Study Questions for the Emshwiller, Sterling, and Chiang Stories

For all three stories, we need to consider the fundamental formal aspects of fiction that we have already established as crucial to an early engagement with any story: Setting, Character, and Narration. Therefore, we will begin our discussion of each story today--and everyday--by establishing the story's setting, defining its narrative voice[s], and considering the nature of the story's protagonist and the functions of supporting characters. Below, I suggest a few additional concerns for each of the assigned stories. Of course, we also need to begin quite self-consciously considering whether or not these stories validate the arguments of those writers and critics who argue that a new genre called "Slipstream" or The New Weird" connects the writings of these authors.

"Al" by Carol Emshwiller [1972], initially published in Orbit 10, edited by Damon Knight for Putnam

  1. In keeping with the implicit address of much "slipstream" fiction to intertextuality, to fiction that evokes the situations and settings of prior fictions, but significantly modifies those fictions, "Al" draws on James Hilton's 1933 novel, Lost Horizons, and Frank Capra's 1937 film version of the novel starring Ronald Coleman, Jane Wyatt, and Sam Jaffe. Writing in 1972, Emshwiller can legitimately assume that many of her readers would be familiar with the idea of Shangri-La and the plot of Lost Horizons and would have certain expectations about how the plot of "Al" would unfold. Reviewing this brief plot summary of Lost Horizon might help you to follow Emshwiller's purpose, especially if you are not familiar with Hilton's story or the idea of Shangri-La.
  2. While "Al" is indeed an adventure story and an address to common themes regarding the possibility of achieving a utopian society, it also seems to be a commentary on the social function of art. As you read the story, consider how the narrator and characters sometimes discuss the purpose and function of art. How do these passages direct us to understand how Emshwiller might feel about art's place in culture?
  3. Do comments like, "I wanted to find out just what role the audience should play" [6] indicate that Emshwiller in her tale of a fantastic journey is commenting on the nature of fiction and of the relation between readers and text?

"The Little Magic Shop" by Bruce Sterling, initially published in October, 1987, in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine

  1. What allusions to mainstream fiction and fiction writers appear in this story? As you read, see if you can identify some of the authors referenced by Sterling.
  2. The story, while principally a fantasy, also alludes to a common theme in quite a few SF stories: the desire for immortality. Often, traditional SF develops the theme that immortality is not desireable, is a false hope, or unrealizable dream fraught with peril. Characters who achieve immortality often learn to long for death as they witness the deaths of their loved ones and themselves tire of life without companionship. What lesson does Mr. O'Beronne expect James Abernathy to learn? How does Sterling counter generic SF expectations and overrule the traditional pattern through his depiction of James Abernathy?
  3. As Sterling depicts transformations of the shop over time, how does he implicitly engage in a cultural critique? What values, if any, does he criticize?

"Hell is the Absence of God" by Ted Chiang [2001], initially published in Starlight 3, edited by Patrick Nielson Hayden for Tor Books.

  1. As you read this story, consider Chiang's depiction of the angels and their "visitations." How do Chiang's angels alter our expectations about spiritual belief and values? How do their visitations and the effects of their visitations prepare us for the story's end and the final state of his protagonist, Neil Fisk.
  2. In what ways is Chiang's story a critique of various aspects of commercial culture, thereby conforming to comments made by Sterling, Spinrad, and others about how the marketplace distorts values? [Note his brief reference to property damage and the response of insurance companies on 125.] Are there other references to commerce and value in the story?
  3. Does the story ultimately critique or condemn traditional spiritual beliefs or confirm and support those beliefs?