CC: Seven Items in Jason Reynolds’ Jacket Pocket, Two Days After His Suicide, As Found by his Eight-Year-Old Brother, Grady

A story that illustrates the heavy lifting you can make prose do just with the title, this week we’re analyzing Robert Swartwood’s Seven Items in Jason Reynolds’ Jacket Pocket, Two Days After His Suicide, As Found by his Eight-Year-Old Brother, Grady published in Pank Magazine in April of 2010.  This story was a runner-up for the Micro Award, has been cited in numerous places as an example of quality lit fic gone speculative, and, perhaps most notably, fills in as my best friend when I’m claiming I am not a flash-fiction-bigot.

(Flash fiction, for those of you not hip with the terms, refers to super short fiction, generally 1000 words or less, though there are internecine wars over the true cut-off for flash, complete with heretics, purges, and plagues of locusts.  Also, I am totally a flash-fiction bigot.  Sorry.)

This story is brilliant and beautiful and full of things I adore in my fiction (Sibling love/protectiveness! Suicide! Creepiness!) but the thing that stands out about it and makes it worth pulling apart is its sheer, relentless efficiency.  Genuine efficiency, though, not the pruned and constrained soullessness or lack of development you get with inferior flash.  This story chooses its moments carefully, but having chosen them, gives them lots of space to breathe and grow.

Take a careful look at this story.  There is no plot.  None.  It’s a list.  There’s no character development – the entire story functions on Grady’s ignorance as he looks at the items and he is just as ignorant at the end of the list as he was at the beginning.  There’s no lesson – at no point does the story instruct, moralize, or exposit on theme.  In short, there no arc contained in the text.  The arc, dear reader, happens in your head.  It’s your ignorance that sets the stage for the development with the climax of your epiphany at the end.  Swartwood has, in short, turned the audience into an active participant in the story because the thing that the story does is change the reader.  At the beginning, you were just reading some hopped up flash piece with a clunky title.  At the end, you need to go hug your sister.  (This precise experience may not be universal)

This one’s so short I’m not going to quote from it much.  Fortunately, the paragraphs are numbered, so it’ll be easy to keep track of where I am as I ramble.

The sneaking a story in through talking about objects technique is not new, and gets done badly all the time because the writer forgets that they’re supposed to be talking about the object, and wanders off into the story instead.  Swartwood doesn’t do that.  That first paragraph?  Relentless.  Every sentence is about the compass.  Even the last sentence, which is where we get the details of Jason’s suicide, is about how the compass failed him.  It’s a nice trick, too, because we’re reading the prose describing the compass failing, but we’re clever readers so we know that’s Grady projecting on the compass, which means we know it’s Grady feeling like he failed his brother.  Not just any failure, either, but one he’d thought was a success.  It was “the best gift he’d ever received.”  But that wasn’t enough to keep him alive, which is so much more tragic than if it had simply been awesome, or cute, or “gee, thanks, kid.”

That doesn’t even get into how this compass manages to convey not only that Grady looks up to and idolizes his older brother, which is easy because we expect that given the context, but that he feels protective of him.  Jason didn’t get that compass just because it was what happened to be in the cereal box on his birthday, but because he needed it.  Grady isn’t a passive member of this sibling relationship.  His contributions aren’t effective, and he knows it, but he does contribute.  Which, you know, does a fine bit of setting up the gut-wrench in the finale.

Let’s move on to take a look at item four.  This item doesn’t give us any details about the suicide, the murders, the brothers’ relationship, or their home life.  This paragraph is entirely about Grady’s innocence and the contrast of it Jason.  Grady doesn’t know what a condom is.  He’s so ignorant that he thinks moist towelette? Candy? Nope, weird balloon.  Meanwhile, Jason’s carrying a condom around in his pocket, and there’s nothing saying anything about that in the earlier paragraphs, but you have to wonder whether maybe the girls weren’t just slashed.  Exactly how dark is Jason, the reader must wonder, while Swartwood presents you with endearingly cute confuddlement.

Grady’s ignorance on this point is also telling just in terms of his relationship with his brother – Jason is apparently not the kind of older brother who does sibling bonding through corrupting innocence, else Grady would know all about condoms, and a whole host of other things besides.

And we end the story with, what?  An adorable picture of Grady?  Jason kept a memento of his brother right up to the end?  A memento so endearing that everybody likes it, so much that mom noticed it missing? Aw, maybe that gave Jason some comfort in his last moments.  Or maybe worry about his brother delayed him, convincing him to stay strong and try to pull himself together.

On the back, scrawled like the rest of the pictures: FOURTH.

Syke!  Now go cry in a corner, you manipulated little sap, because Grady has no clue what happened but you do and that means you have to have all the appropriate feelings for him.  And don’t think about it too hard, or you’ll start picturing Grady’s reactions as he gets older and puts the pieces together, and then you start wondering whether it being midnight EST means your sister’s going to be at a spot in her sleep cycle where she won’t mind if you call her for an inexplicably maudlin, “You know I love you and will definitely commit suicide rather than let my mental illness/demonic possession force me into cutting you into pieces, right?”  Or whatever your personal equivalent of that might be.

And on that cheerful note, I turn it over to the comments.

Next week, Comes the Huntsman by Rachel Acks.

The week after that, The Three Feats of Agani by Christie Yant.

And then, by popular demand, The Things by Peter Watts.

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New Project: The Craft Crucible

It is sometimes annoying to talk to me about things I like.  I can’t help it, but when I like a thing, I think about it, and when I think about it, I start to take it apart, and the next thing you know I’m full of, “Oooh, look at these shiny pieces, and how they fit together and those pieces aren’t as great and if we put it back together without them, or upgraded them to better pieces, do you see how much more awesome the thing could be?”  Some people, all they hear are the bits about the pieces that don’t work because, frankly, those are often the most interesting bits of the thing.  If I don’t like it, I’m not going to bother taking the time to think about it, or pull it apart.  I’ll quit the show or put down the book.  (I’m look at you, Dr. Who)

Then you run into situations where we’re all giddy about something, like, say, Game of Thrones.  That book is brilliant.  You don’t have to like it, taste and enjoyment are not direct correlates with quality of craft, but if you want to argue that the book is anything short of fantastically well written you aren’t paying attention.  And talking about the ways it goes about being that good is something I can do for hours upon hours.  And once we’ve done that, we can start pulling apart why A Feast for Crows was so bad.  Which, if you’re me, is pleasantly cathartic in a way you need if you’re going to keep reading the series.  I started doing just this (talking up why the first book was fantastic and the fourth was major weak sauce) with a friend who, after a few minutes gave me a very endearing blank stare and said, “I’m not a writer.  I don’t notice these things.”

I’m pretty sure I’m a write because I notice these things, but that’s tangential to the topic at hand which is this: I want to pull apart good, pretty things and point all the pieces and do the, “The direwolves are taking on the characteristics of their owners and since you know that as a reader he can tell you things about the wolves and you learn things about the owner except you’re doing it with a wolf instead of a kid and that’s awesome,” squee.  And I want company, so I’m going to do it here.  Which is where you come in.

I want you to play along.

I’m thinking I’ll do one short story a week, and put up the entry on Wednesdays.  The schedule for what stories we do will be announced a few weeks ahead of time.  And while I get final say on what stories we do because that’s the the whole point of being a benevolent dictator, I want nominations from other people.

I know there are writers who are interested in playing along, but this isn’t an exercise just for writers.  It’s an exercise for readers.  Never feel helpless in the face of “That’s didn’t work so well” again!  Also, dude, it’s a chance to squee about awesome stuff to read with other people.  It’s like a convention except free, and with fewer crowds.

Here’s what you need to do: Comment on this post to tell me you’re in, because that will make me happy and this whole thing is about making me happy happiness.  Then, if you have ideas, nominate stories you’d like to talk about.  Do make them ones people can get for free online, please.

We’ll keep doing this until I get bored or busy.

The first one is going to be Kij Johnson’s Spar.

A Love Letter to Jonathan Hoag

Yesterday I ran across this news that’s nearly a year old.  (Thanks, Ciro!)  This fills me with happy joy and anticipation in a way that can only be understood by other people who’ve had something they love and adore adapted.

