Short Stories of the Week: Driftings and The Taste of Starlight

I’d like to talk about two short stories I read this week: one I loved, and one I found absolutely revolting.

Clarkesworld Magazine, January 2013The first, Driftings by Ian McDonald, is available in the January issue of Clarkesworld Magazine. I own The Dervish House – a 2011 Hugo nominee for Best Novel – but haven’t read it yet, so this was my first exposure to McDonald’s writing.

The thing I noticed almost immediately about this story was the language. McDonald definitely has a way with words:

Ocean cold was beginning to infiltrate the wetsuit but the slump of a wave, the side-slip of a gull on the air, the sudden hiss of eddying drizzle; all said stay, speak.

Driftings tells the story of an artist who lives in a seaside town and spends his time scavenging the shore for items washed away during the Japanese tsunami. He takes what he finds and builds bizarre sculptures in his house, which is almost entirely full of the sea’s detritus. One day he meets a mysterious girl… and I don’t want to say too much more than that.

The pleasure of the story rests in its simplicity, in the slow creeping otherworldliness that builds one paragraph at a time. McDonald doesn’t provide any kind of pat explanations for what is going on, and the ending throws a nice little curveball. Highly recommended.

•••

Lightspeed Magazine, October 2010On the other end of the spectrum is The Taste of Starlight by John R. Fultz, which is included in the print and audio versions of Lightspeed: Year One. I’ve been listening to the audiobook version on and off for a few weeks now, and most of the stories so far have been pretty decent, with a few standouts like the Catherynne M. Valente story I discussed last week. I’ve found something to like about pretty much every Lightspeed story I’ve ever read or listened to, but there had to eventually be an exception, and this was it. It has certainly stuck with me, but not in a good way.

The Taste of Starlight tells the story of a doctor on a seven-year interstellar mission to a far-off colony. A systems malfunction causes his cryopod to open early, and he becomes the only person awake on the ship with more than a year left to go before landfall. He discovers that there aren’t enough emergency rations to last him for the whole trip… and I’m sure you’ve figured out where this is going.

I don’t remember exactly when I started guessing that he would resort to cannibalism, but it was definitely telegraphed pretty early on. Sure, the main character eats all the emergency rations first and does his best to live without food for as long as possible, but there comes a time when he decides that the “mission has to succeed” because a starving colony is depending on his expertise.

When he finally got around to eating someone, I checked the timer and discovered that I was only about a fourth of the way through the hour-long story. Checking the time in the first place is a bad sign, but I kept listening because I wanted to see what the author had to say that would take another forty minutes.

It turns out that most of this length consists of increasingly gruesome descriptions of the main character torturing, mutilating and eating his crew-mates. We are told that the ship isn’t equipped with cold storage (or backup cryopods, for that matter), so the doctor has to keep his victims alive to prevent the meat from spoiling. At first he sedates them, but eventually he runs out of medicine and stops caring. Then he starts taking culinary pleasure in the various body parts he’s eating, and the author goes out of his way to top himself with nauseating details in every paragraph.

Ultimately the story is just gratuitous. The basic structure is entirely predictable, so the only thing that makes The Taste of Starlight unique is a grotesque fixation on the particulars of eating a dozen human beings. If the author was trying to make a point about the potential horrors of space travel or the darkness hidden in the human soul, he drives it into the ground and then keeps going.

Why Audiobooks are the Best Kind of Digital Reading

Hello, strangers! I come to you bearing book-related opinion pieces! I know I’ve stayed away for far too long, but this blog fell prey to modern life, as is so often the case. Countless blogs gather dust while their owners spend time trying to find the cutest picture of a cat on the internet. I’ve also heard rumors of a strange cult known as the “tumblers“. However, instead of dwelling on my own shortcomings as a purveyor of content, let us instead turn our attention towards all things digital…

The general consensus in the book world is that exciting and/or frightening things are happening on the frontiers of digital publishing, but the discussion is, in my opinion, giving short shrift to audiobooks as a digital medium. Although my Kindle is a wonderful convenience – the best way to cart around various 1000+ page tomes by Stephenson, Martin, and Murakami – it is my audiobook collection that holds a special place in my heart.

eBooks might save space on overcrowded bookshelves, but great audiobooks do them one better by bringing a story’s characters and ideas to life, filling them with breath and emotion, and transporting you into another world. It’s my opinion that audiobooks are a far more exciting digital medium than ebooks will ever be. I also feel like the practical benefits are more compelling; going from a box full of a dozen CDs or cassettes (bulky AND overpriced) to a few digital files seems like such a huge evolutionary leap, even compared to the transition from the printed word to digital text.

