Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

Well, I'm a little constrained this week, because we have a guest and I am thus typing this on the lap top on the dining room table while my wife and her niece watch TV. I've always felt a little constrained writing "on display" in this way. I don't know why, it's not like I do the voices or anything, I guess I just have a kind of kiwi jeezwhadarya reaction. So forgive me if I come across as a little stilted this week. However, I've got a couple of good stories to share, so just ignore them and let's get cracking.

First up is Yellow Card Man by Paolo Bacigalupi, available from Nightsahde books as a free download, a teaser for Bacigalupi's collection Pump Six and Other Stories. This story clearly takes place in the mellieu of his novel Wind Up Girl (which I haven't read). Building up a novel setting in this way is not that unusual in SF. It's a little different from the "fix up" process that was so common years ago - Asimov constructed the Foundation stories from a series of stories in this way, and the way Bradbury bult up the Martian Chronicles, less a gradual accrestion and more a flexing of muscles.

Bruce Sterling has done this a couple of times, with the Maker stories that fed into the novel Schismatrisx, and the character Leggy Starlitz who later turned up in the novel Zeitgeist. William Gibson has a few Sprawl stories - Johnny Mnemoinc, eg - and I'm sure Alistair Reynold's space operas came about in a similar way, and ... hm, I'm struggling to think of other examples now. Feel free to chip in with a comment!

Anyway, this is a terrific story of refugees struggling to survive in futuristic Bangkok. There's a very strong sense of place in this story, and Bacigalupi does a magnificent job of evoking the heat and misery of the streets. The daily battle for survival provides an irresistable forward motion, a story that resonates with the history of the twentieth century. This could be the story of White Russians in aris, Jews in New York, Vietnamese in Sydney or Afghanistanis or Iranians in London.

Tranh was once a wealthy businessman  in Malaysia who is now humiliated from having to grub in the dirt to survive and virtually beg for scraps from those he previously spurned. He's haunted by the violence that preceded his exile and the the turn of the wheel of fortune that has seen him brought low, but hasn't quite exhausted the last of his ambition.

Next up is the first story in the July issue of Lightspeed magazine, No Time Like the Present by Carol Emshwiller. This story has a more traditional feel, a certain Bradbury-like feeling of old timey American youth culture. It's hard to place the time exactly - it feels like the fifites, though, and the arrival of strange new people suggests the kind of lessons about intolerance that feels a lot like a SF story from that era.

There's more going on here than that, of course. It's also quite a sweet coming of age story (shades of Bradbury again) and hints at troubles with the environment and other darker messages. Of course, at its heart it's a very trad time travel story (it's not really giving anything away) that will satisfy those of us who still enjoy the old tunes!

There was some discussion over on the Torque Control about Lightspeed and whether it was really taking chances and "pushing the envelope" as its blurb suggests. Without making any comment on the story singled out in that discussion, Lightspeed does so far - after two months - look like quite a trad venue, and Emshwiller's story does nothing to dispel that impression.

The blurb suggests variety, and it's perhaps too early to say whether they're going to push the envelope or not. There is nothing wrong with trad stories, and I feel that the desire to burn the old genre to the ground that surfaces from time-to-time is generally misdirected. Lazy and tired writing are legitimate targets, but the goal is always to write "great stories about characters that I care about," as David Barr Kirtley eloquently put it in the discussion over there on Torque control.

If you look at all the angry, millennial SF movements - the silver age satirists like Harrison, Vonnegut and Dick, the New Wave in the 70s, the cyber-punks - they were all aimed at flabby, lazy, self-satisified stages in the genre's development. I'd say the insular nature of SF fandom positively encourages this slide into self-congratulatory blah just as it breeds these little pockets of cankerous resistance from time-to-time. In fact, I'd say that the whole idea of cankerous pocket of resistance is now past its time - the mundane movement and the Shine anthology looked like attempts to create these types of movements, and they both seemed horribly deliberate and self-satisfied to me. (Perhaps the difference being that these were attempts to create them, rather than crystallising moments that brought diverse new generations together.)

I'm well past the age where I'm interested in shocking people or being shocked, or where I care if an idea is new or not. I've been shocked enough these days, and literature, of any flavour, is not  a kind of technology that improves over the years. We can still thrill to the Foundation series or the robot stories, or the stories of Bradbury at his peak; we can still read Dickens and Feilding and Shakespeare and Chaucer. Great stories about characters we care about - that doesn't change and no matter how far the envelope is pushed or not, that is always a constant.

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