On the Baker’s Anniversary of Bree Newsome

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Thirteen months ago today, Bree Newsome scaled a thirty foot pole and removed the “confederate flag.”  A few days later I came across this image, created by timelordj4y.  This image disturbed me.  A lot.

I was born in Virginia.  My whole family is either from there, or has lived there so long they’ve effectively gone native.  The whole family.  On one side they were from North Carolina before they were from Virginia, and in the family history, that feels like an immigration event.  “Virginia” was my cultural and ethnic heritage so thoroughly that school assignments to make a doll dressed in the traditional costume of my country of origin were always…tricky.  We know when more or less which great great great grand whoever came over from where, but there are no ties there.  We functionally sprang up from the ground in a tiny place outside Richmond and any roots older or deeper than that don’t matter, are invisible to us.

Being Virginian means a lot, at least in my family.  For me.  It means being raised to look at Thanksgiving and mutter how they’d done this in Jamestown before a pack of ornery Calvinists decided European protestants weren’t protestant enough for them.  It means understanding that every important thing that happened in this country until the 1870’s was either instigated by a Virginian, successful because of a Virginian, or enabled by the mere presence of Virginia.  It means summers spent visiting battlefields and old mansions and getting quizzed on important historical dates at the dinner table.  History matters. It’s as thick as the air in summer.

About the time I was ten, one of my aunts dug an unexploded shell from the Civil War battle out of her tomato patch.  It’s on display in the family museum with the other artifacts we’ve dug out of that yard.  This isn’t weird.

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But it also means strangers blithely going, “Oh, so not really the South,” when I answer their follow up question about where in the South I’m from.  Then getting uncomfortable when I stare blankly and say, “Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy.  Most of the compromises in the constitution around slavery were instigated by a bunch of rich white Virginians.  Summers are hot, and the tea is mostly simple syrup. What standards are you using?”

It means people saying, “You don’t sound like you’re from Virginia,” as if it’s a compliment, then turning around and using y’all because it makes them sound folksy and quaint.

It’s that time somebody asked me if my family kept Klan hoods in their closets instead of skeletons, then acted like I was out of line when I answered with, “Sure, let’s talk about vigilante enforcement of racial disparities.  Is it okay to include sundown towns, states founded on dreams of white utopia, and how the most segregated cities in the country happen to be in the north?  Or is it only okay to talk about racism if we’re going to pretend it’s all lynchings and Jim Crow?”

It’s getting told, before leaving for college, that if you bring a black boy home it’ll kill your grandfather, and wondering whether that’s because he’s Virginian, or because he’s old.

It’s forever being part of the national scapegoat on race issues and on the one hand going, “Uhm, excuse me, but seriously?” and on the other sighing and going, “Yeah.  Yeah, I know.”

It’s seeing bumper stickers that say “The South Will Rise Again,” and for single, hopeful moment, believing it.  Then in the next moment, realizing that what rising would mean to you (education, a wide scale decline in generations of poverty, urban growth, innovation)  is not the same thing it means to somebody who’d display that bumper sticker.

It means that after you’ve spent an afternoon digging through research on the transcontinental railroad, your roommate comes home to a rant about how, if they’d chosen the proposed southern route it would have been faster and cheaper to build, and might well have saved the south.  But the war happened so they didn’t, and that fucking war ruined everything again.

Being Southern is and isn’t very much about that war. A war that my family understands as a thing we had to do, that was complicated and fraught and unnecessary and a part of our heritage.  We were taught to be proud of people on both sides for the good things they did, and critical of both sides for their hypocrisies, sins, and mistakes.  And, this is where we maybe diverge most noticeably from the typical Southern narrative (or maybe we don’t): the North didn’t win so much as the South lost, and the North didn’t beat us so much as we self destructed through stupidity and short-sightedness.  The institution of slavery as practiced in the Americas, particularly in North America, was a departure from other forms of slavery and those departures made it crueler, more divisive, and untenable from a merely pragmatic level: you cannot indefinitely enslave a majority population that has no hope of enfranchisement for itself or its future generations.  There’s no security in that setup, which renders it inherently unstable.

Slavery was idiotic and black people are people and Jim Crow was terrible but there are no black people in Grannie’s church and if I date a black man, I should probably keep it a secret.  None of that is whispered.  It’s not secret or subtle or taboo the way it is in the north.  These truths are self-evident and there is no conflict there.

