Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column on Tor.com co-curated by myself and the marvellous Brit Mandelo, and dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.
You are, of course, cordially invited to read along with us. Indeed, we’d adore it if you did, so where possible we’ll be providing links to select stories—and advice on how to get hold of those that aren’t available for free. I’ll try to give you advance warning about what we’re reading next, as well.
This week, I’ll be picking up where I left off last time I pointed the Spotlight, with two more of the British Science Fiction Association’s nominees for Best Short Story—including “Three Moments of an Explosion” by China Mieville, warden of the weird. But we begin, after these messages, with “Adrift on the Sea of Rains” by Ian Sales....
“Adrift of the Sea of Rains”
by Ian Sales
Imagine, for a moment, that the Earth had died, but somehow, you were still alive. That’s the possessing—if, yes, depressing—elevator pitch for the first short story we’ll be discussing today.
Saying that, Ian Sales’ story is not, strictly speaking, short at all. I’m not sure about its exact word count—it’s either a novelette or a full-fledged novella—but whatever its length, and aside the pros and cons of including it in this particular category, what “Adrift on the Sea of Rains” is... is extraordinary.
Brace yourself, however, because this tour de force begins bleakly. Which is not to say it ends happily either!
Some days, when it feels like the end of the world yet again, Colonel Vance Peterson, USAF, goes out onto the surface and gazes up at what they have lost.
In the grey gunpowder dust, he stands in the pose so familiar from televised missions. He leans forward to counterbalance the weight of the PLSS on his back; the A7LB’s inflated bladder pushes his arms out from his sides. And he stares up at that grey-white marble fixed mockingly above the horizon. He listens to the whirr of the pumps, his own breath an amniotic susurrus within the confines of his helmet. These noises reassure him—sound itself he finds comforting in this magnificent desolation.
If he turns about—blurring bootprints which might otherwise last for millennia—he sees the blanket-like folds of mountains, all painted with scalpel-edged shadows. Over there, to his right, the scattered descent stages of LM Trucks and Augmented LMs fill the mare; and one, just one, still with its ascent stage. Another, he knows, is nearly twenty years old, a piece of abandoned history; but he does not know which one.
No prizes for guessing where Peterson and the eight other survivors Ian Sales soon introduces us to were when the world ended.
But as a wise man mooted many years ago, the moon is a harsh mistress, and it’s all the crew of Falcon Base can do to wake up each day without a home to go to.
It’s been twenty-four months since Earth stopped responding to messages from Peterson and his fellow Americans. Twenty-four months since the world’s beautiful blue gave way to a dismal, gritty grey. Since the conflict between the United States and the Soviets culminated in a planet not going but gone, leaving only this sliver of life behind.
They all have their own ways of dealing with the situation. Deep inside each of them, hope has been eroded away to a tiny nub, as useless as an appendix. Peterson loses himself in the lunar landscape. McKay locks himself in his room and listens to mournful country music, as if their misery renders his own smaller and more manageable. Scott has put away his personality, consigned it to some corner of his mind where it cannot be battered and bruised by their slow descent into despair. Curtis reads, working his way obsessively through every manual and technical document in the base. Kendall has his torsion field generator, the Bell, whose arcane workings he claims to understand more with each passing week.
It is this last device that our wretched moon-men have hung the weather-beaten wreck of their expectations on. With the Bell, they may very well be able to turn back time. But all the potential points of divergence they program into the thing seem to lead to the same inevitable end, and even if they are able to find a replacement present—which, with precious resources diminishing by the day, seems increasingly unlikely—what then?
Excepting said tech and an alt-history element, Ian Sales seems comprehensively committed to accuracy in all things relating to the several subjects addressed in “Adrift on the Sea of Rains,” as evidenced by its independently lengthy appendixes. But though the level and texture of Sales’ procedural detail is remarkable, it does not detract from the narrative’s forward progress, nor the arc of our central character, who snaps out of his trance just in time to crash a spectacular last act.
The supporting cast, on the other hand, hardly figure in to the fiction. But given that “despair has made strangers of them”—“Their paths cross only at meal-times—and even then, the nine of them might as well be in separate rooms”—this is wholly appropriate; in fact, this pervasive sense of solitude, even (or especially) when Robertson is in the company of others, adds to the effectiveness of an already sorrowful story.
