31 March 2009

Ian McDonald's "Verthandi's Ring" (2007)


Source: The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection, ed. Gardner Dozois (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008), pp. 90-100; originally published in The New Space Opera, ed. Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan (New York: EOS, 2007).

A piece of advice for new writers I keep hearing recently is to look at published SF&F short stories and analyze them in detail to learn how they work -- i.e., plot, tension, characterisation, the function of each “scene,” and so forth. I am on the right track with this blog, then.

In analysing Elizabeth Bear’s “Tideline” I learned a great deal about the role of setting in an SF short story. The success of Bear’s story, I felt, resides in the limited focus of its immediate setting, while the wider backdrop is sketched in just enough to give the reader a fair sense of the state of the characters’ world. Bear’s attention to sound patterns, rhythm, and metaphor also proved instructive.

With Ian McDonald’s story “Verthandi’s Ring,” similar criteria apply for its success, but the scale (or, reach) of their implications is quite different. “Verthandi’s Ring” is one of those stories that catches your attention the first time you read it, in a way that you know it does something wonderful and enticing, even profound, yet you can’t quite pin down precisely what that something is, at least initially. “Verthandi’s Ring” is one of those stories that needs a second reading. That is when the pieces fall more securely into place, the narrative becomes clearer, and its artistry unfolds like a flower opening up to the morning sunlight.

Long ago, Aristotle argued in his Poetics that metaphor constituted the key to great, powerful literature (he was thinking of drama, and tragedy specifically). He wrote, “the most important matter is to have skill in the use of metaphor … [which] is, in itself, a sign of genius” (sec. 22; trans. Leon Golden). In the film Il Postino (1994), Pablo Neruda instructs his postman and budding poet about the importance of “metafora” as they sit on the beach, and the postman’s understanding in that moment is the proverbial light bulb turning on. For my part, I always struggled with the sense that I lacked that a “genius” for metaphor (and simile), but lately I find that I sort of “get it,” especially metaphor’s explanatory power, the way it can paint pictures that mean with a fullness beyond just the words themselves.

The world of McDonald’s “Verthandi’s Ring” functions by means of metaphor. It is metaphor. Moreover, the scale of metaphor encompasses the entire universe. Gardner Dozois’ headnote for the story in YBSF 25 suggests that it offers “enough dazzling idea-content crammed densely into it to fuel many other author’s 800-page novel” (90). In a short story, this kind of reach could fail spectacularly, leaving the reader only with surfaces and pieces and little depth or wholeness. Yet McDonald controls the scale of his metaphors and his world, achieving surprising depth and wholeness in the story while -- as Dozois suggests -- exciting the reader with the larger implications of the ideas and universe he provides.

At first blush, the tone and style of “Verthandi’s Ring” take some getting used to, primarily because McDonald aims for the atmosphere and cadence of poetry, or rather of legend and myth. In particular, while the foundation is astronomy, physics, math, and so forth, the mood is like a Buddhist or Taoist tale (“Sofreendi desert monasticism” [91]; “ascetics and pilgrim souls” [92]; “saddhus” [93]; “sutra mats” [96]), with astronomy and physics and math and so forth tuned to a sort of mystical register. For instance, here is the story’s second sentence: “The Oort cloud web pulled the crew off; skating around the gravity-wells of hot, fat, gas giants and the swelling primary, the battleship skipped out of the system at 30 percent light-speed into the deep dark” (90). Here is another instance from later in the story: “Empathy endures, across parsecs and plains, battlefronts and secrets” (93). In the first example, “gravity-wells of hot, fat, gas giants” and “into the deep dark” speak the poetry of space, while the second example in its entirety plays deftly between the abstract (empathy, parsecs, secrets) and the relatively concrete (plains, battlefronts), suggesting a universal law of emotion for all time. McDonald sprinkles gems such as these throughout the story (e.g., “while the space dwellers … filled up the spaces in between which, heart and truth, was the vastly greater part of the universe” [95]; “all that remained was the centuries-deep shine of the starbow beyond the wall of the world” [100]), carefully developing a feeling of vastness and mystery, promising sage truths, at times touching down ever so lightly upon possibilities and suggestions before whisking back up to flight among the stars. A second reading, prepared for such a tone and style, sees how purposeful it is. A second reading, expecting the story’s distinct atmosphere, sees how it fits the scale of the setting, events, and ideas.

McDonald’s names for characters, things, and places also communicate tone and atmosphere, expressive of a civilization that breathes metaphors. Ships have names such as Ever-Fragrant Perfume of Divinity and We Have Left Undone That Which We Ought To Have Done, hinting at a cultural baseline of ironic self-reflection (the first is a “battleship” [90], the second a “dirigible” [96]). Buildings and sites have names such as “the Soulhouse” (91), “Maidan of All Luminous Passion” (91; “maidan” is a French word coming from Persian and Arabic that means marketplace or esplanade), “the Heaven Plain of Hoy” (92), and “the Chamber of Ever-Renewing Waters” (93); the government is known as “the Deep Blue Something” (94). Our three main characters are Harvest Moon, Scented Coolabar, and Rose of Jericho, their names open, flexible, suggestive, like their ability to be “resouled” (91) in new incarnate forms seemingly at will in a “postbiological” (91) civilization.