I’ve been trying to write this, and abandoning it, for thirteen months.  It’s a young white woman from the South spewing a lot of words about how awkward it is to be a young white woman from the South right now.  I’m not getting shot.  I’m not even getting called names.  I can spend thirteen months thinking about a picture that bothered me and trying to find a way to explain why when all that really needs to be said is, “That lady is a badass.  Black lives matter.”

And it’s true.  Bree Newsome is a badass.  Black lives matter.  But that’s a platitude followed by a hashtag and that’s not remotely an adequate encapsulation of my thoughts.

Ieshia Evans

Ieshia Evans, also apparently a badass

That picture is distressing because it exists.  Because it’s powerful.  Because it’s a black woman pulling down a flag that shouldn’t have been flying in the first place; the bulk of its symbolic power dates to the Civil Rights movement, not the Civil War.  My dad is older than the modern trend of flying that flag, and it saw more use in 1961-1963 than it did during the war.  It went up, though.  That’s history.  Southerners don’t argue with history.  They can’t.  It’s in the air.  It’s in their blood.  It’s the conversation at the dinner table.

But an argument with history isn’t required.  Fighting is.  Respecting a fight well fought is.  The flag went up, and once it did, there was nothing we could do to change the fact that it went up.  But it didn’t have to stay.  And it didn’t have to take a black woman reacting to a legacy of dead black men and a country that won’t acknowledge a rot running through the whole of itself to bring it down.

It should have been a white woman.  Or a white man.  Somebody from the South.  Somebody with roots there so deep that they might be able to gesture toward some boat that came over back when Virginia’s border officially stretched to the Pacific stepping up one day to say, “What do y’all think, but maybe we just leave that one off today, hm?”  No fanfare.  No iconic imagery.  Just a moment where instead of repeating history, we acknowledge its power by declining to.

That’s not what happened.  More, I honestly can’t conceive of how it could happen.  Too many people have dug in their heels too far.  My idea of a risen South is not their idea.

That picture is disturbing because it’s the first time I saw a depiction of the “Confederate flag” that inspired hope.  Hope is scary.  It’s dangerous.  It shields you from pragmatic reality and insulates you against learning the lessons you need to learn.  I don’t like it.  I especially don’t like it when running across a new spark of hope reveals that I’ve been holding onto a hope for something else.  Hope that maybe for once the South will pull itself together, put its foot down, and do something that isn’t just beautiful, but bright and just.  That Southern honesty about a national disease means we can be the leaders in the cure.

But here’s the thing I’ve realized in thirteen months of thinking about that image: My premise is wrong.  Bree Newsome is from Charlotte.  The Black Lives Matter movement got its start in Mark Twain’s home state. Martin Luther King Jr. was from Atlanta and did the vast majority of his work in the South.  The South is trying to fix itself.  It’s just not wearing the faces I expect.  I’d find a picture from outside the South with only white faces odd.  In the South, it feels obvious.  That’s a lie.  The South isn’t white. It never has been.  But I’m a white woman from the South whose entire exposure to black culture and black communities came after she left.  I never went back and filled in the gaps.

That picture disturbs me because…it’s exactly what I needed to see, but I hadn’t known that.  One image, and I learned a lot about what where I was blind.

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The Water Bottle and the Cell Phone

I really want to have something thoughtful and worthwhile to say about Orlando.  I don’t.  Instead, have a funny story where the only thing that gets hurt is my pride. There’s a funny animal picture at the end, for no reason at all.

Several weeks ago I committed one of the minor tragedies of our modern era: I dropped my cell phone into a sink of water.  I did this not five minutes before I needed to be out the door to meet a client.  Woops.  I was very cool about it, though.  I turned off the phone, yanked the SIM card, shoved the phone in a bag of rice, then popped the SIM into my old cell phone and set it to charge.  I always completely ignore my phone when I’m having a sit down meeting with a client anyway, so this was annoying but not a real problem.

Let’s pause here for some back story about that “old phone.”  The old phone is, in fact, identical to the new phone except in one critical way: its screen is cracked so badly it actively loses shards of glass as you use it.  I dropped it while I was visiting friends in December and that was pretty much the end of that.  It was the phone I got two weeks before I left Wisconsin to move to Seattle.  It was the last phone I intended to get until design trends shift back to a “smaller is better” paradigm.  It was also old enough that it cost just as much to have the screen repaired as it did to buy a new copy of the same phone off eBay.  About six hours after “my phone extruded shards of glass onto my face while I was talking on it,” became a thing I could truthfully say, I went ahead and ordered a new copy of the old phone.  Which I’d been using quite contentedly until I dropped it in the sink.

