Friday, April 20, 2007

Vasquez Orbital Salvage and Satellite Repair // Captains of Industry

by Matthew Jarpe

Inspired by his zippy "City of Reason," we sought out and found Matthew Jarpe's Web site, where he has posted two more stories he sold to Asimov's. Both have a lot in common with "Reason." They pile on the unlikely events in a steady, but credible way. Both are whimsical at times and do a neat job of tranlating present-day experience (a junk man, a corporate legal battle) into an sf context (a junk man who collects space junk, a corporate legal battle waged from the gravity well of a black hole [maybe the ultimate solution to the slow turn of the wheels of justice 8-) ]).

Of the two, "Vasquez" is the better, we thought. It's more upbeat and has a faster pace. "Captains" mixed two themes, because it switched POV from the space station above the hole to the suface of the planet, and back. On the surface, Jarpe employs (as he does repeatedly, and usually successfully, throughout these stories) a familiar sf trope: in this case, a caste-based corporate culture. (Hmmm... this is similar to Mike McQuay's novel "Jitterbug." In a world where everyone wants to be the next, "next Heinlein," could Jarpe be the next McQuay? I'd be glad if that were true.) It's a workable idea, but it slightly conflicts with the rest of the tale by drawing attention to itself without adding much. We thought he had more material waiting to be developed back on the station, where the cultural effects of leading a vast industry from a location where time runs m-u-c-h more slowly than elsewhere should have been more visible. For example, the protag has lawyers reviewing on the station what his lawyers were doing in flat space. Why? By the time they're done, those flat-space lawyers wil be decades beyond the material reviewed. We thought there were lots of opportunities for exploitation of this, but maybe next time. (One idea we had: make the space station long enough that different floors' clocks run at different rates; each "slower" floor takes its reports from the next "faster" one, allowing the hierarchy to function in something like a traditional management structure, while still requiring that each floor only burden the next one with a summary of its work.)

"Vasquez" was more light-hearted and, at the end, even a bit too sugar-coated. Once again, where other writers would have lost us in the sequence of fortuitous/serendipitous events, this story didn't put us off with all of its unlikely events. Somehow, they still worked in a convincing way. Maybe there's no more reason to it than that it would be just so cool if all of this were real.

We'll remember this author.


liz said...

Vasquez reminded me of Red Dwarf and Douglas Adams. Captains reminded me of Card, Heinlein (The Man Who Sold the Moon), and Asimov (The Black Widower's Club). Vasquez is definitely the better story of these two, but all three of Jarpe's that we've reviewed have been stand-out. He does a good job of changing his voice to match the story he's writing.

Jim said...

I just finished "Vasquez Orbital Salvage and Satellite Repair." If I hadn't been reading it for this blog, I wouldn't have made it through. I found the first third very slow going, with far too much description of equipment and technical issues for my taste. And even when the unidentified ship showed up, I wasn't interested in what was occuring.

Now, I did think the story picked up when the dialog between Vasquez and the computer started. Admittedly, by this point I was skimming, so the faster speed was probably a mix of the text and the way I was reading, but the text of the last two thirds did seem to move along a bit better, and it offered some humor--I found myself smiling at a couple of points. There were a number of deities in this machine, but since the story was being played for laughs, the sudden introduction of these elements worked well enough.

Stylistically, it was a bit strange. The beginning was so slow-moving, with so much detail to set the technical aspects of the scene. And then, at the top of the second page (in the online version) suddenly we hit this long stretch of dialog, with few beats to break it up.

Anyway, the story didn't do anything for me. I might have felt differently if the opening third hadn't read so slowly (with no reward, IMHO, for that slowness--it wasn't like there was beautiful language, or deep social or psychological insight in the opening). Anyway, by the time I got to what I thought at least somewhat worked in the story--the dialog between Vasquez and the computer; the sudden string of impossible-but-fun plot developments--I had already grown bored with the story; and it's hard for a story to recapture the reader once he's written it off.

Steve said...

Wow. It's amazing that two readers can react to a story the way two diners can react to eggplant. Some see eggplant as edible, kind of like something akin to actual food. Others know it for the foul corruption it truly is.

Well, that's a bit unfair as comparisons go, since I liked "Vasquez," and no one really eats eggplant. Anyway, I'm amazed that Jim's observations about slowness apply to precisely the portions I found most gripping. Not because one of us is right and the other wrong (that would be more like eggplant...), but because it just drives home the fact that no two readers have to both like or dislike the same story, even when they often do like the same things.

