Friday, July 6, 2018

Morbier, by R.S. Benedict

★★★★☆ Clever tale that Rewards Rereading

(Time Travel) Mara has no id and suffers under the delusion she’s from the future. Trish gets her a job at the country club anyway. That may have been a mistake. (4,686 words; Time: 15m)

"Morbier," by (edited by C.C. Finlay), appeared in issue 07-08|18, published on by .

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

Pro: The plot is all about how Mara came from a horrible dystopia in 2093 to kill the whole Geier family in order to try to change history. Presumably she kills herself to avoid causing unplanned changes, e.g. if the police got her to talk and someone important believed she really did come from the future.

Mara drops lots of hints along the way, which makes a reread delicious. We know the 2093 dystopia is homophobic because she freaks out about two guys marrying, saying “The government has you on a list now.” We suspect she stored the poison in the fridge because she kept going back to check it regularly. And, of course, asked about killing Hitler, she remarks that you’d need to kill a lot more people.

Although Trish ends up saying she can’t be sure if Mara was a real time traveler or if she was just crazy, but the fact that she knew exactly what and how Geier wanted to be served speaks volumes.

It’s cute the way the different sections of the story also jump around in time.

When it says that Ivan learned something about himself, I think that means he learned that even though he might hate the rich people, he didn’t want to see them die. He talks tough, but he’s not a killer.

Con: The characters never quite came to life for me. I’m not sad for Trish or Mara at the end.

The bad characters seem like caricatures. E.g. the grandmother who only opened her mouth to make ethnic slurs or fat-based insults.

Other Reviews: Search Web, Browse Review Sites (Issue 07-08|18)
R.S. Benedict Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB, FreeSFOnline

Follow RSR on Twitter, Facebook, RSS, or E-mail.

8 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. I really loved this one. Gripping throughout, and... it sneaks up on you so very, very well.

    In general, I'm head-over-heels in awe with R.S. Benedict. My English Name, Water Dog's God, and now Morbier are all outstanding, very vivid piece. Full of voice and impeccably constructed.

  2. I've also been tremendously impressed by Benedict since My English Name. However, as gripping and well done as I found this story (and as funny as I found Ivan's Marxist analysis of everything up to and including T-Rex versus the chickens) ... there's something in it that I found really off-putting.

    It started with something that just threw me right out of the story, when Trish comments that Geier's great-grandfather built the family fortune by designing the ovens at Buchenwald. This is both completely over-the-top and ahistorical. I don't know if we know who actually did that - given the Nazi penchant for meticulous record-keeping, it's possible that we do - but I'd be willing to bet it was just some random guy who then vanishes from the historical record; no one was paid large amounts of money for such a routine and undemanding job. (A sentence I can't believe it's possible to write in this context.) We get it: Beier's from an evil family. But there were plenty of German firms (some still around the day) that were both war profiteers and happily used slave labor, which would have made far more realistic choices.

    But this is the problem: Benedict wants us to know that Beier's family is evil. Genetically evil. We don't see Beier himself doing anything worse than (ineffectually) firing people, and his son is addicted to violent video games and borderline porn anime, but they are Evil with a capital E, and can be eliminated without qualm. It's okay to douse baby Hitler with gasoline and drop a match on him, because he likewise was Born Bad - even though Mara admits that there were a whole lot of other people who share the responsibility for his actions (like, for example, the wealthy conservative businessmen who were perfectly happy to support Hitler and the Nazis as long as they thought they could use them as a tool to smash the labor unions and the Communists). There's just an element of genetic determinism here that I found really unpleasant. Also complete indifference to collateral damage, but that's also okay, because it's already been established that everyone who dines at the country club is also a horrible human being.

    1. Hmmm.
      I see what you're saying.

      But on the other hand, I feel like that's kind of the opposite of where the story's going. The punch at the end is, "You're going to have to kill a whole lot of people" -- Beier isn't being singled out, and the rest of the diners aren't collateral damage at all; they're explicitly targets. That's why she's poisoning everyone.

