Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Gypsy, by Carter Scholz

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2015; 23,572 words
Rating: 2, Not recommended  Recommended By:   SFRevu:4 SFEP

With Earth falling apart, a secret group launches a mission to Alpha Centauri in 2041. Launching is only half the problem; getting there is the real challenge.

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: Many of the technical elements are well-thought-through. Each of the stewards deals with a reasonable, respectable, challenge on awaking, and the story reaches a logical ending.

Con: But that ending is terrible. We're dragged through 20,000 words, only to learn "they missed it by that much." Worse, despite everything else in the book telling us that the people on Earth were hopeless, that the governments were incompetent, we learn at the last minute that staying on Earth would have been the right decision after all.

The logic of the whole thing is flimsy. We have to believe that the governments of the world are so incompetent that they don't notice the spaceship being built, but they're so efficient that they immediately capture the organizers as soon as the ship is launched. And they're so evil that they secretly torture him to death, not to get any information from him but just out of pure meanness. For the same reason, they've classified all scientific news of any kind. It's a cardboard villain of the worst kind.

It doesn't help that the author seems to have viewed this story as a vehicle for his political views. If you don't believe that the world is secretly run by a cabal of capitalists, that all wars are organized for their profit, that all governments are really like North Korea (even the US), and that new technology isn't allowed to succeed (e.g. solar, fusion, etc.) because the conspiracy won't allow it (although it loves GMOs), then you'll find something to break suspension of disbelief in every single flashback.

14 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. I had a substantially different reading than you.

    > But that ending is *terrible*. We're dragged through 20,000 words, only to learn "they missed it by *that* much."

    I think you're saying that mostly because you're coming in with so many genre expectations of a heroic last-minute save.

    But it's a story about failure. The bulk of the story is about how very, very flimsy this chance is. How the barrier to spaceflight isn't merely finding mechanical solutions to immediate problems; it's finding solutions that hold steady over time. It's about how systems tend to drift towards failure and ruin.

    And that echoes the larger theme: for humanity, it's not enough that we merely burn brightly for a few millennia. If burning so brightly consumes all our resources and burns us down a cinder, then humanity has failed. A successful humanity is one that can maintain itself over time.

    > we learn at the last minute that staying on Earth would have been the right decision after all.

    I think Scholz was going for something a tad more subtle here. By this point in the story, Sophie is an unreliable narrator. She's already delusional, imagining the dead Sergei. We've already got Rosa's fallback hope that maybe, just maybe, their failure doesn't mean the end of humanity after all - "But that was another narrative, and she couldn't bring herself to believe it." And then, for Sophie to get just this perfect message, just at the right time, "Good luck, Good-bye," no follow-up, and after that, "The white noise of space. A blank screen" --

    How sure are you that that message actually came through?

    > We have to believe that the governments of the world are so incompetent that they don't notice the spaceship being built

    I didn't read it this way.

    The story spent a lot of energy explaining how the project was able to get off the ground without notice. "Dual-use," for everything. (For example, they didn't build a spaceship for Gypsy; they stole the one Roger built for Nikos Kakopoulos.)

    Additionally, I disagree with your interpretation of the launch. The launch was "that terrible morning" with the message "Go. Go now. Go at once." In other words, (A) the authorities weren't incompetent; they actually discovered the project, and (B) they rushed the launch because they were about to be caught; that isn't improbable synchronicity. (I also don't see where they torture him to death; I just see them maintaining their cover story of "everything is OK; nobody has pulled a fast one on Earth Authorities." But I might be missing a flashback now that I'm going back and skimming.)

    So... I think you're sorely mis-characterizing Earth authorities here. Honestly, I don't even think Earth authorities are "the villian" here in any traditional sense, but that's a larger discussion.

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  2. >If you don't believe that the world is secretly run by a cabal of capitalists, that all wars are organized for their profit, that all governments are really like North Korea

    I really don't think that's what's being said here at all.

    Quite the opposite: there's not much implication of ill-will here. What there is, is a gradual accumulation of failures. A gradual consumption of resources, until nothing is more important than protecting your own. The rich and the powerful are certainly callous and self-serving, but not a one of them actually has the power to make a positive difference. The only differences that actually get registered are those who hasten the end, because it's in their short-term interest, and their long-term interests are screwed anyway.

    If you're reading this as "cabals," "organized wars," and dictatorial governments, then IMHO you're definitely reading this wrong. The whole point of the story is how failures stack up, one on top of the other. How it's not enough for almost everything to work perfectly; over time, either everything works perfectly, or the few flaws grow into utter collapse.

    ---


    I think this is a bleak story, a depressing story, a story of outright despair. It rejects the promises of humanity, of technology, and of hope.

    But that's its goal. And IMHO, it does those things very, very effectively.

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    1. Interesting. I hadn't thought to make a parallel between the failure of the space mission (where everything must go perfectly) and the failures on the Earth.

