Tuesday, 1 June 2010

McSweeney's 32: 2024

I hadn't heard of McSweeney's before I found this in my local library (the same one I'm having moral palpitations about), so I picked it up solely because it had a pretty cover (artwork straight on to the hardback seems to be quite hot stuff at the moment, and it does look good. Having said that, my copy of Susanna Clarke's wonderful Ladies of Grace Adieu, from only a few years ago, is already fading, so I'm a bit worried about the long-term shelf life of this style), assuming it was a novel called Thirty-two by a chap called McSweeney who was so famous he didn't need a first name. Still, I'm glad I investigated, and not just because it led me to the McSweeney's website, which is a wonderful mine of ridiculous and amusing bits and pieces that will eat up hours of your life if you let it. No, I'm also pleased because this particular edition is rather good.

Number 32 is called (and set in) 2024, and it’s dedicated to near-future short stories set in various not-quite-on-the-beaten-track spots around the world. This insistence on slightly unusual places is pleasing: it’s good not to be seeing yet another cyber-noir Beijing or New York. As for setting them all in 2024, the aim is to provide a glimpse of a future we might actually be around to see. This tends to be the sort of science fiction I like - Ballardesque visions of the familiar collapsing into pieces that are no longer quite so familiar. The recognisable, reconfigured.
In other words, it's an anthology of things going tits up.

As you might imagine, none of the ten stories are wildly optimistic. This goes beyond the usual problem of stories needing to present their characters with challenges, since the 2000s aren't going to go down in history as a particularly popular decade. The TV nostalgia nights in 20 years' time are going to involve a lot of grainy news footage of burning objects - flags, buildings, people, countries. It's ironic that the only horror we actually predicted was the one that didn't happen - the Millennium bug. Yes, civilisation's in a right mess, but not because of some dinky little computer error. Anyway, the general shoddiness of the here and now means we've no shortage of worries about how the near future might turn out, and the non-existent Mr McSweeney and his adventurers in prose have picked up on a fair number of them (although mostly the ones involving weather), generally in rather nifty ways. Of course art isn't about telling us what breaks - it's about reminding us of what remains. Great literature tells us about the end, but gives us a reason to hang around for it.

And that’s where the strongest stories in this collection shine. Not literally, y’understand. That would be ruddy hard to read.

The opener, ‘Memory Wall’ is probably the best of the lot, and has put a certain Mr Anthony Doerr straight on my ‘to read’ list. Set in South Africa, it is a classic example of how to manage the ferociously difficult melancholy-yet-uplifting trick. Humanity is shown as a creature of breadth and contradictions, in whose hearts good and evil are ever-ready to cohabit. It is a tale of wrongs, but if leaves you with hope and joy.

Its token SF widget is an implant that lets people extract random memories from their minds and keep them on itsy bitsy diskettes. It’s designed to hold back the onset of dementia, but this being humanity, some naughty blighters manage to find some more sinister uses in the pursuit of big wodges of cash. This is a particularly ingenious device (in both senses), and an excellent example of how the features of SF can be used: the memory readers add a literal edge to the story’s metaphorical point that history is always part of the present. We, as individuals and as a species, are made by the past, whether that’s by our memories, our troubled history, or by the fossils which the characters pursue, either for riches or for truth.

Thoroughly recommended, basically.

Although the highlight, 'Memory Wall' is far from the only worthwhile piece. I got a lot of joy from the second story, 'Raw Water', by Wells Tower (a landmark of a name). It has the Ballard thing down pat, but with a cast of grotesques, and a murky, cruel sense of humour. An artificial lake is constructed in the depths of America, and a fancy waterside community constructed around it. Naturally, everything goes wrong, and the town is more or less abandoned, apart from the eccentrics who are drawn to it, and the strange, red water that may or may not be up to something creepy.

I also have a great deal of admiration for ‘The Black Square’ by Chris Adrian. It’s the most mysterious tale, as much fantasy as a near-future, as a strange square is discovered on Nantucket, through which, well, through which something. No one knows, y’see. ‘It’s not suicide’ say its acolytes, who lay grand, long-term plans to jump into the square and into whatever end or beginning lies beyond. It’s about loneliness and despair, but also about what can end them. It’s not about ending lives, but about finding new ones. In other words, that whole upper-downer thing again. And I like it.

