14 March 2009

Elizabeth Bear's "Tideline" (2007)


Source: The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection, ed. Gardner Dozois (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008); originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction (May 2007). Winner of the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.

(The story is available online at Asimov’s and Bear’s web site.)
From what I can gather, starting with and honing one’s craft in short stories (or novellas) looks like a relatively common and effective way to get the feet wet in the ocean of SF&F publishing. To that end, I’ve turned my attention to recent SF short stories of late, as found in The New Space Opera (Dozois and Strahan, eds.) and The Year’s Best Science Fiction #25 (Dozois, ed.); Year’s Best SF 13 (Hartwell and Cramer, eds.) also waits in the wings. My quest? I want to figure out not just what makes a good short story, but what makes for a good, even great, science fiction (or fantasy) short story.

A major challenge of an SF&F short story is what I’ll call locating the reader in the story’s world. Because SF&F fundamentally relies upon presenting worlds that are not this one, whether they involve a future/alternate Earth or a Mars or a Bas-Lag (from China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and The Scar), short stories must get things just right -- i.e., not too little and not too much of their worlds, but enough to orient the reader solidly in what makes a story’s world distinct, plausible, captivating. So far, short stories that I find myself struggling with have not given me enough concrete context to locate myself in their world, in the sense that they assume I will make the connections, leaving certain details obscure, shadowy. (For example, see “Saving Tiamaat” by Gwyneth Jones, found in The New Space Opera as well as YBSF #25.) The short stories that engage me, however, do so in large part for how they provide just the right amount of context, connections, and details in order to establish a setting that supports and enhances the story. In other words, they locate me carefully in their worlds such that I feel like I “know” where I am.

If the reader is successfully located in the story’s world, everything else falls into place. Short stories have only so much time, so their focus must be limited and exacting with the setting and the characters. This is not to say that short stories cannot be complex or multilayered (as I’ll write below, Bear’s story achieves such complexity); rather, it is to say that -- perhaps not unlike a poem -- a short story must know what it wants to do, with every single word.

Elizabeth Bear’s “Tideline” does all of these things nearly to perfection.

The story’s primary setting stays in one place: the beach and rocks where Chalcedony and Belvedere meet and then live for several months. We stay here because Chalcedony, a combat robot, is a bit crippled with one of her legs fused owing to some attack that has killed all the human members of her platoon; because, as the seasons move into winter, Chalcedony cannot absorb and store enough solar energy to remain awake and active; and because Chalcedony must complete her memorial necklaces before she falls asleep permanently and her “processor” (460) becomes corroded by the sea’s salt water.
Yet Bear also sketches in the wider setting just enough to give it a suggestive shape, the clues coming from Chalcedony’s memories and her stories for Belvedere. We know that some sort of war is happening; we know that Chalcedony survived a “shipwreck” (453); we know that the world is Earth, with signs such as “Buddha” (454) and “German shepherd” (458), with allusions to “King Arthur” and “Napoleon Bonaparte” (455); we know that it is Earth at some point in the future (considering the high level of technology that Chalcedony herself represents); we know that America, or at least parts of it, is under attack, indicated by “a skirmish near Seattle” (456). This wider setting provides the context for Chalcedony’s (and, we might assume, Belvedere’s) situation, but it remains in the reader’s peripheral vision, for the true interest resides in Chalcedony.

Limiting the focus to Chalcedony’s situation and point of view represents the heart of the story’s success. We learn quickly what she is: “melted sensors … battered carapace … the last of the war machines … three-legged … turreted head … polyceramic armor … nearly derelict” (452). We also quickly get drawn into curiosity about and empathy for who she is: this battle robot is not an “it,” but consistently a “she” and “her” (452). As we gather more information about Chalcedony, such as her “fuel cells” (453) and “diamond-tipped drill” (454) and “extensive databases” (455), we also see more of her personality. This is a personality defined not just by programming, but by loss, memories, loyalty, a maternal instinct, and a growing aesthetic sensibility. Making necklaces from “shipwreck beads” (453) to honour her dead platoon members, she learns about balancing “form and color” (456), “structural difficulties” (456), “craftsmanship” (457), “inspiration” (460). With each necklace comes a story -- rather, each necklace is a story, a memorial, an elegy, which Belvedere eventually is tasked to pass on to others so that they will also “remember” (460). Thus, Bear tempts us to forget Chalcedony is a robot, a war machine, though that fact never slips very far from our awareness.

Chalcedony also encapsulates the story’s metaphorical layers and possibilities. Here, we truly see the attention Bear gives to every word of the story, her own artistry matching Chalcedony’s.