Generally you leave a phone that got wet to dry for about 24 hours.  The sink incident happened on a Thursday afternoon.  Halfway through Friday I decided that I’d go ahead and be really paranoid: I’d leave the new phone to dry until Sunday night.  I was doing an open house on Saturday, but Sunday was (theoretically) a day off so it didn’t matter that the phone I was using had a few quirky flaws, like sharing jagged stabby bits with the unwary user. Nothing could possibly go wrong with this plan.

On Saturday, armed with my open house supplies which included, among other things, a cookie sheet tucked under my arm, I realized what was happening.  As my finger dragged across the crumbling, textured surface of my old phone, deftly dodging glass splinters, I recognized my true motivation in putting off switching back: I’m emotionally invested in the old phone.  It rode with me all the way out to the west coast and was there for me as I set up my business from scratch again and then faithfully took a train with me all the way back to visit people, only to be cruelly and clumsily dropped onto the chilly concrete of a garage floor, then discarded for the damage it suffered.  That phone was supposed to be my constant companion for an entire product design fad and I callously set it aside just because it couldn’t hold up to my negligent care.  And yet, there it was, ready to step up and rescue me when my clumsy disregard for my electronic companions struck out at its replacement.  Did my old phone chide me for my behavior?  No.  It spent four hours installing updates and randomly crashing, but then it went to work as if I’d been as faithful to it as it was to me.

Reader, I am such a heel.  I realized this, acknowledged it, then patted the phone and in deference to its tireless work (and my desire to avoid glass splinters) turned my attention to my book.I got off the bus.  I retrieved my bike from the rack on the front of the bus.  I reached into my pocket for my phone, my cherished, devoted, faithful little phone.  The little phone which was, right that moment, faithfully sitting right where I put it, on the bus seat.  The bus was already pulling away.I stashed the cookie sheet in my bike’s basket and started searching through every pocket in my bag.  Things I pulled out of my bag while looking for my phone:

  1. A box of business cards
  2. A stack of folders with information about the condo I was holding open
  3. A stack of information about similar listings
  4. A stack of fliers about low-income grants and loans for first time buyers, also fliers about buyer discounts available from some home insurance companies.
  5. A 32 oz.  water bottle I stole from Dr. Unicorn roughly ten minutes after we moved in together, full of iced tea.
  6. A hexagonal black plate
  7. An oven mitt
  8. A spatula
  9. The crushing realization that I didn’t actually put the cookie dough in my bag and I’ve carried a cookie sheet this far for absolutely no reason
  10. The rest of the list doesn’t matter, I’ve made my point

My phone was nowhere in there.  Because of course it wasn’t.  It was on the bus seat.  Where I put it.  Moments after admitting that I’m sentimentally attached to it.

I very calmly put everything back in my bag.  Then I took my cookie sheet wielding, bicycle pushing, business casual self to the first stranger foolish enough to make eye contact with me.  Let’s call him Arjun.  His name wasn’t Arjun, but he didn’t consent to appear as a bit character in this story, so I don’t think he’ll mind that I changed his name.

“Excuse me,” I say, as if it’s not part of the greater Seattle area norms that strangers only try to talk to you when they’re asking you to sign a petition or for money.  “I’ve just left my phone on the bus that pulled away.  Could you help me?”

Arjun very clearly wanted to be nice to me.  He was also clearly scared by the very calm, slightly manic, but mostly calm over-dressed lady with the huge bike.  I chose to focus on his desire to be helpful and pretend I was not at all scary.

“I need to look at a map to figure out how to get to the place I’m supposed to go.  Could I do that?” I asked.

