Story Reviews: Ken Liu And Jeremiah Tolbert

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to read more short fiction, so as to be able to nominate for the Nebulas.  Plus, as a bonus, I read more short fiction.  Inhaling new techniques makes me better as a writer, and usually provides enjoyment.
…except when it doesn’t.  I’ve been reading the tales in Clarkesworld and Lightspeed last week, and as usual some of them didn’t do it for me.  That doesn’t make them bad stories, but it does mean I feel uncomfortable reviewing every tale I encounter, as I’ll be singling out an author to go, “This bored me so much I couldn’t get through it.”  Trust me, short story authors get few enough reviews to Google themselves to find middling reviews – and honestly, there are no wretched stories in such high-quality markets as Lightspeed and Clarkesworld, just ones that weren’t to my taste.
So instead, I’ll just review the interesting bits of the stories I read that stuck with me.  The two winners this week would be Ken Liu and Jeremiah Tolbert, which pleases me inordinately; I’m friends with both of them on Twitter.  If you’ll recall, one of the reasons I haven’t nominated for the Nebula is that I’m worried about disproportionately favoring the people I know; considering I read about six tales and only really wanted to discuss two of them, it’s nice to know that I’m following some talented people.
Anyway.
In The Dying Light, We Saw A Shape, by Jeremiah Tolbert

Others had held hands while making contact before, but not Thom. It was Lilian’s idea, he admitted later, not that it mattered whose idea it was to break taboo.
Some types had been making “group contact” with whales since those two Durango, Colorado teenagers had sex on top of one. “Lovers” were much derided by the more serious Conversationalists, so Thom thought it safer to avoid public displays of affection at a site.
But Lilian had taken his hand before he could think to stop her, and when they touched the whale’s sandpaper surface, they both gasped.

What I like in particular about this story is how it snaps a traditional writing rule in half, and efficiently: show, don’t tell.  This story is telling.  It’s almost entirely telling.
It has to be telling for the story to work.
When I wrote at Clarion, I was ribbed for writing “novels in a can,” these 8,000-word monstrosities that wanted to have the scope of novels yet were crammed, like bonsai kittens, into a short story space.  Jeremiah tells a novel-sized story here that spans decades and political movements and evolution of two characters’ mindsets, and he does it because he tells almost everything.  He tells what the characters are thinking.  He tells their history.  He tells the laws that have been passed.  There are snippets of conversation, tiny islands of real-time interaction, but so much of this is recounting past history that it’s almost a Wikipedia article of itself.
And yet it works.  The writing is sharp, and the details Jeremiah chooses to show are telling.  It’s a passive story in a way, about a passive character – I’m reminded of Robert Charles Wilson’s SPIN – but it works nonetheless, and I like it all the more for doing so.
I think “show, don’t tell” often leads writers down the primrose path of bloated stories.  Rather than saying, “He was leery of her because he’d had his heart broken before,” novice writers instead engineer a 400-word flashback scene to show the time the heart was broken, and that both adds weight to the story and pulls focus from what we need to know in the now.  This is an excellent way of showing when to tell, with liberal sprinkles of show at all the right moments, and even if I did see the ending coming, I liked it regardless.
The Clockwork Soldier, by Ken Liu

“The Clockwork Soldier”
A short interactive text adventure by Ryder
You sleep, a smile at the corners of your mouth.
In your dreams, the concentric layers of carp-scale shingles on the Palace’s roof reflect the golden light so brilliantly that visitors to Chrysanthemum know right away how the city got its name.
The Princess’s Bedroom
You open your eyes and find yourself in bed. The blanket is silky smooth and the mattress soft.
Like most rooms in the Palace, this one is lined with colorful tapestries depicting the heroic deeds of the Hegemons of the Pan-Flores League. Through a narrow slit-window high off the floor, the brilliant morning sunlight diffuses into the room, as does the chittering of birds and the smell of a thousand blooming flowers in the garden. The door to the hallway is closed right now.
Next to the bed is your clockwork soldier, Spring, standing at attention.
> examine soldier
Your faithful companion Spring has been with you as long as you can remember. He’s six feet tall and looks like a living suit of armor. You remember once opening him up when you were younger, and being amazed at the thousands upon thousands of whirling gears and ticking governors and tightly-wound springs inside.
You giggle as you remember the many adventures you’ve shared together over the years. You’ve taught Spring everything he knows, and he’s saved you from too many scrapes to count.

Ken is the unflashiest stylist ever.  It’s part of his charm.  Which is to say that Ken will do these ridiculously experimental leaps with fiction – the first story of his I ever read was studded with mathematical charts – but whenever he does something off-the-wall, one never gets the feeling that it’s just because.  There’s this lovely sense that he thought very carefully about all the other ways it could be done, desiring a specific effect, and only this effect would do.
So when I read a Ken Liu story and something weird starts to happen in the structure or style of the story, I always proceed with blissful confidence.  There’s a reason he’s doing it, and so the chaos will be rewarded with something unique.
In this case, what we have is a fairly standard story about artificial intelligence, but thanks to a time-skip and the fact that much of it is told through interactive fiction, Ken mines a very nice revelation where others might have found cliche.  The interactive fiction segments in particular are very well-done, having that sort of bolt-on Intercom feel to them – not quite purple, but definitely prone to meandering and occasionally childish.  Skipping in and out between the interactive “story” and the story gives a rhythm to it that lets it flow – I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to read an entire Infocom-style tale, but knowing why someone wants to solve it (which also explains why I’m not typing in commands) ensures the artificial Scheherazade doesn’t overstay its welcome.
There’s a certain playfulness here, which is appropriate for the tone.  I enjoyed this.

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