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

Today I am 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CC: The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CC: Selkie Stories are for Losers

This month’s fodder for the Crucible is Sofia Samatar’s Selkie Stories are for LosersThis was originally published in Strange Horizons and was, incidentally, the very first story I podcast for them.  I recorded five versions of this story and I’m pretty certain I read it more than Sofia did in writing/revising it.  Consequently, I was very happy when lots of people liked this story, because even after a month of staring at it constantly while I put recording technique etc., through its beta phase, I wasn’t bored.

For this story I want to talk about something I’ve touched on in other essays here but which is massively important here: the negative space.  I’ve seen commentary decrying this story as not speculative because there’s no conclusive proof the mom was a selkie, she might have just walked out and the selkie thing is a coping-myth.  That is a valid reading of the story, that’s actually a less interesting story.  What isn’t talked about explicitly, what lies between the lines but exists all the same, that’s the meat of this story.

I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.

First line of the story and we have everything.  We know the backstory – Mom was a selkie and has left; we have the character – sarcastic and angry; and we have a decent sense of setting and place – sounds like a modern Western teenager to me.  We have that without the narrator saying she was the one who found the coat, or that it was her mom who left.  We just know that because why else would that particularly descriptive point be her understanding of selkie stories?  This opening is deliciously assertive, in part because it refuses to make an explicit statement about what happened.  The problem is selkie stories, not her life.  It’s not even selkies, just the repeated plot arc of “they were happy and then they left.”

I work at a restaurant called Le Pacha. I got the job after my mom left, to help with the bills. On my first night at work I got yelled at twice by the head server, burnt my fingers on a hot dish, spilled lentil-parsley soup all over my apron, and left my keys in the kitchen.

Samatar could have written, “After mom revealed herself as a selkie and abandoned us, I had to get a job. My first night there sucked.” It would convey the same info and share the same tone and be a completely different character in a completely different story.  There is no explicit commentary about how that night went.  She just related a series of events and you know exactly, in your bones, how bad that first night was.  By the time she’s left her keys behind it’s no wonder – she had to be so frazzled it’s surprising she didn’t leave everything there.  But this is a story about what we don’t talk about, what we don’t say, and it wouldn’t work the same way if we didn’t have a narrator who won’t talk about things.  We the audience are getting the information we need, but she doesn’t have to tell us.

I turned, and Mona was standing there, smoke rising white from between her fingers.

She doesn’t describe Mona herself at all.  She doesn’t say anything about what she thinks of Mona then or now.  She’s just there, with a cigarette, and you know it’s all saving angel/white knight/this is love.

Do we get told they become fast friends? Nope.  Instead we get some information about Mona, we get all kinds of explicit information about Mona’s situation and Mona’s family because those are safe topics.  The closest to a description of thier current relationship we get is this.

After work Mona says, “Got the keys?”

Mona’s still taking care of her, they’re friendly, and the moment with the keys is one that’s shared and salient between them.  For Mona that might just mean our narrator is always the frazzled girl who stumbled into something she wasn’t ready for, but that means that Mona is still chronically in the rescuer/saviour mode.  That impression we got at her introduction is still relevant to the narrator because that moment is a crux of their relationship.

I tell her they’re not my selkie stories, not ever, and I’ll never tell one, which is true

This line here is important because at this point in the story, it’s true.  She’s not telling a selkie story.  Even if we get more details about that day, a more explicit acknowledgement that the theoretical girl going to the attic is our narrator, and proof that she didn’t see her mom become a seal.  And in case we didn’t know that the surface level meaning of the narrator’s words weren’t the whole picture, she immediately tells us a selkie story.  Not hers, somebody else’s.

when his wife washed the clothes, she found it.

Even when she’s telling us a selkie story, though, she doesn’t quite tell it.  She stops before the ending.  She finds the key and then…section break.  We know she unlocks the chest and leaves, but we don’t get told that.  This is a bit of a primer on how to read the story.  All the facts are here, but the narrator isn’t going to give them to us or organize them for us.  We’ve got to do that ourselves.

people who drop things, who tell all, who leave keys around, who let go

This is a really critical final line to the story.  Because we’ve had our narrator asserting who she is and what she is and isn’t doing, and we’ve got a pretty clear idea on where the truth lies in that, and then this.  “People who leave keys around,” we know is her.  “People who tell all.”  That’s….she clams she wont’ tell the story, but she did, didn’t she?  It’s pretty clear that she is the person described in this line.  Which is heartbreaking!  Because, yes, it means she’s people “who let go.”  But it also means that she’s “on the wrong side of magic” and that selkie stories are for her.  It’s her acknowledging what happened and finding the very edges of how to cope with it.  This is a coming of age story told in the subtext, and it’s gorgeous.

Next month: The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu (Tor.com, 02-2013).  Sometime between now and then I’ll announce the next batch of stories we’re going to do.  Drop me line if you have something you’d like.

The Long List Anthology

UPDATE: Kickstarter has been postponed pending getting the long list and contacting authors to be solicited.  You can read David’s update here.

You know what the cool kids do when people try to ruin their party?  They party anyway.  David Steffen is a cool kid.

David’s the guy you might know from Diabolical Plots, The Submissions Grinder, or one of his stories floating around.  His latest act of neat is the Long List Anthology.  It’s an anthology that will collect the stories that received a lot of nominations for the Hugo ballot but didn’t manage to appear on it.  Given nonsense with this year, and the fact that the last few years have seen small short fiction ballots because the nominations were too scattered for a full set of stories to get the minimum 5% nomination, this is an idea that is the paragon of sheer elegance in its “Yes now, please,”ity.

