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.

 

 

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CC: The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere

Last year’s Hugo winner was John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere.”  It’s a gorgeous story very beautifully done, and there are a ton of things to pull apart in it.  I want to focus on just one thing, though: the translation.

Everyone in the room speaks at least two languages, but there isn’t one language everyone speaks.

There is a lot of translation going on in this story, and no just because the cast of characters doesn’t have a single language in common.  But the people for whom translation is critical are not the people you’d expect: Gus gets along with Matt’s family even when he doesn’t share a language and he seems genuinely enthused about them, too.  The readers, or at least the readers who can’t read Chinese (including me) need translation, or a noticeable quantity of the dialog is completely indecipherable.  We won’t know that Matt’s parents are on board with his relationship and intended future.  We won’t know that Gus has been given the critical information necessary to communicate that.  This would matter for the reader, but not all readers – a significant portion of the world can read both English and Chinese and leaving the rest of us out is a valid choice.  No, the translator this story hinges on is the water, and Matt is its audience.

I know I’m supposed to be rooting for him to hold on for as long as possible, but I just want him to stop.

At this point in the story we, the audience, don’t know a whole lot about Matt and Gus’s relationship.  We know what Matt thinks of people who challenge the water, and we know and are learning that Gus is that type.  But what we’re also seeing, very clearly, is that the dismissive, quasi-disdain Matt is using has to, to some extent, be a cover because he clearly cares deeply about Gus.  Most people do not sympathetically suffer for idiot frat boys endure the consequences of macho stunts.  Matt has assured us he is like most people, comfortable with that situation, and he’s suffering anyway.  So there’s something else, and that’s his affection for Gus.  The reader has no idea why, because all we have is Gus being a macho stooge.

Not only does no water fall on him, but all the sweat evaporates from his body.

We could have merely been given a story where a closeted protagonist has to deal with his boyfriend declaring love. We could have been given a story where, aw, he pulled the stunt to prove he meant it.  Instead, we’re given a story where the water, through not only being absent but conspicuously and positively so, gives us detailed and final assurances that yes, this is LOVE.  There is no question of sincerity here.  Given Matt’s internal denial and general density about things the readers need that sort of clear indicator to be sure.

And for the rest of the story, the water is there, or not there, mostly to translate Matt to himself.

I want to scream, “What the fuck?” but if I even breathed, I’d drown.

That is known as a cosmic, “STFU you in denial lying liar.”  Gus, I think, was not surprised by this outcome.  Readers were not terribly surprised by this outcome.  Matt’s surprise?  Genuine.  He knows how the water works – he’s tested it in the lab for goodness’s sake.  We know what he thinks of stunts pulled with the water.  His triggering statement wasn’t a stunt.  He really thought he could get away with it, and the water showed up go to, “Hi, I’ll be your Matt-Matt interpreter.  You are an idiot.”

Both of these points come together in the scene where Matt’s cooking dinner with his sister.

Three words into her last sentence, I know what she’ll say. I leap to pull her pan away as I shut off the burner. The water that falls from nowhere drenches her and the burner where the pan was. Had the water hit the pan, the steam and splattered oil would have burned her.

The whole story lives in this paragraph.  He knows his sister well enough to know what she’s going to say.  He knows Gus well enough to know it’s not true.  And he cares about her enough that he saves her from getting burned.  And he’s being honest about that. He could have as easily said, “Had the water hit the pan, the spinach would have been ruined.”  But that wasn’t the salient risk to him.  The sister who has tormented him for years and is actively in the middle of attempted sabotage of his relationship and future happiness, matters enough that he protects her from the worst of her cosmic comeuppance.

This is important, because Matt has trouble being honest about his feelings.

