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February 10, 2009 2:10 PM   Subscribe

The Invasion From Outer Space: Steven Millhauser gives The New Yorker a short, unsettling sci-fi story.
posted by The Whelk (111 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks. I rather liked that.
posted by Bookhouse at 2:15 PM on February 10, 2009


That was good. Thanks: even though I get the New Yorker, I never rarely read the fiction.
posted by everichon at 2:17 PM on February 10, 2009


Nancy Kress has some interesting thoughts on it.
posted by wzcx at 2:17 PM on February 10, 2009


Pretty great, but I thought the cartoon was unnecessary.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 2:21 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nancy Kress has a blog?! Golly...gotta go, kthxbye.
posted by Asparagirl at 2:26 PM on February 10, 2009


The people of Piedmont totally deserved it.
posted by cashman at 2:27 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Upon reflection, I think I agree with Kress. This is bland, boring pseudo-sf whose purpose seems to be to avoid scaring off anyone who might be afraid of SF cooties. It's the equivalent of 1950s middle-american cooking, where lasagna was still italicized and viewed as a little too spicy for our tastes.
posted by Justinian at 2:29 PM on February 10, 2009


"The Invasion From Outer Space" is an okay title, but personally I would've went with "Golden Shower." Maybe this is why I don't have a Pulitzer.
posted by naju at 2:29 PM on February 10, 2009 [24 favorites]


Nancy Kress has some interesting thoughts on it.

I don't think she's wrong, except the story is so very short that I don't mind it being simplistic.
posted by Bookhouse at 2:30 PM on February 10, 2009


I disagree with Kress. She comes off as condescending and a little naive. She doesn't like the story: that's cool, but a back-handed swipe at those not enlightened enough to be Charlie Stross fans and the fiction editor of the New Yorker? Lady, please.

[NOT STROSSIST]
posted by everichon at 2:31 PM on February 10, 2009 [5 favorites]


Terrifying. Seriously, terrifying. I can feel myself suffocating as I read it.

This Nancy Kress person can go have sex with herself. I can't fathom a "speculative fiction" writer having this stunted of an imagination.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 2:32 PM on February 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Nancy Kress might not be your cup of tea, but no-one who wrote the (hugo and nebula winning) novella "Beggars in Spain" can seriously be accused of a lack of imagination or respect for SF.
posted by Justinian at 2:37 PM on February 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


I don't believe the story's scenario either. I doubt it would be hard to figure out how to kill something like that--some combination of cold or fire or radiation--and while it would be difficult to eliminate entirely, I doubt it would ever get to a point where it engulfs even one town, let alone the whole world. I'm going to give this one a "boring and simplistic."
posted by Caduceus at 2:39 PM on February 10, 2009


This is a pretty weak sci-fi story. So it's a rapidly reproducing single-celled organism, which uses an unspecified energy source (light?) and unspecified nutritents and somehow reproduces at an insanely high rate. The story goes into just enough detail to reveal that it's wildly implausible, and then ends. OooOOooh, how scary.

I wish my suspension of disbelief had been considered for even a moment. I want my five minutes back.
posted by mullingitover at 2:40 PM on February 10, 2009


I enjoyed that a lot as well.

/In my little silly fiction circle, we have a saying. "Most two page stories end well. Most 7 page stories start well."
// Also applicable "Most novellas are simply novels abbreviated for lacking a good central character(s)... And most novels have only that."
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 2:46 PM on February 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


Actually, I don't think Nancy Kress does have "interesting" thoughts about it since she spends half her post on her caveats - one of which is a self-defense about not hating SF authors in "our little club". And her most damning criticism is that it's boring - which is just lazy really. Particularly when the whole story is about the mundane nature of the "invasion".

I didn't love the story, but it was a nice twist on alien invasion tropes.
posted by crossoverman at 2:47 PM on February 10, 2009


yeah nancy kress can bite it. this is terrifying and it addresses a real creeping fear of our times: that for all its exquisite complexity, human existance is arbitrary and unimportant in the cosmic perspective.
posted by es_de_bah at 2:47 PM on February 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


At the risk of overanalyzing this, as someone who does biology for a living, I thought the idea of a banal, intergalactic equivalent of an invasive species to be quite unique, for a science fiction short story. Especially for a genre largely defined by rehashed space operas or cyberpunk dystopias. I also thought the commentary on our pop culture expectations for alien life was insightful. Kress is definitely suffering from a lack of imagination.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:48 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a Swiffer
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:50 PM on February 10, 2009 [28 favorites]


I first saw them in my creative writing class. Hardly enough to fill an index card, the barest sketch of a plot bunny, with enough room for two lines of unmemorable dialogue and a fistful of adjectives like Schoolhouse Rock taught us. A waste of white, valuable plot space forever occupied by this useless thing that got there first. Then the 'zines, and the fanfic boards. I whined to various editors, "They just keep coming." "Ignore them, skip them," they told me. I told them this would happen.

Nowhere is safe, now that the drabbles have invaded The New Yorker.
posted by adipocere at 2:53 PM on February 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


That was great! This is an awesome metaphor:

This is bland, boring pseudo-sf whose purpose seems to be to avoid scaring off anyone who might be afraid of SF cooties. It's the equivalent of 1950s middle-american cooking, where lasagna was still italicized and viewed as a little too spicy for our tastes.

...but I don't know that I agree. Or maybe I do agree with the premise but not the conclusion? I don't have the same distaste for the story that Kress has. I love me some sci-fi, but to dismiss this story as boring and simplistic as a result isn't the way I'd go here; I mean, I like a huge and elaborate authentic Mexican meal, but sometimes a body gets in the mood for a cheap little burrito from Taco Bell. Small, quick, heavenly. I liked that story.
posted by Greg Nog at 2:54 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Bubba would have tried burning it with gasoline in the first ten minutes of it messing up his lawn.
posted by jefflowrey at 3:01 PM on February 10, 2009


a back-handed swipe at those not enlightened enough to be Charlie Stross fans

She was invoking Stross as an example of someone who often writes stuff aimed at experienced sf readers, and that can be hard to appreciate (or even follow) if you're not one.

