About Anaea Lay

Consultant, Project Manager, Realtor - those are the boring things. Books, writing, politics, food, travel, books, people, science, parrots, and books...that's me.

Review: Under the Skin

I saw this over the weekend, knowing nothing before walking in other than that it had Scarlett Johansen and wasn’t the one of her with the trailer in front of Captain America.  (Man did that movie look good until they explained the premise).  So when it opened with an extended sequence of staring into a light that slowly morphed into an eye I started surprised, then immediately adjusted to “Oh, I’m in an art movie,” mode.  Thanks gratuitous and heavy-handed light-eye imagery!

If you’re looking for a successful attack on traditional story telling technique in film, or a movie carried almost entirely by its images and performances, this is your thing.  It was very well done, and I’m very inclined to pick up the book it was based on, if only to see how that story got told in prose.  (I still haven’t looked up anything about the movie, so all I know about the alleged premise is what the people I went with explained over dinner after)

I spent a good while after the movie pondering it, and did a lot of listening to the six other people I saw it with talk about it – what they liked, what they didn’t like – and by the time I’d polished off the delightful walnut-gorgonzola-cranberry salad concoction I had for dinner, I’d come to a very solid conclusion: It was a really well done movie I did not like at all.

The brilliance of the movie is that it’s very easy to construct a narrative of what happened, and seven people who all saw it can then proceed to argue about what the actual narrative was without any of them being conclusively wrong or right.  I love successful narratives that require their audiences to do some of the heavy lifting.  But what isn’t debatable about what happened are the following: (I’m about to spoiler nearly everything that can be spoilered about the movie)

1) Scarlett Johanson’s character starts of as a non-human, gender-role swapped predator, driving around and picking men without family or connections who are out walking alone at night

2) This ends badly for the men

3) She decides to stop doing the predator thing after encountering a deformed man who is the opposite of the skeevy guys she’s been encountering all film.

4) Experiments with being “normal” or “more human” lead her to spend some time with a genuinely nice guy, but all fail and lead to her freaking out and running away.

5) A lumberjack tries to rape her, realizes she’s not human, then sets her on fire.

6) The end.

Uhm.

It’s possible I’ve never said this before, but I am completely dissatisfied with that unhappy ending.  At the metaphorical/thematic level, it’s asserting that we (maybe just women, maybe everybody) have a choice between being a predator, or being raped and set on fire, a proposition I could spend a great many words taking issue with. At the more concrete, literal level, it seems to be claiming that a creature capable of single-handedly luring men to their demise with phenomenal consistency can’t handle a randy lumberjack and just gets abused and burned alive? The only other woman in the entire movie drowns while trying to rescue her dog, so if it’s trying to present the thematic content as something to then discuss and criticize, the discussion and criticism is completely absent.

I mean, I’m all for setting people on fire as a means of problem solving, especially plot problems, and cinders are a great end point for character development. But this movie didn’t earn it.

Podcast Anecdotes

A few weeks ago Scarab, the 10inch netbook I’ve been using as a desktop for two years, starting showing serious signs of imminent death.  I’ve been meaning to replace it with an actual desktop for ages and ages, but it’s been so long since I bought a desktop that I wanted to do a lot of research to make sure I made a good choice.  I’d been meaning to do that for about a year, and between being behind on everything and needing to get ahead of stuff before going to LA for WotF, I wasn’t going to get that time before Scarab was likely to give up completely.  So I did the next rational thing and went for the cheapest desktop with a decent processor I could find.  He’s named Miles and shortly after I got him, I was making huge leaps and bounds toward catching up on things.  Apparently all those minutes I was losing every time I wanted to open a PDF really add up.

Part of what was awesome about Miles is that he’s powerful enough that I can actually run programs under Wine, which means the few things I had to boot into Windows to do no longer require any such reboot.  Hurray!  So I started doing my recording for the Strange Horizons podcast under Linux, in Audacity.  And the Audacity interface is massively superior for podcasting to the software I had been using, per my roommate’s recommendation.  I should have known better – his recs are coming from music recording, so his needs are not actually all that similar to mine.