“The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” is one of my favorite pieces of fiction ever, and is, I think unquestionably, the best thing Heinlein ever wrote.  The summary for the movie says it’s about a man who realizes he doesn’t know what he does at work all day, and hires a married PI couple to find out.  That’s a great summary of the inciting incident of the story – it’s not at all what it’s about.

The bulk of the story is about the PI couple.  The novella was written in 1942, before Heinlein got lazy about building his relationships between his characters, and this story is mostly a love letter to their relationship.  Ted and Cynthia, the PI couple, are real partners, a true team.  Cynthia winds up playing secretary a lot – something people justifiably criticize Heinlein’s heroines for doing all the the time – but she’s clearly doing it because that’s the role she needs to play when they interact with the rest of society, and she’s clearly playing.  The story pauses at several moments to sort of roll its eyes at the world that has those silly, narrow expectations for Cynthia, and to congratulate the couple for subverting those expectations to their own ends.

One of the things that has always drawn me to this is Heinlein’s unrelenting, visceral hatred of Chicago.  He hates Chicago so much that it’s one of his most detailed, real settings.  I’d already decided to move to Chicago the first time I read this, and the way he hated it, for being dirty, full of people, dense, was reassuring.  Heinlein and I do not want the same things from our living environments, much like we don’t want the same things from our open relationships.  But that didn’t matter, because telling this story in Chicago, and making Chicago a stand-in for everything that is broken and awful in this world, gives our heroes the space to be a couple, to be partners, to love each other.

And this is absolutely a love story.  A bleak, pessimistic love story that still finds a way to let our heroes have a happy ending.  A love story with protagonists who deserve each other and their relationship.  It’s a story about what it means that we can love each other, and what that love looks like, and what it’s worth.  And it does it with fantastically creep tension and a genuinely compelling mystery.

If you’ve missed reading this, and most people who aren’t dedicated Heinlein fans have, go read it.  It’s lovely and rewarding and well worth the time you’ll spend.

Sentient Domain: Chapter 2

This chapter is eligible for winning bonuses in the Sentient Domain Game. An index of all relevant posts can be found here.

Islandiski had a pirate problem. Most of the planet’s trade went through Kopalvogurnýtt, meaning that all an enterprising pirate had to do was lurk near the space above that city, and a steady stream of merchants and traders would always be there, ready to fall victim. Many pirates did just that. Some of them were legendary. A few were local heroes.

And then there was Pavi Valshorn.

Pavi commanded at least three cross-system jumpers, which implied a crew of at least 400. The reports used the term “imply” because they were certain she didn’t have that many people. Somehow, and everybody from the mayor of Kopalvogurnýtt to the Executive branch of the ICA wanted to know how, Pavi had an alliance with an undomesticated AI who had never once integrated with the Aydan-machine. Nobody was sure how powerful the ICA’s AI was. They did know that even the ICA only got a fraction of its potential help, and they were careful to avoid offending it. Pavi’s AI had no limits. Pavi Valshorn, it was whispered, commanded the most effective, damaging fleet of pirates to prey on Islandiski, by herself.

Everybody wanted to catch Pavi Valshorn.

Autumn had come to Kopalvogurnýtt and brought with it an excuse for the biggest party the colony had thrown in the three generations since its founding. Through the dedicated efforts of their police force, in cooperation with officials from the ICA, Pavi Valshorn was in custody. Mayor Oggsson had declared a city-wide holiday and the Agrarian Society had sponsored a parade. This was the day they marched Pavi Valshorn into the city center in chains, before throwing her in prison to await trial in the spring. They hadn’t captured her ship, but that would come in time. Winters on Islandiski were persuasive. Pavi would give up her AI, or she might not see a trial.

Plaenetasgata, the main street running through Kopalvogurnýtt to the mayor’s mansion, was covered in banners and streamers, the sides lined with vending stalls selling everything from food to commemorative flags and t-shirts. Both secondary school marching bands played during the celebrations. Every able-bodied citizen of Kopalvogurnýtt was either participating in the parade or watching it, and anybody within 30 hours travel of Kopalvogurnýtt had flocked to the capital to see the festivities. Pavi had been a menace for five years, a pirate who wasn’t from Islandiski, didn’t spend her spoils on Islandiski, and couldn’t be bribed into acting in the interests of the Islandiskeri.

