Shambhala by Alex Irvine (short story)

From the March 2006 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction

This story has a lot of great things going on in it. First, and most importantly, it does what I think all good sci-fi stories do: it provides a snapshot of an entire world -- in this case, a world about 25 years in the future. Irvine hints at ecological devastation, brushfire wars, and killer flu viruses, but all this takes up less than half a page of the story. Nonetheless, the reader is left with an image of this particular future, painted in broad brushstrokes like Japanese calligraphy.

At one point in the story, POV switches to two stoned soldiers watching an oil well burn and discussing whether it looks better in IR or UV wavelengths. Not only does this little scene amuse, it offers a synecdoche for the rest of the world. It's easy (at least for mildly cynical me) to imagine the last of the world's fossil fuels as streaming black columns of smoke while drug-addled soldiers, laden with tens of thousands of dollars in high-tech gear, look on and, "Like, woah."

Second, Shambhala is a story about a technological problem. Many, many people have chosen to leave the crumbling Earth behind and take the "Virt Squirt" and live in a virtual network called Shambhala. What happens when the network infrastructure starts to collapse? That problem is the engine that drives the story forward to its ultimate, and may I say perfectly apt, ending. Technology is used to help solve the problems created by technology.

Third, (perhaps should be a part of point 1?) Shambhala is atmospheric. Even in the boardroom meeting, perhaps one of the least atmospheric of all possible human gatherings, Irvine nails both the mood and even the speech of the pudgy-handed corporate drones (though it's mostly delivered in summary -- and really, shouldn't all board meetings be so rendered?). Finance offers to solve the problem by "pulling the plug" on the virtual reality, if they determine it will be cheaper to settle with the families of those who live on in the Virt. Chilling to imagine these conversations happening in real life, every day, isn't it? Perfectly capturing both the soullessness and ineptitude of corporate decision-making.

Great lines: "Hope you have a budget line for therapy expenses." And, the classic (paraphrasing here), "An idea so dumb only a VP of marketing could have come up with it."

An absolutely perfect little gem of a story, and well worth the cover price of $3.99 US for the entire issue. My hat's off to Alex Irvine.