March 30th, 2008

Willow

2012 Feedback

At Swancon robshearman and I formed a fast, and I think lasting, friendship. We talked a lot about reading and writing and we both left the con promising to read - me his Tiny Deaths and he 2012 and send detailed feedback. He has kept his end of the deal and me? I'll get there eventually ...

Anyway, he gave such lovely feedback that I wanted to share it with at least the writers and for any readers out there who might be wondering just want the book is actually like. He kindly let me excerpt his letter below:

2012 is as good an anthology as I have ever read - and despite my rollercoaster reaction I have read rather a lot! Collectively, I think it's a terrific book; you read these stories back to back, and you get these wonderful shards of paranoia and concern and honest-to-Gpd passion for our planet. I love that. I told you I think short story collections should feel as if they're a single whole, not a mishmash - and this is exactly what 2012 does so brilliantly. Each contribution collides off another in a way that deepens the one you've just read. (And the recurring theme of dwindling water takes on an ever greater power.) It sounds, at best, a rather backhanded compliment when I say that no individual story is as impressive as the entire book. There are some very good stories in here, I think, and some which don't work for me, but are propped up by the cumulative effect of the themes they explore.

Deborah Biancotti is a smashing writer. Her handling of the dialogue in the first half of "Watertight Lies" is so dizzyingly skilful I went back to reread it several times; it's revealing, and funny, and does so much to make us feel sympathy for those two characters grasping on to normality against the rising panic. It's all the more upsetting when the violence breaks in. It does what few short stories have the space to do - it makes you care without forcing you to do so. Actually, it's probably the only one in the book which does that so subtly and so cleverly. It's intriguing and perfectly paced. I want to read that full collection by Deborah now. It's a great start to the book.

"Fleshy" doesn't work for me. Which is odd, because I thought I'd love it - of all the stories, only two are close in tone to the sort of stuff I come up with. But I think that if you take a 'what if' premise like this, which is obviously meant to ask questions about identity, about alternate versions of people and whether you can divorce physical appearance from personality, then you really need to make it about the two human characters who are being turned into the alternates. And I don't believe in them - not in the forced dialogue, or in the way their relationship progresses. I think that when the story tips towards the banal, with Fleshy bonding with the narrator watching soap operas, it nearly finds a groove. But it's not funny enough to be a comedy, and not real enough to be anything else. And I found the constant hectoring tone of the narrator very wearing.

"Oh, Russia", though, is lovely. I'm glad I bought Simon Brown's Troy book - I look forward to reading that. This is sincere and heartfelt, and if it's a bit obvious, then it's the right kind of obvious. And it very elegantly puts centre stage what feels like the big dramatic conflict in the book - the collision between Issue Concerns and Personal Concerns. I loved the way it contrasted Mother Russia with a human mother, and made the decay of both so moving - even when it's tackling the corruption of an entire nation, the story remains intimate. I liked it a lot.

I think structurally "Soft Viscosity" is absolutely necessary to the book. It's angry and brutal and you need something as blunt as this plot amongst the more conceptual entries. But it doesn't have much style at all, and there are bits which are so overwritten - for example, the circuitous ways in which cigarette smoking is described - that keep taking you out of the story altogether. And the kid's conversation about butterflies, and the possibility of change, is just horrible - the whole tale strains at this point just to introduce a metaphor so obvious it's almost funny. (There are just bits I wished could be cut, because they emphasise any subtext - the mistakes of the CIA, Gloria's contempt for Chay.) It's a simple story at its heart, and it needed to be written simply; instead the clumsiness makes it all feel a bit hysterical, and the twisty twisty plot utterly contrived. (Which is a pity, because I could well believe it had it been sold to us a bit more calmly - there's nothing wrong with the storyline as such.) It's not all bad - the sequences involving Alejandro and the torture are taut and controlled and make you care. I think it's trying to do too much, to be honest. Had it gone for something more claustrophobic, and focused upon Alejandro from the outset, I think this could have been very powerful.

