Saturday, January 7, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Day the World Turned Upside Down - Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Thomas Olde Heuvelt is the first Dutch writer to ever win a Hugo. It is a dubious distinction as he most likely owes his award in a large part to the antics of the Sad Puppies. In a category where he was the only nominee not on the Puppy slates, voters ranked his story alone above No Award. I very much doubt it is how he had hoped to win a Hugo, but given the snub it implied to the Puppies, it probably was satisfying nonetheless.

This story appeared as a booklet under the Dutch title De Vis in de Fles (literally: The Fish in the Bottle) in 2013. The first English publication of the story originally appeared in Lightspeed and was translated by Lia Belt. Belt is the translator of various big names in fantasy (Feist, Rothfuss) into Dutch. I read it both in English and Dutch for this review. The English version is slightly edited and omits a few bits and pieces from the Dutch original. The English word count being higher is probably caused by the widespread use of compound words in the Dutch language. Personally I didn't feel the edits improved the story. They are minor, but if you can, read the Dutch edition.

One day, gravity fails and the world turns upside down. Toby is a man suffering through a breakup with his girlfriend Sophie when it happens. While recovering from his landing on the ceiling, he sees she texted him. She left her goldfish Bubble at his place and will swing by later to pick him up. Considering it a sign she is still alive, Toby rescues Bubble and sets out to find her.

The story is essentially a metaphore. In his short fiction, Olde Heuvelt likes to play with images that are physically impossible. To literally portray a figure of speech or a metaphor. He did this in his other Hugo Award nominated story, The Boy Who Cast no Shadow (2013) as well.  Tobi's breakup turns his world upside down (Dutch: zet zijn wereld op z'n kop) and the world reflects his state of mind.

Olde Heuvelt has stated he wrote the story after a breakup so there is probably a bit more of the author in Toby. It is not exactly a flattering portrayal. Toby is hurt and it turns him into a selfish bastard really. While this may not be an unusual reaction there were a few things about Toby that bothered me. We see things entirely from his point of view but at the end of the story, I still had no idea why he loved her. How she hurt him yes, but what the basis for his attraction is, beyond the physical, remains unclear. It is entirely filled with negative emotions, to the point where he completely disregards the life and feelings of others as well.

I suppose one way to interpret it, is to draw the parallel between Sophie and Bubbles. Sophie is caught in Toby's fantasy of their romance like Bubbles is caught in the bottle. Sophie however, has the means to break free. In the end, Toby lets go, again both literally and figuratively, I was again struck by the difference it implied for the fate of Bubbles and Sophie. Toby doesn't consider this. He is entirely too self-centred to do so.

The one aspect I did like about the story is Dawnie (Fiep in the Dutch version), the young girl Toby meets along the way. Olde Heuvelt perfectly captures the way children can ask the most obvious questions an adult might overlook. She is more precious than Toby appreciates.

So is it a good story? Some would say it is. It is well written at some levels. Did I like it? Not one bit to be honest. Olde Heuvelt is right in that letting go is an important part of ending a relationship and moving on. The way Toby goes about it though, is problematic in so many ways that I didn't really enjoy reading it. Olde Heuvelt's novels are generally more to my liking.

Story Details
Title: The Day the World Turned Upside Down
Author: Ian McDonald
Language: English, Dutch
Translation: Lia Belt
Originally published: English: Lightspeed Magazine, April 2014, Dutch: De Vis in de Fles, 2013
Read in: Lightspeed, Hebban
Story length: Novelette, English wordcount 10367, Dutch wordcount approximately 9900
Awards: Hugo Award winner
Available online: English: Lightspeed, Dutch: Hebban

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