Still trying to decide how I will vote in the BSFA Awards when I go to Eastercon tomorrow. I’ve made my mind up about the novels, but the short fiction category foxes me. I didn’t read a huge amount of new short fiction in 2011, but was it really such a poor year? My choice, I think, is going to come down to a matter of the least worst, which is not how I like to make award decisions.
I rather liked ‘The Silver Wind’ by Nina Allan when I read it as part of her collection of the same name. It was the weakest part of the book, because it was the most obvious (I think Allan is much better at subtlety than directness), but in context it worked. Coming back to the story in isolation, I am considerably less enamoured. The first two-thirds of the story, the set-up, the scene setting, the building of character, is beautifully done. Sentence by sentence, the writing is really good, just the right mixture of evocation, mystery and clarity. Then, suddenly, it’s as if she realises she is supposed to be telling a story, and the moment our narrator wanders into the wood, the moment incident takes over from evocation, the whole thing falls apart. Actually, given all the dire warnings that have been woven into the story to this point, there is no way that such a character would go into the wood. It is the equivalent of all those hokey horror films where, against all sense, all the characters insist on going off to explore the haunted house on their own. And once a very careful, very sensible character begins to act against common sense, we are thrown out of the story. Then comes the long dying fall of the scenes in the parallel world (which is reached far too easily; the final part of the story has not been earned by what went before), which serve mostly to set up something that only becomes explicit in a later story. As I say, woven into the fabric of the book it works fine, but in isolation we are left floundering in mid-air as the fabric of the fictional creation unravels around us.
Much the same could be said of ‘Of Dawn’ by Al Robertson, a story that has a very similar structure and affect to the Nina Allan. Again, it starts really well: the sentence structure is good, atmosphere is built up well. Then, just like Allan, he seems to decide he ought to have a story, and the good work done to date is undone. At least this story does not require the central character to act against type, but beyond that it feels far more derivative. I kept thinking that this whole thing must have started with the appearance of Ralph Vaughan-Williams and the character name Tallis in Rob Holdstock’s Lavondyss, but I was also reminded of the second section of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I assumed that the fictional composer was probably based on someone like Peter Warlock, though Maureen has suggested that he probably owes more to Ivor Gurney. Either way, I was uncomfortably conscious of a writer cherry-picking the past rather than fully inhabiting it and making it his own. And there were too many stock fantasy/horror motifs that kept cropping up for me to really care how the whole thing was resolved, which is perhaps just as well since I don’t think the story really does get resolved. I have no idea, but I would not be at all surprised if Robertson produced another story as a companion/successor to this.
If Allan and Robertson write well at the level of the sentence (at least when they are not bending those sentences to the service of story), China Mieville is obviously, if sometimes excessively, in love with words, but doesn’t always extend that love to the sentence. The flamboyance of his word choice can sometimes obscure what his sentences are trying to do. It often feels as if we should read his stories like poetry and let meaning well up from something inside us rather than emerge from off the page. ‘Covehithe’, being by some way the shortest piece on offer this year, consequently feels more compressed: ‘Sooty sepia guttering lit the shaft. The sea at its base spread flat and fell away from suddenly rising intricate blackness, black, angled and extrusioned’. He’s squeezing far too much into this, not allowing his sentences space to breathe. There are times when fewer words could create the same effect rather more powerfully. And what the hell is ‘extrusioned’? But when you get through the clutter of the writing, at least Mieville can tell a story. Or mostly. There are two stories going on here. There is the story of the old oil rigs coming to life and impregnating the earth. This is archetypal Mieville stuff (one is reminded instantly of the ReMade in the Bas Lag novels), solidly imagined, vividly created, lively and in its way convincing. Then there is the story of Dughan and his unnamed daughter. Actually, the fact that she is unnamed is symptomatic of what is wrong with this strand of story. The lack of a name does not just depersonalise her and lead to needlessly awkward sentences when the use of a name would have been much simpler, it tells us that this part of the story is not fully imagined. A viewpoint character thinking of his own daughter so impersonally is not someone who is totally alive to the author. In the end we are left wondering: who are they, what are they doing here, why? And we are left with the sad conclusion that the only reason they are here is to show us the really cool oil rigs.
With all of the three stories I’ve discussed so far, I can see more that is wrong than right. Yet, even so, I might be tempted to vote for any of them. The remaining two stories do not work for me at all. ‘The Copenhagen Interpretation’ by Paul Cornell is written in a prose that is functional at best. It lacks the graceful sentence structure that you can occasionally find in the Allan and Robertson, and the love of language that pours out of Mieville, but then, I don’t think how he tells the story is of very great importance to Cornell. Indeed, there are passages where the prose is not even functional, so lost in the particular jargon of the world that it is impossible to see what we are meant to see, to understand what is actually going on. No, this is a story that is all about story, in which incident is so crowded up against incident that there is no time to breathe, no time to stop and think about what we are being told. And what we are being told is nonsense, but it is nonsense engagingly wrapped up with the weird technology of a weird world. I’ve already read at least one other story set in this universe, so I’m already familiar with the ‘folds’ and what have you (though when something is described as being the colour of folds, what on earth are we supposed to make of that?), but beyond this what do we actually have? There’s a little bit of sex and an awful lot of fights and chases, a confrontation with the baddies that comes straight out of some Victorian melodrama, and a last minute rescue that is so deus ex machina that you are left wondering how the hell that happened. It is an entertaining potboiler, but seriously, who might imagine this is one of the best stories of the year?
And we are left with Kameron Hurley. Now anything I say here is likely to get me in trouble with the Hurley fans who seem to think God’s War is pretty damned near perfect. To be honest, the more they protest, the more I find I dislike the book, so I’m probably not the best person to judge ‘Afterbirth’. Except that, really, this is barely even a story. It starts nowhere, goes nowhere, but it gives Hurley a chance to play with her scenery. This is a story aimed almost exclusively at readers of the novel. If you want to go back to the world of God’s War, then this is a story to satisfy your craving. Detached from the novel, looked at in isolation, this is scene setting rather than story. We have a woman who gives birth in some sort of regimented fashion (how is she impregnated?) that separates motherhood from birth, but Hurley tells us this happens without showing us its consequences. Later the woman goes back to reclaim her children, which is apparently a vanishingly rare occurrence in this world, but we get no sense of what really drives her to such an unprecedented act. Since it is later suggested she is not actually a very good mother, this lack of motivation and of any awareness of social or personal consequences becomes even more problematic. Parallel to this (Hurley blurs the chronology, so it is not always easy to see how or if one strand of story affects the other) we have the story of the same woman as an astronomer in a world that refuses to accept the importance of her findings. But then, she seems incapable of expressing the importance of her findings, the numerous passages from her interview with the authorities are notable for her incoherence. It ends with her jumping off the roof of her house ‘with the knowledge that she would not die – she had jumped many times from the roof of her farmstead and lived’. There are no consequences; but if there are no consequences, why bother? My problem with Hurley’s writing, of which this story is a prime example, is that I find nothing in it that touches me, either emotionally or intellectually.
And out of all that, how do I vote? Or do I vote? This is not a list to arouse great enthusiasm.