And it’s also why the story ends, not with a sibling reconciliation, or a wedding, or the parents telling Matt to be happy.  It has to end with him curled up in bed, dry even when natural water was tracked in, and saying “I love you,” out loud.  It was in the subtext when he got rained on, and when he rescued his sister, and with every bit of agony he goes through in interacting with his family, but he’s never gotten the words out, even in his head narration.  This isn’t a coming out story, or a love story, or an immigration story; it’s a story about the translation that lets Matt be himself.

The Grace of Kings and a Feline Terrorist

Back at the beginning of the month, a very cool book came out for your reading pleasure.  It’s this one.

Technically, I haven’t read it.  I read an early draft wherein my most notable contribution was to cuss at Ken Liu about pigeons.  This is, I’m not at all ashamed to say, probably the greatest of my literary achievements to date.  Someday I’ll be sitting in a job interview and when they ask me why they should give me the job I’ll say, “I once cussed at Ken Liu about pigeons.”  There will be a long moment of awed silence, and then they’ll ask me to write my own job description and employment contract.  This is a true thing that cannot be denied.

What else is a true thing that cannot be denied is that this book is really cool.  There’s not anything new in it, but some of the things he does are so old-school you might not have seen them before, and he mashes them together in a way that’s definitely new to you, and if you’re even a little bit bored of the same-old, same-old, this’ll be a breath of fresh air.  And even if you aren’t, it’s fun, which is enough reason to read anything right there on its own.  I can tell you all of this with authority, even though I haven’t read this version, because it was true of an earlier version.  Also, to make sure the fun and neat and general spiffy that was in the book didn’t vanish during subsequent revisions, I did science.

It is a well known fact of modern science that cats are the source of all things good, and also all knowledge, and also the center of the universe.  I just so happen to have had a cat nearby with whom I could perform a test on the copy of The Grace of Kings Ken sent me and which arrived over the weekend.  (Important takeaway: I have a signed copy of The Grace of Kings.  Do you have a signed copy of The Grace of Kings? No? Aren’t you just a sad panda.)  This cat’s name is Zoey.  She’s ancient, cranky, loud, smelly, clingy, demanding, and made of fur she sheds liberally absolutely everywhere.  She moonlights as a tiny dinosaur and hires herself out as a domestic terrorist.  In summary: yeah. She’s a cat.

Because I am a wise and sensitive human, I decided to interrupt her very important settee-nap (as opposed to her futon nap, her foot-of-the-bed nap, her head-of-the-bed nap or her Rolling-on-rug-to-embed-fur play session) in order to conduct my terribly important experiment.  Would Zoey certify that all good things remained in this book? Or, more importantly, would she consent to be photographed with the book so I could shamelessly manipulate people into associating it with internet-crazed-feline-obsession?

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Early trials were inconclusive.

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Zoey, it seems, expected that if I was going to disrupt her, I would be petting her, or playing with her, not trying to get her to pose with a book.  She’s a cat, not a marketing prop, her agitated pacing and squeaks seemed to indicate.  Or possibly they were saying, “Oooh, the boring human came out of her office to acknowledge me. I must vex and frustrate her to make sure this will happen again.”  The day I claim to understand the inner workings of a cat’s mind is that day I’ve started my cult.

Eventually, things began to settle.

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This is clearly a case of “This object is not offensive enough to drive me from the sunny settee. Now scritch me, human!”  See how her paw consents to brush the corner of the book.  That’s a mild endorsement of its contents if ever I saw one.

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And that?  That is treating the book as if it were part of her current environment, i.e. the sunny, comfy settee where she plans to lounge for the next hour because it is the most perfect place in all the universe.  Hear that, Ken?  Your book is part of the most perfect place in all the universe: my couch.

That, good people, is how to scientifically obtain an endorsement from your local feline.

So when you see this book in the store you need think only one thing: The Grace of Kings – Anaea tested, cat approved.

The Body Politik

The Framing Anecdote

Once upon a time I flopped down on a friend’s leather couch.  It was summer in Madison, and I’d misjudged just how blisteringly, unpleasantly hot the 3-mile walk to her house would be.  I get cranky when I’m too hot.  So there I am, collapsed on her couch and clutching a glass of ice water like a dead-man switch for the Apocalypse, and what does she say?

