CC: The Fisher Queen

This week’s story is Alsyssa Wong’s The Fisher Queen.  I’ve got a weakness for mermaid stories which you may have figured out since this is the second one to go through the crucible.  (Somebody else asked for it, I swear!)  This is a great one, though, and very different from the last one even though mermaid as fish is a huge, significant element in the story.

What I want to examine here is the way Wong uses reversals to build the story.  There are several important ones leading up to the final reversal that resolves everything, and each one is really important to the turns of the story.  The first is the narrator’s stance on mermaids.

Mermaids, like my father’s favorite storytale version of my mother, are fish. They aren’t people.

Asserting this up front lets the story explain the economy around mermaid meat and the “fairy tale” stories about her mother without tipping its hand for where its’ going.  Obviously mermaids are going to be important, they’re all over the opening, but how they’re going to matter isn’t clear.  That the narrator is going to change her position on the peoplehood of mermaids isn’t terribly surprising, but how that change is going to happen isn’t all that clear.

But her change in position introduces another reversal, as well.

Iris is a marine biologist wannabe, almost done with high school but too dumb to go to university, who lectures us on fishes like we haven’t been around them our whole lives. She sleeps with the biology textbook I stole from the senior honor kids’ classroom under her pillow.

That’s the whole of her introductory comments about Iris.  For the most part her sisters get referred to together for the next section of the story.  We know the narrator isn’t entirely reliable because we know her assertions about mermaids are clearly wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily occur to us to question why this is her description of her sister.  But she’s actually more misleading in her description of Iris than she was when she was talking about mermaids.

Because, of course, she’s put the pieces together and figured out why her sister isn’t going to school anymore, and doesn’t actually blame her.  It’s the recognition, and her inability to do anything with that knowledge, that leads to her reversal on her stance of mermaids as not people.  The sister who’s “too dumb to go to university” and the dumb fish have something in common, and that’s the bridge the narrator walks to reach her new understanding.

And that understanding is critical to the story’s ending, because it’s not just a simple “mermaids are people” realization.  It’s a realization of shared helplessness, shared brutalization at the hands of the same perpetrators – Abhe was potentially a “close friend” for our narrator – and the need to address that helplessness that dictates the nature of the boon she requests.

Of course, the most tangible reversal of the story is swapping the fishermen with the mermaids.  What I like about this solution is it’s as close to victimless as this sort of vengeance plot can be.  The families of the sailors lose their husbands and fathers, but they still get the wealth brought by the haul of mermaids.  The mermaids have an awkward week spent ashore but then get to go back to the sea.  The bereaved even have the benefit of being in a community that shares their grief, rather than having to suffer alone.  This is probably the most responsible vengeance scheme I’ve encountered in fiction.  (It also supports my pet theory that the secret to safely using wishes granted by magical creatures is to make a wish that also serves the creature’s interests)

A neat thing about how the reversals in this story work is that they follow the fairy tale structure of coming in threes while each also prepares the reader for the next.  The reader sees the change from fish – people, then from deluded failure to victim, then from abuser to vanquished.  It’s a very modern story, but is simultaneously very old in the bones of how it’s told.

CC: Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs

This month’s story for the crucible is Leonard Richardson’s “Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs.”  This is one of the more bizarre stories we’ve taken a look at so far: the tale of Martian dinosaurs who’ve come to Earth to do motocross racing.  Because of course they would.

There are several things we could take a look at in this story, not least the choice to focus heavily on dialog to convey the story, but I want to instead take a look at one of the recurring jokes in the story, Tark’s obsession with guns.  The story opens with Tark’s attempt to purchase a firearm, allegedly for self-defense, and failing.

“These are killing claws,” said the dinosaur, whose name was Tark. “For sheep, or cows. I merely want to disable an attacker with a precision shot to the leg or other uh, limbal region.”

It’s signaled pretty clearly up front that Tark’s interest in guns is not for self defense, and also that Tark is a little on the loony side.  But while this line is great for provoking chuckles, it also tells us that Tark has “killing claws” and that they’re on a scale that could slaughter cows.  It also introduces the concept of Tark eating what he kills, if obliquely.  These are all important things that, like the gun joke, play out later.

Part of the same section, but clearly a different actual scene, we get Tark’s true motives.

“I’m gonna branch out. Target shooting. I’ll be like those tough guys in the action movies. Is my chin strap tight?”

