Tor.com, January 2011
Tor.com published two original pieces of short fiction in January, covering two areas close to my heart: Japan and monkeys.
“Beauty Belongs to the Flowers” by Matthew Sanborn Smith tells the story of Miho, a teenage girl living in Nagasaki, and explores the conflict between natural and artificial beauty. Miho finds real life disappointing compared to life portrayed in fiction. She ignores her own family and focuses on the boy she loves. Unfortunately, he is more interested in a robotic playmate.
The term mono no aware is used to describe the transience of beauty, and is a common theme in Japanese fiction (I have used it in stories myself), most famously represented by Japan’s love of the short-lived cherry blossoms. “Beauty Belongs to the Flowers” also co-opts the image of flowers to make the case that beauty is best served by being temporary.
An old man offers Miho a real flower in place of her artificial one.
“‘True beauty develops, my dear child, then is gone. A flower plucked from the earth is ever-changing, perfect for mere hours before it begins to wilt.’
Miho felt sad that the man didn’t understand. ‘New flowers don’t ever wilt. You can appreciate their beauty so much longer.'”
The story argues that while artificial beauty might be in many ways more compelling, it is a poor substitute for the complexity of real life.
The city of Nagasaki features prominently and is vividly and deftly described. There are also some futuristic touches such as entertainment feeds, food injectors, and a subplot (mentioned only in passing) featuring nanotechnology run wild.
The story’s pace is slow and is perhaps overlong for what is essentially a mood piece. The main problem is that Miho’s shallowness and lack of self-awareness fail to make her a particularly interesting protagonist. I would have found the story far more compelling if a drop more complexity had been added to her shallowness.
The story’s graphic ending is likely to divide readers. Yes, people do strange things all the time, but I wasn’t convinced of the plausibility of the other characters’ reactions to Miho’s choice at the end of the story.
“Making My Entrance Again With My Usual Flair” by Ken Scholes is an amusing tale of a down-on-his-luck circus clown hired to transport a monkey across the USA. Of course, things turn out not to be as simple as that.
The story’s opening line captured me immediately.
“No one ever asks a clown at the end of his life what he really wanted to be when he grew up.”
The story that follows lives up to the promise of the opening – an upbeat and amusing tale with a wry sense of humor. In the hands of a lesser writer, the story could have easily descended into a forgettable farce, but the likeability of Scholes’ narrator carries the story a long way.
The story’s other characters only have a few lines, but are given distinctive personalities, especially the monkey that is not quite a monkey.
It’s perhaps worth taking a moment to ponder the popularity of monkeys with science fiction writers. Of the five stories on the 2009 Hugo Awards Short Story shortlist two featured monkeys (Kij Johnson’s “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” and Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey”). Perhaps a recognition of our genetic similarities? Or responding to mythic echoes of prankster monkey gods?
I very much enjoyed Ken Scholes’ combination of clown and monkey characters in the one story. Highly recommended.
Tor.com consistently publishes strong fiction and both January’s stories are well worth checking out.
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