"Vasquez," and Jarpe's other two pieces we've mugged here, are very much of a certain kind of sf sub-genre. I can easily accept the fact that some genres (and some sub-genres) appeal to some folks and not others, all at the same time. I'm more intrigued by the fact that the specific aspects of this sub-genre story that I liked are the ones Jim didn't like. Now, the question for Jim is: assuming you recognize the sub-genre "Vasquez" is in, what's your view of that sub-genre in general? That is, is this a case of a story just being the kind that one reader likes and another doesn't?

Apart from that, I agree (just as I observed in "City of Reason") that the string of impossible-but-fun plot developments draws attention to itself, yet it doesn't just collapse of its own weight. I think that's a matter of timing (and of a contract one can hold the fan of this sub-genre to, as well).

To me, this was a good example of a story wherein something happens. Indeed, a lot happens, and at a pace that strains credibility. The technobabble in the first part felt like a kind of warm-up act, which drew me in by asking, "What's all this allow for? What's it all going to do?" Of course, if it hadn't "done" anything, that would have felt like a broken promise. But, to me, it actually "did" quite a bit, so I felt the story delivered, as a whole.

Anyway, fascinating that we had such different takes on the same sections. This could be the start of a good series of mugs. (Feel free to suggest some of your own; we're not going to read every story in every book, but will always do one that anyone picks from them in particular.)

Jim said...

Steve said: "Now, the question for Jim is: assuming you recognize the sub-genre "Vasquez" is in, what's your view of that sub-genre in general? That is, is this a case of a story just being the kind that one reader likes and another doesn't?"

There's a couple of ways I could look at the subgenre of this story.

One is as the category of sf story that starts from a new job (or the redefinition of a current job) as it will exist in some future society. I often like sf stories that start there, as I think the kinds of roles a society needs can create an interesting window into that society, how it works, its economics, its class structure, etc. For me, however, this story got bogged down in technical details that didn't interest me.

If I focus on the degree to which the the story (particularly the opening) relied on technical details, I could also see calling this story hard sf. (With more humor and less physics than I usually associate with hard sf, but still I could see it as hard sf.) Now, I almost never like hard sf. So, in that case, this story is an example of a subgenre I just don't tend to like.

Of course, you might have been thinking a different classification than either of the ones I tossed out. If so, let me know how you'd classify its subgenre.

Anyway, I also find it fascinating that you particularly liked the part of the story that I disliked the most.

Steve said...

Jim said: "...let me know how you'd classify its subgenre."

Well, you caught me. I wasn't quite sure what subgenre this was in, so I finessed (that is, "ignored") the problem by tossing it to you. And I'm glad I did because you came up with two classifications, one of which I would never have thought up: people in a new job existing in the future. The other, of course, is "hard sf," which all sf readers know of, yet none can really define. Hard sf is one of those "you know it when you see it" things.

I agree with both classifications, notwithstanding that "new future job" is a new one, to me. Within that classification, I would agree it's a weak entry, because it quickly becomes a story about how a lone tinker defeats the space invaders (what Heinlein called, "the Little Tailor" story).

However, as a Little Tailor story, I liked it, much because it did "feel" like hard sf to me. (I think, to be honest and true to my sworn duty as an SF Nebbish of the Purple Order, it also contains some stunning deviations from what I and my physics professors would lightheartedly have called, "The Laws of Motion," but Mr. Jarpe is a biochemist, and biochemistry is one of the lesser sciences, so we physicists will forgive him this once).

To muse further on this oh-so-fascinating point, I think it is also what Heinlein dismissively called a "gadget story." Gadget stories from the early (c. 1920) days of sf are now called "super-science" stories and, to be a bit more flattering than Heinlein meant to be, I think "Vasquez" is actually also a 21'st-century entry in that subgenre (though no one realy thinks of it as a living subgenre now). If you ever read "Doc" Smith's Skylark or Lensman books, you have read super-science stories. (If not, then I refer you to that other medium, in the particular examples of "Flash Gordon" and "Buck Rogers.")