The other strong tale is the ferocious ‘The Netherlands Lives With Water’, by Jim Shepard. In terms of setting it’s a fairly straightforward look at climate change: the sea is coming to get us, and there’s not a thing we can do about it. For all our technological fripperies, the planet can nail us whenever it feels that way inclined. Particularly relevant in the wake of the ash cloud that quite casually knocked out all our air travel. On a human level, this, like 'Memory Wall' and 'The Black Square', is  about isolation and loss, the way we, like the sea, have tides that can crush us gloriously together or tear us brutally apart. Not a cheery tale, but a powerful one.

Four out of ten heartily recommended isn’t bad going, I reckon. As for the others, they're far from bereft of the good stuff.

In ‘Eighth Wonder’ by Chris Bachelder a flood leaves civilisation struggling inside a baseball stadium, gradually scrabbling back into being a functional community. Lovely tale, but the distant approach to characterisation left me a little cold. I suppose it's about the real architects of humanity not being the named heroes but the forgotten millions, but I'm still not a fan of the distant narrative style. 

In J Erin Sweeney’s ‘Oblast’ (probably number five in my hit parade), a human-transmitted flu virus starts wiping out seals, and political machinations rip apart countries. Another nice bit of humanity-as-saviour-and-sinner: we leave ruin in our wake but some of us will always try to save what we can, whether it’s the innocent children of a monstrous ruler, or the last few members of a dying species of seal. Whether they succeed or not is another matter...

There Is No Time In Waterloo’, by Sheila Heti, sees teenagers accidentally become the ignorant sages of a confused, counter-scientific society. Some kooky physics stuff, but a bit too clever-clever ironic for my liking.

Heidi Julavits contributes ‘Material Proof of the Failure of Everything’, a depressing read that’s nonetheless strewn with cynical jokes. It’s a satirical political mess, with communism and capitalism replaced by something just as muddled that simply admits that it doesn’t know how to function. There’s more human isolation, as we become worked by the systems we create, almost literally in the case of one character. Clever and nicely written, but for some reason I didn't get much out of it. A bit bleak, perhaps?

Then there’s the marvellously titled ‘The Enduring Nature of the Bromidic’, another governmental nightmare, showing an America in a linguistic crisis, packed full of people and cultures who can’t quite understand one another. It’s witty and knowing, and for all its pessimism manages to find some merriment in the mess: sometimes all our errors work in our favour. Interesting, although vague, image of the future, too. Oddly, I think that what stopped me loving this was that it requires too much knowledge of the US social security system – the plot details left me a bit head-scratchy.

And finally, ‘Sky City’, by Sesshu Foster, told entirely in dialogue. A revolutionary radio station (as in one that supports the revolution, not one that’s changing the world, one wireless at a time) has one of its people hired as a pilot on a loopy hobbyist’s secret high-tech zeppelin, on the night it attempts a rescue/discovery flight to the ambiguously mythic Sky City, a conglomerate of wreckage and survivors from the climate-change-induced twisters that have been tearing up America. A couple of fun ideas (everyone loves zeppelins, right?) and some nifty, sarcastic dialogue, but overall doesn’t quite deliver. I think sometimes it was too knowing – every time it said something profound or artful, the characters back away from it with globs of wit and irony. It’s almost as if the writer didn’t have the confidence in his own images and ideas.

In general, a fine collection. I can’t compare to other issues of McSweeney’s (yet), but as a stand-alone anthology I recommend it. Perhaps not all of the situations are mathematically likely, but that isn't the point. That isn't the point of any speculative fiction. It's about making something that's convincing enough to keep your interest, and then using it to tell you something about humanity that you might not otherwise have considered. And on the whole these stories do that.

There’s lots about money (the greatest drug of all, with its incomparable highs and lows), and plenty about humanity’s capacity for right and wrong (myth tells us that for every monster there is a hero waiting, sharpening a spear. I think this is a fine thought to bear in mind when reading or writing), but the biggest theme of all seems to be loneliness, often reflected through the symbolic power of vast quantities of water. The future, say these writers, will try to draw us into ourselves, and it is our duty to try to resist it.

Oh, yeah, and stop burning shit: you’re breaking the world, man.

[Oh, sod it, another effort at being concise falls to bits. Still, writing this has got me thinking, and that’s the real aim.]

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