Letter From The Editor - Issue 65 - October 2018

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
October 2018

Title: The Million
Author: Karl Schroeder
Publisher: Tor.com

In the future of Karl Schroeder's latest short novel, which shares a universe with his book Lockstep (2014), the problem of non-FTL travel to other star systems has been "solved" in the following manner. Ten billion humans, whose primary base is Earth, but who also travel to other solar systems as their fancy strikes, have chosen to adapt their lives to a 360/1 lockstep: that is to say, they spend the majority of time in cryo-suspension, emerging for one month of wakefulness every thirty years (or three-hundred and sixty months) of inactivity. Thus, a seventeen-year-old teen born into lockstep, for instance, will have experienced seventeen years of life but will be over six thousand years old compared to the standard passage of time on Earth. That's a lot of nap time, even for the rich and infamous, and they need someone to tend the civilizational fires while they're dreaming the millennia away: hence, the eponymous Million. One view of this group is that they are essentially the glorified groundskeepers--"janitors," as an Auditing student complains about two-thirds in--of the ten Billion, the Earth's real owners. Another view, decidedly more romantic, holds that "all of civilization rested on their shoulders." The truth, as our protagonist, the illegally-conceived orphan Gavin Penn-of-Chaffee, discovers, is considerably more entangled and nettlesome.

Part of the complications arise structurally. The Million's basic system is a compound of neatly stacked asymmetries: three-hundred and sixty years to one year, ten billion people to one million. From these follow all sorts of cultural, socio-economic and philosophical implications, including an apparently utopian array of material resources for the Million, who are simultaneously ensnared in a constrictive dynamic regarding population growth and information control. Suspended animation, as a Draconian solution to baser Malthusian instincts, was famously and irreverently proposed by Philip José Farmer in his story "The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World" (1971) and its latter Dayworld trilogy expansion. Schroeder's rationale neatly decouples this application of temporal suspension from its original gloomy over-population forecasts, and instead positively reconceives it for space travel. Interestingly, Petter Watts did something similar in his excellent recent novel, The Freeze-Frame Revolution, which I covered in these pages. Enhancing these inequities of design, Schroeder gives us two main characters, the aforementioned Gavin, and the teen Elana, who in their separate ways must overcome challenging psychological and relational barriers.

Gavin, in particular, must don a new identity in an effort not only to protect himself but also to try and help clear his adoptive brother Bernie of patricide charges. As part of this identity, he has to train to be an Auditor, thus preparing to join forces with the very contingent that killed his adoptive father. This plot strand is filigreed with some nicely baroque touches, as when Gavin, pretending to be Neal Makhav-of-Winter-Park, in turn borrows Elana's costume at an elaborate party, so as to lose his own shadow bot. The ages of the protagonists, their various assignments and reversals of fortune, the elite school setting, and the uncovering of deep conspiracies, all lend The Million a somewhat-YA sensibility. The prose is mostly effective at explaining the narrative world and giving us the character insights we need to follow the story, with occasionally inspired stage-setting such as: "Every few hundred kilometers, a bot would announce which Great Family's province they were passing over. The names were ancient: Cumbria, Leeds, Norwich. Brussels, Luxembourg, Bavaria. There were no settlements. Elephants, boars, lions, and the ancient bull of legend, the aurochs, wandered at will. Now and then the zeppelin would pass one of the museum cities--and then, despite his misery, Gavin would walk to one of the open galleries to watch it pass underneath as the headwind tore at his hair." Dialogue, on the other hand, fares less well, often of flat or stilted affect, or anti-climactic (after a major revelation near the story's end, for example, Gavin's response is: "Oh.") The plot itself also feels oddly lopsided, almost truncated: the engines are revving up just as we reach the final pages, with a clear tease of exciting developments ahead, but no real sense of resolution in this particular tale.

Part of Schroeder's dedication of The Million reads, "Not everything's a dystopia," and it's worth evaluating this work in those terms. The first third of the novel introduces us to an apparently utopian world, where people live in vast tracts ("Six thousand square kilometers of land, and just the two of them to take care of it?") and possess enormous resources ("Everybody had armies and air forces, or if you lived on the coast, a navy or two. Why not? They were fun toys."). At one point, a group decides to experience "an ancient historical epic"--Star Wars--and they proceed in the only fashion that makes sense to them, by instantly assembling storm-troopers, full-scale X-wings and TIE fighters, by erecting sets, lighting gear, and even an orchestra of bots for the score. But as the story progresses, this veneer of utopianism is gradually stripped off. In the way the novel's youthful, plucky characters manage to lop through swaths of conspiracies, and if not necessarily disrupt the status quo at least gain new insights into its terms and conditions, The Million is essentially hopeful in a manner akin to many dystopian narratives.

Taken as a standalone story, I'm not sure The Million does justice to its scope, which remains mostly implied. As the first entry (or second, if we take into account Lockstep) in an ongoing project, it's an intriguing work with the potential to thoughtfully complicate the utopia/dystopia dialectic via genuinely stirring sf-nal conceits. "Of course the Million weren't alone in the solar system," we're told. "There were other civilizations out there, some of them vast, not all of them human." Next stop, the stars.

