Tangent Reviews

Asimov's, October/November 1996

from Tangent #17, Winter 1996

Can sf become literature while remaining true to its roots? That appears to be the question underlying the choice of these straining-for-greatness pieces populating this double issue.

Asimov's layout makes it easy for readers to skip over the author and title page and head directly into the story. Those who do so might easily mistake the opening of Nancy Kress' novelette, "The Flowers of Aulit Prison," for a story by Ursula LeGuin, than which there is no higher praise. We are treated to the same anthropological examination of an alien culture, of its mores and beliefs and taboos, that bestows so much of LeGuin's best fiction with depth and meaning. The first half of the story, mostly set in Aulit prison, is as brilliant as it is resonant, while the alien protagonist struggles to make sense of our bizarre Terran ways. It's a pity, then, that, unlike some other Asimov's writers, the conscientious Kress feels the necessity for giving her stories an actual plot and resolution. If only the ending worked half as well as the opening, Kress would surely have to polish her award-acceptance speech. She does what she can with a standard thriller device, but it seems clumsy and artificial compared to the earlier scenes. The merely good weighs down the excellent, but the story sets a standard for the rest of the issue to dare to match.

Gene Wolfe's novelette, "Try and Kill It," with its vividly naturalistic writing and primal themes, puts one's mind irrevocably into the high school required reading territory of Faulkner's "The Bear" and Hemingway's Nick Adams stories. How many other sf writers can bear that comparison? Wolfe seems to actively court it, as his hunter, out with his bow for the first day of deer season, stumbles across a much more fearsome creature in the woods. Another writer in another magazine may have been tempted to place the spotlight onto the creature. Wolfe being Wolfe, the true foe is not the other but the self, and the story's sf component is the merest excuse for its inclusion here. Kress' alien and Wolfe's earthling approach sf as literature from opposite poles. Neither is a fully successful integration; both show what can legitimately be done.

Ian R. MacLoud walks a middle course throughout his novella, "Swimmers Beneath the Skin," attempting a realistic look at a future world through the eyes of reporters covering the everlasting small wars that humans are prone to. Other verities also remain, among them that newspeople are eternal cynics and outsiders. MacLoud slowly expands his focus, first telling us that official spokespeople are not to be trusted; then that witnesses, even victims, may be trying to manipulate us; then that the press distorts reality so much that they and we select the world we wish to believe in; and finally that our very senses may no longer be believable witnesses to the world. His every success at conveying his message is self-defeating. The story is extremely well written and serves as convincing evidence to his proposition of cynicism. By the end I didn't believe a word of it.

Another aspect to sf as literature is the perpetual writers' group argument over whether placing a conventional dilemma into an sf setting illuminates that dilemma with new light or merely becomes another variant of the cowboy story set on Mars. Steven Utley's novelette, "The Wind over the World," perhaps gives strength to the latter. When the second of two people going through a portal into the past is lost, the first feels an abstract guilt that eats into her pleasure at having traveled through time. Utley never convincingly explains why his protagonist is so affected by this stranger's disappearance and never uses his Silurian backdrop as anything more than the merest painted scenery. An intriguing premise fails to gel.

Which can be said even more and in spades for Michael Cassutt's novelette, "Generation Zero." The premise here is a terrific one: that our ancestor's memories are coded into the sperm or egg that forms their offspring and that we can chemically recover these memories. He severely undercuts the possibilities of this idea through the story he chooses to tell. His thoroughly unlikeable protagonist abuses the drug involved by trying to determine nothing more momentous than why a long-lost love left him fifteen years back. Hardly the stuff of immediacy or tension in story-telling. Cassutt's final point, that the drug now gave every one the possibility of connection to others in their lives, is fatally undercut by the sleaziness of how his protagonist tricks the dead woman's teen-age daughter into giving him the information he seeks. The theme is the grand literary one of redemption from self-centered absorption but we are airlifted to that conclusion.

Before literature came mythology, and literature has been mining myth ever since. Kelly Link does, in her novelette, "Flying Lessons," when her teen-age protagonist falls in love with a member of a very old and very famous family. Go beyond the over-literaryness of the telling to discover a solid and moving story underneath.

And then there's Bruce Sterling's novelette, "Bicycle Repairman," which is a virtual reprise of Nancy Kress' story, albeit in a way obvious only to those of us professional pattern-sniffing critics. But consider. Sterling starts the story with a long anthropological look at an alien (here, future) culture, one of his trademark mixed-tech junkyard futures. He also conscientiously tries to resolve the story, unfortunately by devolving it into a standard and rather silly thriller plot, which, if you look closely, explains exactly nothing about why anything happens in the story. (And don't think I'm bitter just because I've been waiting years to come up with a story on which to hang a particularly nifty piece of extrapolation that Sterling, who is a certified genius, tosses off in a yard of expository dialog irrelevant to the plot.) Does it matter? Not really. This is hard, speculative sf, some of it funny enough to live up to a title stolen from a Monty Python routine. We need more of it.

Gardner Dozois' unique sf prose style piles blocks of paragraphs fat and ponderous, one atop another, until the reader is hemmed in behind a wall of prose. He is perhaps the only sf writer who evokes Theodore Dreiser. Dozois' prose is very much in evidence in "The City of God," a novella finished by Michael Swanwick; bleak, hemmed-in prose for a story of a bleak and hemmed-in future. Many hundreds of years past the glittering post-Utopian age, the world has reverted to a working-class dystopia, an Upton Sinclair novel of toil and drudgery. Our protagonist Relk [Oops, I meant Hanson. Once again, sorry, Gardner. But admit it. Isn't Relk a much more memorable sfnal-type name?] shovels coal in a dreary existence overshadowed in several senses by the 200-mile-long impenetrable wall of the City of God, last vestige of the long dead past. Nothing in the first half of this very long and very slow moving story need be sf in fact, although Relk, after the requisite adventures, does finally penetrate the wall to find the requisite futuristic wonders, seeming outtakes from Silverberg's Son of Man. The two halves never add to a whole.

Creating literature out of an sf story is an ambitious project, suitable for a magazine like Asimov's, whose stories are always ambitious ones, which also accounts for their high failure rate. Many of these stories are easier to admire than to like, and certainly they do little for anyone seeking nothing more than momentary diversion. But the greatest rewards known to fiction come when ambition succeeds and risks prove worth the taking. For all the almosts and near misses, Asimov's still probably provides more of those moments than any other magazine.

Copyright 1996 by Steve Carper

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