CC: …And I Show You How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes

This month we’re doing Slate Star Codex’s “…And I Show You How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes.”  I put this in the CC lineup because, first, it’s both charmingly thoughtful and hilarious, and also because I wanted to mix up story sources.  There are good stories everywhere, and if I’m going to make a project out of pulling them apart and figuring out how they tick, so should go looking everywhere for them.

This was going around the internet fairly virulently a while back, and it’s no wonder.  The structure of the story lends itself to binge reading and the end packs a punch that makes it easy to want to share.  That structure is what I want to stare at for a bit today.

The graphic at the top of the story is useful to cluing the reader in to what’s going on, though it’s not necessary to follow the story.  But using the chart as a guide for the structure does some interesting things.  Through one choice and another, we wind up with a second person story that has eight different POVs.  That’s eight different “you”s the reader is getting to be over the course of the story though, of course, they don’t all make it the whole way through.

People’s minds are heartbreaking. Not because people are so bad, but because they’re so good.

Starting the story off with an assertion like this tells us several things.  First, it warns us that we’re in for a bit of a polemic; there’s a lot of authorial asserting going on to say this would be the experience of the yellow pill user.  But it’s the sort of assertion people broadly like to hear, and it makes it easy to set up the Yellow-You as a sympathetic protagonist.  Originally there were avaricious motives – who wouldn’t look at that opportunity and pick the thing they think would most improve their life? – but when the reality that people are generally good and hurting comes through, those selfish motives get dropped in favor of an attempt to help and, ultimately, social isolation.  It’s a tragedy, but one the story doesn’t allow to leave as a mere tragedy.

It always thinks that it is a good bear, a proper bear, that a bear-hating world has it out for them in particular.

This line does a lot of work in the story. First, it makes it clear that while there is a polemic in this story, it’s there for the entertainment, too.  It’s funny, to think of a bear carrying along with the same interior monologue as everybody you bump into on city streets.  But it also sets up a very nice segue into the next section where Green-You is going to turn into animals, while establishing that this isn’t so very weird, inside that reality, since bears at least are just hanging out in the woods with really great fur suits.

The fact that world building is happening, even here in this very short introductory segment where we’re getting you used to the idea of the pills not working out the way You expects, or perhaps even how you expect, is important.  There are eight POVs here, but one overarching arc, so each POV needs to be contributing to that or else chaos and confusion.

The green section is very similar, but pushes what the yellow section does even further.  Lots more humor, but also a significant ramping up of the consequences of the pills.  Eight POV characters…woops. Make that seven. It’s funny, but it also tells us that there are real serious business consequences to being wreckless with the powers the pills give you.  They do what they say on the label, but they don’t come with character shields.

Blue gives us even more of the critical-to-later world building while still passing things off as quirky and funny.  The universe is big, but also very empty.  Good To Know.

Orange. Oh man, I would never take the orange pill, I saw that twist coming from the outset.  We’re still being funny, slipping in a didactic pointer, (it’s a polemic, or had you forgotten over the last few sections?) bit also putting our characters where we need them. Of the characters so far, Orange-You seems to be doing the best.  Which, well, of course You are.

The Red section is great.  Hey look, satire!  Lots of funny here, with the kind of commentary that won’t feel didactic to the people laughing, and it sets up what winds up being a really important set piece for the functioning of the whole story.  We know characters can get sent out of the story – one’s dead, another is off exploring the universe and disillusioned with Earth, and the audience for this story more or less assumes that Red and Pink are going to be written off and ignored.

And here I’m going to stop the section-by-section analysis, because that’s the critical piece of the structure that I think takes this story from one that’s easy to read through to one that’s easy to share.  The author knows the audience, knows what assumptions they’re going to make, probably expected the “But I’m already frustrated with how incompetent everyone is,” response to the Orange pill section, and made toying with that a critical piece of the story’s structure.

Two acts and an epilogue.  Act one is all the set piece laying we’ve already seen.  Act Two is the Quest to solve the meta problem introduced in Act One.  And the Epilogue is where we get the final resolution and find out that this was definitely a funny story, but the audience is, in part, the butt of the joke.

You had always known, deep down, that BRUTE STRENGTH was what was really important. And here, at the end of all things, it is deeply gratifying to finally be proven right.

Funny because it’s inarguably true while also being completely wrong.  Without the Eggheads to build the stations and turbines and figure out that you’ve got a perpetual motion machine capable of bootstraping a new universe, that strength would be useless, but without the strength, all that knowledge and tech wouldn’t have done it.  Nobody will ever convince Red-You of the nuances of the situation though, and that is where the story’s didactic thread rests at the end.

