The price of art

The Split Worlds
Today we have something a little bit different. I am handing you over to talented local author Emma Newman, who will explain all.

This is the fourth in a year and a day of weekly short stories set in the Split Worlds. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here.

The price of art

 

“Not one?”

 

“No.”

 

Clive sat heavily on the crate, feeling the cold air of his workshop for the first time that morning.

 

“I did warn you,” the sneer leaked into her voice. “There’s just no demand for big installations by unknown artists. It’s the recession.”

 

“Yeah,” Clive croaked. “The recession.”

 

“So you’ll have them picked up by the end of today?”

 

“Yeah,” Clive tried to sound convincing. He didn’t have the money to hire the specialist removal firm to get the pieces back to the workshop. He’d banked on at least one being sold to cover some of his costs. “See you later.”

 

He chucked the mobile onto the table, its landing cushioned by piles of unpaid bills. He’d pulled in every favour to make the exhibition happen, put every last pound into getting people through the door and it had come to less than nothing.

 

He tried to remind himself that he still had his health, and that he hadn’t been caught for stealing the lead off the local park’s bandstand roof when he couldn’t afford to buy new materials. A lack of illness and a non-existent criminal record were poor comfort faced with losing his workshop and tools. Was it time to get a boring job in a boring office with boring people?

 

A loud knock echoed through the workshop. He froze, wondering if it was the first bailiff. At the second knock, he stood slowly, keeping silent.

 

“Mr Pascoe?” It was a man. “Are you in there? I need to discuss your work.”

 

A ruse to make him come to the door?

 

“I saw the exhibition, I want to buy your installations.”

 

Clive tripped over a pizza box as he hurried to unlock the door. “Sorry,” he said, tucking his shirt in. “I was out the back. Come in, come in.”

 

The man was in his fifties, wearing a pinstripe suit and the air of authority. His eyes were the same colour of the copper sulphate crystals Clive had used in his first installation, his hair a greying blonde.

 

“Mr Pascoe?” At Clive’s nod he extended a hand. “I’m Mr Neugent.”

 

“Would you like a drink?”

 

The brilliant blue eyes scanned the lone crate, the instant coffee jar and pile of cups in the grimy sink. “No thank you, I don’t have a great deal of time. You’re a very talented artist Mr Pascoe.”

 

“Call me Clive, please. You went to the exhibition?”

 

“Yes. Twice. I wanted to be sure.”

 

“The gallery owner said there wasn’t any interest.”

 

Neugent smiled. “I have no interest in dealing with middle men. I know that gallery takes a steep commission. I would rather all of the money go to you. Do you have a problem with that?”

 

“Not at all,” Clive grinned. The snooty cow had only agreed to exhibit with a hefty commission rate after a lot of hassle. “Which one are you interested in?”

 

“All of them,” Neugent replied. “Here’s a cheque, I can have them picked up from the gallery, discreetly, if that’s convenient?”

 

Clive nodded, feeling the flush burning in his cheeks.

 

“I also have a proposition,” Neugent opened the briefcase. “I work for a company with offices and public buildings all over the world. Your work is exactly what I’ve been looking for. I want to commission you for ten more pieces, with a view to a long term contract should my employer like your work as much as I do. I took the liberty of preparing a contract.”

 

Clive took the stapled pages with a shaking hand. “Can I read this over?”

 

“Of course, take your time. Perhaps you’d prefer to have your solicitor look over it.”

 

“Thanks,” Clive reined in the urge to dance a jig.

 

“It’s a standard contract and we’ll provide access to any raw materials you require. One of our subsidiary companies deals in metal, we can get you whatever you need at a fraction of the cost you’ve been used to.”

 

“Great,” Clive tried not to grin too much.

 

“Here’s my card,” Neugent handed it over. “I look forward to hearing from you soon.”

 

Clive waited a few moments after he left, then whooped so loud it echoed around the workshop. When there was another knock on the door he thought it was Neugent again and opened it straight away. A woman smiled, dressed in an emerald green coat and looking like she’d stepped off a film set.

 

“Mr Pascoe?”

 

He took in the same green of her eyes, the rich brown of her hair and the perfection of her skin. She was almost too beautiful.

 

“My name is Amelia Rose. I wanted to talk to you about your art, may I come in?” He nodded dumbly again.

 

“Did you go to the exhibition?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Did you like my work?”

 

“Can I be frank?”

 

“Of course,” he said, with the cockiness of a man who’d already sold it.

 

“You’re extraordinarily gifted,” she began, glancing around the workshop as she pulled off her gloves. “But you’re working with the wrong materials. Metal just isn’t right for you.”

 

His cheek twitched. “Someone’s just bought all of those pieces, and commissioned me for more.”

 

She glanced at the card and contract still held in his hands. “Oh, Mr Neugent has been here already I see. Promised you a long term contract and lucrative deal I suppose?” At his nod she smiled sadly. “He always makes an offer one can’t refuse. I hoped I’d be able to speak to you before he got his claws in, but I suppose it’s too late.”

