Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

Your Life Sentence by CC Finlay
The Red Bride by Samantha Henderson

I really hate those types of articles that start “As some one once said...” and then go on to offer some really famous quotation - “As someone once said, ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet...’” I mean honestly! If they don’t know that, how can you trust anything else they have to say? 

Was it him?
It is therefore with some annoyance that I begin this week’s short fiction Wednesday with, “As someone once said, drama is conflict.” Was it Brecht? Was it Shaw? Was it Chekhov? Gah! It doesn’t turn anything up on google... maybe it’s just a truism from days gone by? Maybe it was Aristotle? Answers on a postcard please! 

Anyway, whoever it was, it's good point. Fiction thrives on conflict: some one has something that some one else wants, and the story hangs on how they about getting it, or not getting as the case may be. There are others sorts of fiction, I suppose, that can work in the hands of someone that knows what they’re doing or strikes it lucky, but the vast majority of fiction uses this very simple formula (usually, as Sam Goldwyn observed, hinging on the matter of fighting or fucking).  

I was thinking about this recently when I reviewed Shine, the anthology of optimistic sci fi. In the introduction to that, the editor Jetse de Vires says that 90% of written SF is pessimistic in some way. I have a few problems with that observation, but the main one, I think, is that it ignores the uncredited observation above: drama is conflict, and setting up a hostile environment provides an author with a quick and easy conflict. Since SF is very much based around settings, and dramatising the point of difference in those settings (the novum, as some academics call it) then introducing it as a point of conflict makes creative sense. It’s not that SF is pessimistic, as such, but that a dark and pessimistic setting is more dramatic. 

This guy?
Well, that’s a long intro to this weeks stories, which both use conflict to dramatise their settings. The Red Bride by Samantha Henderson, published at Strange Horizons, starts off as a folk tale as told by an old servant to their charge, but as the story progresses the violent background to what we’re reading is slowly revealed. 

The implied setting, sketched in with great economy and effect, reminded me a little of Gwyneth Jones’s Spirit. The Var in this story made me think of the strange creatures of Sigurt’s world, where Bibi is kidnapped and imprisoned: they seem to have a similar violent streak and there’s also the contested question of common human/alien origins. 

The Var, however, have clearly been enslaved by the humans, and this is the story of a slave race revolting. It’s an apocalypse, in fact, scorching the Earth clean to allow fresh growth. The Red Bride is a kind of avenger, coming out in her race’s time of need to help them. 

The story is also, and most importantly in regards to SF, a description of an alien race, with an alien culture and life cycle. Henderson infuses the servant’s narration and the uprising of the slaves with details of the way these creatures live - she’s dramatising her novum. Yes, it’s a dark tale, but without that darkness, there would be no drama here.

Maybe this guy?
Your Life Sentence by C C Finaly (published at Futurismic) is a different type of story, but uses the same trick of a dark setting to dramatise its idea. In this case it’s a classic “if this goes on” tale, written, I suspect, in response to this news story about the state of Utah criminalising “wilful” abortion. 

If I’m right about that, I have to say that I admire Finlay’s ability to get such an effective story out so quickly. Something like that would have to brew for months in my dope-encrusted brain cells, and would then stagger out without half the focused rage of this piece. (Given that he’s an American, though, maybe he’s known this was on the cards for a while.)

Read this one and feel your gorge rising. It’s a great example of highly charged political SF that left me filled with righteous indignation - and that’s one of the reasons I finally felt a little uncomfortable with this story.
Just to reiterate before I clarify what I’m talking about, this is a terrific, heart-felt story that argues from the side of the angels. At the end, it’ll leave you with a warm tear in your eye, and that kind of turbulent catharsis that great fiction aspires to.


Or maybe... nah!
It’s propaganda. It’s very clear, and emotive propaganda. It manipulates us emotionally and quite deliberately excludes the middle in the arguments it makes. That’s well and good when it’s done on the side of right (as it is here) but these same techniques are used elsewhere in the name of far less salubrious causes - and indeed I’d be willing to bet that similarly emotive scenarios were being bandied around the pulpits of Utah when their toxic little law was passed. 

Maybe this is the kind of story that de Vries had in mind when he talked about his 90%? I’d still say he’s wrong on that - most written SF looks like right wing power fantasies to me - but again, I think that part of the way that SF engages with ideas is through setting up these stark conflicts. 

If anything, and just to contradict my points above regarding propaganda, maybe there’s not quite enough of this type of writing these days. I admire the craft and the passion here, and I like to think I’d be first up there storming the barricades with Finlay (more likely I’d be cheering him on while watching TV in my watery lefty suburban way) but I do worry about what happens when you match this power of storytelling with bad wrong mind thoughts.

1 comment:

  1. Surely Michael Winner's quotation would be "Dinner is conflict"?

    And an actual attributed Shaw quote for you "You must not suppose, because I am a man of letters, that I never tried to earn an honest living".


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