      I don't think this story is talking about genetic evil at all. Its point is that Hitler shouldn't be treated as a single rotten individual, but as the inevitable outcome of a sufficiently rotten society. Blaming one person as "the bad one" is a convenient simplification, and doomed to fail.

      What I make of the Buchenwald ovens isn't genetic predetermination, but rather that power-by-wealth can be less a testament to ability than it is to ruthlessness (personal or ancestral). That's a poor claim to the right to have massive social influence, at the level that the wealthy (real and fictional...) do.

      And part of what I like about the story is that, while the rich diners are certainly portrayed as unpleasant, it's the unpleasantness of a-hole customers to beleaguered waitstaff -- annoying and you hate them, but that's no justification for mass murder. That's a lot of the point: Mara isn't murdering them for being nasty; she's murdering them because she needs an abrupt and total shift in society's power dynamics.

      (And I don't think the story wants you to feel sanguine about Mara's actions, either. They're deliberately horrific. That being said, I definitely agree that Benedict is blunting the horror, by making the victims so extremely unlikable.)

    2. I thought the implication was that Mara had come from the future, so she knew these people were going to do something horrible. And she also knew that it needed more than one person to be the trigger. So it wasn't that they had a genetic disposition to evil--she knew for a fact they were going to do evil things.

      Of course, if you buy that, then the references to the family's bad behavior in WWII seems to be gratuitous, but I already complained about the bad characters being cardboard.

    3. Absolutely Greg, we're all interpreting the story the same way - Mara has come from the future to kill them because they're going to do something horrible. My main problem with the story is what struck me as Benedict's implication that they're going to do evil things because they come from a long line of evil people. The way Beier and his family are portrayed is so completely overboard that it weakened the story for me. I think it would have been much more powerful if the people Mara came back to kill had been perfectly innocuous, even charming - because there's no reason why charming people can't do terrible things, either.

  3. There's very little in what you've said that I disagree with,, but I'm still not convinced. (One of the great things about a story that's so thought-provoking!)

    The one thing I do disagree with is your statement that none of the other people killed are collateral damage. This isn't a meeting of Beier's evil-minded wealthy cronies, it's a child's birthday party. Everyone there is complicit? Wives, husbands, people who may think Beier is a creep but feel compelled to attend for job-related reasons? The problem with the interpretation that Mara is attempting to produce a shift in society is that she almost certainly would have to kill far more people than she actually does; Beier's immediate circle isn't going to be remotely large enough to accomplish that - unless you single Beier and his family out as the unique source of infection.

    I agree absolutely with power-by-wealth can be less a testament to ability than it is to ruthlessness (personal or ancestral) - we see countless examples of that today. My problem with what Benedict does in the story is that it's so completely over the top as to amount (in my opinion) to a category shift: Beier's great-grandfather wasn't just some German industrialist who made his fortune collaborating with the Nazis, and was then regarded as too valuable to the rebuilding of Germany in the Cold War era to bring to justice (or, for that matter, a German rocket scientist who the US extracted for its own purposes), he designed the ovens for Buchenwald. And his great-grandson and great-great-grandson are portrayed as morally appalling, and need to be destroyed. Despite Mara's disclaimer, Benedict has so completely loaded the dice that I have a hard time reading this as anything but an assertion that Beier's family is just awful by genetic inheritance.

    Also, am I the only one who is made just a little bit queasy by Benedict's description of Beier, which pretty clearly puts him on the spectrum? This strikes me as coming perilously close to implying that Beier isn't human like the rest of us. Also, her use of the word 'replicant' to describe him - another instance of Othering him - is really odd, because replicants (I can't see how this is anything other than a Blade Runner reference) aren't like that at all in their behavior.

    Have you ever seen the original Outer Limits episode, "The Man Who Was Never Born"? It's essentially the same plot: time traveler from the future comes back to kill the man responsible for an outbreak of an alien virus that pretty much wipes out humanity. It's all in the details, of course; it makes for an interesting contrast with Benedict's story.

    One thing I agree with Benedict on completely: chocolate fountains are Lovecraftian abominations.