Blog Archives

Short Story Review: Elves of Antarctica by Paul McAuley

Review 2018 Elves of Antarctica Paul McAuley Drowned Worlds COVER IMAGE

This is the first time I’ve reviewed a short story here. I’m pretty sure, anyway. At the very least, it’s the first time I’ve done it with the intention of doing them as a regular feature of my blog-slash-authorpage. (Note: this first appeared on my Patreon page 8 days ago — become a patron and see blog posts a week-plus early, even if you pledge just ONE dollar.

So, before I begin, some notes.

I think I’ll always lead with a spoiler warning, just in case. Like this: there may be spoilers in here, because 99% of the time I just don’t care about spoilers.

And that’s true. I’m one of those weirdos who can have the ending and twists of a movie, book, or story revealed to me and fully enjoy the thing anyway. I’m kind of a fan of spoiling as a device in fiction, in fact. Stephen King loves to do that. He’ll tell you someone is going to die a hundred pages before they die, and the story of how they die is still delicious. More delicious, I think. The flavor is in the telling.

And I’m not going to give stars. Screw grades, especially when they’re nothing more than my opinion. I always feel awkward trying to give a numerical value to how much I like a thing. I’m also the person who says “well, I don’t really have a favorite, but I do like (names five things)” when asked what their favorite whatever is.

I don’t think less of you if you give stars to things, though. Or have favorites. You do you – and I’m not saying that in a sarcastic way.

Now, the actual review:

Elves of Antarctica by Paul McAuley, found in Drowned Worlds, editor Jonathan Strahan. It’s the kickoff story.

My experience: it was easy to read, but also easy to put down and finish tomorrow, which I did. Neither of those traits, speaking of “put down,” is a putdown. I didn’t find it highly impactful, but it was still worth my time.

Standout features: the worldbuilding was excellent and detailed, as was the backstory of the main character. The story is a fine tour through the state of ecological affairs in the next century, and I found it much in the tradition of Hugo Gernsback with his worldbuilding-heavy “look! It’s the future!” stories. McAuley, however, has not built Hugo’s cardboard cutout characters. While the other characters aren’t fleshed out any more than their cosmetic roles demand, protagonist Mike Torres is a deep and rich character – if the worldbuilding wasn’t so significant to current climate change events, I’d take it for an excuse to plumb the depths of his angst, hope, and his curious entanglement with the phenomenon of the elf stones scattered across the partially uniced landscape of coastal Antarctica (which are inscribed in “elvish,” though are we talking Tolkien’s elvish? How else would people recognize and read Elvish? Maybe I missed the mention of Tolkein – or maybe not. The estate is famously litigious. I was reading this part at three in the morning jotting notes sideways in bed, so who knows what I might have missed in a moment of fatigue.

The stones are mysterious, or not. It’s hard to be sure, and that’s a fine note of humanity in the story. They’re probably placed there by humans, but the “stoners” (distracting name for elf stone enthusiasts, by the way) are happy to muse about mystical origins anyhow. They’re kind of a stand-in for stories in that way – we all know Star Wars is fiction, but there’s a Jedi church anyway. Two of them. Maybe more.

I wasn’t terribly excited to discover that this was a “something happened” story. Don’t come for the wrapup or a hint of conclusion. It’s not there. Which is a thing in the short story world, and there’s still plenty to be had in the reading. I’m just one of those people who favors a more concludey conclusion, even a “let’s just hint at what happens next” ending.

The writing is pretty spare for the most part, definitely in the “just tell the story” tradition – except when it comes to describing the natural world. There, the descriptions become more literary (if maybe prone to cliché phrases like “snow-capped mountains”), a bit closer to poetry, definitely richer and more emotionally evocative. I appreciated it as a touch that created focus on the heart of the story without dragging the reader over and rubbing my nose in it.

Overall, I found it a good read and an excellent way to start an anthology as it takes the reader through a lot of potential developments that are likely to come with a changing climate.




Sneaking Politics Into Your Science Fiction, Hugo Gernsback Edition

Hugo Ralph

Blah, blah, puppies and science fiction and Hugos and sociopolitical commentary in stories and gee whiz science fiction was ‘pure’ in the olden days and…


If you follow the genre and/or some of the popular artists of the science fiction field, you’ve seen a bellyfull of blog posts and tweets and Facebooking and so forth on the current Sad and/or Rabid Puppies bloc-voting thing in the recent Hugo nominations. A fair bit of the commentary from the Puppy side of things revolves around the idea that political comments on society, specifically those seen as coming from the political left, are being sneakily injected into your good ol’ science fiction and making it not science fictiony—a brand new phenomenon, unique to the modern day, they say. (You might observe at this point that someone is always complaining about how bad ‘the modern day’ is and how much better the ‘good old days’ were—you can find plenty of examples no matter what century’s literature you care to examine.)

