Thursday, July 31, 2008

Interzone #216, the Mundane SF edition.

I was less than 100% impressed with Geoff Ryman’s Mundane SF issue of Interzone. While I can appreciate the impulse that led him to promote writing within those rules, just obeying them does not automatically lead to better writing. None of the stories here are bad (I read all of them all the way through), but none of them knock your socks off and convince the you of the inherent superiority of this breed of science fiction.

Buzz Aldrin may appreciate this movement. He recently went on record speculating that sf made space too exciting, raising people’s expectations, causing the real space program to seem boring in comparison. Buzz’s argument is that in this way sf has hurt the space program. Ryman obviously has similar concerns, which I share to an extent. While we look out to amazing adventures in post-Singularity, post-scarcity, post-everything worlds, we forget about the hard problems that still plague us back here: class issues, real economics, multiculturalism, etc. This certainly doesn’t mean all mundane SF need be depressing or, worse, boring. Bruce Sterling’s Hugo-nominated “Kiosk” is a fascinating take on future economics that I think would fall under the Mundane rubric, and Ryman’s own Air, or Have Not Have is a brilliant and moving portrayal of technology reaching into the least technologically advanced corners of the world and what that really implies for the people who live there. (And we’ll just forget about the mouth baby, shall we?) Mundane SF at its best is fully capable of fulfilling my criteria for really great literature, as set forth in my “Reviewing Philosophy” post—to help me think about the world/universe in a different way. However, the stories in this issue never really achieved that.

“How to Make Paper Airplanes” by Lavie Tidhar most obviously plays to Ryman’s preferences. It’s set on an island with more natives than white people, with a gay protagonist and a decidedly non-Western outlook on life. It has characters talking about sf, especially space operatic sf, and how it has turned out to be so much bullshit. The story is completely plotless and in fact is in danger of degenerating into a string of non-sequiturs at the end. However, the overwhelming theme of loss and powerlessness (we can’t go out to space, we can’t save the guy’s lover from dying of disease) keeps everything unified. In that way it is quite successful.

So my dislike of it is a result of my own prejudices: I want to read about people moving forward and solving problems, not stoically accepting the failures of fate. This, I recognize, is very Western of me. Although I intellectually respect the tradition of Taoism and Buddhism, I have enormous trouble identifying passivity/acceptance as a virtue. Between being a Westerner and an engineer, I’ve been trained to look at that as fatalism, something to reject. After all, if humans had always accepted those virtues, we’d still be living in caves. It’s a universal question as to which approach does more harm: If we had avoided Western progress through struggle we’d be ignorant about the stars, we’d have short life spans, and we wouldn’t be able to sustain large populations. On the other hand, we wouldn’t have global warming, and we’d have never discovered the horrors of mechanized genocide. While I’ve always felt that the good stuff has been worth the bad, it’s important to realize that not everyone feels the same. This fatalism isn’t new in sf, but coming from a Western tradition makes it difficult to appreciate. SF itself is so rooted in Western “progressivism” that this kind of story is very rare. This story doesn’t necessarily sell its attitude to the audience, but it does put it out there which is worth something.

Striking a completely different note, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro contributes a high-seas adventure tale, “Endra—From Memory,” but with a few twists. For one thing, the high-seas adventure is needed because global warming has knocked us back to roughly medieval/renaissance days, and the only way to move between far-flung regions in this largely flooded world is by sail. Another twist revolves around the gender of the main narrator, which is never specified. That makes the romance between the narrator and the charismatic woman at the center of the tale nicely ambiguous—you can read all their interactions in two or three ways, depending on how you choose to think of the narrator. The last odd note is Yarbro’s choice of narrator. All the narrators are land-bound and see the main character only as she passes through their port on her way to other adventures. In fact, the main narrator tries to persuade her to settle down and stop her roaming ways, which would obviously be like asking the wind to stop blowing. The question is, why pick the stay-at-home to tell about the romantic figure? Perhaps it’s because it’s on land where the myths and legends live, even when their subjects are off and away. Still, I would have liked to have read about some of these adventures directly, instead of second hand. It’s a good story, but nothing ground-breaking (which really describes most of the tales here, unfortunately).

“The Hour is Getting Late” by Billie Aul is an interesting story set in the near-future. It deals with the relationship between Art and Criticism in the context of a popular-mediated-media-saturated future. In the course of creating a new Woodstock version for the Internet-and-beyond age (as well as a sop for those poor schmucks who only exist in Reality, without online input), the Artist is trying to get back together with the Critic. The Critic is desperately trying to keep her own identity, to not be subsumed by the Artist and his continual agenda. However, the Artist is getting the crowd on his side, and one thwarts the will of the mob at one’s own peril. It’s a good illustration of power relationships mediated through pop culture and Art, with a good point about Reality (and the perils of ignoring it) at the end. Something about it doesn’t rise to the level of greatness, and I think it’s the execution. The reader doesn’t quite get fully immersed in the story—one has to spend a lot of time thinking about what’s going on. It’s a bit forced. This subject was also tackled by Walter Jon Williams in “Pinocchio,” his contribution to Jonathan Strahan’s YA Starry Rift anthology.

