I got a ‘Highly Commended’ for my story ‘Cheltenham Punk’ in the Julia & Martin Wilson Short Story Prize, part of the Broadway Arts Festival! The story was originally set in Bedford, where I went to school, but it belongs to Cheltenham now…
What was Ishiguro trying to do with this unconvincing robot tale?
An author can use robots in lots of ways. Too often they are just another monster, the threatening and unnatural beings who excitingly menace the protagonist or the whole of humanity. Very rarely an author explores how the robot mind might work – difficult, because we really have little idea of how a humanoid robot might achieve conscious thought. Often the robot merely thinks like a naïve and/or over-logical human. (It never falls into a trance or comes out with inexplicable nonsense, the way real-life computers sometimes do.) Some of the best stories use the robot as a means of reflecting on the human condition – the film Blade Runner, for example (you might claim Frankenstein was similar in that respect). I really don’t know what Klara, Ishiguro’s companion robot in this near-future story is for. (Spoilers for low.)
She is like a naïve human in many respects. Somehow solar-powered, she thinks of the Sun the way a human might a god, invoking its power and help. Her view of the world, if I understand correctly, is split into frames, though she has a view across the frames, so you’d think a good programmer would easily iron that issue out. Her mind, however, is neither interestingly strange in itself nor an illuminating analogue of the human. Her story, as the companion of Josie, a girl made ill by the genetic improvement therapy now common, is ultimately inconsequential except for what it tells us about human reactions to robots. The trouble is, what it tells us is inconsistent and unconvincing.
Perhaps the least believable thing is the way people go along with Klara. She hatches a mad scheme to help her family based on her weird ideas about the sun. They willingly help her execute this plan, which is partly nutty superstition and partly criminal, without ever demanding to know what she’s up to or being given any explanation. At some points they profess an extraordinary readiness to accept Klara emotionally as an actual family member; but once Josie has gone to college, they deposit her, still fully conscious, in a dump.
I said the story is set in the near future, but some things are odd. Klara is bought from a big, old-fashioned store in the city centre – they still exist? People seem to be using tablets but calling them ‘oblongs’ for some reason. Most of the kids have had their minds enhanced by genetic therapy, but they talk and act like dim-witted normal ones, actually less sophisticated in their speech and behaviour than the one kid who missed out on the therapy. Maybe that is fairly believable after all.
It’s a mildly engaging story with some thought-provoking passages, but I don’t know what we are to take away at the end of it.
- Only one day later we have the deadline for the Australian Book Review Elizabeth Jolley Prize. Again the maximum word count is 5,000: the entry fee is AU$25 (less for subscribers) and the first prize is AU$6,000.
- The Bristol Prize has a deadline of 5 May for stories up to 4,000 words; it’s £9 to enter and you can win £1,000.
- Word Periscope wants stories on the theme ‘Time’, up to a mere 1,500 words, and offers a prize of £1,500. You’ve got until 15 May. The entry fee is £7, or for £15 you can also have feedback.
- The Raymond Carver prize also has a deadline of 15 May; the word limit is a spacious 10,000, the entry fee $17 and top prize $2,000.
- Chiplitfest, with a deadline of 16 May, lets you choose your word limit. If you’re happy with 2,500 words, you pay £5 to enter, but you can go up to 5,000 if you pay £8. Either way the first prize is just £500.
- City Academy is running an unusual contest which seems almost like a mini writing course. You register your interest and receive a series of prompts and exercises. This has been going on for a while already, so if you register now you’ll get all the earlier stuff in one go. The actual entry doesn’t have to be in until 25 May, and the entry fee is £15 (sounds like good value if you fancy a mini-course thrown in). Top prize is £1,000.
- The Wit to Woo wants pieces up to 10,000 words (which need not be about dating, or indeed, owls – the competition is amiably headlined ‘Write What You Like’). The entry fee is £7, top prize £1,500, and the deadline is 28 May.
- With a deadline of 31 May (I think) the complicated Page Turner Awards include one for the first ten pages of completed novel manuscripts. Pricing includes an early bird option (too late already, sorry), and there are bronze, silver, and gold options whereby you can pay more for a whole range of extras; the basic seems to be £30, but if you can find out what the prize is, please let me know. It might be unfair, but I couldn’t help feeling that selling the extras and a writing software package is what the labyrinthine website is really about. Shame, but I think I might pass.
- The BPA First Novel Award asks for your first 5,000 words plus a synopsis; entry is £20 and the prize £1,000; deadline 31 May.
- The prestigious Bridport competition also has a deadline of 31 May. You can enter stories up to 5,000 words for £12 and the top prize is £5,000.
- Swoop Books wants stories on the theme ‘Love Locks’, with word limits of 2-3,000. The entry fee is £5 and prize just £100, deadline 31 May.
- Finally the Queen Mary Wasafiri prize, also with a deadline of 31 May, has a top prize of £1,000; entry is £10, and the word limit is 3,000. I think a prior look at Wasafiri magazine would be helpful if you want to try for this one.
A prize Katharine won at her knitting group. I think they would make attractive egg cosies if we ever ate boiled eggs.