Then I recorded a bunch of podcasts, including today’s, put them up, and ran away to LA for a week.  I was ahead! It was a miracle!  I’d just have to edit the file when I got home, not find time when I could be alone in the house with no road traffic and a quiet cat to record. (This is very hard to accomplish in the spring)

Shortly after I got home from LA, the concerned emails started trickling in.  They came down to very polite, tactful variants on, “So, your sound quality just took a huge face dive. You having problems, or just stricken by sudden incompetence?”

[Insert record-scritching noises here]

I’d been smug because the files all sounded SO MUCH BETTER.  This was, apparently, because even on the same headphones, the output from Scarab was not representative of how it sounded on other things, Miles improved the sound, but it was objectively less good.  I had no idea until I took some files over to a different device, at which point anybody who’d been there to see would have had a rare opportunity to point and go, “Hey look, Anaea’s deeply embarrassed!”

Deeply, deeply embarrassed.

So did some reading.  And some re-mastering.  And then I applied what I learned to the file for today’s podcast.  It was going to sound great!

Except, no.  For the first five minutes, you can hear the roommate who came home rihgt as I started recording talking on the phone.  The next ten minutes are full of Idi yowling in the background. These were sounds from downstairs, which the mic doesn’t usually pick up very well, but they were very clear now.

I completely gave up when I could hear the neighbor’s leaf blower start.

And then re-recorded the whole thing from scratch Saturday night.

Dear whole world: I’ve learned now.  Sorry about the rough patch.  I’m going to look into what I can do to fix it.

This story has a happy ending, though.  You see, Strange Horizons got nominated for a Hugo!  This is utterly fantastically awesome news which I didn’t actually expect for reasons involving me not paying enough attention to the world. Since I had to re-record this week’s podcast anyway, I got to announce our nomination at the beginning of the podcast, which I wouldn’t have done if we’d used the file I recorded two weeks before the news came out.  Happy ending!  Hugo noms! Everything is awesome!!

 

My WotF Acceptance Speech

I’ve got this weird quirk where I write my speeches after I give them.  That doesn’t mean I get to a podium and give a speech completely from scratch – I’ll have put a ton of thought into it before I get there – but I don’t write anything down first.  What I want to say, how I want to say it, maybe a couple clever phrases, all that I’ll work out first, but in my brain.  The first two lines I generally know.  From there, it’s all about how the audience is reacting.  If they’re dead, I’ll shut up and get the hell off stage.  If they’re enjoying it, I could keep going forever.  What can I say? I’m a pantser.

Anyway, I had to give an acceptance speech at the Writers of the Future gala last Sunday.  I think I did a good job.  I may have accidentally set myself up as an inspiration to children?  If so, woops.  You probably don’t want me inspiring your kids, folks, but that doesn’t mean I won’t if you ask me to.  It’s probably a good idea to read what somebody writes before asking them to share wisdom with your twelve-year-old, though.

So here’s my speech, as written by me, after I’ve given it.  This isn’t a transcription.  I’m writing it down from memory.  If you want to know what I actually said, you can watch it as part of the stream of the whole ceremony here.  It starts around the 2 hour, 1 minute mark.

I don’t think anybody at the contest knows this because I’m a bad person and never told them, but my very first story submission ever was to Writer’s of the Future.  I was sixteen, I’d been at this writing thing for about twelve years, and I more or less had it all figured out.  The plan was to enter the contest, be the youngest winner ever, and go from there.

 

I’m now twenty-eight.

 

That’s the beginning of my story for how I got here.  I don’t know the end yet, and I’m not going to speculate on what it will be unless you’re paying at least $.05 per word.  But I know what this chapter looks like.

 

This year is going to be a big year of transition for me.  A lot of the things leading up to this contest has been what I needed to figure out my priorities and know what I needed to do to get what I need to be happy.  I’m grateful for that.

 

In the time since the contest overlooked my teenaged brilliance, I’ve learned a lot.  I’ve learned what this contest means to other writers who are starting out.  There are people who write four stories a year, one for each quarter of the contest.  This contest gives them their identity as writers, gives them the external deadlines they need in order to finish their stories and learn by doing that.

 

That’s what makes it so touching to see so many people who work very hard for this contest, making sure it lives up to the dreams of those new writers.  To each of the people who spend their time and effort to make sure the writers and illustrators at this event get what they need, are supported and nurtured, thank you.

