Linkspam, 7/26/13 Edition

Fire Watch, Connie Willis

Fire Watch, Connie Willis

Fire Watch, Connie Willis

One great thing about having an e-reader is that a lot of books that are hard to come by in this neck of the woods are now miraculously available to me for the first time.  Fire Watch has been on my list for ages—I’m a huge fan of Willis’ time-travelling historians (To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of the five books I’d take with me when I die; I’m just assuming there’s no library in hell and all…) and Connie Willis in general, so this early collection has been on my want list forever.

I was mostly interested in the title story, and it did not disappoint me, but I found myself pleasantly (or unpleasantly in one case) engrossed by most of the other stories in this early collection.  “Fire Watch” is the only one set in the historian universe (it is, in fact, the first story in her WWII arc, although not the first historian novel).  This story won both a Hugo and a Nebula, and with good reason.  Meticulous period details about The Blitz aside, it addresses the fundamental definition of history: a time period cannot be defined merely by statistics and numbers, and history contains the word story for a reason.  As I was reading, I was reminded of two teachers from my past.  The first was a middle school history teacher who reminded his students that history can be found in the most mundane objects, from ticket stubs to football helmets to a torn army uniform, because there is a story attached to those objects and each story is one thread of a larger piece of fabric.  The second teacher was a college professor who reminded his students throughout the semester that history is more than a series of dates—it’s a collection of people coping with a set of circumstances they have in common.  “Fire Watch” illustrates both of those philosophies as Bartholomew travels to St. Paul’s to join the Fire Watch for his final exam.

I have often wondered what it is about Willis’ time-travelling historians that appeals to me so much, and it finally came to me while I was reading this story—the characters in these stories come from both the past and the future to collide in what is, at that moment, their own present, so there is a story-within-a-story-within-a-story component to them.  Bartholomew’s story cannot be told to Langby, the verger, so Langby wrongly concludes that Bartholomew is a Nazi spy.  Addled by the time travel and trying to retrieve information he crammed into his head to help him cope with the time period, Bartholomew is often confused by the people he meets and the language they use; when he becomes exhausted both by his physical duties on the fire watch and by the mental stress of living in a dangerous alternate time, his own mind invents its own stories about the people he’s dealing with, which are not, of course, their stories.  So yes, he’s living in “history” and experiencing it first-hand, sharing a set of circumstances with these people, but their stories are not always the correct version of history—his presence has altered that.  So he’s both time-traveler and brigade member—he is the present and the future, and those story lines may mingle, but remain separate.  And he learns that history is really about the people and not the date.

There are 12 stories in this collection, and while I liked all of them, there are a few others I want to mention as having really stood out to me.  One is “All My Darling Daughters”, inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s relationship with her father [warning: triggers for rape and incest].  A group of students at a school in orbit are forced to find ways around the smothering atmosphere of the school, where the girls are sent to prevent them from forming romantic attachments.  When it becomes clear that the restrictions placed on them are not preventing them from becoming involved, the boys obtain creatures that are unable to defend themselves to attach to instead, leaving the girls bewildered by the boys’ sudden lack of desire.  The story is a little more complicated than that, as one girl, Tavvy, is smart and determined and soon figures out that the creatures, which the boys all call “daughters” are being used as sexual vessels in anticipation of their future with their own daughters.  It’s a creepy, disturbing story about mistaking possession for love and about a culture that encourages the abuse of women by ignoring it and making excuses for it.

Also high on my list was “Daisy, in the Sun”, about a 15 year old girl who is desperately trying to remember something.  As she pieces together a timeline for herself, she comes to the gradual realization that what her mother feared was true and what she thought would happen was not true.  To say much more would ruin the story if you haven’t read it, but I really liked the way this story was structured; as Daisy bounces from memory to memory to get to the truth, her fragmented memories gradually begin to form bigger pieces as she pings from one place to another.  It’s skillfully done.  And I was intrigued by the implications of the solution—so much so that I sat up for nearly an hour longer than I should have thinking about them.  Plus, Willis manages to equate the apocalypse with a girl reaching puberty, which…I can see that.  The destruction of innocence.

The last two stories, “Samaritan” and “Blued Moon” were among my favorites.  In “Samaritan”, Willis examines the tricky question of what it is, exactly, that makes us human.  It’s a moving, effective piece about whether an ape can be baptized, but what it really looks at is whether we’re human because we have souls and free will or because we say we are.  Esau, the ape in the story, can communicate, can bond with others, can appear almost human in appearance, and seems to understand scripture.  Doesn’t that make him as human as the rest of us?

