Monday, May 19, 2014

Sturgeonblogging: Will McIntosh's "Over There"

This crap [PDF crap link] is so insultingly, uninterestingly bad that I almost want to refuse to write about it at all. But here I am, for, ahem, some reason.

So, some scientists perform a tiny little experiment in quantum teleportation, and for some reason (I don't know, because Roger Penrose mumbled something vaguely related once, who cares) this results in everyone on Earth (just humans? just here? who cares!) being aware of their sensations, thoughts, and actions in two different quantum realities or whatever simultaneously, in one of which, for sub-Langoliers reasons, there are big ribbons of light that everyone, en masse, spontaneously, without discussing it with each other, decides to call "dragons" for no good goddamn reason, that go around at random turning people into stone that still thinks, somehow, which everyone seems automatically to know is permanent and irreversible, and also it makes the other version of you go insane if you're a woman who is no longer important to the plot.

This, and (much more so) a whole lot of utterly meaningless running around, is accomplished through a formal device that I was actually mildly excited about before I started reading the damn thing, in which everything after the experiment and before [SPOILERS!!!!] one of the versions of the narrator dies (i.e., the bulk of the story) is told in two columns, sort-of-almost-simultaneously conveying what is going on for him in each reality. Before I started reading I kind of glanced ahead at this and noticed that the opening paragraphs of each column were identical but for one very minor adverb, and I was like, ooh. I was like, a science fiction story that resists being read straight through! I was like, maybe I'll get to quote Gabriel Josipovici on the struggle to make what are ultimately arbitrary writing decisions in the absence of a craft tradition! I was like, Derrida, something-something!

But the story doesn't support any of this — which would be fine, it doesn't have to support what I thought it might before I started reading it, but unfortunately another thing it doesn't support is anything else. This story is fundamentally not interested in anything at all. The unusual structure exists, I'm sure of it, because McIntosh DARED ASK: "Would this be kind of a neat trick maybe for some reason?" and lo he answered himself: "Meh, sure, who cares." Startlingly, the story answers all of the major questions it raises in ways that make "meh, sure, who cares" sound profound: McIntosh is deeply uninterested in exploring any of them. What would it feel like, what would it mean, to be simultaneously conscious of two distinct realities and two distinct versions of yourself? Who cares! What would it do to a person to know that he was responsible for a worldwide catastrophe? Who cares! What might it be like to be both dead and not dead? Who cares! In fact even on a more functional, procedural level I kept imagining McIntosh's whole writing process as a series of questions and non-answers:

Q. Wait, how do I deal with the passage of time in this structure I've chosen?
Non-A. Who cares, if you pretend things are simultaneous no one will notice. And just throw in section breaks wherever you get stuck, they don't have to make sense or line up with each other or anything.
Q. How do people behave during disasters?
Non-A. I don't know, but I bet they get selfish and violent for no reason unless they're the protagonist! And ooh, that's helpful, because I didn't know what to do after this section break.
Q. What motivates people to like, do shit and stuff?
Non-A. I don't know, women probably? Yeah, lemme put a woman in here. [He types: made... his... stomach... do... a... little... flip.] Hoo boy, now he'll wanna do things, that's for sure.
Q. Oh wait, aren't women sort of people too? What motivates them?
Non-A. God, I have no idea. Um, babies? Yeah, let's say babies, she's having a baby — his baby! Wow! Now there's a story! KEEP IT COMIN'!

I thought about quoting some individual sentences just to show how abysmal the prose is, too, but I have better things to do — literally everyone on earth has better things to do at all times, up to and including things your boss told you to do — than to examine this heap at that level of resolution. The writing is just really bad, OK? I mean, there's the link up there, look at it. It's embarrassing. Try the first five paragraphs if you want to experience successive jaw-droppings that will leave you, finally, jawless. Then skip ahead to somewhere in the middle and go down any page circling the occurrences of the word "guy," just for fun. Maybe their arrangement on the page is a secret code or something.

I'm trying at least to find it heartening that a magazine like Asimov's would publish, and an sf award jury would recognize, a story with some moderate formal oddity. But nope, I just can't.


P.S. Who wrote the note at the top of the story explaining that it might not display right on some Newfangled Handheld Contraptions and that there's a PDF with the proper layout on the Asimov's website? What a mess. "The plot to 'Over There' can't be separated from its graphic layout on some digital readers." Huh? To me this first suggests that the plot only makes sense if the story looks the way it does on some digital readers — so sorry, print subscribers, we just sent you a load of nonsense! Or is it trying to say that "plot" is ordinarily something you "separate" from any given story's "graphic layout" as you read it, but that with this story, on some readers, you just can't properly effect this separation? What? I can think of several different ways to interpret that sentence, and none of them is "Some digital readers won't display this story right, so in addition to being terrible it might also be needlessly confusing unless you get the PDF", which is of course what it's supposed to mean.


Niall said...

I'm trying to feel bad about getting you into this, but when you're this entertainingly cranky, I can't. Sorry.

I think my own reaction to the story is best summed up by saying that I'm not angry, I'm just very disappointed. The prose is default American science fiction prose, which is bad, but I've read worse. There were brief moments when I did get a superposition of narratives in my head, and that was quite exciting, but only briefly, because then the banal cheapness of the plot would reassert itself. Perhaps the most irritating bit is when we handwave away any sense that scientists might bear responsibility for the consequences of their actions by asserting that a catastrophic lab experiment that kills millions is just like an inadvertent exclamation that endangers one person. Or maybe we're meant to think that this is characterisation, and see Nathan as shallow and morally flimsy? But that seems to go against everything else in the story.

Ethan Robinson said...

"The prose is default American science fiction prose, which is bad, but I've read worse."

Yeah, I suppose in a way it's like an Analog story got thrown into Asimov's due to a computer glitch at Dell somewhere...still, this seems particularly bad to me.

(Also, at least in older works, I often actively like "default American science fiction prose", and at any rate tend to think a story can survive "bad" writing a lot easier than "good". But this is just miserable.)

The moment you single out (the whole "You made a mistake too!" thing) was another jaw-dropper for me. Nathan certainly is shallow and morally flimsy--to put it mildly--but he is so clearly not meant to be. The moral bankruptcy of this story is limitless.

Chuckie K said...

Made me laugh with this. Sadly, I knew I had read this story. Obviously found it forgettable. But now I think when I read pulp I don't pay attention. Just time-killing.

Ethan Robinson said...

Nominated for an award

Erin Horakova said...

Columns are obvs phallocentric, and this 'parallel universe versions of Nathan' malarky does indeed sound like a tale of two dicks.

Ethan Robinson said...

HAH! Marvelous.