Moreover, the name for this civilization, the Clade, functions as a wonderfully fitting metaphor: according to the OED, “clade” derives from the Greek klados (branch), and means “a group of organisms that have evolved from a common ancestor.” During the story, we get an idea what the Clade is: centred in/by a “Heart-world” (91); comprised of several tiers of “concentric spheres” (91) around the Heart-world; teeming with a plethora of races, peoples, histories, and the three main characters realising that they “might once have been the same person” (93), a “woman of a parochial water world” (96). Thus, “Clade” defines how this civilization works biologically, culturally, philosophically, historically. “Clade” designates not a specific region or landmass or race, but is an all-encompassing metaphor acknowledging the civilization’s inclusiveness, evolved consciousness, and universe-wide scale of activity.

Regarding that activity, the sense of time and distance in which it occurs reinforces the story’s mythical and mystical register. War between the Clade and the Enemy is waged across millennia and centuries, among galaxies and star systems. One travels through space in “subjective minutes” (90) as well as for hundreds of years. Worlds are also spaceships. Military missions, such as the one undertaken by Harvest Moon, Scented Coolabar, and Rose of Jericho that lies at the heart of the story’s plot, seek to destroy whole civilizations. All of this happens because Clade sentients can “resoul,” apparently at will, assuming an infinite array of bodies (known as “ploads” [93]), from trees to flying creatures to squids, allowing brilliant military strategists such as Rose of Jericho to have a perpetual role in the war against the Enemy. Moreover, resouling and military strategy and war are seen as a “game” (96), played between worlds and among vast expanses of time, in which “intelligence” (98) is the most valuable commodity (and evolutionary factor).

Intelligence, actually, wins the day for the Clade at the end, and in a surprising way that carries fascinating implications. Rose of Jericho’s “game” with the Clade involves the discovery that the Enemy, already hundreds of years ago, has launched its entire civilization toward Verthandi’s Ring, a “‘remnant superstring’” (97), a “subquantal fragment of the original big bang fireball” (97), a “portal to the past” (100) -- apparently on the understanding that the Clade cannot be defeated in the long run. Because a superstring allows for transition to a “parallel universe” (100) and “alternate time-stream” (100), the Enemy seeks to escape while the Clade, learning of this at the last nanosecond and believing the Ring “could only be an ultimate weapon” (98), seeks to cut them off and destroy them utterly.
On a second reading, this plot, subtle yet also immense, truly comes to the fore. McDonald carefully measures out the information we get from each scene of the story, first with Verthandi’s Ring and then with the consequences of the milliseconds Rose of Jericho delayed before revealing her awareness of Verthandi’s Ring and the Enemy’s intentions to the Deep Blue Something. As Harvest Moon and Scented Coolabar search for Rose of Jericho on different worlds and in various ploads, they realize the implications of her game, as do we, until the full realization of her decision proves staggering for its simplicity and sheer brilliance. Her delay stalls the Clade enough such that it cannot stop “the Enemy exiting this universe”: “A bloodless war. An end to war. Intelligence the savior of the blind, physical universe” (100). Intelligence seeing possibilities, intentions, outcomes in a fraction of a second, and making a “tactical” (100) choice that permits everyone to win … and potentially represents a paradigm shift in the Clade’s ideological, cultural, and evolutionary foundations. A shift toward compassion, empathy, perhaps even a philosophy of non-interference/non-attachment?

For me, all together the tone, atmosphere, mood, poetry, names, actions, plot, and metaphors of “Verthandi’s Ring” are SF as the sense of wonder, SF as posing grand “What if?” questions, and SF as delivering a perceptive, humbling commentary upon our world. “Verthandi’s Ring” is SF as a fairy tale of what humanity could become and could achieve, of what humanity already is. McDonald succeeds with this story because the reach of its linguistic artistry matches the scale of its aims, because the subtlety of its structure supports the wisdom of its argument.

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, “Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors …. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another.” McDonald’s story does precisely this. It shows the power of SF to take hold of the metaphors of our contemporary world and employ them in a literature, an art, that occupies a unique position to say much about where we are and where we might be heading. I learn from “Verthandi’s Ring” the real importance and flexibility of metaphor in SF, and how action/plot can itself function as metaphor.
As I know from my many years of studying poetry, achieving such flexibility and reach in a short, compact form requires inspiration, yes, but also meticulous craft and artistry. “Verthandi’s Ring” is thus a benchmark for me, a summit one day I would like to crest.

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