“Guess what K called you earlier.”  K, her boyfriend, was sitting in the room with us.

“What?” I asked.

“He called you a good housewife.”

K promptly explained the context for the comment.  He hadn’t actually called me a housewife, though the words “good” “house” and “wife” had appeared in incriminating order with me as the subject.

Cranky when I’m hot, remember?  “K,” I said.  “Your girlfriend is trying to get you killed.  You should probably do something about that.”

An Approach to the Subject

A ton of good stuff got published last year.  I didn’t read all of it.  Nobody did.  I read a lot, though, and I liked a lot of what I read.  My two favorite SFF novels from last year were, easily, Ancillary Sword and The Goblin Emperor.  On the one hand we have a book that plays on my weakness for Strong AI characters, politics, and of all things, tea.  On the other, we have the most adorable damn emperor ever to encounter court intrigue and not immediately die.  These books are fantastic, I love them with squeefuls of kittens.

In case I have been at all unclear, I am not rational in my love for these books.  I suspect it will be quite a while before the infatuation fades enough that I will be.  I don’t mind.  I enjoy this sort of obsession.

Both books have been nominated for a Hugo.

Along with a lot of other things.

A Flasback

My first and, so far, only WorldCon attendance was at ChiCon in 2012.  I went for a lot of reasons.  Some of them were to spend a long weekend in Chicago.  Some of them were to stalk the staff at Strange Horizons so I could demand that they start podcasting their content.  Some of them were to meet other people who love the things I love, to introduce people to things I love they might not have heard of, and to find new things to love.  I accomplished all these things.

But.  It was too big for me.  I am not naturally nice, friendly, or fond of people.  I’m very good at pretending otherwise, but it gets tiring.  I like small conventions because my baseline assumptions about the people surrounding me shift in a way that makes it easier to hide my rampant misanthropy.  WorldCon was big enough that my baseline shifted the other way.

“Are you glad you went?” a friend asked me when I was explaining this after.

“Yeah.  It was a good experience.  But not one I need to do again right away.  Or maybe ever.  I dunno.  I think maybe I won’t go back until I’m nominated for a Hugo.”

“Oh,” said my friend.  “I knew you were starting to have success with the writing.  Are you that good?”

“No.  It’ll be a while before I get a Hugo nomination for writing.”  Then, because I hadn’t thought this part through until that moment, “But I may have bullied my way onto the staff for Strange Horizons.  They’re already overdue for getting a Hugo nomination.”

Strange Horizons received a Hugo nomination in 2013.  That didn’t count for me because I wasn’t yet on the staff during the time covered by that nomination.  That was absolutely fine.  I was deep in fake-it-til-you-make-it mode with the podcast, and since the fund drive had barely hit the stretch goal for the podcast, I wasn’t even sure my conviction that they absolutely, desperately needed to have a podcast wasn’t personal delusion.

They got another one in 2014.  But of course they did.  They’d been overdue for nominations long before that.  The podcast was incidental.  I’m sure nobody actually listens to it and this is just a vanity project I’m doing because it makes my name notable without requiring me to read slush.  Except.

An email here or there.  People recognizing me at cons not as the person who talks too much on all the panels, but for being part of SH.  Then tweets.  Tweets are becoming a regular thing.  I’m making people happy.  I’m making SH fans happy.

This year Strange Horizons got another nomination.  And this time?  Yeah, I feel like a piece of that is me.

I’m going to Sasquan in August.  I will be representing Strange Horizons at the Hugo ceremony.

The Complication

Everybody knows you can be an asshole without breaking any rules other than “Don’t be an asshole.”  You’re still an asshole.  And when you piss in a pool, even if you like the smell of your own urine, other people are still going to be upset because, hey, they don’t.  There are roughly 1,000 ways the good-faith puppies could have tried to accomplish their goals, and many of them would have been less annoying/upsetting/provocative than what they did.  As for the bad faith puppies, well, they win just by playing.

