The Rhetoric of N.K. Jemisin’s Wiscon Guest of Honor Speech

It’s no secret that I’m a huge, giant, slobbery fan of N.K. Jemisin.  I’m such a huge fan that I usually get about two sentences in to describing how much I like everything she does and want more from her before a voice that sounds distressingly like Neil Gaiman pops up in the back of my head and goes, “Now, now.  Nora Jemisin is not your bitch.”  And then I whine at the voice and go, “But she’s so good!  Surely I’m entitled to demand more of the good stuff from her.”  The voice is so very polite, and so endearingly English that I bite my tongue and whoever I was talking to wonders why I started stuttering mid-sentence. This is a thing I share so you can guess at some of what was going on in my brain when I approached her the day after her guest of honor speech to ask whether she’d be okay with me analyzing her speech at the rhetorical level.  It was important to me that I ask since 1) Analyzing the rhetoric could be seen as being dismissive of the very important and worthy content 2) I know enough writers to know they trend toward neurosis and having somebody examine how their sausage is made could in some small way contribute to her writing or arguing less which is the opposite of what I’d want and 3) It’s polite and given that she was right there, was easy to do. Things I learned from asking her if she’d mind: 1) No, she doesn’t mind 2) It’s really hard to communicate coherently when you’re having loud arguments with phantom Neil Gaiman in your brain about where the line between gushing fangirl and creepy-entitled-fan is and 3) She probably actually has no idea that I’m the person who wrote a review of her book that consisted mostly of, “I want to eat her liver.”  I’m pretty sure I’m still going to have to answer for that someday. At any rate, I have her blessing, and the rhetoric in that speech is very cool, so here goes the analysis.  The whole speech is here, and you should go there to read it.  I’m going to quote it here extensively, but it’s better if you go read the whole thing on its own, first.

I’m tempted to just stop there, drop the mic, and walk offstage, point made. Chip’s a hard act to follow.

This is the first moment of rhetorical greatness in the speech.  One, it’s a really evocative image.  She doesn’t have to literally walk of the stage to borrow the impact of doing just that, which nicely lures the audience in.  We’re invested in listening to what she says from this point, because she didn’t just walk away, point made.  She’s taking the time to share more, and we want to hear what it is.  But it’s also very generous to the audience, crediting them with knowing and understanding exactly why should could just stop there and walk off.  It’s a signal that she’s assuming we’re peers.  The subtext is very “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” in nature.  Given where the speech goes, building this relationship with the audience is critical.

Like Chip said, this stuff has always been here. It’s just more intense, and more violent, now that the bigots feel threatened.

And it is still here. I’ve come to realize just how premature I was in calling for a reconciliation in the SFF genres last year, when I gave my Guest of Honor speech at the 9th Continuum convention in Australia.

There’s a ton going on here.  One, we’re tying the current situation back to the past, while invoking the authority of somebody external.  That gives legitimacy to the points we’re making about the current situation while bolstering the authority of the peopple we’re citing.  Then we follow that bolstering of authority up with a confession of error.  This is really neat because, set up this way, admitting the error becomes a means of reclaiming a position of strength in the rhetorical space.  You’re swapping out the current, weak position for a new one which as of this moment us unknown but untainted and therefore potentially stronger.  This is what many bad apologies try to do, and they fail becuase that’s the wrong place for this technique.  In a badass call-to-arms, however, it’s great, especially since minor admissions of error are humanizing and endearing, making the speech-giver somebody the crowd is more inclined to follow.

During the month or so that it took SFWA to figure out what it wanted to do with this guy, a SFWA officer sat on the formal complaint I’d submitted because she thought I had “sent it in anger” and that I might not be aware of the consequences of sending something like that to the Board.

The whole paragraph is a beautiful bit of summary, letting the audience know context and history in case they don’t with enough commentary that it’s not a straight-up “As you know, Bob.”  That’s important since it would undermine the assumption of peer-ness established early on and risk being patronizing.  It also does a fantastic job of drawing clear lines between the us and them.  I call out this specific sentence from the whole paragraph because it strikes me as the meatiest.  Before this sentence, the facts could be read as ones of the system working: bigot misbehaves, bigot gets punished, why are y’all upset?  This line torpedoes that possible interpretation while also drawing attention to the fact that while she’s not patronizing us, they patronized her rather ferociously.  The ironic tone taken in the whole paragraph gives “sent it in anger” an extra bite.  Of course she sent it in anger – she’s angry, and behavior like this is exactly why.  That extra bit isn’t something an audience is likely to be consciously aware of, but it gives some extra depth and stimulus for them to hang on to and keeps them engaged and listening.

But I suspect every person in this room who isn’t a straight white male has been on the receiving end of something like this — aggressions micro and macro. Concerted campaigns of “you don’t belong here”.

This is straight-up “my problems are your problems, and your problems are my problems.”  Peer-group building.  “Us” reinforcement.  She just co-opted everybody who isn’t a straight white male into her cause.  The “aggressions micor and macro” part is especially critical since it gives permission to everybody who hasn’t received death and rape threats to feel like they belong in that group.  Me, I was doing the, “Er, not really?” until that line.  After that line, well, all the stories I could share are fundamentally boring, but there are plenty.

