If You Like Talking About Craft…

I’ve been getting a lot of traffic on old Craft Crucible posts, so I thought I’d mention for anybody dropping in for craft discussion that you can get a lot of detailed talk on the subject from me at the Literary Level Up. It’s a newsletter that comes out twice weekly, and is currently doing a very in depth focus on Plot and Structure. We’re about a month in and having a good time.

Most of the content is free, so it’s easy to check out.

CC: Damage

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)

CC: Today I Am Paul

This month we’re looking at Martin L. Shoemaker’s “Today I am Paul” which originally appeared in Clarkesworld.  This is a lovely story that plays right into one of my favorite SF tropes to see, the android intersecting with human emotions it can’t actually feel.  I’m on the record with the last moment of this scene being one of the best ever aired on television.

I like this trope because it forces the audience to do all the emotional work for the character, and when that emotional work is sadness it makes the media in question sadistic in a way I fully support 1000% in all art forms.  Also, I’m a sucker for things that make people sad.

Which is a long way of saying that I’d be a fan of “Today I am Paul” even if it weren’t super well done because it’s all about doing things I like my fiction to do.  However, it is super well done, which means it’s a great candidate for putting through the Crucible.

I want to focus in particular on how Shoemaker develops the audience’s investment in the Caretaker right off the bat.  Getting initial buy in from the audience is easy with this premise; we have a character who definitionally has no character flaws of its own, engaged in a selfless task that needs to be done, and doing it with care and patience literally unavailable elsewhere.  Audiences in general are as much of a sucker for a selfless do gooder as I am for a sadistic narrative, so that’s an easy win.  Kindergarteners frequently have that level of craft nailed.  Where Shoemaker starts showing off is with the introduction of Paul’s flaws.

My emulation net responds before I can stop it: “Paul” sighs. Mildred’s memory lapses used to worry him, but now they leave him weary, and that comes through in my emulation.

This line does two things.  First, it fleshes out the already introduced concept of the conflict between the android when it is engaged in emulation and when it isn’t.  We already know that it thoughtlessly engages in medical care for Mildred when she’s not conscious, and becoming aware of that care distresses it when she is.  That builds a layer of tragedy into the androids circumstances that doesn’t have to be there.  Its presence, however, heightens the weight of its reactions to these things.  The disconnect between doing the actions and responding to them lets the audience get those reactions at a time where Shoemaker is madly spilling exposition to explain the world and premise, and creates a sense of vulnerability in the android.  In the moment where we’re reading, the android cares about Mildred, and the knowledge that its ability to continue caring for her is outside of its control is distressing.

The second thing the line does is start to show Paul’s warts without condemning him for them.  It’s clear the android recognizes the sub-optimality of Paul’s reaction; that’s why there’s a question of stopping the response.  Yet, fidelity to the emulation of Mildred’s loved ones trumps optimal behavior, and android-Paul sighs.  The narrative could have left it there, but instead it explains the motivation behind the sigh.  It’s a natural thing for the android to do; emulation would require a level of empathy that understands the underlying motivations for things.  But even then, the explanation could simply be, “Mildred’s memory lapses leave him weary and frustrated.”  That explains the current state of Paul, which is what the android is emulating.  The historical note, the detail that this is worry transmuted, is a kindness.  It takes the android’s empathy from audience-manipulation 101 into a deep, subtle territory that gives the story permission to go further.

These two things together fulfill an important function in the story.  The theme of being worn down by caring for another is hard baked into the premise.  Mildred’s family aren’t callous or unfeeling.  A lot of the early exposition in the story goes to great lengths to establish that.  They’re throwing money at the problem, yes, but they aren’t doing that in lieu of an investment of time and feelings.  There are human caretakers coming in as well.  They visit in person.  They call.  Everyone loves Mildred, even as there’s less and less of Mildred to love.  The android, with its expensive empathy net upgrades, is an expression of that.  But, and the quoted line above makes it clear, it isn’t exempt from that trap.

I sit on the bed, lift her frail upper body, and pull her close to me as I had seen Henry do many times. “It’s all right, hon.” I pat her back. “It’s all right, I’ll take care of you. I won’t leave you, not ever.”

I’m just quoting that line because it’s a really great gut punch to end a scene on.  Look at it.  Dead husband, who the android knew, hugging his wife and promising he’ll never leave her.  And the android makes the switch both without missing a beat, and without even wanting a pat on the back for it.  That isn’t just good caretaking, it’s caretaking literally nobody else in Mildred’s life could pull off.  If it had actually been Paul, he’d be helpless.

