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.

“The Right Bright Courier” is up at BCS

researchlab_sungchoi_banner_aWe had to wait for the sci-fantasy double issue to come around, but here it is!  I’ve always really liked the sci-fantasy issue of BCS, so it’s really cool that my debut there is in that issue.

I’ve been referring to this as, “The uplifting tale of what happens when you’re willing to sacrifice everything for your dream.”  It’s uplifting by definition if you go into space for it, right?

Right?

You tell me.

CC: Valedictorian

16690094544_95b75aae7f_o_dThis month we’ve got a story from one of my favorite current authors: N. K. Jemisin.  I love nearly everything she does and, of her short work, Valedictorian (from Lightspeed) is one of my favorites.

What works so very well is Jemisin’s deft hand with the world building.  She layers in hints at the speculative elements and the ways in which this his clearly not our world, but there’s also a glut of descriptions and moments that could very easily be lifted directly from a coming-of-age lit-fic story about a normal, mundane town.

She will be herself. No matter what.

For however brief a time.

These two lines from the opening section are a microcosm of how the world building is structured throughout the story.  Lots of adolescents make those sorts of commitments to themselves.  Our culture practically demands that either they make resolutions or actively reject making them (“Just say no!”)  But an intrinsic implication of our rhetoric around adolescence is that of a long future, that the decisions and choices made will have far reaching impacts because the audience is young and their time is not brief.  Something is off, though the nature of the something isn’t particularly constrained at this point.

Parents proposing that she get pregnant?  Paying a fellow boy to help with that?  That’s downright bizarre, though still doesn’t tell us, the audience, what makes their world different from ours.  Rather than tell us, Jemisin dives into a description of a bright student in a mediocre school and nails it perfectly, without showing her hand.

But, and here’s part of the real craft of the story, there are clear hints that take on extra meaning with a second reading.

Zinhle’s mother is stubborn. This is where Zinhle herself gets the trait.

(Emphasis mine)

Old habits are hard to break, old fears are hard to shed, all that.

Many questions raised among very careful word choice, but no answers given.

We start to get some specific information in the next sequence which looks very much like the aftermath of a standard high school bullying scene.  We find out there’s a wall people could have been shoved through.  We find out that Zinhle is likely to be “taken away.”  And the impression that the other students aren’t actually just being useless slackers comes through very clearly.  What’s important here is that everything is still aggressively mundane.  Zinhle isn’t thinking about whatever the wall is or what her future is likely to be; she’s focused on whether or not she’ll keep her tooth.  This clearly isn’t our world in our here and now, yet it still feels comfortably like it is.

Then everything breaks open in the next scene.  If you’re paying attention you’re realize this is the first scene where something actually happens.  The first section is just exposition, the second a conversation that changes nothing, followed by more exposition and then the aftermath of a scene where something happened.  Everything given to the reader up to the scene with Threnody is there entirely for the reader’s benefit.  It’s part of a con Jemisin is pulling on the reader, convincing them that they’re reading a mundane setting about a very relatable girl with admirable principals.  Where this story breaks from that is right here:

Then she remembers. The teachers never seem to notice her bruises. They encourage her because her success protects their favorites, and she is no one’s favorite.

This is the moment where Zinhle is demonstrably not a precocious teenager, but a wise one.  And, because it is a break from form, it’s the first wedge of real criticism present in the story.  Everything up to this moment was setup to make it clear that, yes, Zinhle’s world is bizarre, but it’s actually our world.  That makes this rejection of Threnody’s revelations powerful because it’s not just a moment of character growth for Zinhle, but a model for the audience.

That done, Jemisin at last gives us the details of the world we’re watching.  It could have come earlier, but it means more now, doesn’t it?  We have all the reactions to this information laid out for us as we get to it.  Also, this is where Jemisin starts delivering on some of her earlier word choices.

There’s more setup being done here, though.  Before this section all we hear about is the danger of performing too well.  But only one person is at risk of suffering the consequences for that.  Meanwhile, ten percent of Zinhle’s peers are going to be culled for being the bottom performers.  It explains why there’s such a cluster to the middle, but there’s also a lot of commentary packed into that.  There’s no evidence that the bottom ten percent are bullied, only the person in contention for the top spot.  Nobody wants to be part of the cull, but for some reason it’s worse or more frightening to be culled from the top than the bottom.  That’s both irrational and a damning commentary on human psychology.

Speaking  of human psychology, let’s take a really close look at what Jemisin does to signal Lemeul’s humanity and Zinhle picking up on it.

To her utter shock, he smiles.

He shakes his head and sits on the edge of the desk with his hands folded, abruptly looking not artificial at all, but annoyed. Tired.

The sudden vehemence in Lemuel’s voice catches Zinhle by surprise.

When he speaks, there’s remarkable compassion in his voice.

I’d characterize the overarching elements here as kindness and vulnerability.  Neither on their own would, I think, have been sufficient but together they work.  The vulnerability is interesting because it’s a way that Lemeul is the same as everybody Zinhle knows – even if they’re past the cull, they’re still at risk that their loved ones will be taken, and there’s a lot of work put into highlighting how small and close to obliteration her community is.  For Zinhle, who clearly defines human as, “Like the people I’ve grown up with,” an absence of vulnerability would be a clear signal of inhumanity.  For anybody wanting to dig deep into interpreting the commentary of the story, there would need to be a lot of exploration into whether that vulnerability was genuine, or merely a manipulative display from Lemeul.

The kindness is striking because it sets Lemeul apart from everybody else in the story.  We see several incidents of people trying to be nice to Zinhle, but they fail because they fundamentally don’t understand or support her.  It’s not just Threnody being a day late and a dollar short with her rage, but Zinhle’s parents urging her to get pregnant and her alleged friend accepting the gulf between them rather than trying to bridge it and join Zinhle.  Lemeul is literally the first character in the story, aside from Zinhle, to have the conceptual space required for Zinhle to both make sense and be admirable.  That can’t be faked – it is absolutely sincere from Lemeul – but it’s interesting that this ties into ZInhle’s acceptance of him rather than flagging him as strange.

The final two sections are, to me, what sets this story apart.  I pointed out already how much of the story fills space without anything actually happening.  With these final two sections we see that, actually, very little changed.  Zinhle is going to the same ultimate fate at the end of the story as she was at the beginning.  Her family, friend, and the other people have not changed in their understanding or acceptance of her.  Her world isn’t going to change in any significant way.

What is different, though, is Zinhle’s understanding of that fate.  She’s just as resolved, but now she actually knows what the consequences of that resolve will be.  And while it has shaken some comfortable delusions she had that might have made it easier for her to tolerate her last three months there, it has also given her something to look forward to.  Ultimately, this isn’t a story about a change either of character or world, and it’s not just a social critique piece either; it’s a single moment of compassion, delivered to a young girl, and given the context and space needed to understand why it was compassionate.  Nobody is let off the hook and yet, there’s a remarkable amount of hope there at the end.

The Editor is Retired, Long Live the Editor

the_olympic_cauldron_in_vancouverYou know Ciro, right?  The deep, rumbly voice that periodically graces the Strange Horizons poetry podcast, and filled in for me when I was moving?  The one who gets more fan mail than I do?  That Ciro? I’ve got good news.  You get more of him!

The December poetry podcast was my last as host, and Ciro has taken over for me.  This is awesome!  I had literally not changed a thing about how the final product worked since I hit a rhythm, and there was, frankly, room for improvement.  It just wasn’t going to happen with me.  Ciro, on the other hand, has already mixed up the format to make it more user-friendly (and producer-hard. Simple things on the listener end are super finicky on the back end) and I’m pretty sure it’s going to all be ass-kicking glory from here on.

I’m glad the poetry podcast is in the hands of somebody who has the time to treat it well, and I’m extremely glad that somebody is Ciro, because he’s great.  Give him a listen.

Even if you think you’re not into poetry, do it.  It’s short, so it’s a low-cost gamble that you’ll find something you like.  If you’re into flash fiction you should especially be looking at speculative poetry – the two forms have a lot going on that can inform each other.

I am still the Fiction Podcast Editor at Strange Horizons.  As of now I have no intention of ever not being the Podcast Editor at Strange Horizons.  That doesn’t actually mean I’ll never move on, just that right now I can’t foresee when/why that would be.  After three years, that’s a pretty cozy position to be in with a job.

CC: A Story About You

nightvalelogofull-660x660This month’s CC is a bit late, largely because I underestimated the logistical difficulties of doing something only in audio, but it’s worth it.  Welcome to Night Vale, in case you don’t know, is one of the most popular podcasts ever, spawning a healthy fan community and multiple international tours.  Its normal format is as the community news radio show hosted by Cecil, a charmingly sincere Night Vale native who loves his town but, nonetheless, sometimes questions the strange happenings there.  It’s lovecraftian in aesthetic and cutting in its wit.  The writers are clearly giant literature nerds (I sometimes want to start a book club for reading the titles that get name-checked in Night Vale episodes) and that means that once in a while, they decide to experiment with their medium.  “A Story About You” is a head-trippingly successful example of one of those experiments.

“This is a story about you,” said the man on the radio, and you were pleased because you always wanted to hear about yourself on the radio.

Commentary around the episode, including from the podcast itself, indicates that the show is actually about You, a character with a confusing name.  I call nonsense on that, and cite the Cecil’s opening as all the evidence you need to support my case.  It doesn’t make sense if it’s about You instead of you.  So we have a first-person serial story format engaging in acts of second-person.  From the first line.  The layers here, they are tricky.  (And fun!)

You didn’t always live in Night Vale.  You lived somewhere else where there were more trees, more water.

The characterization given for you in the opening does a phenomenal amount of work.  It doesn’t just tell the listening who they are for the duration of the episode, but it tells them all kinds of things about Night Vale and the world at large.  By the end of that sequence you know not only that you live in rather uninspiring poverty in Night Vale, and that Night Vale is probably objectively less pleasant than where you lived before, but that this is better.  There’s a common device used in Night Vale episodes where they’ll present a fact or description that qualifies for, “okay, that’s quirky and weird,” then nail it home by subverting it in a way that skewers the mundane.  The bit about writing direct mail campaigns where you urge people to commit suicide is the opening of that pitch.  The follow up about nobody reading them clinches it.  Whatever you’re doing in Night Vale, it’s not that, and also, wow is the world a depressing place.

A message that was there and then wasn’t, and that you could never quite read.

This is a super interesting line from a craft perspective.  It reminds the audience that you live within sight of the radio tower, keeping the now tied to the setting description from the beginning of the story.  But there were a lot of details in that setting description that could have been used and it’s the radio tower rather than the car dealership or the stars etc.  Using that particular detail not only grounds you in where you are, but is a subtle reminder of the format here, e.g. a radio show.  It does all that, while also adding an atmosphere of constant incomprehension.  You don’t understand your surroundings, that’s normal, and you accept it as such.  That blinking red light isn’t just a detail put there to fill space and help make the episode long enough, it’s asserting and reaffirming the rules at play for the story we’re hearing.

You did not order invisible pie.  You hate invisible pie.

No commentary about craft here.  Just wanted to call it out to say yeah, me too.

But while we’re stopped here, let’s think about the diner sequence a bit.  Why is it there?  Obviously time needed to pass for you so that the situation with the crate could develop, but that could have been covered with, “You played angry birds on your phone and wondered, why were the birds angry?  What could appease these birds and, if nothing, how could you guard against them?”  The episode has to hit a certain length and so they needed to fill time, but why do it this way?  What does it contribute?

Part of the answer to that is in callbacks to characters, jokes, and plot points established in other episodes, but I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that getting another chance to call the Apache Tracker an asshole is insufficient.  Yet he’s there, and you drove off to a diner and ate non-invisible pie almost entirely because the narrative wanted you to have an encounter with him.  Why?

I think it’s because the encounter does an excellent job of normalizing the truly surreal and bizarre by disguising it as the mundane surreal and bizarre.  It is not unheard of to have random, not-entirely-stable strangers force awkward conversations on you when you go out to diners alone at odd hours.  It’s bizarre and awkward, but a part of life.  Yet the Apache tracker is not your run-of-the-mill intrusive stranger, as explained when he’s introduced here.  This is, once again, establishing the boundaries for normalcy inside Night Vale, with the Apache Tracker and his history firmly placed on the side of normal.  And, while we’re at it, the strange sugar-packet driven restaurant economy of Night Vale.  Having those boundaries defined and salient is very important to the ultimate success of the story and that, dear reader, is almost certainly why this sequence is here.

Just as the announcer says that your car radio comes alive with a pop.

Bam, and we do our first serious wall-breaking of the episode.  It’s been a story about you the whole time, but now it’s a story that’s interacting with the story of you.  This is where the story starts to cash in on the work done in establishing boundaries for normalcy.  It’s already a second person narrative inside a first person narrative and it just blew up the fourth wall that, up to now, it pretended wasn’t there.  But it was.  Because even though you’ve been listening to the story of you all day, you haven’t been interacting with it, except to be happy you get to hear about yourself on the radio.  In kind, it hasn’t been interacting with you.  Or has it?  Because there have been all sorts of choices made in how the story of you has been narrated.  Could it be a coincidence that between the guy with the semaphore flags and the unparsable message from the blinking light of the radio tower, the Apache Tracker’s incomprehensible Russian, etc. etc. that there is a theme of “missed message” underpinning the choices made?  A foreshadowing that could, if you were running a real time Craft Crucible on the story of you as you lived it, would prepare you for what’s to come?

(Pause to insert comment: Josie’s affiliation with angels gets super weird if you think about it in context with A Stranger in Olondria.  Just saying.)

Several buildings are on fire.  Crowds of people are floating in the air held aloft by beams of light and struggling feebly against power they cannot begin to understand.

I really like this line because, at this point in the story, it’s impossible to know whether or not this is inside the bounds of normal.  All that work done to establish where the lines are?  What it really accomplishes is teaching the audience that they don’t know.  But neither do you, because remember, you aren’t a native of Night Vale.  You are a long time resident, though, so you know what to do in the case of something actually weird, and you do that.  Which is why you handle it with such equanimity when you realize that the part where everything you do is being broadcast on the radio has revealed you.

And why having crushing mundanity in the form of your fiancée show up becomes unquestionably weird.  You don’t have much of a reaction to the strange lights and rumbling earth.  You don’t question much at all.  But the minute your fiancée emerges, you start noticing all sorts of things.

Could it have been last week?  Or was it ten years ago?

And this transition into questioning, into awareness, is what triggers the critical moment that makes this a story, rather than a narrative stunt on a quirky podcast.  Up to that point, you were sheltered inside the walls of Night Vale, but as the narrative structure has already revealed, those walls are very permeable.  You knew that, and the journey you’ve been on since driving away from your life is complete now.  The is why the cliffhanger at the ending isn’t a cliffhanger at all, why the ambiguity of what comes next doesn’t matter.  The story put so much work into foreshadowing and highlighting the messages that weren’t understood that in that moment where “every message in this world has a meaning.  It all makes sense and you are finally being punished.”  Your time in Night Vale is less depressing than your time before, but this is the moment where you actually achieve happiness.  This is your character arc, the story of the day you came full circle.

The choice to repeat the line about you being pleased hearing about yourself on the radio is important to solidify that, I think.  It establishes that this breakthrough you had, as a character, is not small or insignificant.  It, in fact, is so important that it caused a first person / second person / omniscient / fourth-wall-breaking /causality fuddling event to occur.  And at the same time, that’s perfectly normal because this is Night Vale, where something as mundane as community radio does that.

Next month: Valedictorian by N.K. Jemisin

I’ll post the schedule for the next batch of stories through the Crucible before then.  Drop me a line if you have requests.

 

 

Turning the Whisper at the Overcast

93569705_1c562b413a_o_dYou know what a great way to kick off the new year is?  Napalming your enemies.  However, if you happen to be out of napalm, or if “compassion” was one of your resolutions and it’s too soon to break it, you can have the next best thing.  The Overcast podcast has done an audio version of Turning the Whisper, the cheerful story about how great humans are Apex originally published a few years back.

This was also the story that the audience at WisCon chose one year after I said, “I don’t think this one can be done successfully by one reader live.”  I was right, and now WisCon is the only place I give readings where I don’t let the audience choose their own fate.  There are consequences to making bad choices.

Given that history, I was really curious to see how well it would work as a podcast.  I’m pretty pleased with the results, and that’s not just because I got paid with a check that had Marvel super heroes printed on it.

CC: Kenneth: A User’s Manual

This month is Sam J. Miller’s Kenneth: A User’s Manual.  This went up in Strange Horizons last year.  I liked it so much when I read it to do the prep work I was a little cranky with the fiction editors for publishing it in December instead of waiting for January (when it’d have a whole year to get award buzz behind it.)  kenneth01small

This is one of those stories that is aggressively structured like a not-story.  Nothing happens – the plot is entirely back story, the arcs are built entirely of the reader’s understanding.  We’ve looked at stories in unconventional formats before, but this one is actually comprised of multiple discrete documents that are

in conversation with each other.  This creates a neat layering effect in the reader’s grasp of the situation.

The first document is the initial recall notice which very plainly lays out that a virtual personality template is being recalled because it drives people to self-harm and suicide.  Which is weird.  Not only do we not have virtual person templates that could remotely take all the forms described in the recall, but we don’t really have a concept of Siri talking us into jumping off a roof.  The document is pretty hook-y on its own.  But what I think is the most effective part of this element of the story is what it doesn’t say.  You have no idea what Kenneth’s appeal might be, why people would use him, or how we could possibly trigger self-harm.  This isn’t even particularly alarming to the reader at this point because these aren’t things a recall notice would include.

If you click back to the main document, you get a few paragraphs that start to fill in the gaps.  We know what Kenneth looks like and what you’d buy him for is very clear.  I really can’t speak to what readers from a different background would have caught in their first read through, but my first time I only paid enough attention to 1981 to wonder how far in the future this piece is set, that they were getting recollections older than I am.  Older readers, or readers for whom the pertinent history is more salient probably had foreboding warning bells going off rather dramatically at this point.  This discrepancy, or at least the way the story forced me to be aware of it, was a huge part of why this story had such an impact on me.

Right after the warning that your sex toy is not, in fact, a toy, you get linked to an abstract about virtual causes of middle-aged homosexual suicide.  This abstract tells you virtually nothing about Kenneth or the story’s premise you don’t already know, but it does a fantastic job of making up for the ignorance of readers like me.  While ostensibly outlining a research study that supports the implications of the recall notice, it highlights the emotional vulnerability of the targeted demographic and the lack of support for them.  Readers who are out of touch for any number of reasons might start twigging on the final thrust of the story here, but even if they aren’t, the information they need for that thrust to strike home is plainly handed to them.

So if you’re a reader who follows the links as you encounter them, you have the situation surrounding an underserved and vulnerable population that can’t even be properly examined due to corporate meddling salient right as you dive back into a paragraph telling you that the schematics etc., for this dangerous, horrifying Frankenstein’s monster of simulated personhood is being illegally distributed.  Why? Is the “We” some vicious collective of sadistic hackers who want to leave a bear trap lying around for the vulnerable?  Is it some sort of ill-conceived anti-corporate protest?  Something is bizarre here.

It matters that the first point is “Your Kenneth will be cruel.”  Cruelty is, in fact, the underpinning of everything that you’ve read so far.  It just wasn’t obvious, and it may still be obscure even at this point.  That cruelty is what makes Kenneth human, what makes him more genuine, more real than the other products.  That realness matters, and the fact that cruelty the element that enables it matters, too.

So of course the next point is a reminder that Kenneth is, in fact, not real at all.  The story isn’t masking its cruelty anymore.  Item 1 explains why Kenneth is attractive.  Item 2 is a reminder that he’s a fantasy.  3 is both a call back to the recall notice and the abstract and a very interesting reveal about the “We.”  They knew Kenneth was dangerous, wanted to curb that, but still chose to distribute the schematics post-recall.  This both asserts a sense of ethical responsibility for the “We” and reinforces the oppressive and dangerous meddling of the corporate interests.

Then everything breaks open with Item 4.  Now that “We” have started giving us information about themselves, more spills out.  What’s interesting is that we don’t just collapse “We” into a single man, but we also collapse the corporation into a single person.  And now there’s more back story.  There was a falling out between these two.  There are hurt feelings.  “We” is in pain.

Item 6 is where even the very sheltered, out-of-touch reader gets clued in to what’s happening here.  If this item came at the beginning, it wouldn’t work.  It amounts to saying, “Hot boys, totally worth it, amirite?!” which is so absurdly shallow and idiotic most people would, reasonably, bounce off.  The depth is in the context.  Loneliness, misery, fantasy you need to feel alive made flesh before you and, critically, ephemeral.  If Kenneth were going to linger there’d be no impetus to take the risk right now.  All the work that’s come before has put the reader where “We” was and so the comment isn’t, “Hot boys,” but “Life.”

It’s downhill from there.  Item 7 is all reality, no fantasy, no escape, which drives you right into 8, the confession of an obsession.  Obsession seems reasonable now, doesn’t it?  And it’s all obsession from there, with the “We” admitting the reality of the situation as the reader realizes it.  That’s a downer.

But let’s go back to that abstract linked earlier, in case we didn’t click when we got to it originally.  Now what does it tell us?  That “We” aren’t alone.  They might be the only one who managed to create Kenneth, but they aren’t the only one who would.  There’s a whole population of people who are, functionally, “We” and they can’t get the help they need because researchers can’t even study them to find out what they need.  They’re trapped in a net woven by the “Corporation” is who is, we now know, one person who betrayed “We.”  And, if we go back to that very first link, they’re winning.  They’ve erased the suffering, the culture defined by what it has lost, the survivor’s guilt, turned Kenneth into just another glitzy virtual person, and they’re yanking him from the shelves, rendering invisible the one clue about what happened that crept out.

Which, for somebody who isn’t exactly out of touch with queer culture yet doesn’t have AIDS as a a pertinent cultural touchstone beyond that’s why I have to tell the blood donation people whether I’ve slept with a man who’s slept with a man and will get turned away if I say “yes,” is an extra whammy on the downer.  It is invisible, and that invisibility is dangerous to the people it hides.

This story could have just been a rant about the corporate co-opting of gay culture, or the negligent disinterst paid to AIDS’ lingering legacy, but even though a significant portion of the text is in fact a screed, the story itself doesn’t rant.  It just gives you pieces and, by making you put them together, makes it impossible for you to stay ignorant.

Next Month: We continue our weird-format phase with A Story About You by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. (Yes, you’ll need to listen to it. It’s worth it)

CC: The Fisher Queen

This week’s story is Alsyssa Wong’s The Fisher Queen.  I’ve got a weakness for mermaid stories which you may have figured out since this is the second one to go through the crucible.  (Somebody else asked for it, I swear!)  This is a great one, though, and very different from the last one even though mermaid as fish is a huge, significant element in the story.

What I want to examine here is the way Wong uses reversals to build the story.  There are several important ones leading up to the final reversal that resolves everything, and each one is really important to the turns of the story.  The first is the narrator’s stance on mermaids.

Mermaids, like my father’s favorite storytale version of my mother, are fish. They aren’t people.

Asserting this up front lets the story explain the economy around mermaid meat and the “fairy tale” stories about her mother without tipping its hand for where its’ going.  Obviously mermaids are going to be important, they’re all over the opening, but how they’re going to matter isn’t clear.  That the narrator is going to change her position on the peoplehood of mermaids isn’t terribly surprising, but how that change is going to happen isn’t all that clear.

But her change in position introduces another reversal, as well.

Iris is a marine biologist wannabe, almost done with high school but too dumb to go to university, who lectures us on fishes like we haven’t been around them our whole lives. She sleeps with the biology textbook I stole from the senior honor kids’ classroom under her pillow.

That’s the whole of her introductory comments about Iris.  For the most part her sisters get referred to together for the next section of the story.  We know the narrator isn’t entirely reliable because we know her assertions about mermaids are clearly wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily occur to us to question why this is her description of her sister.  But she’s actually more misleading in her description of Iris than she was when she was talking about mermaids.

Because, of course, she’s put the pieces together and figured out why her sister isn’t going to school anymore, and doesn’t actually blame her.  It’s the recognition, and her inability to do anything with that knowledge, that leads to her reversal on her stance of mermaids as not people.  The sister who’s “too dumb to go to university” and the dumb fish have something in common, and that’s the bridge the narrator walks to reach her new understanding.

And that understanding is critical to the story’s ending, because it’s not just a simple “mermaids are people” realization.  It’s a realization of shared helplessness, shared brutalization at the hands of the same perpetrators – Abhe was potentially a “close friend” for our narrator – and the need to address that helplessness that dictates the nature of the boon she requests.

Of course, the most tangible reversal of the story is swapping the fishermen with the mermaids.  What I like about this solution is it’s as close to victimless as this sort of vengeance plot can be.  The families of the sailors lose their husbands and fathers, but they still get the wealth brought by the haul of mermaids.  The mermaids have an awkward week spent ashore but then get to go back to the sea.  The bereaved even have the benefit of being in a community that shares their grief, rather than having to suffer alone.  This is probably the most responsible vengeance scheme I’ve encountered in fiction.  (It also supports my pet theory that the secret to safely using wishes granted by magical creatures is to make a wish that also serves the creature’s interests)

A neat thing about how the reversals in this story work is that they follow the fairy tale structure of coming in threes while each also prepares the reader for the next.  The reader sees the change from fish – people, then from deluded failure to victim, then from abuser to vanquished.  It’s a very modern story, but is simultaneously very old in the bones of how it’s told.

Things Upcoming and Upcome

Want to read a story by me featuring romance, cannibalism, and Dr. Who jokes?  Then you’d probably be doing yourself a favor if you checked out the fourth volume of Unidentified Funny Objects, which came out earlier this month.

Let me tell you a funny story about this funny story.  The first volume of UFO was announced as upcoming relatively closely to when I started submitting for publication.  I sort of second-hand knew the editor, Alex Shvartsman, and he’s good folks.  Also, I like writing stories about bad things happening to good people or bad people having a good time and other light-hearted, cheerful things like that.  I can do amusing.  I am a master of sardonic.  But funny?  Not so much my thing.

At the same time, I have a raging ego the size of some continents you could mention and am more or less convinced I should be the master of all things.  So I wrote a funny story and I sent it to UFO1.  “I don’t think anybody will get your jokes,” the rejection said, which is a nice way of saying, “It wasn’t funny.”

Undaunted, lesson not learned, I did it again for UFO2.  With similar effect.  I would have done it again for UFO3, but last year was a rather full one and there just wasn’t time to write a third not funny story.  That was okay, though, because then Alex announced that UFO4 would have a theme, and it would be dark humor.  I think the word “sardonic” may even have been in one of the submission calls.  So, as all professional writers do when practicing their most finely honed craft, I cackled uproariously and began a deep study of the human condition in order to craft the most perfect, hilariously dark story I could.

That last line is a lie.  What I actually did was carry out a threat I’d made to Dr. Unicorn about immortalizing certain in-jokes in fiction, made a couple Dr. Who jokes, then got very, very stuck.  I knew how the story needed to end, there was only one acceptable ending, but I couldn’t really find a funny way to get there.  This is the problem with being a pantsing, special snowflake of a writer trying to write for a specific theme.  My muse, she’s a fickle beast.

Betrayed by my own creativity, I went for the second set of tools I have, stealing from other writers.  I stared at the story’s middle, said, “What would Charlie Jane Anders Do?” and typed my way to a finish.  A finish that was not the ending the story had to have because I’d intended my funny story to have a happy ending, but if you think about it for a minute, the actual ending is actually really, really not good.  But it was the ending I felt like writing, and the submission window had about four hours left open before it closed and gosh darnit, I’m going to get an editor to declare that I Have Written A Funny Story.

Reader, the story sold. (Obviously)

Hurray!  It only took four years, but mission accomplished, I am the master of all things, I have written a funny story!  The ending definitely isn’t a happy ending, but it’s funny!  Alex Shvartsman said so, by implication, when he bought it.  Or did he?  Here’s what he says in his foreward:

Among the twenty-three stories collected within there are horror tales with a touch of humor, such as “The Monkey Treatment” by George R. R. Martin and “Armed for You” by Anaea Lay.

Oh.  Well.  A horror tale with a touch of humor.  Nevermind then.  Not funny after all, apparently.  I guess I’ll go sulk in the…

I’m in the same sentence as GRRM?  VICTORY!

* * *

While I’m bragging, Beneath Ceaseless Skies just bought a story from me.  They’re an awesome market I’ve been trying to sneak my way into even longer than I’ve been trying to be funny.  This story has the distinction of being my first rhyming title, “The Right Bright Courier.”  It also provoked the very first time I’ve argued with an editor about a comma.  It wasn’t really an argument, actually, but still.  Me and commas.  They’re slippery little critters, aren’t they?  I usually leave their care and maintenance entirely in the editor’s hand.  Here, have a teaser to tide you over until it comes out.

The sensor feeds of our approach washed over me as I sat in Shalott‘s cocoon, guiding her with my breath and thought and anticipation. The ether roads between worlds were long and we both bore the scars of our journeys. She furled her sails and pulled them tight to her hull, then turned on her side and beached herself upon the shores. Trails of nebula dust scattered in our wake, rippling out in a cascade of color and radiation that sparkled in the depths of our shared vision. We had arrived. But she did not withdraw the cocoon. Her warm, humid breath encased me, clutching me tight.

“You will not come back to me,” she whispered in my ear.