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… it just has to sound plausible

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Doing the Hugos, Part 3e

And finally we have the last of the novellas in this year’s Hugo shortlist: ‘True Names’ by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum, first published in Fast Forward 2 (published by Pyr and edited by Lou Anders).

This one was a headache to read. If I hadn’t been writing this series of blog posts, I’d probably have given up. Which is not to say that ‘True Names’ is bad. I just found it very annoying. One of my pet hates is sf which appropriates the vocabulary of operating systems and networking (not to mention a bit of OO programming). It doesn’t work for me. It’s not a vocabulary designed for, or suited to, telling stories.

Stories set in virtual realities, whose viewpoint frequently pulls out of those realities, also don’t work for me. It’s not metafiction, it’s not post-modern in the way, say, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is post-modern. It’s not story, and the makings of story. It’s simply two nested narrative universes, with two different vocabularies. And, using those different vocabularies for essentially the same story often confuses. ‘True Names’ adds further confusion through having the point of view leap from character to character without signalling a transition, having multiple iterations of the same characters, and having new characters randomly introduced as the story progresses.

Of course, ‘True Names’ is supposed to be funny, it’s supposed to be gonzo. The references to Pride and Prejudice are clue enough. But I find it hard to find computing terminology witty – I’ve seen so much bad code during my career, I no longer find it amusing.

I wanted to like ‘True Names’. It uses a twenty-first century mode of science fiction. It is full of ideas and eyeball kicks and bits of sensawunda. But none of it is real. It’s all simulated or emulated. Except the level of reality which isn’t simulated or emulated… but the prose isn’t always entirely clear which level that is. Much of the plot is also carried by dialogue, which is a very twentieth century mode of science fiction. And there are lot of indigestible wodges of exposition; like this one:

The Beebean system of tav calculation was a corollary result from the work of classical mathematician and poet Albigromious, who first formulated the proof of the incalculability of the Solipsist’s Lemma.

There’s little doubt that ‘True Names’ is more sfnal, and more contemporary, than the Kress, the Finlay, and perhaps even the Reed. But it’s not as well written as the McDonald, and it’s certainly not as clearly written (McDonald’s ornate prose notwithstanding). ‘True Names’ felt too long, felt too forced in places, and for me ultimately didn’t work.