 

To my sister back in Virginia with the rest of my family, who went to bed before we started instead of watching…I could have said something nice about you now.

 

To Luc Reid and everybody at the Codex writer’s forum, without which I wouldn’t have written this particular story, thank you for being awesome.*

 

And last but not least, my best friend Karl, who’s been here with me this week, thank you.  I would not have made it here this week if you hadn’t been keeping me sane during the insanity that led up to it.  Seriously, thank you.**

 

Thank you all.

*I did not say this during the speech.  I was supposed to.  I’m really sorry I missed it, and putting it in this version as a small way of correcting a big error.

**I have some major espirit d’escalier on this point – there was a much cleverer way for me to have done this, but this particular point didn’t occur to me until I needed to end the speech, and then it was obvious. There’s a price to pantsing, and it’s asterisks when you write it later.

Your Cities to be Reprinted in Fantasyscroll

Hey, hey, guess what!  My little story about cities rescuing us all from the horrors of suburban life has sold for the third time.  Fantasy Scroll is going to reprint it in either their second or third issue.  They’ve paid me already, so it must be real.

I’m rather delighted by this since I spent a little time in the story take extra care to take shots at L.A.  And I’m about to spend a week in L.A.  I haven’t been back to southern California since before the first time Your Cities was published, so any and all wildfires or earthquakes that come for me shall be taken as evidence that I have caused offense.  Lack of natural disaster will be taken as evidence that I was right, and L.A. isn’t a real place.

That’s how reality works, right?

An Open Letter to the Parasite in my Sister’s Uterus

Dear Erasmus,

That’s your name for now, because I’ve asserted my Aunt’s Privilege to name you while you’re a fetus.  Don’t ask where it came from – the joke was barely funny in the moment and wore thin the first time I repeated it.  Just know that before you made the transition from parasitic cell bundle to squalling bag of vomit and shit, you were Erasmus because I said so.

“Because I said so,” is probably a phrase you’re going to hear a lot.  Your mother and I were raised with a that line, so it’s probably permanently imprinted on her brain.  It’s a terrible justification; patronizing, dismissive, and unhelpful.  By the time you’re an adult, those four words are probably going to have driven you pretty thoroughly nuts.  You’re right, and your mom knows it.  If it helps, what your mom really means when she says it is, “I love you, but I don’t have time or energy to get into this now, so let’s move on.  Someday we can sit down to discuss it, even if that day is ten years from now when you keep me up past my bedtime because we’re hanging out and enjoying being adults together.”

I’m pretty confident, here in 2014, that you will get to the point where you enjoy being an adult with your parents.  Right now, they’re both cool, interesting people who have their acts together in an impressive fashion and have made a lot of good decisions in preparation for when you’d come along to ruin their lives.  Parenthood is probably going to make it harder for them to be cool and interesting – you’re about to take away all their free time and spare energy – but they’ll come through.  Keep that in mind when you’re dealing with their latest incarnation of irrational injustice.  They were cool once.  Someday, they’ll be cool for you, too.

Once you’re born you’re going to get fed a steady diet of saccharine nonsense about blood being thicker than water, the power of unconditional love from parents, how children transform the adults in charge of them etc. etc. ad nauseum.  Most of it’s not true.  We tell lies to protect the future of our species, and we’re a successful species because we’re really good at telling lies.  Right now, your mom is tired all the time, distressed to realize that having boobs does change your physical presence in the world, and miserable at the smell of cooking garlic.  These aren’t good things.  This isn’t love.

She’ll get there, though, not because her hormones are going to cook her brain until she doesn’t know better, but because she wants to.  You’re going to find as you grow up that love is a stupid, malicious, dangerous thing.  Wanting to have it for somebody already has you pretty far down the road toward being infected with it.  I think that makes it mean more than the tripe they’ll feed you in kids’ movies and books – your mom loving you isn’t an accident of nature, but a disease she deliberately contracted for you.

I don’t love you yet, either.  I’m not even sure I like you.  I want to, I’m hoping to, but you’re stealing my baby sister from me in a way that me moving and her getting married never managed.  People relocate, marriages fail, but despite my steady campaign for legalized infanticide, you can’t un-have a kid.  You’re going to be the blood relative with the top priority.  Your potential siblings are going to cram into the #1 spot there with you, bumping me back just a bit further.  I’m not jealous – that’s not the sort of thing that triggers jealousy in me – but I am sad about it.

