Thursday, June 5, 2014

Sturgeonblogging: Robert Reed's "Mystic Falls"

Though I've known his name for a while, it's only recently that my idiosyncratic and, to be honest, desultory explorations of contemporary (read: 1980 and after) sf have brought me to read a little bit of Robert Reed. When I subscribed for a year to Fantasy and Science Fiction, I was impressed with his novella "Katabasis" in the November/December 2012 issue — one of the about one-every-three-issues great stories that otherwise garbage magazine publishes, that make one almost regret letting one's subscription lapse. More recently, my significantly more pleasing subscription to Asimov's brought the remarkable alternate history "The Principles" in the April/May 2014 issue. Both stories are so much more concerned with allowing themselves, and the thoughts they think, to happen — and with examining what it means for themselves to be happening — than with PLOT! HOOK! PLOT! that it's hard to believe the contemporary sf field produced them. I've been very interested to read more of him.

So I came to "Mystic Falls" prepped to admire. As such it was a bit distressing to find that it is one of the two Sturgeon-shortlisted stories (the other being Sarah Pinsker's) that begins with one of those hooky one- (or in this case two-)sentence opening paragraphs that I spend so much time on twitter (and, occasionally, here) complaining about.

       There might be better known faces. And maybe you can find a voice that rides closer to everyone's collective soul.
       Or maybe there aren't, and maybe you can't.
Then another paragraph break, followed by more concrete narration. Again. Leaving aside the unpleasant associations called up by the last two words of the first paragraph, I see no reason for a story to begin this way other than accommodation to the needs of commerce. Though I may need to write one eventually, now is not the time for a full anti-short-paragraphs manifesto. For now I'll just say that my objection to this behavior is moderately lessened in this particular case by the insistence on such staccato paragraphing throughout — this is clearly a conscious choice, rather than an empty kowtowing to That's Just What You Do — though still I don't particularly see why Reed would want to hit the enter key so often, to such flatly faux-dramatic effect. Were I not so overexposed to these unbearable Hook The Reader As Soon As Possible moves, perhaps I wouldn't object so strongly, but I am, and I do.

Fortunately, there are things going on here other than an itchy paragraph finger; and though I cannot admire "Mystic Falls" as strongly as I did "Katabasis" and "The Principles", it does confirm for me that Reed is a writer worth exploring.

The story concerns what appears to be a woman — a woman no one remembers meeting until, later, they upload and re-play a day's memories and find that she passed nearby, or that her voice come to them in an advertisement, or that — with almost everyone, at some point — she actually said "Hello" and made brief conversation. Most people, perhaps influenced towards belief by some unknown aspect of her nature, accept this as merely a lapse in their real-time memory, because the uploaded memory certainly is not lying!, and grow fond of her as, perhaps, some local actress poised at the brink of global stardom. Some people, though — a few "experts who live for this kind of puzzle, and a lot more is at stake here than simple curiosity" — realize that she, who first started appearing only about seven weeks ago, and whom they only noticed still more recently — is, in the terms used to describe her in three successive, verbless, single-sentence paragraphs, a "cypher", a "monster", "The most elaborate computer virus ever." It is these experts (all except the narrator anonymous, usually speaking and behaving in unison), and their efforts to figure out what, and why, this woman is, that the story follows.

She exists only in memory — she is never now, she is always then — and even then only in computerized, stored memory; she only exists when those memories are actively reviewed. This requires, and/or allows, Reed to tell a story that does very peculiar things with both memory and time. The meat of the story's "action" revolves around the narrator's attempt, as planned with those other experts, to go back to the point in his uploaded memory that contains his own supposed meeting with her, in order to behave differently "this time", asking her questions in the hopes of discovering her nature. What a strange endeavor this is!

