Some 2009 short fiction
Reviewed by Niall Harrison
12 March 2010
You don't have to read very much science fiction to become familiar with dilemmas like this:
. . . a calmness descended upon me. It was very simple. That was the price I must pay, if I wanted to free myself. I thought back to the option of calling for help. I could keep my foot, and stay on Earth. Or I could lose my foot, and go to the stars.
SF writers do love their Cold Equations dilemmas: stories in which some combination of circumstances force a Hard Choice. Note that the choice is not hard because the competing options are complex. Rather, it's hard because the right answer is very clear, but carries a high cost. Push the girl out of the airlock. Chop off your foot.
Such clarity is almost always artificial, which means it can be argued with, as even (or especially) Tom Godwin's original "The Cold Equations" (1954) has been, many times. But fantasies of rationality have their place, I think. Like many other kinds of SF story, they achieve their power through exaggeration, and through a conviction that even if holes can be poked in the scenario at hand, the seductive principle—that sometimes there really are immovable objects, or irresistible forces—will stand.
So what's interesting about Ian Creasey's "Erosion"—the story from which the above quote is taken, published in the October/November 2009 issue of Asimov's—is how it considers this sort of dilemma precisely as the product of a particular worldview. (It is, after all, a self-imposed dilemma.) The narrator is the grandchild of Jamaican migrants to England who, largely thanks to a rising sea level, is now feeling the urge to move elsewhere himself; but in his case elsewhere is off-world, and to survive at his destination he now wears a grey, surgically attached "exo-skin." It gives him access to an expanded sensory range, and it can record and filter everything he experiences. It makes him stronger, it is protective, and it can be manipulated by thought. It is the exo-skin that allows the narrator to cut off his foot, after he falls from a cliff into the sea, the material irising closed through his leg, and allowing him to switch off the pain when he can bear it no longer. But, crucially, it's also the exo-skin—or rather, the worldview that the exo-skin allows him to adopt—that leads him into his dilemma in the first place.
That worldview may appear to be simple overconfidence:
Thinking about it, as the cold waves frothed around me, I realized that I'd wanted to push beyond the bounds of my old body, in order to prove to myself that I was worthy of going. [ . . . ] I'd felt compelled to test the augments to their limit.
But consider how unreal this passage actually is. The narrator is not relating his assessment of the situation now, looking back on it; he is relating the thoughts he had at the time, and the calm of them is eerie. He had, he tells us, realised that "the panic was a relic of my old body [ . . . ] If I could just compose myself, I'd get through this." And so he does, and he does—imperfectly, noting that it's pain, and not logic, that lends him the final impulse to act, but even so. He does the right thing. The rational thing.
The decision perhaps doesn't have the force it might. Up to this point, "Erosion" is only a thoroughly competent story—approachable, not-too-distinctive voice, enjoyable but unthreatening characterisation, that sort of thing. But there's a moment shortly after the narrator frees himself that makes "Erosion" a few notches more interesting.
I had failed. I'd exercised bad judgement, and ended up trapped and truncated. That was my entirely human brain, thinking stupidly.
Perhaps if my brain had been augmented, I would have acted more rationally.
The first paragraph is consistent with the story we think we have been reading to that point: a story of hubris. The second paragraph is also hubristic, but in a different way. In place of a physical arrogance, we're offered an intellectual arrogance (and the possibility that the narrator's mind has already been changed, by the act of changing his body). We're offered a belief in the possibility of a perfectly rational character: the sort of character who isn't afraid to beat the Cold Equations; the sort of character, perhaps, we become when we project ourselves into these stories; the sort of character who is, in a sense, inhuman. Creasey perhaps underscores his point a little too heavily—the title is enough; we don't need the narrator to explicitly tell us that "the line between man and machine seemed like the coastline around me: constantly being nibbled away"—but it's a point worth paying attention to, nonetheless, and taking into our readings of other stories.
Hard-choice heroes aren't SF's only archetype of the intellectual mind. One variant is the introverted dreamer, such as the mathematician protagonist of Vandana Singh's "Infinities." (I should note that the collection this story appeared in, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories, actually carries a copyright date of 2008. But if Gardner Dozois can cheat and pick it up for his best-of-2009—presumably on the grounds that as the collection was published in India late in 2008, he had no chance to see it in that year; although, awards junkies take note, I believe that means the story's best-of-year appearance makes it eligible for next year's Hugos—well, I'm happy to cheat as well.) Abdul Karim is presented to us as a small, thin, precise old man. A mathematics teacher, and a man for whom mathematics, and specifically the mathematics of infinity, offer a glimpse of something transcendent, not to mention a sense of purpose. "To look for infinity in an apparently finite world—what nobler occupation for a human being," the story asks us, "and one like Abdul Karim in particular?"
