CC: A Story About You

nightvalelogofull-660x660This month’s CC is a bit late, largely because I underestimated the logistical difficulties of doing something only in audio, but it’s worth it.  Welcome to Night Vale, in case you don’t know, is one of the most popular podcasts ever, spawning a healthy fan community and multiple international tours.  Its normal format is as the community news radio show hosted by Cecil, a charmingly sincere Night Vale native who loves his town but, nonetheless, sometimes questions the strange happenings there.  It’s lovecraftian in aesthetic and cutting in its wit.  The writers are clearly giant literature nerds (I sometimes want to start a book club for reading the titles that get name-checked in Night Vale episodes) and that means that once in a while, they decide to experiment with their medium.  “A Story About You” is a head-trippingly successful example of one of those experiments.

“This is a story about you,” said the man on the radio, and you were pleased because you always wanted to hear about yourself on the radio.

Commentary around the episode, including from the podcast itself, indicates that the show is actually about You, a character with a confusing name.  I call nonsense on that, and cite the Cecil’s opening as all the evidence you need to support my case.  It doesn’t make sense if it’s about You instead of you.  So we have a first-person serial story format engaging in acts of second-person.  From the first line.  The layers here, they are tricky.  (And fun!)

You didn’t always live in Night Vale.  You lived somewhere else where there were more trees, more water.

The characterization given for you in the opening does a phenomenal amount of work.  It doesn’t just tell the listening who they are for the duration of the episode, but it tells them all kinds of things about Night Vale and the world at large.  By the end of that sequence you know not only that you live in rather uninspiring poverty in Night Vale, and that Night Vale is probably objectively less pleasant than where you lived before, but that this is better.  There’s a common device used in Night Vale episodes where they’ll present a fact or description that qualifies for, “okay, that’s quirky and weird,” then nail it home by subverting it in a way that skewers the mundane.  The bit about writing direct mail campaigns where you urge people to commit suicide is the opening of that pitch.  The follow up about nobody reading them clinches it.  Whatever you’re doing in Night Vale, it’s not that, and also, wow is the world a depressing place.

A message that was there and then wasn’t, and that you could never quite read.

This is a super interesting line from a craft perspective.  It reminds the audience that you live within sight of the radio tower, keeping the now tied to the setting description from the beginning of the story.  But there were a lot of details in that setting description that could have been used and it’s the radio tower rather than the car dealership or the stars etc.  Using that particular detail not only grounds you in where you are, but is a subtle reminder of the format here, e.g. a radio show.  It does all that, while also adding an atmosphere of constant incomprehension.  You don’t understand your surroundings, that’s normal, and you accept it as such.  That blinking red light isn’t just a detail put there to fill space and help make the episode long enough, it’s asserting and reaffirming the rules at play for the story we’re hearing.

You did not order invisible pie.  You hate invisible pie.

No commentary about craft here.  Just wanted to call it out to say yeah, me too.

But while we’re stopped here, let’s think about the diner sequence a bit.  Why is it there?  Obviously time needed to pass for you so that the situation with the crate could develop, but that could have been covered with, “You played angry birds on your phone and wondered, why were the birds angry?  What could appease these birds and, if nothing, how could you guard against them?”  The episode has to hit a certain length and so they needed to fill time, but why do it this way?  What does it contribute?

Part of the answer to that is in callbacks to characters, jokes, and plot points established in other episodes, but I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that getting another chance to call the Apache Tracker an asshole is insufficient.  Yet he’s there, and you drove off to a diner and ate non-invisible pie almost entirely because the narrative wanted you to have an encounter with him.  Why?

I think it’s because the encounter does an excellent job of normalizing the truly surreal and bizarre by disguising it as the mundane surreal and bizarre.  It is not unheard of to have random, not-entirely-stable strangers force awkward conversations on you when you go out to diners alone at odd hours.  It’s bizarre and awkward, but a part of life.  Yet the Apache tracker is not your run-of-the-mill intrusive stranger, as explained when he’s introduced here.  This is, once again, establishing the boundaries for normalcy inside Night Vale, with the Apache Tracker and his history firmly placed on the side of normal.  And, while we’re at it, the strange sugar-packet driven restaurant economy of Night Vale.  Having those boundaries defined and salient is very important to the ultimate success of the story and that, dear reader, is almost certainly why this sequence is here.

Just as the announcer says that your car radio comes alive with a pop.