The problem with the “pissing in the pool” analogy is that the only reasonable response is to get out of the pool and stay out until it’s been cleaned and the culprits are gone.  That means that the people who want to do inflexible “No Award” against both puppy slates are absolutely correct and anybody who does anything else is willingly swimming in urine.  That’s obviously madness.

Except.

My two favorite books from last year are up for the award.  My favorite fiction magazine, which is now a little bit me, is up for the award.  I’ve been staring, sniffing, and running pH tests for days now.  There’s no urine there.

The Anecdote’s Payoff

My friend stares at grumpy, collapsed, overheated me.  “That is not the reaction I expected from you,” she said.

“I know.  Can’t afford to be predictable.  Otherwise, it’d be too easy for you to manipulate me into killing your boyfriend for you.  Besides, I’m hot and tired, and murder requires effort.  I win more if I just sit here.”

The Point

I’m a cat person.  I’ve never cared about dogs, even in juvenile form, and I still don’t.  The good faith puppies, who really just want to draw attention to the modern heirs of Golden Age story-driven SF don’t have a beef with me.  I read the whole spectrum, and I think the two authors who have first and second place for number of items on my shelves are Robert Heinlein and Terry Goodkind.  Good faith actors who have no beef with me clearly haven’t attacked me, so I don’t need to respond as if I’ve been attacked.  I can go about my life as I was.

As for the bad faith puppies, I said it earlier – they already won.  But just because they won doesn’t mean I have to lose.  I do not have to let their attempts to upset me constrain my actions.  I do not have to let them ruin my party.  They certainly can’t change the fact that “Yes, Fleet Captain,” is common parlance in my household, or that I ducked out of a meeting to tell my office Admin about Maia, the most adorable emperor ever in all time period.

Fandom isn’t a pool.  It’s a body.  Living.  Breathing.  Defecating.

By all means, let’s discuss our waste management.  But let’s not forget to do all the good things bodies let us do, either.

Book Signings and AMAs, Oh My!

For any of you who just don’t hang out with me enough, or hear my dulcet tones reading enough fiction, or have a burning need to ask me questions in a public forum, you’ve got some opportunities to get those needs fulfilled coming up.

First of all, I’ll be doing a reading/signing thing at A Room of One’s Own here in Madison on May 8, at 6pm.  You should come hang out.  It’s entirely possible I’ll bring something of a food-like nature to bribe people into liking me.  It’s extremely likely that I will at some point get confused and forget my name.

I’ll also be part of a big AMA on Reddit on May 13.  You should check that out, especially since it’s a Tuesday.  Nothing ever goes hilariously wrong on Tuesdays!  Wait…

No baked goods at the AMA.  I wouldn’t want to clog up the tubes that power the internet with crumbs.

The Hands Down Best Part of Writers of the Future

There are two sides to the “of the Future” contest, the Writers and the Illustrators.  Before going out for the workshop I’d paid exactly 0 attention to the Illustrators side.  I know a bunch of artists, have massive appreciation for visual arts, but don’t actually know all that much about how that side of the industry works.  Then I got there and there were twelve artists and this whole other parallel thing going on and I was immediately fascinated.  I knew, intellectually, that one of the artists had done an illustration of my story, but I hadn’t really put any thought into it.  I’ve had stories illustrated before (the artwork Waylines has paired with A Long Fuse to A Slow Detonation is nice) and there were about hundred thousand other things that were taking up my brain space.

Then they did the reveal on Thursday.

This was both the simplest moment of spectacle Author Services aka ASI (the people who run the contest) arranged and, for me, the most effective.  They put framed prints of all of the artwork up in a semi circle, then sent the authors off to go find their piece.  I started at the left side of the circle and worked my way around methodically, determined to not embarrass or shame my artist by picking the wrong piece or failing to recognize mine.  Thirteen pieces of artwork.

