Friday, April 16, 2010

Hugo nominee, novella: "Palimpsest" by Charles Stross

Palimpsest is a popular word this year for some reason, as we have a novella and a novel sharing the same name. The term refers to a parchment that has been used, scraped clean and reused (as often happened) so that multiple layers of documents exist. Both of the present works seem to use it as a metaphor for parallel universes or timelines, though Stross's novella takes a science fiction approach and Valente's is fantasy.

I'd not read any Charles Stross yet, though I have one or two of his novels on the agenda for when my review gets to the '00s (probably next year). I do know that he's known for big ideas and high concepts, often using the concept of "singularity" that's dominated science fiction through the last decade and which we'll get to eventually. At it's most basic, the idea of the singularity extrapolates rapid improvements in computer processors to postulate a new technological development that leads to a massive acceleration in human capabilities, and, quite literally, changes everything. In this story, Stross sticks with the Big Ideas. In "Palimpsest" we have time travel technology, which allows a group of time displaced "Agents" to control history to maximize the survival of the human race for the Stasis. The problem, and the interesting innovation, is the recognition that history is finite - gates can only be opened to a specific moment once, and in the long run, the Agents risk using up all of time.

The story opens with a bit about killing your own grandfather. It's an attention-grabber, but it felt gimmicky to me, especially with the use of second-person (which always rubs me the wrong way). From there, it settles down to a relatively straightforward narrative, despite the non-linear action. Agent Pierce trains, meets a couple of love interests, gets involved in some action sequences, and uncovers a conspiracy that may or may not involve future versions of himself and/or the women in his life (lives?). Stross includes interludes that depict the ruthless and paradoxical training of the time agents (eg, killing your own grandfather) and broad sweeping histories of the Earth that proceed down dramatically different paths in timescales of billions of years. It’s all incredible grand, and we’re often reassured that Pierce has some agency in all of this.

That’s a hard pill to swallow though. The settings are so broad and the nature of this universe so flexible, that it’s hard to care. I can see why authors enjoy carrying technologies to the point that anything, no matter how mind blowing, goes, but I don’t particularly enjoy reading about it. If there are no rules, there are no stakes. Therefore, the challenge of the sf writer who wants to write about these kinds of Big Ideas is to convey an internally consistent logic that clearly relates the challenges and pitfalls that the main characters face. We don’t get that at all here, and I can’t say that I would care about the generic Pierce anyway.

This is a dense mess without a strong character at its center. There were ideas here that piqued my interest, but generally I didn’t care. After complaining on Wednesday that “short fiction is too short,” I found this story too long.

Stross has posted the story here for the duration of the Hugo voting. I wasn’t too fond of it, but I can see why others would be. There are certainly intriguing ideas in this story.

Next Wednesday and Friday: some dramatic presentations!

Grade: C+

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