My uploaded memory claims that I stopped on this ground, here. I do that again, saying, "Hello," while the others chatter away, ignoring both of us.
Not "I stopped," not "I remember stopping," but "my uploaded memory claims that I stopped." The combination of the "ordinary" unreliability of subjective memory, the objectivity of computer records, and, overlaid on both, the certainty that the "objective" is lying is fascinating beyond the basic Philosophy 101 Cartesian level it may seem at first (and at last, on which more later) to be operating on; the impossibility of grasping anything solid despite the overwhelming sense that there is clearly something there to be grasped reminds me of the feeling one gets on trying unsuccessfully to remember a dream one recalled clearly just a moment ago; it also puts me in mind of my own model of sf's exploration of the limits of the explicable and of what happens to forms of explication when they encounter the inexplicable. And what on earth does it mean to say "I do that again" about an experience lived, remembered, misremembered (or dis-remembered?), and then relived? The narrator (as distinct from the story) both is and is not interested in such questions; if anything, he seems to be avoiding them, as though by not asking them their answers will go away.

But the telling in and of itself unavoidably poses the questions; the only way to evade them entirely would be to fall silent, and it seems the narrator cannot do this. Even at his most straightforwardly narrative moments, even as he tries to put the story into a simple anecdotal form, the very tenses and moods of the verbs betray his efforts — as here, after he makes contact with the woman (in the same way that his uploaded memory claims he "really" did) and in talking they discover (or rediscover, or claim) that they both take their dogs to the same vet, and both grew up in the same town:

We share a little laugh. Again, the coincidences should be enormous, but they barely registered, at least after the first time. All this distance from our mutual home, and yet nothing more will be said about our overlapping lives.
Present tense, conditional, past tense, a very ambiguous "after the first time," future tense: all describing the same event, all as accurate as they are inaccurate — and all necessary if the event is to be spoken of at all. Again I am put in mind of the strange things that happen to time when trying to recall a dream; the dream occurred at a fixed point in the past, during which things progressed, but in another sense it does not happen at all until it is remembered (if it is remembered) on waking, or later — and there is a further sense in which a dream sometimes can insinuate itself into memory, so that something dreamed just a moment ago seems to take its place in one's personal chronology days or weeks ago, retroactively coloring other past events, this other time dissolving, perhaps not fully, once the dream is consciously remembered. We do not quite have the language to speak easily of this, just as the narrator does not have the language to speak of what happened, is happening, to him.

But these events compel speech nonetheless. Who is this narrator who needs so to speak? We learn his name, Hector Borland, which seems almost too specific for someone who remains so fuzzy (the same is true of the "cypher" herself, who introduces herself with the peculiar name "Darles Jean" — both names make me feel like they're meant to suggest something, but nothing attaches to them, at least for me). In the room of faceless experts, "fifty minds, most of whom are superior to mine," he nevertheless "manage[s] to offer what none of the wizards ever considered" — namely, the approach of simply asking the woman who and what she is. He asks, in narration, if he is smarter than his colleagues, and answers himself, "Rarely." He asks if he has "some rare insight" into the situation, and answers himself, "Never." On the other hand, he says — without elaborating on it — that "There are also some happenstance reasons why my life meshes nicely with 'hers.'" He has a "little bit of fame," which, he tells us, "stems from an ability for posing respectable, unanswerable questions". In a very peculiar passage which reminds me of some of sf's coldly comic Continental pessimists — Houellebecq, maybe, or Lem — he tells us that

in life, both as a professional and as a family man, my technique is to juggle assessments and options that nobody else wants to touch. By avoiding the consensus, much of the universe is revealed to me. My children, for example. Most fathers are quite sure that their offspring are talented, and their daughters are lovely while their sons will win lovely wives in due time. But my offspring are unexceptional. In their late teens, they have done nothing memorable and certainly nothing special, and because I married and unsentimental woman with the same attitudes, our children have been conditioned to accept their lack of credible talent. Which makes them work harder than everyone else, accepting their little victories as a credit to luck as much as their own worthiness.
He describes these children of his as "exceptionally ordinary," and with those words he might as well be talking about himself, or at least the version of himself he allows us to see. Either there is something obvious in all this information that I in my cluelessness am not getting, or it is yet another dimension of the "ungraspable something" in this story. The narrator is a professional who has a seat at emergency meetings of experts, but in what field is he a professional, in what is he expert? What "assessments and options" does he juggle? How is "much of the universe" revealed to him? (Stranger, how are his children an "example" of this?) Yes, it turns out, I am reminded of Lem, particularly the hero of The Chain of Chance — who is both a totally ordinary middle-aged frump who only qualifies to be the hero of his story because he is so unexceptional, and also a celebrity astronaut with remarkable training both physical and mental. Indeed, both men find themselves faced with "cyphers" instead of antagonists, and both are themselves nearly as devoid of identity as those cyphers.

