Short Fiction Review: A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong by K.J. Parker

winter2011-425x561In July I discovered K.J. Parker in Subterranean Magazine’s special K.J. Parker edition, featuring the stories “The Sun and I” (nominated for a World Fantasy Award) and “Illuminated” and the essay “Rich Men’s Skins”. I liked Parker’s work so much that I have since forked out the $48 for a signed limited edition of Academic Exercises, the first collection of Parker’s shorter works (I’ve been helplessly drawn to special editions lately). Justin Landon’s glowing review over at Tor was the final push I needed to buy the book, and stories like “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” convince me that it was money well spent even though I have yet to lay eyes on the book itself.

You don’t need to spend a cent to read Parker’s short fiction though – most of it is available for free at Subterranean Magazine, and you’ll find “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” in the Winter 2011 edition. The novella won a World Fantasy Award, although it’s really only fantasy because it happens to be set in the same fantasy world of the other Parker stories I read. It reminded me of Amadeus (1984), the Milos Forman movie about the twisted relationship between the brilliant Mozart and his mediocre rival Salieri.

In Parker’s story, a music teacher (our unnamed narrator) visits his student who has been condemned to death for murder. Immediately, you get a sense of the intimately tense relationship between them. The teacher loves, hates, admires, and envies the brilliant Subtilius, and is painfully aware of his own inferiority as a composer. You could say that he didn’t so much teach Subtilius as introduce him to more ways to be exceptional. Subtilius on the other hand is so comfortably, dismissively arrogant. He knows he’s a genius, but he doesn’t care about the music. He knows his teacher envies him, and, most importantly, he knows how badly his teacher needs the money he will make by selling Subtilius’ final composition. It’s unfinished, and there’s a superbly pathetic interaction between the two characters when the narrator suggests finishing the work.

“I could finish it for you,” I said, soft and hoarse as a man propositioning his best friend’s wife. “You could hum me the theme, and—”

[…]

“No offence, my very good and dear old friend, but you simply aren’t up to it. You haven’t got the—” He paused to search for the word, then gave up. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said. “We’ve known each other—what, ten years? Can it really be that long?”

“You were fifteen when you came to the Studium.”

“Ten years.” He sighed. “And I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. But you—well, let’s put it this way. Nobody knows more about form and technique than you do, but you haven’t got wings. All you can do is run fast and flap your arms up and down. Which you do,” he added pleasantly, “superlatively well.”

Subtilius is being cruel and manipulative, but he’s absolutely right about his teacher’s abilities, and they both know it. The narrator’s problem is that he cares too much about the music (whereas Subtilius does not). He reveres it, he’s afraid of it, he feels pressured to create something worthwhile. At the same time he’s constantly stressed out by his work as a music teacher, the security of his post at the Studium, and, of course, his finances. His desire, his need to create is what cripples his ability to do so.

Then comes the loveliest bit of plot. Subtilius escapes and asks the narrator to help him get out of the city. As payment, he has written a symphony that the narrator can pass off has his own. Subtilius copied his style, but elevated it with his own genius so that it’ll be better than anything his teacher every produced.

It’s a relatively simple thing, but it really perverts the already twisted relationship between the two characters. The narrator has devoted his life to music, but remains a mediocre composer whose greatest achievement is a attaining a fairly modest teaching position at a college. Subtilius can write music that will be remembered forever, but makes it look effortless, like “something he churned out in an idle moment between hangovers”. When offered the symphony, the narrator is torn. He feels like Subtilius has stolen his soul in imitating him so perfectly. He finds the idea of accepting the transaction shameful and disgusting. But then he thinks of the money.

As I mentioned, money is something that constantly stresses him out and impairs his creativity. He already lives a very spartan existence, and he’s terrified of the possibility of real poverty. He’s also quite proud of having climbed above his very humble beginnings, but those beginnings are always at the back of his mind. This is something that’s developed throughout the story, but I particularly like way Parker hints at it towards the end of the opening scene in Subtilius’ jail cell:

I stood up. “Goodbye,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, don’t go blaming yourself for anything.” Absolution, so easy for him to give; like a duke scattering coins to the crowd from a balcony. Of course, the old duke used to have the coins heated in a brazier first. I still have little white scars on my fingertips.

This kind of thing is part of why I’ve come to adore Parker’s writing – the image of the narrator’s little white scars from grabbing hot coins, and the way this conveys the sense of superiority and inferiority between student and master. It’s just so masterfully done. Subtilius is not rich, although he could easily be if he wanted to. He is, however, so rich in talent that he can write a brilliant symphony while hiding from the authorities in a bell tower, and then use that as currency. Giving his teacher the symphony is very much like the old duke maliciously tossing burning coins to the poor – the teacher wants that symphony so badly, but it will hurt and scar him to take it. Subtilius knows, and enjoys, his teacher’s anguish.