Instead, Shoemaker stabs you in the gut and simultaneously introduces the idea that the success of the final image in the story hinges on: the joy in being able to preserve relationships with the people you’ve lost.

Because she never voices this fear, Paul and Anna do not understand why she is sometimes bitter and sullen. I wish I could explain it to them, but my privacy protocols do not allow me to share emulation profiles.

Paul is where the story demonstrates its intent to dig deep into audience manipulation via deep empathy, but Susan is where it runs away with it.  In her own way, Susan is the most affected by Mildred’s condition.  The others see her suffer and hurt by their loss of somebody they care about and their relationship with them.  Susan, on the other hand, sees Mildred as a possible reflection of herself.  To Paul and Anna, Mildred is mother and grandmother.  To Susan, she is the same person.  This is reinforced with the details about Paul’s explanation for the lack of closeness between Mildred and Susan.  But that’s another angle where the depth of the android’s empathy for others gets highlighted; Paul has known for years that his wife and mother are similar, and he’s completely missing what that means for Susan’s response to his mother’s decline.  Not that we blame him.  We’ve got great insight into his own struggle, which makes it easy to forgive his obliviousness to others’.

But Susan also gets the distinction of being the one who surprises the android, later.  It doesn’t predict a display of physical affection from Susan.  Granted, it’s not the android qua android who is surprised, but the android as Henry.  For the reader, though?  There isn’t a difference at that point, because the android is, to us, his reactions and responses when his nets are engaged.  The android is a person.  Even the android has figured that out by that point.  But he’s a person with very little control over who he is.  Like the rest of us, frankly, but it doesn’t even get to pretend it has control.  Humans like our pretends.  It hurts to see somebody who can’t have them.

We get the heroic rescue scene where the android puts itself at great risk to save Mildred, struggling all the while to do it without upsetting her, and this story could have very easily ended with, “And then I was so damaged that I was shut down and disposed of.  The end.”  As a known lover of the sad, tragic ending, you might even expect me to be in favor of that ending instead.  I’m not.  The ending the story has is absolutely the correct one.  Not because anybody in the story intrinsically deserves a happy ending, or because my recent experience of a super awesome insurance payout that made everything great has me forgiving of it as a convenient device in fiction.  It works because this isn’t a story about an android selflessly caring for a Alzheimer’s patient.  It’s a story about the strain and exhaustion of loving an Alzheimer’s patient.  The android takes damage in the fire not to introduce the the possibility of it’s “death” but to mark the damage that comes from a life dedicated entirely to caretaking.  Is it an accident that it functionally spends all its time after Mildred’s death sleeping?  No.  Poor thing is exhausted.

If the android died, or the story left us with it resting in its alcove, this story would be a warning.  Drop gandma in a home and run, it would say.  There’s no reward, flee.  That’s too easy.  That would put us back in audience manipulation 101 territory because, sure, it’s a little radical and controversial to say cut your losses and run but it’s also simple.  Life is rarely simple, and a sad ending that hinges on simplicity is just as weak and disappointing as a happy ending that does the same, even if it’s a less common failure.  (I suspect there’s sampling bias at work there, but that’s a different discussion.)  Instead of the simple ending with the tragically damaged, exhausted android, we get this:

We built a bridge to the far side of the creek; and on the other side, we’re planting daisies. Today she asked me to tell her about her grandmother.

Today I am Mildred.

Bridge building.  Planting new life.  And the android gets to be the person it misses, keeping her and connecting with her in the best, the only way it has.  Would it be happier of the android could be a person in its own right, instead of an ur-person composed of characters it embodies?  Yes.  Would it be happier if it had managed to save Mildred and cure Alzheimer’s and clear up the misunderstandings and lack of communication in the people around it?  Totally.  This is not a sugar-coated happy ending.  But it’s an earned ending.  It’s a justified ending.  It’s an ending that, like the story that precedes it, is chock full of empathy and caring for the people pulled into this sort of care and battered in the process.  It’s not the end all and be all of wish fulfillment happiness, but it’s a complex and realistic answer to the story’s thematic premise.  And like its protagonist, it’s kind.

Next month: Damage, David D. Levine (Tor.com)

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.

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.

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.



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.