But while the impulse that moves Lem's hero to tell his story is not ultimately much different from that which causes one arm of a bureaucracy to generate a report for another, our Hector Borland's reasons for speaking are much more nebulous. He often addresses the reader directly (as in the above-quoted opening lines), but he just as often seems deliberately to reject the communicative. He writes very strangely, sometimes with peculiar sentence structure and word choice that seem at first a stilted way of saying something simple but turn out on closer inspection not quite to mean like one thinks they do:

I pause, and she comes up behind me, and for the first time what is as real as anything is what touches me from behind, the hand warm and a little stronger than I anticipated...
On my first reading, "for the first time what is as real as anything is what touches me from behind" immediately resolved itself into meaning, roughly, "she touched me from behind for the first time, and it felt as real as anything"; to the extent that story is communication, I think one has to believe that this is what these words communicate. But it is not what they mean! — or, rather, it is only one of the less likely possibilities of what the words could mean. Sometimes it is individual words that behave so strangely, as when he says that "if she has any real eyes, she notices the same spot" that he does. "Any"? And surely it is not whether or not she has "real eyes" that determines whether she is capable of noticing! Or take the moment, during the same incident I've taken both of these examples from, in which the narration switches from event to infodump:
The Mystic Falls wait around the next bend in the canyon. When I came to this ground for the first time, I paid surprisingly little attention to bird songs and tumbling water. In a world where every sight is uploaded and stored — where no seconds are thrown away — people have a natural tendency to walk in their own fog, knowing that everything missed will be found later, and if necessary, replayed without end.
The words "surprisingly" and "necessary" here are nearly impossible to understand. Why surprising, and to whom? Immediately after telling us that his inattention is surprising, he explains why it is not, and presumably would not be to any reader inhabiting the same world as he. And necessary — again, why, and to whom? Desirable, certainly, perhaps even compulsive, but what could make the endless replaying of a specific memory "necessary"? Even when he is (or seems to be) trying to explain things simply, Borland seems inescapably tied to incomprehensibility.

In his 1959 essay on "The Proper Use of Science Fiction" (many thanks to the estimable Maureen K. Speller, who made it possible for me to read this essay), Maurice Blanchot asks why sf (by which he means almost exclusively the American magazine sf of the 30s to the 50s) is so riddled with anacronism — why, though "the human world is conjured up as it will be in a hundred thousand years time", "man, leaving aside the usual changes in scenery, continues to live in much the same way in a universe that is depressingly static." He does not rule out "paucity of talent" or "lack of patience" as explanations, but he does offer another: that despite pretence to the contrary,

no one is interested in the existence of the completely different time of a completely different world. There should not be too much novelty. News from the year ten thousand will get through to us only to the extent that it is translated back into our own ways of life. Works of science fiction often overdo this process of re-translation.
"In general," he adds, "the genre tends to neglect the problem of the mediator." There is plenty of room for quibbling, and one could point, even at the relatively early date at which Blanchot was writing, to exceptions — but I think the point stands: he is observing real problems, ones which are still relevant to the field today (in some ways I might even say more relevant now than then). In those few of his works that I've read, Reed is consistently aware of these problems, and "Mystic Falls" is no exception. It is almost wholly about, not only the problem of the mediator as a person, but also the problem of mediation as a phenomenon. It is as if, to take Blanchot literally for a moment, the story were stuck somewhere mid-translation: almost but not quite recognizable, almost but not quite comprehensible; and by positioning itself thus, it makes the consideration of these problems inescapable.

