Want a failed rom-com that’s actually a breakup letter with Seattle? Want it in your ears instead of your eyeballs? You can have it! The Overcast has done an audio version of, “For the Last Time, It’s not a Raygun,” and now you can hear it.
I insist that this story is a documentary based on real events. The other people who appear in it insist that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Who’s right? You decide!
This is going to be simple and short. If you know anything about me, you know that it must matter a whole lot if I managed to make it short. Ready? Here it is:
I hereby formally and publicly announce the launch of an endeavor currently code named Project FAD. This endeavor will, at a minimum, launch a contest for beginning writers of science fiction and fantasy with a prize meant to bolster and nurture their nascent careers. That’s the very small, pragmatic elevator pitch.
I’m not feeling small or pragmatic. I’m not planning to limit this endeavor to writers. The field is so much bigger than that, and the value in supporting creators across the field so much more vast. Artists, editors, (podcasters?), teenagers, marginalized folks, people who bleed across the margins with a hunger to hone their craft, you name it, I mean for this to be a thing they can latch onto and find support, resources, and a chance to grow.
I’ve already got enough people volunteering to help to count by dozens. That’s only a start. We’re going to need so much more.
Like you. Interested? Sign up. Let’s make this happen.
When last I posted, I announced the schedule for my WorldCon programming and promised stories. What gentle, naive times those were.
I was already en route to Helsinki when I made that post. I was, in fact, hanging out in Manhattan after an overnight flight from Seattle, waiting to meet somebody for brunch, and generally looking forward to passing a long layover before catching another overnight flight to Helsinki. The day was, in fact, lovely. Unrelatedly, I did not catch that overnight flight.
After getting bounced back and forth between Finnair and American Airlines on the phone trying to fix flight problems, then the same at the airport, then Finnair vanishing and turning into Qatar airlines while I was in line to talk to their people, I finally got the chance to rebook my flight. Which prompted the following conversation with my roommate:
Me: I’ve had a bad feeling about this trip for ages. I’m thinking this is an omen.
Uni: It’ll be fine.
Me: I’m serious. How sad would you be if I just came home? I’m thinking of cutting my losses now while I can.
Uni: You’ve spent the last two months learning Finnish.
Me: That was fun on its own.
Uni: You can’t come home. I’ve got dibs on your favorite mug for the next two weeks.
You can’t argue with that. I pushed on to Helsinki.
Instead of getting a direct flight to Helsinki through Finnair, I wind up on a British Airways flight to Heathrow, then a Finnair flight to Helsinki, which put me in Helsinki just in time to have missed all of my WorldCon programming. Without my luggage. This last bit didn’t surprise me. When I tried to check in for the BA flight, their gate agent nearly had a meltdown, began railing against American, then hustled me to a back room where I got a special private check in desk and very gentle security procedure. As somebody with a mild allergy to security theater in general and TSA bullshit in particular, I was pretty pleased by this.
But I made it to Helsinki. The people I was sharing lodging with very kindly left my set of keys at the registration desk so that whenever I got my luggage or was inclined to see where I was sleeping for the duration of the con, I could pick them up and do that. I got registered, and met up with many Strange Horizons folks, most of whom I hadn’t met before, and we ate delightful Nepalese food and chatted. Then I unabashedly followed them to the barcon bar and we showed up before anybody else did which, I believe, means we founded the party. Mind, I was wearing the same clothes I got onto the plane in Seattle wearing, and had only washed in various airport bathrooms, but I was definitely one of the cool kids. Trust me.
When that broke up and it was time to head home, several of the people I’d been hanging out with very kindly and English-ly refused to go on to their hotel before making sure I could find where I was staying, despite my insistence that this was unnecessary. The joke was on them, though, because I managed to have a fail-tastic adventure anyway. You see, I knew the address of where I was staying, and I had the keys for getting in. What I didn’t have was the apartment number. In a building with eight floors.
“No sweat,” says I, as I examine the doors. “I spent the last two months learning Finnish, and I am in Finland. This means I’m prepared for everything. For example, I know the note on that door says ‘No housekeeping.’ I will deduce my way into the correct unit.”
My plan was, actually, quite brilliant. There were 4-5 doors on each floor, and seven floors with doors. I had a key, and all of these doors required a key to be opened. So all I had to do was put my key in each door, turn it, and when it worked, Boom! Destination located. The next day I’d file the paperwork to change my name to Anaea H. Lay, and tell everybody for the rest of time that the H is for Holmes, because I’m humble.
I was not staying on the first floor. Cool. Six floors to go.
I was not staying in the first unit of the second floor. Or the second. The third, however…the third opened.
Onto the foyer of a studio. (Weren’t we in a 1-bedroom?)
A studio with a bed taking up most of the space beyond the foyer. (There’s definitely supposed to be a sofa. I’m sleeping on it.)
A bed with a very confused looking white and black pit bull stretched out on it.