Did I mention that the artists, as a whole, are much younger than the writers?  They are.  The why of that was one of the things I spent the week trying to figure out while digging into how the other side of the contest works.

I got to piece four or five and there was a world inside a bubble.  My story is set in a bubble universe.  It could have been mine, if the artist didn’t read the story very carefully.  It was a lovely piece, but the atmosphere was wrong, and the details didn’t have much to do with anything.  Probably not mine, move along.

When I say young, I mean that the night the artists arrived, a group of us writers pounced on them by the hotel pool.  Everybody was enthusiastic and friendly, but some of the artists seemed a little nervous and shy.  It felt a little like we’d loudly barged into freshman orientation – they were happy to have us there, but we didn’t fit and they weren’t sure what to do with us.

Piece eight had somebody on a bicycle leaving town.  My story has somebody who leaves town on a journey.  It’s possible that could be a badly rendered scene from my story.  Maybe?  I’m getting low on artwork.  Was it the one with the bubble after all?

Unlike the writers, the illustrator winners each quarter don’t get ranked.  They just have three winners per quarter, and all twelve winners go against each other for the grand prize.  Winning one of the illustrator quarters is basically just winning entry into the real competition, which is who does the best illustration for their story.  The artists get their assigned story, then have to deliver three thumbnail ideas.  One of those ideas gets greenlit, and they do the full workup of that one.

I get to artwork piece number eleven.  Nope, not mine.  And I’m getting worried.  Did I mention that the artists are adorable and I’d really rather not dash somebody’s dreams and ambitions?  Obviously one of the pieces I picked out as maybes were mine, and I’ll have to study the remaining two pieces as carefully as I have everything else so far, then beeline to one of them and claim I knew it the whole time, but wanted to take in all the artwork before announcing my discovery.  Which one, though?  Also, oh god, I am going to have to lie through my teeth about loving it and it being awesome and my tact wells are, at that point, completely drained.  But no way am I going to be the snotty writer who crushed the poor illustrator by huffily not appreciating the work that went into making a visual rendering of their vision so I just have to guess the right one and summon the resources I don’t have…

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Then I see piece number twelve.  Glance a thirteen.  Look at twelve.  Glance at eleven.  Nope, twelve is still there.  Not going anywhere.  Not a hallucination.  Not a cruel prank designed to guarantee I make an ass of myself.  It’s really there.

HOLY FUCK MY ILLUSTRATION LOOKS LIKE THE COVER OF AN N.K. JEMISON NOVEL

“Uhm,” I say, looking around the room at the other people mistakenly milling around at other pieces when they clearly ought to be drooling right here, “If this isn’t the artwork for my story, I have a serious beef with the author of whatever story it is.”

Understatement of the year.

“Hi.  I’m Bernardo.  Do you like it?”

Bernardo is eighteen.  He was seventeen when he won.  He’s still in high school.  He is the best artist on the planet.

He was also adorably nervous about whether I’d like it.  The prints weren’t true to the digital colors and this bothered him so much he pulled out his tablet to show me what the colors should look like.  “I don’t know why they assigned me your story.  I’ve never done anything like that before,” Bernardo said.

It doesn’t show. I was obnoxiously enthusiastic about my art, and Bernardo, for the whole rest of everything.  I’m not sorry.  I’m still obnoxiously enthusiastic.  The print of the artwork is getting shipped to me and I am not being particularly patient as I wait for it. Want. The pretty. Now.

Bernardo has put up with my undignified gushing remarkably well given that I’ve got a decade of “Knows how to behave better,” on him.  I may have interrupted a dinner conversation to give him my card and demand that he send me everything ever immediately.  It’s possible he’s afraid I’d fly to Portugal and hunt him down if he didn’t comply.  If so, he’s perceptive as well as talented.