Arjun handed me his phone.  This is how I learned his name, which, recall, I changed.  I pulled out one of the folders with the information for the place I was supposed to hold open, then looked up directions to the address I wanted.  Then I stared at the map.  I stared at the map really hard.  Addresses around here defy logic and order and I haven’t yet met a map program that didn’t suffer as a consequence.  Normally, upon finding an error, I sigh, prod the address input a bit, then keep going.  But I can’t do that.  Arjun is going to be rather upset if I get onto my bike and ride away with his phone, and unless I do that, I need to know exactly how to get all the way to my destination without further help.  It’s really important that I don’t screw this up.  It was a little after noon when I got off the bus.  The open house is supposed to start at 1pm.  I would rather die than call the listing agent to tell him I can’t do this after all.  Also, I can’t, because his number is in my phone and I carefully eradicate all signs of the listing agent from the material I bring to an open house; the point is to have people contact me.

I spent a whole second and a half wondering how much of a head start I’d get just from Arjun being surprised if I got on my bike and ran off with his phone.  It was uphill to my destination, though, so he probably could have outrun me.  My bike is ergonomic for somebody with bad joints and prone to biking in fancy dress slacks and moderately dressy shoes but it is not fast.  Also, morality and golden rules and not biting the hand that was nice to you and all that.  Also also, it would have been wrong to betray my poor damaged phone so quickly by literally running off with the first modern behemoth I could get my hands on.

The “ethics” routines in my brain are sometimes complicated.

I returned Arjun’s phone, climbed onto my bike, and set off to my destination.  I arrived there some unknown quantity of time later; I only wear a watch when I’m teaching so my phone was my only time keeping device.  I have no idea how much time I have to get there and finish setup before 1pm.  Hey, at least I don’t need to worry about getting the cookies baked. *sigh*  It’s okay, though, because the oven doesn’t work, so I couldn’t have baked the cookies even if I had remembered the dough.

I did my usual setup.  Information on the counter, thermos in the fridge, signs out at nearby intersections and leading to the building.  Then, because the unit had absolutely no furniture in it (insert grumbling about listing agents too cheap to do even basic staging in one of the most expensive markets in the country) I sat on the steps, book in hand, and waited.  About the time I guessed it was one, I set the clock on the microwave (which, unlike the stove, was working).  The first person who showed up to the open house met a cheerful, relaxed me who could only answer questions if she had the information stored in her brain or on her printouts, but I’d prepared pretty thoroughly so the need to look up information was small.  Also, very smoothly, I asked them the time and then corrected the clock on the microwave so I would know when it was time to pack up and go home.

Do you know what happens when you respectfully don’t make your phone work while you ride the bus, then don’t have it on hand when you are at the open house, and the listing agent you’re hosting for is the kind of cheap skate who doesn’t stage and takes ugly pictures?  Nobody comes to your open house.  And you finish reading your book.  And you have nothing else to do.

On the one hand, this feels like appropriate cosmic justice for being the kind of feckless person who rewards a phone’s faithful filling in by abandoning it on the 520 bus to Everette.  Not to be all dramatic or anything, but a little boredom is the least of what a wretch such as yourself deserves for the reckless disregard for your own property you’ve been displaying lately.

On the other hand, I’m really bad at not having anything to do.

When 4pm rolled around, or a time close enough to it for the hastily set microwave to release me, I packed away my fliers and business cards.  I put away the signs.  I locked up the unit, stowed my pointless cookie sheet in my bicycle basket, and set off to catch my bus home.

Only when I reached the transit center, thinking fondly of how kind it was of Arjun to let me look at the map on his phone and how happy I am that I didn’t rob him, do I realize what I didn’t pack away.  See item 5 in the list above.

A 32 oz.  water bottle I stole from Dr. Unicorn roughly ten minutes after we moved in together, full of iced tea.

It was no longer full of iced tea.  It was full of water.  Also, it was in the fridge of the condo where I’d had my open house.  Also, my bus was, right now, arriving.

You’ve seen how attached I was to a phone that would literally cut your finger open if you weren’t paying attention while you used it.  Imagine how attached I am to a bottle I brazenly pilfered from a beloved roommate.  Reader, my crisis in that moment was painful and real.  But I was aware that I was going off the deep end with regard to sentimental attachment to physical objects.  I put my bike on the bus.  Then I put myself on the bus.  Then I rode home, head hung low, desperate for reading material.  (“I could listen to a podcast!” I’d think to myself.  Then realize that this would require me to have my phone.)

For reference, I lost that same water bottle for a few hours at WorldCon last summer.  People seemed puzzled by my alarm when I realized it was gone. This is strange to me.  I stole it. From somebody I live with. That’s a serious category of theft, imparting significant value to the object. They might want it back, and then instead of saying, “No, it’s mine now, I licked it an everything,” I’d have to say, “Sorry, I’m a careless flake.”