So, I guess I would say this is a super-gadget/hard-sf/Little-Tailor story with a bit of freewheeling physics about a guy with a funky future job. Frankly, it's hard for me to imagine packing Austenesque prose in with that (though Jarpe does manage to squeeze a dash of Chandler into his better "City of Reason"). I believe you once said you felt that a story could, as an alternative to being memorable for its poetic language, simply be a good yarn. I'd offer this one to prove you were right, though, again, if a reader is not inclined to be entertained by super-gadget/hard-sf/Little-Tailor stories, then this one would probably not entertain that reader.

Great analysis! Very helpful to me in understanding why this little clutch of fiction stands out for me. Now I'd be curious to know if you agree with Heinlein's points (summarized very well at the link I placed above, though amazingly absent from the Web in anything more akin to its original form; Heinlein's words on this topic are bedrock advice for new sf writers).

Jim said...

Steve said: "Now I'd be curious to know if you agree with Heinlein's points (summarized very well at the link I placed above..."

Well, there are a number of points raised in the link, so I'm not going to attempt to go through systematically. I will comment on a couple.

"Heinlein says he only writes character stories (which is more or less true), so he restricts his focus to that branch of the SF tree. He claims that there are only three plots in SF: boy-meets-girl (and all the variations thereof), the Little Tailor (a small guy who makes it big, or vice versa), and The Man Who Learned Better."

I fear this is one of those cases where we do so much jamming and pushing to get stories to fit the categories, we lose more insight than we gain in the effort. For example, I don't think A Canticle for Leibowitz fits any of those categories in a way that gives us more insight in the novel. I'm sure a person can make a case for it fitting one of those categories, but I don't think it would add to our reading of it.

# The conditions must be different from here-and-now.
# The new conditions must be essential to the story (this is, in my opinion, the key requirement for something to be considered science fiction)
# The problem must be created by or dramatically affected by the new conditions.

These add up to what we've called--in previous discussions--the novum of a story. One can certainly range widely on what precisely is a valid novum, and whether that novum is essential to the story, and whether the story's problem is created by or affected by that novum. I think there are cases where pretty mcuh all readers would agree those conditions apply--for instance, space travel at speeds where time passses at different rates for travelers vs. those left behind is integral to The Forever War. That could not be the same novel if the soldiers were sailing off in 18th Century frigates. However, one sees stories published in sf venues where there isn't such a clearly essential novum. Do they still get labelled sf? Is whether they are classified as sf or not an important question?

Now, I don't personally have an identification with sf. So, if a story is set in the future, and it's a great story, I don't really care if it meet those criteria of having a novum that is essential to the story. The fact that the same basic storyline could have taken place on an 18th century frigate rather than a 22nd century spaceship doesn't make it any less of a good story, IMHO. So, the points Heinlein raises here are of more interest to me as marketing points, or as literary theory points, than as points about how to write fiction.

In terms of what sorts of novums appeal to me, I tend to gravitate towards novums that come from biology and neuroscience, and from sociology and psychology. I often find stories based on novums from physics uninteresting. It's just not my thing.

Steve said...

I believe your take on Heinlein's advice is dead-on accurate: he was giving advice on how to sell sf to the market that self-identifies as sf. The similarity in his dicta to Suvin's novum is patent (though, we should acknowledge that Heinlein made his observations long before Suvin coined the term). The novum concept is kind of irrelevant outside the context of sf.

One could search for, and probably find, examples of stories that are outside Heinlein's claimed four categories (btw, I recall that Heinlein himself admitted to another category at one point, and also admitted that two of his categories could be collapsed into one, so he was flexible on this himself). As with all devices applied to the assessment of art, I would be reluctant to treat them as absolute. Instead, I find them helpful reference points when doing an analysis. If I think "Vasquez" is a gadget story, I can ask myself some questions that compare it with other gadget stories (or contrast with them, and also compare and contrast it with stories that aren't gadget stories). This gives me a framework within which to operate, though, admittedly, that might also become a box (and we are always supposed to think outside the box 8-) ).

Jim said...

Steve said: "As with all devices applied to the assessment of art, I would be reluctant to treat them as absolute. Instead, I find them helpful reference points when doing an analysis."

Yes, I agree. I think one gets into trouble when they make statements like "all sf stories are variations of three plots." But that caveat in place, I agree that stepping back from the immediate story and thinking more generally about how it relates to its genre and subgenre, and what common tropes it makes use of, can be illuminating.

OK, that's all from me on this story. Going to look to move on to a new one. Don't have the books yet, though. I'll see if I can pick up at least one or two of them over the next few days.