So all she's saying is that she doesn't expect an editor who specializes in one genre to also be a specialist in another. There really isn't condemnation to be had there.
posted by Zed at 3:02 PM on February 10, 2009


Trillions.
"A layer of hard, shiny dust covers the village of Harbourtown. The Trillions have landed. But what are they? Where have they come from? In the race to find the answers, the experts are baffled. Only one boy has the power to discover the truth, and to stop a deadly invasion. "
posted by thatwhichfalls at 3:06 PM on February 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


I know who Steven Millhauser is; who is Nancy whatever?
posted by Postroad at 3:06 PM on February 10, 2009


Millhauser's wiki page has a nice Cliffs Notes-scale critical evaluation of his writing, and it seems he's fond of the gradually engulfing / expanding nature of things, and using his works to comment on other works of fiction.

I like the subtlety of the work, the fact the threat is not threatening in normal terms. Apparently Kress prefers her Science Fiction with more outlandishness and excitement. I bet she thinks fast moving zombies are better, too.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:07 PM on February 10, 2009


When I was a kid I loved end-of-the-world stories which (like Childhood's End or War Of The Worlds) depicted the apocalypse (or at least the end of life as we know it) as something grand, exciting and/or even romantic, and at the time I even thought it would be cool if something like that happened within my lifetime. Although I'm older and somewhat wiser these days, a bit of this outlook has rubbed off on me, seemingly for good (I loved the film Last Night), and for that reason I found this story deeply unnerving.
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:09 PM on February 10, 2009


The Millhauser story was OK, but I liked Lethem's Lostronaut a lot more. Still, more SF in the New Yorker is always something to celebrate.

Also, Nancy Kress has a blog!
posted by longdaysjourney at 3:11 PM on February 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Disagree with Kress. I thought it was a pretty interesting approach even if it doesn't pass strict hard-sf rules. Nor is there anything wrong with using sf tropes to make a point, as there are numerous examples from Fredric Brown to Dangerous Visions. Of course it's narratively dull -- that's the point. The interest is all in the question of what was expected, how we fantasize about "enemies", what fates we believe we as a species "deserve". And certainly people adapt to all sorts of unusual conditions, often fairly rapidly.

It's just a little spec-f in the New Yorker, not beans on a plate.
posted by dhartung at 3:12 PM on February 10, 2009


yeah nancy kress can bite it. this is terrifying and it addresses a real creeping fear of our times: that for all its exquisite complexity, human existence is arbitrary and unimportant in the cosmic perspective.

Yeah, that's pretty much it, I think. Not Millhauser's best work but a fine enough story. Surely better than the "50-year old Ukranian maid leaves her drunk boyfriend" stories that often get published in the New Yorker. In fact, I'm pretty comfortable stating, unequivocablly, that Nancy Kress is an idiot. Why does she insist that the story is "sci-fi" anyway? It's no more sci-fi than Aesop's Fables are stories of "agricultural realism." For god's sake, it's a fucking allegory.
posted by billysumday at 3:15 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Maybe it did have a point to it, but to me it was just reminiscent of the Stephen King as a redneck segment from "Creepshow".
posted by Strshan at 3:15 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, come on. That's not a fair critique of Kress.

I am by no means a Kress fan. But she's right about this piece; there's nothing particularly unique or new about it. It is not original. She called it boring which was a mistake, I think, as the problem with it is not that it is slow-moving or uninteresting. The problem with it is that it's nothing we haven't seen before and yet it it is being greeted as a chilling, original twist. The idea of humanity going out with a whimper is old hat in SF.

Maybe if you get your SF with giant bug-eyed aliens waving laser guns around and jumping off rocket ships this is chilling and original.
posted by Justinian at 3:16 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's no more sci-fi than Aesop's Fables are stories of "agricultural realism." For god's sake, it's a fucking allegory.

Case in point: not enough rayguns to be science fiction!!11!1!!1

What gives you the completely mistaken that science fiction can't act as allegory. Leaving aside, of course, the fact that this story is not allegorical. It's a metaphor, sure, but metaphor /= allegory.
posted by Justinian at 3:17 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


And if you want good recent New Yorker fiction, read the latest Saunders story. De-press-ing!
posted by billysumday at 3:17 PM on February 10, 2009


It's a two-page story in the New Yorker. Metaphor, allegory, fable, myth, whatever - she's shooting it down because it's not sci-fi-y enough. Eyeroll.
posted by billysumday at 3:19 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yes We Will
posted by homunculus at 3:19 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


meh
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 3:20 PM on February 10, 2009


Though you're right, allegory is too strong. If anything, it's an expertly written JOKE, abstract and full of meaning yet impossible to discern and surreal. But oh noes, it's not science-y enough!
posted by billysumday at 3:22 PM on February 10, 2009


I don't think I'll defend Kress any more given that her criticism was as shallow as the original story and I'm finding it hard to separate my own criticisms from what Kress was actually saying; perhaps I'm giving her too much credit and she really did mean "ZOM! NEEDS MORE EXPLOSIONS!"

So Kress can defend herself, or not. My own feeling remains the same; if this story appeared in Asimovs, or Analog, or the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, it would pass completely unremarked. Because it is, indeed, unremarkable. And I wouldn't bother to criticize it. But it didn't: it appeared in the New Yorker and people are praising its originality and wonderful use of metaphor when stories like this are de rigeur in the genre.
posted by Justinian at 3:26 PM on February 10, 2009 [6 favorites]


Anybody else read this and imagine the yellow stuff as an allegory for consumer debt? That's all I could think as I read it ... looks so small, so harmless, grows so fast, fills up a room in virtually no time, is "quite pleasant" as it robs you of everything.
posted by jbickers at 3:28 PM on February 10, 2009


All this white stuff fell on us last week... And it's still there.

