Welcome to my new weekly post, where I’ll be reviewing short stories. There are thousands and thousands of them available – in magazines, podcasts, online anthologies, with hundreds more dropping every month. Every week, I’ll listen to and/or read one or two so you don’t have to. It won’t just be scifi either; I’m completely genre agnostic, and will go for any story that piques my interest.
This week: a woman who is to spaceships what the horse whisperer was to horses, and what happens when time travel goes even more wrong than normal…
How You Ruined Everything
One of the things I will never, ever do is write about time travel.
There is no subject area more fraught with potential fuck-ups than this one. Take even a hesitant step into the past or the future, and you risk invoking the kind of time paradoxes and plot holes that make you want to go and have a nice lie down somewhere, preferably until someone else has figured it out for you. As someone who is concerned with how plots and stories work, and how to write them without making the reader go, “Wait, what?”, it’s just not worth it. If I want to tie myself in knots, there are easier ways to do it.
And there are very, very few time travel stories that actually work. Of all the recent ones I’ve encountered, only the movie Looper makes a good fist of it, managing to distract you from the bizarre potential paradoxes by wrapping them up in one hell of a story. Even Stephen King’s 11/22/63, a book which I am perhaps unreasonably devoted to, gets past the problem of time paradoxes by simply pretending that they aren’t a thing. Seriously: when his main character Jake, charged with going back in time to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy, asks his mentor what would happen if he killed his grandfather, the man looks at him and says, “Why the fuck would you want to do that?” And from there, the matter is closed.
When a writer like Stephen King sidles past time travel like that, as if merely looking in its direction would provoke it to wake up and take a snarling lunge, you know you’re in a subject area that you need serious cojones to tackle.
So I was dubious when I came across How You Ruined Everything by Konstantine Paradias, a story on the excellent and venerable StarShipSofa podcast, which is closing on 500 episodes. I shouldn’t have felt that way. After all, I am unacquainted with the size of Mr Paradias’ cojones.
It’s a time travel story, all right, but instead of trying to solve the bazillion paradoxes, Paradias just makes fun of them. After all, if you’re going to break the universe and the space-time continuum, you may as well have a laugh doing it.
What follows is an absolutely hysterical time travel story, told in the second person and phrased as a rundown of how you managed to screw up just about everything. It’s absolutely wonderful. Not only does Paradias write exceptionally well, but there’s a real sense that he’s as surprised about what happens as you are. It’s very doubtful that he sat down at his computer one day and decided to write a story that involved Nazis, hippies, velociraptors, killer robots and shovel murders, all at the same time. Or if he did, then he absolutely nailed it. The 45-minute-long story is a delight, often hysterically funny, and well worth your time.
It helps that Jonathan Sharp, the narrator, fully commits to the absurdity of the story. He’s having just as much fun as the author, and he’s helped along by some able sound editing and effects. Paradias and Sharp are an almost perfect pairing, And I can only hope that they do this again.
If you’re a diehard scifi fan, there’s a risk that you might find this a little too trivial – too light and airy a morsel for your palate. In which case, I have two things to say to you: one, seriously? And two: perhaps you’ll enjoy the next story, even if I didn’t.
The Ship Whisperer
The Ship Whisperer is an intriguing idea, a hard-as-nails translated scifi story from Czech author Julie Novakova. She’s got some serious chops, which include being an actual evolutionary biologist and winning the Aeronautilus Award (the Czech Hugo) three times, so I was excited to hear this story.
The concept hooks the attention from the outset: the tale of not only a sentient starship, but the person charged with controlling, soothing, talking to, and maintaining it. The first-person story, told from the whisperer’s perspective, takes place as the crew investigate a black dwarf star – a theoretical celestial object, made from a star which has cooled to a virtually inert state.
If you like your science and your cosmology, you’ll find a lot to love here. It’s dense and rich with information: a thick, kludgy chocolate brownie, heavy with detail. The writing is crisp and clear, and although I don’t really consider myself able to accurately judge such things (I spent four days at a hip-hop festival outside Prague a few years ago, but I was high as hell most of the time, and don’t remember a lot of Czech), I thought the translation was solid.
But for all its scientific street cred, there’s no doubt that the story has some major flaws. For one thing, it should have been a novel. There’s too much happening, too many earth-shattering conversations and events that are summarised in a few sentences, passed by at lightspeed while you struggle to keep up. The characters are engaging enough, but we’re just not given enough time with any of them.
Doyen of Czech fiction she may be, but Novakova whiffled this one. Had this been a book, she would have smashed it out the park. As it is, it’s playing chess when the listener just wants a quick game of checkers. Or Czechers, as the case may be.
It isn’t helped by some pretty appalling narration. Remember that videogame Portal? The one with the psychotic AI that wants to murder you by making you do physics puzzles? That robot, GLaDOS, had a very distinctive voice that sounded like this:
In the context of the game, it made perfect sense. In the context of what should be a straight-up narration, it is deeply, almost hysterically annoying. Juliana Erickson’s voice is a crazed monotone, with a pitch that is so robotic that it’s almost tempting to believe that the folks at the podcast deliberately tried to put her voice through some kind of filter.
It doesn’t work. At all. And combined with a story that is hard to enjoy, even for the most devoted fan of hard science fiction, I’d say you can probably steer clear of this one. On the other hand, there’s a time machine to steal…