Archive for September 2010
The Guilt Child very nearly lost me when I read the word airship. As much as I like airships, they need a rest nearly as much as vampires. But Ronald won me back when I read:
“The Gestenwerke line’s Tram #41 woke up,” the man said, but an airship descending into the station drowned out his next words. “—headed east,” he went on, unperturbed. “They’re trying to get the passengers out before it leaves the city.”
This was not quite the story and the setting I was expecting. This is a world where machines eventually become sentient and when they do, they flee the city and start a life on their own.
This is a lonely giant story (where the giant is a machine parts press named Stamper) who befriends the lonely child who at first found him fearsome, but then loves him. The story itself isn’t anything terribly new, but the trappings charm and it is well told.
Carla was sold off by her father to a wealthy uncle. She is needed to preserve the family fortune. The heart of their fortune, the printing press, became sentient some time ago and the family still prospers by emotionally blackmailing Stamper into staying by making Stamper think they are poor and starving. This is a ruse he had seen through long ago, but loves the family he toils for and remains, until the day he able to escape and preserve the family fortunes at the same time.
It’s a sentimental story, unabashedly so, because sometimes that’s exactly what you need.
The story starts:
The thing about seeking out new civilizations is, every discovery brings a day of vomiting.
and that’s probably the story in a nutshell – kind of amusing but not really funny and not much happens over all, except a bit of puke. Like many SF stories, this one takes a bit to get into it due to the jargon : Interdream. Closure. Cultural Emissions (dirty!).
So the plot is that a pair of intrepid (think Abbott and Costello) explorers go around scooping up the valuable remains of civilizations after they’ve (that’s the civilizations, not our heroes) self-destructed. Except this time it didn’t go poof and our heroes, Jon and Toku, decide to have a bit of a chat instead, (Think Captain Kirk every time he decides to ignore the Prime Directive) and turns out these earthlings are good capitalists just like our heroes, which is the horror.
Jon and Toku’s awesome plan is to run away and pretend it never happened.
There have been worse plans.
There is a longstanding tradition of writing off into the unknown: fans do it to actors, musicians, writers they admire. Many of us are instructed to write to the President in elementary school. A friend used to regularly read a blog that was a series of open letters to Margaret Atwood.
Other than the last, these usually aren’t the sort of letters (or maybe they are, I just don’t write them) you usually find in works of fiction. In fiction, this contrivance of letters into the unknown that gives the narrator the courage or maybe honesty to tell the things that weigh on their soul.
I first encountered this particular literary convention in Judy Blume’s classic novel Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. And even at the time, the structure felt somewhat artificial (though I think this is perhaps something that is intrinsic to Blume – her novels always have an artificial sense to me) but one that is none the less effective.
In The Last Thing We Need the narrator, Thomas Gray, happens upon the detritus of an accident (or possibly a party) while out driving, he starts composing letters to Duane Moser who left several prescription bottles in the mess.
The trigger to the letter writing is some pictures of a ’66 Chevelle, the same car which was driven by a man who tries to rob Gray in while Gray’s working the overnight shift at a gas station, a man that Gray killed during that attempted robbery, a man that Gray recognized before Gray killed him, a man that has Gray has never mentioned to his wife.
This is the event Gray writes attempts to come to terms with in his letters.
For me, I found the story effective despite the artificiality of the structure. The one element that didn’t work for me was the ending where Gray’s daughter disappears for a short while on the morning of a camping trip.
The trouble with electing to do a spur of the moment project is that it puts a bit of a damper on things you had been planning to do soon or were even in the middle of doing. In that spirit here are a few things I might have been reading this week except for the project.
Lots of short fiction online – I always knew that much (most?) of the fiction appearing in the online venues I like to read regularly was by men, but now it has become incredibly frustrating when I am looking for something to read at lunchtime and I there’s nothing available.
2666 by Roberto Bolano – A long time ago I read the part about the girl who ruins everything, and told myself I wasn’t allowed to read on until I’d written about it. I have written about it, but not to my satisfaction. I’m probably better off anyway.
Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness – I’ve been waiting for this to show up in my local bookstore for a while and nothing yet. Guess I’ll be waiting quite a bit longer.
I saw on twitter that Tim Pratt was serialising a new novel The Nex and I clicked over over and read about a paragraph and then remembered d’oh! and had to click away.
 Calling it the part about the critics is clearly a horrible mistranslation.
You know the story of the girl who ruins everything – she joins the gang and everything is better for a while, but then the guys fall in love with her and it ruins their friendship, but she gets to be their prize. I really hate that story.
Bloodlines is one of those stories that feels not so much like a self contained short story, but the start to a YA novel and I think if it were the beginning to a novel, I’d find it more successful.
I think what it does well – developing the setting and the worldbuilding is what makes it not quite work for me as a short story – I feel like there’s too much puttering around and not enough story momentum. For a story that’s a mere 4,000 words long, my initial impression was that it could have lost 1,000 words. (Ok, probably really only 500.)
