Rules were made to be broken

Dutch man-mountain (and Interzone’s digital slush-reader supreme) Jetse de Vries has a story in the latest issue of online fiction mag Clarkesworld; it’s called ‘Qubit Conflicts’. I think you should go and read it; it’ll take you all of fifteen minutes, but they’ll be fifteen minutes well spent. Plus, what follows won’t then be a spoiler. Go on, off you go, and come back here afterwards for a discussion.

***[I’m really not joking about the spoilers, by the way.]***

Right. Depending on the sort of science fiction reader you are, you either thought that was brilliant or thought it was pointless. I’m voting for brilliant – because I love stories like that – but I want to take a look at why some others might not like it:

Because it breaks the rules.

Quite a few that I can think of: there’s no focal character to empathise with; there’s is no real action, per se, and all of the events described are done so retrospectively; it tells, rather than shows; and it’s absolutely chock full of hard science infodump.

But it works. That is the sort of thing that ‘sensawunda’ means to me. That’s why I read books by Stross and Egan, and stories by Stoddard. Because you can make the technology a character in its own right, if you know what you’re doing.

This may seem to jar somewhat with my previous post about letting technology be subservient to story – and in a way, I suppose it does. But I’ve chosen to point this story out as an example of an argument that Jetse himself made on the TTA Press forum the other day, namely that the only rule is that ‘it must work’.

And despite all the broken rules, despite the fact that the narrator is essentially the overmind of a solar-system sized artificial intelligence that has evolved itself to the apogee of its potential, despite the fact that we as readers have nothing in our experiences that should enable us to empathise with such a narrator – we still do.

To explain that more clearly I’m going to quote Jeremiah Tolbert’s reaction to the same story:

“… we definitely seem to be lonely, every one of us, and I think we create and consume art because it soothes that fear that we’re alone. We get to, through a complex invented system thousands of years in the making, enter the mind of another being. No matter what the narrative is, there is that, in the background, that comfort.

And SF takes that them and makes it explicit in tales of the extraterrestrial. Fantasy does the same thing.”

Precisely. The story works because, even though it breaks all the rules, it still talks to a deep part of the human psyche. It speaks a universal truth.

Congratulations, Jetse – on the sale, and on writing a story I don’t feel the need to pick holes in! 😉

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