On second thought, repeated counts of attempted breaking and entering is probably not the best way to get a good night’s sleep in a foreign country. But hey, Helsinki is generous with their public wifi, so I high-tailed it back to internet land and used slightly less deranged methods of figuring out where to go.
(The next morning I called T-mobile via my web browser to ask if they could maybe fix the thing where my phone wasn’t behaving like it should. “We’re stumped. I’ll boot this up to the next tier of support and call you back with the answer,” they said. “You can’t call me back, my phone isn’t working as a phone.” This confused them. They wanted to know how I was calling them, in that case. VIA A WEB BROWSER BECAUSE THIS IS THE 21st CENTURY WHY IS THIS HARD JUST SEND ME AN EMAIL WHEN YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO. But hey, when I finally made it back to the US, I had three very helpful voicemails from T-Mobile telling me how to fix my phone…)
Friday I actually got a full day at the convention. More exciting, I wasn’t wearing the exact same clothes I left Seattle in; one of the people I was staying with kindly loaned me a pile of clothes to wear. So I was wearing her running shirt. Reader, I have never before in my life worn running clothes. I sincerely hope to never wear them again.
I had make-up lunch with somebody I was supposed to have had lunch with on Thursday and we had a good chat. At one point a complete stranger sitting next to us interrupted to say, “I’m sorry, but ‘don’t break the spreadsheet’ is a good motto for life.'” It was that kind of conversation.
I went to a panel to watch Amal Al-Mohtar be adorable and squee about Steven Universe, and got exactly what I expected from it. I went to another panel about interactive fiction and continued the process of slowly realizing I have no idea what I’m doing there and have, possibly, made questionable life choices. I stalked the web status page for my luggage in the hopes that it would arrive in time for me to change before the Hugo ceremony.
You see, I packed a dress. And heels. And basic grooming items for looking like a professional adult who wins things on the off chance that, you know, I won a thing. During the second panel, I get the notice that my bag is in Helsinki. There was hope!
Cue me, somewhat sheepishly, walking up to the support counter and asking if anybody there knows a way for me to get my hands on a phone that can make a local call. My phone is refusing to be a phone, you see, and I would very much like to call the Helsinki airport. Because I would very much like to wear anything other than jeans and a borrowed running shirt to the Hugos. (I am convinced, at this point, that if Strange Horizons does win, I will never, ever win a Hugo again, and for all time I’ll be the person who accepted a Hugo in borrowed running clothes. I cannot think of a story I’d want to be associated with less.)
A guy at the desk took pity on me, whipped out his phone, and called the airport on my behalf. It’s all Finnish, all the way down, but he was able to give them a phone number I could receive texts from, because it gets automatically forwarded to my email address. And fortunately, I catch it when he reads my chicken-scratch zero as an eight. “You speak Finnish?” a lady nearby asks, clearly surprised.
“Not really, but I did spend the last two months studying it. I am super prepared for everything!”
The Helsinki airport has no idea where my bag is. It might be in Helsinki? They aren’t sure. They’ll call me with an update.
I was, at this point, feeling a bit of strain, so I went for my default coping mechanism, and started hunting down tea. There was a lovely cafe in the convention center, full of lovely pastries, and I’m told the coffee was lovely, too. I hate coffee, but they had a chai latte on their menu and I am down for that, so I order one. And walk away. And take a sip.
And then I’m back at the counter going, “I’m very sorry, but I ordered a chai latte.”
“Yes,” the girl at the counter says.
“This is coffee.”
“Yes,” she repeats. “That’s what you ordered.”
“There’s coffee in your chai latte?”
You know I’m dedicated to keeping displays of grief private, because I did not at that moment collapse onto the floor sobbing. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid we’re having a cultural difference. Is there something on your menu I can order that doesn’t have coffee in it?”
This became the second in a long string of conspicuous kindnesses punctuating the trip, because not only did she direct me to a safe way to order coffee-free tea, she refunded me the €1.20 difference between the prices in the drinks. I’d expected her to charge me for the additional drink since she had, in fact, given me exactly what I ordered.
I went to the Hugos reception in jeans and a borrowed running shirt. And the ceremony itself. Strange Horizons didn’t win. (Never have I been so happy to be in second place.) Then the losers party, which also marked the first time I did anything in Helsinki proper the entire trip. The steampunk gin bar is not messing around about its steampunk, or its gin, in case you were wondering.
Saturday, I gave up on the concepts of luggage, worldly possessions, or hope. It was very freeing.
If you ever get the chance to hear Ken Liu talk about translation, take it. He’s as good at deadpan and wry when lecturing as he is in his prose. I also stalked more panels on interactive fiction, and continued to nurse my suspicion that maybe before taking on major projects that look like fun, I should first have any idea what I’m doing. There were several games of Werewolf, and a fantastically brutal thunderstorm during dinner, and I back-pedaled on giving up on my luggage enough to abscond with somebody’s phone and spend some time talking to the airport about whether maybe I would ever see my bag again. (It was definitely, absolutely, certainly not in Helsinki, and never had been. They weren’t sure where it was, though.)