Against such visions of impossible perfection, the real world is inevitably found wanting, and at times the backdrop of "Infinities," riven by religious tension, seems as prosaically ugly as it gets. We're told how Abdul Karim threw himself into mathematics after the death of his sister in a riot; how his career was cut short when his father died; of the death of his wife; of his friendship with a Hindu writer, Gangadhar. And yet we're also told that Karim himself is only "vaguely aware that there are things going on in the world—that people live and die, that there are political upheavals, that this is the hottest summer yet." It’s not an enormous stretch to compare this tunnel vision to the sort of sensory selection available to Creasey’s narrator, who at one point filters out unpleasant smells in order to pretend a childhood haunt is unchanged. Both characters are taken away from the world.
You could argue that "Infinities" should be much less generous than it is to this presentation of rationality as an obsession, that it's naive to encourage us to be quite so sympathetic towards a man so distanced from everything around him. But the story does bring Abdul Karim down to earth in the end. (Does humanise him, you might say.) Gangadhar is fond of digging up quotations from famous mathematicians for his friend. On one occasion, he describes Jacques Hadamard's four stages of mathematical discovery: study, contemplation, insight, and then verification—"to subject that epiphany to the rigours of mathematical proof." In "Infinities," it's more a case of subjecting Abdul Karim's epiphany to the rigours of the world around him. He wakes, from a vision of other mathematical worlds, into chaos: "Smoke pours out of smashed store fronts, even as the rain falls. There is broken glass on the pavement [ . . . ] Soggy pages filled with neat columns of figures lie scattered everywhere." An intellectual response is insufficient to address this experience, "Infinities" says; there is "no place at all for the austere beauty of mathematics." And yet, we can be sure, an intellectual response remains. What do we do with it?
Another way of framing the two stories I've discussed so far is perhaps to suggest that SF is fascinated by the point at which humans become inhuman. But if that's true, it's surely also true that it's fascinated by the point at which the inhuman becomes human—most canonically, in the case of robots. Rachel Swirsky's "Eros, Philia, Agape" (Tor.com, March 2009) is a story about, among other things, the construction of emotions in the mind of what we might expect to be a purely rational being. It's also one of the best, and most moving, stories I read in 2009.
Here's the nub of the tale, a reflection by Lucian, our robot, as he throws some of his possessions into the sea:
He loved those things, and yet they were things. He had owned them. Now they were gone. He had recently come to realize that ownership was a relationship. What did it mean to own a thing? To shape it and contain it? He could not possess or be possessed until he knew.
Lucian is a created, owned being, given life to serve as the lover of a wealthy, lonely woman, Adriana. The story opens with the breakdown of the relationship—Lucian leaving Adriana—and then flashes back to explore how it originated and developed. This means, in large part, exploring how Lucian developed. His brain, we are told, begins as a constellation of un-integrated domains: "musician brain, mathematician brain, artist brain, economist brain, and more [ . . . ] each personality rising to dominance to provide information and then sliding away, creating staccato bursts of consciousness." Gradually, in response to direction from Adriana, Lucian becomes the person she wants him to be, and learns how to please her, even to anticipate her. Put another way, he falls in love. "Lucian loved Adriana as his mathematician brain loved the consistency of arithmetic, as his artist brain loved color, as his philosopher brain loved piety." Lucian learns to love Adriana's daughter, Rose, as well. And, inevitably, unexpectedly, Adriana falls in love with him.
Since we are introduced first to the integrated Lucian, and only slowly led to full understanding of what he is and how he developed, among other things the story is an extremely effective challenge to our understanding of what we mean when we say a character acts like a person. In what meaningful way is Lucian "less human" than Abdul Karim, or Creasey’s narrator? He clearly does function within the text as other than human—that is, the story asserts that his behaviour is in some sense "robotic," which must shape the expectations of anyone who’s read any other SF stories containing robots—but, equally clearly, his imaginative roots are not "real-world robot with some differences" but "real-world human with some differences." We're led to value Lucian's own subjectivity, to find it as meaningful as that of any other character in the story (or our own): to consider it "genuine."