This is another line for chuckle-provocation, but also critical to the thematic content of the story.  At the end we get the reflection on how humans’ interest in dinosaurs is actually an interest in seeing their own darker side and being able to engage it.  This is the first hint in that direction, though.  Interestingly, it doesn’t come from a human at all, or even from the more thoughtful Entippa, but from loony Tark.  He understands that in order to maintain his entertainment career he’s going to have to up the stakes of what’s engaging his audience.  It’s not an accident that he chooses an action hero, and it’s not just for the satirical ridiculousness of a creature with killing claws wanted to be a gun hero.  This is where the story says, “Listen up, we’re examining our relationship to entertainment and the implications of that relationship.”  It’s a nice early wedging in of the thematic content, delivered by a gun-shaped absence in Tark’s arsenal.

The thematic work done by the gun continues in a later section when Entippa, very reasonably, starts to address Tark’s obsession.

“You start carrying around a weapon and you become a cartoon character in the eyes of the humans. They’ll strip you to the bone and then they’ll put your bones in a museum…”

This is where we get the introduction of the idea that there’s risk involved in how the dinosaurs are perceived by humans.  What’s interesting is that according to Entippa, the guns will effectively de-humanize the dinosaurs.  There are hints all throughout the story that humans are perceiving the dinosaurs as “other” with calls out to classic othering questions in interviews and interpersonal interaction.  But we’ve already established in this story that dinosaurs don’t need guns, they have weapons of their own.  Yet taking up a human weapon would turn them into cartoons or objects for display in a museum.  There are at least three layers of commentary baked into that.

  1. Guns dehumanize
  2. The heroes humans construct with guns (notably action heroes) are cartoons
  3. There are ways to mimic humans that will make you seem less human

And for our final appearance of Tark’s gun obsession?  We get a piece of slapstick gold.

“Entippa!” said Tark. “I got it! I got a gun! Check it out!” There was a shot and the sun roof dissolved. “Ow, there’s glass! Stupid gun!” Tark hurled the gun out the driver’s side window and into a bush.

This is the payoff for all the discussion around the gun earlier in the story.  At long last, Tark gets his firearm!  He’s already done a perfectly good job of dealing with the bad guys on his own, but he’s excited all the same.  And then it goes exactly the way Entippa could have told him it would, and, disillusioned, he tosses it aside.  This is a tiny encapsulated retelling of the whole story’s arc.  Neat idea, pursuit of idea, real encounter with the consequences, veering back to original course.

That’s a joke that not only provided several punchlines, but opened up a lot of the space used for the thematic discussion of the story and reinforced the story’s structure.  If you want an example of successful “tight” or “sparse” writing, this is how you do it.

What did you take away from this story?

The future Crucible schedule will be announced next week.  Look for it!

Strange Horizons 2015 Fund Drive: A Very Special Opportunity for You

I’ve been blogging the fund drive and asking you to plink money toward support my favorite (non-profit!) magazine for a while now.  You know the drill.  Strange Horizons is awesome, give them money.

But this year there’s something special.  You see, it’s the fifteenth anniversary of Strange Horizons.  That means a couple things.  First, I am exactly twice as old as the magazine.  Second, I’ve been working on it for a fifth of its entire existence.  Third, I decided this was so special that I was going to do something neat and different for the bonus podcasts that we do to reward the whole world for showering us with money.

Interesting fact: I have never, not once, been late with the podcast.  I moved cross-country last year, (during the fund drive, even!), had months where I didn’t have furniture, let alone a studio, and we still never had an issue go up without the podcast.  Whatever else the podcast is, it is punctual.

That can change.  You can make that happen.  You see, the dates the fund drive podcasts will be ready for release are fixed.  If we aren’t funded that far before then, I can hold on to them, but I can’t make them happen sooner.  For reasons. Because they’re special.

The dates we’re due to release the content are not fixed.  They could come at any time, with only your dexterity at pressing buttons on webpages and filling out credit card details to slow us down.  You, yes you, can personally thwart me, ruin my perfect record, and laugh maniacally the whole way.

Because I like my perfect track record, but I like special even more.

Who doesn’t like getting to laugh maniacally?  At me, even!  I can see you twirling your mustache.  Yes, you, with your snicker and your plotting.

Do it. You know you want to. Give us your money!

CC: steve rogers: pr disaster

This month we’re analyzing idiopath-fic-smile’s steve rogers: pr disaster.  This is a piece of fan fiction which, on the off chance you live under a rock and need an explanation, means the author is using intellectual content owned by somebody else without their explicit permission.  There’s a giant, fascinating culture around it and you can learn a lot about story, craft, and assumptions baked into choices authors make from looking at it.