Bam, and we do our first serious wall-breaking of the episode.  It’s been a story about you the whole time, but now it’s a story that’s interacting with the story of you.  This is where the story starts to cash in on the work done in establishing boundaries for normalcy.  It’s already a second person narrative inside a first person narrative and it just blew up the fourth wall that, up to now, it pretended wasn’t there.  But it was.  Because even though you’ve been listening to the story of you all day, you haven’t been interacting with it, except to be happy you get to hear about yourself on the radio.  In kind, it hasn’t been interacting with you.  Or has it?  Because there have been all sorts of choices made in how the story of you has been narrated.  Could it be a coincidence that between the guy with the semaphore flags and the unparsable message from the blinking light of the radio tower, the Apache Tracker’s incomprehensible Russian, etc. etc. that there is a theme of “missed message” underpinning the choices made?  A foreshadowing that could, if you were running a real time Craft Crucible on the story of you as you lived it, would prepare you for what’s to come?

(Pause to insert comment: Josie’s affiliation with angels gets super weird if you think about it in context with A Stranger in Olondria.  Just saying.)

Several buildings are on fire.  Crowds of people are floating in the air held aloft by beams of light and struggling feebly against power they cannot begin to understand.

I really like this line because, at this point in the story, it’s impossible to know whether or not this is inside the bounds of normal.  All that work done to establish where the lines are?  What it really accomplishes is teaching the audience that they don’t know.  But neither do you, because remember, you aren’t a native of Night Vale.  You are a long time resident, though, so you know what to do in the case of something actually weird, and you do that.  Which is why you handle it with such equanimity when you realize that the part where everything you do is being broadcast on the radio has revealed you.

And why having crushing mundanity in the form of your fiancée show up becomes unquestionably weird.  You don’t have much of a reaction to the strange lights and rumbling earth.  You don’t question much at all.  But the minute your fiancée emerges, you start noticing all sorts of things.

Could it have been last week?  Or was it ten years ago?

And this transition into questioning, into awareness, is what triggers the critical moment that makes this a story, rather than a narrative stunt on a quirky podcast.  Up to that point, you were sheltered inside the walls of Night Vale, but as the narrative structure has already revealed, those walls are very permeable.  You knew that, and the journey you’ve been on since driving away from your life is complete now.  The is why the cliffhanger at the ending isn’t a cliffhanger at all, why the ambiguity of what comes next doesn’t matter.  The story put so much work into foreshadowing and highlighting the messages that weren’t understood that in that moment where “every message in this world has a meaning.  It all makes sense and you are finally being punished.”  Your time in Night Vale is less depressing than your time before, but this is the moment where you actually achieve happiness.  This is your character arc, the story of the day you came full circle.

The choice to repeat the line about you being pleased hearing about yourself on the radio is important to solidify that, I think.  It establishes that this breakthrough you had, as a character, is not small or insignificant.  It, in fact, is so important that it caused a first person / second person / omniscient / fourth-wall-breaking /causality fuddling event to occur.  And at the same time, that’s perfectly normal because this is Night Vale, where something as mundane as community radio does that.

Next month: Valedictorian by N.K. Jemisin

I’ll post the schedule for the next batch of stories through the Crucible before then.  Drop me a line if you have requests.

 

 

CC: Kenneth: A User’s Manual

This month is Sam J. Miller’s Kenneth: A User’s Manual.  This went up in Strange Horizons last year.  I liked it so much when I read it to do the prep work I was a little cranky with the fiction editors for publishing it in December instead of waiting for January (when it’d have a whole year to get award buzz behind it.)  kenneth01small

This is one of those stories that is aggressively structured like a not-story.  Nothing happens – the plot is entirely back story, the arcs are built entirely of the reader’s understanding.  We’ve looked at stories in unconventional formats before, but this one is actually comprised of multiple discrete documents that are

in conversation with each other.  This creates a neat layering effect in the reader’s grasp of the situation.

The first document is the initial recall notice which very plainly lays out that a virtual personality template is being recalled because it drives people to self-harm and suicide.  Which is weird.  Not only do we not have virtual person templates that could remotely take all the forms described in the recall, but we don’t really have a concept of Siri talking us into jumping off a roof.  The document is pretty hook-y on its own.  But what I think is the most effective part of this element of the story is what it doesn’t say.  You have no idea what Kenneth’s appeal might be, why people would use him, or how we could possibly trigger self-harm.  This isn’t even particularly alarming to the reader at this point because these aren’t things a recall notice would include.

If you click back to the main document, you get a few paragraphs that start to fill in the gaps.  We know what Kenneth looks like and what you’d buy him for is very clear.  I really can’t speak to what readers from a different background would have caught in their first read through, but my first time I only paid enough attention to 1981 to wonder how far in the future this piece is set, that they were getting recollections older than I am.  Older readers, or readers for whom the pertinent history is more salient probably had foreboding warning bells going off rather dramatically at this point.  This discrepancy, or at least the way the story forced me to be aware of it, was a huge part of why this story had such an impact on me.

