21 June 2004

Rabid Transit: Petting Zoo

The third chapbook from the estimable Ratbastards, Rabid Transit: Petting Zoo, deserves attention, for the six stories within it exhibit skill and ambition. The book doesn't seem to me to possess any stories of the quality of, for instance, Chris Barzak's "The Blue Egg" or Kristin Livdahl's "Even a Worm Will Turn" from the first collection or "Gramercy Park" by Haddayr Copley-Woods from the second, but there is fine work here.

M. Rickert (currently the featured author at Ideomancer) provides a typically evocative story, "Art is Not a Violent Subject" -- in addition to writing lovely prose, she has created some of my favorite titles of recent years -- and John Aegard's "The Golden Age of Fire Escapes" is a surrealist epic in fourteen pages, a story that succeeds at being both a pleasure to read and, ultimately, unsettling. Amber van Dyk shows real skill with maintaining a consistency of tone and style in "Storyville", an affecting tale intoxicated with language, a technique not to every reader's taste, though I for one would have preferred it were the story truly drunk on language rather than just tipsy.

I want to discuss the remaining three stories as a group, because they caused me to think about the challenges of the short story form, the nature of narrative, and how authors balance the intellectual content of stories with other elements.

At one fictional extreme, we have David Moles's "Five Irrational Histories", which is essentially a collection of five summaries of alternate history stories. (Sort of.) For intellectual content, this story ranks with the best of its kind -- it is erudite, clever, and witty. If it isn't nominated for a Sidewise award, I suspect the reason will purely be that not enough people read it.

At the other extreme, though not extremely so, is Elad Haber's "Ophelia and the Beast", which has Hamlet's Ophelia rescued and resuscitated by Beauty's Beast. It is a prototypical short story: one idea developed through a couple of characters, brought to resolution. The writing is clear, concise, occasionally beautiful, often pretty; a style that in another story would be cloying but effectively fits the subject here.

Between those two stories lies "How to Write an Epic Fantasy" by David Lomax, which seems to me to be the weakest story the Ratbastards have published, though it is skilled enough to make me think David Lomax will be writing some excellent work soon. The problem with "How to Write an Epic Fantasy" is that it lacks the depth of ideas of "Five Irrational Histories" but doesn't have the traditional narrative pleasures of "Ophelia and the Beast".

Satirizing epic fantasy is like playing a practical joke on a three-year-old, though slightly less amusing. It can be a useful enough form if the author is up to other things at the same time, but the story is fifteen pages of this:
"Tomorrow," say Georg Laun. Because he looks weary, they do not press him further, but allow the invisible servants, the ones who speak in desperate whispers of loves that they have lost, to escort them to their rooms.

They sleep well -- or at least that's how Georg Laun tells the story years later. Now we are drawn back, just for a moment, to the Tavern of the Dying Giant. You must do this to keep your readers from identifying too much with Georg Laun as a narrator. Other narrators are to come, and if the reader is not to be too disappointed when the verbose dwarf has spoken his part, you must show Laun to be, if not unreliable, at least flawed.
At the end, we have paragraphs such as the following:
You ought to be careful here. Telling stories for moral instruction can lead to fearful consequences. One teller had to swallow hemlock. Another was crucified.
If it were 1,000 words long, this would be a diverting little joke of a tale, but nothing within it justifies its length, because the one idea is contained in the title (read with two winks and a nudge) and there's not much else going on in it.

"Five Irrational Histories" will be similarly unsatisfying to some readers, since it relates action rather than dramatizing it, but at least Moles develops some clever alternate histories and does so in very short pieces (his entire story is a little bit more than half the length of "How to Write an Epic Fantasy"). Moles's story also functions as a sly critique of a genre of writing: if the primary content of your story is ideas, why not just present the ideas and get rid of the narrative elements that serve no purpose other than decoration? (Bruce Sterling's "Our Neural Chernobyl", collected in Globalhead, serves a somewhat similar purpose for hard SF -- if ideas and extrapolation matter most, why bother with characters and plot? -- though Sterling is up to a bunch of other things in that story as well.) There is no need to read the story that way, for it has other things to offer, but it is able to bear such an interpretation as a layer added to what is already there.

The most satisfying stories in Petting Zoo are the ones that mix ideas and narrative with the only element of fiction I might be persuaded into saying is essential: surprise. "Storyville" is surprising in its language, "Art is Not a Violent Subject" and "The Golden Age of Fire Escapes" are surprising in their language and imagery, as well as (perhaps most importantly) in the subtlety of how they convey -- in the broadest sense, and lacking a better word -- ideas. Neither M. Rickert nor John Aegard could sum their stories up in a couple of sentences; they had to write them to exactly the length they did, because to cut the stories much shorter would be to lose something vital, while to prolong them would likely add nothing that hadn't already been said.

None of which is to suggest that metafictional techniques can't work. Centuries of writing prove otherwise, and even within the world of speculative fiction there are authors using metafictional techniques to great effect -- see my notes on Jeff VanderMeer and Jeffrey Ford. For metafiction to work, though, it can't simply be about being metafictional, and it shouldn't try to do what could be more effectively done in an 800 word essay. (For comparison, see Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew: nearly 500 pages of metafiction that is so inventive as to be simultaneously hilarious, frustrating, devastatingly satiric, befuddling, intellectually challenging, and completely overwhelming -- more, of course, than just metafiction.)

Despite my quibbles, I can think of few enterprises within the realm of speculative fiction so deserving support as the Ratbastards, because they have consistently produced work that explores the boundaries of fiction, the evocative powers of language, the limitations of tradition, and the joys of literature. Not every experiment is successful, but that doesn't mean experimentation isn't worthwhile. More than worthwhile, it is essential, because it lets us glimpse what is possible and helps us understand what is vital within even the most decrepit traditions.

Update: My interview with founding Ratbastard Alan DeNiro is here.

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