Short Story: Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Author: Michael Bishop, 2011
Genre: Science Fiction, Symmetrina
Format: Published at Tor.com

I can’t quite remember how I came across this particular short story. I have never heard of Tor.com, which turned out to be an interesting blog on science fiction and fantasy to follow. Perhaps I was looking for some short stories published by new to me writers to get some fresh literary blood in my system. Immediately I was intrigued by the accompanying art, featuring an octopoid engaged in reading multiple books. Even though I cannot consider myself a great fan of sci-fi literature, I found the story to be very original. Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes is rather artsy and abstract for everyday consumption, but can be interesting food for thought for the lovers of language play.

The story is an example of symmetrina – a curious mathematical approach to writing. The rules are simple in theory, but when it comes to the execution it could be quite a challenge. The whole work is basically a collection of shorter narratives. It must have a title that conveys the overall common theme between the parts, but not directly reveals it. It must have at least seven sections, with each one having a separate title as well. The first and last parts have to be written in the first person, while the second and the second-to-last must be in second-person narrative. All other parts are written in third person. The toughest part comes next, as each section must have a multiple of n words, following a mathematical sequence of doubling (ie. 100, 200, 400, etc) or Fibonacci (ie. 100, 100, 200, 300, 500, etc). Once the narrative reaches its middle and longest part, the number of words must be reversed according to the same sequence. The result is a stunningly symmetric work, where the structure and rhythm of words is just as important as plot and character.

Bishop’s Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes jumps through time and space and I will not pretend to understand it thoroughly. What I assume it does here, is follow a story of a boy who grows up in a shadow of his admired peer, referred to as Big D or Degas among other names. As time progresses, we witness a great war between the colonists of Mars and alien creatures that look like giant octopuses but with seven appendages. Thanks to the brilliant surgeon DiCorso (Big D?), many wounded humans are treated by attaching the octopods’ body parts and vice versa, merging the two warring species into one. The boy, who always admired and envied him, is turned into one of such creations. My favorite part is probably the description of the boy’s (I am assuming his name is Dai) house that he builds out books by great authors. His staircase is made out of heavy encyclopedia volumes upon which he can sit and read as his heart desires.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes require a little bit of attention and time because of its unique nature. I do think it deserves to be reread several times to fully appreciate its content. The story makes me want to read more science fiction in the future. It’s about time I expanded my horizons! Perhaps some Asimov or Gibson next time?

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