You’ll probably understand; your mom is at the top of a very short list of people who are my favorite people in all of the world for all time, and I’m not finished with her yet.  I still want to be able to plan trips together to places neither of us have ever been.  I want her to be able to drop everything and come see me for a few days so I can take her around to eat eight different kinds of macaroni and cheese when we aren’t plopped on the couch watching obscene amounts of television together.  I want to keep swapping recipes for ever more elaborate desserts.  I want to find the hundreds of other things we’d wind up doing together if she weren’t about to make raising you her primary time-suck.

And I worry about her a bit.  She used to play saxophone, and she was phenomenally good at it.  Your parents have definitely bonded over shared marching band experience, but jazz was where your mom belonged.  She did absolutely gorgeous art, too.  It’s not your fault these things dropped away – she fell out of them in college so I can’t even really blame your dad for it – and I don’t think your mom feels like she’s missing something without them.  But I notice them missing, and I worry a bit that someday she will, too.  Or that the important things in her life now will fall away when she takes on her new life with you.  I worry about your mom way, way more than I need to, but I love her and she’s far away so that’s what happens.

I hate children.  I’m going to be the aunt who makes everybody a little uncomfortable because she forgets that not everybody thinks it’s appropriate to joke about confusing the turkey and the baby at Thanksgiving.  And your dad is already terrified of the corruption and damaging influence I’m going to rain down on you.  (So far, he’s being a champ about it)  Don’t take it personally; it’s childhood, not you personally, that I can’t stand.  Being a kid is awful.  It’s all about being ignorant and helpless and being expected to be grateful to the people around you just because you happen to be ignorant and helpless near them and they haven’t smothered you yet.  But when adults complain about being adults, usually what prompted it is that they’ve come up against ignorance and helplessness again when they’d expected to leave that behind with childhood.  The biggest difference between kids and grownups is their capacity to deal with that.

I can’t change the choices your mom made that put her where she is now.  I wouldn’t if I could, because she’s made the choices she needed to make for her to be happy.  And that means you.  For at least the next eleven years, you’re going to be a child.  But I love your mom, and having you is going to make her happy which means that whatever I’m losing out on, whatever downsides there are, you’re important to me.  That’s not love, not yet.  It’s a start, though.  I didn’t like your mom for the first few years, either, and now look at where we are.

It is my sincere intention to be the coolest, most awesome Aunt in the history of big sisters.  I’m going to spoil you so rotten you won’t have a choice but to like me, and I’m going to try being the kind of adult in your life you’ll go to when you’ve got awkward questions about life you don’t want to talk about with your mom and dad.  I am probably going to screw this up.  I’ll be too far away to be properly involved.  I’ll be condescending or patronizing or obviously uninterested.  I’ll wind up doing one of the thousands of obnoxious things adults do to kids because they aren’t real people and you’ll be clever enough to remember I did it and hold it against me when I get better.  I’m sorry.  I hope apologizing in advance makes it better.  I really hope you’ll be enough of a smart ass to tell me off for it, cleverly, so I can shut my fat mouth and do better.

Mostly, I hope we like each other.  I hope the little pieces of your mom that I’m losing are just an investment in getting another person to put on my short list of people who are my favorite people in all the world forever.  I hope I’m the kind of aunt who you care about enough that being on that list means something to you.

And I hope you’ll smother me in my sleep with a pillow if I ever feed you a saccharine platitude about love, family, or growing up.

With fond expectations,

Me

CC: Clockwork Chickadee

This week’s story is from the fabulous Mary Robinette Kowal.  This was published in the year she won the Campbell for best new writer, lauded all over the internet, and has been reprinted at least once.  It’s also one of the most delightful cons I’ve seen described in fiction.

Lots of stories have a moral or message, and the extent to which people like didactic literature varies  from reader to reader.  I’ve got a pretty low tolerance for it, which meanes my fondness for fabalistic stories sets me up for irritation pretty regularly, but this story manages to nail the didactic elemet of the fabulist form without being obnoxiously didactic, and that’s entirely because of the light hand used in portraying the story.