Title: Tomorrow Factory: Collected Fiction
Author: Rich Larson
Publisher: Talos

Rich Larson's debut collection is one of the strongest--first or not--I've encountered in years. His prose is consistently taut and supple, muscular but playful. Read this collection and marvel at the range of styles, tones, ideas; at the outrageous yet plausibly conceived scenarios and the invitingly torn characters peopling them. And then find your mind further boggled by the fact that these twenty-three pieces represent but a mere sampling of Larson's vast and ever-expanding body of short fiction (over a hundred and fifty stories so far), and that he's still in his twenties. Many other fine pieces, available online--a personal favorite is "The Air We Breathe Is Stormy, Stormy"--would be worthy of their own collections, and I guarantee that you'll crave these virtual delights once you've consumed the tales between these covers.

Things click right into place with "All That Robot Shit." If you think Robinson Crusoe could have benefitted from some robot companions, think again, or at least heed the possibility that they might evolve their own creation myths and consequently not be compelled to help you. The idea of an artificial sentience developing an origin story that denies humans' role in the creation of such an intelligence harkens back at least to Isaac Asimov's classic story "Reason," but Larson innovates and expands the theme in intriguing ways, not least of which is the vernacular. Despite--or perhaps because of--the fundamental role of reception among this story's players, the ending, with the deliberate uncertainty of its final line, is memorably poignant.

I confess that the more introspection-laden, quietly emotional stories tend to be my favorites by Larson, and following suit from the collection opener we encounter "Atrophy"'s artful splintering of reality: "She'd been walking Addy to the school, crossing the bridge. Then something split the top of her head open. She'd stumbled against the railing but the vines turned to metal under her hands, and when she looked down the bright clear canal had no water, only brackish sludge, and something pale and red-spotted was lying in the mud." Technology is here applied to literally redress one's perceptions of a haunted wasteland. The details and descriptions are pitch-perfect, and I enjoy how this story continues a conversation to which have contributed Chris Beckett's similarly sense-bending "The Perimeter" and "Piccadilly Circus," as well as Elizabeth Bear's bleak "The Hand is Quicker".

Basketball, a sense of family legacy, and youthful ambition powerfully gel in "Meshed," which sees a star-athlete-in-the-making refuse a popular procedure that would allow others to experience his virtuosity from the inside. It's hard to conceive of two better opening lines: "In the dusked-down gym, Oxford Diallo is making holo after holo his ever-loving bitch, shredding through them with spins, shimmies, quicksilver crossovers. He's a sinewy scarecrow, nearly seven foot already, but handles the ball so damn shifty you'd swear he has gecko implants done up in those supersized hands."

The notion of consciousness-piggybacking crops up again in the touching "Your Own Way Back," in which a grandfather shares the skull of his grandson while waiting for a new cloned body, until he doesn't. The bridging of generations by means of an assistive technology made me recall Xia Jia's "Tongtong's Summer." More manic in pacing and brazen in its execution, "Let's Take This Viral" inexorably follows the logic of experiential innovation for non-human minds, and arrives at an arresting--no pun intended--conclusion regarding their ultimate pleasure.

The time travel moral quandary of "Every So Often" may be less ingenious than some of Larson's other ideations, but its assured grimness more than makes up for that. In addition to these highlights, The Tomorrow Factory contains three flash stories and one poem, not without their own soulful sizzle. "The Sky Didn't Load Today" manages both chilling precision and surrealism; "Chronology of Heartbreak" wields a perfectly-sharpened, irony-propelled blade to the chest. "Datafall," by comparison, well, falls short of the mark for me. But "I Went to the Asteroid to Bury You"--with its clever connection to "The Ghost Ship Anastasia"--is as good an excursion into space-travel poetics as you're likely to find.

Larson is also very good in the thriller, cyberpunk-quasi-body-horror and action modes. Enter the exhibit with the cunning hijinks of "You Make Pattaya," the Predator-esque "Extraction Request," the space operatic "The Ghost Ship Anastasia," the Venom-ous "Brute," and the prison yarn "Capricorn." The mechanized violence of "Ghost Girl" is grounded in a sensitive backstory, as is the systematized alienation of "Edited" (which contains a nice bit of continuity with "Meshed"). Linguistic mischievousness, and a colorful adolescent patois or three, inform, among others, the aforementioned "Brute," as well as the social-media-inspired "Razzibot," which posits that rawness will always be more seductive than performance. Several other stories I'll leave entirely for you to discover, though I can't resist the phrase "sentient train." Finally, "Innumerable Glimmering Lights," with its rigorous investigation into the clash between science and culture in a thoroughly alien aquatic setting, is quite literally a show-stopper.

Because Larson is a master of many trades, and the range of his effects is so considerable, the thoughtful collocation of these stories should itself be praised, and forms its own narrative. I therefore recommend proceeding in sequential order. And enjoy the candid, self-deprecating, contextually revelatory "Author's Notes," too. They may make you revisit a story or two, and with work of this caliber, that's not a bad thing.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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