“Blued Moon” is just fun—it’s built on the phrase “once in a blue moon”, and just goes from there.  When a chemical company figures out how to repair the ozone layer, the chemicals they spray into the atmosphere turn the moon blue and very odd coincidences start to happen, despite the characters’ best efforts to avoid them.  Some are for the better and some for the worse, and some have lasting consequences.

I’m glad I finally got a chance to read this, and I was surprised, despite how old it is, how well most of the stories stood up.  Science fiction can sometimes age as things that were merely dreamed of 20 years ago are now reality, but Willis wisely avoids too much gadgetry and sticks to people and circumstances and building their worlds without relying on objects.  That’s a lesson a few contemporary writers could learn something from–it makes these seem somewhat timeless and still engaging and fresh long after they were published.  Highly recommended.

The Fiction of Clarkesworld (Issue 78)

The Emperor's Arrival, by David Demaret

The Emperor’s Arrival, by David Demaret

One of the things I’ve been trying to do is read more short fiction, specifically short speculative fiction. There’s such a thriving online market that every month there seems to be yet another great story that people are talking about. One of the main vectors for getting these stories out into the world is Clarkesworld and I’m always excited when a new issue shows up on my Kindle each month.

The newest issue has stories from Aliette de Bodard, A.C. Wise, and Genevieve Valentine as well as an equal complement of non-fiction pieces–as well as the announcement that starting next month, there will be two re-print stories per issue, as well.  Exciting news!

Aliette de Bodard’s “The Weight of a Blessing” is quietly elegiac and is about the experience of being an unwelcome refugee in a foreign culture–in a culture which essentially destroyed your home.

To me, as an American, it read like a commentary on the Vietnam War from the perspective of one of the child refugees who fled with their parents from Vietnam on rickety boats and how alien it must have been to be expected to assimilate into a completely different kind of culture–and never being able to fully do so. The crime that Sarah has committed and for which she is being permanently deported seems to be such a minor one until nearly the end of the story when the reader realizes–through Minh Ha’s experiences (Minh Ha is Sarah’s mother) that it was striking at the heart of the society which so graciously (ahem) took the young Minh Ha in and allowed her to continue to live. As long as she kept her head down and didn’t make waves.

It’s a beautiful, haunting, and incredibly sad story. I’m very glad that I read it.

A.C. Wise’s “The Last Survivor of the Great Sexbot Revolution” is also a sad story but in a completely different way. Wise makes skillful use of second person to build a degree of intimacy with the reader that really adds to the emotional oomph of it.

The unnamed narrator has broken into the home of Alma May Anderson, the last survivor of the Great Sexbot Revolution, partially as the result of a drunken dare and partially as a result of something that isn’t quite explained in the text but is alluded to, sometimes obliquely and sometimes more directly. The narrator has a complicated relationship with someone named Sam and this person’s presence hovers over the entire story, even though they’re not actually in it.  The Great Sexbot Revolution is something that happened in the past but no one is really quite sure what it was, except that it involved sexbots and then there weren’t any sexbots anymore.  To me, this seemed to be a story about balance, about how opening yourself up to a connection with another person (or sexbot) was also opening yourself up to the possibility of pain and loss.  There’s a lot of interesting things going on in it and I found myself highlighting lots of passages in my Kindle–I expect I’ll go back to this one several times over the next few weeks.

The last story in this issue is Genevieve Valentine’s “86, 87, 88, 89″. It’s a first person story interspersed with fragments of documents–it’s about the cleanup effort after the government of New York took down what they determined to be domestic terrorists.  However, as the story unfolds, it becomes less clear what exactly happened and why.  The narrator is working as an archivist amongst the rubble–they’ve been given the task of collecting and categorizing bits of paper.  To what ends is unclear, but whenever something is found that has significance, slightly more ominous things begin to happen. There’s more surveillance from the state, co-workers disappear for days, they’re followed home from the bus stop.  Valentine excels in creating an atmosphere of creeping dread and this one an incredibly tense story and I’m not quite sure what I think about it. The writing is excellent and parts made my hackles rise but I’m not sure “like” is quite the right words for it.

After reading all three stories, it’s interesting to see how well they work together thematically. History, violence, loss, and human connection are all major ideas and it’s fascinating to see how three very different writers deal with them.

Jagannath, Karin Tidbeck

Jagannath, Karin Tidbeck

Jagannath, Karin Tidbeck

Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck’s first English-language collection of short fiction, Jagannath, is getting a great deal of buzz in speculative fiction circles, and with good reason.  This is one of the most beautiful and most provocative collections I’ve ever read.  It’s also one of the weirdest, and honestly?  I’m not sure I can do the stories or the writing justice here, but I’m going to give it a go.

