Visions of Paradise

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Cities

Welcome to the first installment of the online version of Visions of Paradise. This will not be any new material for my papernet readers, but selections from past issues of VoP, mostly articles and reviews. Enjoy

Peter Crowther is a British writer/editor who also publishes a series of hardcover sf novellas under the imprint PS Publishing. Periodically he publishes 4 of the novellas in anthologies under the running title Foursight. Recently the fourth volume was published as Cities , which contains 3 of the most acclaimed recent novellas from PS Publishing, one of which is by China Miéville, which is enough incentive to buy the book. Having read it, I am very pleased that I did.

I have not read much by Paul di Filippo even though he is very prolific and highly-acclaimed by some critics. A few years ago his collection Strange Trades was selected by several people as the finest original sf collection of the year. A Year in the Linear City was equally-acclaimed, and it opens the book Cities. I enjoyed it very much, and was very impressed by how it succeeded on several levels.

The “linear city” is exactly as it is described: a single block with rows of houses on either side, bordering a river on one side and a railroad track on the other. Although populated by humans, the city is a truly alien world. For example, when people die one of two types of ethereal beings take their bodies either to a heavenly place or a hellish one, depending on their goodness or badness during their life. The city is also virtually endless, so that nobody has ever seen “boroughs” more than a few thousand blocks away.

The protagonist Diego Patchin is a writer of “cosmogonic fiction” whose stories appear regularly in that genre’s top market Mirror Worlds. During the story he is always thinking of new ideas to use, and they are invariably facts that exist in “our” world which do not do so in his world. Such as the invention of telephones. Or airplanes. Or television. This small facet of the story is one of its most amusing parts.

Linear City is basically a satire with several aspects. The main storyline concerns a diplomatic trip by the mayor and other dignitaries from Diego’s borough to another borough several hundred thousand blocks down the line. The trip becomes a fiasco due to cultural differences which neither group had been prepared for.

A secondary storyline concerns Diego’s best friend Zohar and his heroin-addicted girlfriend Milagra who has a crisis when the delivery of heroin is abruptly stopped, and Diego must help Zohar save her life somehow.

The third storyline, which is admittedly a minor one, concerns Diego’s career as a writer of “cosmogonic fiction”, and how he is looked down upon by the literary establishment in spite of his popular success. I cannot help but wonder if this if a reaction to de Filippo’s own reputation in “mainstream” circles.

The “linear city” is a multi-faceted construct whose surface de Filippo barely scratched in this novella. I hope he plans to investigate it further, and I will definitely buy such a book if it is ever published.

The second novella is China Miéville’s The Tain, about which I have mixed feelings. On one hand it is a powerful story based on a very original concept in a chapter from Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings. The chapter called “Fauna of Mirrors” supposes that images in mirrors were once-upon-a-time independent beings able to come and go through mirrors into our world. After the images attacked our world, they were defeated and imprisoned in the mirrors by the legendary Yellow Emperor, and have since despised humans and plotted to escape their imprisonment and take over control of our world. Their escape is the premise of The Tain.

The protagonist is a man named Scholl who has devised a plan to end the war which humans are losing badly. London, and presumably the entire world, is a battlefield nearly devoid of surviving humans or any surviving signs of civilization. Although basically a war story, it is rich with details of the transformed world and of the escaped images as well. But it has some problems.

One is that from the story’s beginning Scholl has a plan to end the war with the images, but while he mentions the plan numerous times, it is never revealed to the reader. In fact, the execution of that plan is the climax of the story, which is cheating on the part of Miéville. Since much of the story was told from the point of view of Scholl, if he knew something so important, the reader should have known it as well.

Another problem is that half of the story was told from the point of view of one of the escaped images, and these portions were as much confusing as they were revelatory. In fact, it was halfway through the story before I even realized whose viewpoint those portions were, so I went back and reread them and finally understood what was happening. While I might not be the most insightful of readers, neither do I think I am the densest, so presumably this was not exclusively my problem but partly that of the story itself. In fact, even after I figured out what was happening in those segments, the last one was still confusing to me.

The last problem is Scholl himself. The climax of the story is dependent on Scholl’s being special (or protected) in the eyes of the images, and he wonders a lot why that might be true. Halfway through the story I thought I knew why he must be special, but in fact the reason was never revealed at all (or, if it was, I missed it as well).

So I have to give this story a mixed review: fascinating concept, well-developed in parts, but having logical gaps and some confusion as well.

V.A.O. by Geoff Ryman starts out as a strange story: a bunch of residents in a nursing home are following a news story about a group of seniors committing a series of daring robberies under the slogan “Age Rage”. But the story builds momentum as it goes on. Ever wonder what today’s generation of unethical computer hackers will be like when they’re old? Ever wonder how residents of nursing homes really feel when they are abandoned by their families, treated without dignity or any real caring other than the most surface, basic caring?

V.A.O. gets stronger and stronger as a story as it goes along, really hitting home in the scene when a group of senior robbers are working a baseball stadium on national tv, and one of them makes the statement, “Do you think it won’t happen to you? Do you think health foods, gyms, and surgery are going to stop that? ...just remember. Your kids are watching you. And learning. What you do to us, your kids will do to you.”

Every middle-aged baby boomer, shuffling their parents off to nursing homes and leaving them there, shrugging at substandard treatment and lives made pointless when they should not be, should read this story very carefully and think about it. It is scarier than any horror story dares to be, because someday it will happen to all of us!

1 Comments:

  • "The Tain", much like _The Scar_, has an ending that is never fully revealed and must be pieced together by the reader, so some re-reading may be required.

    (SPOILERS AHEAD)

    The viewpoint characters are, as befits the general theme of the story, like mirror images of each other. You don't actually *need* to be told what Scholl's origins are because he's practically the inverse of the "imago" (who is actually human).

    Another hint is that Scholl may be named after Hans and Sophie Scholl of the White Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany, who were ultimately captured and executed for treason.

    The novella thus raises questions about identity in times of war, and the muddling of purpose as the conflict goes on ("[...] what if the chosen one misunderstands what he's been chosen for?"). I wouldn't be surprised if China also had the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in mind when he wrote this piece, by the way. In addition, "The Tain" contains the same issues of culture shock that feature in nearly all of Miéville's works.

    By Blogger Luís Rodrigues, At 12:40 AM  

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