This week we’re doing one of my favorite modern stories, Jason K. Chapman’s Brief Candle. This story got an honorable mention in Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best, and has prompted at least one fanatical hostess to hijack her own party into a live reading of the tale to her house guests.
This story gets major points, by the way, for telling you “I’m going to break your heart, and here’s how,” just by naming a character, especially since it’s done so that you’re not even going to realize what you’ve been told until you’re already emotionally invested. (Or, if you’re not familiar with the reference, you still don’t know and have no idea what I’m talking about. But I’m not going to spoil that other book for you)
The emotional torture Chapman puts his audience through works as well as it does because he has a structure of vanishing humor. We start with a very amusing, quirky robot, and we’re left with the same robot at the end, but there’s nothing amusing or quirky anymore. There are a couple different trends you could examine closely to see it in this story, but I’m going to obsess over the chess board.
The Turner human had made Charley Eighty-Three his hobby, loading him with a limitless universe of moves and strategies all contained in the eight-by-eight grid of a chess board.
We’re getting a ton of very important exposition hurled at us in these opening paragraphs – character development for Charley and Turner, world building, as well as an outline of Charley’s current abilities. “The Turner human,” communicates a lot to us.
1) Charley has individual relationships with the different humans
2) Charley has an identity of non-humanness
3) Charley’s concept of individuality is not ours
Besides which, “The Turner human” is an amusing phrase. Not laugh out loud funny, but mild-smirk-inducing. Chapman is sneaking information to us while building warmth in his readers toward Charley.
Doctor Turner had called Eighty-Three a prat the first time the sanibot had managed to checkmate him. It had made no sense at the time. Now it was beginning to.
Here we get the introduction of “prat” which becomes a small punchline used several times to good effect through Charley’s evolution. You could follow where it gets used, and when it disappears, to chart his development quite nicely. But this quite here also gives us a mini-arc that reinforces the trajectory of the story, that of Charley developing and growing. In the flashback, he’d learned chess well enough to beat a human for the first time. Now, he’s learning character traits and interpersonal relationships well enough to be frustrated and apply “prat” to others. Charley’s learning, we’re still grinning, Chapman’s still setting us up for slaughter.
The eighty-seven sections of the sanibot world were spread around the inside of a cylinder. Like a chess board, it was a finite space containing infinite possibilities. Doctor Turner often spoke of possibilities. “We have to be open to them,” he’d say, “because everything is about to change.”
More levelling up for Charley, still with the chess as his reference for it. This also launches the other refrain through the story, the “everything is about to change,” moniker. Note what isn’t here though: a joke. This is neat, it’s intriguing, but it’s not funny or amusing. We’re already cheering for Charley, and this is a new twist in our ride with him, but the humor Chapman’s been using to keep us in our seats so far isn’t here anymore. This is where the tone shift in the story gets under way. No more cute sanibot, we’ve got a protagonist with serious agency now and while our love for him is based on his Wall-E days, we’re not abandoning him just because he’s reaching HAL levels of capacity. (HAL, if you’ll recall, was fond of chess, too)
Charley began to understand what Doctor Turner had said about his latest chess upgrade. It was good enough that Charley won twenty games in a row. He said it was frustrating to lose every time. Doctor Turner had become frustrated. Charley was frustrated now.
More mini-arc reflecting part of the meta-arc to us. Charley masters chess, Turner becomes frustrated. Now Charley is developed enough to experience his own frustration. Also, Turner’s dead. How closely, the reader’s subconscious mind must wonder, his Charley going to follow Turner’s arc. This is a good moment for a well-read audience member to ask themselves why Chapman chose to spell it “Charley” instead of “Charlie,” and then start composing hate mail in response to the answer.
For Doctor Turner, Charley rolled unit number eighty-three in and stopped it next to the man’s bunk. He set the sanibot’s chess program up for a fresh board.
This is the line that gets me. OMFG, what the hell happened to my amusing story about a little sanibot and why did this quirky chess thing stop being funny? What the hell are you doing Chapman, aside from getting me to accept a trope just so you could twist it into something heart-breaking and beautifully tragic!? I mean, come on, the chess was just supposed to be a device for sneaking in exposition and building rapport between the audience and the protagonist, not the delivery mechanism for making me reduce house guests to tears through story-time fiction choices.
I don’t cry, so I had to make sure somebody did. Apparently Chapman hates my house guests.
And that, boys and girls, is how you use repeated references to an image in order to emotionally manipulate your audience. Keep this in mind when we do Paper Menagerie, because it’s a classic technique for depressing fiction, a genre at which Liu is a master.
Next week Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu.
Followed by The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber.
It’s award season, which means people ought to be compiling the stories they liked from last year. While you’re at it, think of things you’d like sent through the crucible and suggest them.