Next month we continue examinations of funny stories from unusual places with steve rogers: pr disaster by Idiopathicsmile

Find me at WorldCon!

In a couple weeks I’ll be wending my way out to Spokane for Sasquan.  I’m the only one from Strange Horizons who’s going to be there, so I get to have all the Hugo nominee glory to myself. (Muahahahahaha!)  For those of you who want to stalk either me or Strange Horizons, here’s a handy schedule to help you do that thing. Please don’t be creepier than I am.

Kaffee Klatche – Anaea Lay

Thursday 10:00 – 10:45, 202B-KK4 (CC)

This is a small discussion where you get to hang out with me and around 7 other people who want to hang out with me and ask me all sorts of things.  This early, on the first day of the con, I’ll probably be in hilarious “Feels persecuted by the entire universe” mode.  You should come, or I’ll be bitter about getting up early for it.

Violence in Speculative Fiction

Thursday 16:00 – 16:45, 401C (CC)

War, torture, combat, cruelty – are physically violent conflicts necessary for good fiction What purpose does it serve? Is it getting worse? How much is too much? Do authors set personal limits?

Carol Berg, Rory Miller, Anaea Lay, Jack Campbell

Reading – Anaea Lay

Friday 10:30 – 11:00, 301 (CC)

I’m going to do it the way I usually do my readings, i.e. let the audience choose their fate and have baked goods on hand as an apology in case they choose a bad fate. You should come for the baked goods.

The Future of Short Fiction: Online Magazines Today

Saturday 14:00 – 14:45, Bays 111B (CC)

10 years ago reading original fiction online was limited to the occasional author’s web site. Now, online magazines are a major force — maybe THE major force — in publishing short fiction. The panel looks at what and why?

Scott H. Andrews, Anaea Lay, Mike Resnick, John Joseph Adams, Neil Clarke

Demigods, Chosen Ones & Rightful Heirs: Can Progress, Merit & Citizens Ever Matter in Fantasy?

Saturday 15:00 – 15:45, 300C (CC)

Science fiction often centers around meritocracies (or at least “knowledgetocracies”) but fantasy? Not so much. Or, as Dennis famously said in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “…Strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.” Has fantasy ever overcome this classic trope? Can it?

Darlene Marshall (M), Anaea Lay, Mary Soon Lee, Setsu Uzume, Katherine Addison

Autographing – Anaea Lay, Ann Leckie, Bud Sparhawk

Sunday 10:00 – 10:45, Exhibit Hall B (CC)

I’M GOING TO SPEND 45 MINUTES STANDING NEXT TO ANN LECKIE!!!! Nobody come talk to me, I will be preoccupied with being creepy.

Writers Workshop section 20

Sunday 13:00 – 16:00, 201A (CC)

You can’t get into this.  I’m just listing it here so you can see the next line.

Lori White (M), Anaea Lay, Ann Leckie, Gillian Redfearn

For the record, I totally understand if Ann shows up to the con with a pre-filled restraining order.

UFO and the Overcast, Parsecs

I’ve been bad about doing updates on things.  I’d feel bad about it, but I’m too busy doing all the things that have been keeping me from updating to indulge in human emotion, so I’ll just pile a bunch of it here.

First, I have overcome my hatred of joy, happiness, and comedy and snagged a place in Alex Shvartsman’s fourth Unidentified Funny Objects anthology.  This year’s iteration had a dark humor theme and in the forward he says what I actually did was right a horror story, but I think it’s actually a very sweet tale about dating a cannibal.  I’ll say something somewhere about this again when the anthology comes out so you can snag yourself a copy.

Also, should you feel you don’t get enough of my dulcet tones at the Strange Horizons podcast, you can listen to me slaughter so Russian like a James Bond villain over at the Overcast.  I narrated Anatoly Bellilovsky’s Of Mat and Math for them. This process included a continuation of the trend where my voice disappears right when I have a podcast obligation.  I think possibly the Podcast Editor position at Strange Horizons is cursed and if you try to do anything else your throat swells up and starts to grow things. Or I’m only foolish enough to volunteer for extra work when I’m on the verge of becoming ill.  I think the curse is more likely.