The clockwork chickadee was not as pretty as the nightingale. But she did not mind. She pecked the floor when she was wound, looking for invisible bugs. And when she was not wound, she cocked her head and glared at the sparrow, whom she loathed with every tooth on every gear in her pressed-tin body.

This opeing is critical to the success of the story.  It gives us setting and all of the important characters except the live mouse.  More importantly, it tells us the chickadee is humble, which makes it okay for us to cheer for it.  And by telling us that first, telling us that it loathes the sparrow means we’re ready to accept that and share the feeling even though we don’t know anything at all about the sparrow.

Sure, we find out that the sparrow is a bit of an arrogant twit, but that’s not why the chickadee is annoyed – the annoyance is pure jealousy, because the chickadee can’t fly.  This is very not cool, and on its own, would make this the story of a creature manipulated into self-destruction by a wicked, jealous rival.  Think about what that story would read like for  a moment – the plot is identical, but it doesn’t have anything else in common with the story we actually read.   That‘s the magic of that first paragraph in this story.

“Have you seen what is written underneath the table? Do you know how the silver marble got behind the potted fern, or where the missing wind-up key is?”

Close, long time readers of my blog (all one of you) should recognize this as the setup of my favorite sales technique – The Soft Sell Half Nelson.  I more or less love this story because it shows the technique off so well.  The chickadee at no point forces the sparrow to do anything, asserts very little, and all of the crucial elements for the sparrows destruction are suggested either by a third party or the sparrow itself.  The chickadee just plants the seeds – three of them because this is a fable and that’s how fable structure works – and the sparrow’s curiosity and greed do the rest.  Since we’re already disposed to like the chickadee, and we’ve got reason to dislike the sparrow, this is a chance for us to sadistically watch somebody get their just desserts, which absolves us of the guilt of taking joy in somebody else’s misery.

At the end, the story rewards us for our sadism by, when it hits its moment of outright didacticism, giving us the right message.

 “No, Mouse, they cannot. We are all bound to our integral mechanisms.”

This was just about bringing sparrow down, not about the chickadee gaining something she wasn’t entitled to.  All chickadee gets out of this is the satisfaction of having destroyed sparrow which, when you think about it, is mch harsher and crueller than if she’d expected a personal reward.  But it also keeps her hands clean, as it were, and keeps us from having to feel guilty about enjoying the experience of watching her work.  “It’s okay,” the story is telling us with this lesson.  “Your hero is a benign callous manipulator.”

And that brings us to our sabbatical from the Craft Crucible.  I’ll post an update in a few weeks with our next slate of stories.  In the mean time, drop me a line with any stories you’d like to see analyzed.

Herbal Monkey Bread

Hi, my name is Anaea, and I’m a workaholic.  I’m supposed to be a well-rounded person with hobbies, an exhibitionist about them even, but I haven’t posted food porn to my blog in weeks. And not because I’ve been too busy to blog, either, but because I’ve been too busy to cook.

Last week I snapped a bit and took counter measures.  I’ve mentioned before that making bread is nice as a productivity enforcement tool.  I’d unburied myself enough that I decided I was going to leave the house that evening for recreational purposes, and I was going to bring baked goods.  And since the fridge was full of herbs from Foy (the Aerogarden, in case you’ve lost track of the very small cast of characters on this blog), I figured this was a good chance to use those.

And so it was that I stumbled across recipes for savory monkey bread.  Usually you season the butter with cinnamon and sugar, but people were doing all kinds of things.  Perfect!  And then I stopped looking at recipes, because I’ve got a bread recipe I like a lot and I can make it from memory at this point.IMG_6893 I followed that recipe all the way through the first rise, so I had a beautiful ball of dough that looked like this.  When it was nearing the end of its rising time, I pulled out the pile of herbs I was going to use.IMG_6900 And turned it into a pile of chopped herbs for me to use.IMG_6902I chopped these up pretty thoroughly since I wanted to be able to spread them throughout the bread and get an even distribution.  When I’m just rolling the herbs into a regular loaf, I don’t bother.