(Incidentally: Mr. Various Diseases, Mr. Civility, and Misters and Misses Free Speech At All Costs, if you represent the civilization to which I’m supposed to aspire then I am all savage, and damned proud of it. You may collectively kiss my black ass.)

And here, gentlefolk, is the line where I went, “Oh hells yes, am I need to go blog the rhetoric in this speech RIGHT THIS VERy SECOND.”  This line is brilliance laced with crack.

1) It reclaims rhetoric used against her, turns it around, and makes it a bludgeon for counter-attack. Suddenly “half-savage” is so mincing and weak.  It’s a variant on the trick used with the admission of error earlier, but with an added layer of pulling the rung out from under the “them.”  Intead of switching positions from weak to strong, it recharacterizes the position she’s in.

2) You-my constructions reinforce the us-them dynamic she’s building.  Not all speeches need an us-them dynamic, but all calls-to-arms do, and the success of said call depends on how well the lines around us and them are drawn.

3) “Kiss my black ass,” is a cultural cliche.  Everybody, including Hollywood, knows that a mouthy, defiant black American is willing to whip out this particular invitation as needed.  It’s an ethnic middle finger.  Using it here reinforces the power of “all savage.”  It’s an assertion of the ethnic and racial tones, a claiming of ownership over them, and an aggressive declaration that they are, in fact, a strength.  And since she’s drawn her us-them lines very effectively up to here, everybody in the room gets to share in the power of that assertion, whether or not they’re in posession of a black ass to be kissed.

(I don’t even need to name a specific example of this; it’s happened too often, to too many people.)

Nice reinforcement of us-them.  It gives the audience permission to not know exactly what she’s talking about after she’s gone through a long list of things that anybody following closely could tie to this or that specific event.  It’s okay that you aren’t following closely – it’s ubiquitous, we all  know that, we’re a team, let’s move along.

Yeine, the protagonist of THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, was almost a white man because I listened to some of what these people were saying.

The objective brilliance of this particular line is questionable, but it gut-punched me.  That would have ruined that book, and the thought that it nearly happened fills me with a sort of existential terror that has brain-Gaiman sighing in polite exasperation.  I suspect anybody who loves this book correctly, that is to say the way I love this book, would feel the same way.  Anybody else, this is a wasted line.  But her audience was a convention where she was Guest of Honor – it’s a pretty safe place to make a gamble like this.

For the first time in my life I was diagnosed with high blood pressure earlier this year. It’s back down to normal, now, but bigotry kills, you know.

Our second admission of weakness, a pause in the rising rhetoric of power-claiming.  We’re humanizing again, putting an intimate, tangible face on the violence and consequences of the violence referenced in summary and abstraction so far.  We’re all in this together, we’re all cheering for our speech giver, and look at the sacrifices she’s already made, the personal, specific damage already wrought.  This is critical, because it sets up the need for assistance that justifies the call to arms.

So. If they think we are a threat? Let’s give them a threat. They want to call us savages? Let’s show them exactly what that means.

And from here on we’re in a tumbling, climactic, super-empowering call-to-arms.  There’s no weakness here.  It’s all assertion and instruction. It’s a claim of ability supported by concrete guidelines for how to execute it.  This is where she cashes in on the setup of the earlier speech.  This is where she closes the loops she openened earlier, ties up her loose ends, justifies staying on the stage even though she could have just dropped the mic and walked away.

Fucking fight.

Short, sweet, to the point.  Yes, ma’am.

Strange Horizons Podcast Contest: You Can Win

Today I announced a new contest on the Strange Horizons podcast.  The gist is this: I want more people commenting on and interacting with the podcast.  I’m offering bribes to make it happen.  There are two ways to win:

1) Comment on the story or podcast, starting with today’s, and going until July 9.  I’ll randomly choose one commenter from that time.  It’s raffle-style, so every (quality, as judged by me) comment gets you an entry.

2) Tell people about the contest.  The person judged by me to have most effectively spread the word about the contest will also win.

What do you win?  I’m so glad you asked!  You’ll get a free copy of audio book for The End is Nigh.  This is the first part of John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey’s Apocalypse Triptych.  This is an awesome prize, and you yearn for it.  You yearn for it so much, you’re going to go start commenting right now.

The Hands Down Best Part of Writers of the Future

There are two sides to the “of the Future” contest, the Writers and the Illustrators.  Before going out for the workshop I’d paid exactly 0 attention to the Illustrators side.  I know a bunch of artists, have massive appreciation for visual arts, but don’t actually know all that much about how that side of the industry works.  Then I got there and there were twelve artists and this whole other parallel thing going on and I was immediately fascinated.  I knew, intellectually, that one of the artists had done an illustration of my story, but I hadn’t really put any thought into it.  I’ve had stories illustrated before (the artwork Waylines has paired with A Long Fuse to A Slow Detonation is nice) and there were about hundred thousand other things that were taking up my brain space.