Floats followed the marching band. They were mostly paper-maché confections rapidly built atop the beds of old pickup trucks recently tuned up for harvest, but they were colorful and that was what mattered. A formation of the Kopalvogurnýtt police force marched behind the line of floats, pistols and nightsticks flashing in the morning sunlight atop their glossy, navy-blue uniforms.

Then, surrounded by a rigid cage of armed guards, there was Pavi, arms and ankles chained together. That evening people would talk about how bent and defeated she seemed, dragging her feet with her head bowed while the colony celebrated around her. In the following years they would talk about how she marched smartly along, a sinister grin curling on her lips. In reality, Pavi just walked, taking in the sights, noting the people. She’d never been to Kopalvogurnýtt before. It looked like a decent place.

“Pavi Valshorn,” Mayor Oggsson intoned from a podium in front of the Mayoral mansion. “You have been arrested for seventy counts of piracy, nine counts of kidnapping, fifty violations of ICA protocols, creating and harboring an unintegrated AI, thirty counts of conspiracy to commit piracy…” the charges went on for some time. Pavi glanced at the sky. It was too bright to see her flagship cruising overhead, but she knew it would be there. They hadn’t taken her chips yet, so the automated systems were still reporting to her. Mike wasn’t making contact, though. A wireless signal transmitted this far wouldn’t be secure, not from the ICA, and they’d agreed that it was more important to keep information about Mike to a minimum than it was for Pavi to have an active companion during the walk up Plaenetasgata.

When she got bored, Pavi tuned out the mayor and started watching a movie feed off her ship’s servers. It was one of the new ones off Delhi Xiang and full of Kempari spies blowing things up. Pavi loved movies about the Kempari. Continue reading “Sentient Domain: Chapter 2”

Sentient Domain: Chapter 1

This chapter is eligible for winning bonuses in the Sentient Domain Game. An index of all relevant posts can be found here.

Tedious tasks are always better with musical accompaniment. Therefore, the appropriate response to supervising a slew of loading bots schlepping cargo crates into the Whimper’s Revenge was to blare the top 300 playlist as it downloaded off the planet-side servers. That was the sacred, inviolate opinion of Captain Magritte Valshorn, owner, operator and crew of the Whimper’s Revenge. Magritte could suffer through most things as long as the ship’s computer kept the music playing.

“Linda?” Rita called from her station at the aft hatch of the cargo bay.

“Yes, Rita?” the computer replied.

“Where’s the music?”

“We’ve maxed out our bandwidth allotment at the moment. The music feed is a low priority item. I can run the local top thirty for you.”

“No local lists. Restart the list with what we’ve got,” Rita said. Then, on second thought, “How have we maxed out our bandwidth? We’re the only independent ship in port and Primus Drie isn’t that tiny.”

“There’s an external piggyback on our network,” Linda said.

Rita cursed. Cheap docking bots pilfering her bandwidth because they couldn’t afford the hardware to run their own stable network were the thing she hated most about back world planets. For that moment, anyway. At least she’d caught them. No way was she paying the fees for network adaptation when they didn’t have a network to integrate with her own. “I’m going to go find their super. Keep an eye on the drones for me, ‘kay?”

“Sure thing, boss,” the computer replied.

Rita ducked out of the cargo hold, slid down the loading dock and dodged the spider-bots scrambling to and fro. She hit the ground with a satisfying crunch on the gravel below. She was halfway around the Whimper, absently scanning the hull for signs of damage, when she noticed a pair of teenagers huddled together under an engine bank.

Her first instinct was to leave them there. The ship wasn’t taking off for hours and no teenagers anywhere took that long to fool around. On the other hand, if this was a special case, they’d get incinerated later that afternoon and Rita didn’t fancy adolescent barbecue as hull decor. Continue reading “Sentient Domain: Chapter 1”

The Sentient Domain Game

I announced a little while ago that starting this month, Fridays on the blog are going to be Sentient Domain Fridays.  It’s the second phase of the Query Game, and as such, there’s more game-ish-ness involved.  Here’s the deal.