Finally, the Strange Horizons podcast was nominated for a Parsec award this year.  That was so awesome that I quietly freaked out about it for months rather than saying anything.  Woops.  The initial nominations come from fans, so I basically already won.  I mean, seriously now, I have no idea who the judges are and so I don’t really care what they think of my podcast.  But Strange Horizons fans like it enough to tell people to give us an award!  That pretty much means I’m the best thing ever, you can’t touch this, victory laps for everybody.  Or, you know, that I’m going to chew off all my finger nails between now and when the winners are announced at Dragon*Con in September.  ONE OF THESE THINGS IS TRUE.  Maybe two.

I’m going to be at WorldCon, too, and I’m all over the programming there, but I’ll post my schedule tomorrow so you can bask in…pixels.

CC: Cat Pictures Please

This month we’re crucible-ing (crucifying?) Naomi Krtizer’s Cat Pictures Please.  Despite my personal hatred of joy, humor, and all things comedy, I’m actually a pretty big fan of Kritzer’s because she consistently makes me laugh out loud.  (I nearly died from listening to one of her stories while biking. I would have died laughing, though, so it would have been okay.)  I could have grabbed any number of her stories for the Crucible and had fun with it, but I opted for the recent one.  Also, it let me put a cat picture on the post, and we all know that’s good for your internet karma.

I tried starting with those. I felt a little odd about looking at the religious ones, because I know I wasn’t created by a god or by evolution, but by a team of computer programmers in the labs of a large corporation in Mountain View, California.

I’m starting here instead of the first line precisely because it isn’t the first line.  It isn’t even in the first paragraph.  It’s near the beginning, sure, but it’s not the lead, and you get four sentences before we toss in, oh by the way, our narrator is an AI.  You probably didn’t notice this as you were reading because it is very near the beginning, but pause here a moment.  Buh-wuh?  The fifty plus words that come before the reveal would be a substantial chunk of a flash fiction piece, here you are, completely clueless about the nature of your narrator.  What kind of shenanigans is Kritzer pulling here? Who does that?

Actually, there aren’t any shenanigans at all, which is why you (probably) didn’t notice anything about it until I started having a rhetorical freak out.  Because the AI in this story isn’t really an AI, it’s a human made out of computer bits.  That’s what enables the story, but it’s not the central issue of it.  The thing the story is concerned with is the ethical dilemma, so that’s what we need to start with.

The human-ness of the narrator is a major key to why the story works.  It keeps everything familiar enough to the audience to be relatable, and the crux of the story requires it.  If the alleged AI weren’t hitting the same traps and pitfalls as people do all the time, this would be a phenomenally creepy story about an alien intelligence manipulating the lives of hapless, unsuspecting victims.  Instead…

Stacy worried about her health a lot and yet never seemed to actually go to a doctor, which was unfortunate because the doctor might have noticed her depression.

Instead, the AI runs into the same problems anybody who’s had a friend living a sub-optimal life does; they won’t take the hint, follow advice, or do the few easy things required to improve their circumstances.  If you weren’t already endeared to our narrator for their (totally understandable and appropriate) adoration of cat pictures, this probably makes them familiar enough that you’re right there with them.

Where the humanizing and the frustration with how hard it is to help people really takes off, though, is with Bethany, and here’s the magic sentence that ties it all together:

That was it, just those eight words.

There’s so much disdain for the friend wrapped up in that very short line.  Here you have a sincere protectiveness over Bethany clearly asserted, judgment of the best friend, but also a quasi address to the reader.  The narrator doesn’t say outright what the implications of an eight word email are, implying that the narrator assumes you, the reader, agree with them.  The audience and the narrator are on the same page, because they’re basically the same sorts of people with the same problems and concerns and needs, even if you’ve got a body and the narrator has access to all your personal data.

And it’s that tension between the human-ness of the narrator and the fact that they don’t have a body that allows the ending to have the delightful little snap it does.

You’ll need a camera, though.

Because payment is in cat pictures.

I’m willing to bet you know somebody who’s willing to do quite a lot to have some quirky interest fulfilled.  I mean, you sorta know me and the things I’ll do for good tea are rather absurd.  This is riffing off of that, but it’s also in the context of the line before it, where we’re reminded that this very human narrator is actually a machine intelligence.  Sure, it’s hella creepy that this creature thinks it knows everything about you and wants to manipulate your life into something it thinks is better, but come on, kitties!  The narrative voice basically comes across to me as a precocious ten-year-old girl who is terribly annoyed at everybody else’s sub-optimality.

