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.

CC: Ghosts of New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: The Veldt by Ray Bradbury.

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

CC: A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica

This week‘s story is pretty unquestionably awesome.  It was nominated for the World Fantasy award, reprinted in Year’s Best anthologies, and exemplifies Valente’s ability to destroy structure by giving you a story built entirely out of auction item descriptions.

We’ve done enough analyzing how a story gets told inside an unusual structure that I want to focus instead on the way she leverages this particular structure to sneak in extra details and commentary in the story.  The first, most obvious of these, is in the pricing of the items.  The story is very clearly on Maldonado’s “side” which it telegraphs pretty blatantly by giving his vision the last word, but it’s reinforced throughout the story.  Despite everything right up to the last paragraph making it clear that Maldonado is a fantasist, not a legitimate cartographer, and one who lured people to their rather horrible deaths, his maps sell for significantly more than Acuña’s.

The other comparison in the meta-data I find interesting is in how the lots are named.  The first two pairs have identical names with distinguishing parentheticals.  These parentheticals do a great deal to distinguish the different characters of the maps.  Acuña’s is designated “The Seal Map” which is very down-to-earth and practical.  Maldonado’s is “The Sun Dog Map.”  They’re both named after animals used as important markers on the maps, but rather than opting for the compass rose on Maldonado’s map, which would have been a fantastical creature that played no further part in the story, they opted for referencing Skell and Grell.

The next pair does a similar thing, except that Acuña’s map gets no parenthetical specifier whereas Maldonado’s does.  This is a hint, early on, of the divergence in the careers of the two cartographers.  Acuña is the staid academic, but Maldonado is capturing imaginations already and his work is getting popular nicknames, his maps taking on importance outside the academic sphere.

Then, of course, there are the ship names.  Proximidad, the ship the two captains were on together, means “closeness.”  Anamnesis is the rediscovering of knowledge contained within ourselves.  These ships were named with purpose.  Little details like that are how to force the story to keep telling you the story, even when it’s pretending to be doing something entirely unrelated to story telling.

Next week: Ghosts of New York by Jennifer Pelland.

Then: The Veldt by Ray Bradbury.

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

CC: And Their Lips Rang with the Sun

This week we’re doing Amal El-Mohtar’s And Their Lips Rang with the Sun.  This story is gorgeous, and if you google around the internets you’ll see I’m not the only one who thinks so.  El-Mohtar does a lot of work with poetry and it shows in her prose – it’s always lush and evocative.  In this story she’s basically showing off with a giant, “Hey, look what I can do.”

For this trip through the Craft Crucible, I want to dig into her choices if imagery and where those choices get deployed.  We have the frame story and the story-story, and the narrative treats them differently.  The frame story is in an aggressive second person while the story-story is a more traditional third.  But that’s not the only difference; the imagery for the frame story is food centric, with spicy tea taking the lead and threading through all the frame-intrusions.  The other half uses celestial imagery – it’s all sun and moon focused.

Had cinnamon been ground and rubbed into their skin, they could not have been more brown, more fragrant, more beloved of the wine-bright sky.

This line from the first paragraph of the story does a superb job of setting up the two sets of imagery.  We’re in the frame story, though it’s too soon for the reader to know that yet, but we’re talking about the sun girls who will take center stage once we move out of the frame.  And we see both sets if imagery, the cinnamon and wine for the frame, the sky for the nested tale.  Imagery is something readers are rarely conscious of while they’re reading, so it’s easy to get sloppy in how it’s deployed.  Done well, like it is here, it builds and gives a subtle structure that guides the reader’s experience through the story.

Have you ever tasted a fig? A pomegranate? You have not until you have tried your teeth against ours. Come into my house; sit down, friend, eat; let this old woman pour you a tea sweet as the sight of our Sun-girls while I tell you about them.

Food imagery as it pertains to describing women is a loaded subject and one that I am fairly confident El-Mohtar is aware of.  Even if I didn’t know more about her than this story, she dodges most of the pitfalls by justifying the use of the food imagery in this case; it’s relevant because these women play a direct part in the presence of the food.  Their task causes the weather that produces the crops, and so the relationship is one of mutual reinforcement.  The story then takes the payoff from that work when, after using cinnamon, wine, figs, and pomegranates to give us a picture rife with associations of the women, we then describe the tea by referencing them.  So the women cause the food in the story, the food describes the women to the readers, and then the women serve as a referent as we get back to the food.  It’s a tidy cycle and you can see it starting to pay off in the first five paragraphs.

I like the use of the tea through the story here not just because it closes the loop on the women-food imagery, but because it provides a piece of business that pulls the reader through the frame.  We’re being addressed directly even though it’s very clear by the end of the story that the “you” being addressed is not me.  But are you going to explain to an old lady pressing spicy tea on you that you’re not whoever it is she thinks you are?  I’m not.

Dear friend, console yourself; you are in a civilised country, among the learned and the wise. Drink your tea.