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But how could you not be enthusiastic?  He made a clay model for reference.  And he sent me his sketch sheet where he was working through ideas, just like the neat extras you get at the back of comic book collections sometimes, except this is about my story.

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And the thumbnails that didn’t get selected as the piece for him to finish were full of good ideas.

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I was in fantastically good hands with Bernardo, and had no idea until the reveal.That smile is fantastic, and a great detail for him to have picked up from the story to highlight.

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What I really like is that so much of the this story was about the aesthetic, the atmosphere, and he captured it throughout.  He got it.  This is awesome, because I totally am the writer who’d look at the art, pout, and then whine about how they didn’t get it. Hopefully, not where the artist can hear me do it, but yeah.  That was the day where I got to melt with genuine squee instead of pretending to.

Somebody give Bernardo a job.  He’s about to graduate from high school and I don’t want him to do something sensible like go into banking.

CC: Paper Menagerie

(Quick Note: I’m moving CC to Thursdays.  Wednesdays just aren’t working out for me)

Ken Liu is awesome across the board, but he really knocked it out of the park with Paper Menagerie.  It was the first story to win the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy award.  It’s kind of brilliant.

This isn’t remotely the first story about a kid recognizing the value of their heritage too late.  Versions of this story are all over the place, and they usually suck.  It’s a subject so inherently prone to cheese and ham-fisted emotional manipulation that it’s very easy to do it poorly.  Liu doesn’t, though, and it’s because he writes stories the way I like to sell things: he makes the reader do the work.

If you boil this story down to its rough essence it is this:

1) Boy has connection with mom

2) Boy develops values incompatible with connection

3) Boy breaks mom’s heart

4) Boy gets upset when he realizes he’s an unforgivable asshole

Do you know what isn’t a natural human inclination?  Feeling sorry for an asshole who gets what he deserves.  Do you know what people do when this particular asshole gets what’s coming to him?  They cry, and then give Ken Liu all the awards ever.  And it’s their own fault, too, because Liu doesn’t believe in telling his readers how to feel.  He just distracts them until they trip into having their hearts cut open.

We talked about the vanishing element of humor in Brief Candles and how that was used to lead the reader into the investment needed to pull of the ending.  The psychology at work here is similar, except we never get a laugh.  The entire first scene is sweet, delicate, and there to show the readers the special, unique bond the boy and his mom have.  Dad can’t make him stop crying, but Mom can, with this special trick.

Zhejiao zhezhi,” Mom said. This is called origami.

I didn’t know this at the time, but Mom’s kind was special. She breathed into them so that they shared her breath, and thus moved with her life. This was her magic.

There’s no flim-flammery here, nothing flashy or grabby.  Everthing is matter-of-fact and straightforward.  The sentences are sparse, proof-like to the point of “and thus.”  We trust the narrator to be straight with us because there’s no sign he’s planning to do anything else, and we accept that his mother can make animated paper creatures because of course she can.  This is the narrative voice of fables and magical realism and Realtors who will soothe you right into buying a house.

This scene also gives us the grounding we need for the culture clash that becomes so important later.  Liu doesn’t rush us, though.  We get a sweet story about how Mom and Dad met.  Nevermind that it’s rather creepy and says unpleasant things about dad – the story will bring us to that later – right now what we’re seeing is a delightful little love-at-first sight vignette.  Now the reader has the facts, and since it’s done after we got whimsical paper animals we’re rolling right along with it.  If you got to the end of that section without going, “Ugh, mail order bride, squick!” then you’ve already fallen for the trap.  We’re only at the end of the second section and you, dear reader, are toast.

Liu’s ambitious, though.  So we get a longer scene telling us more about the animals, building our relationship with them, getting us really invested especially in Laohu and the shark.  Note that not once in this section do we see a direct interaction between the narrator and his mom.  She’s there, but as a background figure.  The closest we come is when he asks her for the shark, a thing we’re told in half a sentence that moves on, not one of the moments actively illustrated for us.  Mom’s there, we aren’t going to forget her, but all of our bonding is with the Menagerie.