(Oh it's not a story... just an extended metaphor. And actually I think there would be panic.)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:31 PM on February 10, 2009


thatwhichfalls! Yes, Trillions! brilliant children's story that covers this topic much better.

There is absolutely nothing remarkable about Millhauser's story. It's not even remarkable for appearing in the New Yorker - they had to print something on those pages!

As far as science fiction goes, there's nothing remarkable about it. It's a well covered trope that's been handled a lot better by other writers both with and without rayguns involved.

As far as a general piece of fiction, it's entirely unremarkable. If the page break were somewhere else, this story wouldn't even have tension.

Apparently I have several remarks to make about how unremarkable this story is.
posted by jefflowrey at 3:33 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure I see the story as critically as Nancy Kress does. Admittedly, I was looking hard for the value in it because I'd read her critique of it first. The problem I have with it is that it could be a really moving human story, if my interpretation of it holds any merit, or it could be as drearily uninteresting as Kress describes it.

One way or the other, I find it hard to see the story as a simple "What If" invasion story along the lines of The Andromeda Strain. It seems clear to me that, if the story's worth anything at all, it's as an allegory. What I imagine, at those moments when I'm moved by the story, is that it's written (or at least narrated) by someone fighting cancer, who describes with the calm and collected voice of someone who has resigned themselves to defeat the slow invasion of their body and their eventual demise.

When I'm not moved by it, I imagine it is a heavy-handed and uninteresting description of the effect we as a species have had on the planet. It is, in this instance, a tremendously poor ecologist's tale, written with precisely the same lack of pathos of the The Day The Earth Stood Still remake. As a matter of fact, considering the method of our destruction in that terrible terrible movie, I wouldn't be surprised if this had been written immediately after seeing the film.

If it really is just a "what if" story, then it's as bad as Kress makes it out to be. But I guess I'm feeling generous. I see it as something a little more worthwhile. It's still missing that pathos, the emotion you hope for in a story. But if it's a story about the resignation of terminal cancer, I can at least see that as a positive contribution to the story as a whole.
posted by shmegegge at 3:38 PM on February 10, 2009


It gets a big meh from me too. There are no characters, no character development, the "big idea" has been done before, the writing is just so-so.

I think "boring" is very much the right word for it.

YMMV.
posted by MythMaker at 3:38 PM on February 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Meh. Change the gold to pink and here we have an early chapter of David Gerrold's War Against the Chtorr books.

Yes, not precisely, I know, but in the Gerrold books the invasion was begun not with tentacled monsters waving rayguns but with algae.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:41 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Meh. Change the gold to pink and here we have an early chapter of David Gerrold's War Against the Chtorr books.

Currently vying with George R. R. Martin for the "series either I or the author will die before finishing" award. Right now I'm betting on both of them (or me) to croak before finishing.
posted by Justinian at 3:46 PM on February 10, 2009


Anybody else read this and imagine the yellow stuff as an allegory for consumer debt? That's all I could think as I read it ... looks so small, so harmless, grows so fast, fills up a room in virtually no time, is "quite pleasant" as it robs you of everything.

that seems totally plausible to me. on the other hand, if that's what it's about, then I think it's an even worse story than Kress thought it was.
posted by shmegegge at 3:49 PM on February 10, 2009


For anyone interested in Millhauser, I recommend Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright. It's a strange and beautiful novel unlike anything else I've ever read.
posted by bluishorange at 4:04 PM on February 10, 2009


So, um, Tribbles? We're back to Tribbles, here?
posted by Ritchie at 4:18 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I thought it was a pretty boring story. For those saying that it's not worth criticising for that: why is it worth publicising? It may be no worse than whatever the New Yorker normally puts there, but nobody has pointed the other issues out to me as worth reading.
posted by jacalata at 4:23 PM on February 10, 2009


where are you guys getting all this crazy metaphorical stuff from?

is it because it's so simplistic that it can't serve as anything better than a palimpsest?

heck, i thought about kudzu when i was reading it, but it's not what i thought it was secretly about. i don't think that piece of fluffy fun stuff was about anything except itself. and i like it.

thank you. next.
posted by artof.mulata at 4:30 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


As a huge sci-fi fan, with shelves of pulp books magazines from the 50s all the way up to stuff published recently...I have but one word to describe Mr. Millhauser's story:

Meh.
posted by dejah420 at 4:35 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I liked the story just fine. But all of you folks who are declaring it "boring" seem to be missing the very point of it; as if you were coming out of a screening of Warhol's Sleep and telling the world, "Meh. Boring."

Yes, Millhauser is describing a boring, understated, slow apocalypse, as opposed to a thrilling, horrific, operatic, heroic, excruciating, flaming, thundering, or terrifying one. You don't have to cast too far afield in modern life -- global warming, the economy -- to find that it's a useful metaphor. Seek your goggle-eyed monsters and blinding laser beams elsewhere; this is about something else.
posted by digaman at 4:35 PM on February 10, 2009


Thank you. I really enjoyed that short break from sending out faxes and answering the phones. What's with the harsh criticism from the peanut gallery though? Just out of curiousity, how many of you critics have published work anywhere credible?
posted by anoirmarie at 4:36 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


how many of you critics have published work anywhere credible?

