Hannu Ranjaniemi’s The Quantrum Thief has generated a lot of buzz, but doesn’t seem to be available on this side of the Atlantic (not without exorbitant shipping charges, anyway). As a result, I haven’t read anything of his, so I was happy to see “Elegy for a Young Elk on the Short Story Club list.
This is a story in the trendy posthuman post-apocalypse genre. The main character, Kosonen, is a former poet living a rustic existence on an Earth largely devoid of humans after some sort of past catastrophe that has left most animals sentient (his best friend is a talking bear, and he has to contend with squirrels trying to pick the locks on his house, an idea straight from Emmy’s nightmares) and most technological devices subject to a “plague” that makes them into killing machines. Some part of humanity has decamped or ascended to a post-human existence that is presumably in orbit, and his ex-wife pays him a visit to ask him to retrieve something that fell into a nearby city. Along the way, he’s forced to confront a ghost from his past.
I liked this better than the previous entries in the Short Story Club, though I suspect this is more to do with it not pushing buttons of mine than any absolute quality of the story. As with “A Serpent in the Gears,” this is an excellent example of providing backstory without infodumping, though many serious gaps remain (the exact nature of the apocalypse remains a little unclear, and there are some dangling references that never quite get explained). The language is very evocative, and while it mostly uses the time-honored dodge of describing but not quoting the important poetry of the story, the bit that is quoted is perfectly fine (allowing for the fact that I am not generally a poetry person).
This does suffer a bit from a kind of incompleteness that I suspect is an unavoidable consequence of the form. It’s got a reasonable plot– Kosonen is given a quest, which turns out to have more personal significance than he expected, and its completion is different than what was presumably intended. Kosonen remains something of a cipher, though– there are hints of character there, but for the most part, he seems to do what he does because it wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise. The narrative sort of floats above the core of the character, never really providing all that much depth.
As with “A Serpent in the Gears,” this feels a lot like an episode from a longer story– not the prologue, necessarily, but maybe an early chapter, or even a story that takes place off to the side of a novel. Kosonen’s story seems like it would be more effective if we knew more about the character, his world, and how they got that way, but as it is, it’s a little frustrating.
After working my way through yet another deeply unsatisfying Hugo ballot, I bought and read the Hartwell/Cramer and Dozois “Year’s Best” collections, which I’ve been meaning to write up for the blog for a while now. I keep not getting around to it, though, because my reaction to a lot of the stories was basically “Meh.” I’m starting to think that part of the problem may be that I have unrealistically high standards for short fiction. The few pieces I’ve really liked in recent Hugo cohorts have tended toward the longer end of the short fiction categories, and that may be because novella length gives the author more space, allowing them to tell a story that feels more complete to me. Then again, I’ve really hated some novelette entries, so maybe not.
Anyway, this wasn’t transcendently brilliant, but it was a nice enough story. There are some clever touches– the larcenous squirrels, the exploding pigeon– and it gets points for throwing in a passing mention of the no-cloning theorem (though it doesn’t call it that). It doesn’t have the emotional kick of a truly great story, but it’s very good.