And Mom’s still not really there in the next scene, either.  We have two strange women, we finally get a name for our narrator, but the scene hinges on her absence so much that the moment she wanders in, awkwardly, the scene’s over.  This, dear readers, is the thin end of the wedge on what should be our unflagging loyalty to Mom.

A wedge that gets hammered home by Obi Wan Kenobi.  Wow is Mark ever a jerk, and this is where something really neat happens.  Mark’s the first to discount the menagerie as worthless trash, and we’re hurting for Jack when it happens.  We’re hurting so much that when he goes and does the exact same thing, he doesn’t lose our sympathy.  Liu has redirected our natural outrage to Mark, even though Jack is just as guilty of the same crimes, more so even since he really ought to know better.

The next two sections are all about Mom disappearing.  No direct interaction, just a description of the variety of ways they don’t interact.  If you ever want a sequence to throw at somebody who’s had the “Show don’t tell” mantra imprinted on their psyche, shove this at them.

If Mom spoke to me in Chinese, I refused to answer her. After a while, she tried to use more English. But her accent and broken sentences embarrassed me. I tried to correct her. Eventually, she stopped speaking altogether if I were around.

It’s all telling, and this sequence works because we’re told all of it.  It wasn’t visceral or meaningful enough for the narrator at the time that he’d bother to go into specifics and show it to us.  Worse, if he did, we’d probably forget about how much he was hurt (that was shown) and start taking up for Mom.  We get the information because we need it, but we’re not wasting time on it.  Which is exactly what Mom would want, since this sequence is all about her disappearing act, to the point where she sends Jack away just in time to die off screen.  Let’s face it, if he’d been there when she died, it would have been melodramatic and tacky.  Liu know’s what he’s doing when he buries plot moments.

Let’s take a second to talk about Susan, because she’s a particularly subtle bit of brilliance.  We don’t get a description of her, but given an absence of description and what we know about Jack, she’s probably white.  And unlike every other white character in the entire story, Dad included, she doesn’t reinforce Jack’s distancing from his mother and his heritage.  She doesn’t preach at him, either.  Just a compliment about his mom’s artwork, and then decorating their living space with it.  Susan is the only character in the story who treats Mom well and Liu does absolutely nothing to draw our attention to that.  But the fact that Jack is somebody who’d both choose Susan for his girlfriend and who she’d choose to be with tells us a whole lot about adult Jack that we wouldn’t believe if he told us himself.  And he confirms it for us on screen when he’s nice to Laohu.

The effort Jack has to go through in order to read the letter is just Liu sharpening a knife before he hands it to you.  And then just has his protagonist sit down on a bench with a stranger.  That’s all the happens.  He sits there.  There is nothing else going on in the story at that point.  That emotional roller coaster you go on while the letter gets read?  That’s you stabbing yourself with that knife Liu handed to you.  You can quit at any time.  I mean, come on now, mom’s dead.  Her suffering is over.  Why are you hitting yourself?

Son, I know that you do not like your Chinese eyes, which are my eyes. I know that you do not like your Chinese hair, which is my hair. But can you understand how much joy your very existence brought to me? And can you understand how it felt when you stopped talking to me and won’t let me talk to you in Chinese? I felt I was losing everything all over again.

Why won’t you talk to me, son? The pain makes it hard to write.

Translation: Here I am, right here, on screen, not fading into the background, and I’ve been here the whole time.  Of course Jack is devastated.  And since we’ve been on his side and just had what an asshole he is rubbed in our faces, we’re devastated, too.  Dear fellow audience members: We totally picked the wrong team.  At least Jack gets a tiger to cuddle and comfort him.  All we get is the uncomfortable realization that Liu is prolific, and probably going to do that to us again.

Next week: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber.

After that: Wikihistory by Desmond Warzel.