CC: Victimless Crimes

For a cheerful exploration of mother-daughter relationships, we’ve got Charlie Jane Anders’s Victimless Crimes.  If you’re looking at the author name and going, “That sounds familiar but I can’t for the life of me figure out why,” it’s probably because in addition to being generally awesome, she’s the managing editor of i09.com, Hugo winner, and properly dedicated blog readers heard me read one of her other stories earlier this year. (Y’all remember the story with concussion porn, right?)

I grabbed this story for the Craft Crucible because you can count on Anders to give you a quirky story with an irreverent voice that still probes at heavy stuff and carries a hefty emotional punch.  She does it through very careful management of the details she gives you – you get a lot, and they’re the sort that feel “true” but also random.

Teri Lewis was obsessing about her sister’s bad marriage and the president’s latest compromise, so she barely listened to Flo’s improvised song about pandas and dandelions, coming from the stroller in front of her.

Obsessing.  Good word, and when it gets paired with “sister’s bad marriage” and “president’s latest compromise” we now have a really good picture of Teri.  These aren’t things immediately relevant to her, she’s not in an life threatening, high-stakes situation, but she’s thoughtful, and perhaps a touch neurotic, because she’s obsessing about these things anyway.  I have no idea what Teri looks like, where she’s from, or what her day-to-day life is like, but I know who she is.  She’s an awful lot like me, and just about everybody else I know.

Then we get the bit about Flo, with the pandas and dandelions.  Random, definitely, but not purposelessly so.  They’re cute and harmless, which helpfully grounds us in “baby” for Flo, they’re an amusing pair which gets us started off liking her, and they’re not images that frequently accompany babies so they catch our attention and stand out.  If it had been duckies and balloons it wouldn’t have worked quite as well.

Teri heard a whooshing sound, a tidal wave of white noise, and turned to see a bizarre trio descending from a VTOL jet on ropes. They landed on their feet just behind her, right by the organic grocery store’s fruit bins.

The VTOL jet making its entrance just after we find out that Flo’s stroller is a fighter jet mock-up is a really nice touch, but the thing that clenches this sequence is the detail juxtaposition across the two sentences.  This story doesn’t try to pass off what’s happening as normal or mundane in anyway.  It owns what’s going on and slaps “bizarre” right onto the label.  We think what’s happening is weird and a bit absurd, so does the story.  Cool, we can keep rolling with this.  And then we find out that we’re at the organic grocery store, in the produce section, next to the fruit.  You don’t get more boring and safe than that, really.  She’s in Whole Foods, getting assaulted by a landing team from a hover jet.  Anders has delivered us a two sentence case for “What is this, I don’t even.”

Which sets up Teri’s collapse beautifully.  Of course the first thing she does is get drunk.  And keep getting drunk.  There is no other rational response to that.

I love you. I don’t know if it’s some atavistic oxytocin thing, or just because my only tender memories are of you, or what.

And here we get to the part of the story that could turn saccharine or cloying or twee, you know, all those things mother-daughter stories do when it’s all going to work out after all.  Except it doesn’t because we don’t dwell on the sap, we dive right into “atavistic oxytocin thing.”  People do get saccharine, cloying and twee, so it wouldn’t be untrue of the story to go there, but Anders reliably takes the more interesting path, having characters who do the other realistic things like deflect the painful stuff.  I’m always a big fan of opening the doors to the emotional work, then inviting the audience to go through instead of doing it for them on the page.  It works better.  And that’s what’s going on here.  “I love you” is the open door.  “Atavistic oxytocin thing,” is the story stepping aside and going, “Look at those two devastatingly lonely people in a screwed up world full of people clumsily ruining their lives.  How does that make you feel?”

Also, I want to meet the toddler that can conceptualize the hormonal manipulation it’s falling victim to.  And then raise it.  I would raise the hell out of that toddler.

Next week, Chop Shop by J.B. Park.

I’m taking the following week off for New Year’s.  On the eighth we’re going to do 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 by Helen Keeble.  It’s a long one, so use the week off to get your reading done.

After that, Brief Candle by Jason K. Chapman.

CC: The Things

This week is Peter Watt’s The Things.  This is another Clarkesworld published fuzzy consent story that got a lot of attention.  It was shortlisted for just about everything and won a Hugo.  It’s also the source for everything I know about what happened in the movie, since (despite meaning to in preparation for this post) I’ve never seen the source material.

This is another story where you have very careful build-up to an important last line that delivers the strength of the ending to us.  A lot of that success in this case hinges on very carefully chosen vocabulary.

I take brief communion, tendrils writhing forth from my faces, intertwining: I am BlairChilds, exchanging news of the world.

The first, possibly most important, major vocabulary choice comes right at the beginning: the use of the word “communion.”  It is a literally correct choice, but it’s also extremely loaded, with implications of sacrement and positivity.  It immediately establishes, very clearly, what the invasion is for the Thing, and that its perspective is diametrically opposed to ours.  It also sets us up for its horror at our failure to share its understanding.  Its perspective up to encountering us is one of universal communion, and we introduce it to the concept of ex-communication.  Fear of actual, personal ex-communication isn’t something most people in our society today have to contend wtih (though I’ve come closer than most) but it’s something we understand, and it’s a framework we’re ready to approach the story with now that it’s been invoked.

And how could these skins be so empty when I moved in?

Having already established our Thing protagonist on some sympathetic footing, Watts then leads us toward the aspect of its outlook that are intrinsically horrifying very carefully.  The key word here is “empty.”  Alien possession is scary, a protagonist who blithely engages in such behavior is unsalvageably unsympathetic.  But that’s not what our protagonist is doing.  It’s engagging in communion, and distressed to find its object “empty.”  Moving in on someting empty or unused is understandable.  And with that one word we’re willing to give our protagonist more time, and Watts has us already primed to accept what would otherwise be completely beyond the pale.

It said that bipeds were called guys, or men, or assholes.

I’m pulling out this quote for its use of “assholes.”  First, because it’s funny.  The Thing doesn’t understand that asshole is a vulgarity, so we get a chuckle out of its ignorance.  But it also establishes that it isn’t picking up the connotative meanings of the vocabulary its picking up.  This is really important for the impact of the last line.

I shared my flesh with thinking cancer.

Cancer is the loaded word here, though it’s probably best to take “thinking cancer” as a unit here because, ick.  There are things out there creepier than the idea of thinking cancer, but it’s definitely right up there on the list of things mae of Do Not Want.  Our protagonist is horrified, we’re horrified, and with this carefully chosen phrase Watts has us revolted by our own brains.  He probably couldn’t have sold us on it earlier in the story, we wouldn’t have been invested enough in the Thing’s perspective to go there with it, but now we’ve gotten used to seeing the world with its perspective, and gently laughed at it.  We’ve bought in, so we’re ready to go along with it, even when that turns our perspective on its head.

Who would assimilate who?

Just to make sure we stay on board with our perspective alteration, Watts takes us immediately into the consequences of “thinking cancer.”  And, in keeping with the classic advice to “Give your villain a teddy bear to love,” he does it by showing us the Thing vulnerable and worried.  It isn’t just horrified to discover a world run by thinking cancer, but threatened by it.  And as readers, we are worried about it too.  No, amusing alien who doesn’t understand what’s meant by asshole, don’t get subsumed by thinking cancer!  We are on Team Thing.  Which makes the next ploy for sympathy even more effective.

I have been wrong about everything.

The important word here is wrong.  Not just because this is an unabashed admission of a mistake, something we’re greedy to have these days, but because “wrong” is an inherently loaded word, and applies to just about everything with this story.  Just look at the comment thread at the end of the story.  But here this admission doesn’t just make us admire the protagonist for being able to admit its error, but it opens up the opportunity for it to expand on the implications of that error.  Before this section it’s planning to return to its ship and hide until time passes and things change.  Its understanding of its error changes that plan, and while everything that follows makes sense from its perspective – we’re very familiar with its perspective – this is the section of the story where we start to break from it.  From our perspective, the Thing was confused before, but now it’s wrong.  Horrifically, frighteningly wrong.

I will have to rape it into them.

Well, we’re not pulling any punches with that for a last line.  The key word we want to focus on here, obviously, is “rape”.  This is its second appearance in the story.  It was a bit of a throw away the first time though, just a passing thought from the mind of a possessed scientist.  This is where we see the payoff from the “asshole” joke, though, because we know that the protagonist is deaf to connotative meanings.  It took away the literal meaning of rape, discusses it even at the first appearance, but didn’t pick up on the emotional load carried by the term.  We do, though.  And if you hadn’t started to back away from the protagonist’s perspective before, you certainly do now.  The shock here works particularly well since you were buying into the perspective up to that point.  We’re getting used to the “Showing the villain’s perspective,” and showing that the typical bad guy is really just misunderstood.  What Watts does here with this line is go, “Oh yeah, the villain is totally the hero of their own story, but they’re still the villain.”  (Apparently everybody speaks in italics today)

What I particularly like about this last line is my mental image of the shrug accompanying it from the Thing, the idea that as much as I’m going, “Uh, error, error!” it is oblivious.  Because our protagonist is morally motivated, you know that if it did understand our concept of rape as we understand it, then it would likely share our response.  I’m not sure that’s a reading everybody is going to get to, but its definitely there and I like it.

Does this story read differently if you’ve seen the movie?

Next week: Victimless Crimes by Charlie Jane Anders

Then my uplifting Christmas special: Chop Shop by J.B. Park.

I think I’ve pulled all the initial suggestions for CC stories so far.  Anything else people want to put in the queue?

 

CC: The Three Feats of Agani

This week we’re doing the fabulous Christie Yant’s The Three Feats of Agani.  This story got a lot of praise when it came out, was selected for Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, was re-podcast by PodCastle even though BCS podcast it when they originally published it, and its failure to get nominated for a Hugo this year is really all the proof you need that the short fiction category for the Hugos this year was completely whack.  But then, I would say that.

There’s a lot to love about this story, but the thing that I think sets it apart is the ending.  Endings are hard.  Lots of brilliant things completely fall apart once they get to the ending.  This story nails its dismount, then blithely saunters off because it couldn’t care less whether the judges noticed it was perfect.  But this ending is more than fan service to my villainous predilections, or I’d be the only one running all over the internet telling people how awesome it is.  This ending works so well because of the work put into earning it by the earlier parts of the story.

A girl sits cross-legged in the dirt before the unlit pyre, her face dotted with yellow clay and her dark hair unbound. The girl has just seen her ninth summer. The man on the pyre is her father. The old woman at her side, bent and gray, is no relation.

The story starts off simple, straight forward, and immediately building up a sense of the girl’s isolation.  We don’t get a name for her.  We don’t get a name for any character in the story except Agani.  No name means the reader can’t quite get a hold of her, and our small bit of isolation from the protagonist gets translated into our feeling her isolation.  (Amateur writers withhold names from characters all the time because it’s something the grownups do.  It ends badly.  This is a trick for the grownups)

We get a brief physical description of the girl, then her age.  It’s a passive construction used for the age.  “She has just seen her ninth summer,” not “She is nine.”  Don’t believe the anti-passive voice hype.  This is a perfect example of doing it and doing it well.  There’s more distance between reader and protagonist this way, and the bigger that gulf gets, the more we understand what the girl is going through.

And then we end with corpsified dad and no-relation old woman.  It’s really hard for a reader to stay emotionally detached from a protagonist sitting a few feet from daddy-corpse, with an unrelated old lady as her only companion.  This is the information that lets us turn our isolation into her isolation.  Shoot, kid, I’d be nameless and passively nine, too.

This isolation is important because it’s what gives her the space to break from the traditional interpretations of the stories.  The interpretations the old woman gives are perfectly credible – we get fed those interpretations for our cultural narratives all the time, and recent trends toward turning things on their head to check out the other perspective notwithstanding (and frequently imperfectly executed) we swallow the interpretation without questioning.  But our protagonist is safe from that because she’s too young, getting the stories rushed together, and emotionally cut off from the world around her.  Cultural brainwashing hasn’t gotten to her yet, and her anger protects her against the old woman’s attempts to cram it in.

She sits in silence with her rage in her throat and waits for the old woman to speak.

This is the other really important line from the opening.  Part of that is because she doesn’t stay silent.  She asks her questions.  She challenges the approved interpretation.  And she gets slapped for it.  Good job old lady!  You’ve now taught our protagonist to keep her villainous thoughts to herself, setting you up to be completely surprised when she goes all Agani on you.  Excellent parenting!

Unheard in the crackle of the fire, she whispers a prayer to the only god who matters.

This is why you want to train your would-be villains into chattiness.  The girl is still functionally silent at the end.  The first word of this sentence which gets a paragraph all to itself is “Unheard.”  But here’s the transformation in the story.  At the beginning, the girl was silent and passive.  She didn’t even have the words for her feelings.  At the end her silence isn’t helplessness or passivity anymore, it’s cover for her very active choices.

This is a coming-of-age plot arc, with our girl claiming agency and making the alliances she needs to cope with an unjust world.  If Yant had just slapped three folk tales together, nobody would care.  This transition in the frame story is what we need to make it worthwhile and interesting.  And she does it so well, so economically (this isn’t a very long story and the frame is a relatively small portion of it) that there’s nothing to get in the way of the utter badassery of the last line.

Mmmm, bear.

There are lots of other neat things going on in this story – the negative space of what isn’t said could get poked at quite a bit – so y’all should go to town and take a look at some of that, too.

Next week: The Things by Peter Watts.

Then: Victimless Crimes by Charlie Jane Anders

And in keeping with my “Best dealt with by pretending it isn’t happening” sensibilities, the week after is: Chop Shop by J.B. Park.  Okay, maybe that’s not ignoring the significance of the day so much as actively trying to traumatize my blog audience into sharing my sensibilities.  Tough.  We’ll explore trauma.

CC: Comes the Huntsman

This week’s story is Comes the Huntsman by Rachael Acks, originally published by Strange Horizons in July of last year.  This story won the Strange Horizons Reader’s Choice poll, and as you know if you pay attention to me on Mondays, Strange Horizons readers are creatures with excellent taste.  Also, Tanget were not fans, and that’s always a good sign.

I bring up the Tanget review because I was genuinely conflicted about how I wanted to approach this story for this.  There are about seven different angles I could see taking, all which focus on a different aspect of what I really like about this story, but the “story is hard to find” comment makes it pretty clear what I need to do.  Because the story here is lovely, and if the reader is having difficulty finding it I’m forced to question whether they’re actually paying attention. This story is non-linear and told twice, once with the what actually happened in the world rendering, and once with the emotional, internal story.  Both versions of the story are broken into small vignettes that are then put together to show us how they interact; Acks trusts her readers to be smart enough to figure out the chronology without her stringing out out for us.

What this story is focusing on instead of the chronological arc is the way the two renderings interact with each other and themselves. The first two vignettes belong to the internal arc of the story, and introduce us to three of the four major symbols: apples, the huntsman, the remove heart.  All of the symbols in this story are working multiple angles, but the apples gloss mostly as love, the huntsman as the recipient and wielder of love, the removed heart as the consequence of and response to love.

I should never have been mad enough to eat that apple.

This is the “hook” line of the story, the magic line that convinces the reader that yes, they are going to read the whole thing.  It’s a fantastic hook line, too, because it works on first reading and holds up with extra meaning on the second reading.  On first read it tells the reader “Hey, something is up here, you want to find out what it is.”  On second read you realize it’s the narrator, full in the knowledge of what’s happened, equating the acceptance of love with madness, an expression of regret over the acceptance.  And that right there, done.  I love this story and want to cuddle up with it in our mutual love-is-poison thematic blankets.  But that’s just me.

The first vignette introduces us to the apple, tells us the narrator accepts it.  The second vignette shows us the consequences of that – the Huntsman gets in, and he cuts out her heart.  This is the internal arc, remember, but it’s setting up our symbols and their relationship to each other which is important because they’re going to bleed into the external arc, and they’re going to morph as we move across the story.

The third section is the first to focus on the external arc.  This is where we get the foundation for our tale, the back story.  Girl is in love with gay best friend, so in love she doesn’t realize he’s gay until she forces him into an awkward rejection.  This is where the conflict of the story comes in.  It’s not narrator vs world, or narrator vs loss; it’s narrator destroyed by the conflation of romantic and platonic love. The best friend loves her, unquestionably.  We know this because Acks sneaks in the fourth major symbol, the blushing yellow.

We’ll learn later about the narrator’s relationship with yellow, but what we see on the first read through is a bouquet of roses that are not red, though they’re touched by it.  Red roses would be romantic love and we’d have no conflict, Tanget would be right and there’d be no story.  But blushing yellow roses?  It’s love, but it’s the wrong kind, and our narrator doesn’t know how to read the symbol.  Thus the rejection, painful for both of them, we learn.

Like the first vignettes paired to show us a piece of the internal arc, the third is followed by the fourth which covers a chronology that includes but extends beyond the time frame of the third vignette, but illuminates the image introduced, and shows us the consequences.  The roses were yellow because they were meant to be her.  We don’t know how long after the rejection the suicide was, and we don’t know that the suicide was actually a result of the rejection.

But we know the events were close enough together that our narrator hadn’t recovered yet, and whatever the best friend’s motives were, as far as she’s concerned, they were related.  He’s dead because of the rejection.  Because he wanted to be in love with her and could be? Because he did love her and consequently hurting her was more than he could take? The story doesn’t tell us – his internal arc isn’t here – but the questions are right there, pulling the reader into the emotional arc of the story even as we’re being presented with the external arc.

The fifth section ties the two tellings together.  It’s presented as a fairly straightforward fleshing out of the details in the external plotline, but she’s hidden the images from the internal arc there.

 I calculated the value of everything I ate. I learned safety statistics by heart.

There’s our love, and its consequences.  This is how we know that the two arcs are related, that we’re seeing the same story twice.  If they never interacted, never related to each other, we’d have something else and need to figure out what that was instead.  But no, instead we have a narrator who in the past is being very careful about what she eats, evaluating it closely, which makes her decision to eat the apple in the first vignette more meaningful because it’s an even bigger departure.  And we have a heart, filled with safety statistics, and we know that it’s going to be cut out.

The sixth vignette is my favorite.  It’s pure internal arc, covering the time between the suicide and the night she eats the apple.  The imagery alone is gorgeous enough to justify fondness, but in the context of the story it’s carrying so much emotional weight that it’s spectacular.  She’s fleeing the object of love, constantly surrounded by the temptation of love itself, freezing and starving because she can’t accept either, because love has been poisoned by its incompatibilities, and so the passion and nurturing she ought to have become a torment.  It’s fraught and lovely.

And the seventh vignette gives us the same segment, except from the external story.  She doesn’t go to parties, she doesn’t meet people, she sticks to studying.  She’s haunted by the dead friend because she’s afraid of finding out “that the real ghost was me.”

Eight stays in the external timeline, and gives us the external telling of the first two vignettes, but doesn’t manage to stay in the external.  The key here is the call back to the roses – the roses were her, remember?  And now:

He laughed and kissed her blush away with lips that tasted of apples and absolution.

She’s blushing, like the roses, and that blush is kissed away by love and forgiveness.  The intrusion of the romantic onto the platonic, banished by the huntsman who, it’s very clear at this point, is not the dead best friend at this point in the story.

We’re going to come back to nine, because it matters where in the chronology it happens, and there’s an argument to be made.

Ten is our explanation vignette.  The narrator has had a breakthrough, finally understands what’s going on, and she shares it with the reader.  She’s been haunted by love and a love-object because she hasn’t been heartless all this time; she’s been caught in the same struggle of love seeking an object and failing to connect.  It’s also another affirmation that the best friend did love her, did care intensely for her.

And in eleven we have our denouement, our assurance that the narrator won’t be starving herself anymore.  She’s whole, and what I particularly like about it is that she’s whole without the huntsman at her side.  What she needed wasn’t necessarily to fulfill the cycle, but to stop running from it, to stop being damaged by it.  Her problem wasn’t that she didn’t have a Huntsman, but that she was starving herself for fear of the wrong Huntsman.

Which is why we’re coming to nine now.  Because there are two Huntsmen in this story, the best friend and the lover.  Which one is the one in nine?  It could be either, and I’m going to argue that nine actually happens twice, once with each.  The kiss is different depending on who it is, the meaning is different depending on who it is, but the prose on the page holds up to both readings.  If you assign the vignettes to the two tellings, the external one has more, so counting nine twice helps balance them.  Also, with the story doubling up everything else, and all the transforming going on, I think there’s a really good case to be made for reading nine twice.

So take that, Tangent, there’s your story.

Now please, somebody please, analyze the transformation of the symbols across the story, especially the Huntsman and the roses.  Also, I’d love to see somebody digging into the cycles and conflicts between the two kinds of love and how the story presents and resolves them.

Next week, The Three Feats of Agani by Christie Yant.

Followed by, The Things by Peter Watts.

And then, Victimless Crimes by Charlie Jane Anders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week, Comes the Huntsman by Rachel Acks.

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

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

CC: Consumer Testing

This week’s story is Consumer Testing by John Greenwood.  This came out in May of this year from Bourbon Penn.  Something is going right here, because even Lois Tilton liked it.  For those of you not in the know, Lois Tilton is a bit like the Roger Ebert of genre short fiction, except with an added reputation of being hard to please.  Certain writers of short fiction I could name have “Write a story that makes Lois Tilton cry,” on their list of career goals.  (Not me.  I’m still working on getting to be the cream filling)

There’s a lot of complexity packed into this story, so I’m hoping plenty of you pipe in to pick apart bits of it.  The voice is the thing that strikes me as the immediate and predominate strength.  There’s a lot of sentence and clause-level detail in how he rendered it we could dig into, but what I find much more interesting are the conceptual layers built into the voice.  This story is built on introducing a few images and ideas, let’s call them nuggets, and then returning to them over and over again, with a different payoff for each iteration.  It grabs the reader right off by taking you through a whole iterative cycle in the second paragraph.  The first paragraph introduces mother, father, and the jars of olives (mmm, olives) and that’s all the second paragraph needs to dive right in.

I should have listened to the advice of my mother and father. My father’s motto was “Stick with what you know.” My mother’s motto (though she would have not described it as such) was “No good will come of it.” Neither was well expressed nor, had they been better expressed, would have exposed profundities […] As guides for the safe conduct of life, these mottoes had little to recommend them (both parents died). […] It would be a comfort to say that I hold by their maxims still. I have not held by them, but now that it is too late to make amends, at least I know that I should have held by them.

I cut out chunks of the paragraph to pare the quote down to the bits we care about here.  Mother and father have been introduced to our conceptual space, and here they get fleshed out with their mottos.  This paragraph gives us the whole story in a nutshell.  The narrator was raised by parents with these mottos, deviated from them, and in deviating from them discovered them to be true.  The last sentence is an affirmation that “no good will come of it” through its assertion that none did.  One loop.

The parentheticals throughout the story contribute to this too.  Their use is dictated a lot by the prose construction going on in creating the voice, but they tie neatly into the conceptual space, too, because they take the information travelling along in the sentence, jump outside to something tangential, then loop back into where the sentence was going the whole time.  I’m particularly fond of the “both parents died” parenthetical because of the implicative power laced in there – any motto espoused by anybody will, given time, have belonged to somebody who died.  That this information is relevant enough to warrant a parenthetical break from where the sentence is going embues it with all kinds of extra information about the narrator and his outlook we wouldn’t get otherwise.

1) Death, while not an inherently painful subject (it’s so casually thrown in there) is also not a particularly familiar one, else the parenthetical would be silly

2) The narrator isn’t particularly analytical.  He’s told is this directly already, but this establishes it nicely.  He doesn’t leave room to consider whether they would have died sooner without these mottos; if he had, he might have said “both parents died young” or “too soon” or something similar.

3) It also works to establish the distance or alienation of the narrator from the world.  This is something that the diction and timbre of the prose has been asserting from word one, but this parenthetical reinforces it nicely.  “both parents” not “my parents” or “mom and dad” or even “mother and father.”  Looking only at that clause, they could be anybody’s parents, and there’s no emotional content packaged into the clause either in and of itself or from its context – being parenthetical, it’s completely isolated from its context and is just an intrusion into an otherwise complete sentence.

The nuggets in this story are all great, and as far as I can tell, not a one of them is introduced without getting called back to at some point.  “Mother,” “Father,” and the aphorisms are all nuggets, but so are each of the items thrown over the fence and brought for the consumer testing.  Some of them happen right away:

In addition to rusted cans: unrusted cans, half-empty bottles, empty bottles, fouled disposable diapers, fouled reusable diapers, oddments of cloth, shoes, bald car tyres, leftovers, thumb tacks, the cadaver of a dog, mapping pins, roofing nails, safety pins (attached to diapers). Some of these (shoes, cloth, pins) my father made use of as he had used the rusting tins, others (diapers, dead dog) he did not.

The unrusted cans call back to the rusted ones, the empty bottles to the half-empty ones, etc. etc.  Greenwood also establishes here the right for a delayed payoff, asserts that he isn’t just putting these items together because they create a nice rhythm in the sentence (which they do).  We introduce and call back to the diapers right away, but then we call back to them again wiht the safety pins in the next sentence.  Then we call back to the safety pins and the diapers, separately, in the sentence after that.  Loops and cycles, pulling the reader through the conceptual space by mashing the different nuggets together and showing what happens when you do.  It’s really neat.

Especially when you get far enough into the story for the bigger payoffs.  My favorite of these is:

I squat here in the potato rows, typing all this out into the qwerty (the pencils long ago lost between floorboards or eaten by rats, or by me, I forget).

We’ve got the qwerty, potato rows, pencils and the rats all smashed together in a sentence.  The pencils are the star here, both because their absence justifies the presence of the qwerty and the rats, and because, bizarrely, they might have been eaten.  You’d be hard pressed to find something more inherently mundane or uninteresting than a pencil, but by the end of this story they’ve become so abnormal that you can squeeze the idea that they’re lost (typical) and the idea that they might have been eaten by our human narrator into the same parenthetical.  When the reader goes over that sentence, nodding along because it fits right in with what you’d expect given its context in the story, it’s the prose equivalent of John Greenwood cackling and saying, “Dear Reader: I have utterly warped your brain, muahaha!”

And the reader’s awareness of having had their brain warped is, I suspect, a signicant portion of what makes the voice of this story so compelling and successful.  If it failed, the whole story would read as nonsensical and pretentious blather and you’d never make it to that sentence.

There’s loads more here.  Your turn.

(Next week is Robert Swartwood’s Seven Items in Jason Reynolds’ Jacket Pocket, Two Days After His Suicide, As Found by his Eight-Year-Old Brother, Grady.  It’s quite short, so it should be easy for you if you haven’t read it before.)

CC: Spar

This week’s story is Spar by Kij Johnson.

To give some context for the members of the audience who need it, this story was published in 2009 to cries of “Brilliant!” and “Ew, tentacle porn!”  It won awards and award nominations, and people told Neil Clarke he was peddling smut by publishing it.  Kij Johnson is generally considered to be a writer of consistent and reliable brilliance, and one who some people just don’t get.

Craft-wise, this story is demonstrably excellent.  The reading experience is intense and claustrophobic, the thematic content built and reinforced out of the imagery, and the conclusion is the particularly difficult “appropriate, correct, and doesn’t resolve the problems,” sort that I’m fond of.  How’d she do that?  Two main things.

Sparse. Prose.

This story could be a textbook study in what people mean when they say “sparse prose,” and they aren’t trying to tactfully say “boring.”  The sentences are short, fragmentary, and you see the same words repeatedly.

The alien is not humanoid. It is not bipedal. It has cilia.

Three sentences, each building the image you need in a progression of negative space.  It is not, it is not, it is.  Should could have said, “Picture an amoeba,” and used fewer words to get you to the same image, but that wouldn’t have worked the same way.  This is a pulling back of the camera, a hustling of the reader forward toward understanding exactly how alien this alien is.  Not Star Trek.  Not even Star Wars.  Amoeba.  Even the rhythm of the sentences feels like a march.  Each sentence is shorter than the one before it, which focuses your attention on the concluding word, and that word is “cilia.”  Which tells you far, far more than “the alien is covered in fine hairs that can wiggle on their own.”

Even longer sentences carry this brief, rhythmic element.  She does a lot of clausal constructions via punctuation rather than verbal conjunctions.

The wreck was random: a mid-space collision between their ship and the alien’s, simultaneously a statistical impossibility and a fact.

This is a delivery of three bits of information again, but in one sentence instead of three.  But look at how she packaged that information in the sentence.  Assertion about the wreck, colon, fragmentary clause giving you more detail, comma, evaluation of that information.  It’s all grammatically valid, but the actual verbiage doesn’t carry any of the transition.  It’s one complete sentence, but it’s built out of fragments strung together.  Again, we’re hustling the reader along, never giving them a full stopping point.  This construction does the opposite of the previous one, where each clause grows longer than the one before it.  That keeps the prose engaging while maintaining the rhythmic qualities of the prose.  There’s still a progression – if we had it arranged long-short-mid it would stumble.

Also interesting to note: the only named character in the story is dead and appears only in flashbacks.  We have “She,” “It,” and “Gary.”  I doubt Gary got two syllables by accident.  The flashback where there’s actual dialog with Gary and descriptions of organic, bright, pleasant things is also the longest in the story, and very close to the end.  This story is built of small, brief sections, sometimes just a sentence long.  By the time you get to the scene in the park the reader has been inside the story long enough that rhythm and hustle the prose has been doing all along has them, so this comes as the refreshing break it’s meant to be.

And then right at the end of the section she shows off my favorite bit of the story’s second major technique to take it away.

Word Play

“I fucking hate you,” she says. “I hate fucking you.”

This story is full of work play, but this is my favorite.  (I’m a sucker for well done plays on “fuck,” though)  English is awesome for using the same word to mean different things just by putting it into different contexts, and you don’t get a clearer example than this one.  But much as I’m giddy over it, this isn’t the play that clenches the story.  This is just Kij showing off.

Ins and Outs.

That’s the one that matters.  The story is about isolation and loss, and the Ins and Outs that come up throughout it become contagious.  It starts off as a mere description of phallus/orifice options, because the story starts off as Amoeba porn, but it grows from there (like the story.)

Sometimes she watches it fuck her, the strange coiling of its Outs like a shockwave thrusting into her body, and this excites her and horrifies her; but at least it is not Gary. Gary, who left her here with this, who left her here, who left.

The juxtaposition here is really important.  We’re reminded that she’s being rather unpleasantly fucked by an alien – because we are not allowed to forget that lest to story not feel claustrophobic – and the image is of an Out overwhelming an In.  And then we have Gary, and Gary is an In, unfilled, an absence.  Gary is, at the thematic level, the reason the amoeba sex is so mediocre: he’s an In its Outs can’t fill.  Gary’s the reason this story isn’t just Amoeba porn and Neil Clarke is not a mere peddler of smut.

And this unfilled In is the reason the conclusion of the story works.

No. She pulls herself free of its tendrils and climbs. Out.

Here you see all the fragmentary prose construction we’ve had before, and a new meaning for Out.  Up to this point, Out has always been “phallus” and now it’s escape.  It’s the metaphorical, thematic Out to match the metaphorical, thematic In of Gary.  He’s still dead, she’s still grieving, nothing is fixed at the end of this story, but the reader is okay with that because we found a compatible Out for the In that was gunking up the works.

There’s a lot more going on in this story, but those were the two elements that struck me as the most interesting and important.  Now it’s time for the interactive part.  What did I get wrong or leave out or ignore?  Play along, people 🙂

Next week: Consumer Testing by John Greenwood

New Project: The Craft Crucible

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

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

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

I want you to play along.

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

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

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

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

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