You can read this story for free courtesy of Lightspeed Magazine.
This story is told with Sterling’s usual aplomb but once more I am led to ask: how is this story science fiction? It was published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1985, of course, so it says science fiction on the tin. But if you look carefully at the ingredients, it doesn’t seem to include any science fiction at all.
It’s set in the middle ages in a prosperous city on the edge of Sahara Desert where the ‘genial and accomplished slave dealer Manimenesh’ hosts a dinner party for his friends, the caravan master Ibn Watunan, the poet Khayali and the physician and assassin Doctor Bagayoko. Proceedings are described with the kind of knowing sensuousness that we’ve come to associate with this style of exoticism:
They finished the coffee and a slave took the empty pot away. A second slave, a girl from the kitchen staff arrived with a wicker tray loaded with olives, goat cheese, and hard boiled eggs sprinkled with vermilion. At that moment, a muezzin yodeled the evening call to prayer.
“Ah,” said Ibn Watunan, hesitating. “Just as we were getting started.”
“Never mind,” said Manimenesh, helping himself to a handful of olives. “We’ll pray twice next time.”
“Why was there no noon prayer today?” said Watunan.
“Our muezzin forgot,” the poet said.
Watunan lifted his shaggy brows. “That seems rather lax.”
Doctor Bagayoko said, “This is a new muezzin. The last was more punctual, but, well, he fell ill.” Bagayoko smiled urbanely and nibbled his cheese.
The amoral luxuriousness reminds me of classic fantasy of Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Lieber and Jack Vance. I associate Sterling more with the free-wheeling gonzo style of cyberpunks, all those overenthusiastic researchers and venture capitalists egging each other on, but his first novel – Involution Ocean – has the same kind of tone, though mixed through the New Wave fantasy writers of the sixties.
For entertainment, Manimenesh calls in a local lunatic prophet to amuse them all with his ravings. and I suppose you can guess what happens next: the prophet predicts violent death for his hosts and
Naturally, the prophet himself who tells these truths is reviled and hated. He’s considered the village idiot, but he thinks clearly enough – clairvoyantly, in fact – to understand how a prophet is treated.
“As yet, the people of Audoghast laugh at my prophecies. I am doomed to tell the truth, which is harsh and cruel, and therefore absurd. As my fame grows, however, it will reach the ears of your prince, who will then order you to remove me as a threat to public order.”
The dinner party guests find him and prophecies of doom no better, and he’s ejected from the premises, leaving everyone feeling miserable.
This is the kind of story that winks at the reader using knowledge available to us but not the characters. Manimanesh and his guests see their world as the centre of history and culture and can’t picture a time when it will never be so. We know that all things must pass though, and Sterling asks us to learn from the hubris of the people of Audoghast.
It’s not a bad example of this sort of thing, but it’s hardly a new idea, and not even a science fictional one. The exotic background makes the story feel a bit like fantasy – fantasy fiction is just historical fiction without the research, after all – but it’s what I would call a fable, a story with a folkloric fantasy element and a moral lesson of some sort attached. This type of story has a strong tradition in literary fiction, from Burton’s Arabian Nights, Hans Christian Anderson and Oscar Wilde’s fairy stories. This could have been written by Mark Twain or Robert Graves or Michael Chabon or some hip young writer from the New York or London literary circles, as much as by any science fiction writer. While we complain these days about mainstream writers jumping on the science fiction and fantasy bandwagon, I think that science fiction and fantasy writers have been selling mainstream stories to science fiction magazines for much longer.
Maybe it’s this tendency that old Kingsley was getting at in his introduction to The Golden Age of Science Fiction:
The occasion was the British science fiction convention in 1961, the speaker E C Tubb, prolific author of the Dumarest novels. His view, passionately though civilly urged, was that the result of bringing highbrow values into what was an essentially popular form or field would be to ruin it. I did my best to sneer this off at the time, naturally, but it was not long before I began to see what I think Ted meant. Since what could defensibly be pinpointed as the very year, 1960, that science fiction’s progress to respectability has been matched with spine-chilling exactitude by its decline as a branch of literature.
Several of the stories in The Best of the Best haven’t felt like science fiction or fantasy of the core genre type I found so frequently in the Ashely and Amis anthologies. Only Blood Music and Trinity have felt, to me, like stories that speak to the main concern of science fiction – thought experiments based on scientific advances. The others, while enjoyable, feel like something else. As we read on, maybe we’ll be able to figure out what that is.
Themes: hubris, exoticism, lost civilization, the fate of the prophet.