It’s occurred to me that, if I’m going to do the occasional random short fiction review (as I did yesterday), it might be more interesting to cover two stories at once, to give a point of comparison. So let’s try that, and see how it goes. The author I’ve chosen today is Tim Pratt, whom I’d heard good things about but never actually read – though I’ve had a story collection of his on my shelves for several months, and really must get around to reading it.

Anyway, the first story I’m covering in this review is ‘A Programmatic Approach to Perfect Happiness’ (2009), published in Futurismic. The story is described by the site’s Pail Raven in his introduction as ‘a little Gonzo, a little retro, but all Tim Pratt’. I can’t really judge the last of those yet (though I suspect, and hope, that it’s true), but the first two are definitely right.

This is a robot story that has an air of old-school science fiction about it, but not in a way that comes across as a tired retread or too-knowing pastiche; it’s more that Pratt knows the area in which he’s writing, and uses its history and conventions as a way in to the story he wants to tell. Our narrator is Kirby, a sentient android who has married a human woman, April. Essentially, the tale is a portrait of familial (and extra-familial) relationships, though there are also mysterious ‘emotional viruses’ in the background (April’s daughter Wynter, usually a moody goth, has contracted a virus that makes her happy – which explains why she’s being unusually civil towards Kirby).

What I like about this story is that it’s deceptively light: it’s humorous, but searching questions are being asked underneath humour. I’ll quote a passage which illustrates both of these points (context: Wynter has just explained to Kirby why she is often difficult with him:

“I understand.” I do. Like most of my kind, I am exceptionally good at running theoretical models of human interior experience, and of constructing self-coherent theories of mind.

There’s humour here in the incongruity between the typical human platitude and Kirby’s robotic literalness (I should add that the over-formal diction Pratt uses for Kirby’s voice is just right); but deeper issues are being explored here: is a model constructed inside a sentient computer truly equivalent to human feelings? There’s more elsewhere in the story: if a robot like Kirby can reprogram himself to feel anything he wants, is a robot emotion equivalent (or less genuine? or more?) than a human one, caused by chemical changes in the brain? Then there are the ethical dilemmas, which I won’t get into, because it would spoil the story for you. Go and have a read.

The second Pratt story I read (I should say, I chose these more-or-less at random) is ‘Her Voice in a Bottle’ (2009) from Subterranean magazine. This is a very different tale from the previous one – more serious in tone, magical realist rather than science fiction – but I can see common characteristics: playfulness and seriousness combined, and a sense of putting a well-worn theme to work. I still haven’t made up my mind about the story – not about whether I like it (I do), but about whether it pushes its luck too far.

You see, the protagonist is a fictionalised version of Pratt himself, yet the story purports to be ‘filled with true stories of my life’ (I say ‘purports’ because I have no way to judge how far that’s true), whilst acknowledging and reflecting upon its own fictitiousness. I’m wondering if the piece is too self-referential for its own good… on balance, it probably isn’t, otherwise I wouldn’t be asking myself the question! And, to be fair, the metafictionality (is that even a word?) is integral to the project of the story.

So, we have our protagonist, Tim (for the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to the character as ‘Tim’ and the author as ‘Pratt’), who tells us about his ex-girlfriend, Meredith, who flits in and out of his life like a recurring dream. I use that phrase quite deliberately: she is apparently able to appear and disappear at will; no one other than Tim actually ever meets her; and nothing else is quite as real to him when he’s in her presence.

All this leads naturally to the assumption that Meredith is a product of Tim’s imagination, made flesh only in his own mind; but Pratt knows this, and addresses it directly – coming to the conclusion (as I read it) that whether Meredith is real or not makes no difference, because the effect she has is the same either way. ‘Her Voice in a Bottle’ evokes a kind of young love that’s like a whirlwind, that seems more vivid in later years than it probably (but who can say?) than it was at the time; and the story asks, would you want to return and find out what it was really like, or are you content with your memories, inaccurate though they may be? A fascinating, thoughtful piece. Go and have a read of this one, too.

These two stories are very different, but I found both to be equally accomplished and a joy to read. I really, really do need to read more of Tim Pratt.