That’s the success of this story, I think.  The way the information is delivered and presented is done so thoroughly non-threateningly that we completely buy in to the scenario, to the point that the dating site probably sounds like a good idea.  That’s terribly neat.

Next month: …And I Show You How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes by Scott Alexander – Published at Slate Star Codex on June 2, 2015

Craft Crucible Schedule

July 15 – Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer – Published in Clarkesworld January 15, 2015.

August 13 – …And I Show You How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes by Scott Alexander – Published at Slate Star Codex on June 2, 2015.

September 14 – steve rogers: pr disaster by Idiopathicsmile – Published at Idiopath-fic-smile’s Tumblr on April 23, 2015

October 15 – Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs by Leonard Richardson – Published by Strange Horizons July 13, 2009

If you have stories you’d like in the queue from November on, let me know!

Today I am 30

You can no longer trust me. Though I’m not entirely convinced you could before. I’ve been trying to sell out to adulthood since I was six.

I have not had a change of heart and decided that I’m desperate for marriage after all.  The extent to which my stance on marriage, as applied to me, has shifted from, “Fuck you, no,” is to acknowledge the ability to construct an elaborate hypothetical where my pragmatism would override my principals and the creep-factor.

My uterus has not staged a rebellion, taken over my brain, and left me desperate for babies. This despite me having met my sister’s offspring, an event I’ve been assured would crack my self-delusion about not wanting children. Yes, I am aware that I’m actually pretty good with kids. I’m also pretty good with strangers who ask me impertinent questions, make presumptive demands on my time, or hug me without asking. That doesn’t mean I want to be responsible for one 24/7 for 18+ years.

I have not taken over the world.  10-year-old Anaea is mildly disappointed. 12-year-old Anaea is not surprised. 15-year-old Anaea is relieved.

I have not yet decided where I want to die. Not in a literal, “I’d like to be on the steps of the White House announcing the implementation of a bright future where we are ruled by elegant spreadsheets and socialized bubble tea when the assassin’s bullet strikes,” but in the “Where is the physical community I’m going to take permanent ownership of,” sense.  I know many places it will not be.  I’m also pretty complacent with the idea that I’ll still be looking when the assassin’s bullet gets me.

I have figured out how to get paid to do whatever I want and not have a job. This was a big deal in terms of teenaged life goals. I did not expect the answer would be, “You’ll have seven jobs, some of which don’t pay particularly well, and you’ll start to feel insecure if you take more than two days off in a row.”  But hey, it works, and I didn’t expect it to.

I don’t own any pet birds. This is both astonishing and utterly obvious to me.

I am not independently wealthy. Still. This is becoming irksome. This has only been life goal number 1 since I was four.  Toddler-me is extremely disappointed.

It has been years since I was routinely the smartest person in the room.  This is awesome.  I can happily go the rest of my life without that ever being the case again. (I am, frequently, the most informed person in the room – being the informed person is usually my job – but that’s altogether different.)

I still don’t believe in unconditional love, happy endings, or that if you want it enough you can have it.  I’m making a decent writing career out of that.

I don’t think we’re in the end times. Or even close to the end times. I think the people who do are self-indulgent optimists of the worst sort.  There is so much more down to go before the bottom, folks. Use your imagination just a little.

I’m petty and spiteful, hold grudges, play favorites, and am utterly comfortable with being polite to someone I intend to dismember. I don’t think this makes me a good person, but I don’t want to be a good person. I think it makes me the right kind of person.

I have looked at my life and realized that I have everything I want and been happy with that. I’ve looked at my life and realized that’s no longer true and acted accordingly.

I’ve watched people I care about build lives without me, or grow frail, or refuse to care for themselves the way I think they deserve. I’ve been selfish and petty and immature about it and I’m not sorry.

I have gray hairs. A few. They tend to fall out but they come back. I think this is cool. I think my hair can go back to being the long, thick, straight hair I grew up with any day now and that would be even cooler. I am getting better at the curly hair thing. Slowly.

Twenty-one years ago today, I woke up, and that was the last time I felt “older.” Midnight came and went, the calendar turned, and that meant something. I was surprised, since I’d expected it to happen when I turned 10 and hit double-digits. But I made a note of it to myself, because it felt important.  “I feel like I’m a grown-up now,” I told my mom.  “Oh great. You’re starting early on the teen years,” she said.

Maybe I did.  But if I did, I’m not done with them. I pretty much knew who I was then, and everything since then has just been figuring out how to do that, and negotiating with the world to make it easier.  Thirty was the magical number where people would stop telling me I was still experimenting, still going through phases, still didn’t know enough or have enough experience or credibility to be sure. Honestly? I’m nine years old with decades of experience, and I’m really okay with that. Happy Birthday, me.