I especially like this use here, because the space between the frame and the nested story has collapsed.  El-Mohtar is pausing a moment to dispel probable reader assumptions, i.e. that this exotic, numinous society shaped by a sun cult is abusive and barbaric.  We need this not just because the story is pitched to a western audiences likely to make assumptions about societies patterned after Middle Eastern ones, but to collapse the spectrum of possibilities for the consequences of Lam’s dereliction of duty.  If we’re expected her to be abused and tortured, it’ll undermine the genuine heartbreak of her isolation and estrangement from her companions.  So here we gently pick on the reader a bit, get all that leg work done, and just to keep things from getting confusing, reference the tea to remind you that we’ve stepped back into the frame for a moment.

She taught dancing to the common folk, and grew to be a garrulous old woman among them, known for accosting strangers in the square and plying them with more spicy tea than their bladders can comfortably hold.

And this is where the tea imagery really starts to pay off, because it’s what we’re given as our first solid clue about the identity of the narrator.  This is the first place where the story begins to acknowledge that the Lam of the nested tale and the Mal of the frame story (see what she did there?) are the same person.  The tea doesn’t just navigate is through the weak places in the narrative where the frame interrupts, but it ties them together for the reader.

I’ll leave digging into the celestial imagery as an exercise to the reader.  Feel free to share your results!

Next week: Is my sister’s birthday.  I’m going to be out of town and take the week off.

After that: A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica by Catherynne M. Valente

Followed by: Ghosts of New York by Jennifer Pelland.

Women Destroy Science Fiction

I already mentioned this once, but I think it merits a second mention.  The Kickstarter for Women Destroy SF is in its final legs.  There are five days left, and they’re close enough to hitting their final stretch goal that there’s a decent chance of reaching it.  I’d like to see Fantasy destroyed, so I’m going to urge you to take a look at their shiny reward tiers and pick one.

In case you aren’t convinced that I’m sincere, I gave them an essay.  That’s right – they got writing for free from me.  You do know how I feel about giving away work, don’t you?  Yeah, I’m serious about this being a cool project.  The other essays they’ve put up have been interesting, too.

CC: Paper Menagerie

(Quick Note: I’m moving CC to Thursdays.  Wednesdays just aren’t working out for me)

Ken Liu is awesome across the board, but he really knocked it out of the park with Paper Menagerie.  It was the first story to win the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy award.  It’s kind of brilliant.

This isn’t remotely the first story about a kid recognizing the value of their heritage too late.  Versions of this story are all over the place, and they usually suck.  It’s a subject so inherently prone to cheese and ham-fisted emotional manipulation that it’s very easy to do it poorly.  Liu doesn’t, though, and it’s because he writes stories the way I like to sell things: he makes the reader do the work.

If you boil this story down to its rough essence it is this:

1) Boy has connection with mom

2) Boy develops values incompatible with connection

3) Boy breaks mom’s heart

4) Boy gets upset when he realizes he’s an unforgivable asshole

Do you know what isn’t a natural human inclination?  Feeling sorry for an asshole who gets what he deserves.  Do you know what people do when this particular asshole gets what’s coming to him?  They cry, and then give Ken Liu all the awards ever.  And it’s their own fault, too, because Liu doesn’t believe in telling his readers how to feel.  He just distracts them until they trip into having their hearts cut open.

We talked about the vanishing element of humor in Brief Candles and how that was used to lead the reader into the investment needed to pull of the ending.  The psychology at work here is similar, except we never get a laugh.  The entire first scene is sweet, delicate, and there to show the readers the special, unique bond the boy and his mom have.  Dad can’t make him stop crying, but Mom can, with this special trick.

Zhejiao zhezhi,” Mom said. This is called origami.

I didn’t know this at the time, but Mom’s kind was special. She breathed into them so that they shared her breath, and thus moved with her life. This was her magic.

There’s no flim-flammery here, nothing flashy or grabby.  Everthing is matter-of-fact and straightforward.  The sentences are sparse, proof-like to the point of “and thus.”  We trust the narrator to be straight with us because there’s no sign he’s planning to do anything else, and we accept that his mother can make animated paper creatures because of course she can.  This is the narrative voice of fables and magical realism and Realtors who will soothe you right into buying a house.

This scene also gives us the grounding we need for the culture clash that becomes so important later.  Liu doesn’t rush us, though.  We get a sweet story about how Mom and Dad met.  Nevermind that it’s rather creepy and says unpleasant things about dad – the story will bring us to that later – right now what we’re seeing is a delightful little love-at-first sight vignette.  Now the reader has the facts, and since it’s done after we got whimsical paper animals we’re rolling right along with it.  If you got to the end of that section without going, “Ugh, mail order bride, squick!” then you’ve already fallen for the trap.  We’re only at the end of the second section and you, dear reader, are toast.