And so, for all that it can be quite self-consciously symbolic at times, "Eros, Philia, Agape" strikes me as being a wonderfully open story, susceptible to many readings. There's a decent argument to be made, for instance, that Lucian's experience is genuine; considered in the context of a story like Greg Egan's "Reasons to be Cheerful" (pdf; 1999), the protagonist of which is given the ability to define the threshold of stimulus at which he experiences pleasure, "Eros, Philia, Agape" can be understood as part of an argument that we are all shaped by rules, so subjective experience is all that we have. We might compare Lucian's development to Rose's growth as a person, or to the experiences that shaped Adriana into the woman she is when we meet her.
On the other hand, it seems clear that once you know you're constrained by someone else's rules, you're not free. Lucian, thanks to his design, has an ability that Adriana and Rose lack: he can restore the plasticity of his brain, learn to be a whole being all over again. This is why he's leaving. His plan is to travel to a place as unaffected by human influence as possible, to reset his brain, and to see what native robot rules arise to shape his personality. Crucially, his way of "finding himself" is more extreme than a human's would be because his situation is more extreme—that is, because of the ways in which he is not human . . . and on the other other hand, being constrained by, and changed by, someone else's rules is a part of what being in love is all about, and we don't usually get much more of a choice about falling in love than Lucian does, nor any less of an obligation as a result. Seeing Lucian doting on Rose, Adriana thinks, "this must be the true measure of equality, not money or laws, but this unfolding desire to create the future together by raising a new sentience"; but it's a desire that we usually understand to imply a commitment.
All of which is to ask whether Lucian's choice is more comprehensible in emotional terms, or rational ones, or both (on the understanding that rational is not a synonym for emotionless), which is to ask what model of mind the story is encouraging us to hold. But note that whichever way you slice it, these are all human terms of reference. One of the most challenging aspects of the story, I think, is the way in which it establishes the relationship between mind and body: implicitly separate but inextricably linked. "Eros, Philia, Agape" encourages us to consider which of our own beliefs and desires might be the result of biology, and which might be the result of culture and experience.
Such considerations, as I’ve already hinted, bear on how we read and respond to stories. My interpretation of "Eros, Philia, Agape" is unavoidably shaped by my own experiences and beliefs, including those associated with being an avid SF reader. So, when I assert that it's a good story, a part of what I mean is that it's a story I find resonating with those experiences and beliefs. On the other hand, part of what I mean is that I believe it will resonate productively with a wide range of other peoples's experiences and beliefs, just in different ways; and part of what I mean is that I consider it to be deft, technically proficient work on a sentence-by-sentence level. "Eros, Philia, Agape" is an easy story to like and admire because all three of those assessments seem to point in the same direction. Judgements become much trickier when that's not true, as is the case with the remaining two stories I want to discuss.
It perhaps won't be a surprise to hear that both are prototypically "political" works of SF (although this is not to imply that the stories I've discussed so far cannot be read for their politics) and the first, at least, plays games with its narration to boot. Not for nothing is Daniel Abraham's "The Curandero and the Swede" (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 2009) subtitled "A Tale from the 1001 American Nights." It consists of nested stories. The initial narrator, an ostensibly liberal young man, is taking his fiancée to meet his more conservative family for the first time. After dinner, in "unspoken family tradition," he and the other men leave the women to their own devices, and the narrator ends up sitting on the porch, on a warm late August night, with his family's great storyteller, Uncle Dab.
In response to his nephew's abbreviated explanation of how he met his girlfriend—"When I got back from Macon, I took a job at Paul Keneson's place. Abby worked there too, and one thing just led to another"—Dab begins to tell the story of a man he once worked with, called the Swede. "Little fella, maybe five foot five. [ . . . ] Blackest man I have ever known." Shortly after the murder of Martin Luther King and, it is implied, partly in reaction to it, the Swede develops an unusual, clearly fantastical, skin condition: "Big, angry-looking lumps [ . . . ] Each one of them shifted and kicked like a baby." The Swede insists they don't hurt, or cause any discomfort, but his girlfriend, Corine, is unconvinced, and insists he see a doctor—who, of course, has no useful advice, or can't be bothered to offer any. "White doctors didn't care all that much about a Black fella's bumps." Matters come to a head when one of the bumps speaks; with a "Soft little voice, but full of hate," it calls Corine a cunt. She leaves, and the Swede starts looking around for a proper cure.