Right after the warning that your sex toy is not, in fact, a toy, you get linked to an abstract about virtual causes of middle-aged homosexual suicide.  This abstract tells you virtually nothing about Kenneth or the story’s premise you don’t already know, but it does a fantastic job of making up for the ignorance of readers like me.  While ostensibly outlining a research study that supports the implications of the recall notice, it highlights the emotional vulnerability of the targeted demographic and the lack of support for them.  Readers who are out of touch for any number of reasons might start twigging on the final thrust of the story here, but even if they aren’t, the information they need for that thrust to strike home is plainly handed to them.

So if you’re a reader who follows the links as you encounter them, you have the situation surrounding an underserved and vulnerable population that can’t even be properly examined due to corporate meddling salient right as you dive back into a paragraph telling you that the schematics etc., for this dangerous, horrifying Frankenstein’s monster of simulated personhood is being illegally distributed.  Why? Is the “We” some vicious collective of sadistic hackers who want to leave a bear trap lying around for the vulnerable?  Is it some sort of ill-conceived anti-corporate protest?  Something is bizarre here.

It matters that the first point is “Your Kenneth will be cruel.”  Cruelty is, in fact, the underpinning of everything that you’ve read so far.  It just wasn’t obvious, and it may still be obscure even at this point.  That cruelty is what makes Kenneth human, what makes him more genuine, more real than the other products.  That realness matters, and the fact that cruelty the element that enables it matters, too.

So of course the next point is a reminder that Kenneth is, in fact, not real at all.  The story isn’t masking its cruelty anymore.  Item 1 explains why Kenneth is attractive.  Item 2 is a reminder that he’s a fantasy.  3 is both a call back to the recall notice and the abstract and a very interesting reveal about the “We.”  They knew Kenneth was dangerous, wanted to curb that, but still chose to distribute the schematics post-recall.  This both asserts a sense of ethical responsibility for the “We” and reinforces the oppressive and dangerous meddling of the corporate interests.

Then everything breaks open with Item 4.  Now that “We” have started giving us information about themselves, more spills out.  What’s interesting is that we don’t just collapse “We” into a single man, but we also collapse the corporation into a single person.  And now there’s more back story.  There was a falling out between these two.  There are hurt feelings.  “We” is in pain.

Item 6 is where even the very sheltered, out-of-touch reader gets clued in to what’s happening here.  If this item came at the beginning, it wouldn’t work.  It amounts to saying, “Hot boys, totally worth it, amirite?!” which is so absurdly shallow and idiotic most people would, reasonably, bounce off.  The depth is in the context.  Loneliness, misery, fantasy you need to feel alive made flesh before you and, critically, ephemeral.  If Kenneth were going to linger there’d be no impetus to take the risk right now.  All the work that’s come before has put the reader where “We” was and so the comment isn’t, “Hot boys,” but “Life.”

It’s downhill from there.  Item 7 is all reality, no fantasy, no escape, which drives you right into 8, the confession of an obsession.  Obsession seems reasonable now, doesn’t it?  And it’s all obsession from there, with the “We” admitting the reality of the situation as the reader realizes it.  That’s a downer.

But let’s go back to that abstract linked earlier, in case we didn’t click when we got to it originally.  Now what does it tell us?  That “We” aren’t alone.  They might be the only one who managed to create Kenneth, but they aren’t the only one who would.  There’s a whole population of people who are, functionally, “We” and they can’t get the help they need because researchers can’t even study them to find out what they need.  They’re trapped in a net woven by the “Corporation” is who is, we now know, one person who betrayed “We.”  And, if we go back to that very first link, they’re winning.  They’ve erased the suffering, the culture defined by what it has lost, the survivor’s guilt, turned Kenneth into just another glitzy virtual person, and they’re yanking him from the shelves, rendering invisible the one clue about what happened that crept out.

Which, for somebody who isn’t exactly out of touch with queer culture yet doesn’t have AIDS as a a pertinent cultural touchstone beyond that’s why I have to tell the blood donation people whether I’ve slept with a man who’s slept with a man and will get turned away if I say “yes,” is an extra whammy on the downer.  It is invisible, and that invisibility is dangerous to the people it hides.

This story could have just been a rant about the corporate co-opting of gay culture, or the negligent disinterst paid to AIDS’ lingering legacy, but even though a significant portion of the text is in fact a screed, the story itself doesn’t rant.  It just gives you pieces and, by making you put them together, makes it impossible for you to stay ignorant.

Next Month: We continue our weird-format phase with A Story About You by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. (Yes, you’ll need to listen to it. It’s worth it)

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