At the start of the story the narrator is the typical ugly duckling who hasn’t yet blossomed into her witchy powers (And she doesn’t believe that it will ever happen.) She is friends with her cousin (who does not share the witch bloodline) and much of the story involves the two of them observing their cousin Elena who has just been dumped and wants revenge. And because she’s a witch, she can get it. The narrator intervenes and scares the ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend out of town. When Elena finds out, her wrath is focused on the narrator. But when Jacinta defends the narrator, Elena’s attention turns to revenging herself on Jacinta. That’s when the narrator turns into a witchy swan and kicks Elena’s ass. The coda to the story is the narrator assuring Jacinta that they will always be close despite the fact that she’s a powerful witch now.
I think that’s the story I wanted to read – the one that focused on their relationship and how it changed over time as inevitably the narrator (and Jacinta) became new people as they grew up.
I was in the bookstore yesterday looking for something to read and Room was on the display wall. As someone who can be completely oblivious to what’s going on in the world of books, I had completely missed it getting shortlisted for the Booker. I bought it on cover appeal basically. (The cover on the right below – I wouldn’t have touched the US cover with a ten-foot pole.)
If you’ve managed to miss the talk as well, I suggest you go buy the book now and skip the rest of the post because I think it’s the sort of book that the less you know about it, the more impact it will have (and you all trust me right? It’s very, very good despite the Booker thing (which is usually the kiss of death) and there will be SPOILERS.)
The story is narrated by Jack, a boy who has just turned five and the whole of his world is the room he shares with Ma. It quickly becomes clear that things are not right.
God’s yellow face isn’t coming in today. Ma says he’s having trouble squeezing through the snow.
“See,” she says pointing up.
There’s a little bit of light at Skylight’s top, the rest of her is all dark. TV snow’s white but the real isn’t that’s weird. “Why doesn’t it fall on us?”
“Because it’s on the outside.”
“In Outer Space? I wish it was inside so I can play with it.”
His world is so small each and every piece of furniture in the room is unique, his bed is Bed, named and a friend to him. A book like this lives or dies on the voice of the child. And Donoghue makes Jack a real success. He sees the world in a way that is foreign to us. Donoghue doesn’t bury us in exposition, but instead lets us discover their situation through Jack’s eyes. The reader can interpret far more than Jack and the disconnect creates the horror and tension in the narrative:
Lunch is bean salad, my second worst favorite. After lunch we do Scream every day but not Saturdays or Sundays. We clear our throats and climb up on Table to be nearer Skylight, holding hands not to fall. We say “On your mark, get set, go,” and then we open wide our teeth and shout holler howl yowl shreik screech scream the loudest possible. Today I’m the most loudest ever because my lungs are stretching from being five.
This book was clearly inspired by the horrific Fritzl case. Ma has been held captive in the soundproof shed which is the titular Room for seven years and raped almost daily. When theie captor loses his job, she fears what will happen if he loses the house and concocts an implausbly successful escape plan. The second half of the book deals with her attempts to recover from the trauma and reconnect with her family who had moved on, and with Jack’s attempts to deal with “Outside.”
There were two aspects that didn’t ring quite true to me. The first being the escape. I couldn’t believe that it was successful. The second was that this book was set in America and while it almost fits because the setting is so vague, but every once in a while there were moments that felt false. But these are minor complaints in an excellent book.
It wasn’t until after I’d read the book and was doing my usual gawk of the front and back matter that I realized that I’d already read Kissing the Witch by Donoghue and enjoyed it quite a bit. Must not forget her again.
Sometimes when I read a story I think I can identify the kernel of the story, where the idea sprang from with the rest to be built around it. In Stem, Stone, and Bone, I think it was the idea of a woman giving birth to a stone
Jacinta, however, was nothing but Jacinta, a woman and a worker who could couple with the city men or a visiting stranger, and at the end of nine months, out of her belly would drop nothing but a stone. She’d done it only once, before forsaking the company of men entirely. Nine months of hope and discomfort followed by the wretched agony of a rock the size of a cacao pod ripping her insides outward to lie bloody on the end of her bed. Once was enough.
Jacinda lives in the Shining City, a city made rich on the cacao trade. Instead of enslaved children on the Ivory Coast harvesting cacao, in this world the exploitation takes the form of a magic that changed the cacao seeds to beetles and made every animal within the radius of the spell infertile. Women, dogs, bird all give birth to stones of different sorts. Jacinda was one of the last children and the realization that her home is dying smacks her in the face one day when she is speaking with the last child, Xoch.
She thinks maybe she can seduce one of the Mineral Men who cast the spell and get them to break it, then she heartbreakingly spreads the blood of one of the cacao beetles on her own stone, her child that wasn’t. Lastly she tries to conceive another child away from her city but that fails as well.
Message stories so very often look like MESSAGE and
story but Taber doesn’t allow the message to overwhelm the story, and does so without pulling punches – so if you are thinking there’s a happy ending, think again. (But she really nails the last line – Charlie Finlay once told me that 30% of the impact of a story was in the last line and I think that’s true here.)
This is their present. This is their future. There is no hope.