My fiction has appeared in two Ninja High School Yearbooks, thank you very much.
posted by Zed at 4:42 PM on February 10, 2009


Fluff.
posted by Max Power at 4:44 PM on February 10, 2009


not a bad little tale -
and can work as a literal scenario
(fanciful twist on the theory that life on earth originated elsewhere and arrived from space)
as an alternative apocalypse revelation
(end==whimper!=bang)
or a metaphor
(debt or environment as mentioned, i was thinking cancer myself)

given that it's banking on brevity for punch though,
it should have ended at the page break -
more impact to let the readers extrapolate the 2nd page themselves
posted by sloe at 4:46 PM on February 10, 2009


This was not a story. This was a sketch, a vignette, a barely germinated seed of a something that read well but needed more.
posted by RakDaddy at 4:46 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just out of curiousity, how many of you critics have published work anywhere credible?

You're kidding, right? I can't hit a major league fastball but I know when a guy who bats .180 sucks.
posted by Justinian at 4:53 PM on February 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


Pretty great, but I thought the cartoon was unnecessary.

I think all New Yorker cartoons are unnecessary.
posted by zardoz at 5:00 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


THIS IS HOW WE KILL GENIUSES U GUYZ
posted by everichon at 5:04 PM on February 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


I enjoyed it and feel that part of what made it work was its length. If it had been any longer, had been anything more than a vignette it would have been deserving of the criticism heaped upon it. Sure the idea isn't original. But the last original idea was had by Abbot in 1884 (major nerd props if you get that reference). It was simple, it was quick, it wasn't terribly exciting, but the focus on the human reaction, the disappointment was what made it a good little piece.
posted by Hactar at 5:09 PM on February 10, 2009


Boring and allegory are too strong for how I would describe this story. I think I'd describe it as subtle. Sure, not much happens, but I think that is the point. It is a story describing distinctly not ID4, not Speilberg or horrid Klaatu remake. Is it somehow intended for a certain audience? of NYT readers or non-SF readers? The editor and the author might tell you so, but you'd have to ask them.
posted by asfuller at 5:13 PM on February 10, 2009


The world ended in the usual way. With the eerie bright lights and the rumbling of distant explosions and the sudden onset of crippling diarrhea. The TVs were the first to go, the radio waves the next casualty. So we never did find out who pulled the trigger, or why. Or if there even was a trigger.

Was it aliens? Terrorists? Mutant Shriners? Who knew? Maybe it was Gaia shrugging us off, like so many parasites. At least Gore would go out with a boner. Didn't matter much, in the end. Which this totally was. The end times to end all end times. Exit stage left, even.

At first, of course, there was panic. When the hard-asses and the optimists still assumed some of us would make it. Of course we would. We'd fight, and this would all blow over, and maybe that cute checker at the Piggly Wiggly would notice how brave we were and we'd rebuild the entire human race one glorious night after another.

Then the dead began to rise, with a vacuous, egalitarian hunger that could never be sated, and the future became clear. This was Survivor: Armageddon, and we were all voted off the Island.

Fat Tony and I talked about throwing an end-of-the-world rave in the desert. A couple hundred of our closest friends, all the drugs and booze and firearms we could steal, a kick-ass sound system running on dozens of gennies. Maybe a case or two of dynamite. It would be Burning Man, only for real this time. Burning Men. When the highs faded and the gas ran out and nobody could squeeze out even one more orgasm, well then we'd turn the fire on ourselves. Fuck if we'd lurch our way through eternity feasting on the fatuous brains of small town America in decline.

But Fat Tony and I didn't have a couple hundred close friends, or the means to acquire drugs and booze and firearms, let alone a kick-ass sound system and a couple cases of dynamite. What we did have was the stolen phone numbers of a couple of girls who wouldn't hang with us if we were the last two guys on Earth, which was looking more and more likely as the hours progressed. And we had a bottle of Jack we had nicked from Tony's mom the day before, and we had an old service rifle my dad kept hidden in the basement.

So Fat Tony took a long drink and sat back crying, closed his eyes and said fuck, dude, just do it, and I shot him in the head.

Which is likely as not how it would have gone down anyway.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:14 PM on February 10, 2009 [16 favorites]


You know, I thought The Wizard of West Orange was probably the best short story I read last year.

But I'm almost done with Dangerous Laughter, and apart from 1-2 stories, nothing happens. Millhauser beautifully describes a scene, situation, environment, or fantastical social calamity/oddity, but none of the characters ever really do anything (aside from the opening Tom & Jerry riff, which is awesome.)

So, no, I didn't like it much either. (I did like Lostronaut, and the Goldman comic, though. Thanks.)

This was not a story. This was a sketch, a vignette, a barely germinated seed of a something that read well but needed more.

I guess that's my biggest complaint against Millhauser. He creates extremely involved scenarios and situations, but nothing ever happens.

Also, in The Invasion from Outer Space, why is everyone so sure that the gold dust eventually destroys mankind. There's no indication at all that we can't kill it faster than it can multiply. I think the ending is ambiguous (although the last line is ominous).

on preview: Abott? Flatland? I think we've had some original SF ideas since then...
posted by mrgrimm at 5:16 PM on February 10, 2009



This was not a story. This was a sketch, a vignette, a barely germinated seed of a something that read well but needed more.


Which is ...why I liked it? I've been trying to do this in my own fiction and failing, the suggestion of menace and Bigger Things, within a very hard word-limit.
posted by The Whelk at 5:17 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I thought it was more about mass media than anything else. The point isn't the SF MacGuffin, it's the people's anticipation of it and reaction to it. And in its way, Nancy Kress's critique is just the perfect epilogue. She's saying exactly what all the people in the story are saying, and exactly what we'd say if it happened -- "So what? I've seen this movie done better, with many more explosions." It's about the stories we've told to ourselves and the way they sort of creep into our heads and nestle down there, to the point of severely hampering our ability to interpret things that actually happen, except in relation to them.