Accordingly, I was particularly excited by the recent launch of ACX, the “Audiobook Creation Exchange”. ACX helps authors connect with narrators to produce professional-quality audiobooks for books that might otherwise get indifferent, tone-deaf productions or simply never get adapted. Neil Gaiman used the service to launch his own Audible “label”, featuring books he loves that were never previously adapted for audio. Self-published authors have been podcasting their books for years now, and ACX feels like taking that DIY impulse to the next level. My sincere hope is that the floodgates open and we start getting audiobook adaptations of obscure, out-of-print, or just plain weird authors.

In an interview with Salon, Gaiman says that one of the reasons he became an evangelist for ACX and audiobooks in general is that, when listening to an audiobook, “you often notice things that the author in all probability thought he or she had buried brilliantly in the text, sitting there in plain sight.” This has definitely been my experience more than once; truly great audiobooks bring something to the table that you’d never discover in the text alone. In fact, I’d argue that some authors should only be experienced in audio form.

I doubt that David Sedaris’ stories are quite the same if they aren’t read in his peculiarly expressive voice, and I firmly believe that Woody Allen’s comic writing doesn’t quite come alive without his unique delivery. However, it makes sense that non-fiction would be best experienced when read by the author; the far more astonishing experience is a narrator who brings a fictional narrative and all its myriad characters to three-dimensional life in your head.

Late last year, when I first started my Audible membership, one of the first books I bought was The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. The narrator of the book, Steven Pacey, did such an incredible job with distinct voices and accents for every character that I was completely hooked and ended up listening to the entire series in audio form. You know an audiobook is firing on all cylinders when you can immediately tell which character is talking by the sound of the narrator’s voice.

It has actually reached the point where audiobooks are becoming my medium of choice. I’m far more likely to read a brand new book if I buy it in audio, simply because I can listen to it while I’m working, or going for a walk, or doing errands around the house. A few years ago I only listened to audiobooks on long trips out of town, but nowadays I’m finding more and more time to multi-task while listening to a good story. In fact, I’d argue that listening to audiobooks has majorly increased my productivity over the last year, because I’m far more likely to do something mindless or repetitive if I have a good story to keep me occupied.

All of these and more are reasons why my dream future is one where every great book has a great audiobook, and all of them are sold at reasonable prices. I’ll be listening. Will you?

Underwhelmed by OverDrive

Digital publishing presents a huge challenge for public libraries. OverDrive is a service that proposes to address that need by offering a catalog of eBooks and audiobooks that libraries can offer online for checkout.

I heard about it from a few friends that work at a local library currently offering OverDrive books. According to my friends, it’s far from an ideal solution; one of the more onerous limitations is that eBooks can only be checked out a certain number of times before the license expires.

However, even knowing that the licensing terms were pretty heinous, I still wanted to give the system a test run. I’ve spent a lot of money on audiobooks this year, so it’s in my interest to find a cheap or free way to legitimately listen to more audiobooks.

In retrospect, I wish I’d just spent the money. I’ll never get back the intensely frustrating hours of my life I spent just trying to download one audiobook from the service.

I’ve included a blow-by-blow of my whole tortuous experience after the break. Incoming rant alert!

Read more

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Published: October 28, 2010
Publisher: Orbit
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Space Opera
Format: Audiobook
Length: 20:28

Surface Detail is the ninth book in Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, and the third I’ve read. As soon as I read the summary, I couldn’t wait to pick it up. Fortunately, the Culture books are generally standalone stories, so it was easy to skip ahead.

The book has a good half-dozen plot threads that run concurrently, all somehow touching on the effects of technologies that have made it possible to back up a person’s “mind-state”, essentially a digital recording of their soul. Once a mind-state is backed up, it can be “re-vented” into a new body, or consigned to a virtual afterlife, some of which are decidedly unpleasany. Naturally the disposition of digital souls has huge social, political, and religious implications. The issue of virtual hells is a controversial one, and a war has broken out in the galaxy between The Culture (among others) and societies who believe it is their right to send the digital dead to eternal damnation.

The main thread of the book focuses on Lededje Y’breq, a young woman who is an indentured servant of the most powerful man in her society, Joiler Veppers. She is more than just a slave, however; her society has a form of indenture that involves a full-body tattoo genetically etched onto every cell in her body. She is an “intagliate”, and is marked with both an exotic beauty and an ever-present reminder of her status as chattel.

When Lededje tries to run away from Veppers, he hunts her down and stabs her to death in a sudden rage. However, what neither Lededje or Veppers realize is that The Culture has taken an interest in her plight. After she is murdered, she awakens on a Culture ship light-years away and discovers that all of her memories are intact, along with a pressing need for revenge. Events in the book are set into motion when she begins the journey back to her home world to exact that revenge.

Some of the story takes place in the real world, some in virtual worlds simulating an endless war, and some in the virtual hell run by an alien society. The story jumps wildly from place to place and character to character. We are introduced to so many fascinating people and exotic places over the course of the book, it is sometimes hard to keep track of everything as it flies by. The book is basically impossible to summarize succinctly, and must be read to truly be experienced. The plot is twisty and full of misdirection, but rewards a patient and attentive reader.