There is, of course, a Kickstarter.  It went live this morning. So early this morning it was about half an hour after I went to bed.  I was going to tout how I’d donated a critique as a backer reward and you should rush over there to get it.  I was going to privately be nervous about whether anybody would think that a critique from me was worth $150.  I had a whole neurotic afternoon scheduled for tomorrow on that subject alone.

It, uhm.  It was gone before I woke up.  It was gone in three hours.  I hope whoever that was is in Europe because otherwise I am so sad for their sleep.  Also, now I have some extra time for tomorrow afternoon!

Go give David money so he can do this cool thing.  The thing’s barely eight hours old and it’s already a significant way to meeting its base funding, so I don’t think this is a risky proposition for you.

Also, if it does something impressive like, say, hitting its upper stretch goal by the end of the week, maybe I’ll offer David another critique to throw in.  Because, frankly, I’m feeling really sorry for the late birds right now.

The Grace of Kings and a Feline Terrorist

Back at the beginning of the month, a very cool book came out for your reading pleasure.  It’s this one.

Technically, I haven’t read it.  I read an early draft wherein my most notable contribution was to cuss at Ken Liu about pigeons.  This is, I’m not at all ashamed to say, probably the greatest of my literary achievements to date.  Someday I’ll be sitting in a job interview and when they ask me why they should give me the job I’ll say, “I once cussed at Ken Liu about pigeons.”  There will be a long moment of awed silence, and then they’ll ask me to write my own job description and employment contract.  This is a true thing that cannot be denied.

What else is a true thing that cannot be denied is that this book is really cool.  There’s not anything new in it, but some of the things he does are so old-school you might not have seen them before, and he mashes them together in a way that’s definitely new to you, and if you’re even a little bit bored of the same-old, same-old, this’ll be a breath of fresh air.  And even if you aren’t, it’s fun, which is enough reason to read anything right there on its own.  I can tell you all of this with authority, even though I haven’t read this version, because it was true of an earlier version.  Also, to make sure the fun and neat and general spiffy that was in the book didn’t vanish during subsequent revisions, I did science.

It is a well known fact of modern science that cats are the source of all things good, and also all knowledge, and also the center of the universe.  I just so happen to have had a cat nearby with whom I could perform a test on the copy of The Grace of Kings Ken sent me and which arrived over the weekend.  (Important takeaway: I have a signed copy of The Grace of Kings.  Do you have a signed copy of The Grace of Kings? No? Aren’t you just a sad panda.)  This cat’s name is Zoey.  She’s ancient, cranky, loud, smelly, clingy, demanding, and made of fur she sheds liberally absolutely everywhere.  She moonlights as a tiny dinosaur and hires herself out as a domestic terrorist.  In summary: yeah. She’s a cat.

Because I am a wise and sensitive human, I decided to interrupt her very important settee-nap (as opposed to her futon nap, her foot-of-the-bed nap, her head-of-the-bed nap or her Rolling-on-rug-to-embed-fur play session) in order to conduct my terribly important experiment.  Would Zoey certify that all good things remained in this book? Or, more importantly, would she consent to be photographed with the book so I could shamelessly manipulate people into associating it with internet-crazed-feline-obsession?

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Early trials were inconclusive.

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Zoey, it seems, expected that if I was going to disrupt her, I would be petting her, or playing with her, not trying to get her to pose with a book.  She’s a cat, not a marketing prop, her agitated pacing and squeaks seemed to indicate.  Or possibly they were saying, “Oooh, the boring human came out of her office to acknowledge me. I must vex and frustrate her to make sure this will happen again.”  The day I claim to understand the inner workings of a cat’s mind is that day I’ve started my cult.

Eventually, things began to settle.

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This is clearly a case of “This object is not offensive enough to drive me from the sunny settee. Now scritch me, human!”  See how her paw consents to brush the corner of the book.  That’s a mild endorsement of its contents if ever I saw one.

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And that?  That is treating the book as if it were part of her current environment, i.e. the sunny, comfy settee where she plans to lounge for the next hour because it is the most perfect place in all the universe.  Hear that, Ken?  Your book is part of the most perfect place in all the universe: my couch.

That, good people, is how to scientifically obtain an endorsement from your local feline.

So when you see this book in the store you need think only one thing: The Grace of Kings – Anaea tested, cat approved.

My Dulcet Tones and The Litigatrix

The Short: I read Ken Liu’s The Litigatrix for PodCastle, and it’s up for you to listen to today.

The Long:

I mentioned last week how I’ve gone through a bit of a transition in how I perceive the value of my podcasting work to other people as time has passed.  I’m not going to lie – one of the big things that assured me I wasn’t just chatting to the ether was when other people started asking me for audio work.  There are roughly eleventy bajillion people who want to do voice work, so if I’m getting solicited, somebody likes what I’m doing.

And when I’m getting solicited to read for an author I really like?

Also, murder mystery?

Also, PodCastle.

It was super awesome the first time they asked me to narrate a Ken Liu story.  It was so awesome I went and got my first ever sinus infection and lost my voice, consequently blowing their deadline in a major, major way.  I hate blowing deadlines, but I was physically incapable of doing anything else.  Alas, I said to myself, they’ll never want anything to do with me again, feckless, voiceless wretch that I am.

Once in a while, on very rare occasions, when the fate of the world is a little bit in jeopardy, I am wrong.

As a cynical pessimist, I usually quite enjoy being wrong.

In summary – THIS WAS SUPER AWESOME I’M SO THRILLED YOU SHOULD GO LISTEN AND THEN TELL KEN HOW AWESOME HE IS.

Also, of squee note, the story was originally purchased by Ann Leckie and published in GigaNotoSaurus.  I woke up this morning to a notification that a tweet I was mentioned in was favorited by Ann Leckie.  My level of fangirling here is not at all creepy.