Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

As I've mentioend before, I just choose these stories in a kind of random way, surfing around various sites - often in a bit of hurry - until I find something that looks like it's going to be interesting and isn't too long or too short, and then print them out to read later, on the train or in bed or whatever. I'm surprise how often the stories I pick have similar or contrasting themes. Maybe I make the connections myself subconsciously, maybe they'd appear to connect whatever they were, or maybe the muses guide my hand, who can say? Whatever the cause, this week I have found two stories that deal with questions of the self and identity.

He Angles, She Refracts by Rob Vagle (from Heliotrope) could be fantasy or surrelism, but I think it skirts a fine enough line to a low-context far future SF tale in a pleasingly unfathomable future. In this story, we see the mind turned in on itself in extreme narcissism. In this world, it seems that some people,  perhaps the rich and indolent, care for nothing so much as apprehending their own perfected bodies in a series of mirrors. This is clearly portrayed as a weakness, a moral lapse, that leaves them vulnerable to malevolent seducers who steal their images.

There is some hope for escape shown through the lowly servers, who try and help the main character after she's seduced, but instead she turns to another, a man, who has been similarly robbed of his images. The possibility of connecting with another is there, but it's heavily implied that this is just another form of narcissism, with the two just using each other is reinforce their own delight in their physical beauty.

Vagle the captures the characters' self-regarding natures nicely. While the main character is somewhat obnoxious, we can still empathise with the pain and shock of being tipped out of her comfortable coccoon by the villainous seducer. We see how she's brought this on herself, but we still hope she finds a way out. The ending, with all its ambiguities, is satisfiyingly unsettling and has wider implications about relationships and what we want from those closest to us.

The Night Train by Lavie Tidhar (from Strange Horizons) is a solid piece of bio-tech future post-cyberpunk that aspires to something more than its exotic setting and crime story plot. The writing is extremely vivid, and seems to spring naturally from what I know of the seedier elements of South East Asia, gleaned from travel documentaries and Asian crime movies. Tidhar presents a particularly imaginative take on the transhumanist biotech future that includes extreme body modification and AIs slumming it in rented bodies in a kind of post-human equivalent of prostitution. This malleability of the body and plasticity of a more-than-human mind call into to question where we place the limits of the self if they no longer exist in the corporeal fles,h and the illusion of a constant consciousness is tested to the limit.

It's definitely a story of two parts, though - the pulpy gangland hit and the more intriguing relationship between the body guard Mulan Rouge and the AI (or downloaded human mind) Darwin's Choice. The thought prvoking stuff is wrapped around a rather self-conscious genre frame of cyber-punk hit girls and crime melodrama. Tidhar explicitly references Neuromancer in the opening line - "Her name wasn't Molly and she didn't wear shades, reflective or otherwise." - and Heinlein's Friday shortly thereafter (I don't know who Noi, Porn and Ping are, but they might well be similar references).

This made me consider another issue, that of quality. Short Fiction Wednesday isn't really in the business of qualitative reviews - I just want to draw your attention to stories that interest me and hopefully tempt you into reading them. I've got a lot invested in short fiction, as a reader and a writer, so I want to do my part to make sure the scene is healthy and diverse. However, I have been pondering which of these stories is better.

My gut says that the Tidhar story is better - it's imaginative and vivid, and almost reeks of the South East Asian streets it takes its inspiration from - but my head prefers the careful unity of Vagle's story. The slightly meta genre discussion lessens The Night Train, it's a distraction from the main business of the story that's not adequately enfolded into the thematic thrust. In Vagle's story, the business of the seducers is what triggers the change in the characters, but the gangland murder plot feels bolted on in Tidhar's story, as if it's something he felt he had to include. The business about Molly and Friday sounds apologetic, as if deep down he knows that the story he really wants to tell is the story of mulan Rouge and Darwin's Choice.

It's too much to expect perfection, I know, and I get fed up with the various review sites that do, where good books or stories are castigated for not being great, but in the case of The Night Train it's so close, and the author even seems aware of the problem, that I think it bears comment.

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