Liu’s ambitious, though.  So we get a longer scene telling us more about the animals, building our relationship with them, getting us really invested especially in Laohu and the shark.  Note that not once in this section do we see a direct interaction between the narrator and his mom.  She’s there, but as a background figure.  The closest we come is when he asks her for the shark, a thing we’re told in half a sentence that moves on, not one of the moments actively illustrated for us.  Mom’s there, we aren’t going to forget her, but all of our bonding is with the Menagerie.

And Mom’s still not really there in the next scene, either.  We have two strange women, we finally get a name for our narrator, but the scene hinges on her absence so much that the moment she wanders in, awkwardly, the scene’s over.  This, dear readers, is the thin end of the wedge on what should be our unflagging loyalty to Mom.

A wedge that gets hammered home by Obi Wan Kenobi.  Wow is Mark ever a jerk, and this is where something really neat happens.  Mark’s the first to discount the menagerie as worthless trash, and we’re hurting for Jack when it happens.  We’re hurting so much that when he goes and does the exact same thing, he doesn’t lose our sympathy.  Liu has redirected our natural outrage to Mark, even though Jack is just as guilty of the same crimes, more so even since he really ought to know better.

The next two sections are all about Mom disappearing.  No direct interaction, just a description of the variety of ways they don’t interact.  If you ever want a sequence to throw at somebody who’s had the “Show don’t tell” mantra imprinted on their psyche, shove this at them.

If Mom spoke to me in Chinese, I refused to answer her. After a while, she tried to use more English. But her accent and broken sentences embarrassed me. I tried to correct her. Eventually, she stopped speaking altogether if I were around.

It’s all telling, and this sequence works because we’re told all of it.  It wasn’t visceral or meaningful enough for the narrator at the time that he’d bother to go into specifics and show it to us.  Worse, if he did, we’d probably forget about how much he was hurt (that was shown) and start taking up for Mom.  We get the information because we need it, but we’re not wasting time on it.  Which is exactly what Mom would want, since this sequence is all about her disappearing act, to the point where she sends Jack away just in time to die off screen.  Let’s face it, if he’d been there when she died, it would have been melodramatic and tacky.  Liu know’s what he’s doing when he buries plot moments.

Let’s take a second to talk about Susan, because she’s a particularly subtle bit of brilliance.  We don’t get a description of her, but given an absence of description and what we know about Jack, she’s probably white.  And unlike every other white character in the entire story, Dad included, she doesn’t reinforce Jack’s distancing from his mother and his heritage.  She doesn’t preach at him, either.  Just a compliment about his mom’s artwork, and then decorating their living space with it.  Susan is the only character in the story who treats Mom well and Liu does absolutely nothing to draw our attention to that.  But the fact that Jack is somebody who’d both choose Susan for his girlfriend and who she’d choose to be with tells us a whole lot about adult Jack that we wouldn’t believe if he told us himself.  And he confirms it for us on screen when he’s nice to Laohu.

The effort Jack has to go through in order to read the letter is just Liu sharpening a knife before he hands it to you.  And then just has his protagonist sit down on a bench with a stranger.  That’s all the happens.  He sits there.  There is nothing else going on in the story at that point.  That emotional roller coaster you go on while the letter gets read?  That’s you stabbing yourself with that knife Liu handed to you.  You can quit at any time.  I mean, come on now, mom’s dead.  Her suffering is over.  Why are you hitting yourself?

Son, I know that you do not like your Chinese eyes, which are my eyes. I know that you do not like your Chinese hair, which is my hair. But can you understand how much joy your very existence brought to me? And can you understand how it felt when you stopped talking to me and won’t let me talk to you in Chinese? I felt I was losing everything all over again.

Why won’t you talk to me, son? The pain makes it hard to write.

Translation: Here I am, right here, on screen, not fading into the background, and I’ve been here the whole time.  Of course Jack is devastated.  And since we’ve been on his side and just had what an asshole he is rubbed in our faces, we’re devastated, too.  Dear fellow audience members: We totally picked the wrong team.  At least Jack gets a tiger to cuddle and comfort him.  All we get is the uncomfortable realization that Liu is prolific, and probably going to do that to us again.

Next week: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber.

After that: Wikihistory by Desmond Warzel.

Salamander Patterns is Up

Hey guess what today is.  Tuesday!  I love Tuesday!  Okay, that’s a lie.  Tuesday and I are locked into an eternal battle of mutual loathing and persecution, which I tend to lose.  (It’s not my fault, Tuesday cheats by making the day start before 10am)

It’s also the day my latest story in Lightspeed goes up on the internet for free.  You can read it here, and the interview they did with me for it here.  I have no idea what’s in the interview; I was in Chicago and a smidge distracted when I did it and since it’s Tuesday, don’t have time to read it over now.  Go find out if I made an ass of myself and let me know, ‘kay?

While I’m linking you to neat stuff you should click through to, Lightspeed is helping Women Destroy Science Fiction.  I’m destructive and female.  This is cool.  They’ve got a Kickstarter going.  Even if you don’t want to give, knowing it exists is likely to make your day better.