Good, Bad, Indifferent

Alastair wrote a brilliant short story once, by accident.

He dined out on that for a bit.  Every now and then he would bring it up when he was trying to settle an argument with Francis, who was too earnest, too good, too completely oblivious to notice that Alastair was just trying to wind him up.  I would sit in the middle and laugh at the both of them.  I would be playing my computer game, trying to work something out.  Alastair was fond of telling Francis that I was a genius, and Francis was fond of shooting Alastair down by asking him what I was actually doing with my so-called genius.


Alastair had started doing all his drinking online.  It was cheap and quick, and because he didn’t have to leave the house he did a lot of it.  Every night he would turn the speakers on his computer up loud and the living room was filled with the sound of fake supping and banter as Alastair downed megabytes through a USB straw.  The sound would wash over me as I played my game, trying to work things out.  Francis would be out on one of his missions, doing good.  He’d hear about some incoming rain storm and head out to stand on a street corner with a bucket of umbrellas to hand out to passersby, something daft like that.  Alastair and I didn’t ever do good.  We knew that the world was too big to put right.

That had been the basis of Alastair’s short story, his one piece of acclaimed brilliance.

Francis accused him of stealing the idea from me, which seemed plausible and was kind of the truth.  I listened to them rowing about it until Alastair stomped off, complaining that digital hangovers were worse than old fashioned ones, at which point Francis followed him, berating him for being so stupid in getting caught up in all that.  I carried on with my game.  I had been playing this game for a long time, and in fact I had been developing it as I went, so that now my avatar was navigating a map of my own consciousness and the puzzles he was solving were problems of my own devising.

Francis stomped back downstairs and started screaming at me, telling me that I knew nothing about the world.  He ripped the plug socket from the wall but one of the things I had worked out was how to keep my console running without power, so I just carried on without acknowledging him.  I could tell he was crying, and when Alastair reappeared he too was crying, but the world was too big to put right, so I didn’t join in.

As I carried on with my game, it occurred to me for the first time that perhaps Alastair was not aware of the fact that I had given him the idea for his short story.  I was sure that he had not worked out that the praise for his story had been a fabrication, but I suspected that he had started to realise that online drinking was a scam.

Francis’ phone rang and he hurried off to answer it in private whilst Alastair took short, angry breaths of cyberwhiskey, and I carried on working things out, trying to put everything in place for the grand finale of my game.  When Francis reappeared he said that there was a riot going down and he and some others were going to form a human chain around the city museum.  He asked if Alastair and I would join us, pleaded with us now, asked us when we were going to wake up, stand up for something, try to make a difference.

This was an important part of my game, I had set the final events in motion and now I just had to make sure that everything would go down the way I had planned it would.

I looked away from the screen for the first time in days, maybe weeks.  Francis was red-eyed and sore, Alastair’s USB straw had flopped out of his mouth and virtual beer had slopped across his shirt.  He was a mess of tiredness, rage and consecutive hangovers, of not washing, not thinking and barely acting human.  I looked from him to Francis, then back to Alastair again and decided that they both looked slightly unrealistic.  That could be fixed.

I turned back to my game and told Alastair he should go with Francis and see the riot, suggested he might get another short story out of it.  As I heard the two of them leave, and the front door smack closed behind them, I shifted things round on screen, setting in motion the end of my game and then left events to their own devices, and what would go down, would go down.

Day #11289

Winter In Shorts

(A quarterly-update on my short fiction enjoyment, to replace the monthly updates I completely failed to keep up with last year)

Headline slot this quarter goes to Maureen F McHugh’s After The Apocalypse, a Christmas present from Rach.  Stylishly designed with a time-ticking doomy silhouette clock-sunset cover, in each of McHugh’s stories seismic events have stretched the world to breaking point. She unwinds the tales of people living on beyond their own personal apocalypses, letting glimmers of hope emerge in fragile situations.  The first story does involve zombies, but from there on in the scenarios become more wide-ranging and imaginative than your usual apocalypse fiction.

Part 1 Images

Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations was indeed American and perhaps innovative, though on occasions I felt some of it seemed a bit overthought.  My favourite story in her collection was the first one, The Lost Order, a brilliant display of a narrator hiding the truth from the reader in plain sight.  It probably makes sense to put your best story first, so that readers read on, but then I always feel a bit let down if the rest of the book isn’t as good.  What can you do, eh?

Can I recommend Recommended Reading, making it Recommended Recommended Reading, or Recommended² Reading?  A (usually long-ish) short story once a week, usually modern North-American writing for which George Saunders / McSweeneys might be a convenient-but-limited reference point.  For now, let me pick out – and point you towards – Lebenslügen by Malerie Willens, which I enjoyed muchly as a funny and evocative domestic drama.  Also online this quarter, I took interest in Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination Of Margaret Thatcher – August 6th 1983, partly for the story itself, and partly because it’s not very often that short stories make the news.

I downloaded a copy of the 2014 anthology from my favourite international short story prize – Bristol of course – and was delighted to discover that it’s good every year, I didn’t just think it was great in 2013 because I was in it.  I had some favourites, like winner Mahsuda Snaith’s The Art Of Flood Survival, Martin Bryant’s Album Review: Thoughts Of Home By We Thought We Were Soldiers and Colter Jackson’s Mountain Goat, but really I enjoyed pretty much all of it.

I’m currently studying a module titled, ‘Technologies In Practice’, and included in the course material was a copy of robot-literature innovator Isaac Asimov’s robot-classic I, Robot.  It’s about robots.  In some respects, it reads as a little dated – the (human) characters are a bit one-dimensional and some of the dialogue is very stiff – but these stories are really all about the little logical mysteries Asimov sets up, not whodunnits but, whydunnits and what input is needed to rescue the situation.

On the bedside table now is Stanislav Lem’s The Cyberiad, another Christmas present.  From the first few stories I would describe him as like a Polish Italo Calvino, but I’ll return a more thorough verdict in the Spring.

Until then, keep wearing shorts.