Ibyabek by Hannah Blume
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There's a rich history of good science fiction that takes contemporary political issues and gives them the trappings of a science fiction setting. It can be helpful for readers to see real-world events reflected in sci-fi, to better understand and identify with the characters involved.
Ibyabek follows in this tradition, showcasing the drama of what we might imagine a space-version of North Korea might look like through the eyes of a young boy trapped within its system. I'm not sure it succeeds at helping readers to identify any more strongly with its real-world analogues, but it definitely does an excellent job of telling a compelling tale.
While Ibyabek does include intrigue, with spies and ambassadors, and weaponry so powerful that it can melt a planet's surface to little more than glowing lava, it does all this solely in the background of a much more immediate story of romance as told by Kyeo, a relatively naive but narratively satisfying character who has lived his entire life on a totalitarian world.
In this short story, we follow Kyeo from his perspective as he learns, grows, and heals. The larger direction the story goes in is somewhat predictable, being so analogous to the real-world equivalent of North Korea for the fictional world of Ibyabek, but the details were still surprising and enjoyable to experience alongside Kyeo. Even the background details were pleasurable to go through; the author Alicorn successfully integrated reasonable descriptions of economics, politics, and the social side of futuristic technology into the background of this story, all told from the perspective of someone who has a very different worldview from us as readers. It's not quite a Flowers for Algernon-level difference between the reader and the protagonist in terms of how they see the world, but this story made the much more difficult attempt to truly give rational depictions of society and culture through that minimal viewpoint, and I'd say that, for the most part, the author succeeded.
I do have a few qualms with the story. There are parts that, if I were Alicorn's editor, I'd have them reconsider entirely. But that goes into spoiler territory, so if you haven't yet read this short story yet, stop reading this review and add it to your reading list. I heartily recommend it, especially given how fast a read it is.
If you're still here, then be forewarned: the rest of this review is spoilery.
There are two big objections I have to the story, and both are so large that I don't think they are fixable without significant effort. First: Alicorn has successfully got a story started where the point of view character has a completely different way of looking at things. This is great! When Sarham is introduced, they are reserved in what they say, which is also great. It allows us to learn things from what is deliberately not said, even when Kyeo doesn't. But then, when Sarham returns later in the story, he is allowed to speak freely -- and it turns out that he's highly competent. There isn't anything wrong with including such a character in most stories, but in this particular story we already have this great tension between what we as readers have to figure out and what Kyeo is saying to himself. Yet when Sarham is free to speak later on, he just tells us things that we no longer have to figure out on our own. I realize that reworking Sarham to be less intelligent would completely change the story, and it would no longer be the story that Alicorn wanted to write here, but I find myself wishing that I could read an alternate story that keeps that same divide between the protagonist's POV and the reader's POV all the way to the ending. The latter part of the story lost that special feeling of having to puzzle things out that the earlier parts held.
Second: Reading Sarham's account felt too much like telling instead of showing. I realize that this partially the point: we are trying to go back and see things from Sarham's point of view, after all. But there had been a build up of suspense on what Sarham might have written about, and when we finally get to the point where it is read, it is just... read. Sarham's writing is...explanative. I realize this is on purpose; it's how this Sarham would write. But it slowed the action to a crawl during the book portions. Narratively, it might have been better to show this in a different way, or to not show it at all. In a movie, I can imagine them switching to a flashback from a different character's perspective. In a short story, though, I'm not sure what would have worked better. All I know is that I had a feeling of tension that gripped me throughout the buildup before the book section, and all that tension dropped while I read Sarham's actual text.
I also was not entirely happy with the ending. I like the idea of the specific ending line and its callback to Kyeo's earlier fears, but the six paragraph section felt too rushed to me. Too much happened too quickly. At the end of the previous section, Kyeo was still the most recent arrival to Crane Mountain. In the final section, new arrivals appear, he got used to making plans, he started getting a stipend, he passed a test, and he moved out. This is several months worth of events described n only a few short paragraphs. While I do think the ending line is great, and the line necessitates him being in his new place, the speedup from the previous section was not at all expected and felt too rushed to me. The first three paragraphs of this section, in retrospect, depicts events over the course of months, but as you are reading it for the first time, you can't know this until you get to the line where he passes his "integration test", which you know must be months later. As a result, I had to stop, reinterpret the previous three paragraphs as a big time skip, and then continue to the ending. I would have instead appreciated a line like: "As the months passed, Kyeo met the new people coming in...". While not great, something like this would key in a first time reader to realizing that the events of the next few paragraphs are occurring at a much different pace than the preceding sections. I think that would help with making the steps toward the final line be a little more smooth.
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