Even the very fact that the basic premise (infinitely reproducing whatever smothers humanity) has been done plays into that. If it was a genuinely new idea, the story wouldn't work.

It's not brand-new and exciting. But it's an extremely clever little story. A big "well done" from me.
posted by rusty at 5:31 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also, if you liked this, it has a lot of the same feel as On the Beach, I thought. You might want to pick that up.
posted by rusty at 5:33 PM on February 10, 2009


It was fun, not art or whatever but conversational writing and fun and I'm glad I gave it my five minutes or ten. I LOVE short fiction, and flash fiction even more, if you can tell a story in five hundred words and make me laugh or smile or hurt or whatever you've done a fine thing. IMO.

I felt a little bit like I was reading George Saunders, not the story or plot or characters or what have you, it just felt to me like his sentence structure, maybe not quite as run-on but still engaging. To me. If you disagree and you want to have George Saunders baby and if you are certain I suck and stuff, please take it somewhere else, please don't go on here with how bright you are and how bright I'm not and never can be nor will be. Take a break. Stretch. Scratch yourself, if you itch somewheres.

Relax.

I didn't read the criticism of the story, I don't much like reading criticism of someones writing, and I wonder why another author would engage in it, having been exposed to the knife themselves by people who maybe don't like the writing or don't get the writing or don't want to have the writers baby or whatever. Writers write. Let the critics be critical. It's easier by far to tear down someone else and their story than sitting down alone with a blank page or blank screen and writing your own story. This is of course my idea but to me it's valid. YMMV.

Maybe twelve or fifteen years ago I went to upwards of forty-two thousand movies every week, I thought how much fun it would be to write about the movies I loved, but if ever I did do any criticism it wouldn't be criticism, because any movie I didn't like I just wouldn't write about. Just because the movie (or the painting, or the writing, etc and etc) doesn't blow my skirt up doesn't mean that it sucks: One of my best friends very favorite Coen brothers movie is Barton Fink, which I'd steered clear of, lo those long years gone by -- I didn't like the previews, I didn't like what I felt about it, I saw some rave and others rage and I'm like "So many movies, so little time" and I didn't see it. Which was actually pretty amazing for me at that time, an important movie and all, Coen brothers, etc and etc. But recently he pretty much demanded that I watch it and a couple months ago I did watch it, I gave it careful time and attention, I was ready to be moved or transported or I didn't know what but I was ready, and I watched it, and I was left with an overwhelming and overarching feeling of "Huh?" It was a beautifully done movie that left me feeling "Huh?" and I do love the Coen brothers and the cinematography was completely jamming and so was the acting but "Huh?"

But I'd like you to forget you ever read what I just wrote there, in fact I'm going to insist upon it, because that's exactly what I would never, ever write if ever I was to write about a movie that I didn't get or didn't like or whatever. The only way I was able to write what I'm hoping you've already forgotten you've read -- if in fact you have read it -- is by force of will, sheer force of will, I would never do it for anything less than a post here at metafilter, it was like I was superman against the forces of green kryptonite, I had to slog through it, each letter keyed with glassed eyes and gaseous stomach and pained fingers and even my toes hurt, and my hair, some of my teeth loosened and three fillings fell out, I'm drinking my tea luke-warm just now, as to drink it hot would just hurt my newly unfilled teeth too dang much. THAT'S the kind of love I feel for this community, that's the sort of gift I'm willing to give to you all, I've (partially) destroyed my very being by turning from true north of my art heart, I've stepped all over my ideals for your time here in this spatter of words, I've crushed them like grapes under a peasants big, dirty feet in a wooden barrel somewheres or another, my soul nailed to the cross of giving so that others might live. Or something.

IN ANY CASE, I'm glad I read it, and I'm glad for the link upthread to the George Saunders story, I'm going to drink luke-warm tea as I read it.

Peace.
posted by dancestoblue at 5:45 PM on February 10, 2009


Most New Yorker fiction is bad. It's about unhappy white middle-class Americans who, by the end, are a little more unhappy. I gave up on it a few months ago, because it was always too depressing. This? Way better.
posted by waldo at 6:13 PM on February 10, 2009


Interesting that for so many of the you, the experience of reading this short story was more about the destination than the ride. I enjoyed the imagery evoked-- the town's sweet bucolic nature ("the duckpond and the seesaw" "maple trees and telephone poles" hosing down "our porch furniture") and the defenselessness of the townfolk ("people quivering like mice" the dust "covered our shirtsleeves.) It put me in mind of regular Americans on the frontline in the case of a terrorist attack.

Nancy Kress didn't like it; I can live with that.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:28 PM on February 10, 2009


What about those of us that love Stross and don't readt the New Yorker?
posted by Samizdata at 6:32 PM on February 10, 2009


I bet she thinks fast moving zombies are better, too.

Fast-moving zombies are the single-most important and entertaining film innovation in 40 years.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:35 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I thought the story was really lame. Not only so far below the quality of what should be published in The New Yorker, but so far below the quality of most science fiction which it superciliously appears to disdain.

To me the story basically said: "LOL, science fiction! By contrast I am so literary!" It extracted from decades of movies the most tired cliches and said: "You expect those chiches, don't you? Betcha something DIFFERENT from that happens! Now, wouldn't that be SO MUCH BETTER a story than all the ones before?"

But of course from the very start of the genre this kind of stuff has been envisioned. I mean, in H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds, the super-powerful aliens are done in by our own banal micro-organisms... So this is just a reversal on that, with a little literary distancing and abstraction thrown in for smuggery's sake.
posted by Schmucko at 6:42 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Not bad, but as New Yorker stories about the end of the world go, I'll take Kevin Brockmeier's "The Brief History of the Dead."
posted by Iridic at 6:58 PM on February 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Currently vying with George R. R. Martin for the "series either I or the author will die before finishing" award. Right now I'm betting on both of them (or me) to croak before finishing.

