholic character argues that they are all “close enough” to human, and while he appeals to faith instead of reason I think there’s a pretty easy argument to be made on reason alone here. At any rate the main character hand-waves this away and talks about genocide instead. Hmm.

    It would be neat if the story showed a proud, freethinking atheist unexpectedly shoved into circumstances of racial segregation and having that poisonous environment corrupt his thinking until he can’t stop seeing things in those terms, even though theoretically he ought to know better, leading to a genocidal uprising…but while the beginning and end of that story is here, the middle is absent, so it obviously wasn’t intended.

  24. Matt Hilliard Says:

    Also, regarding what Niall said, while not a ferociously anti-religion story the way some SF stories can be, I think the Catholic characters are present simply to be shown up by the main character. He spends the early part of the story being the coolest guy in the room, scores rhetorical points every time they discuss anything, and then there’s the fact that these bumbling religious people have been trying to stop the oppression for twenty-three years and achieved absolutely nothing. The swaggering main character shows up and instigates an ultimately successful uprising in a couple weeks.

  25. charlene Says:

    The best part about this story was that it got me to reread “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.”

    Wow. (Though I’d heard of the story, I’d never read it before now.) I’ve been lurking about and haven’t had much to say before now, but I had to de-lurk to say that the Zelazny was absolutely wonderful, and reading it after the MacLeod really highlights all the structural problems with the latter (which was probably not MacLeod’s intent, but that’s what he gets for inviting comparison to a classic).

  26. David Moles Says:

    I think it’s more worth your time to read the Zelazny than the MacLeod.

    What Chance said.

  27. Martin Says:

    Okay, well I will definitely be reading ‘A Rose for Ecclesiastes’.

    This is an upside down triangle. It starts off broad and detailed and I was pretty engaged but, as Adam says, it becomes “dessicated and under-worked” and by the end it has reached a single point: Ken MacLeod really, really wishes he had been able to take part in a revolution.

  28. Ken MacLeod Says:

    Ken MacLeod really, really wishes he had been able to take part in a revolution.

    I really, really don’t.

  29. Short Story Club « Torque Control Says:

    […] “A Tulip for Lucretius” by Ken MacLeod [discussion] […]


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