How the offer of that symphony changes his life is what drives the rest of this magnificent novella, exploring the nature and absurdities of creativity, talent and fame. The title refers to the success and genius that come at a great price, which is considered relatively small in comparison. At the start of the story, for example, Subtilius is in jail for murder, an act that is attributed to his artistic temperament. “The same essential characteristics that made him a genius also made him a murderer,” the Master of the college admits, and this is deemed acceptable, to an extent. After all, Subtilius has written music that will endure forever, while the man he killed was just a drunken thief who won’t be missed. “The most sublime music, set against a man’s life.” This question is posed several times in the story, but rather than lecture on the morality of the situation, Parker simply depicts it in all its beautifully discomfiting complexity.

After writing this review, I’m even more pleased that I bought the signed limited edition of Academic Exercises. If you’re also interested in it, Book Depository still had stock at the time of posting.

Short Fiction Review: July 2014

My favourite story for July – and one of my favourites this year – was “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides by Sam J. Miller, from Nightmare Magazine. The story won a Shirley Jackson Award, and I can see why. It’s about Jared, a gay teenager, who has been viciously bullied by six boys at school. However, he discovers that he has a unique ability that he can use to take revenge, with the help of his best friend Anchal. What makes the story particularly interesting is that the whole thing is told in a list of 57 items – the reasons for the Slate Quarry suicides. It builds quite slowly, but the gruesome ending is just superb.

STP_Summer2013-1400px-425x561Most of the rest of my short story reading for July came from Subterranean Magazine, the Summer 2013 edition (free to download in ePub or mobi, or you can just read it online). It was here that I discovered the artful storytelling of K.J. Parker. I knew the name, but not that it’s a pseudonym for an author whose true identity has never been revealed. I hadn’t paid much attention to Parker before, but his/her story “The Sun and I” was recently nominated for a World Fantasy Award, and I wanted to check out the nominees I hadn’t read.

“We could always invent God,” the narrator says in the opening line, and proceeds to outline a plan for creating a religion. He and his friends are all highly educated but utterly broke and running out of wine, so they need  a scam to make some money. They pool their talents and their last few copper coins and design a system of belief tailored to fit people’s longings for religion, and improve upon the frustrations that have made other contemporary faiths unpopular. The result – the Church of the Invincible Sun – is an unbelievable success. With a few clever tactics and what looks like uncanny luck, the friends convince an entire city that they’re the real deal, and start raking in more gold than they ever imagined they’d have.

The absurd prosperity of the Invincible Sun unsettles some of the friends, including the creator and narrator, Eps. He even starts dreaming about the god he created, as if he actually were the prophet he pretends to be. The power of the religion just continues to grow, as if it’s somehow becoming what its creators say say it is

“The Sun and I” was part of a special K.J. Parker section in the magazine so I went on to read the other two pieces. “Rich Men’s Skins: A Social History of Armour” is a great essay on armour designs across the ages, comparing the rich warriors who owned expensive armour to common soldiers who were given mass-produced armour. Parker examines the ways in which the different classes relate to the way armour was designed, how wars were fought, and how they were perceived.

I can’t say too much about the story “Illuminated” without giving the plot away, but it immediately drew my attention to the intricacies of Parker’s writing. A professor and his female student investigate an abandoned ‘wizard’s tower’ of sorts, and examine the books that have been left there. There’s a mystery to be solved, but the story moves slowly at first, fleshing out the awkward relationship between the student and her sexist professor, and the sexism in the field of magic study. Parker engages your interest with character long before the plot gets going, and if the storytelling skill of “The Sun and I” hadn’t already convinced me to go and check out all of his/her other work, “Illuminated” did the trick.

I was pleased to find that this edition of the magazine included a Catherynne M. Valente story (I never need prompting to read one of hers) – “The Shoot-Out at Burnt Corn Ranch Over the Bride of the World”. If you liked the Old West voice Valente used in Six-Gun Snow White, you’d probably enjoy reading it here too. The story is a surreal allegorical post-apocalyptic fantasy western. In other words, it’s really weird. The US states are personified as witches an warlocks, and they’re fighting to the death to win the bride of the world, who narrates the story. It’s the kind of tale that I don’t really know what to make of, but that I enjoy purely for its quirky style and ideas.

The rest of the edition was ok, so I’ll go through it quickly. “Don’t Ask” by Bruce McAllister and W.S. Adams is memorable for its very graphic gore, as a soldier examines the body of his girlfriend, who was killed by a mine. I’m don’t like excessively gory stories, but in this case I found the juxtaposition of the shattered body and the reconstruction of the couple’s relationship appropriate. The story employs a commonplace sf trope at the end, but I like the way it resonates with the title.

“Stage Blood” by Kat Howard is a restyles Bluebeard as a stage magician who kills a woman in a glass coffin for one of his tricks, and keeps them all in a secret, magical room. Not the most memorable retelling, but a nice enough story.

“The Case of the Stalking Shadow” by Joe R. Lansdale is the only piece in this edition that I didn’t like. It uses an old-fashioned setup –  a ghost story told around lounge lit by a roaring fire, and transcribed by one of the listeners. I actually quite like this style, but the story revealed too much, in my opinion, and I lost interest.

Overall, a good edition of Subterranean. I’m very sad to see that this year’s Summer edition will be their final issue 😦