A variety of authors have weighed in on the matter, making their cases for whether or not ‘the good ol’ days’ were all about ‘pure’ science fiction without that darn political and social commentary.

Since they’re all talking about the Hugos, I thought I’d check out the fiction from the horse’s mouth—Hugo Gernsback, for whom the award is named. His Ralph 124C 41+ is one of the earliest examples of the American-written science fiction novel, if a clunky one by modern standards. It’s definitely focused on the science speculation, with plot and characters being mainly a diaphanous vehicle serving to move the reader from one technological speculation to the next.

So, is it good ol’ pure science fiction without any of that darn social and political ‘corruption’ that so worries the Puppies?

Here’s a nice representative passage from Ralph, Gernsback himself writing:

Ralph, sitting on the roof of his tower, was oblivious to all about him. He was unable to dismiss from his mind the lovely face of the girl whose life he had just been the means of saving. The soft tones of her voice were in his ears. Heretofore engrossed in his work, his scientific mind had been oblivious to women. They had played no part in his life. Science had been his mistress, and a laboratory his home. And now, in one short half hour, for him the whole world had become a new place. Two dark eyes, a bewitching pair of lips, a voice that had stirred the very core of his being— Ralph shook himself. It was not for him to think of these things, he told himself. He was but a tool, a tool to advance science, to benefit humanity. He belonged, not to himself, but to the Government—the Government, who fed and clothed him, and whose doctors guarded his health with every precaution. He had to pay the penalty of his +. To be sure, he had everything. He had but to ask and his wish was law—if it did not interfere with his work. There were times he grew restive under the restraint, he longed to smoke the tobacco forbidden him by watchful doctors, and to indulge in those little vices which vary the monotony of existence for the ordinary individual. There were times when he most ardently wished that he were an ordinary individual. He was not allowed to make dangerous tests person-ally, thereby endangering a life invaluable to the Government. That institution would supply him with some criminal under sentence of death who would be compelled to undergo the test for him. If the criminal were killed during the experiment, nothing was lost; if he did not perish, he would be imprisoned for life. Being a true scientist, Ralph wanted to make his own dangerous experiments. Not to do this took away the very spice of life for him, and on occasion he rebelled. He would call up the Planet Governor, the ruler of 15 billion human beings, and demand that he be relieved of his work. “I can’t stand it,” he would protest. “This constraint which I am forced to endure maddens me, I feel that I am being hampered.” The Governor, a wise man, and a kindly one, would often call upon him in person, and for a long time they would discuss the question, Ralph protesting, the Governor reasoning with him. “I am nothing but a prisoner,” Ralph stormed once. “You are a great inventor,” smiled the Governor, “and a tremendous factor in the world’s advancement. You are invaluable to humanity, and—you are irreplaceable. You belong to the world—not to yourself.” Many times in the past few years he recalled, had the two been over the same ground, and many times had the diplomatic Governor convinced the scientist that in sacrifice of self and devotion to the world’s future lay his great reward.

Let’s check out what the namesake of the award is saying here. Surely there are no sneaky, dirty political statements in it.

Wait… Ralph is a “tool to advance science, to benefit humanity”? He belongs to the government? That sounds a bit political! But I’m sure it’s an illusion.

Tobacco is forbidden to Ralph because it’s… a threat to his health? This was published in 1925… lawyers and doctors representing the tobacco industry would still be arguing the harmlessness of smoking tobacco 40 years later. Sounds like a controversial anti-business pronouncement to me. Something a dirty social justice warrior might sneak into the pure science fiction.

The government gives Ralph death row inmates to perform dangerous experiments on!? Could this be a socially and politically charged comment on the nature of the duty of a criminal to repay society for wrongs committed? It’s certainly not a comment from the political left, but it is even more certainly a political and social statement.

Wait again, “Planet Governor”? As in, a monolithic planetary government over all the people on Earth? No more nations in Hugo’s future?

It doesn’t get more political than that. Looks like the guy the Hugo Awards are named for was one of those sneaks all the Puppies are so worried about. He was sneaking politics into US science fiction right from the start of this country’s wing of the genre.

If you can’t get it from Hugo Freakin’ Gernsback himself, where is this non-political, non-social-commentary science fiction the Puppies keep remembering?

The answer is simple: it does not exist, and it never has existed. The very notion of it is no more than a piece of socially and politically charged fiction.