It is in this spirit, too, that I think the story's worldbuilding needs to be read. The prevailing view would hold that works of sf are rewarding to the extent that the worlds they evoke are complex, and clear in their complexity. While there is something to this view, on its own it smacks a bit too much of the "overdone re-translation" Blanchot identifies: that is to say, a genuinely other world, whether removed from our own in time or in space or both, could not be made clear in the language we possess. And so it is that even as he gives us fairly concrete details — early on we know that there are still taxis, that phones are something you can argue with, that there is a "smart power grid" — Borland's world always remains unilluminated. Despite the fact that much of the story is spent hiking out in the open and in the sun, the story feels enclosed, dark, a tiny capsule moving through a larger something that, once more, can never quite be grasped. The unknowability extends so far that even when things get a more than a little fantastical toward the end:

The Falls were exactly as I remembered them: A ten thousand foot ribbon of icy water and mist, pterosaurs chasing condors through the haze, and dragons chasing both as they wish. The wilderness stretched beyond for a full continent, and behind me stood fifty billion people who wouldn't care if I were to leap into the canyon below.'s difficult to be certain that something has changed, that something is amiss here.

Unfortunately shortly after this, at the very end of the story, a kind of knowing certainty enters into the story. Though it is phrased as a question, Borland's "What if some of us, maybe the majority of us, were cyphers too — fictions set here to fool the few of us who were real and sorry about it?" collapses the story into a one-sentence proposition, a sort of Descartes-by-way-of-The-Matrix red pill/blue pill choice. This constriction is reinforced by the final sentence, whose otherwise potentially interesting celebration of reality even in the face of solipsism reads with such assurance that it could almost have started with "The moral of the story is...". In a post in praise of Clifford D. Simak's story "The Answers", I wrote — if I may be forgiven for blockquoting myself — that its ending too

resolves the story's ambiguities into a mere proposition, something that at last asks the reader simply to agree or disagree — complex, hesitant, and ambivalent as such agreement or disagreement may in any case be (as it is in mine). But if the story falters here at the end, succumbs at last to the tempting patness it had heretofore resisted, this in no way invalidates what came before — rather it means that the inevitable failure of the crucial but ultimately impossible endeavor Simak has set for himself is in this specific case a bit more spectacular than we might wish.
I find that I cannot say the same about "Mystic Falls." The difference, I think, is that while Simak's story has, in its every moment, a life and unfolding all its own — and thus a poor ending is only one of the flaws inevitable in any great work — Reed's story seems in retrospect entirely oriented around its ending. Everything that happens here happens so that Reed can make the proposition he has caused Borland to close with.

There is much more that could be discussed here. Some things that come to mind that I have not really addressed include, on the plus side, the fascinating nature of the cypher's being and her eventual death, and the story's kind of sideways championing of what I might call "enough-ness" (as in, "this is not everything but it is enough for me in life"); and on the minus side, the distressing pattern I've noticed in Reed of, if not quite active chauvinism, then certainly that kind of too-comfortable straight-dudeliness that in practice accedes all too readily to the broader needs of patriarchy. But no review can ever be comprehensive, and I have to stop somewhere, so I think I'll stop here: with the reiteration of my feeling that this story is a good attempt at an intriguing notion by an interesting writer, somewhat badly misfired; but misfire or no, one would be better served reading it than the vast bulk of short sf being published today.


Erin Horakova said...

"that kind of too-comfortable straight-dudeliness that in practice accedes all too readily to the broader needs of patriarchy."

Yeah, I did think "we're in a world of fundamentally altered perception and /still/ "their daughters are lovely while their sons will win lovely wives in due time"?" Which is perhaps not unrealistic, but one would hope so.

Ethan Robinson said...

Right, this seems not so much a sign of awareness of constant struggle as just unreflective dude-centering