I also thought of Chtorr while reading the linked story, and as I always do when either it or GRRM comes up, I compulsively shook my fist at the sky in frustration.

Two of my favorites series' evar, both seemingly indefinitely stalled. Blerg.
posted by flaterik at 7:19 PM on February 10, 2009


It was nice, it didn't stand out as either incredibly boring or fantastic to me. But I thought at first it ended on the first page. After clicking though to read the conclusion on the second page I re-read the first page and definitely preferred that ending. But I like cosy catastrophes and could imagine how the unwritten story could unfold.
posted by saucysault at 7:44 PM on February 10, 2009


I didn't see if anyone had mentioned it, but there's a Robert Sheckley story that has a similiar theme -- basically a gray rock meteor thing hits and begins to grow until it gets nuked and sends it's little growing spores all over for more growing. Can't remember the name.

Anyway, I thought the story was okay. I found myself wondering if the yellow stuff was edible.
posted by Toecutter at 7:47 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


This was okay. For apocalypse, I like The Nine Billion Names of God better.
posted by exlotuseater at 7:49 PM on February 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Not bad, but as New Yorker stories about the end of the world go, I'll take Kevin Brockmeier's "The Brief History of the Dead."

The novel isn't bad either, although I thought it overstretched the story.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:51 PM on February 10, 2009


(I know, I probably could have found a better link that isn't geocities. Geocities. How quaint.
posted by exlotuseater at 7:53 PM on February 10, 2009


)
posted by Schmucko at 8:10 PM on February 10, 2009


I know who Steven Millhauser is; who is Nancy whatever?
posted by Postroad at 3:06 PM on February 10 [+] [!]


I know who Nancy Kress is, who's this Millhauser guy?
But really, put one in a test tube and it fills the test tube in 40 minutes? With what? Solidified sunlight?
posted by 445supermag at 8:20 PM on February 10, 2009


That's really poor. I got bored within the first sentence and started skimming. Not trying to be snarky, but that's how I reacted. "...for hadn’t we seen it all a hundred times?" in particular smacks of someone trying to sound like a "good writer," rather than tell a story honestly.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:25 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


i dislike this story because in its two pages it fails to accurately represent everything i love about science fiction even though it's actually a direct critique of everything i love about science fiction therefore i dislike this story and anyway its boring cloverfield was way more awesomer
posted by ook at 8:33 PM on February 10, 2009


even though it's actually a direct critique of everything i love about science fiction

Well, no. The problem is that it isn't an original critique but seems to think it is.
posted by Justinian at 8:48 PM on February 10, 2009 [5 favorites]


If you have a copy of the Gene Wolfe anthology Castle of Days (if you don't know Nancy Kress, you probably won't know Wolfe either), in the second half of the volume he reprints a letter he sent to a disappointed sf writer (An Idea That...). The criticism he offers to that writer is, I think, very apposite in this case too.

He starts by calling the story 'good, solid, amateur fiction', and confesses that, yes, he too is occasionally guilty of writing amateur stories. But then he gets to the meat of his critique:
When you write a story of your own, you start with a good idea. You try to get the style right for the particular story you're writing (because no one style is right for every story). You work hard, because you notice that the harder you work the better the story gets. Then you discover that your story doesn't have the effect on others that you know it should, and you don't know why. I'm going to tell you -- watch my lips.

You didn't really do much with your idea. You unconsciously assumed that because it was such a fine, strong, sleek, and even potentially dangerous idea, that it could run the story by itself.

Let's change the metaphor. There are tigers in zoos and there are tigers in circuses. The tigers in zoos are strong and sleek and beautiful, and potentially quite dangerous; but they don't do anything. The tigers in circuses are no stronger, no sleeker, no more beautiful, and no more dangerous; but they do things that surprise us and perhaps even frighten us a little bit. We see them in action. People pay to get into circuses, but zoos are free. Now do you get the picture?
Granted, Wolfe's metaphor has aged a bit (he wrote this in 1986). Zoos aren't free anymore, and many zoos put on tiger shows. And animal acts in circuses are often seen as cruel and exploitative. But you get the idea.
posted by Ritchie at 9:09 PM on February 10, 2009 [6 favorites]


That's really poor. I got bored within the first sentence and started skimming. Not trying to be snarky, but that's how I reacted. "...for hadn’t we seen it all a hundred times?" in particular smacks of someone trying to sound like a "good writer," rather than tell a story honestly.

Ditto. Mega overwritten. I barely made it to the end of the first paragraph.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:43 PM on February 10, 2009


I actually thought the "science" part of the story kind of sucked. First of all, if something was coming towards the earth it would have to be moving really, really fast, and the town would have to be evacuated. But lets allow that part. The second problem is that this dividing stuff would have to, like, violate E=MC2 by turning small amounts of energy into huge amounts of matter.

So I thought it sucked, kind of a copout.
posted by delmoi at 11:00 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yes, Millhauser is describing a boring, understated, slow apocalypse, as opposed to a thrilling, horrific, operatic, heroic, excruciating, flaming, thundering, or terrifying one.

On the one hand, that's not why it's boring. It's boring because it's old hat, in the same way that a story of alien invasion ending with the twist OMG HUMANS ARE THE INVADERS! is old hat. It's boring because literary types telling fables with ancient SF tropes they vaguely recall from movies of their youth is also old hat.

