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.