Then they did the reveal on Thursday.

This was both the simplest moment of spectacle Author Services aka ASI (the people who run the contest) arranged and, for me, the most effective.  They put framed prints of all of the artwork up in a semi circle, then sent the authors off to go find their piece.  I started at the left side of the circle and worked my way around methodically, determined to not embarrass or shame my artist by picking the wrong piece or failing to recognize mine.  Thirteen pieces of artwork.

Did I mention that the artists, as a whole, are much younger than the writers?  They are.  The why of that was one of the things I spent the week trying to figure out while digging into how the other side of the contest works.

I got to piece four or five and there was a world inside a bubble.  My story is set in a bubble universe.  It could have been mine, if the artist didn’t read the story very carefully.  It was a lovely piece, but the atmosphere was wrong, and the details didn’t have much to do with anything.  Probably not mine, move along.

When I say young, I mean that the night the artists arrived, a group of us writers pounced on them by the hotel pool.  Everybody was enthusiastic and friendly, but some of the artists seemed a little nervous and shy.  It felt a little like we’d loudly barged into freshman orientation – they were happy to have us there, but we didn’t fit and they weren’t sure what to do with us.

Piece eight had somebody on a bicycle leaving town.  My story has somebody who leaves town on a journey.  It’s possible that could be a badly rendered scene from my story.  Maybe?  I’m getting low on artwork.  Was it the one with the bubble after all?

Unlike the writers, the illustrator winners each quarter don’t get ranked.  They just have three winners per quarter, and all twelve winners go against each other for the grand prize.  Winning one of the illustrator quarters is basically just winning entry into the real competition, which is who does the best illustration for their story.  The artists get their assigned story, then have to deliver three thumbnail ideas.  One of those ideas gets greenlit, and they do the full workup of that one.

I get to artwork piece number eleven.  Nope, not mine.  And I’m getting worried.  Did I mention that the artists are adorable and I’d really rather not dash somebody’s dreams and ambitions?  Obviously one of the pieces I picked out as maybes were mine, and I’ll have to study the remaining two pieces as carefully as I have everything else so far, then beeline to one of them and claim I knew it the whole time, but wanted to take in all the artwork before announcing my discovery.  Which one, though?  Also, oh god, I am going to have to lie through my teeth about loving it and it being awesome and my tact wells are, at that point, completely drained.  But no way am I going to be the snotty writer who crushed the poor illustrator by huffily not appreciating the work that went into making a visual rendering of their vision so I just have to guess the right one and summon the resources I don’t have…

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Then I see piece number twelve.  Glance a thirteen.  Look at twelve.  Glance at eleven.  Nope, twelve is still there.  Not going anywhere.  Not a hallucination.  Not a cruel prank designed to guarantee I make an ass of myself.  It’s really there.

HOLY FUCK MY ILLUSTRATION LOOKS LIKE THE COVER OF AN N.K. JEMISON NOVEL

“Uhm,” I say, looking around the room at the other people mistakenly milling around at other pieces when they clearly ought to be drooling right here, “If this isn’t the artwork for my story, I have a serious beef with the author of whatever story it is.”

Understatement of the year.

“Hi.  I’m Bernardo.  Do you like it?”

Bernardo is eighteen.  He was seventeen when he won.  He’s still in high school.  He is the best artist on the planet.

He was also adorably nervous about whether I’d like it.  The prints weren’t true to the digital colors and this bothered him so much he pulled out his tablet to show me what the colors should look like.  “I don’t know why they assigned me your story.  I’ve never done anything like that before,” Bernardo said.

It doesn’t show. I was obnoxiously enthusiastic about my art, and Bernardo, for the whole rest of everything.  I’m not sorry.  I’m still obnoxiously enthusiastic.  The print of the artwork is getting shipped to me and I am not being particularly patient as I wait for it. Want. The pretty. Now.

Bernardo has put up with my undignified gushing remarkably well given that I’ve got a decade of “Knows how to behave better,” on him.  I may have interrupted a dinner conversation to give him my card and demand that he send me everything ever immediately.  It’s possible he’s afraid I’d fly to Portugal and hunt him down if he didn’t comply.  If so, he’s perceptive as well as talented.

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But how could you not be enthusiastic?  He made a clay model for reference.  And he sent me his sketch sheet where he was working through ideas, just like the neat extras you get at the back of comic book collections sometimes, except this is about my story.

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And the thumbnails that didn’t get selected as the piece for him to finish were full of good ideas.

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I was in fantastically good hands with Bernardo, and had no idea until the reveal.That smile is fantastic, and a great detail for him to have picked up from the story to highlight.

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What I really like is that so much of the this story was about the aesthetic, the atmosphere, and he captured it throughout.  He got it.  This is awesome, because I totally am the writer who’d look at the art, pout, and then whine about how they didn’t get it. Hopefully, not where the artist can hear me do it, but yeah.  That was the day where I got to melt with genuine squee instead of pretending to.

Somebody give Bernardo a job.  He’s about to graduate from high school and I don’t want him to do something sensible like go into banking.

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?

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.

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.