On the other hand, it's stupid insofar as an exponentially spreading infestation of alien life:

(1) Is not slow or peaceful after the first few days or weeks. That's the way exponential replication works.
(2) Would almost certainly result in nearly instantaneous panic; see point 1. That is, an infestation of alien gold dust that just sits there, replicating and photosynthesizing and ingesting, isn't boring and peaceful, and everybody yawns. It's immediately terrifying stuff that gets the rest of the country thinking, in very short order, about phrases like "early cauterization" and "collateral losses." For me, this is where it just falls apart -- it fundamentally gets people wrong.
(3) It's gold. It reflects yellow light. And it outcompetes chlorophyll?

On the gripping hand, it's easy to imagine being annoyed because, hey, something that seems to consider itself SF got printed in the New Yorker, and it's this? Not something challenging about identity, or what happens when your own human nature becomes an object of conscious choice, like Egan with a Pulitzer? Not another sort of fable better executed, a la Ted Chiang? But... this? This two-page version of The Sheep Look Up?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:10 PM on February 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


Personally, it reminded me of a story by Stanislaw Lem from Opowiadania which is basically the same: a simple "atomic bacterium" reproduces endlessly, dooming the world to be suffocated in an endlessly growing layer...

And yes, I have to side with the positions earlier in the thread that a) the author thinks he's oh-so-clever for not doing an apocalyptic climax but going out with a whimper instead of a bang and b) that the story itself is basically very, very, very boring. I mean, come on, at least give us someone to identify with! Give us scientists whose warnings go unheard! Give us insightful people that panic while the masses sit silently, full of hope, stupid!
posted by PontifexPrimus at 11:31 PM on February 10, 2009


This sort of thing is often referred to as the "grey goo" problem. Some take such scenarios as not only plausible, but probably imminent.
posted by washburn at 11:42 PM on February 10, 2009


Waiting For The Barbarians

-What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.
-Why isn't anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
What's the point of senators making laws now?
Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.
-Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city's main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor's waiting to receive their leader.
He's even got a scroll to give him,
loaded with titles, with imposing names.
-Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
-Why don't our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
-Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
And some of our men who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

Constantine P. Cavafy
posted by acrobat at 1:57 AM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


That Nancy Kress can go make herself a sandwich!
posted by From Bklyn at 4:36 AM on February 11, 2009


In the fifties we would have had the top scientists band together to create the world's biggest shop-vac. Either that or flame throwers.
posted by digsrus at 5:29 AM on February 11, 2009


Fails as SF story, fails as pastiche, fails as critique of the genre, fails as satire.
posted by iivix at 5:58 AM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not a very good story, "sci-fi" or otherwise. To be more accurate, I think, it's a riff on a loosely-clutched handful of science fiction cliches, in particular those found in 50s & 60s-era B-movies and TV shows, so it's more a meta-fiction or even a media critique than a proper short story.

I presume Millhauser -- some of whose other work I have liked -- is trying to make a cutting commentary on the general public's imagination, or failure of imagination -- about alien invasions, but as an original notion, he falls short: regular readers of science fiction have read this sort of thing before, probably decades ago. I mean, come on -- much of the sf genre is devoted to exploring the many violent, strange, unexpected, weird, or baffling possibilities of alien first contact. (As Kress legitimately points out in the blog entry linked above, pretty much every "strikingly clever" sf idea presented in a big magazine or press by an established mainstream writer was done better, and usually some time ago, by a significantly less well-paid genre writer. The same point is made quite often by sf writers, critics, and fans fairly often, when big name writers get lots of public attention for poorly-thought-out novels and stories.)
posted by aught at 6:37 AM on February 11, 2009


"Second, I understand that the story is not mimetic SF, but rather a subgenre that uses the tropes of SF in a non-realistic way to make a point. I have written stories like that myself ("People Like Us") and consider it a legitimate form of speculative fiction."

I think I can pretty much ignore anyone that judges literature whether or not it's in a "legitimate" form of a genre or not.
posted by cyphill at 7:27 AM on February 11, 2009


So if the dust's reproduction is essentially photosynthesis... can't they just spray so form of light-blocking foam over it, then scoop it up and encase it in concrete?

Oh and I think they would be a great deal of panic... but I suppose that ruines the mood of the story.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:35 AM on February 11, 2009


As a lifelong reader of science fiction, I never thought I would say this with any kind of sincerity, but: some of the comments in this thread make me understand the beghetto'd state of SF.

Y'all have fun in there, we'll throw some trade paperbacks over the wall as time allows.
posted by everichon at 8:01 AM on February 11, 2009


Yes, in response and agreement to what others are saying-- as soon as this invader was identified, there would be some sort of containment and cautery operation. BOOM. "Collateral damage," indeed. A big black crater and a scorch mark for a 200' radius. Or something.
posted by exlotuseater at 8:39 AM on February 11, 2009


Surely better than the "50-year old Ukranian maid leaves her drunk boyfriend" stories that often get published in the New Yorker.

Here's the piece I'm submitting to Analog. It's called "Typical New Yorker Story...or is IT? "
There was a maid, a third generation Ukrainian, who lived in the City.

A maid, I said, but be careful when you imagine her livelihood; her employer, a brilliant but somewhat scattered brain surgeon, was pathetically grateful for the order the maid brought into her life, and she treated (and paid) her with deep respect.

The maid had a boyfriend, also Ukrainian, who was a drinkard. To tweak Erasmus a bit: when he got a little money, he bought vodka, and if any was left, he bought beer, then food, then clothes. The maid's employer, friends, and the better part of her own good sense urged her to leave him, but she remained. Perhaps it was the consciousness of her own good fortune that engendered her patience; perhaps it was the knowledge of his dark and malfortunate circumstances (which it would be impolite to go into here) that awakened her sympathy; but for whatever reason, she worked ceaselessly for his betterment. She knew that sometimes (but only sometimes!) people change, and long as there was the slightest hope for the man whose intelligence, inner character, and quick laugh she still loved, she would stay with him.

