Tuesday 25 December 2018

A Christmas story... just not the Christmas story

Santa Claus.  Father Christmas.  Saint Nicholas.  What's his job?

Yes, you heard right.  What's the great man's form of employment?  What does he say at parties?  How does the sentence, "Hi, I'm Nick, I'm a..." end?

Now, you may think, given he's got almost 2 billion addresses to deliver presents to (okay, that's the number of children in the world, but it's easier to google, so go with it), that he'd say he was something in logistics, transportation.  You'd think he'd be in the Teamsters.  Actually, you'd think he'd be life president of the Teamsters, given he has 364 days to devote to union activity, and who works Christmas Day?

But that's just where you'd be wrong.  Because the flaw in your logic would be staring you in the face.  What's he doing the other 364 days of the year?  He's making a list; he's checking it twice.

That's a bloody big Excel file.  Excel's good, and it's a simple table (name; address; present wanted; naughty or nice?; maybe a column for evidence), but 1.9 billion lines may be flying at the limits of it's capacity.  I haven't worked that one out.  But the point is that Nicholas of Bari was - nay, is - a data jockey, a spreadsheet pilot.

You see, the whole courier thing is a sideline, little more than a hobby.  There are Yodel drivers on zero hours contracts that are more committed to door-to-door deliveries that Santa.  Like the rest of us, he's a corporate wageslave, a commuter with a computer most of the year.  Probably works in a cubicle.  Maybe seen him on mass transit, sat next to him.  He'll have a grey pallor; a faraway expression like he has something on his mind; I don't think he'll have a loud tie.  He's looking forward to Christmas; it's his one day away from a screen, out in the fresh air.  He's not that different from you.

You don't like that Christmas story?  Okay, here's another: NewMyths.com has just run my seasonal tale, Charles Edward Tuckett's Yuletide Message.  Maybe you'll like that one.  Or this one:


Sunday 16 December 2018

Who am I to criticise Isaac Asimov? Well, let's find out

Well, as we've recently found out, sudoku and futoshiki won't save us from dementia.  One of my strategies to hold back the softening of my cerebrum, which I'm sure I can feel happening daily, is to record the books I've read on goodreads.com with a short review.  Maybe it won't slow down my eventual descent into senility, but the ability to look back and say, did I really read that?, may act as some kind of speedometer.  Or, possibly, depth gauge.

One of the most recent additions to my goodreads history is 'Robot Dreams' by Isaac Asimov.  It's the third Asimov I've added, joining 'Foundation':

Asimov is famous for the sheer weight of words that he wrote. I suspect that all that writing left precious little time for re-writing, and it shows. A succession of silly characters with silly names, a storyline that aims at portentous and just hits pretentious, I'm baffled as to why this is a classic. Is it me, or is it Isaac? Perhaps volume two will give me a clue... (two stars)

And 'Foundation and Empire':

Abandoned around page 50 when all the characters started speaking in the voice of Matt Berry in my head. Typing, not writing. Drivel. (one star)

Robot Dreams is a different proposition, a collection of short stories, rather than part of a longer narrative.  You get a sense that Asimov could see the finish line of each tale, so managed to navigate himself there; whereas in the Foundation trilogy I sensed a writer without a map banging on a typewriter in the hope of spotting the end point in the fog.

Too many of my reviews on goodreads complain of a lack of story masked by the ability to write some damn good prose (Ian McEwan, I mean you).  Asimov's situation is somewhat different; it's not a lack of ideas that's the problem, it's that Asimov can't wait to simply have one of his characters explain it.  There's little in the way of subtlety or subtext.  It's beyond show, don't tell; if he could have got these tales to tell don't state, that would have been a start.

The stating is typically done by having a number of characters meet - I don't know how many meeting room tables were spoken over - and explain a predicament in a very on-the-nose conversation.  The situations are often realistic, in the context of science fiction; say, that first formal meeting when a visitor to a facility of some kind has the mystery explained to them.  But there's little in the way of realistic talking round things, oblique references that would make sense to the characters if not the audience, and when backstory is referred to, it's for our benefit, not their's.  Very little rings true.

There's some good idea, sure.  Some really good ideas.  An anti-gravity device that causes objects to reach the speed of light, which a scientist uses to kill an experimenter who's rejected the hard graft of theory ('The Billiard Ball').  That humans host an unseen, other-dimensional parasite that causes death ('Hostess').  The monetization of a time travel bubble; the fruits of the first experiments thrown away when the inventors find they can reach further back ('The Ugly Little Boy').  Or computers having narrowed the electorate down to the one representative voter (Franchise).

But there's also a strange moral code running through these, redolent of the stiff and formal 1950s.  There's no room for the drunks, delinquents and paranoids of PKD's work.  In an Asimov story you do your tie up, kiss your wife, and go to to work.  No sex before marriage, and probably nothing beyond missionary.  But it's beyond simply not writing stories about non-conformists, there seems to be a strand that says this is what the world is like.  Hostess depends for its logic on a lack of pre-marital sex: not that you shouldn't, just that people don't.  But, lest we forget, Asimov spent an awful lot of time typing.

The best and worst story is 'Spell My Name with an "S"'.  In this science fiction gives way to speculative fiction, as if Isaac had just bashed this one off having watched an episode of The Twilight Zone.  It's still high on people talking to each other, but differs in that the conversations are mainly others speculating on and misinterpreting the main character's motives.  But, just when he's built a world running slightly askew, he explains the oddness by way of alien intervention.  This one would have been so much stronger if he'd omitted the coda.

What Asimov's writing reminds me of more than ever is television.  The 1950s brand of science fiction that looks like a parody of itself now: two people in mid-shot wearing rubber heads or costumes with capes and fins, talking hokum.  Stuff that had to be banged out because the writer had an episode to write a day, and had to be heavy on the static shots of people explaining because the cameras weighed more than a car and you couldn't move the lights.

I quite understand why science fiction TV and cinema should have evolved.  Digital equipment is so light and portable that we can now film virtually anything, and when we can't film it we just make it up.  But back then, the action was staged - almost literally.  But, guys, this is writing, this is words on a page, little lines of black ink on pressed wood pulp.  We've never been constrained by technical parameters.  We could do anything, can do anything - then and now.  There's so many ways to be different, subversive, innovative.  So, why make your writing feel like it's got to fit into a dialogue heavy, wooden acted, static framework?  

I've written before about the difference between supply and demand of stories now and in the late fifties, exactly the era that most of these hale from and from when Asimov made his mark.  Back then, by all accounts, you only had to be adequate to get published and keep getting published.  And 'adequate' as a bar to leap over doesn't lead to innovation or paradigm shift.

Perhaps the most damning test for me is to ask myself whether any of Asimov's stories would get sold on the pro short fiction market today, into a publication like, say, Asimov's.

To be honest, I really don't think they would.