Visions of Paradise

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Best Short Novels 2007, part 2

Science fiction writers generally postulate two diverging near futures. The technophiles believe science and technology will continue to thrive and grow stronger and more dominating in our lives. William Gibson was in the forefront of that movement until time caught up with his future. Vernor Vinge and Alastair Reynolds are two other adherents to this viewpoint.

But some writers see an inevitable decline in our future. They foresee some economic or ecological crash tearing down the very fabric of modern civilization, causing a simplified lifestyle forced by decreased population and lessened sources of energy. I am definitely no a technophile myself, preferring to read about change rather than “more of the same but worsened”, so I usually find such futures more thought-provoking and, to some extent, inevitable.

Robert Charles Wilson’s “Julian: A Christmas Story” portrays such a future. It hints at the causes with the statement “Millions had died in the worst dislocations of the End of Oil,” but that is not the crux of the story. It is a coming of age story involving a working class youth Adam and his best friend Julian, a member of the elite ruling class whose family has controlled the presidency (which is really a dictatorship) for generations. Now Julian’s uncle is president, and he has forced the execution of Julian’s hero father, fearing him a threat to the uncle’s power, and is looking to eliminate Julian as well.

The United States has expanded into Canada, indicated by a 60-star flag and an ongoing war in Labrador against the invading Dutch. Government reserves come to Adam’s hometown to forcibly enlist youths into the military, so Julian and Adam flee, since if Julian entered the army it would give his uncle an easy opportunity to arrange his death.

“Julian” is a good story but it reads a lot like an unfinished opening of a novel. I look forward to reading the rest of the story.

I have always thought that Michael Swanwick writes fabulous scenes, but his stories generally do not hold together very well either structurally or thoughtfully. In this regard, he is the sfnal heir of Roger Zelazny, who suffered from the same weakness. Still, both authors’ stories usually offer so much pizzazz and wonder it is easy to forget the logical flimsiness and just go along for the ride.

“Lord Weary’s Empire” is quintessential Swanwick. It opens with a silly fight scene between Will, a protagonist whose essence contains some type of “dragon-darkness within him”, and a big, hulking brute of low intelligence. I rarely enjoy stories built around such violence, and the only reason I continued reading at this point was because I decided to trust Swanwick.

I was glad I did. “Empire” is the story of a ragtag band of fantasy beings, elves and the like, whose actions are decidedly human. They live far beneath a teeming city in subway tunnels and deeper, imagining themselves the Army of Night and dreaming of fomenting a rebellion against the government aboveground. Sometimes such pipedreams make quirky but fascinating reading, and that was the case here. The characters in the self-proclaimed army were fascinating, although mostly underused, and some of the scenes were fairly inventive. Captain Jack Riddle, a disguise used by Will to torment the aboveground authorities, was the highlight of the of the story, but after one dynamic use that identity was mostly abandoned. I think the story should have focused on Captain Jack far more than it did for best effect.

I had mixed thoughts about the story’s ending, partly thinking it fitting, partly thinking it a cliché copout. Overall “Lord Weary’s Empire” was a fun story which could have been better thought-out as well as expanded somewhat.

When I think of the writers who best combine f&sf with literature, I think of Ursula K Le Guin, Michael Bishop, Kim Stanley Robinson, Michael Chabon, and Jeffrey Ford. “The Cosmology of the Wider World” and “The Empire of Ice Cream” are two of my half-dozen favorite pieces of short fiction this entire decade. “Botch Town” is not far behind them.

Like “Julian,” “Botch Town” is a rite of passage story, but this one is set in the past, concentrating on a family in the 1960s. The narrator–whose name is never mentioned; at least I have no idea what his name was– has an older brother Jim in middle school and a younger sister Mary. His father works three jobs to keep the family fiscally above water, and the mother works one job, then comes home and proceeds to get drunk every night while the father works his night job. But don’t get the idea this family is either dysfunctional or stereotypical. Ford is much too serious a writer to fall into that trap. The family is loving and fully-supportive, although it does have some disputes typical of such families, especially occasional sibling rivalries.

The main plot of the story concerns a prowler who is seen periodically peeking in windows around town. The three siblings act as detectives trying to find the identity of the prowler. They achieve a breakthrough of sorts when the narrator realizes that Jim’s miniature town in the basement–the Botch Town of the title which contains all the town’s houses and neighbors in miniature–also contains a prowler who mysteriously moves to the location where he is seen in the real world.

“Botch Town” is a very spooky story, much more effectively emotional than a blood-and-gore horror story. The scene when the narrator encounters the prowler in the library is genuinely scary, as is the story’s climax. But the story is much deeper than only an excuse to be spooky. Ford fully develops both the characters and the town itself, so that “Botch Town” lives and breathes as if its setting is a real place. Rarely do I finish a story and wish it were longer, but this was one of those cases. For the second year in a row, Jeffrey Ford has written my favorite novella of the year, and both instances with pure fantasy stories, while I am primarily an sf fan. In my mind he is the heir to Michael Bishop’s position as my current favorite literary sf writer.


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