So too does the author’s use of the present tense imbue each moment with the dreadful emptiness Peterson himself feels—and this is but one of the compositional tricks Ian Sales has up his sleeve. Indeed, “Adrift of the Sea of Rains” is but one of the four proposed volumes of The Apollo Quartet, the second of which is already upon us. Let me stress, though, that both parts of the whole stand alone; their only real relation beyond the obvious is that they’re both brilliant.
I dare say you too will despair as you read through “Adrift on the Sea of Rains,” and though this might not sound particularly pleasant, believe you me: this nominee is required reading for anyone with the remotest interest in science fiction.
As it its successor. But we’ll leave “The Eye with Which the Universe Beholds Itself” for another time, perhaps...
“Three Moments of an Explosion”
by China Mieville
From one of the longest of the six stories the BSFA have nominated for the aforementioned award to what is certainly the shortest. The presence of “Three Moments of an Explosion” on the latest list may strike some as strange, but consider that this brief piece comes from China Mieville, author of the Association’s choice of Best Novel in 2010, The City & The City, and a shoe-in for subsequent awards if ever there was one.
And it is, despite its succinctness, a searing short, packing more panache in 500 words than most stories ten times its length can conjure. Also more ampersands, per the perplexing example the serial nominee set in Railsea recently.
“Three Moments of an Explosion” starts with... well, what else but a bang? But this is an explosion of ideas as much as actual matter:
The demolition is sponsored by Burger King. Everyone is used, now, to rotvertising, the spelling of company names & reproduction of hip product logos in the mottle & decay of subtly gene-tweaked decomposition—Apple paying for the breakdown of apples, the bitten-fruit sigil becoming visible on mouldy cores. Explosion marketing is new. Stuff the right nanos into squibs & missiles so the blasts of war machines inscribe BAE & Raytheon’s names in fire on the sky above the cities those companies ignite.
All too plausible, isn’t it?
Here, however, China Mieville makes do with a rather more modest illustration of the press push outlined above: instead of some oil-rich nation state, the titular explosion is of “an old warehouse, too unsafe to let stand,” brought to you by BK.
Have it Your Way, eh?
That said, this too comes at a cost—indeed, you might measure the collateral damage in lives—because in the story’s dense second paragraph China Mieville moves from the moment before the explosion to the moment of it, pulling back from one big idea to reveal another. Herein we hear of three demolition-trippers who have taken “tachyon-buggered MDMA” to be excepted, temporarily, from time. Thus, in these stolen seconds the trio mount a frenzied survey of the structure... as it crumbles.
This is extreme squatting. The boisterous, love-filled crew jog through their overlapping stillness together & bundle towards the building. Three make it inside before they slip back into chronology. Theirs are big doses & they have hours—subjectively—to explore the innards of the edifice as it hangs, slumping, its floors now pitched & interrupted mid-eradication, its corridors clogged with the dust of the hesitating explosion.
Come the third and final paragraph of “Three Moments of an Explosion,” time has passed—this, then, is the moment after—but if you’ll pardon my Metallica, the memory remains. I’ll let you find out how on your own.
As I’ve previously touched on here on Tor.com, China Mieville is one of my favourite writers. His Bas-Lag books in particular proved pivotal during my younger years, and ever since The Scar I’ve had a special place in my heart for his weird and wonderful worlds. Also his way with words; his wicked wit; and his specific stylistic signature—ampersands & all, of late.
In terms of character I confess he tends to be less successful, but “Three Moments of an Explosion” showcases none by name, smartly sidestepping that potential pitfall. Furthermore, the verbosity which characterises China Mieville at his least appealing is also absent, for there are no wasted phrases in this shockingly short story. Every sentence, one senses, serves a purpose.
“Three Moments of an Explosion” may appear to be minor Mieville, but its brevity behoves us to look more closely. Read it once, read it twice, read it thrice. You’ll unpick the puzzle soon enough, and the solution is sublime.
That’s all we have time for today, I’m afraid, but in my next Short Fiction Spotlight, we’ll be talking about the remaining nominees for the BSFA’s Best Short Story trophy. You’ll have to buy a copy of “The Flight of the Ravens” by Chris Butler if you want to follow along, but you can still get a head start on the fun forthcoming by reading Aliette de Bodard’s “Immersion” for free here.
If you ask me, we’ve considered two very impressive stories in this edition of the Short Fiction Spotlight, but what did you think of them. Did “Three Moments of an Explosion” blow your socks off, or not? How about “Adrift of the Sea of Rains”? Wasn’t that something special?
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet about books, too!