For a cheerful exploration of mother-daughter relationships, we’ve got Charlie Jane Anders’s Victimless Crimes. If you’re looking at the author name and going, “That sounds familiar but I can’t for the life of me figure out why,” it’s probably because in addition to being generally awesome, she’s the managing editor of i09.com, Hugo winner, and properly dedicated blog readers heard me read one of her other stories earlier this year. (Y’all remember the story with concussion porn, right?)
I grabbed this story for the Craft Crucible because you can count on Anders to give you a quirky story with an irreverent voice that still probes at heavy stuff and carries a hefty emotional punch. She does it through very careful management of the details she gives you – you get a lot, and they’re the sort that feel “true” but also random.
Teri Lewis was obsessing about her sister’s bad marriage and the president’s latest compromise, so she barely listened to Flo’s improvised song about pandas and dandelions, coming from the stroller in front of her.
Obsessing. Good word, and when it gets paired with “sister’s bad marriage” and “president’s latest compromise” we now have a really good picture of Teri. These aren’t things immediately relevant to her, she’s not in an life threatening, high-stakes situation, but she’s thoughtful, and perhaps a touch neurotic, because she’s obsessing about these things anyway. I have no idea what Teri looks like, where she’s from, or what her day-to-day life is like, but I know who she is. She’s an awful lot like me, and just about everybody else I know.
Then we get the bit about Flo, with the pandas and dandelions. Random, definitely, but not purposelessly so. They’re cute and harmless, which helpfully grounds us in “baby” for Flo, they’re an amusing pair which gets us started off liking her, and they’re not images that frequently accompany babies so they catch our attention and stand out. If it had been duckies and balloons it wouldn’t have worked quite as well.
Teri heard a whooshing sound, a tidal wave of white noise, and turned to see a bizarre trio descending from a VTOL jet on ropes. They landed on their feet just behind her, right by the organic grocery store’s fruit bins.
The VTOL jet making its entrance just after we find out that Flo’s stroller is a fighter jet mock-up is a really nice touch, but the thing that clenches this sequence is the detail juxtaposition across the two sentences. This story doesn’t try to pass off what’s happening as normal or mundane in anyway. It owns what’s going on and slaps “bizarre” right onto the label. We think what’s happening is weird and a bit absurd, so does the story. Cool, we can keep rolling with this. And then we find out that we’re at the organic grocery store, in the produce section, next to the fruit. You don’t get more boring and safe than that, really. She’s in Whole Foods, getting assaulted by a landing team from a hover jet. Anders has delivered us a two sentence case for “What is this, I don’t even.”
Which sets up Teri’s collapse beautifully. Of course the first thing she does is get drunk. And keep getting drunk. There is no other rational response to that.
I love you. I don’t know if it’s some atavistic oxytocin thing, or just because my only tender memories are of you, or what.
And here we get to the part of the story that could turn saccharine or cloying or twee, you know, all those things mother-daughter stories do when it’s all going to work out after all. Except it doesn’t because we don’t dwell on the sap, we dive right into “atavistic oxytocin thing.” People do get saccharine, cloying and twee, so it wouldn’t be untrue of the story to go there, but Anders reliably takes the more interesting path, having characters who do the other realistic things like deflect the painful stuff. I’m always a big fan of opening the doors to the emotional work, then inviting the audience to go through instead of doing it for them on the page. It works better. And that’s what’s going on here. “I love you” is the open door. “Atavistic oxytocin thing,” is the story stepping aside and going, “Look at those two devastatingly lonely people in a screwed up world full of people clumsily ruining their lives. How does that make you feel?”
Also, I want to meet the toddler that can conceptualize the hormonal manipulation it’s falling victim to. And then raise it. I would raise the hell out of that toddler.
Next week, Chop Shop by J.B. Park.
I’m taking the following week off for New Year’s. On the eighth we’re going to do A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, As Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc-or-A Lullaby by Helen Keeble. It’s a long one, so use the week off to get your reading done.
After that, Brief Candle by Jason K. Chapman.