I listened to the Audible audiobook version of Surface Detail, which is narrated by Peter Kenny, and I would highly recommend experiencing the book that way. Kenny does a fantastic job of giving each character a unique voice and temperament, and that made it a lot easier to keep the huge cast straight in my mind. Also, one of my absolute favorite parts of the book was only made possible by his narration. Near the end of the book, a normally sedate alien – who Kenny gives a cutesy high-pitched voice – starts becoming seriously pissed off when his plans start falling apart. The alien becomes so foul-mouthed and sarcastic that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I was pleased to find out that Kenny does the narration for all of Banks’ novels on Audible, so I’ll definitely be picking up another one sometime soon.

I think my only criticism of the book is that the ending falls a little flat. Although all of the disparate threads do end up connecting in some fashion, it still seems like an awful lot of fuss for something that feels a bit anticlimactic. However, I enjoyed the ride up until that point so very much that I wouldn’t necessarily discount the resolution for not quite adding up.

Surface Detail is a hell of a book. It manages to discuss incredibly complex moral and philosophical issues in an engaging and entertaining way, all while throwing in a bit of action, terror, and humor for seasoning. It’s another fine slice of Banks’ particular brand of space opera, and if you’ve enjoyed previous Culture books, I think you’ll definitely enjoy this one.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Audible | Amazon | BookPeople | Indiebound

P.S. If you’ve never read a Culture book, the Kindle version of the first book in the series, Consider Phlebas, is 99 cents for the month of April!

A Selection of Books I Started But Never Finished

It seems like the bane of any regular reader has to be all of the books they’ve started but never finished. I know some people who refuse to stop reading a book even if it’s the worst thing they’ve ever read in their life. I am not one of those readers – and I don’t think I ever have been –  but I used to be a lot harder on myself about not finishing books.

A few years ago I forced myself to only read one book at a time, whether or not I was enjoying it. This is probably why The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle took me a good six months to read. Don’t get me wrong, I ended up loving it, but it’s an incredibly dense tome that I just so happened to be reading during one of my final semesters in college (instead of reading for class, naturally). After a while it seemed clear that all the guilt and recrimination I was laying onto myself was one of the main reasons I no longer read as much for fun. Even once I’d graduated and rediscovered free time, I didn’t seem to spend much time cracking open books. That had to change.

When I decided to rehabilitate my reading habits, one of the first things that had to go was this restrictive rule where I punished myself for not reading one specific book. I gave myself permission to only read books I was actually enjoying, and stopped stressing about reading multiple books at once. If I felt like putting down some heavy tome and picking up a goofy comedy instead, why not do it? It didn’t mean I couldn’t go back to the tome when I was in the right frame of mind.

However, even with this system, there are still books that I’ve started reading and then decided to officially put back on the shelf to try again at a later date. Whenever they’re library books, I send them right on back without a care in the world, but if it’s a book I own, they do tend to sit there on the shelf, staring at me accusingly with beady little eyes. I do my best to reassure them that just because I don’t finish a book doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. Then it occurs to me that I am personifying inanimate objects and check to make sure nobody is watching me.

Here are a few titles that stand out in my memory as notable books that remain unfinished, most of which I fully intend to finish some day:

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney: I think I bought this book when I was a freshman in college 10+ years ago. I remember trying to read it one summer between semesters and only making it about 50 or so pages in. That isn’t too surprising, though; it’s a particularly intimidating 900 page tome full of all sorts of postmodern trickery. The first sentence is “to wound the autumnal city.” which is actually the second half of the book’s final sentence, and near the end of the book some pages have a second column of text off to one side. I’m sure it makes sense when you get there, but I didn’t quite have the attention span when I first gave it a try.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris: This one is a much more recent purchase. It’s a comedy about the employees at an advertising agency going down the tubes. It’s narrated in a collective voice by all of the employees at the agency, and told in a generally rambling anecdotal style. It is definitely funny, but I had a hard time sticking with it, probably because of its style. I’d still like to try again at some point, but I’m not in a huge hurry.

A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin: I may catch some flak for this one, I know. I read the first two books in this series back in 2008. Book two I remember finishing in a mad rush in about two weeks. I owned all four existing books back then, but I decided that I should hold off on reading books three and four until a firm date was announced for book five. Flash forward to three years later when a date is finally announced and it turns out I’ve forgotten everything about the series. I suffered serious narrative whiplash within the first few chapters and decided that it might be worth my time to go ahead and re-read all the earlier books. This one is probably my fault for waiting so long to finish the series, but I’d argue that GRRM doesn’t do the reader any favors, either. His books just throw you right in and assume you’ll keep your head above water.

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer: I actually listened to the audiobook of this one a few years ago just to try and figure out what all the fuss was about. I think I made it three-fourths of the way through before I decided that I couldn’t handle any more breathless descriptions of Edward Cullen’s beauty. Sometimes I wonder whatever happened to those crazy kids…