IMG_6897I started breaking away from the standard recipe after the first rise was complete.  Instead of rolling out the dough, then shaping it into a loaf, I tore it into little balls.  The traditional monkey break recipe starts with canned biscuit dough and this step, so if you’re not a bread-from-scratch creature, that’s ok.  This is monkey bread – nobody is going to judge you for style.

IMG_6904The trickiest part, honestly, is just arranging the dough into the bunt pan.  I strongly recommend putting a baking sheet under the pan before you do this, then drizzling the butter and sprinkling the herbs as you layer.  I did none of these things, so believe me when I assure you that you don’t want to follow in my footsteps on this particular front. IMG_6906For this I melted a whole stick of unsalted butter in a bowl, then whisked in the herbs and a generous portion of salt.  I wish I’d had big, flaky kosher salt, or coarser grained sea salt, but I did not, so fine grains it was.  You can probably imagine, based on this photo, why I suggest drizzling as you pile the dough – the butter ran through, but it didn’t take the herbs with it, so they all hung out on top rather than getting incorporated throughout the loaf. IMG_6910I put it in the oven at the same temperature and for the same amount of time called for in the original recipe.  It turned out lovely.  And tasty.  I’d meant to share it with the roommies when I returned home from the social event but, well, none of it survived that long.  I’ll probably make it again for them the next time the herb accumulation gets intense.

CC: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been

Anybody familiar with the wider world of short fiction will recognize Joyce Carol Oates, and I suspect the name will ring bells even with people who aren’t particularly conversant in the form.  If you aren’t familiar, well, here’s a good place to start.  It’s a bit dated since a lot of what’s creepy about this story has less impact in a world where you can find out a billion personal details about somebody on the internet, but I think the impact still works pretty well.

This story is, at its fundamental roots, really boring.  Bored teenager living boring suburban life stays home, bored, has conversation, story ends.  Or, looked at another way, it’s just one more story about a young girl being targeted by the creepy forces of mature masculinity.  Or it’s a long info dump followed by a rambling conversation and ending with ambiguity.

Part of the reason Oates get away with it is that her prose is immediately engaging.

She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.

There are some really nifty details packed into this line.  We learn she’s vain, we learn that she’s awkward, and we learn that she’s looking to other people to judge herself.  This isn’t even a simple using other people’s approbation or lack thereof as her external validation, either.  Describing her as “checking other people’s faces” immediately after referencing her glancing into a mirror suggests a similar behavior.  The other people are another mirror, and she’s checking her reflection in them.  This concept of reflection is really important to the story, and runs straight through it.  You don’t even get out of the first paragraph before it comes up again.

Her mother had been pretty once too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.

So Connie isn’t the only one who uses other people as a mirror – Connie is serving as a mirror for her mother and their relationship is hugely shaped by that fact, by the tension and distance it puts between them, despite their fundamental functionality.  For anybody looking at the story with an eye toward whether every element is doing work and inclined to find the whole first half pointless setup, this right here is why all that setup is there.  We need to understand Connie and the world she’s in and how she interacts with it for the second half of the story to work.

Her heart began to pound and her fingers snatched at her hair, checking it, and she whispered, “Christ. Christ,” wondering how bad she looked.

I rather like this line.  She stayed home not just to wash her hair, but to make sure it dried optimally, and her first thought when somebody shows up is to wonder how she looks.  This girl is seriously constrained by these externalized perceptions.  It’s a very nice reminder because she’s about to encounter a rather predatory mirror.

The driver’s glasses were metallic and mirrored everything in miniature.

Yeah, that line is not there by accident.

This matters, though, because if this were just a random creep, the story here isn’t very interesting.  But Arnold’s status as mirror, a mirror showing back to her far more than she gets from most people, makes Connie’s instinct to run away far more than sensible predator-evasion.

Now she remembered him even better, back at the restaurant, and her cheeks warmed at the thought of how she had sucked in her breath just at the moment she passed him—how she must have looked to him.

Oates has layered the traditional male predator narrative with the teen-insecurity/self-loathing to add a whole layer of depth to this that makes the telling fresh.  It creates a sense of both wanting Connie to get into the car with Arnold and agreeing that she really ought to just run away.  Trapping the reader in that predicament makes Connie’s conflict accessible, even if you aren’t a bored teenage girl in the sixties.  We understand what she’s going through because we’re feeling the same pulls – we as readers want to know what’s going on with this guy who knows more than he should, who seems to have supernatural stalking powers, but we sorta feel bad for Connie too because, well, her life kind of sucks.