There are lots of words that come to mind that I might use to describe these stories—fantastical fairy tales comes closest to what they’re like, but even that’s not quite right.  Let me put it this way: sometimes there are primal creatures that live on the edge of our world.  Sometimes the humans are the primal creatures.  Sometimes there are fantasy creatures whose contact with humans leaves them confused or worse.  Sometimes the humans live in worlds adjacent to ours, and sometimes creatures live in worlds adjacent to ours, and sometimes they live in our world, but we either don’t know of them or dismiss them as myths.  Time is upside down sometimes, or doesn’t run at all.  And once in a while, all of those things happen and just sort of bleed together, like a watercolor left out in the rain.

Or I could just quote from “Aunts”, a story that is so very, very disturbing, and yet somehow organically beautiful in the horror:

“In some places, time is a weak and occasional phenomenon. Unless someone claims time to pass, it might not, or does so only partly; events curl in on themselves to form spirals and circles.”

Tidbeck’s focus is on love and longing, but only sometimes of a romantic sort.  There is love, and longing for love, and love for a friend, love for a child, longing for a child, a child’s longing to find her place in the world, or in a family, or a family looking for that missing child; there is a longing for death, for life, for answers.  That may seem really mundane, but in Tidbeck’s weird worlds, it’s anything but.  In the steampunk-influenced “Beatrice”, for example, a man’s longing for love leads to him romancing an airship—a romance that turns dark and ugly.  Or there is “Cloudberry Jam”, in which a woman grows a carrot into something vaguely resembling the human child she wants so much.  Stories like this speak volumes about the human experience—how flawed we are, how our emotions shape our every behavior.  Both of those stories’ concepts are weird, you have to admit.  They are also both delightful, especially “Cloudberry Jam”, whose ending should be sad, but instead is somehow uplifting.  That’s the great thing about this collection.  Up is down and round is square.

Or time doesn’t move.  In “Augustus Primus”, the title character lives in a baroque world where time not only never moves forward (or backward, or at all), it has no definition—the characters are completely unaware of time, or even the possibility of it.  They do not age.  They do not change at all, really.  Their externals only differ in terms of who gets injured in the ongoing croquet games (which remind me of Alice, except there are no flamingoes) that take place all the time, games where the object is to injure the spectators and other players.  Imagine not having time.  You just—are.  Mechanical objects do not work in this world—they cannot work, in fact—so when Augustus finds a strange object in a dead man’s pocket, she cannot identify it for what it is: a pocket watch.  And once she becomes aware that time is something that can be measured, she naturally wants to know more.  But if knowledge is power, it is also, in this case, an element of change.  “Augustus Primus” and “Aunts”, a companion story set in the same world, really mess around with the concept of time in a thought-provoking way.  To me, they were the two most interesting pieces in what is a very strong collection of stories.

Tidbeck looks at loss from a variety of angles.  In “Some Letters for Ove Lindstrom”, the title character’s daughter returns to the remote location where her mother disappeared many years previously, the same location where her recently deceased father met her mother when she appeared out of nowhere—and to which he returned annually hoping she would appear again.  The daughter, Viveka, returns in an attempt to understand her father’s loss and place it in the context of her own, only to gain an understanding of his hope instead.  In “Arvid Pekon”, a bureaucrat loses his sense of himself—literally by the end.  And in “Rebecka”, set in the time after the Second Coming, a young woman, raped and tortured by her husband, has lost all hope for herself and all hope in God.

Each of these stories peels back layers and layers of basic emotions to reveal just how complex even the most simple of them can be.  The best example of this is “Herr Cederberg”, a deceptively simple piece of writing about a middle-aged man, short and rather rotound, whose appearance resembles a bumblebee, and his interest in kite-building.  A simple statement by two young girls he overhears while eating his lunch on a park bench one day propels him to attempt what we think is impossible—he attempts to turn himself into a bumblebee.  In four pages, Tidbeck captures his feelings as he moves forward with his plan—his lack of self-worth, his determination to put his skills to the test, his need to be more than Herr Cederberg, the man who merely resembles a bumblebee.  It’s “The Metamorphosis”, but turned a quarter turn to make what should be a sad story of a pathetic man into one where hope and dreams elevate even the most commonplace person into something grand and glorious—a marvel of nature.

All of the stories are like this—no matter how disturbing, how monstrous, how pitiable the characters and their situations or behaviors are, there is a layer of something positive shimmering just below the surface of each—if the reader is willing to both look for it and adjust their preconceived notions of what constitutes “positive”.  Tidbeck’s weirdly beautiful worlds and characters certainly challenge the conventional in nearly every way. I really recommend these stories.  I flat out loved them.

 

A copy of this book was generously provided by the publisher for review purposes.