Sunday, 27 December 2015

Short Story Sunday 13: Alastair Reynolds, David Langford, and Michael Swanwick

Short Story Sunday, thirteenth edition, brings you rock ‘n’ roll dinosaurs, first contact with an alien civilization, and murderous house. Let’s get started.

“At Budokan” by Alastair Reynolds
Read in Year’s Best SF 16 (2011), edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
Originally published in Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic SF (2010), edited by Jetse de Vries

One of the tricky things about reviewing short stories is that your enjoyment of some of them depends on a twist or reveal toward the end of the story. It makes it difficult to write about it in a critical way because part of your review is simply dancing around the plot reveal. “At Budokan” is one of those stories. It’s good enough that it will still be a good read upon rereading and that’s due to the fact that the overall story and thematic elements are more important than the plot twist. That’s something that lesser writers struggle with but Reynolds has a firm grasp on his story from the very first page.

Fox and Jake used to be partners in managing rock bands. Their bands weren’t conventional bands though. Their first big success was a band of revived corpses. There second success a band of robots which replicated famous bands during their peak years with such precision that you wouldn’t know they were robots. They’ve had a few rough years because each band ends up falling apart in the same way. The talent gets ideas. They’re not just performers, they start to improvise and branch out in new musical directions eventually leading to the breakup of the band for the sake of solo careers.

Jake is tired of this and he develops a new kind of band. He’s asked Fox to come visit him so that he can introduce him to the frontman, Derek. Derek is like nothing you’ve ever seen. Better than undead musicians and robots, I can promise you that. You’ll have to read the story for yourself to find out about him as I don’t want to ruin anything for you.

Ranking: 4 stars
This story is quite imaginative. Not only in the tightly constructed story or the ridiculousness of its plot (and it is ridiculous, in an enjoyable and gleeful way), but also in its unusual combination of ideas. Science fiction and rock ‘n’ roll work surprisingly well together in this story. I’m guess it’s a hard mix to get right and that most stories trying to combine the two probably fall flat. Reynolds gives himself an advantage by adding a humorously deadpan tone. It helps ease the reader into the ridiculousness of it all but the story ends with a punch. It’s both emotionally poignant while also being uplifting. In this twisted version of the entertainment industry, science is cruel but rock ‘n’ roll is radically liberating.

“Graffiti in the Library of Babel” by David Langford
Read in Year’s Best SF 16 (2011), edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
Originally published in Is Anybody Out There? (2010), edited by Marty Halpern and Nick Gevers

Surprising no one, this is my first story by David Langford. Apparently he’s one of the most popular and most successful comedic science fiction writers. I’ve never even heard of him. Shows you just how well I know my science fiction. “Graffiti in the Library of Babel” is a first contact story. Aliens are scribbling in the books of the Total Library, an archival project collecting all the writings of Earth.

Ceri Evans is hired to decode the notes scribbled in books of classic literature and physics. The aliens aren’t present other than in their words. While deciphering the notes Evans comes to the realization that the aliens aren’t writing anything new, they’re highlighting or confirming knowledge and universal truths already written in the books of the Total Library. By looking at known knowledge in the sequence suggested by the alien tags, Evans discovers dangerous ideas.

Ranking: 3 stars
The best things about this short story are the ideas. It’s a neat way for first contact to occur and it makes sense that the initial “encounter” would be via long distance communication. I also like the idea that he aliens could be testing humanity’s ability to solve the puzzle of the graffiti and figure out the message. What doesn’t work well is the execution. The characters converse like robots, their speech fully saturated with references, and feeling very unnatural. I think Langford was more concerned with presenting a couple good ideas than he was in developing them. At ten pages in length, I would have like something a little longer and with more depth.

“Steadfast Castle” by Michael Swanwick
Read in Year’s Best SF 16 (2011), edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
Originally published in F&SF (Sept/Oct 2010), edited by Gordon Van Gelder

A very short two person conversation, “Steadfast Castle” is a futuristic murder mystery. It takes place entirely inside a house; an automated and murderous house. The story’s structure is that of a dialogue, it’s essentially a two man play. As a police officer and a house converse, the story develops quickly, revealing plenty of intrigue and a believable look at life in the near future.

Ranking: 4 stars
I don’t want to reveal much about this story. It’s very short (under 8 pages) and it’s quick on its feet. I’m rather impressed with Swanwick’s ability to condense so much story and moderate world building into so few pages. There is one thing that holds it back from being truly great, and it’s that Swanwick’s characters are able to make deductions the reader can’t make based on the characters’ knowledge of the futuristic world in which the story takes place. Often times the world building information comes with the officer’s deductions. I think it’s a result of the story’s compression, but aside from that this is a very enjoyable story.

Next week we take a break from short story reviews as I count down my favourite comic book and novels read in 2015.

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