Thursday, June 12, 2014

Sturgeonblogging: E. Lily Yu's "The Urashima Effect" and closing comments

We join a man, Leo Aoki, as he awakens from hibernation three subjective years, halfway, into a journey at relativistic speeds to a planet in another solar system. He is, according to plans at any rate, part of a research mission — the first of several people, including Leo's astrophysicist wife Esther, who will also be making the same journey, though the others will be two years behind. The story alternates between Leo's sort of puttering around his small vessel (playing chess and go and other games against the computer; looking out the ports at the stars, "gathered by aberration into a glittering disc eight degrees across" in an otherwise entirely black "sky"; and so forth) and his listening to a recording Esther made for him, most of the portion we hear consisting of her rendition of the folk tale of Urashima Taro, the fisherman who journeys to the bottom of the sea for what he thinks are only a few years but finds when he returns to land that centuries have passed*; she (a third generation Japanese-American) knows the story where he (fifth generation) does not because she is "inquisitive and knowledgeable about the cultural inheritance he had never claimed."

*The story may be familiar to sf readers from Ursula K. Le Guin's use of it in "A Fisherman of the Inland Sea", there as here a metaphor, naturally, for time dilation.

Leo thinks at first that the recording is a standard part of the mission, part of the "sixty hours of audio recordings by family and friends" each member of the team must bring with them, "to keep them sane and functional in their isolation." Once she finishes the story of Urashima, though, Esther tells Leo that shortly after he was put into hibernation "the US and Japan came to the brink of war"; there is talk in the US of bringing back internment camps. Because of these events, the flight that would have brought her to the planet — a collaborative US/Japan effort — has been scrapped, in favor of a "unilateral program that will not have the funding" to send her. Leo, over Esther's protests, has been sent anyway. Esther says that she "broke into your ship's systems and altered these recordings so that you would know what happened" — telling him the story of Urashima Taro first in order to give him time to recover from hibernation, and to prepare him for the news — and that she has rigged his ship so that, should he decide to, he can eject and, decades later, return to Earth to see Esther again, even though she will have aged enormously, become a different person in the intervening time. At story's end, it seems Leo has decided to continue the mission — for if he were to turn around, all that has already been lost would still be lost, and he would additionally be losing everything that, in terms of the mission, has been gained.

Now that I've dithered for two paragraphs in plot summary, I have to confess: I have basically nothing to say about this story. In theory I approve of its stasis, and of its talkiness. It is clear that Yu has thoughts in her head that I like, thoughts about loss and loneliness, time and distance, the melancholy beauty of Relativity, the need for roots, the shifting course of a life; and I'm sure I would nod in agreement to most anything she might say about the overwhelming racism of the United States. But one does not read stories in order to agree or disagree with them (or rather, this is but one part of reading among many), and however many marks I may make on my scorecard while reading this story the fact remains that the story itself is, for me, mostly uninspiring (which is to say, it inspires in me no strong feeling, whether positive or negative). It goes from point A to point B (with perfectly skillful zig-zagging and detours to points C and D along the way), but it gives me no feeling that anything has happened — in me, in the writer, in the world, even in those abstract concepts we call "characters". I'm not talking about plot or lack thereof, I'm not talking about "dynamic characters," I'm not talking about the busy-ness that many people are referring to when they say that things "happen" in a work of fiction; I mean that the work of art "The Urashima Effect" does not feel to me like an event of any consequence. It's fine. It's good enough, as far as that goes. I'm not sorry I read it, but neither am I happy I did. I spent most of my last post defending a story against the RUMIR title (for those just joining us: "routine, unoriginal, mildly interesting, and readable" — from Joanna Russ), but this time it seems to me that the acronym fits extremely well, so long as one doesn't forget the MIR along with the RU.


Since I do find myself with so little to say about the story, and since this is the final chapter of Sturgeonblogging, I may as well use this space for a wrap-up. I had originally planned to write a summation post with thoughts on the award in general, lists of the stories I would hate to win and those I wouldn't mind if they did, and maybe predictions. But the cat's out of the bag; I had been under the impression that the winner would be announced this coming weekend, but it actually happened on Tuesday (which means this post would have been something of an anticlimax even if I had had anything useful to say about the story at hand). But just for the hell of it, why don't I say something like what I would have said if it hadn't happened yet.

First, links to my posts.

  1. Gregory Norman Bossert's "Bloom"
  2. Vylar Kaftan's "The Weight of the Sunrise"
  3. Alaya Dawn Johnson's "They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass"
  4. Will McIntosh's "Over There"
  5. Alan DeNiro's "The Wildfires of Antarctica"
  6. Val Nolan's "The Irish Astronaut"
  7. Sarah Pinsker's "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind"
  8. Robert Reed's "Mystic Falls"
  9. Kenneth Schneyer's "Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer"
  10. E. Lily Yu's "The Urashima Effect" (duh, scroll back up)
Ten stories. Five I wouldn't have minded winning ("Bloom", "They Shall", "Mystic Falls", "Selected Program Notes", and, perhaps surprisingly given the negativity of my review, "Wildfires" — which at least is trying for something). Five whose winning would have bothered me (and one whose winning did), to varying degrees (had "Urashima" won, I would have said "Really? Why? OK then," and shrugged; had "Over There" won, I would have known the jury was trolling us). If I were picking a winner from this list? I'm not sure. Probably "Selected Program Notes", though "Mystic Falls" and "They Shall" would be close contenders. (I'm also sure that if there is a best science fiction story of last year, whatever it is it wasn't on the shortlist at all.)