 

She headed back towards the door, he stopped her. “What do you mean?”

 

“He’s only interested in money, not art. He has a gift for finding hungry artists and sucking them dry. By all means, take the money Mr Pascoe. In a few years you may be comfortably well off but you’ll be burned out and unable to create anything original ever again.”

 

“Really?”

 

“I’ve seen it happen before,” she said sadly. “But I know you need the money. Good luck.”

 

“Wait,” he stopped her with a gentle touch on her shoulder. “Which materials do you think I should work with?”

 

She looked up at him, straight into his eyes. “Wood, Mr Pascoe. Oak, willow, ash, your hands would craft them into something magnificent.”

 

“I don’t know anything about working with wood.”

 

“I had a teacher lined up for you, and a patronage agreement all worked out,” Amelia sighed, stroking the palm of her hand with the gloves. “But I should imagine that cheque is worth more to you. Unless…” she reached towards his face, touching his cheek lightly. Anyone else and he would have flinched away, but he found himself just staring back at her. “Unless, I can convince you to value your art more.”

 

“But I have debts.”

 

“I’ll pay them off. I’ll give you somewhere better to live and a comfortable salary. Nothing as ostentatious as Neugent offers, but I will ensure you reach your full artistic potential. Which is more important to you Mr Pascoe? Wealth, or art?”

 

He felt calm, blissful. He didn’t take his eyes off her as he tore the cheque and the contract in two.

 

“I’m so glad you made the right decision,” Amelia purred. “I promise you won’t regret it.”

 

 

 

Thanks for hosting Kate! I hope you enjoyed the story. If you would like to find out more about the Split Worlds project, it’s all here: www.splitworlds.com. If you would like to host a story over the coming year, either let me know in the comments or contact me through the Split Worlds site. Em x

 

Categories aren’t always helpful

A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations
a novelette by Kim Stanley Robinson

In preparation for tomorrow’s jaunt to BristolCon, I have been reading some sci-fi short stories this week. Tim recommended this one, which has stuck with him for years (though it may not quite count as sci-fi). You can read it online here.

It’s the story of Frank Churchill (no idea if the Austen reference is deliberate), a writer of history books who is living in New York and taking “light therapy” in an attempt to alleviate his depression. It doesn’t seem to be working so he reluctantly accepts an offer to travel to London to write a complete history of the 20th century, figuring that the UK’s longer hours of daylight in summer will save him having to attend therapy.

The bulk of the story is about his research, with daily trips to the reading room at the British Museum. His findings form part of the story, a sorry litany of war after war after war. Obviously that’s a limited view of the century but it’s certainly believable that in future it’s all that will be remembered.

As with my previous experience of Robinson (or “Stan”, as I believe his friends know him), it’s all about the main character. In the background lurks a vague sense of apocalypse, of things unexplained, but at the forefront is an everyday, relatable human being. Frank is deftly created, a few words rustling up a lifetime of backstory. Every location is described with what feels like insider knowledge, without it becoming a list of buildings and street names (believe me, it happens). I often find that a short story isn’t long enough for me to really care about the outcome but I definitely cared about Frank.

I greatly enjoyed this story and it reminded me that I really should go back and finish Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy.

First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1991. Reprinted in Remaking History and other stories (Orb, 1994).

Little Friday review

Little Lost Robot
by Paul McAuley

This is actually a short story, not a novel, that Tim had been trying to get me to read for some time. It was first published in Interzone, which has been home to some excellent science fiction, so I finally gave it a go.

The story begins impersonally, describing the “superbad big space robot” as it travels through the universe, fulfilling its killing mission. Gradually it becomes more and more personal. The machine has four “subselves”, programs I suppose, that run it together, in collaboration. They repair damage, formulate tactics, arm weapons and discuss their next move. Over time the robot has taken a lot of damage, including to its memory, and this is where it gets interesting.

It’s such a short story that I’d rather not give away much more than that. I found myself a little doubtful that I would like the story at first. It was a robot at war, described distantly and with reverence. But the story slowly zeroes in on the robot’s Librarian subself, imbuing it with something approximating personality, self-doubt, humanity even. It’s a very cleverly written and structured piece and toward the end I definitely felt warmth for this cold space warrior.

It probably helps, reading this, to have some familiarity with computing terminology. The robot uses a combination of strictly mechanistic terms (time periods in teraseconds, rather than being broken down into years) and oddly human terms (anger, loneliness, tenderness).

The story wasn’t what I expected. The title suggested to me something cute and sweet, maybe Wall-E-like and, though there are similarities, that’s not what this is. This is the super-efficient soldier slowly revealing his inner humanity and it’s definitely touching, but it’s not cute.

Published 2008 in Interzone 217. You can read it here or listen to it here.

Nominated for the BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction 2008.