Understand, please, that through all of this, she never became a doormat; her respect for herself was always palpable, and in the end, it may have been the respect from someone who respected themselves, the love of a person who was so obviously complete that began to work the change in him.

For eventually, her sense of his character was indeed rewarded; he grew out of his addictions and toward her love as a vine flees the dirt for the sun. They both realized how differently things might have gone, and they worked to express their gratitude for their luck through compassion, charity, and industry. He went back to school to become an electrician; she assumed ever more responsibility at her work. Soon her employer gave her a raise and began introducing her as her personal assistant.

And so it was that one day, fourteen months into his sobriety, they reclined on their porch together, sharing a baggie of assorted Swedish Fish. (How was it that they could afford a place with a porch in the City on even a relatively generous personal assistant's salary, you ask? It's because the City in question was Winnipeg. As opposed to Manhattan.

As one might think.)

Of a sudden, Spider-Man walked by.

"Hey, Spider-Man," the one-time drunk said. (He spoke with a moderate "Ukie" accent which one could certainly choose to render phonetically, but, seeing as he was very self-conscious about it, to do so would seem a little graceless, so I'm just giving you what he said straight up.) "Spider-Man, hey, how do you like Winnipeg?"

"It fucking sucks," Spider-Man said. "I've been here on layover for twelve hours now, and I ain't saved jack-shit. No skyline at all, you know?"

"It's not so bad," she said. She squeezed her boyfriend's hand.

"Spider-Man, do you want some Swedish Fish?" the boyfriend said.

"Is that the Assorted kind?" Spider-Man said. "Shit, yeah, You can't get that at all anymore, and I should know." He pulled up the edge of his mask to expose his mouth and began to eat the proffered candy. "Ahh," he said between gulps, "that hits spots I didn't know I had." He downed three dollars and forty-eight cents worth of Swedish Fish in a twinkling, then resettled his mask. "Just for this kindness, Bro and Brosephine, I'm going to have to grant you guys a wish. Whatever the hell you want - just ask. What do you need to be happy?"

The couple wasn't long in considering.

"I can't think of a thing," the boyfriend said. "I am one of those very few people who are truly saved by love. What more could I ask for?"

"And I," she said, "I have not loved in vain. What more could I ask for?"

"YOU HAVE OUTDONE BAUCIS AND PHILEMON," Zeus said - for, as you may have guessed, it was indeed the King of the Gods beneath the mask. "I DEPART. WE SHALL IMITATE YOU ON OLYMPUS."

And he flew, off and away, to Mount Olympus, which - heads up - was actually a Matrioshka Brain.
posted by Iridic at 9:25 AM on February 11, 2009 [71 favorites]


Which is ...why I liked it? I've been trying to do this in my own fiction and failing, the suggestion of menace and Bigger Things, within a very hard word-limit.

which is certainly a valid exercise. but let me ask you something, if you continue to work at this exercise, and you eventually write something that conforms to those criteria... should your writing exercise then be published in the New Yorker?
posted by shmegegge at 9:31 AM on February 11, 2009


All writing everywhere sucks.
posted by Damn That Television at 10:54 AM on February 11, 2009



which is certainly a valid exercise. but let me ask you something, if you continue to work at this exercise, and you eventually write something that conforms to those criteria... should your writing exercise then be published in the New Yorker?


Probably not, but I don't have a previously published record with the New Yorker and I'm sure they wouldn't want me filling up the 1200 word blank space between the Tiffany ad and the Lexus ad.
posted by The Whelk at 12:57 PM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


It was nice, it didn't stand out as either incredibly boring or fantastic to me. But I thought at first it ended on the first page.

Oh shit. So did I! I just read the second page. It's better as just one page. Sort of a prose poem or something. The explanation of what happens next is unnecessary.
posted by mrgrimm at 4:27 PM on February 11, 2009


It's better as just one page. Sort of a prose poem or something. The explanation of what happens next is unnecessary.

This is a style of writing I've been trying to master. The less you read of it, the better it gets. I think I'm getting there.

This is a style of writing I've been trying to master. The less you read of it, the better it gets.

This is a style of writing I've been trying to master.

This.

.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:38 PM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ahh, Nancy Kress! White text on black background, my EYES! Seriously, employ one of your many geek fans to fix that for you. Or just change your fucking template. Jesus.

Was mildly amused by the story, but does have that inescapable New Yorker taste; the one that says "we will say nothing, and nothing interesting will happen, but it will make you feel somehow that this story is profound and you are a deep and thoughtful person. Because we're the fucking New Yorker, bitches."

This thread, especially It's Raining Florence Henderson's little tale, was at least 2x as entertaining. So maybe I have something to thank the New Yorker for, after all.
posted by emjaybee at 8:17 PM on February 11, 2009


I didn't like the New Yorker story, but I did like It's Raining Florence Henderson's little tale. This explained to me why I read Metafilter, but I don't read the New Yorker.
posted by kcalder at 1:44 PM on February 12, 2009


The error some readers have made with this story is supposing that it is science fiction, or a commentary on science fiction, or has anything to do with science fiction. I didn't read any critiques, pro or con, other than here at MeFi, but it seems as though some people here are reacting to praise given to the story as a ground-breaking science fiction tale, which is as misguided as condemning it as a derivative or inconsequential science fiction story. It's just a cute little Millhauser story, not a science fiction story. I think (though I have never read anything from the man on the topic, nor spoken with him about it) that Millhauser would not bend his considerable imagination to something so penny-ante as a pompous critique of science fiction, and further, I posit that he has no axe to grind against science fiction. So enjoy the story for what it is, without trying to file it into an appropriate category.
posted by Mister_A at 7:18 PM on February 13, 2009


So enjoy the story for what it is, without trying to file it into an appropriate category.

Are we allowed to dislike the story for what it is, without trying to file it into an appropriate category?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:47 PM on February 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


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