Needless to say, when I was out with a client and, consequently, had a car, I shamelessly tromped right back into that unit and rescued my water bottle from its seclusion in the fridge of a moderately well renovated and poorly marketed condo. The client didn’t care, but I petted that water bottle for the rest of the evening.  It’s a good water bottle.  A reliable water bottle.  I’ll strive to never abandon it like that again.

I got a brand new SIM card to put in the sufficiently dry new phone and completed my weekend none the worse for wear.  Even happier, when I called the Community Transit customer service people to check their lost and found, somebody had actually turned in my phone.  Apparently the market for selling stolen phones that hemorrhage glass at the unsuspecting user is small enough for happy endings.  The old phone lives on my desk once more, where I periodically stroke its screen and assure it, “Yes, I am still weird enough that deep down, I like you more than the other phone.  I’ll never recycle you.  You are a good phone.”

And I have learned an important lesson: Sometimes we’re idiots to the things we love.  They are things, and incapable of punishing you for your abuse.

Did I do that learning a moral thing correctly?  I can never tell.

And now, the real reason you’ve scrolled down so far, the promised picture of an animal.parrot-phone

Too on the nose?  Okay, fine.  Here’s something subtler.  Colorful Parrot Desktop Background

“James and Peter, Fishing” is up at PodCastle

http://sunao17.deviantart.com/art/Peter-Pan-and-Killian-Jones-Captain-Hook-524554696Summer is practically here, the sun has been unpleasantly eager to make its presence known, and I’ve got a new short story out.  “James and Peter, Fishing,” a heartwarming tale about the innocence of childhood and the power of dreams, went up at PodCastle this week.

Okay, it’s probably not that heartwarming.

And I have a mild allergy to the concept of childhood innocence.

Actually, it’s a story about tricksy mermaids and the power of friendship.

Except not really.  Or even a little bit.  You know what, why don’t you go listen to it?  The reader for the story, Thomas Busby, did an excellent job.  His voice was a spot on choice.  I’m very pleased.

The previous paragraph contained no lies.

*The artwork is actually not remotely appropriate for the story.  But I found it while looking for artwork that was and I liked it too much not to use it. This is the most misleading story publication announcement on the planet. I blame the sun.

CC: Today I Am Paul

This month we’re looking at Martin L. Shoemaker’s “Today I am Paul” which originally appeared in Clarkesworld.  This is a lovely story that plays right into one of my favorite SF tropes to see, the android intersecting with human emotions it can’t actually feel.  I’m on the record with the last moment of this scene being one of the best ever aired on television.

I like this trope because it forces the audience to do all the emotional work for the character, and when that emotional work is sadness it makes the media in question sadistic in a way I fully support 1000% in all art forms.  Also, I’m a sucker for things that make people sad.

Which is a long way of saying that I’d be a fan of “Today I am Paul” even if it weren’t super well done because it’s all about doing things I like my fiction to do.  However, it is super well done, which means it’s a great candidate for putting through the Crucible.

I want to focus in particular on how Shoemaker develops the audience’s investment in the Caretaker right off the bat.  Getting initial buy in from the audience is easy with this premise; we have a character who definitionally has no character flaws of its own, engaged in a selfless task that needs to be done, and doing it with care and patience literally unavailable elsewhere.  Audiences in general are as much of a sucker for a selfless do gooder as I am for a sadistic narrative, so that’s an easy win.  Kindergarteners frequently have that level of craft nailed.  Where Shoemaker starts showing off is with the introduction of Paul’s flaws.

My emulation net responds before I can stop it: “Paul” sighs. Mildred’s memory lapses used to worry him, but now they leave him weary, and that comes through in my emulation.

This line does two things.  First, it fleshes out the already introduced concept of the conflict between the android when it is engaged in emulation and when it isn’t.  We already know that it thoughtlessly engages in medical care for Mildred when she’s not conscious, and becoming aware of that care distresses it when she is.  That builds a layer of tragedy into the androids circumstances that doesn’t have to be there.  Its presence, however, heightens the weight of its reactions to these things.  The disconnect between doing the actions and responding to them lets the audience get those reactions at a time where Shoemaker is madly spilling exposition to explain the world and premise, and creates a sense of vulnerability in the android.  In the moment where we’re reading, the android cares about Mildred, and the knowledge that its ability to continue caring for her is outside of its control is distressing.

