Monday, October 12, 2015

What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear, by Bao Shu (translated by Ken Liu)

Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2015; 24,047 words
Rating: 3, Good, ordinary, story  Recommended By:   SFRevu:4

A Chinese man recounts his life, in which the events of history as we know them appear to be coming in reverse.

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

Pro: The narration is smooth and natural, and the dialogue (what little there is) is natural-sounding. People living their lives linearly while world events happen in reverse makes for an interesting background. And we do care about the main character, at least a little.

Con: It's really a "tale" not a story; nothing happens for a reason; things just happen. Several points in the story ought to move us to tears, but the narration is so distant and clinical that we feel little or nothing.

5 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. This was one of my favorites of the year so far.

    I loved the premise - I thought it was a very creative twist on alternate history; rearranging historical events in reverse order maintains their "content" but changes their significance. And the overall theme of the story is exactly that - that the same events can have a different significance when looked at differently.

    It may be more a thought-experiment than a meaty plot, but I thought it was a *fantastic* thought-experiment, and very well executed.

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    Replies
    1. We're trying very hard not to reward "originality" in these reviews. Eric Flint has written at length about the problem of jaded reviewers who'll reward a bad story just because it was different.

      http://www.ericflint.net/index.php/2015/04/16/some-comments-on-the-hugos-and-other-sf-awards/

      This wasn't really a bad story (we did give it three stars), but when you rule out extra points for originality, it's not a *great* story. Not by our definition, anyway.

      I am curious what you mean when you say it was "very well executed." The story is almost all narration. (Most of it reads like a Wikipedia article.) I'd agree that it was well narrated--it wasn't a show-vs-tell disaster--but, in my mind, that merely makes it adequate. Did you see something I didn't?

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    2. Eventually, form gets increasingly elevated over content. “Originality” for its own sake, something which the mass audience cares very little about—and neither did Homer or Shakespeare—becomes elevated to a preposterous status.

      I think there Flint's taking about originality of form, more on the lines of "literary experimentation," than originality of content. I do place great focus on originality, because that's a lot of what attracts me to SF&F - new, unusual ideas; different ways the universe might be. (Of course, different readers have different focii; and different levels of jadedness, to be sure :) )

      At any rate, if you enjoyed the originality at all, I don't see any reason not to give points for that enjoyment - it's one of the piece's primary goals and strengths. A highly original premise told with competent craft is something I find very enjoyable (and, hey, competent premise with highly excellent craft is also fantastic!). It's quite possible that by "well-executed" I mean the same thing that you do - that the story flows well and enjoyably, and with no annoying flaws. But I think that, particularly in the case of a story whose core is an unusual premise, it makes a lot of sense for writing and plot to kind of get out of the way a little; in this particular type of story, their job is to carry the premise, not the other way round.

      There might have been other specific things that I really liked; it's been a while since I read it. I do remember the Star Wars joke, which was quick, sly, and terrific :)

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    3. Ah, I remember a bit more about what I enjoyed -

      It never explains the premise outright, of course. It gets revealed gradually. So when I was reading it, it started out with these niggling little issues. I'm going, "waitaminute, that doesn't make sense." Or "Ummm, I think that was years earlier than this story seems to be set!"

      And gradually, you understand what's going on. The things that made no sense before, were the entire point. And now that you understand the pattern, you're always waiting for the next shoe to drop - you know what happens "next" in history; you want to see how it's going to tie in, what it's going to look like when you turn it around this way. It's like you've got an epic bushelful of foreshadowing, but without the author having to write a word of it.

      (This is common, to be sure, with a lot of alternate history stories - at least, the ones broad enough to be focusing on a long sequence of history, not focused on on particular place. But it's still hard to do, and really really fun.)

      And, as I said, I really appreciated the theme of the piece - the way that rearranging events changes their significance. For me, the theme was constantly present, but never overwhelming the story. It worked on multiple levels, and was one of those great cases where the theme and the SF premise are tailored to each other perfectly. That made the story feel richer and more significant for me than most stories that are "just" enjoyable. Plus it happens to be a theme I really like :)

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    4. I've seen a number of other reviewers criticize a story saying "it's been done before." I've even seen someone dismiss a story because the same author had used a similar device in one of his previous stories. That's what we're really trying to avoid: rejecting (or devaluing) a well-told story simply because of something someone else wrote. But the flip side of that is not rewarding something just because it was new and different.

      That said, I too really loved the Star Wars joke in this one. :-)

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