At this point Dab segues into a second story, ostensibly about a trucker the Swede knows, but really about the spirit of an Indian girl he encounters while driving one night, and is haunted by thereafter. The trucker visits a man called "the queer," known for his advice in such matters—"The locals put up with him [ . . . ] Said that when a man was different one way, sometimes he was different other ways too"—and, at the end of this story, the point is that the Swede starts to wonder if he can find someone like the queer to help him with his situation. The man he finds is a Mexican, the curandero—"Fat, and I mean huge [ . . . ] Tell you something about people that fat? They're strong. They got to be"—and, after another digression, this time about a pregnant young white girl in search of an abortion, and a digression-within-the-digression about the Red Virgin whose magic helps her, the curandero gets down to business, and starts treating the Swede.
It's worth making a couple of observations at this point. First, "The Curandero and the Swede" is extremely easy to read. Dab's voice is engaging and distinctive, and Abraham has him move in and out of the different levels of the story, sometimes abruptly, with impressive skill. I never once lost my place, and, for the duration of the tale, I was as lost to the real world as Abdul Karim. Second, by the time we reach the climax of the story, I'd say it's impossible not to have noticed that every instance of the fantastic has to do with some kind of Othered American—the Swede, the Indian girl, the queer, the pregnant girl, and now the curandero. So the conversation we hit next, between the curandero and the Swede, feels like it's being presented as a glimpse into a secret world.
The heavy-handed diagnosis is that the Swede has been injured, despite the absence of pain. "You are a black man in America," the curandero tells his patient. "That's injury enough." He offers to help the Swede deal with his rage. The Swede insists he's not angry, but he wants the lumps dealt with, and this is the most promising option he's uncovered in more than a year of searching, so he agrees to the treatment. This is going to hurt, the curandero tells the Swede; and it does, but not in the expected sense. As the operation proceeds, "the Swede feels this sorrow rising up in his chest like a flood." He starts crying, and "he never stopped." He's in a happy relationship, with three children and several grandchildren, but he's "weeping a little all the time, like he's got a slow leak."
What are we to make of this? Dab offers his own gloss, and challenges the narrator—and anyone reading the story—to see the meaning in it:
"You see what the curandero did, don't you? He couldn't bring back King, but he could change what it was to the Swede. Could trade out sorrow for rage. Black folks in America, even ones like the Swede, they got a particular kind of wound. Indians like that Sahkyo girl? They got one too. Hell, maybe we all do, but not like them. And they can't heal it any more than we can. All anyone can do is change what the wound means. That's what folks like the curandero and the queer can do. They can change what stories mean. That's why they've got power. You understand what I'm saying to you? You understand why I'm telling you this?"
My response to this, as with my response to "Eros, Philia, Agape," has both an intellectual and an emotional component, but here they appear to conflict. My intellectual response is: this writer should not be telling this story in this way. What response should the Swede have to injustice, if not to get angry? What is that anger, if not valid, if not necessary? And who is Daniel Abraham to say that it should be replaced with sorrow? My emotional response, however, as someone who neither likes nor trusts anger in himself, is that it hits a nerve: sometimes I want to change what a wound means. And both responses, I am uncomfortably aware, are informed by the fact that I'm white, British, middle class—that is, several degrees removed from the characters I'm reading about.
I can find a way of reconciling these responses. Perhaps it's too obvious, seems like an easy get-out: we place the burden on Dab, instead of his author. But whatever else it is, "The Curandero and the Swede" is clearly a story about the power of story; and we know, right from the start, that even discounting the fantastic element of his tale, Dab is not a reliable source. The narrator remarks that Dab's favourite story, about how he met his wife, "was always full of comedy and romance and smart-mouthed remarks made at just the right time," but that "it skipped over the fact that Mary had been pregnant by someone besides Dab at the time and had lost the baby." And it's also true, I think, that Dab's voice never becomes subsumed into the stories he's telling: that is, we are always aware that these are stories being told. In this reading, Dab's crucial comment is not his gloss above, but his insistence that "More times you tell something, the more it gets true." In this reading, we are not only meant to notice the Othering that pervades Dab's tale, but meant to extrapolate from that observation to the understanding that Dab is using the stories of these other people for his own benefit, the benefit of his family, without regard to their truth—a point driven home by their fantastical nature, perhaps. And so the conclusion of the story becomes: yes, stories create reality; so be very careful about the stories you tell. In this reading, the narrator's ultimate decision to retell, and presumably embellish, the story of how he met his girlfriend remains an assertion of the power of storytelling—these stories are the marrow of America!—but is an uncomfortable, compromised conclusion.