"Apocalypse Rules, Ok?" Well, yes, okay. At a pinch. It's wittily written and has some clever ideas in it. Being a bit churlish, I can't but help think that some of those clever ideas might have seemed cleverer still in the context of an actual story. It's a funny thing, this; I quite like collections to have odd pieces which break up the rhythm of plotted prose, it gives the book a bit of freshness. But this single example, halfway through, looks a bit isolated. It made me smile, however, and I loved the speciesist joke, so I should just shut up.

Dirk's a good writer, obviously, and there's a really good idea in "The Last Word". I like his style very much - the opening restaurant sequence is great, full of confidence. Lewis is a really engaging character, all the more for being such an antihero, and where he stands in the story keeps you guessing to the end. But as a relationship piece - which it sort of is - I think it's compromised hugely by the blandness of Jane. For someone so brilliantly clever, she's a bit thick. Now this could have been deliberately ironic, it wouldn't have taken much to have turned this into the whole point of the story, even - the gulf between intellectual and emotional smarts. As it is, it's an entertaining read, and it tells a good yarn. But it ends up turning into a story about DNA alteration rather than being as personal or as emotional a story as I'd have preferred, and as the excellent opening and the story title suggest.

"Ghost Jail", though, is very good indeed. It's hard work to read, but it repays the effort. It's the first of two back to back stories which find within the technological gloom of the future the superstition of the past, and a tale of ghosts that put their hands into people's mouths - which is wonderfully horrible - bouncing off a tale of environmental anger, makes a lovely mix. And the ending is, frankly, sublime.

I think "I Love You Like Water" is even better, probably. It's a disquieting piece, this, isn't it? It sets its traps for the reader, and every couple of pages triggers a further shock. I love the idea of [cut for plot spoiler] (because I'm odd like that), but what makes the whole story sing is that it's contrasted with the idea of pacifying gods through human sacrifice. Either side of the fence, whether you get the water through future technology or past superstition, you're looking at ghoulish exploitation of innocents. And the way Angela Slatter balances the two voices of the story is, I think, pitch perfect. There's a nice black sense of humour running under the surface too - the dialogue is natural and easy, and there's even a good Waterworld joke.

"Skinsongs" is fun. It's just an idea, and once the idea's explained the story's over, but that doesn't mean it's not a good idea. It's well written and fun to read, and is another development of the way that the human body can be exploited and objectified, which bounces well off the last story. For my money there's a 'twist' too far in it - there's such a rush of exposition about what these skinsongs are and why Agatha might want surgery, that to present an alternative explanation in the closing paragraph just feels too much in too short a space of time. I'd have preferred the simple poignancy that Martin Livings had already offered, of a woman forced to churn out scar music she hates just to keep herself in the charts.

I think I'm going to love Ben Peek's work. I'm glad I bought his book. He's quirky and weird and approaches things from left field. "David Bowie" may well be the best written piece in the book. But I'd bet my bottom dollar that this isn't Ben Peek writing at full throttle. It's clever, of course, but there's something a bit lazy about it, I think. I do like it a lot, and I appreciate effortless writing - but for all its cleverness it doesn't have as much thought behind it as other stories. I enjoyed it very much, though.

And I absolutely love Sean McMullen's "Oblivion". After the wide ranging and global concerns of the book, it's surprising (and lovely) that you [1] end on something as intimate as this. It's deceptively simple writing, and it's really sharp writing - and it manages to highlight so many themes of the collection, of people lying even to themselves as they betray the world and the planet, with such tenderness and compassion. It doesn't waste a word, either. And you get so caught in the emotional reality of a dying man letting go of a world in which his selfishness will no longer be tolerated, that the revelation is not only obvious, but inevitable, the way it should have been. It's a smashing story.

ETA: [1] I should note that Ben was the one to suggest ending with this story. He thought it would be nice to end with something hopeful. I don't really feel that this story *is* hopeful. Unlike Ben and Rob, I find this story incredibly sad and depressing. But I'm probably a lot less hopeful and optimistic than the two of them. And I guess I then take away a very different message from this book than they both did. I think that's a really cool thing about reader participation and interpretation. And as Ben said at the Last Short Story panel - ultimately, the reader has all the power.