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What do you want from a story?

I've been thinking about that question recently. Partly because of a post Chance made, in which she talks about how important she finds sentence-level writing, and partly because I've been reading the poll-winning collection Stranger Things Happen, and noticing the differences between the kinds of stories that Kelly Link likes to tell and the kinds of stories that I like to read.

Stories offer a lot of different things. Writing, as mentioned. Characters. Plot. Humour. Ideas. Even, in some cases, giant robots. And different types of story balance these elements in different ways, and different types of reader value them differently. I don't often have trouble with sentence level writing. There are exceptions - I find Jon Courtenay Grimwood's prose ugly, for instance, and there are certainly writers I enjoy for their way with language, such as Ian Macleod or Lucius Shepard - but for the most part, the writing is not what impresses me most about a story.

I think there's a reason for this. I'm quite a traditional science fiction fan (I grew up on Asimov), and traditionally, science fiction stories are stories of ideas. To paraphrase the brusque editor from 'A Year In The Linear City': ideally you'd have both, but ideas can get by without style and the reverse just ain't true. Style without substance to back it up is just doodling with words.

Of course, different people have different ideas about what constitutes substance; it's a hard thing to define. To me, it means the story has more than just characters and mood; it means the story is about something. On the other hand, to (say) a horror fan, mood is probably much more important - arguably, the most important thing about a story.

And that's where my problems with some of Kelly Link's stories come in.

Half of the stories here are delights, full of charm and wit and inventiveness; and they are easily enough to make the collection worth reading. 'Travels With The Snow Queen', for example, is a skewed, second-person take on fairy-tale land and the search for a happily ever after that takes a vicious pleasure in undercutting reader assumptions at every turn. 'Flying Lessons' is another greek-gods-still-live-among-us story (I seem to have read a higher than average number of those recently), but somehow, miraculously, it's one that doesn't leave the uneducated reader (i.e. me) feeling that they're missing half the joke. I've no doubt that it works even better if you do have a classical background - the references that I can pick up are enough to assure me of that - but simply as a story, in itself, as an intrusion of myth into the modern world, it works wonderfully well.

'Vanishing Act' describes exactly what it claims to: the process of vanishing. An easy comparison is with Buffy's 'Invisible Girl'. The central themes of isolation and loneliness are the same in both cases, and although the execution is very different, both are strong examples of metaphorical sf. And then there's 'The Girl Detective', my favourite story in the book. It tells a fun, pointed story, halfway between pop culture and myth, in kaleidoscope fashion: a series of incidents and digressions, darting back and forth in viewpoint and time, that combine to form a picture greater than the sum of its parts.

Unfortunately, I didn't find all the stories in the collection as enjoyable. In fact, several of them had me grinding my teeth in frustration. Too often they felt self-indulgent and undisciplined.

'Shoe and Marriage', for instance, isn't really a story at all; it's four vignettes that are connected only by, well, shoes and marriages. All four have the air of tales half-told, and they do not fit together in the way that makes 'The Girl Detective' so satisfying. The strongest is the first, in which Prince Charming (never named) wonders about the girl whose foot would have fit the glass slipper - the girl he never found, because he fell in love elsewhere. The weakest is the last, in which a new couple visit a fortune-teller who reads the soles of shoes like others would read palms; it's explicitly titled as 'a happy ending', but veered too far into sentiment for my tastes.

I was also disappointed by 'Like Water Off A Black Dog's Back'. The central story is that of the relationship between Carroll and Rachel, characterised by Rachel's reluctance to reveal too much about herself or her family. This is understandable, as it turns out, since her family seem to attract misfortune: they lose things. Her father lost his nose, her mother lost her leg. Both have prosthetic replacements. But the story never seems to go anywhere - nothing is really resolved. It's a portrait of a relationship, and an effective one, but really no more than that.

Perhaps this is to do with the nature of endings. Kelly Link writes, effectively, mimetic stories that happen in a speculative context. Putting it another way, the landscape may be fabulous and weird, but the development and resolution of the story is centred entirely on the characters. Any fantastical or magical elements may reflect on their predicament, may illuminate it, but they are not necessarily developed in any way. They are not necessarily involved in the resolution of the story in the same way as they would be in, say, a Ted Chiang story.

A good example of this is the most science-fictional tale in the collection. 'Most of my Friends are Two-Thirds Water' is the story in which blond alien women invade New York, but that's not what the story is about. Rather, the story is about a brunette woman who is friends with (and possibly secretly in love with) the man who lives in New York and discovers that blond alien women are invading. So the invasion never really goes anywhere; we only hear about it second-hand. It's a symbol, not an event. As a result the story, though entertaining, was too slight for my taste.

Maybe this could be characterised more precisely as the difference between narrative and emotional endings - endings that resolve the plot, or endings that resolve the characters. The most satisfying stories, for me, are those that have both, but I value the former over the latter. I can and do enjoy transformative endings, such as that of 'Flying Lessons', that don't strictly resolve the narrative; but those that merely invoke vague mystery, such as that of 'Water Off A Black Dog's Back', seem less interesting. And when a story like 'Shoe and Marriage' has neither, I find it very hard to care, however elegant the prose, however developed the characters. And I get frustrated, because it seems such a waste of that prose and those characters to not do anything with them.

So. I certainly recommend the collection; I just don't do so unreservedly. And I ask again, because I want to know: what do you want from a story?

The Gap had a more interesting story, purely on a world building kind of level, but the characters were all so..black (as well as badly drawn and unalive) that it was just kind of 'why go that way?'. I love good dark black angsty depressing stuff as much as the next guy, but there's a limit. I think Covenant was just too much bad fantasy at a time when I'd just discovered Mieville, had recently finished George RR Martin's stuff, and was reading a whole boatload of really, really good SF (thanks to Niall, it has to be said). Then along came that..
Although, still better than what I call teen-girl fantasy where the misunderstood heroine ends up finding lurve with someone from another species...