Looking over the list, I'm impressed in some ways with the variety. "Bloom", "Weight", "Over There", " Wildfires", and "Irish", say, ignoring for the moment their varying virtues, all go about being (or, in the last case, not being) sf in very different ways. In a contemporary field that can often feel claustrophobically homogeneous, it's nice to see that at least some kind of difference is being rewarded here. On the other hand, though, three notable formal departures aside, there is a great deal of homogeneity in how the stories go about being stories. You might be able to slip a piece of paper into the stylistic space between "Bloom", "Weight", "Irish", "They Shall", "In Joy", "Mystic Falls", and "Urashima", but it would have to be that really thin paper they print the unabridged OED on; and even "Over There", for all its two-column technique, is fully, if incompetently, committed to the same kind of storytelling.

I've been debating with myself whether to get sassy about the jury (and if so just how sassy to get). I have no particular opinion of Noël Sturgeon (who I know nothing about), James Gunn (I think all I've read of him is his terribly pointless but mildly charming book about Isaac Asimov), or Kij Johnson (I loved "Spar" when I read it a few years ago but suspect I might not now, and that's all I know of her). But everything I know about Elizabeth Bear and Andy Duncan leads me to believe that they are precisely the kind of artistically bland, timid, and contented people that I think are the bane of sf's contemporary existence (whether as writers, readers, critics, or editors), not to mention their equally bland, timid, and contented brand of liberalism and lily-white "anti-racism".

Given this, and given the general tenor of the choices, I have a strong suspicion that even those stories on the shortlist that I liked were chosen for reasons I would find unacceptable. Where I liked "Bloom" despite its "human story" (as I put it in my review), I suspect that that human story is precisely why it is on the shortlist, that if the story had committed to what I found lively in it it would not have been nominated at all. (Actually, it might never have been published at all, but though it's related, that's a different question.) Where I found the luminously poetic moments of "They Shall" questionable, I suspect they might be all the jury noticed. And so on.

If I had gotten this in before the announcement of the winner, I would have predicted that "Weight" would win, precisely because its inability to commit to its own conceit and its white-liberal-anchored "understanding" of other races and cultures are both so much in alignment with what I know of Bear and Duncan, and seem to epitomise the criteria I think I see driving the choices. As it turns out the winner was "In Joy", which would have been my second guess. In a way it's a relief; I really do find "Weight" not just bad but reprehensible, and for it to win a second award (after the Nebula; it's also currently up for the Sidewise, which singlehandedly makes a farce of that award) would have been unbearable. Despite that dodged bullet, though, it's hard to keep the despair at bay. It would almost be better if the jury had selected "Over There" — I could at least write the whole thing off as a farce and have a good laugh. As it is, though, this further recognition of an immaculately skillful story that is very deliberately miles and miles away from where I wish the field would let itself stray verges on heartbreaking.

On the other hand, no one actually seems to care much about the Sturgeons...?

Anyway. Sturgeonblogging is over, thank god. Actually, though I've been known to tease, and though it has been at times very exhausting and dispiriting, the project has also been fun and, for lack of a better word, useful; on balance I'm glad Niall Harrison convinced me to do it, though don't tell him I said so. From exploring what I think is good in stories like "Bloom" and "They Shall" to allowing "Mystic Falls" to lead me to a discussion of some very fundamental points of sfnal poetics; from teasing out the multiplicitous badnesses of "Weight" to stomping gleefully on the ashes of "Over There"; even throwing my hands up in despair at "Irish" and "In Joy": it's all helped me to articulate much of what I need to articulate, or at least to point in that direction. And though I know it's a skewed one, I feel like I have a better picture now of where contemporary short sf is at than I did before I started.

Never again, though. Sorry. Unless I somehow manage to forget how grueling this was, there's no way in hell I'm doing it again next year. On the other hand, the good parts have been good enough that I'm thinking I need to start reviewing new short sf more often. Maybe as some kind of irregular series, once a month or so, I could pick a story from a different venue and write a thing about it. Even with the extremely desultory nature of my new short sf reading I've read four stories so far this year that I think would make fine additions to any award shortlist or year's best collection (if you're wondering, they are Margaret Ronald's "The Innocence of a Place" in Strange Horizons, Dominica Phetteplace's "Through Portal" and Robert Reed's "The Principles" in Asimov's, and Sofia Samatar's "Ogres of East Africa" in Long Hidden), and if I can shine my lustrous spotlight on stories such as these for the benefit of my score [sic] of irregular [sic] readers, or try to explain why less admirable stories are less admirable, then I'd like to do so.


inthebrake said...

Great review and overview. These days I'm haunted by the possibility that all I'll ever have to offer SF is bland competence.

Also I'd definitely like to see you do some further criticism of short stories.

Molly Katz said...

I ended up on your blog several weeks (or maybe months?) ago via my friend Erin Horakova, and found myself instantly drawn in. I've found this series you've done absolutely excellent (I've read every one). Congrats on finishing!

Ethan Robinson said...

Thank you both!