Of course, there are other readings.
No such ambiguity attends Paul Haines's "Wives" (in X6, edited by Keith Stevenson), which has already won an Aurealis Award for Best Horror Short story (despite the fact that it's getting on for 40,000 words long), and for which the unavoidable description is "brutal," as evidence by reviews from both those who admire the story, and from those who do not. Its protagonist, Jimbo, is a youth in a desertified Australia where as a result of "poor selective breeding decisions" men outnumber women several to one. In Ian McDonald's future India, a similar situation leads to technological fixes for courtship, and extreme status-consciousness about marriage (in, say, "An Eligible Boy" , or several of the other stories collected in Cyberabad Days). In Haines's story, where a single, quite thinly-drawn City apparently presides over an unspecified number of poor, isolated communities, it leads straight to sexual slavery:
A naked woman lay bound on a thin stained mattress. Her mouth was taped and her brown eyes stared wildly between bedraggled shoulder-length hair. She tried to wriggle into the far corner of the trailer, squealing as she did so.
"Holy fucken hell!" Jimbo's draw dropped. Apart from the porno files in his Old Man's archive, this was the first time he'd seen a woman naked. His eyes were drawn to her small breasts, the nipples erect in the air-cooled interior.
[ . . . ]
Dave handed over a bundle of dirty notes, a wide dopey grin splitting his beard. "So how's it work?"
"You can untie her legs but don't take the tape off her mouth—she bites." Wazza looked at Jimbo. "Ten minutes each. And only one at a time—we're not animals."
This particular scene turns out to be a sting, set up to catch those who would try to go around the organised slave-merchants based in the City; but the point is made. This is a horror story; it will play on our emotions. This is a bad situation, and these are bad people, and bad things are going to happen over the course of "Wives." All of those bad things are the result of the actions of men. Wazza may insist that he and his friends are not animals, but to us the statement is bleakly ironic. There is something animalistic about the men of "Wives," something inhuman in a sense that has to do with being unthinking. They are men defined almost entirely by their sexuality, by sexual need; in the absence of women, after all, other "solutions" have to be found, and so it is that Jimbo can pay his way into the local boozer by promising the doorman a blow job. Not for nothing is Wazza punished with castration.
And so at the heart of the story is a simple question: will Jimbo learn the error of his ways? Over the course of the story, we follow him through desperate yearning for his cousin, jealousy of a friend whose windfall has allowed him to buy a wife from traders in the City, excitement as he gets the opportunity to travel to the city and procure a wife for himself, and increasing despair on his return, as his marriage fails to become the partnership that he desires. On this last point, for instance, he can only dimly glimpse an understanding of why it is that his new bride might not want to talk to him. His mother retains some hope that Jimbo is capable of awareness, of changing what his story means, and so we might do as well. But every time something like realisation threatens, Jimbo quickly squashes it back down again.
There is something impressive about this characterisation, no doubt; to make clear both the atrocious cruelty of Jimbo's behaviour and how honestly he desires a healthy family, and to not have the doltishness required to sustain such incompatible thoughts becoming unbearably tedious, particularly over such a long haul. Partly, Haines gets away with it because Jimbo is so clearly a pathetic figure. His reaction to seeing Niki again is desperate, confused possessiveness: "He wanted to grab her hand," we're told, take her "down to the muddy banks of the Murray River where they'd played as kids, beg her not to go, to stay and marry him, raise a son." And then, a few lines later: "He wanted to choke the City out and make her beg to stay." It's not that Jimbo isn't capable of terrible things; but the indictment here is of the society, as much as of the individual man.
As perhaps is obvious, "Wives" is a very different kind of story to the others I’ve been discussing: a fantasy of irrationality, if you like, a tale of a world whose society sustains and perpetuates itself not in spite of its apparent illogic, but because of it. But it circles some of the same basic tensions: the line between human and inhuman, the competing gravities of emotion and reason. You could say that Jimbo is as absent from the world as Abdul Karim, or as me reading about them, or that his story is as irresistibly shaped by hot equations as some others are by cold. But that surely just underlines the need to argue with those equations. Like so much of the best SF, like—I think—all the stories I’ve discussed here, what "Wives" says is: pay attention to the world.