I picked this piece for a number of reasons, and as a piece of fic there’s a lot to tease apart, but for now I want to focus on the use of subversion.  Subversion is great for fic and for humor, but this piece is a mini master class in it.  The subversion starts with the first major line of the piece.

The Friday Eva’s firm signed a contract with Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, her best friend took her out for emergency drinks, and she spent the next three hours trying not to cry into a series of cocktails.

This is a delightful riff off going out for celebratory drinks when you firm gets a big new contract.  You get all kinds of information about tone and voice for the piece, as well as a lot of information about Eva (she’s got the kind of job that’ll be affected by this contract, she’s got a bestie available on short notice, we see her coping mechanism for crisis) but mostly it’s funny.  Eva and the author both are paying attention to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s impact in the larger world.

Then we reinforce this opening by subverting it.

“Captain goddamn AMERICA” she texted Yumi on her lunchbreak, because there was no way in hell this could wait until happy hour. “Drinks are on me tonight. And also, forever.”

Crisis averted! Steve Rogers is going to be easy, right! Right? The reader already knows this is wrong, but it’s a delightful moment anyway precisely because we know she’s wrong.  Readers are sadists, and that goes double in humorous fiction.  You enjoy that moment of delusion, Eva.  We’ll be here for your crash back to reality.

“A biography of someone named Cesar Chavez?”

Cue, crash.  What’s great is that while you can probably guess the twist was going to be along those lines, (because fic, also, Captain America) it’s still set up to be a complete surprise.  We knew the subversion was coming, but we weren’t necessarily expecting to to come from his weekend reading.  Even the surprises we expect come with an element of novelty in their packaging.

The problem was his mouth.

No analysis here.  I just got distracted by contemplating Chris Evans’ mouth.

Where was I?  Oh, right, subversion.

The next chunk of the story is a playing out of the subversion already introduced by the story.  Steve Rogers, socialist, proceeds to subvert everybody else’s expectations about him by being true to himself rather than their assumptions about what being the PR embodiment of America means.  It’s the story playing true to its own form, but demonstrating an undermining of the norms at play within its world.  Also, the series of anecdotes is funny.  The people Rogers interacts with are drawn in broad enough strokes that the reader gets to fill in specifics where they like and we get to chuckle at what happens because we’re in on the joke.  The story is drawing lines around its audience – they’re assumed to be at least open to the stances Rogers takes – but that’s one of the things humor intrinsically does even if it’s not more divisive than “Those who found the joke funny,” and “Those who didn’t.”

(The call back to “socialism” is delightful, btw)

Just in case you might suspect the story isn’t serious about its dedication to its premise, note how even the figure of speech when Yumi questions how the situation could possibly be bad unveils a new element in Eva’s misery.

“I really am sorry.” In the months she’d worked with him, she had never seen him look genuinely apologetic before now, not even after almost getting into a fistfight with that Tea Party governor.

And here’s where we get a new subversion by calling all that came before to a screeching halt.  It appears to be the first time Steve has tried to interact with Eva the human behind Eva the PR person, and it leads to a completely in character yet totally unprecedented behavior.  This, I think, (and Eva probably agrees with me) is the moment that dooms her as his PR handler.  It forces her to engage with the problematic elements involved in trying to PR police Socialist Captain America but also humanizes Steve for the reader.  Up to this point he’s largely a punch-line generating steamroller and now he’s an ally who realizes he’s screwed up.  The tie back to offer to let her punch him referenced in the intro is a nice touch, too, because while we expected that to come back (it was Chekhov’s promise if you will) we didn’t expect it to come back in a conversation that was just the two of them talking about something personal rather than dealing with politics.

“The fucked up thing is, when I think about it, issue by issue, I don’t think I disagree with anything you’ve said.”

And this is where we get the most important subversion of the story.  Eva breaks character, fully engages with her job, and undermines everything she’s been doing since Rogers first mentioned Chavez.  An analytical reader knows the story is over at this point, it’s all just wrapping up from here, because this is where we finish Eva’s character arc in the piece.  Eva isn’t an analytical reader, but Steve is and he helps her figure it out.  Which is ultimately another subversion because forcing her out of the job goes totally against the “Steve Rogers: asshole” premise tendered by the piece so far, establishing the counter-theory of “Steve Rogers: Nice guy playing a very deep game.”

Next time:

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

Get your requests for future Crucible fodder by October 1.

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

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