The second thing the line does is start to show Paul’s warts without condemning him for them.  It’s clear the android recognizes the sub-optimality of Paul’s reaction; that’s why there’s a question of stopping the response.  Yet, fidelity to the emulation of Mildred’s loved ones trumps optimal behavior, and android-Paul sighs.  The narrative could have left it there, but instead it explains the motivation behind the sigh.  It’s a natural thing for the android to do; emulation would require a level of empathy that understands the underlying motivations for things.  But even then, the explanation could simply be, “Mildred’s memory lapses leave him weary and frustrated.”  That explains the current state of Paul, which is what the android is emulating.  The historical note, the detail that this is worry transmuted, is a kindness.  It takes the android’s empathy from audience-manipulation 101 into a deep, subtle territory that gives the story permission to go further.

These two things together fulfill an important function in the story.  The theme of being worn down by caring for another is hard baked into the premise.  Mildred’s family aren’t callous or unfeeling.  A lot of the early exposition in the story goes to great lengths to establish that.  They’re throwing money at the problem, yes, but they aren’t doing that in lieu of an investment of time and feelings.  There are human caretakers coming in as well.  They visit in person.  They call.  Everyone loves Mildred, even as there’s less and less of Mildred to love.  The android, with its expensive empathy net upgrades, is an expression of that.  But, and the quoted line above makes it clear, it isn’t exempt from that trap.

I sit on the bed, lift her frail upper body, and pull her close to me as I had seen Henry do many times. “It’s all right, hon.” I pat her back. “It’s all right, I’ll take care of you. I won’t leave you, not ever.”

I’m just quoting that line because it’s a really great gut punch to end a scene on.  Look at it.  Dead husband, who the android knew, hugging his wife and promising he’ll never leave her.  And the android makes the switch both without missing a beat, and without even wanting a pat on the back for it.  That isn’t just good caretaking, it’s caretaking literally nobody else in Mildred’s life could pull off.  If it had actually been Paul, he’d be helpless.

Instead, Shoemaker stabs you in the gut and simultaneously introduces the idea that the success of the final image in the story hinges on: the joy in being able to preserve relationships with the people you’ve lost.

Because she never voices this fear, Paul and Anna do not understand why she is sometimes bitter and sullen. I wish I could explain it to them, but my privacy protocols do not allow me to share emulation profiles.

Paul is where the story demonstrates its intent to dig deep into audience manipulation via deep empathy, but Susan is where it runs away with it.  In her own way, Susan is the most affected by Mildred’s condition.  The others see her suffer and hurt by their loss of somebody they care about and their relationship with them.  Susan, on the other hand, sees Mildred as a possible reflection of herself.  To Paul and Anna, Mildred is mother and grandmother.  To Susan, she is the same person.  This is reinforced with the details about Paul’s explanation for the lack of closeness between Mildred and Susan.  But that’s another angle where the depth of the android’s empathy for others gets highlighted; Paul has known for years that his wife and mother are similar, and he’s completely missing what that means for Susan’s response to his mother’s decline.  Not that we blame him.  We’ve got great insight into his own struggle, which makes it easy to forgive his obliviousness to others’.

But Susan also gets the distinction of being the one who surprises the android, later.  It doesn’t predict a display of physical affection from Susan.  Granted, it’s not the android qua android who is surprised, but the android as Henry.  For the reader, though?  There isn’t a difference at that point, because the android is, to us, his reactions and responses when his nets are engaged.  The android is a person.  Even the android has figured that out by that point.  But he’s a person with very little control over who he is.  Like the rest of us, frankly, but it doesn’t even get to pretend it has control.  Humans like our pretends.  It hurts to see somebody who can’t have them.

We get the heroic rescue scene where the android puts itself at great risk to save Mildred, struggling all the while to do it without upsetting her, and this story could have very easily ended with, “And then I was so damaged that I was shut down and disposed of.  The end.”  As a known lover of the sad, tragic ending, you might even expect me to be in favor of that ending instead.  I’m not.  The ending the story has is absolutely the correct one.  Not because anybody in the story intrinsically deserves a happy ending, or because my recent experience of a super awesome insurance payout that made everything great has me forgiving of it as a convenient device in fiction.  It works because this isn’t a story about an android selflessly caring for a Alzheimer’s patient.  It’s a story about the strain and exhaustion of loving an Alzheimer’s patient.  The android takes damage in the fire not to introduce the the possibility of it’s “death” but to mark the damage that comes from a life dedicated entirely to caretaking.  Is it an accident that it functionally spends all its time after Mildred’s death sleeping?  No.  Poor thing is exhausted.