“My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.

All of that leads up to this final line which, given Arnold’s role as mirror, is especially interesting.  What does it mean that the mirror has the color of her eyes wrong?  Is this a fantasy story and the world she’s wandering into is real, or is she wandering into a metaphor.  Either way, what does that mean for Connie – is she escaping her boring life? Wandering into doom?  Developing self-understanding?  This is a story that is all about the last line, a build up to a change where the point of the story is that there is a change, and what exactly that change is matters less.  Neat.

Next: Clockwork Chickadee by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Then, in anticipation of April being a month of schedule madness, the CC is taking a few weeks off.  I’ll announce a fresh lineup for what we’re doing a week or so before we get started again.  In the mean time, if you run across things you’d like in the lineup, let me know!

CC: The Veldt

I’m not going to waste any time explaining why a Bradbury story would wind up getting sent through the Crucible, k?  This week we’re doing The Veldt.  It’s Bradbury.  That’s enough.

This story looks like SF, but it’s horror, and nicely done horror, too.  What makes it so successful, I think, is the way it ropes you in, filling in the rules of the world even when it’s presenting a scenario that breaks those rules.

 "Walls, Lydia, remember; crystal  walls, that's all they are. Oh,  they
look real,  I must admit - Africa in your parlor - but it's all dimensional,
superreactionary,  supersensitive  color  film and  mental  tape film behind
glass  screens.  It's  all  odorophonics  and   sonics,   Lydia.  Here's  my
handkerchief."

Here we establish the rules – it’s all an illusion.  Note where this explanation comes, though.  It’s after Lydia and George have gone into the nursery, after the readers have encountered the nursery for the first time.  We went through the sensory experience of the nursery, followed along with their reactions and nervousness, without complete knowledge about how the nursery works.  As experienced readers of genre fiction we’re pretty sure this is all meant to be just an illusion, but even the jaded among us are going to subconsciously note that the experts in this particular world, George and Lydia, are not reacting as they would to an illusion they believed to be mere illusion.

This is a really neat trick, because it means that we’ve been tricked into having the right emotional reaction (i.e. feeling threatened by the nursery) while we still get to ponder the intellectual mystery of what, exactly, is going on here.  There’s no reason to be showing us these parents exploring their children’s nursery  and this is a very boring story, except for that niggling sense that all is not right and safe. (Also, pay attention to all the detail spent in the first few sections establishing how very cared for and safe they are.)  If we know the rules for how the nursery work before our first encounter, that niggling feeling might never develop and we’ll be very confused about why we’re meant to be reading this, and more confused when things really do go wrong.

He knew the principle of the room exactly.  You sent out your thoughts.
Whatever you thought would appear.

This is a particularly important tid bit since this is the factoid that confirms for us exactly how creepy the kids are at the end.  We know the room is operating based in deliberate thoughts – you send them, they aren’t passively picked up – and the children have somehow rigged the room to hang onto these thoughts rather than responding to overriding commands from their parents.  Just in case we don’t believe it from the conversation between George and Lydia, we get it confirmed pretty explicitly when the children can change the room to deny that it’s stuck on Africa.  (The readers at that point could start wondering whether the psychological problems are Lydia and George’s, but the ending undermines that pretty clearly)

 "What is that?" she asked.
     "An old wallet of mine," he said.
     He showed it to her. The smell  of hot grass was on it and the smell of
a lion. There were drops of saliva on it, it bad been chewed, and there were
blood smears on both sides.

Speaking of things that do double-duty – hoo boy is this doing some heavy lifting.  This detail here pretty conclusively justifies that feeling of wrongness we’ve had the whole time by showing that the rules for how the room operates definitely aren’t being followed.  If the lions aren’t real and therefore can’t hurt you, then they shouldn’t be able to chew on it, or leave blood and saliva behind.  Here we have proof that the room really is dangerous.

