Friday, January 13, 2012

A few more SF stories read

It's puzzling to consider what landed any given story in The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces aside from Robert Silverberg liking it. If you're going to collect "masterpieces," it seems to me that the bar ought to be pretty high.

Philip José Farmer's "The Sliced-Crosswise Only-on-Tuesday World," from 1971, is one of those stories built around a punchline plot, summarizable in a single clause, that telegraphs its ending because it is all about its "shock" ending, which of course isn't a shock at all. To avoid problems related to overcrowding, individuals are awake and going about their business only one day each week; the rest of the days, they're in suspended animation, which people assigned to those other days do the necessary work. How any real work gets done is a mystery, but the story hinges on our protagonist falling in love with a woman assigned to a different day but who he can see in her sleep chamber, as she shares his house. As a result of his love, he wants to switch over to her day. His love is an adolescent thing, built on nothing but her looks, and the outcome of all this, even with a small twist tossed in, is obvious from the get-go. I have yet to read any Farmer fiction that I've liked, but I've only read a few things.

1958's "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed," by Alfred Bester, is a lark about time travel that's both entertaining and clever; unlike the Farmer tale, it does not telegraph its ending, though it certainly could have. Bester has fun with the idea: a man finds his wife in the arms of another man, so, genius that he is, he goes to the basement, slaps together a time machine, and goes back in history to remove her from his life. For some reason, this doesn't work, so he keeps heading back, knocking off various historical figures, both major and minor, in an attempt to, finally, see something happen in his present life. The conclusion is logical enough, but, more importantly, it's aesthetically and dramatically satisfying, given some elements that at first seem unrelated to the plot.

"The Man Who Lost the Sea," by Ted Sturgeon (and, with a glace back at the proceeding story, I should mention that there's even a third "The Man Who" story in the book), from 1959, is a bit of a slog at times, though there are, in retrospect, some clever touches. Written in a sometimes-effective, sometimes-strained literary style, the story keeps you guessing for quite a while as you follow the thoughts of a man lying, evidently in a space suit, on a beach. What's he doing there? Who's the little boy who keeps bothering him? What's all this about the time it takes a satellite to circle? Once all the pieces come together, it seems like Sturgeon should have stopped, so, for me, the very end feels unnatural and forced. At the time it was published, I'm sure it had quite an impact.


Calvin said...

Years ago I read "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" and remember liking it. A bit fluffy, but fun.

I never read the Sturgeon story, but read about it. Apparently very famous. From what I recall, it started off intended to be a novel, but Sturgeon trimmed and trimmed and trimmed it down to a short story. (I can't find a citation for that, but Nancy Kress discusses the story here and the story is available online via Strange Horizons.

Right now, myself, I'm slogging through The Broken Kingdoms, the second in a trilogy by N. K. Jemisin. I like Jemisin's blog and her online critiquing, and I really wanted to like these books, but I admit the first novel left me lukewarm and I'm even less engaged by this one. I'll finish it, because I'm a plate cleaner, but I doubt I'll get the third novel.

I've been struggling to understand why, and I think it fundamentally boils down to this: I think like a science fiction writer, not a fantasy writer. I won't say either is better than the other, but that's how I approach fiction.

Part of it is being impatient with stories about magic, and her magic seems just like the magic in dozens and dozens of other fantasy worlds out there. Second, despite superficial differences, her culture feels to me very modern; worse, to me it feels unsupported. I can explain by citing a couple of counter examples. In LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness her culture is explained by the fact that the people are hermaphrodites, and this has an enormous impact. Another example is Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series, set in a fantasy/alternate history Europe, but against she very clearly sets up how this world diverged from ours and the culture flows neatly and convincingly from it. But in Jemisin's world, although in it gods are real and ostensibly different from European models, the culture and the characters have attitudes towards religion, gender, sex, race, etc, very similar to what you would find among many of our peers. I don't see what deep effect the existence of thousands of gods have on the people and the culture.

This is what I mean by thinking like a science fiction writer: I like stories that not only illustrate different cultures, but have a narrative behind them. Jemisin's culture seems at once both arbitrary and not all that different.

In the end, despite being told about threats to the protagonist, there is a curious lack of tension in the narrative.

Now, this may be my own fault, my ow lack of perspicacity in my reading. I really did want to like the books better.

(Sorry to take up so much space, but you've asked before what I'm reading and so I finally have an answer..)

William Preston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William Preston said...

Thanks for the link to the Kress blog. It is, as she says, a "risky" story.

I tried the first Jemisin novel in the sequence, given how highly praised it was, but put it down after a few pages. It seemed well written enough, but I have what amounts to an allergic reaction when people start doing what I call "the capital letters game," when everything is the Kingdom and the Special Sea and the Gate and whatnot. The first few pages would have been much more palatable for me had she tempered her need to toss lots of such things my way or, impossibly for her story, I suppose, taken a Pratchett-like approach and viewed the whole affair wryly. She nearly does, given the way her narrator constantly interrupts herself, but all the talk of kingdoms and aristrocracy is just tremendously boring for me, though I recognize that other people love that stuff.

You point about her world-building bothering you for SFnal reasons makes me think, though, of Tolkien. I find his writing turgid, but, as opposed to your description of the fantasy writer's approach to worldbuilding, he takes quite seriously the need for a (quasi) coherent history, something that takes into account magic and different races and the sweep of time. Perhaps he's the proverbial exception that proves the rule.