If the android died, or the story left us with it resting in its alcove, this story would be a warning.  Drop gandma in a home and run, it would say.  There’s no reward, flee.  That’s too easy.  That would put us back in audience manipulation 101 territory because, sure, it’s a little radical and controversial to say cut your losses and run but it’s also simple.  Life is rarely simple, and a sad ending that hinges on simplicity is just as weak and disappointing as a happy ending that does the same, even if it’s a less common failure.  (I suspect there’s sampling bias at work there, but that’s a different discussion.)  Instead of the simple ending with the tragically damaged, exhausted android, we get this:

We built a bridge to the far side of the creek; and on the other side, we’re planting daisies. Today she asked me to tell her about her grandmother.

Today I am Mildred.

Bridge building.  Planting new life.  And the android gets to be the person it misses, keeping her and connecting with her in the best, the only way it has.  Would it be happier of the android could be a person in its own right, instead of an ur-person composed of characters it embodies?  Yes.  Would it be happier if it had managed to save Mildred and cure Alzheimer’s and clear up the misunderstandings and lack of communication in the people around it?  Totally.  This is not a sugar-coated happy ending.  But it’s an earned ending.  It’s a justified ending.  It’s an ending that, like the story that precedes it, is chock full of empathy and caring for the people pulled into this sort of care and battered in the process.  It’s not the end all and be all of wish fulfillment happiness, but it’s a complex and realistic answer to the story’s thematic premise.  And like its protagonist, it’s kind.

Next month: Damage, David D. Levine (Tor.com)

Event: Two Hour Transport

Cafe Racer

Anybody who’s going to be around Seattle next week might want to check out May’s Two Hour Transport reading event.  It’s a fun mix of Spec Fic readers and Cafe Racer has enough bizarre artwork that it’s worth going once just for that.  If you go in May, though, you’ll get to hear me give a reading.  I’m one of the two invited guests, along with Caroline Yoachim.

Caroline is a reigning monarch of the flash fiction world.  If you know anything about me, you know this makes for an interesting pairing.

The invited readers start for the second portion of the event at 8:45, but I’ll be there for the whole thing, and I’d recommend it.

CC: Madeleine

destiny_by_clair0bscur-d9ivbblThis month through the crucible is Amal El-Mohtar’s Madeleine.  We’ve put El-Mohtar through the Crucible before, and I’m happy to have an excuse to run her through again.  That time we looked at her word choice and imagery deployed in the frame story vs. the body of the main story.  This time I want to pull apart the structure of the story.

Like And Their With the Sun. this story has nested layers, but they’re not as clearly marked.  The action of the story begins with the eponymous character, Madeleine, in therapy and pursuing a mystery.  The mystery of what’s happening to her is the opening of the first of several brackets created by the story.  The therapist tries repeatedly to insist that this story is about Madeleine’s mother, but Madeleine knows that’s wrong.  This story is about Madeleine’s loneliness and the end of it.  Losing her mother certainly played into it, but note the absence of childhood friends in Madeleine’s memories.  She’s been lonely a long time.

In case the reader is unsure who to believe after this section, El-Mohtar gives us an answer with the following one.  She’s grieving, but the emphasis is on how the grief feeds into her loneliness.  Her mother isn’t mentioned, except by implication.  While her grief is brought to the forefront, I’m skeptical of that as a full explanation of Madeleine’s loneliness.  I think I’m meant to be.  This is confirmed later with:

It was indecent, so much pain at once, it was unreasonable, and her friends were reasonable people.

Her friends are terrible people.  They abandoned her in her time of need.  Sticking by her is clearly not unreasonable; Zeinab is first attracted to her because of her grief and manages to stick by her even when she’s just a hallucination.  Madeleine begins the story lonely, she ends it with a decent person who will put an end to that.  An opening, presented by her problem, and a closing delivered with its solution.  The fact that Zeinab’s introduction weaves through the memories of the this story until it crosses into the contemporary action of the story just gives us an easy path to following when looking at the nested layers of the story.

