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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Karin Lowachee, Warchild,Warner Aspect, April 2002, $6.99
Ted Chiang, The Stories of Your Life and Others, Tor Books July 2002, $24.95

I have discovered, somewhat to my dismay, that one can actually burn out in an attempt to read too much in too short a period of time. No doubt this means that I'm getting older. When I was my high school self, I would have ridiculed even the suggestion of the possibility—but then again, when I was in high school, I knew that Ideal Parenting existed, that small children could be introduced, whole and perfect, into the world, and that the entirety of my life would be perfect if I could only write a novel that was published.

Clearly, things change. It makes life interesting. It makes it challenging. It produces a certainty that life can only be appreciated by living through it.

This year, I agreed to read for the World Fantasy Award—which means that I've been immersed in fantasy fiction published during the year 2001. Why did I do this? I thought it would be fun. I thought it would be a great excuse to read a lot, something I've not done since my aforementioned high school years. These are the things I've discovered so far.

1. High Fantasy takes more imaginative energy for me to read. When I'm running low on reader steam, my ability to absorb the strange names and cultures in even the best of the fantasy novels dims. This is very unfortunate, because I love high fantasy.

2. With a novel, it's clear within a chapter or two whether or not I'm going to like the book. Novels, oddly enough, have a greater range of quality in the word-for-word writing than short fiction—which is to say that short fiction seems, to me, to be more uniformly polished. I can think of a handful of short stories in which I cringed at dialogue, for instance; I run out of space if I start to list novels of which that's true.

3. Short fiction fails most often in the end; I can't read the first few pages and decide, on that basis, whether or not the story works for me. I tend to think of this as a structural problem, although it could also be broken down into the "What was the point of that, exactly?" response.

4. A lot more short stories are published in any given year than are novels.

*     *     *

Now, given that I've been reading mostly last year's fantasy, the two books I read for this column were a bit of a breather.

The first, Warchild, is a debut novel by Karin Lowachee. It's the second (corrections welcome) of the Warner Aspect first novel contest winners, and, like Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring before it, it's a small gem.

Well, no, it's a bloody large gem, one that catches the whole of the attention and causes one to marvel at the hand that cut it so perfectly. I would not have said, had you removed all the hype about its publishing genesis, that it was a first novel.

Its basic premise is certainly not an original one. I have no problems whatever with that. It's the handling of that premise that lifts it well above many other novels that deal with the same themes and use the same tropes.

Jos Musey is a young boy when the book opens. He is part of a ship that is attacked by space pirates, and the attack alters his life; he becomes a slave, the young companion of the man who is the de facto leader of the loosely organized pirates who have become such a problem. As a war is being fought, his plight is not at the forefront of the political agenda; it disappears, as does the whole of his early life, between the cracks of a system more concerned with survival than justice.

But Jos isn't fated to remain in the hands of slavers, and during a station-side stop, he manages—barely—to make his escape. He is found by a man who serves the wrong side in this war, and he is taken to safety before his owner can do much to retrieve his property. The book shifts in place: the man is a strit-lover, a human who has chosen, for whatever incomprehensible reason, to work side by side with the Alien 'bugs' at the heart of the wrong side of the war. Jos isn't happy.

But he learns, slowly, to trust the man who has rescued him. His own parents are dead, and he doesn't recognize until later the significance of the trust placed in him by his rescuer: Nikolas, known throughout the galaxy as the Warboy, son of the two men and women responsible for the start of the war.

He grows to the edge of manhood in the hands of aliens; he learns their ways and their customs. And then he is asked to commit an act of war: to join the Macedon, a ship whose commander is known for both his ability in battle, and his odd penchant for hiring on the human detritus of conflict: orphans, former slaves, the children of war.

It's not an easy adjustment, and it is during this part of his life that Jos Musey will struggle his way to independence and adulthood, framed on all sides by the things he has come to hate, not the least of which is himself.

Lowachee distinguishes herself—and her story—like a seasoned pro. She also experiments with structure; the first section of the book is written in second person, past tense; the second section is written in first person, past tense, and the third—and longest—in first person, present tense. There are very few people who could carry this off well. Lowachee does; and she does this because the structure itself speaks to the state of Jos Musey and his life, invoking passivity, history, and the ability to make a definitive choice in a subtle way.