First, we have Chalcedony’s name. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, chalcedony is a precious stone, a kind of quartz with a colour like wax, transparent or translucent; it is mentioned in Revelation 21:19 as the third foundation of the New Jerusalem, and referred to by several ancient writers such as Pliny. Moreover, chalcedony is used in lapidary work, such as engravings particularly on stone monuments, a “lapidary” being one who cuts, engraves, and polishes gems and precious stones, who understands the nature of gems (again from the OED). In the story, Chalcedony’s “shipwreck beads” comprise moonstone, rock crystal, pottery, sea glass, pewter, mother of pearl, a “chalcedony Buddha” (458), and other treasures. She uses these materials for her necklaces, for her lapidary work of mourning. As well, her name points to her uniqueness and value, even her mystery.

Second, supporting Chalcedony’s developing aesthetic sense and powers is the story’s lyricism, or poetry. Like the setting and characterization, the language stays focussed and controlled throughout, each word a vital strand in the story’s web of meaning and mood. For me, the key lies with the play of sound patterns. There is alliteration: “she’d be stuck this way, a statue corroded by salt air and the sea” (453); “her voice fuzzed and furred” (455); “Her fused limb plowed a furrow in the sand … forcing her to splash through corroding seawater” (457); “creaking, powdered corrosion” (460). There are also consonance and assonance: “The links clinked softly” (459); “He crooked both hands, and slid them into the necklaces … taking up her burden” (460). Along with the sound patterns, Bear offers some deft similes: “the stories Belvedere lapped up as a cat laps milk” (456); “a greenish brown pottery bead mottled like a combat uniform” (458). Bear clearly attended carefully to sound, rhythm, and imagery in this story, achieving a balance of form and colour, revealing craftsmanship and inspiration. As well, the lyricism of the language plays a crucial part in encouraging the reader’s sympathy for and identification with Chalcedony.

Third, Chalcedony’s penchant for stories serves as the metaphorical foundation of “Tideline.” In one respect, “Tideline” is a story about stories: the various ways in which they are told and passed on; in which they serve as memories and monuments; in which they give meaning, coherence, and structure to events and lives. It is a story about the art of making stories, with each of Chalcedony’s necklaces a purposeful aesthetic unity of light, colour, and shape as an expression of an individual’s (and of her own) story. It is a story about how stories connect with and merge into each other across times and cultures.
Story is the key to Chalcedony’s relationship with Belvedere. She teaches him through stories -- of “war … sailing ships and starships,” of “Roland, and King Arthur … and Captain Jack Aubrey” (455). The making of the necklaces pieces together the stories of Chalcedony’s platoon. Moreover, story influences Chalcedony’s self-awareness: “she’d finished with fiction and history and related to him her own experiences” (456). Lastly, story gives Chalcedony the “inspiration” (460) she needs to convince Belvedere to take her necklaces and pass on their stories to others, telling Belvedere “‘It is time you went on errantry,’” giving him a “‘quest’” and calling him “Sir Belvedere” (460), conflating the romances of valourous knights with her “burden” (460) of remembering the dead and fallen. With this leap of intuition, Chalcedony gives Belvedere the core of meaning required for him to believe in the necessity of the “quest.” Such is the power and pull of story, of art, like the ebb and flow of the tide.

Finally, we have other potential metaphorical layers at work through Chalcedony that give “Tideline” a complexity perhaps not readily apparent on its surface. The wider setting in the background intimates a dystopian and uncertain world, mirrored by Chalcedony herself, as she is “malfunctioning” (453), corroding, “akilter” (454), “awkward” (456), tottering “unsteadily” (456), “stiffened” (460) … not to mention, shipwrecked. Chalcedony’s need to mourn and memorialize her platoon members also might hint, ultimately, at our world and the loss of valorous knights in the wars of today, knights we should not forget. Here may just be a kernel of irony in “Tideline”: that a battle robot understands better than we do art’s role in making sense of chaos, death, destruction -- in going some way to righting an unbalanced, traumatised world. At the last, then, “Tideline” is a multilayered elegy.

I did not know of Elizabeth Bear before reading this story, but I will now definitely seek out her work. (Just today, in fact, I placed a copy of her novel Blood and Iron on my “to be read” stack of books). “Tideline” provides an instructive and humbling model for how to craft a nearly perfect SF short story, with every part contributing purposefully to the whole, with the story revealing fresh layers of its artistry upon each successive reading.

CODA: "Tideline" is also available as a podcast, at Escape Pod. (The many comments on the story there might be of interest in comparison to my thoughts on the story.)

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