The layers really start piling on when we get to the first on screen episode.  It’s a memory of freedom and independence, followed by describing a trip to a memory of shooting marbles where there’s no mention of other children but she’s  content and in control.  The final memory of the sequence, the one where she finally spots Zeinab, is one where she’s dreaming of the future, longing for other things.

It’s interesting that adult Madeleine doesn’t appear to have ambitions or dreams for the future.  She’s grief-stricken, assaulted by memories from the past, and alone.  She leave-of-absenced her way out of a job while caring for her mother.  She’s in therapy to figure out what’s going on with the episodes, but as symbolic fixations on the past go, it’s a rather literal one.  It takes folding her present self into her past self for her to find an ambition for the future rather than a longing for the past.  This layering, contemporary Madeleine over remembered Madeleine, is what opens the door to spotting the woman who will be her (irony deliberate) white knight and rescuer.

Their non-courtship takes place in this layered space, too.  Both think the other is a figment of their own imagination, but continue to deliberately visit the other.  But the layers keep coming all the same.  Madeleine stops visiting Clarice, but that enables her to bring a model of Clarice into the episodes with her.

She can hear Clarice explaining, in her reasonable voice, that Madeleine — bereaved twice over, made vulnerable by an experimental drug — has invented a shadow-self to love, and perhaps they should unpack the racism of its manifestation, and didn’t Madeleine have any black friends in real life?

Zeinab isn’t a creation of Madeleine’s imagination, but now Clarice is.  And note how this imaginary Clarice is reinforcing the idea of Madeleine’s loneliness.  We know the answer to her question: No.  Madeleine doesn’t have any black friends in real life because she doesn’t have any friends in real life.

“I love you too,” says Zeinab, and there is something fierce in it, and wondering, and desperate. “I love you too. I’m here. I promise you, I’m here.”

This is where the layers of the story begin to unravel.  They’ve been inverted, Zeinab in reality now and Madeleine lost and confused there while confident in her episodes.  It’s an answer to the mystery raised by the beginning of the story without being an explanation for it.  They were both in the drug trial, but that doesn’t explain why they had the episodes or why they could find each other.  That could be a huge flaw in the story, but given the story’s buzz and reception it seems unlikely it comes off as a plot hole or flaw for most readers.  Why?

I suspect the answer is that answer-without-explanation.  Something is happening to Madeleine inside her head, and over the course of the story it comes to be something that’s happening to her in the real world.  The reader doesn’t need an explanation for the starting position because they went on the journey from memory to reality with Madeleine.  The shape of the story goes on that journey.  Since Madeleine doesn’t need an explanation anymore, and the reader has been led on the same path through her shoes, they don’t anymore, either.  It’s a thematic resolution rather than a world-building one, and a successful one.
Coming in May: Today I Am Paul, Martin L. Shoemaker (Clarkesworld)

Upcoming Craft Crucible Schedule

molten-metal-571823_960_720I’m going to confess, I was mostly lazy and stole the next line up for the Craft Crucible from the Nebula nominee list.  There are a couple changes.  One, I left off “Cat Pictures, Please,” since we’d already put that one through the Crucible.  Also, I swapped out the Sam J. Miller nominated story for a different Sam J. Miller story.  I like the story of his I included better than the one that got nominated, and maybe talking about it in July will help it get nominations for next year.  This is how I choose to wield my mighty powers of doing whatever I want on my own blog.  Fear me!

Or, instead, go read these cool stories and get ready to analyze their craft with me.

April: Madeleine, Amal El-Mohtar (Lightspeed)
May: Today I Am Paul, Martin L. Shoemaker (Clarkesworld)
June: Damage, David D. Levine (Tor.com)
July: Angel, Monster, Man, Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed)
August: Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers, Alyssa Wong (Nightmare)

Also, did you know that I’m right now, at this very moment, hanging out at #storychat on twitter looking to chat about all sorts of story stuff?  I am.  I plug it at the end of all the Strange Horizons podcasts, but I think I may not have mentioned it here before.  Share stories you like, or thoughts about stories you’ve read, or whatever else strikes your fancy.  It’s the only twitter hashtag I follow, so you, yes you, can use this opportunity to be part of a very exclusive space.  Also, talking about stories is fully of gooey fun and that should be enough reason to come hang out on its own.