Sentient Domain has 28 chapters and an Epilogue.  I will be putting up a chapter every Friday until I run out of content.  If that’s all I do, then the serialization should wrap up in July.  This is neat timing, since the story Apex bought features characters from Sentient Domain, after the events of the novel.  So you’ll get to read that when it comes out without being super spoiled for the ending.

But that’s routine and boring.  All sorts of people serialize novels on their blogs.  Hey, it was even trendy for a while, before ebooks took off.  I’m not just being unoriginal, I’m being old school.  Let’s make it more exciting.

I could put out a tip jar with incentives for giving me money, but that sounds like something that will leave me with complicated accounting and maybe enough cash for a trip to Jade Mountain.  Meh.  What I’m after is adoration and praise, hordes of fans willing to do my bidding, maybe a tearful confession that I made somebody cry.  I want you to press my like button.

Here’s the deal: I get about ten “Likes” when I post food or travel blogs, so we’ll start that as our baseline.  The first time a chapter of Sentient Domain gets 10 Likes, the following week will include a bonus chapter (probably on a Wednesday).  After that, the goal goes up to 25.  The scale works like this:

Bonus 1: 10 likes
Bonus 2: 25 likes
Bonus 3: 50 likes
Bonus 4: 75 likes
Bonus 5: 100 likes
Bonus 6: 150 likes
Bonus 7: 200 likes
Bonus 8: 300 likes
Bonus 9: 500 likes

If we hit Bonus 8, the audience wins, and I’ll put the whole thing up, for free, for a minimum of 1 month.  If we hit Bonus 9, I’ll go to all the effort of making a quality ebook for Sentient Domain. (By which I mean I’ll probably do a Kickstarter for commissioning cover art,  hiring a copy editor, etc.)

Needless to say, if Giant Publishing Company comes to me and says, “Hey, we want to buy that book for Substantial Money, stop serializing it/yank it down,” I will, unless we’ve triggered bonus 8.  If we trigger bonus 8, I will honor the terms of the game, and Giant Publishing Company will have to cope.  I’m cavalier that way.

Some of you have already read Sentient Domain.  Some of you have heard me read excerpts of it at conventions.  There’s one individual out there who tried to buy it until reality thwarted him.  But the bulk of you have no idea what this book is.  You’ll get a pretty good idea tomorrow, but just to whet your appetite let me tell you this: Space Opera full of pirates, spies, and snarky computers.  Also, I have blurbage.

John O’Neil (Editor of Blackgate and groovy dude) described Sentient Domain like this on the BG blog after hearing a chunk of the first chapter at WisCon:

…an unpublished novel set in a gorgeously baroque far future where a woman who is not what she seems visits a sleepy space port… and quickly runs afoul of a subtle trap for careless spies.

Vylar Kaftan (Widely published, Nebula Nominee, FogCon creator and chair) said this:

These are some of the finest characters I’ve seen in a long time.  Witty, fun, likeable, full of personality.  I want them to be larger than life heroes who are brilliant, and that’s what they are!

Jake Kerr (Multiply published, Nebula Nominee with his first story) says this:

Sentient Domain is that kind of rollicking science fiction adventure where each character is such a blast that you want to root for everyone. Heck, I’ve read the thing twice, and I’m still not sure who my favorite is. All I know is it’s one great read.

And that, my pretties, shall be that.  Let the game begin!

Three Things You Should Read with Brief Reviews

I’ve run into a slew of really good short fiction lately.  For example:

Robot by Helena Bell.  When I tell people I hate flash fiction but don’t have a problem with stories that just happen to be very short, this is the kind of story I mean as what I like.  It’s lush, structurally interesting, and exactly the right length.

Love Might Be Too Strong a Word by Charlie Jane Anders.  I got to hear a big chunk of this one read by Charlie Jane herself at WisCon and it was brilliant and I was vexed when she didn’t get to the ending.  Then I got to be pleasantly surprised when it turned up on my podcast while biking to dinner one night.  I took my time getting to dinner.

The Three Feats of Agani by Christie Yant.  This story is beautiful and tragic and I spent the whole time terrified it would have the wrong ending.  It didn’t.

These are all, incidentally, availbale by podcast, since it’s about the only way I’m keeping up with short fiction these days.  Also, one of these stories is a secret member of the pro-villainist movement.  I won’t say which, because that would be spoilers.