Thursday, March 31, 2016

Three Paintings, by James Van Pelt

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(SF) Vincent is a famous painter, but he fears he's grown stale. He has a wild plan to reinvigorate his painting, which starts with making a backup copy of himself. (4,346 words; Time: 14m)

Rating: ★★★★☆ Complex and Provocative

"Three Paintings," by (edited by Sheila Williams), appeared in issue 04-05|16, published on by .

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

Pro: From the name, we ought to expect Vincent to shoot himself, but it's still a shock when he does. The complication that the agent has kept the thing running took me by surprise, but it was well-foreshadowed.

Con: It's awfully hard to believe that anyone would actually do this. The suicide is clearly real, and the copy is clearly just a copy.

Other Reviews: Search Web, Browse Review Sites (Issue 04-05|16)
James Van Pelt Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB, FreeSFOnline

14 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. Oh, wow! I really like James Van Pelt; I'm super pleased to see a new story from him in Asimov's.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. I love that your review is upside down to avoid unintentionally spoiling a plot point. I'd never seen that before.

  3. I used to use ROT13, but Google was indexing the encrypted words (and sometimes showing them in the snippet). My nephew proposed this as an alternative, and I'm very pleased how well it's worked out.

  4. The did the I-die-or-not problem with copies I find fascinating. I taught James Patrick Kelly's "Think Like a Dinosaur" in my science fiction classes, which has exactly the same problem. A copy of a person is assembled at the receiving end and the original is destroyed. I wouldn't want to travel that way, since as far as I'm concerned, I'm dead. The best salesmen for that travel method, though, would be the copies who would feel as if they actually travelled.

  5. The argument that convinced me that I wouldn't want to use Star Trek's transporter went like this:

    Suppose the part of the transporter that dissolves the original person were to fail (as it did in some Star Trek episodes.) That is your copy is down on the planet, but you're still on the ship. Then Scotty says, "Hang on, I'll fix it." Do you run?

  6. I came in favorably biased, but that hasn't stopped me before. In this case, I'm happy to say, I liked this story very much indeed. :D

    I feel like there's been a fair amount of play in SF with the idea that doubles or clones may or may not behave the same way. But here Van Pelt creates a unique situation of somebody setting up the experiment intentionally, deliberately - and very much as a experiment, with interesting consequences whatever the result.

    The structure is fantastic, with a kind of nested premise that gradually unfolds. At the start, the idea of an artist secluding himself completely, and making a publicity stunt of it, was vivid enough to make me completely forget the throwaway opening. Then he shoots himself and you're going "what HE--" -- and the story keeps barreling right on.

    Then the stress on the bagel barista's subtle influence on Vincent, so I went, "Huh, this is some kind of triptych, maybe playing with alternate realities?" Interesting.

    Then we do go back to the backups, and things become clear, and we understand the precise nature of what Vincent is attempting.

    And then we get the final twist, which is clear, dramatic, and fully established, even though we weren't looking for it at all.

    It's fast-paced, inventive, intense, and masterfully done. Kudos.

  7. For the record, I have no trouble with the premise, and Vincent's willingness to effectively commit suicide as a kind of meta-art.

    For one thing, well, it's part of the premise, and I can just suspend disbelief pretty easily, same as I do for Star Trek. There've been far, far worse, that still make very excellent stories.

    And even taking it absolutely at face value, I definitely would expect that almost everybody wouldn't be willing to do something like this, but I have no difficulty imagining that somebody would. Even if you'd have to be pretty messed-up for that to make sense to you... it's no surprise that there might exist one artist who may be messed-up in this particular way...

  8. This was a difficult one. The sophisticated plot clearly argues for 4 stars, but the suicide that he pretends isn't really suicide argues for 2. For me, every time he shot himself, he shot me out of the story. On the other hand, as you say, the story is filled with precisely the sort of "aha" moments that I prize very highly; those surprises that have been foreshadowed so well that you're taken by surprise and yet it all makes sense.

    1. I definitely hear you, "he pretends suicide isn't really suicide" can be a big thing. That makes a lot of sense to me.

      I might take that same point and phrase it a little differently: You're saying the problem isn't the fact that he kills himself, but mostly the fact that he doesn't make a big deal about it. He doesn't dwell on it while he's painting; it doesn't disrupt his work or his mood; he doesn't angst over it before pulling the trigger. Those might have made the suicide more believable for you.

      That's a valid point, but to be honest, simply adding more weight and focus to the story would have destroyed it. It would have added a major new focus that just doesn't support the main thrust very well, and indeed, is in tension with it.

      To my mind, the author mitigated the issue pretty much as well as possible. The first suicide is sudden and shocking; horrifying, in a way. And here obviously you're not privy to Vincent's hesitation and misgivings; you're looking in from the outside at this point. You don't get the "realistic" hesitation of Vincent's inner thoughts; instead you get the "realistic" shock and horror that he would possibly do such a thing. It's a legitimate strong reaction that matches the horror of suicide.

      The second described suicide already has hesitation built in, with the misfired bullet. That hints at this not being easy at all, but Vincent's keeping most of that under the surface. And I think that's the only two actual suicides portrayed.

      ...but that's all just my own two cents. A reader's allergy to suicide-as-a-reset-button is pretty obviously a YMMV thing; some readers will have no difficulty suspending belief, and for others it'll be a dealbreaker.

      I personally hope more of the former than the latter, because I really enjoyed and I hope others will too :)

  9. This is easily the best discussion I've seen of a story of mine in a while. Thank you all for your thoughts about the piece.

    1. And congratulations on writing what was, at a minimum, a provocative piece!

  10. Raising the rating to four stars, per the 2016 guidelines, since the story is unquestionably memorable.

  11. Awesome, and thanks. I've never had a review shift before. Happy Holidays, Greg.

    1. And to you as well!

      Our Q&A section explains that we do shift a few reviews from time to time, especially towards the end of the year.