      That still doesn't explain torturing people to death just for the fun of it, though. And it also doesn't square with the hopeful ending: the news from Earth that things were all better now.

      My feeling is still that the reader ends with a feeling of having read the wrong story; we should have been reading about those people back on Earth who fixed everything. Not the poor souls on the spaceship who ended up making no difference whatsoever.

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    2. Can you point me to the "tortured to death for fun" bit? I don't recall it. I might have missed it, but I definitely don't think it was central.

      As for the "hopeful ending", as I said - I don't think it was very hopeful at all. I think Sophie was delusional by that point; the message represents the desperate hope that maybe somehow everything will be all right after all, which we cling to no matter how bad things are, but it's a feeble hope indeed. Maybe things actually did work out. It's not impossible. It's grossly improbable, but maybe, maybe...

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    3. I do agree, I'd much prefer to read a story building hope, talking about what can be done, than one preaching despair and futility.

      But that's not what this story is; it's not what it's trying to be; and I don't think it should be judged as though it were.

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    4. Look for the quote 'Oh, Roger. We can make "over" last a long time.'

      So you think that when it says "She feels the words rather than reads them" that it means she just imagined the whole thing? It's a weird paragraph no matter how you interpret it.

      My big problem with the story wasn't the dismal message--lots of three-star stories fall into the "endurable, not enjoyable" camp. My problem was that it kept challenging my suspension of disbelief.

      A different way to put it is that it has a cardboard villain--a government that's evil just to be evil. If we can't believe in the villain, then the whole story suffers for it.

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    5. > Look for the quote 'Oh, Roger. We can make "over" last a long time.'

      But that's addressed:

      The authorities would vanish Roger Fry and everyone associated with him on the day they learned what he was planning. Not because of the what: a starship posed no threat. But because of the how and the why: Only serious and capable dissidents could plan so immense a thing; the seriousness and capability were the threat.

      They didn't torture him to death, certainly not for fun. They're just bent on preserving their own power.

      Again, I don't see the government and authorities as actual villains of the piece. They're obstacles, but they aren't malicious; just self-serving. The conflict is between a humanity that wants to bite off more than it can chew. Roger hates the government, but he doesn't lay the blame on it (emphasis is mine):

      Something in the complex process of civilization had forced it into this place from which it now had no exit. He didn't see this as an inevitable result of the process, but it had happened. There might have been a time when the situation was reversible. If certain decisions had been made. If resources had been treated as a commons. Back when the population of the planet was two or three billion, when there was still enough to go around, enough time to alter course, enough leisure to think things through. But it hadn't gone that way. He didn't much care why. The question was what to do now.

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  3. I agree with RSR's rating. This story challenged my suspension of disbelief right from the start by dredging up the doom-and-gloom scenarios from the 1970s when everyone worried about overpopulation and running out of resources. Who would have thought that we could now hit "peak demand" before "peak supply" due to predicted declining populations and growing sub-replacement rate fertility? I would have been OK with no explanation for the hell-on-Earth and just take it as a given, like in Cormac McCarthy's "The Road". However, without a credible motivation, the Gypsy project's go-where-we-hope-there's-a-habitable-planet just seemed ridiculous to me.

    My overall criticism might be that things are over-explained for the "Hard SF" shine but enough did not sound reasonable that it reduced my enjoyment of the story. Examples include a communication protocol that used acknowledgements even though it was effectively one-way, the ship having a fission reactor and a fusion engine (typo?), and Sergei doing a spacewalk without a jet pack or tether (lack of basic worker safety).

    I do agree with Standback's observation that the message from Earth at the end might have been Sophie's imagination and not real.

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    1. BTW, I get the parallels between the ship Gypsy and "spaceship Earth," and such a message would elevate a story from good to great as long as the author doesn't "bend credibility" to fit the narrative so much that it breaks, much as journalists shouldn't "bend facts" to fit a particular narrative of a news article (liberal or conservative). Maybe I'm too harsh on hard SF and should stick to soft SF or fantasy. :-)

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    2. It happens that I'm reading Aurora right now, so maybe I'm a glutton for punishment.

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  4. Come on, guys, this is nothing less than a great story. The scene where a character is perched on the outside of the hull (he is the only one in the crew who is alive and awake) and observes the slightly altered starscape is old-fashioned SF goodness, the likes of which you seldom see nowadays.

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  5. That was a cool scene, granted, but spoiled by the fact that he didn't use a safety cable, which was another one of those impossible-to-believe bits of the story. It has a LOT of cool scenes, actually, but (for me, at least) that's not enough to make up for the shortcomings.

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  6. Wow, great discussion!

    I don't really have much to add, I'm kind of on the "20,000 words for this???" side but I think it was well written enough with some beautiful scenes that it brings it back up to a 3 for me.

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    1. I mean, usually novellas are a slog for me so anytime I can get through one without saying "are we there yet?" its probably a good sign.

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