Thursday, 11 June 2015

The ingenious prose of Nic Low

Full title: Arms Race
Author: Nic Low
Genre: Short stories
Attributes: 250 pages, paperback
Publisher: Text Publishing (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Being a character in Nic Low’s first collection of short stories would be nothing short of a great vacation. You’d be taken places you never imagined or never thought of visiting during your lifetime. India. Laos. Mongolia. The Australian desert. A New Zealand coast town. San Francisco. London. Melbourne. New Zealand again. And some more. Wouldn’t your character life look like a traveler’s map if you took the journeys advertised by the volume?
Pick and choose – Master Low will take you there in a few pages and give you the ride of your life.
Not only do the stories in Arms Race grow beautifully in such geographic amplitudes, you’d also be given the chance to travel multidimensionally. Like, for instance, getting to a London of a future where all you can consume to stay alive is megabytes. This is the case of “Data Furnace,” a story where Low shows the traces of a true master storyteller.
What is a master storyteller? Someone who leaves the reader wondering how the hell he’d come up with that or with that or with that.
Going into details would ruin the pleasure of reading, I know, I know. But unfortunately you can only talk about Nic Low’s stories if you commit, repeatedly, the crime of giving the show away. That’s how good you feel after having read, one after the other, the twelve stories in the volume, asking, at the last page, if there were any more of them on the way.
So beware: the following may contain spoilers.
To take “Data Furnace” as a model and give it a brief summary, what have we got? We’ve got the city of London caught up in an apocalyptic winter. First stop, take a look at how he describes the city:
“I leave the train line and cross the ice downriver of Tower Bridge. The wind-blasted shell of City Hall, the gutted apartments along the reach of the Thames, the abandoned spires of the City: they’re all so deformed by frost they look like they were designed by children. An evacuation plane struggles overhead. I choose not to watch. It feels like every last breath of heat has been sucked from the world.”
Good, isn’t it? Atmospheric to the point where you feel your bones penetrated by cold.
And this is just to give a taste of what all the texts in the volume read like: with aplomb, with wit, with clarity, with a baroque tendency of exaggerating the contours, but only lightly, with a candid touch not to make the landscapes too foreign. There is, indeed, a sense that, no matter where you are in these stories, no matter what the location or the situation or the purpose, you’re never in need of a compass: you can do it on your own; you can journey through these places like a pro.
If there’s one element that stands out in Nic Low’s stories, it’s got to be his associations. In descriptions, you’re always driven away from the ‘natural’ course. The “gutted apartments” – who would have thought of using that adjective to describe an empty habitation? It’s the adjectives that do the job, of course. Adjectives, those no-no’s of creative writing classes, are Low’s best allies. He knows how to deploy them and deploys them to get the best effect. Like in an arms race for the conquest of readership.

Source: Te Karaka
But to return to the story. Temperatures have gone so low and for such a long time that people have been leaving the streets, the houses, the whole urban space. All but a few; to be more precise: the narrator, his beautiful colleague Umi, and the opportunistic homeless figure known under the name of Old Man Canary. The first two work as IT specialists in a company that has just shut down its last server room. They refuse to leave the city when everyone else is running for the airports like crazy. They stay and they come up with a brilliant idea. Since there’s nothing else to burn to keep themselves warm (every single tree in London has been cut to pieces and consumed in domestic fires), they will use data. They will get the servers to heat up.
This is one of those situations where the reader goes, Oh, I see. Because we all know that computers do give off heat (that’s why they’re equipped with coolers!). But in order to generate enough heat in the servers, the two of them need traffic. They need to get the servers working like never before. Solution: shoot a YouTube video and wait for it to go viral. Easy to say, not so easy to do, since online audiences are best known for their volatility and unpredictability. But a new brilliant idea pops out of Umi’s head. She connects a terrarium to the servers. In the terrarium there’s a tropical frog. The frog needs warmth just like the humans. But there’s a trick to it. As we are told a little earlier (by way of a story that sounds like an urban myth), if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water it will jump out; but if you put it in cold water and heat that water gradually, it will stay there, allowing itself to be cooked to death. This is where the ingenious idea resides. With a few videos and some hacking that brings traffic to a decent level, the terrarium starts getting warmer and warmer. The heat from the server is transferred to it. It grows hotter and hotter as the viewers turn the event into a share frenzy of epic proportions. Everything’s broadcast live and soon bets are placed on whether the frog will jump out or not. It’s this betting that gets the traffic flowing. The world is taken with the madness of this new form of entertainment. And behind all this – the logic of data flooding:
“We spam out the link, and people have got to be curious. They visit the page, they push up the server load, the temperature goes up too. Incrementalism, I call it: billions of tiny, innocent actions that add up to catastrophe. Just like the real world.”
I have to stop here, though. “Data Furnace” still has an ending that needs to be read, not overheard. But after all this effort to summarize, I think there's one thing that can be said about Nic Low with some degree of certainty: his stories are imaginative like you haven’t seen for a long time. The pleasure with which he tells these stories, the succulent texts full of images and metaphors that make your mouth froth as you read along, the pace of the narration – all these things make the collection impossible to ignore. As also impossible to ignore must be Nic Low’s current project, set to be launched in 2016.