Sunday, August 28, 2005

Would you buy this story?

I recently was handed a story to read that left me scratching my head. It is (supposedly) a science fiction story about an oil company executive who decides to drive the entire length of a newly-completed pipeline running across Central Asia (and therefore avoiding all the Arab countries). That's pretty much the whole story, right there in a single sentence. While the story takes place twenty years in the future, and the car driven by the protagonist floats over the road via magnetic levitation, if you were to move this story to Alaska and use a regular car, the technology could easily be several decades old. In my mind, this is not science fiction -- and Stanley Schmidt of Analog agrees, having written an essay that specifically deals with this problem.

Okay, so it's not really science fiction. Is the story any good? Well, let's look at it. The story opens with the protagonist (an American official) betraying a dissident who was under American protection in order to secure a deal with the leader of one country hosting the pipeline. It's a pretty dispicable act, but in spite of the two-page build up, the actual act is described in only a sentence or two, with no details and no real emotion. The only real effect is that we suddenly don't like the protagonist very much -- an interesting way to introduce him. What's odd is that in spite of the build up (it's the story's opering scene, after all, so we expect it to be important) this event has absoultely no effect on the story for well over half the tale. With the pipeline finally completed, the protagonist decides he's going to travel back to England to patch up his relationship with his estranged wife, but instead of flying directly, he's going to drive the length of the pipeline and fly home from the terminal. His secretary was sick, so sent her "pretty" sister in her place. Oooo-kay. Why is he travelling with a beautiful woman if he plans to patch things up with his wife? Is this the conflict? Sadly, no. The woman is in the car solely to try to kidnap him (much later in the tale) for turning over the dissident. There's no logical reason for her to be in the car in the first place, and it's never explained.

Arab rebels try unsuccessfully to nuke the pipeline (they hit the road instead), but we learn about this in an off-hand way. Eventually the protagonist just drives his car around the resulting crater (right through the post-nuke radiation) on a temporary road thoughtfully constructed by the pipeline workers. After this, nothing else happens. Literally. He arrives safely at the terminal and flies home to see his wife. And the story ends.

There's no conflict in this story at all. It's not an "idea" story showing off cool technology. The protagonist is unlikeable from beginning to end. There is no antagonist to speak of (the kidnap plot is dealt with by simply kicking out the rusted bars of a cell window and walking away). There's no commentary on any issues, social, psychological, technological, or anything else. The writing is flat, as are the characters. The author sums up most events in a couple of sentences, telling us about them rather than showing them (which is not in itself a bad thing, as I noted yesterday, but not for the entire story!). Literally nothing happens in the story -- a man drives the length of a newly-completed thousand-mile pipeline (which is talked about as though it were a massive engineering feat -- but what about the Alaskan pipeline?). The story is called, creatively enough, "Pipeline."

Would you buy this story?

Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov's, did. In fact, it appears in the September 2005 issue. The author is eighty-year-old SFWA Grand Master, Brian W. Aldis. Williams describes the story in her editorial as a "powerful work."

You have got to be kidding me.

Now, we've been told that even the pros will get bounced if they submit a bad story. So, I'm left wondering if there is something powerful in this story that I'm missing. The cynical side of me really doesn't think so -- I think they were tickled to the point of incontinence to be able to put Aldis' name on the cover of their issue. Ultimately, folks, the publishing world is about making a buck. There's not a thing wrong with that -- each one of us is hoping to do the same. I don't even think negatively of Williams for buying the story -- I'd do exactly the same thing. Does this mean that you have to be a science fiction Grand Master to get published? Not at all. But it does mean that just because a story is published doesn't necessarily mean it's good. Read Aldis' story, but read it as an example of what not to do.

No comments: