Artwork by VIctor Mosquera
September is an awful lot like June, especially when the entire summer vanished in a poof of work. Which has been frustrating, because I’ve been wanting to write up the Craft Crucible piece on this story for ages.
You don’t have to look far to find people praising David Levine’s Damage for being an excellent story, and that’s not surprising. And you don’t have to read very many CCs to know that this story plays off some of my favorite tropes in SF; space battles, AI’s with feelings, revenge, and a bittersweet ending. And while having all those things are enough to win me over to a story, what I find uniquely appealing about this story is how it uses deception and misleading omission throughout.
The first comes early on while Scraps is explaining just who exactly she is.
But his loss, though a tragedy, was no sadder to me than any of the thousands of other deaths Earth had inflicted on the Free Belt—Valkyrie’s love for her pilot was not one of the things that had survived her death to be incorporated into my programming. Only Commander Ziegler mattered. My love, my light, my reason to live.
Where it’s placed, at the beginning of the story, this seems perfectly credible. The unfolding of the story puts the lie to this, however. It’s clear that not only is the trauma and loss sustained by the ships that went into making Scraps very present and real, but Commander Ziegler is not the sole motivating force for Scraps, either. If he were, the innocent lives on Earth wouldn’t have been a concern; only Commander Ziegler’s well being would. Instead, it was such a concern that she steered her pilot to his death in order to save Earth. The ending of the story would have read very differently if it were true that, “Only Commander Ziegler mattered.” The conflict would have entirely been about whether giving Ziegler the fight and challenge he longed for and his validation as the greatest pilot in the solar system mattered more than supporting his fulfillment of his mission and immortalizing his reputation as the hero of the belt.
There a couple of levels on which this lie works. First, it’s something Scraps is telling herself because that is a core element of being a functional ship. Love from Commander Ziegler, like victory for the belt, is unobtainable. Which means pursuing it, striving to perform well enough to gain his notice and affection, is a safe goal to have as a distraction from her baseline terror and misery; she’s never going to achieve it and need something else as a distraction. At the craft level, it makes Scraps instantly likable and relatable to the reader; she’s a ship bound to unrequited love, not just because a human can’t love her back, but because the human she loves is an asshole. And finally, it masks the real bond that is the through line of the story: Scraps and Specialist Toman. (Note: we hear about Toman well before Ziegler is mentioned, the protagonist does have a name despite her assertions otherwise, because Toman gave her a serial number and dubbed her “Scraps.”) Toman isn’t just the human who appreciates and respects Scraps in the way Ziegler doesn’t, she’s the actual pillar Scraps leans on to make it through.
There are a lot of fibs and minor lies in Scraps’s interaction with Ziegler, but the next big doozy of a lie by omission comes from Specialist Toman, when she deliberately lets Scraps overhear the conversation about how the war is going.
“I don’t care what General Geary says about ‘murderous mud-people,’” Toman shot back. “Earth Force is still following the Geneva Conventions, even if we aren’t, and given their advantage in numbers I’m sure they’ll offer us terms before they bring the hammer down.”
This revelation is huge. Up to this point we knew Ziegler was an asshole, but this is the first we find out that Scraps is fighting for the bad guys. We’ve got racist epithets directed at Earth-dwellers, a reveal that the Belters aren’t following the Geneva convention while Earth forces are, and that Earth isn’t in this for total destruction. Scraps may or may not have known all of this already, but the reader sure didn’t. More, there’s no way Scraps would have said something to the reader to indicate this. Toman’s subterfuge with the communication line is, at a minimum, necessary as a way for Levine to tell the reader whose side we’re on (and consequently, to foreshadow the suicide mission at the end of the story).
But the technical issues of needing to deliver this exposition to the reader aside, this is a staggeringly important line in the story, because it’s Toman telling Scraps, without actually telling Scraps anything, that she can honor her commitments without going all the way to the bitter end. Scraps doesn’t explicitly reflect on this moment in her recounting of later events, but it absolutely has to have informed the decision she makes. Toman can’t tell Scraps any of this directly because Scraps would have to argue with her, and it’d also probably be treason, but having an allegedly private conversation with somebody else while ensuring Scraps can hear it is a-okay. This isn’t just Toman telling Scraps that there’s an alternative to death, it’s Toman saying, “Hey, I care about you.”
Toman gets another piece of subtle commentary in right before Scraps and Ziegler leave for their final mission.
“Make me proud, Scraps.”
Not, “Take care of yourself,” or “Go get ’em,” or “May the Force be with you.” Instead it’s, “Make me proud.” Toman almost certainly knows, or has deduced, the nature of the mission. And knows that Scraps doesn’t. And again, there’s the need to thread the needle of what she can safely say out loud, and what she can say to Scraps that won’t require Scraps to argue. And like her warning during the not-actually-private conversation earlier, this isn’t something Scraps thinks of explicitly while deciding whether to redirect Ziegler’s attention. It is, however, an invocation of the bond between Scraps and Toman, a reinforcement of priorities and options that exist outside devotion to Ziegler, and the directive Scraps ultimately follows. Toman omits all warnings or pleas for a particular choice, and thereby optimizes circumstances such that Scraps makes the right choice.
Of course, Scraps’s lie of omission in directing Ziegler is pivotal, and another data point that argues that these lies and omissions throughout the story are a deliberate craft element, but what I find more interesting on this theme is a line that comes much later.
Specialist Toman came to visit me there once, with her children. She told me how proud she was of me.
That! Right there! It could just be a nice tying up a loose thread for the only other character of significance in the story, but it’s not. That, right there, is David Levine shouting from the rooftops that the obsession with Ziegler is a smokescreen, and the real relationship in this story is Scraps/Toman. It’s a lie Scraps believes, because she has to and otherwise she wouldn’t be safe (remember, they could examine her memories to confirm she was telling the truth) but she also knows what the truth is. This entire story is a lie of omission, a cover story crafted by a wily ship to distract you from the fact that she defied orders and murdered her pilot. She’s teaching others about how she did it. She says scientists and historians, but I’m betting she’s talking to other artificial intelligences, too. The real story here isn’t what’s on the page at all, but the one implied by this line at the end where Scraps is actively playing the good-little-fighter-craft propaganda machine to let everybody, especially other AI’s know, that they can circumvent their programming. The sequel to Damage is going to be the AI uprising, with general Scraps at the fore.
To which I say, well played, Scraps/Toman/Levine. Well played.
Nest time: Angel, Monster, Man, Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed)