CC: Clockwork Chickadee

This week’s story is from the fabulous Mary Robinette Kowal.  This was published in the year she won the Campbell for best new writer, lauded all over the internet, and has been reprinted at least once.  It’s also one of the most delightful cons I’ve seen described in fiction.

Lots of stories have a moral or message, and the extent to which people like didactic literature varies  from reader to reader.  I’ve got a pretty low tolerance for it, which meanes my fondness for fabalistic stories sets me up for irritation pretty regularly, but this story manages to nail the didactic elemet of the fabulist form without being obnoxiously didactic, and that’s entirely because of the light hand used in portraying the story.

The clockwork chickadee was not as pretty as the nightingale. But she did not mind. She pecked the floor when she was wound, looking for invisible bugs. And when she was not wound, she cocked her head and glared at the sparrow, whom she loathed with every tooth on every gear in her pressed-tin body.

This opeing is critical to the success of the story.  It gives us setting and all of the important characters except the live mouse.  More importantly, it tells us the chickadee is humble, which makes it okay for us to cheer for it.  And by telling us that first, telling us that it loathes the sparrow means we’re ready to accept that and share the feeling even though we don’t know anything at all about the sparrow.

Sure, we find out that the sparrow is a bit of an arrogant twit, but that’s not why the chickadee is annoyed – the annoyance is pure jealousy, because the chickadee can’t fly.  This is very not cool, and on its own, would make this the story of a creature manipulated into self-destruction by a wicked, jealous rival.  Think about what that story would read like for  a moment – the plot is identical, but it doesn’t have anything else in common with the story we actually read.   That‘s the magic of that first paragraph in this story.

“Have you seen what is written underneath the table? Do you know how the silver marble got behind the potted fern, or where the missing wind-up key is?”

Close, long time readers of my blog (all one of you) should recognize this as the setup of my favorite sales technique – The Soft Sell Half Nelson.  I more or less love this story because it shows the technique off so well.  The chickadee at no point forces the sparrow to do anything, asserts very little, and all of the crucial elements for the sparrows destruction are suggested either by a third party or the sparrow itself.  The chickadee just plants the seeds – three of them because this is a fable and that’s how fable structure works – and the sparrow’s curiosity and greed do the rest.  Since we’re already disposed to like the chickadee, and we’ve got reason to dislike the sparrow, this is a chance for us to sadistically watch somebody get their just desserts, which absolves us of the guilt of taking joy in somebody else’s misery.

At the end, the story rewards us for our sadism by, when it hits its moment of outright didacticism, giving us the right message.

 “No, Mouse, they cannot. We are all bound to our integral mechanisms.”

This was just about bringing sparrow down, not about the chickadee gaining something she wasn’t entitled to.  All chickadee gets out of this is the satisfaction of having destroyed sparrow which, when you think about it, is mch harsher and crueller than if she’d expected a personal reward.  But it also keeps her hands clean, as it were, and keeps us from having to feel guilty about enjoying the experience of watching her work.  “It’s okay,” the story is telling us with this lesson.  “Your hero is a benign callous manipulator.”

And that brings us to our sabbatical from the Craft Crucible.  I’ll post an update in a few weeks with our next slate of stories.  In the mean time, drop me a line with any stories you’d like to see analyzed.

CC: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been

Anybody familiar with the wider world of short fiction will recognize Joyce Carol Oates, and I suspect the name will ring bells even with people who aren’t particularly conversant in the form.  If you aren’t familiar, well, here’s a good place to start.  It’s a bit dated since a lot of what’s creepy about this story has less impact in a world where you can find out a billion personal details about somebody on the internet, but I think the impact still works pretty well.

This story is, at its fundamental roots, really boring.  Bored teenager living boring suburban life stays home, bored, has conversation, story ends.  Or, looked at another way, it’s just one more story about a young girl being targeted by the creepy forces of mature masculinity.  Or it’s a long info dump followed by a rambling conversation and ending with ambiguity.

Part of the reason Oates get away with it is that her prose is immediately engaging.

She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.

There are some really nifty details packed into this line.  We learn she’s vain, we learn that she’s awkward, and we learn that she’s looking to other people to judge herself.  This isn’t even a simple using other people’s approbation or lack thereof as her external validation, either.  Describing her as “checking other people’s faces” immediately after referencing her glancing into a mirror suggests a similar behavior.  The other people are another mirror, and she’s checking her reflection in them.  This concept of reflection is really important to the story, and runs straight through it.  You don’t even get out of the first paragraph before it comes up again.

Her mother had been pretty once too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.

So Connie isn’t the only one who uses other people as a mirror – Connie is serving as a mirror for her mother and their relationship is hugely shaped by that fact, by the tension and distance it puts between them, despite their fundamental functionality.  For anybody looking at the story with an eye toward whether every element is doing work and inclined to find the whole first half pointless setup, this right here is why all that setup is there.  We need to understand Connie and the world she’s in and how she interacts with it for the second half of the story to work.

Her heart began to pound and her fingers snatched at her hair, checking it, and she whispered, “Christ. Christ,” wondering how bad she looked.

I rather like this line.  She stayed home not just to wash her hair, but to make sure it dried optimally, and her first thought when somebody shows up is to wonder how she looks.  This girl is seriously constrained by these externalized perceptions.  It’s a very nice reminder because she’s about to encounter a rather predatory mirror.

The driver’s glasses were metallic and mirrored everything in miniature.

Yeah, that line is not there by accident.

This matters, though, because if this were just a random creep, the story here isn’t very interesting.  But Arnold’s status as mirror, a mirror showing back to her far more than she gets from most people, makes Connie’s instinct to run away far more than sensible predator-evasion.

Now she remembered him even better, back at the restaurant, and her cheeks warmed at the thought of how she had sucked in her breath just at the moment she passed him—how she must have looked to him.

Oates has layered the traditional male predator narrative with the teen-insecurity/self-loathing to add a whole layer of depth to this that makes the telling fresh.  It creates a sense of both wanting Connie to get into the car with Arnold and agreeing that she really ought to just run away.  Trapping the reader in that predicament makes Connie’s conflict accessible, even if you aren’t a bored teenage girl in the sixties.  We understand what she’s going through because we’re feeling the same pulls – we as readers want to know what’s going on with this guy who knows more than he should, who seems to have supernatural stalking powers, but we sorta feel bad for Connie too because, well, her life kind of sucks.

“My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.

All of that leads up to this final line which, given Arnold’s role as mirror, is especially interesting.  What does it mean that the mirror has the color of her eyes wrong?  Is this a fantasy story and the world she’s wandering into is real, or is she wandering into a metaphor.  Either way, what does that mean for Connie – is she escaping her boring life? Wandering into doom?  Developing self-understanding?  This is a story that is all about the last line, a build up to a change where the point of the story is that there is a change, and what exactly that change is matters less.  Neat.

Next: Clockwork Chickadee by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Then, in anticipation of April being a month of schedule madness, the CC is taking a few weeks off.  I’ll announce a fresh lineup for what we’re doing a week or so before we get started again.  In the mean time, if you run across things you’d like in the lineup, let me know!

CC: The Veldt

I’m not going to waste any time explaining why a Bradbury story would wind up getting sent through the Crucible, k?  This week we’re doing The Veldt.  It’s Bradbury.  That’s enough.

This story looks like SF, but it’s horror, and nicely done horror, too.  What makes it so successful, I think, is the way it ropes you in, filling in the rules of the world even when it’s presenting a scenario that breaks those rules.

 "Walls, Lydia, remember; crystal  walls, that's all they are. Oh,  they
look real,  I must admit - Africa in your parlor - but it's all dimensional,
superreactionary,  supersensitive  color  film and  mental  tape film behind
glass  screens.  It's  all  odorophonics  and   sonics,   Lydia.  Here's  my
handkerchief."

Here we establish the rules – it’s all an illusion.  Note where this explanation comes, though.  It’s after Lydia and George have gone into the nursery, after the readers have encountered the nursery for the first time.  We went through the sensory experience of the nursery, followed along with their reactions and nervousness, without complete knowledge about how the nursery works.  As experienced readers of genre fiction we’re pretty sure this is all meant to be just an illusion, but even the jaded among us are going to subconsciously note that the experts in this particular world, George and Lydia, are not reacting as they would to an illusion they believed to be mere illusion.

This is a really neat trick, because it means that we’ve been tricked into having the right emotional reaction (i.e. feeling threatened by the nursery) while we still get to ponder the intellectual mystery of what, exactly, is going on here.  There’s no reason to be showing us these parents exploring their children’s nursery  and this is a very boring story, except for that niggling sense that all is not right and safe. (Also, pay attention to all the detail spent in the first few sections establishing how very cared for and safe they are.)  If we know the rules for how the nursery work before our first encounter, that niggling feeling might never develop and we’ll be very confused about why we’re meant to be reading this, and more confused when things really do go wrong.

He knew the principle of the room exactly.  You sent out your thoughts.
Whatever you thought would appear.

This is a particularly important tid bit since this is the factoid that confirms for us exactly how creepy the kids are at the end.  We know the room is operating based in deliberate thoughts – you send them, they aren’t passively picked up – and the children have somehow rigged the room to hang onto these thoughts rather than responding to overriding commands from their parents.  Just in case we don’t believe it from the conversation between George and Lydia, we get it confirmed pretty explicitly when the children can change the room to deny that it’s stuck on Africa.  (The readers at that point could start wondering whether the psychological problems are Lydia and George’s, but the ending undermines that pretty clearly)

 "What is that?" she asked.
     "An old wallet of mine," he said.
     He showed it to her. The smell  of hot grass was on it and the smell of
a lion. There were drops of saliva on it, it bad been chewed, and there were
blood smears on both sides.

Speaking of things that do double-duty – hoo boy is this doing some heavy lifting.  This detail here pretty conclusively justifies that feeling of wrongness we’ve had the whole time by showing that the rules for how the room operates definitely aren’t being followed.  If the lions aren’t real and therefore can’t hurt you, then they shouldn’t be able to chew on it, or leave blood and saliva behind.  Here we have proof that the room really is dangerous.

It’s also a pretty glaring hint that the children are teaching their imaginary lions their parents’ scent.  It’s just a hint, here, supported when Lydia’s scarf gets found later, confirmed when the lions go right for mom and dad at the end, but here we are, using a hint about Peter and Wendy (is there a chance those names are accidental?  No.) plotting quite deliberately against mom and dad to confirm what the actual rules of the world are.

In summary, for the sake of your long-term health, let your children take the rocket to New York.

Next: Where are you Going, Where Have you Been by Joyce Carol Oates.

Followed by: Clockwork Chickadee by Mary Robinette Kowal.

CC: Ghosts of New York

Jennifer Pelland is pretty spiff and if you’re a fan of slightly disturbing fiction, you should definitely be following her.  This week’s Crucible story is one of my favorites of hers, Ghosts of New York.  It scored a Nebula nomination, in case you need further indications of quality.

This story could just be the relentlessly gruesome thought experiment of what happens to people after a tragedy done to explore how the survivors cope with the after effects, but it’s not.  Not to repeat the line you see in tons of reviews of Pelland’s work, but there’s a bit of humanity running through this story which transforms it into the touching, yet relentlessly gruesome thought experiment about what happens to people after a tragedy, done to explore how the survivors cope with the after effects.  It’s all over the ending, but Pelland starts baking it in even as she’s demonstrating the horror of the scenario she’s concocted.

She remembered the crash and pop of the people who were landing mere seconds before her. She remembered a fleeting moment of shame when her dress blew up over her head, exposing her underwear to the crowds gathered below. She remembered the burst of shit and piss as she crashed through the awning just a split second before she hit—

Right there, buried between two sentences describing somewhat graphic details, there’s a touch of character for a protagonist who has no identity.  She’s horrified, about to go splat, and she’s embarrassed.  You don’t have to be somebody who’d worry about the same thing to immediately relate to that moment.  Even if you wouldn’t care about flashing your unmentionables to the world at large, it’s human to get hung up on a silly, unimportant detail in the middle of massively bad crisis moments.  This immediately turns the ghost into a human vehicle for the scenario.  It answers the question of why we’re getting the story of this ghost as opposed to the scads of others we could be getting instead.

She quickly learned to keep away from the construction workers so they could do their jobs without having to step around her. The other ghosts did the same. They were uniformly polite in their silent suffering.

This is a moment that simultaneously reinforces that element of humanity already established and affirms that our protagonist, while special, is standing in for a much larger population.  These ghosts are considerate enough to make it easy for the construction workers to do their jobs even though they get nothing from it and there is no conceivable way in which doing anything else could cause negative consequences.  They’re reliving their deaths over and over again, but they’re staying out of the way of people who don’t even know they’re there.  And they don’t know it, but we find out and it’s there for us to see upon re-read, those construction workers are building the monument that guarantees the ghosts are going to fall to their deaths forever.  They’re being polite to the hands that are damning them.  Woops.  Also, neat.

There are several other moments in the story that illustrate this more – I’m particularly fond of the scene in the church – but the conclusion of the story demonstrates pretty clearly that the humanity wasn’t an accident.

She looked around the memorial, found a visitor scanning the list of names, and decided that she’d be that woman’s sister today.

She doesn’t get out of having to keep falling.  She doesn’t escape her fate.  But she does manage to change her situation from one of repetitive torture in hell to something else.  She claims an identity and becomes a full person, and she finds a purpose to her existence.

There would be an inclination to hope that having come to the conclusion that she needs to help the mourners she’ll be freed from her cycle, and if Hollywood adapted this into a movie they would almost certainly end it with her fading away and out of existence.  But if that were the ending here this would be an unrepentant, unforgivable gruesome horror story – the tale of an entity torture and then wiped out of existence the moment it finds a means to peace.

Instead, this is a story that proposes a cosmic mechanism for dealing with society-level tragedy.  A piece of the victims remain in order to give comfort to the people touched by the tragedy.  It’s necessary that those pieces remain for as long as there are people affected.  Either this is just a naturally developed supernatural coping mechanism, or something created by a incredibly benign deity.  It could be read either way.  Both readings, though, make it really clear that ultimately, this story is very sweet.

Next week: The Veldt by Ray Bradbury.

Followed by: Where are you Going, Where Have you Been by Joyce Carol Oates.

CC: A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica

This week‘s story is pretty unquestionably awesome.  It was nominated for the World Fantasy award, reprinted in Year’s Best anthologies, and exemplifies Valente’s ability to destroy structure by giving you a story built entirely out of auction item descriptions.

We’ve done enough analyzing how a story gets told inside an unusual structure that I want to focus instead on the way she leverages this particular structure to sneak in extra details and commentary in the story.  The first, most obvious of these, is in the pricing of the items.  The story is very clearly on Maldonado’s “side” which it telegraphs pretty blatantly by giving his vision the last word, but it’s reinforced throughout the story.  Despite everything right up to the last paragraph making it clear that Maldonado is a fantasist, not a legitimate cartographer, and one who lured people to their rather horrible deaths, his maps sell for significantly more than Acuña’s.

The other comparison in the meta-data I find interesting is in how the lots are named.  The first two pairs have identical names with distinguishing parentheticals.  These parentheticals do a great deal to distinguish the different characters of the maps.  Acuña’s is designated “The Seal Map” which is very down-to-earth and practical.  Maldonado’s is “The Sun Dog Map.”  They’re both named after animals used as important markers on the maps, but rather than opting for the compass rose on Maldonado’s map, which would have been a fantastical creature that played no further part in the story, they opted for referencing Skell and Grell.

The next pair does a similar thing, except that Acuña’s map gets no parenthetical specifier whereas Maldonado’s does.  This is a hint, early on, of the divergence in the careers of the two cartographers.  Acuña is the staid academic, but Maldonado is capturing imaginations already and his work is getting popular nicknames, his maps taking on importance outside the academic sphere.

Then, of course, there are the ship names.  Proximidad, the ship the two captains were on together, means “closeness.”  Anamnesis is the rediscovering of knowledge contained within ourselves.  These ships were named with purpose.  Little details like that are how to force the story to keep telling you the story, even when it’s pretending to be doing something entirely unrelated to story telling.

Next week: Ghosts of New York by Jennifer Pelland.

Then: The Veldt by Ray Bradbury.

Followed by: Where are you Going, Where Have you Been by Joyce Carol Oates.

CC: And Their Lips Rang with the Sun

This week we’re doing Amal El-Mohtar’s And Their Lips Rang with the Sun.  This story is gorgeous, and if you google around the internets you’ll see I’m not the only one who thinks so.  El-Mohtar does a lot of work with poetry and it shows in her prose – it’s always lush and evocative.  In this story she’s basically showing off with a giant, “Hey, look what I can do.”

For this trip through the Craft Crucible, I want to dig into her choices if imagery and where those choices get deployed.  We have the frame story and the story-story, and the narrative treats them differently.  The frame story is in an aggressive second person while the story-story is a more traditional third.  But that’s not the only difference; the imagery for the frame story is food centric, with spicy tea taking the lead and threading through all the frame-intrusions.  The other half uses celestial imagery – it’s all sun and moon focused.

Had cinnamon been ground and rubbed into their skin, they could not have been more brown, more fragrant, more beloved of the wine-bright sky.

This line from the first paragraph of the story does a superb job of setting up the two sets of imagery.  We’re in the frame story, though it’s too soon for the reader to know that yet, but we’re talking about the sun girls who will take center stage once we move out of the frame.  And we see both sets if imagery, the cinnamon and wine for the frame, the sky for the nested tale.  Imagery is something readers are rarely conscious of while they’re reading, so it’s easy to get sloppy in how it’s deployed.  Done well, like it is here, it builds and gives a subtle structure that guides the reader’s experience through the story.

Have you ever tasted a fig? A pomegranate? You have not until you have tried your teeth against ours. Come into my house; sit down, friend, eat; let this old woman pour you a tea sweet as the sight of our Sun-girls while I tell you about them.

Food imagery as it pertains to describing women is a loaded subject and one that I am fairly confident El-Mohtar is aware of.  Even if I didn’t know more about her than this story, she dodges most of the pitfalls by justifying the use of the food imagery in this case; it’s relevant because these women play a direct part in the presence of the food.  Their task causes the weather that produces the crops, and so the relationship is one of mutual reinforcement.  The story then takes the payoff from that work when, after using cinnamon, wine, figs, and pomegranates to give us a picture rife with associations of the women, we then describe the tea by referencing them.  So the women cause the food in the story, the food describes the women to the readers, and then the women serve as a referent as we get back to the food.  It’s a tidy cycle and you can see it starting to pay off in the first five paragraphs.

I like the use of the tea through the story here not just because it closes the loop on the women-food imagery, but because it provides a piece of business that pulls the reader through the frame.  We’re being addressed directly even though it’s very clear by the end of the story that the “you” being addressed is not me.  But are you going to explain to an old lady pressing spicy tea on you that you’re not whoever it is she thinks you are?  I’m not.

Dear friend, console yourself; you are in a civilised country, among the learned and the wise. Drink your tea.

I especially like this use here, because the space between the frame and the nested story has collapsed.  El-Mohtar is pausing a moment to dispel probable reader assumptions, i.e. that this exotic, numinous society shaped by a sun cult is abusive and barbaric.  We need this not just because the story is pitched to a western audiences likely to make assumptions about societies patterned after Middle Eastern ones, but to collapse the spectrum of possibilities for the consequences of Lam’s dereliction of duty.  If we’re expected her to be abused and tortured, it’ll undermine the genuine heartbreak of her isolation and estrangement from her companions.  So here we gently pick on the reader a bit, get all that leg work done, and just to keep things from getting confusing, reference the tea to remind you that we’ve stepped back into the frame for a moment.

She taught dancing to the common folk, and grew to be a garrulous old woman among them, known for accosting strangers in the square and plying them with more spicy tea than their bladders can comfortably hold.

And this is where the tea imagery really starts to pay off, because it’s what we’re given as our first solid clue about the identity of the narrator.  This is the first place where the story begins to acknowledge that the Lam of the nested tale and the Mal of the frame story (see what she did there?) are the same person.  The tea doesn’t just navigate is through the weak places in the narrative where the frame interrupts, but it ties them together for the reader.

I’ll leave digging into the celestial imagery as an exercise to the reader.  Feel free to share your results!

Next week: Is my sister’s birthday.  I’m going to be out of town and take the week off.

After that: A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica by Catherynne M. Valente

Followed by: Ghosts of New York by Jennifer Pelland.

CC: Wikihistory

This week we’re doing the cult favorite of internet short stories, Desmond Warzel’s Wikihistory.  This little story gotten love from internet giant sites like BoingBoing and Tor.com, so if it was familiar when you read it that’s probably why.

You’ll also note that this is the second flash piece to make it to the Craft Crucible.  Maybe I’m not quite the flash-bigot I thought I was.

That the story is clever and hilarious goes without saying but that’s not why I wanted to analyze it.  I went on when we did 7 Items about the efficiency required in flash fiction, and that applies to this story, too.  But what has always caught my attention here is how it digresses effectively.

At 15:41:18, BarracksRoomLawyer wrote: Point of order: issues related to Hitler’s service in the Bavarian Army ought to go in the World War I forum.

This is the seventh entry in the story, out of thirty-one, so it comes just shy of a quarter of the way through.  The reader is familiar with the premise, understands what the format is emulating, and we’ve already had two cycles of killing and un-killing Hitler.  So why is this digression here?

Verisimilitude.  No web forum ever has managed to stay consistently on topic.  Human conversations don’t work that way.  Anybody familiar with how communication on the internet works, even if they aren’t familiar with the particular sub-tropes common on wiki comment pages, is aware of this.  Readers aren’t going to read the story and go, “No way, that was a completely unrealistic portrayal of internet communication,” if those digressions are left out.  But including it is a communication straight to their subconscious and the message is, “Yup, this is a totally legit thing you are seeing.”

It also serves as the setup for the final punchline.

At 09:47:13, BarracksRoomLawyer wrote: Point of order: this discussion belongs in the Qing Dynasty forum. We’re adults; can we keep sight of what’s important around here?

I’m not going to explain the punchline, which is delightfully built on the irony of ignoring a valid point which went and got its advocate wiped out of history with no rescue in sight, but it’s there, buried in the digressions.  This comment could have just been tacked onto the end, shortening the story even more, but then we’re deprived the sense of BarracksRoom Lawyer’s increasing frustration over the unruly conversational focus which colors the delivery of this last quip so well.

So yes, efficiency matters in flash, but that doesn’t mean that details which are there merely as signals for credibility and to augment the delivery of other pieces aren’t still critical.  I’d argue that without these digressions, Wikihistory would just be another flash story with a clever, under-developed idea, and therefore utterly forgettable.

Next week: And Their Lips Rang With the Sun by Amal El-Mohtar.

After that: A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica by Catherynne M. Valente.

CC: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

This week’s story, James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a classic.  You probably had to read it in school.  And now they’ve made a movie out of it which, if the trailer is to be believed, completely missed the point of the story.  Fortunately, you can ruin the movie, but they can’t destroy the text it’s based on.

I wanted to pull this one out for analysis because it does something that’s a lot harder than it looks: it mixes scenes and vignettes inside a larger story without externally marking the shift and without confusing the reader.  Readers are frequently stupid and notoriously bad at psychically intuiting what the author wants them to know, so pulling off the conceit of this story is no mean feat.

There are a couple things Thurber does to signal transitions and keep the reader grounded on whether they’re in the fantasy or reality.  The first of these are the ellipses.  They’re a really subtle visual cue to mark a transition.  He also keeps them embedded in the fantasy – they’re the first thing at the opening when you’re transitioning into it and the last thing you see on your way out.    This works really well as a device and sets up the mid-paragraph transition at the end.

One of the other techniques he does is to remind you that you’re in a fantasy when you’re in the fantasy sections.  It’s not jus tthe exuberant fawning over Mitty that happens in the fantasies, but the “pocketa pocketa pocketa” sound that gets pulled into each of them.  Even in the first section before you know it’s a fantasy, the noise is there.  This supports Mrs. Mitty’s assertion that there’s something medically wrong with Mitty – his brain has some weird aural quirks going on – but aside from that, it’s a gentle reminder to the reader that the scene they’re reading right now has something in common with a previous scene, namely that it isn’t really happening.

The best of the structural cues build into the story is the way the inspiration for the fantasy ties directly into a trigger from real life.  In the first fantasy the pilot fantasy is lanuched by driving.  Talk of needing to see the doctor launches the surgeon fantasy, trying to recall a detail launches the courtroom investigation.  The inspirations are blatant without being tacky.  Turber wants to make sure the reader notices the correlation because the meaning of the final transition hinges on that understanding – living his ordinary life with his mundane wife is triggering the firing squad fantasy, a commentary  on his feelings about his life.  Since Thurber was straightforward with his technique in the rest of the story, he doesn’t need to preach or say out flat out for us to know it, and it’s a message that’s much more effective for being delivered that way.

Next week: Wikihistory by Desmond Warzel.

Followed by: And Their Lips Rang With the Sun by Amal El-Mohtar.

CC: A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, As Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc -or- A Lullaby

This week we’re doing Helen Keeble’s A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, As Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc-or-A Lullaby. This one got nominated for a World Fantasy award, a nomination it definitely deserved.  This story is poignant and beautiful and has one of the more interesting treatments of mermaids I’ve ever seen.  I’m  fan of mermaids, so doing neat things with them is always a win.

That said, I think the major strength of this story is the choice Keeble made about the two narrators.  This story is rife with “halfness.”  At the beginning, Professor Boswell is halfway to modern sensibilities on the subject of mermaids: he believes in the possibility of their intelligence, but he’s willing to take them prisoner and murder children for dissection in order to prove it.  Sunlight-Reaching-Deep is similarly willing to accept that humans have agency and could be benign in intent, but doesn’t accept that they have any capacity for communication or compassion.  The story we get is their mutual journey from this half-ness to an fuller understanding of their counterpart.  It succeeds so well because of how their journeys work in paralell.

The first step in their journey is the disposition of the eggs.  Prof Boswell has to get around to even recognizing them for what they are and the value his specimen will place on them.  Meanwhile, Sunlight-Reaching-Deep makes up a story that winds up foreshadowing the whole arc of the story.  The eggs/children wind up being the medium that catalyzes their mutual journey and serves as the bridge for their understanding.  Boswell sees humanity in the concern centered around the eggs, SRD accepts that even a grave threat can be mitigated by accepting ignorance and benign intent.  It’s not much yet, but it’s a flag of openness on both their parts to going further – there’s something to work with here.  This signalling is really important because otherwise, the Professor would be unlikely to survive reader judgement, and his observations of SRD give the audience the visual cues needed to ground the lyrical POV sections we’re getting.

That initial step, though, is followed by mutual doubt.  The Prof doesn’t make any immediate break through in communication.  Not all of the eggs are returned and the living circumstances are not good ones.  The Prof does as he would and doubles down on his scientific endeavors, trusting his faith in his hypotehsis to get him through. Meanwhile, SRD is doing everything he can to deny the circumstances, changing what we know must have been a tragic ending for the eggs to a tragic ending for the “half-maid.”  This doubt introduces a vulnerability in both characters that helps endear them to the audience, but it also creates the space within the story for the idea of change – the story’s ending can be altered, the hypothesis shifted.  So even as confidence in the journey wavers, we’re affirming the potential for its success.  And of course, by the end of that section the plot rewards us for that affirmation of hope: the mermaids have arrived, supporting the Prof’s theory and giving SRD hope of rescue.

The lovely irony there, of course, being that the Prof is going to be less willing to let SRD or the eggs go if they’ll support his theory, and that rescue for SRD is bad news for the Prof.  From such tension is the break between two parts of a story made.

With the second part we have the watershed moment.  Our catalyst-bridge hatches and disaster ensues.  SRD is completely grief-stricken to see all of his children slaughtered and the Prof interprets helplessness and despair as indifference.  The journey is arrested while both give over to doubt, which makes perfect sense now that the mechanism that had been powering the journey has been removed from the story.  (Also, how fantastically macabre is it to picture floating in your children’s blood?  Nice!) This is where the story enters “Screw mutual understanding, we’re killing us some Other,” territory.  The merfolk definitly get the upper hand on that phase of the journey, but given the stakes involved – an entire, utterly forgettable boat versus five rare indiiduals – that’s okay.

Then children come back on the scene, the separated eggs start hatching.  This is one of the little scientific details I really love about this stoy. In nature, clutches of eggs have signalling mechanisms they’ll use so that they’ll all hatch around the same time, so having the isolated eggs come out of sync with the rest makes a great deal of sense as well as being convenient for the narrative.  I have no idea whether Keeble was coming from a “Did her research” perspective, but she got the details right which makes reader me happy.

Anyway, the kids are back and, like ninjas, more potent in smaller numbers.  There are only four of the total sixteen, but they live.  They live more successfully than they would without the Prof’s meddling.  SRD is back on board for the journey.  Unfortunately, the Prof hasn’t gotten the memo that path to mutual understanding is open for business again and is about to blow it up when, wham!, Jack to the rescue.

Halfness and mutuality are our driving themes through this story, right?  It wouldn’t work if the egg/child catalyst-bridge mechanism were entirely one-sided.  We need a human child to enter the scene or it would be the merfolk doing all the contributing to the plot engines and that wouldn’t be fair or just – this would be an icky story about natives caving in the facing of onrushing colonialsim/imperialism instead of a tale of mutual progress and understanding.  Sucks to be Jack since he’s the only human kid around to offer up to the plot engines, but hey, he’d have been extraneous and never gotten even his short fictional life otherwise.  And I’m pretty sure that if the Prof had either ether or the gumption required to keep Jack from suffering the human contribution to the cause wouldn’t have been pricey enough for fair play, so the kid not only had to die, but had to do it slowly and painfully.  Something we should all keep in mind when signing up for fictional existences.

SRD winds up losing twelve kids and his freedom, but in exchange he gets the chance to save uncountable future children.  The Prof loses Jack, several valuable specimens, and his clean conscience, but he gets vindication on this theories and the opportunity to have the scientific fame he wants.  Each learns to value the other.  But, and here’s the reason this story stands above similar stories, halfness is still the theme of the day.  We’ve haven’t achieved mutually comprehensible utopia, and we’re not even promising it.  SRD still thinks the Prof is crippled and insane.  The Prof almost certainly thinks SRD is, at best, equivlaent to a “savage” (and a female one, no less!).  But there will be interaction, learning, and less slaughter going forward, so while we’re not there yet, there’s the opportunity of getting there.

Then again, we’re out of eggs and kids, so either they’re going to have to find a new mechanism, or this whole endeavor is about to end badly.

Next week: Brief Candle by Jason K. Chapman.

Then Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu.

Followed by The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber.

CC: Chop Shop

This week, special for Christmas, we’ve got Chop Shop by J.B. Park.  This was Park’s debut piece and didn’t get nearly enough attention, probably because Nightmare is still a relatively new venue (especially when this was published) and doesn’t yet have the volume of readers it deserves.  Oh well, the world is unjust, such is the nature of Christmas.

This story plays on the classic descent into madness horror trope, but breaks from it in a really interesting way by combining it with a self-discovery and empowerment plot.

He was an artist, that one, and she wants him all for herself—was she not a worthy canvas?

This is our starting point.  She’s cheerful, enthusiastic, and brand spanking new to the whole thing.  She has no agency in her virtual mutilation, though the extent to which that’s true at that moment only becomes clear later in the story.  She’s the object being worked on, he’s the worker, and, as it turns out, the only one up for the job.  She’s completely dependent on him for her gratification and her education on how this works.

But she doesn’t stay that way.  By the aftermath of their second session, she’s already starting to, er, take things into her own hands.

She puts her ring-finger in her mouth, sets her teeth, slowly bites down.

Having more experience, more confidence, she’s experimenting with taking agency over her dismantling herself.  That taking a harmless, virtual simulation into the real world where it’s quite dangerously gruesome isn’t so much a good thing heightens the tension, making this particular step perform the coveted multi-function work that marks good writing, but still.  Sure, it’s unhealthy to start taking baby steps toward chopping off your own fingers, but there’s also something psychologically gratifying about taking the power to have your needs met for yourself.

That first step develops.  She rejects a suggestion from her artist that she’s not comfortable with, exerting the power she has within their relationship.  And by their fifth date, she’s broken away from her complete dependence on him far enough to get even more assertive.  She’s not comfortable with it – we get her note of insecurity when she wonders whether he’ll leave her, but she’s also not sitting still for his power-tripping, either.

She resets herself. Stands whole, neither bleeding or cut. Upset. She logs off and the man stares at the puddle of blood on the floor before he sighs and leaves as well.

I think it’s important here that she doesn’t just log off, but resets herself and faces him first.  There’s a lot you can read into that – she could just be buying time to see if she cools off enough to stay, or might be so upset it doesn’t occur to her to leave right away.  But given her progression, it reads to me like a mini-defiance.  She’s asserting her control over her virtual image, facing the artist who’s doing what he can to make her feel dependent on him, and functionally saying, “Hey, I’m an equal partner in this, and I don’t need you.”

The fact that she does, if she wants a partner, is unfortunate, but alas, this is a good Christmas story which means it’s about how the world fails to meet our needs and generally sucks.  Also, as I said, the journey in this story is a two-fold one, and it wouldn’t be a very good descent into madness if she got what she wanted on her path to self-agency.

The penultimate section of this story is what really grabbed my interest the first time.  I was listening to the podcast of it while driving and actually replayed it twice before going on to the last section because I was so convinced it hadn’t actually been a virtual projection and wanted to confirm that before going on.  Do you know how hard it is to move around in an audio file on your phone without looking at it?  Not recommended.  (My conclusion, after actually listening to the whole story is that obviously was a virtual projection and I should learn some damn patience)

What’s awesome about this section, though, is the expression of complete ownership.  She has become the artist and the canvas, and to keep the act from being entirely onanistic has involved an audience.  This is also an act of sheer insanity, and Park chooses to change perspectives, back away from his close focus on her and the artist to give us the external perspective, just to make sure we understand that yes, even in this future full of virtual worlds, this is not normal.  But prior to this, intestines haven’t even been an element.  She’s breaking new artistic ground!  We, the readers, should be so proud of her, even as we’re rather worried.

Which gives us the last line which, like so many last lines we’ve talked about, really benefits from the dual setup going on prior to the story.

She aches for it. One day, she’ll take a knife and cut herself a hole. She’ll climb in, a hole for her and her alone, and it will swallow her.

So, that’s grisly foreshadowing of a gruesome suicide to come, but it’s also an affirmation that she is in control, she’s in charge, and she’s getting stronger, working her way up to asserting that in a clear, incontrovertible fashion.  Henceforward, all the agency is hers.  Unfortunately for her that means all her agency is in the hands of a self-destructive madwoman, but that’s the beauty of this story.

Speaking of indulgence, I’m spending next week playing all the board games and not stopping for literary analysis of anything, so we’re taking the week off.

After that: Helen Keeble’s A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, As Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc-or-A Lullaby.  It’s as long as the title would suggest, and also engrossing, so make sure to make time for it.

Then Brief Candle by Jason K. Chapman.

The story I was going to put up next apparently only has audio available online.  (Insert railing against print only media here)  If somebody has a story they want to do, go ahead and toss out the idea while I sulk and you’ll get this slot.