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.

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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.

eBooks Might Not be the Death of Print After All

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay“, Nicholas Carr discusses how the apparent decline in eReader and eBook sales seems to signify that physical books aren’t in their last gasp after all. While I do agree with the general premise of his article, i.e. that physical books won’t disappear from the face of the planet any time soon, I have to wonder what is causing the downward trends the industry is experiencing.

For example, I can tell you that I haven’t bought a new eReader because my 3rd generation Kindle still works just fine (despite the fact that the case seems to be swelling at the bottom). I was momentarily tempted by the new Kindle Paperwhite when it first came out, but they’re still fairly pricey and the plain fact is that my current Kindle doesn’t need to be replaced. Also, I’m not really sold on buttonless touchscreen readers. I like being able to hold my Kindle one-handed and turn pages without needing to move my hand.

I have to wonder how often Kindle owners feel the need to upgrade to the newest model as soon as it comes out. eReaders don’t seem like the sort of technology that would inspire upgrade fever. The hard drive on a Kindle is nearly impossible to fill up (unless you load it with audiobooks and music) and the main thing it needs to do is display text, which doesn’t require too many bells and whistles. If you really want to play games or use apps on a handhold device, you’re probably in the market for a tablet instead of an eReader.

It also make sense that the biggest customers for book purchases are book lovers who either 1) insist on sticking with physical books out of familiarity and comfort or 2) buy books in every medium (like me). That’s why I am particularly intrigued by Carr’s suggestion that ebooks “may turn out to be just another format—an even lighter-weight, more disposable paperback”. This definitely jives with my current buying habits.

When it comes to new books, I almost always buy digitally, but for most big new releases I buy audiobooks from Audible because I am far more likely to read a book quickly if I listen to the audio version. I do still buy a decent number of Kindle books, but usually only when they’re on sale. I’m a sucker for $1.99 price tags, so if I catch wind of a sale on a book I’m interested in, I’ll buy it despite the fact that I might not read it for years. As for physical books, I’m pretty much addicted to used book stores, so I walk out with books basically every time I walk into a Half Price Books. Additionally, there are still some books that can only be bought in print, such as the unabridged version of Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions.

Kindle Additionally, it makes sense that there are some books that are well-suited to buying on a Kindle. The recent upsurge of self-published books has created a glut of digital-only content, and although I am still wary of self-published books in general, I think they will continue to thrive on ebook stores. I’m also likely to buy lightweight fare like urban fantasy novels on a Kindle because they’re normally priced to match mass-market paperbacks.

Ultimately I think it’s likely that eReaders will live side-by-side with physical books for the foreseeable future. It’s possible that physical books will eventually become more of a specialty product for connoisseurs like vinyl records, but I think that’s a long way down the road from now. I don’t think print publishing has anything to worry about until we reach the point when grocery stores start stocking cheap, nearly-disposable eReaders instead of printed copies of the newest sensation like Fifty Shades of Gray.