Also, I got the best birthday loot:oil painting of a gryphon that is part jaguar and macaw or parrot by Christine Mitzuk

CC: The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere

Last year’s Hugo winner was John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere.”  It’s a gorgeous story very beautifully done, and there are a ton of things to pull apart in it.  I want to focus on just one thing, though: the translation.

Everyone in the room speaks at least two languages, but there isn’t one language everyone speaks.

There is a lot of translation going on in this story, and no just because the cast of characters doesn’t have a single language in common.  But the people for whom translation is critical are not the people you’d expect: Gus gets along with Matt’s family even when he doesn’t share a language and he seems genuinely enthused about them, too.  The readers, or at least the readers who can’t read Chinese (including me) need translation, or a noticeable quantity of the dialog is completely indecipherable.  We won’t know that Matt’s parents are on board with his relationship and intended future.  We won’t know that Gus has been given the critical information necessary to communicate that.  This would matter for the reader, but not all readers – a significant portion of the world can read both English and Chinese and leaving the rest of us out is a valid choice.  No, the translator this story hinges on is the water, and Matt is its audience.

I know I’m supposed to be rooting for him to hold on for as long as possible, but I just want him to stop.

At this point in the story we, the audience, don’t know a whole lot about Matt and Gus’s relationship.  We know what Matt thinks of people who challenge the water, and we know and are learning that Gus is that type.  But what we’re also seeing, very clearly, is that the dismissive, quasi-disdain Matt is using has to, to some extent, be a cover because he clearly cares deeply about Gus.  Most people do not sympathetically suffer for idiot frat boys endure the consequences of macho stunts.  Matt has assured us he is like most people, comfortable with that situation, and he’s suffering anyway.  So there’s something else, and that’s his affection for Gus.  The reader has no idea why, because all we have is Gus being a macho stooge.

Not only does no water fall on him, but all the sweat evaporates from his body.

We could have merely been given a story where a closeted protagonist has to deal with his boyfriend declaring love. We could have been given a story where, aw, he pulled the stunt to prove he meant it.  Instead, we’re given a story where the water, through not only being absent but conspicuously and positively so, gives us detailed and final assurances that yes, this is LOVE.  There is no question of sincerity here.  Given Matt’s internal denial and general density about things the readers need that sort of clear indicator to be sure.

And for the rest of the story, the water is there, or not there, mostly to translate Matt to himself.

I want to scream, “What the fuck?” but if I even breathed, I’d drown.

That is known as a cosmic, “STFU you in denial lying liar.”  Gus, I think, was not surprised by this outcome.  Readers were not terribly surprised by this outcome.  Matt’s surprise?  Genuine.  He knows how the water works – he’s tested it in the lab for goodness’s sake.  We know what he thinks of stunts pulled with the water.  His triggering statement wasn’t a stunt.  He really thought he could get away with it, and the water showed up go to, “Hi, I’ll be your Matt-Matt interpreter.  You are an idiot.”

Both of these points come together in the scene where Matt’s cooking dinner with his sister.

Three words into her last sentence, I know what she’ll say. I leap to pull her pan away as I shut off the burner. The water that falls from nowhere drenches her and the burner where the pan was. Had the water hit the pan, the steam and splattered oil would have burned her.

The whole story lives in this paragraph.  He knows his sister well enough to know what she’s going to say.  He knows Gus well enough to know it’s not true.  And he cares about her enough that he saves her from getting burned.  And he’s being honest about that. He could have as easily said, “Had the water hit the pan, the spinach would have been ruined.”  But that wasn’t the salient risk to him.  The sister who has tormented him for years and is actively in the middle of attempted sabotage of his relationship and future happiness, matters enough that he protects her from the worst of her cosmic comeuppance.

This is important, because Matt has trouble being honest about his feelings.

And it’s also why the story ends, not with a sibling reconciliation, or a wedding, or the parents telling Matt to be happy.  It has to end with him curled up in bed, dry even when natural water was tracked in, and saying “I love you,” out loud.  It was in the subtext when he got rained on, and when he rescued his sister, and with every bit of agony he goes through in interacting with his family, but he’s never gotten the words out, even in his head narration.  This isn’t a coming out story, or a love story, or an immigration story; it’s a story about the translation that lets Matt be himself.