“Remote Control” by R. R. Angell is what I think of as “classic” sf. It’s completely idea-centered, and any plot and/or characters exist only to carry the idea around. Here the idea is over-the-top and satirical, although it’s depressingly easily extrapolated. Perhaps you’ve heard of the deer farm where you can sign up on the Internet to shoot a deer via a remote-controlled rifle? That’s real, and that’s twisted enough. And you’ve probably heard of the Minutemen, the folks who’ve taken it upon themselves to patrol the US’s border with Mexico to try to spot illegal immigrants coming across and stop them (they claim they take action only by calling the Border Patrol, not shooting). Combine those two ideas and voila, you’ve got Angell’s story. This one wouldn’t be out of place even in Analog. So the point is that dehumanizing immigrants is a Bad Thing, and that letting rednecks take pot-shots at them is also a Bad Thing. I’m going to go out on a limb here and figure that Angell is probably preaching to the choir here (I sure hope so). The rest of the plot doesn’t add much to the Idea—the characters are so thin that even the narrator refers to them as types instead of names (“Legal,” “Marketing,” etc.) and the actual plot makes no sense. You have to believe that it’s worth it for someone to spend several million dollars to get a truckload of immigrants across the border by using a robot decoy, and you have to assume that the coyotes who smuggle immigrants across the border have forgotten everything they ever knew about tunnels. The economics don’t stand up to the lightest scrutiny, and ultimately the story doesn’t add up to much.

“The Invisibles” by Elisabeth Vonarburg is about a somewhat Asimov-Caves-of-Steel future where humanity has had to withdraw to climate controlled domes. To manage the population, transportation of people is automated. You key in a district as your destination, and you get dropped off there. However, for two people, they find themselves in places they don’t recognize for the first time in their lives. The story is told in two second person POVs, then an explanatory first person narration at the end. It seems to be about emotional traumas jarring us out of the ruts of our lives, and using those opportunities to make drastic life-altering changes. This seems like a fairly trite message, something we’ve read about a number of times before, and left me at the end thinking “So what?” A bit of a let down.

“Into the Night” by Anil Menon is about the perils of aging. An old Indian gentleman (from India) goes to live with his thoroughly modern daughter after his wife passes on. His daughter is totally secular and has no respect for the “superstitious” religious habits which have seen him through his long life. She tries to introduce him to up-to-date immersive internet tech, and he immediately finds himself in an unpleasant and compromising situation. His mind is going already, which doesn’t help. In the end, there will never be understanding between the two generations. The main problem I had with this is that aging is so universal an experience that the Indian background of the family had no impact on the story. It was simply wallpaper. The resistance to change, the failing mental faculties, the generational misunderstanding, the adherence to “God did it” in the face of complicated science—all of that could come from a WASP family, a Jewish family, a Chinese family, etc. I didn’t feel like I learned anything new about the culture of the characters from reading this story—apparently everyone reacts to the complications of aging in about the same way. Oh well.

Finally we have Ryman’s own contribution. “Talk is Cheap” deals with a low caste man wooing a high caste woman, although the man never thinks of it that way. He eventually gets her to leave her house and go on an actual walk with him. He’s a bit disappointed when she goes off with some new people she met on the walk, but she also comes around to him again. There is a lot of imagery in the story that didn’t necessarily make sense to me, with people’s roles being described in totemic, animal-metaphor style (he thinks of himself as a Dog, she jokingly calls herself a Hamster). Unfortunately for the closing dialogue to make any sense you have to decipher what the animal imagery means to Ryman, and I felt like I never got a handle on that. Which meant that, for me, the ending seemed to dissolve into a series of non-sequiturs. Probably if I read it a few more times I’d figure it out eventually, but the rest of the story doesn’t have enough going on to entice me to do that.

So in the end, after reading the whole thing through, there aren’t any stories here that made me really sit up and go Wow! That’s unfortunate, since these stories are being presented as a showcase of a movement. It might have been nice if Ryman had been able to set his own deadline, (when I have enough really great stories, then I’ll put together an issue), instead of being yoked to the magazine’s publishing schedule. I have no doubt that awesome fiction following Mundane rules will continue to be written, but the stories collected here don’t quite rise to that level.


Ted said...

Note that Ryman doesn't consider Air to be Mundane; it contains, in his words, "magic."

Karen Burnham said...

Ted - that's a good point. And certainly "Child Garden" isn't Mundane either. Sometimes the "magic" needs to be there.