Short Story Club: "Miguel and the Viatura" by Eric Gregory

I missed last week's installment of Short Story Club while traveling, but want to get caught up again with this week's story, "Miguel and the Viatura." I'm not sure this will be posted in time to get into the discussion post, but we'll see.

The title character, Miguel, lives in a future city that is not clearly identified, but based on the names is presumably in Brazil. The story opens as he is trailing behind his brother Joaõ on the way to see his father. His father, it turns out, has quite literally sold himself, allowing his body to be filled with magic nanotechnology, and inhabited by wealthy foreigners. While they have gone to see their father several times before, from a distance, this visit is more up-close than Miguel expects, and leads to unpleasant consequences.

I don't recognize the author's name, but this story is very much in the same vein as the stuff I've read by Paolo Bacigalupi and others. I'm not sure if there's really a formal literary movement in this, a la "cyberpunk" or the "New Weird," but it's tempting to think of this sort of story in those terms, as a part of the Recent Unpleasantness. Because, really, that's the defining trait of these stories: every aspect of the thing, from the setting to the characters to the actions that drive the plot, is chosen to make the result as unpleasant as possible.

The story is well written and effectively presented, but it doesn't make a great deal of sense except as a collection of elements that maximize unpleasantness. It's not entirely clear what the point of the "viatura" system is-- a few comments imply that it's a life extension method, with wealthy people inhabiting new bodies to avoid dying, but other suggest that multiple different people have "ridden" Miguel's father in the years of his service-- but it's hard to imagine that this would really be an efficient system for much of anything. A society with the necessary level of magic nanotech would seem to have better options than this kind of clumsy exploitation, but if it were different, the future for the story wouldn't be quite so squalid and unpleasant. The cult/gang that Joaõ belongs to is very atmospheric, but again, seems a little hard to picture as a real, functioning element of a society inhabited by actual humans, as opposed to an extra bit of scenery to bump up the unpleasantness-- it seems more like the imaginary Satanism Fred Clark talks about than any real product of human activity.

Joaõ's dragging Miguel along on this errand makes no real sense at all, and in fact, the errand itself doesn't make much sense outside of the need to make the story more painful. The rich corporate functionary uses magic nanotech to torture Miguel when it's clear that he knows nothing, and knows Miguel knows nothing, but it helps establish him as a Bad Guy even among the rest of the unpleasant cast. And so on.

As a technical exercise, this is very well done-- the reveal of what's really going on in paced well, and the descriptions and background details are played out in a very effective manner. Taken as a whole, though, the entire thing is so obviously manipulated to make a point of its unpleasantness that it ends up undermining any larger point. The characters and settings are gritty and all, but they're so over the top that they don't feel all that real. We're left, then, with a somewhat didactic story telling us that horrible people doing shitty and exploitive things to innocent kids is Bad. And, well, I don't know that we really needed SF to make that particular point.


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