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.

The God Engines by John Scalzi

The God EnginesPublished: December 31, 2009
Publisher: Subterranean
Genre(s): Dark Fantasy
Format: Hardcover
Length: 136 pages

John Scalzi is commonly known as an author, a prolific and long-established blogger, a man with a mischievous sense of humor, and a connoisseur of all things bacon-related. I’m not entirely sure where I first came across his work, but as soon as I finished reading Old Man’s War, he instantly became one of my new favorite authors. I worked my way through the rest of his books and so thoroughly enjoyed them that I was inspired to check out the work of one of his clear inspirations, Robert A. Heinlein.

Up until just recently, all of Scalzi’s fiction output was fairly easily categorized as science fiction. Sometimes it was militaristic, sometimes funny, but all of it generally involved space travel, future societies, aliens, and other common sci-fi tropes. Accordingly, when he announced that he would be publishing his first fantasy work, The God Engines, I was intrigued. It’s always fascinating when an author you love decides to branch out into new territories. However, I do remember him cautioning his fans that it was particularly dark fantasy, and would probably surprise anyone used to his existing work.

After finishing the book, I can see why he felt the need to warn his readers about a possible bumpy ride. It’s a short, sharp, brutal window into a particularly cruel and twisted society. None of Scalzi’s trademark humor is present, the characters are all deeply flawed individuals, and the climactic events are so gruesome that I would not be surprised to find the book filed under “horror”.

The God Engines tells the story of a society that uses captured gods to power its starships. In this world, gods are very real creatures, sustained by the faith and prayer of their followers, but subject to the machinations of more powerful deities. When a society is conquered, the citizens aren’t simply converted to a new religion; as a further indignity, their former god is enslaved and bent to the task of providing interstellar travel to the conquering faction.

The main character, Ean Tephe, is the captain of a ship powered by a particularly nasty and recalcitrant god. The very first thing Ean does in the book is whip his starship’s captive god for disobedience. Ean is a true believer in his society’s way of life and in his god’s grace above all others and generally comes off as a stiff-necked, unsympathetic hard-liner. The only real glimpse we get into Ean’s softer side is the time he spends with Shalle, one of the ship’s rooks, who are essentially nuns, therapists or prostitutes depending on the situation.

The most noteworthy thing about Shalle is that the character is never described with gendered pronouns. It’s never quite clear if Shalle is a woman, man, or something else entirely. Ultimately, however, this is a bit distracting, and I was never quite sure how Shalle’s lack of apparent gender played into the story other than as a method of subverting our expectations. The end result is something that read more like a formal exercise in gender-neutral storytelling instead of genuine world-building.

The main plot of the book is set in motion when Ean is sent on a secret mission to an unconverted world that his god has secreted away from its enemies. Ean’s ship is tasked to travel to the distant world and open up a portal for his god so that it can convert the citizens to believers and become more powerful from their new faith. However, Ean’s experiences on the unconverted world shake his personal faith to its core, and events only snowball from there.

To be honest, The God Engines is a hard book to enjoy. The main character isn’t particularly likable, his actions are in service to a clearly corrupt society, and the end results are particularly horrifying. Scalzi doesn’t pull any punches here, but as far as I can tell, that’s the main point.

In a way, it makes sense to think of The God Engines as a writing exercise in novella form; that isn’t to say it’s an unpolished or unfinished book, however. Rather, it seems perfectly designed to let Scalzi step outside of his comfort zone and play with a new storytelling palette.

Unfortunately, although it may have been a useful experience for him as a writer, it didn’t really work for me as a form of entertainment. Although I do enjoy stories that go to dark places, I usually need someone or something to root for, and Captain Ean Teshe is not that man. The book might still be an interesting read for the Scalzi completist, but I can’t really recommend it to anyone who isn’t a hardcore fan.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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