It’s also a pretty glaring hint that the children are teaching their imaginary lions their parents’ scent.  It’s just a hint, here, supported when Lydia’s scarf gets found later, confirmed when the lions go right for mom and dad at the end, but here we are, using a hint about Peter and Wendy (is there a chance those names are accidental?  No.) plotting quite deliberately against mom and dad to confirm what the actual rules of the world are.

In summary, for the sake of your long-term health, let your children take the rocket to New York.

Next: Where are you Going, Where Have you Been by Joyce Carol Oates.

Followed by: Clockwork Chickadee by Mary Robinette Kowal.

CC: Ghosts of New York

Jennifer Pelland is pretty spiff and if you’re a fan of slightly disturbing fiction, you should definitely be following her.  This week’s Crucible story is one of my favorites of hers, Ghosts of New York.  It scored a Nebula nomination, in case you need further indications of quality.

This story could just be the relentlessly gruesome thought experiment of what happens to people after a tragedy done to explore how the survivors cope with the after effects, but it’s not.  Not to repeat the line you see in tons of reviews of Pelland’s work, but there’s a bit of humanity running through this story which transforms it into the touching, yet relentlessly gruesome thought experiment about what happens to people after a tragedy, done to explore how the survivors cope with the after effects.  It’s all over the ending, but Pelland starts baking it in even as she’s demonstrating the horror of the scenario she’s concocted.

She remembered the crash and pop of the people who were landing mere seconds before her. She remembered a fleeting moment of shame when her dress blew up over her head, exposing her underwear to the crowds gathered below. She remembered the burst of shit and piss as she crashed through the awning just a split second before she hit—

Right there, buried between two sentences describing somewhat graphic details, there’s a touch of character for a protagonist who has no identity.  She’s horrified, about to go splat, and she’s embarrassed.  You don’t have to be somebody who’d worry about the same thing to immediately relate to that moment.  Even if you wouldn’t care about flashing your unmentionables to the world at large, it’s human to get hung up on a silly, unimportant detail in the middle of massively bad crisis moments.  This immediately turns the ghost into a human vehicle for the scenario.  It answers the question of why we’re getting the story of this ghost as opposed to the scads of others we could be getting instead.

She quickly learned to keep away from the construction workers so they could do their jobs without having to step around her. The other ghosts did the same. They were uniformly polite in their silent suffering.

This is a moment that simultaneously reinforces that element of humanity already established and affirms that our protagonist, while special, is standing in for a much larger population.  These ghosts are considerate enough to make it easy for the construction workers to do their jobs even though they get nothing from it and there is no conceivable way in which doing anything else could cause negative consequences.  They’re reliving their deaths over and over again, but they’re staying out of the way of people who don’t even know they’re there.  And they don’t know it, but we find out and it’s there for us to see upon re-read, those construction workers are building the monument that guarantees the ghosts are going to fall to their deaths forever.  They’re being polite to the hands that are damning them.  Woops.  Also, neat.

There are several other moments in the story that illustrate this more – I’m particularly fond of the scene in the church – but the conclusion of the story demonstrates pretty clearly that the humanity wasn’t an accident.

She looked around the memorial, found a visitor scanning the list of names, and decided that she’d be that woman’s sister today.

She doesn’t get out of having to keep falling.  She doesn’t escape her fate.  But she does manage to change her situation from one of repetitive torture in hell to something else.  She claims an identity and becomes a full person, and she finds a purpose to her existence.

There would be an inclination to hope that having come to the conclusion that she needs to help the mourners she’ll be freed from her cycle, and if Hollywood adapted this into a movie they would almost certainly end it with her fading away and out of existence.  But if that were the ending here this would be an unrepentant, unforgivable gruesome horror story – the tale of an entity torture and then wiped out of existence the moment it finds a means to peace.

Instead, this is a story that proposes a cosmic mechanism for dealing with society-level tragedy.  A piece of the victims remain in order to give comfort to the people touched by the tragedy.  It’s necessary that those pieces remain for as long as there are people affected.  Either this is just a naturally developed supernatural coping mechanism, or something created by a incredibly benign deity.  It could be read either way.  Both readings, though, make it really clear that ultimately, this story is very sweet.

Next week: The Veldt by Ray Bradbury.

Followed by: Where are you Going, Where Have you Been by Joyce Carol Oates.