Jos himself is a small marvel; he doesn't much like to talk; he doesn't want to interact at all, and he doesn't dwell on things when he can avoid it. The tone of his voice is clear and strong throughout, even when he's struggling toward change. He doesn't dwell on the horrors of his past, and neither does Lowachee; it's there, it's all there, but it's never so loud or graphic that you can't get close enough to crawl inside the truth.

The back cover blurb compares the novel obliquely to Ender's Game; fair enough, but I would say, having read it several times now (compulsively, end to end), that it echoes far more the strongest of C. J. Cherryh's Union Alliance universe, with its sense of isolation and complicated characters, its sense of heightened fear, heightened helplessness, and the clear dangers inherent in building any relationships of note in an uncertain environment. Nothing is clear; nothing is black and white.

Except this: Lowachee is not a talent to watch, she's a talent to enjoy right now, and I urge you to do just that.

*     *     *

Ted Chiang's collection is probably—without exaggeration—the most anticipated short story collection of its generation. And it contains in its 330-odd pages the whole of his published work to date. I can think of a handful of writers who became so widely known on their short fiction, and given how much short fiction is published, this is itself noteworthy.

I'm sure there's an award he hasn't won, but that's almost beside the point. I admit that I read short fiction very sporadically in my real life (this year being a huge exception, for obvious reasons) and even I knew of Ted Chiang. I hadn't, however, read any of his work until now.

The book opens with "Tower of Babylon," in which miners climb the centuries-old tower because the tower is now within a hand's reach of the curved lower surface of the vault of the heavens, and men are required who can dig through rock, removing it so that men might at last meet God and know him. Every element of the Tower has been thought out, but the thought itself is not belabored; it's made clear through the reactions of the men whose lives have been defined by the depths as they make their way up the long incline toward the heights. God figures prominently in many of these stories, but God is mystery, the unknowable, the inhuman.

It's clear, from this point on, that Ted Chiang believes that music exists in the precision of mathematical formulae; that he cannot write imprecisely because he doesn't seem to be able to think that way.

"Understand," the second story in the collection, is apparently the earliest written; it's about a man, given an experimental hormone therapy to alleviate the effects of brain damage. The strength of this story, too, lies in Chiang's ability to invoke, with clarity, the sense that the world exists in a series of precise algorithms that, if they were known, would be either mathematical or divine, if the two can be separated at all in his work. I also liked the way in which the fascination held by systems is in the end met by the desire to be human.

"Division by Zero" posits the discovery that mathematics is arbitrary, and that this can be proved. But it is couched in its effect on the people involved, the relationship to Math and the relationship to love intertwining in a bitter sort of emptiness.

"Story of Your Life" is the second best—meaning, in this context, my second favorite—story in the collection. Its precision, its eye for detail that never sounds like info-dumping, and its certain understanding of parenting, of inevitability, blend into a perfect whole. It's here, and in the last story of the collection, where Chiang's cool observation meets his certain sense of affection for, and understanding of, the human condition in the clearest possible way, although in a less immediate fashion these are obvious throughout.

"Seventy-Two Letters" looks at the animation of golems and the slow decay of humanity, binding them together in the web of human decision and emotion; "Hell Is the Absence of God" posits a very old testament God, and, yes, his eventual absence. "The Evolution of Human Science" is the slightest—in both length and feel—of the stories in the book, and the only one to fail to leave much impression on me.

There is only one story original to the collection, "Liking What You See: A Documentary." In snippets of diary-like entries and various media-related interviews, Chiang unfolds a world in which the human appreciation of human beauty—as opposed to any other sort of beauty—can be turned off. There is some explanation of exactly how this is done, but at this point, having reached the last of the Chiang's small gems, you expect nothing less. But there is also the strong viewpoints of the people involved in this experiment, and they're the first people who clearly understand nothing of the hows and the whys; they're young, and they're pretty much exactly what you'd expect they would be. His skill and insight here are impressive; no single voice rings false, and the whole of the mosaic constructed by these various snippets of information form something that speaks to our understanding of our motivations and the ease with which they're manipulated; to our naivete and our cynicism.

I very much liked what I saw in this book, and if you have any curiosity about Ted Chiang's reputation and his work, it is well-satisfied here.

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