This was also about the time Nazis were marching practically next door to where my baby sister lives, so, you know, there was some muttering about how maybe when I was thinking this trip was cursed and I should cut my losses and go home that was absolutely the right idea.
Sunday was more meeting people for meals. I had learned to order hot chocolate, because it never comes with coffee. I had shared my traumatic chai latte experience with absolutely everybody, including strangers on street corners. I’ve had confirmation from a buddy who lives in Helsinki that of course chai lattes have coffee in them. If I ever return to Helsinki, they will greet me as the girl perpetually wearing the same shirt who would not shut up about accidentally ordering coffee and then ask whether maybe I wouldn’t like to visit Sweden. But, I had hope, because the Strange Horizons tea party was Sunday, and I was going to get myself some tea at the tea party. I spent the entire morning inviting people to the party and positively gloating about my inevitable tea. (I’d packed tea in my luggage. With a brewing thermos. This was not supposed to be a problem.)
The tea party was great. It was packed. We embarrassed Niall, which I shouldn’t be so pleased by because he’s English and therefore an easy mark, but I am. People told me they liked how I read their stories and that was really great since I sorta assume everybody just cringes in a corner and quietly hates how I say their name, and deliver their favorite line.
Of course, they ran out of tea before I got any. What sort of curse would I have if I’d been able to get tea at a tea party?
But, but, but, something magical happened. I got an email. From Finnair. MY LUGGAGE WAS IN HELSINKI. This was particularly great since the next day I would cease to be in Helsinki, and I sorta wanted to have my luggage with me.
I hopped on a train to the airport, fetched my luggage, hugged it a lot, hopped on a train back to where I was staying, hugged my luggage some more, and changed my clothes. Then made some tea. With my tea. Which I had packed to ensure I wouldn’t be the tea-obsessed American traumatized by a coffee culture. Then I hugged my luggage more, just for good measure.
Also, I put every pin I’d intended to decorate my con badge with on the collar of my shirt and shamelessly wore them to a bar, dinner, then a bar, while hanging out with people in Helsinki. My favorite moment was probably when I passed people I’d met two days before and was greeted with, “You’re wearing different clothes. You got your luggage!”
This ends the part of the trip I’d characterize as “frustratingly inconvenient.” Let’s move on to the “Estonia is magic” portion.
Estonia is magic, y’all. First off, everybody in the entire world was taking a ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn on Monday, and I was the only one who didn’t miss the ferry. Yes, whether you remember it or not, on August 14 of 2017 you tried to take a ferry to cross the Baltic Seat from Helsinki to Tallinn, and you failed. On the one hand, I felt very keenly for the travel woes of everybody else, and the people who were trying to coordinate plans around them. On the other hand, vindication is sweet and even though this had nothing to do with the frustrating inconvenience of the trip so far, I felt vindicated.
Also, Tallinn is charming. Everybody says this. They are speaking truth. I have no pictures with which to prove this but believe me; if I weren’t clinging to my pants in a defiant refusal to be separated from my luggage ever again, they’d have been charmed off.
I was staying in the apartment behind the kitchen of a yoga studio that had the Icelandic and Spanish consulates as landmarks for finding the building. (See, charming!) This was just far enough outside of Old Town for me to walk along and go, “Yeah, this is pretty nice, classic compact European city with a nice…holy medieval times, Batman!”
There’s nothing quite like being an American from a family with pretensions about having ties to old things, then running into actual old things as if they’re nothing special. It should have stopped working on my be now, but I think living on the west coast, land of everything was new this morning, has made me soft.
Met up with people to hang out over drinks and snacks in a pub. Not just any pub, but a pub in the basement of a medieval building with walls thicker than me in the morning. (Actually, in Tallinn, that probably is just any pub.) I had a fantastic salad, enjoyed samplings of the peppered lard on toast, and tried not to take it personally that while wifi in my apartment at home needs constant coddling, I was getting fantastic signal and connectivity while in the basement of a building that was old when my distant forebears arrived on the continent of my birth. I was not bitter.
One of my dinner companions, as we were preparing to pay and depart for dinner, moaned about how the magical pay-by-waving-your-phone-at-a-thing limit was too low to cover most bills so they were stuck using antiquated chip reader technology. “You mean the chips that weren’t even ubiquitous in the US until a year or so ago and that most places still can’t handle?” I asked. Yeah, that’s what she meant.
I had my luggage. I was charmed. The waiter had fetching shoulders and nice hair. So I still wasn’t bitter.
Then we started planning the part of the next day that would involve riding the driverless bus.
Reader, I have complaints about the graceless collapse of empire, and how it directly applies to my quality of life.
The next day featured the accidental discovery of a bakery with amazing hot chocolate, eagerly following the coattails of a masterful social engineer by the name of Ellen Kushner, who enthusiastic-harmless-curiosity-seeker’d her way into two different hotel rooms that weren’t hers just to check out their views, marzipan gawking, market browsing, dumplings to die for, and tea. A lot of tea. Estonians, by the way, are as horrified by the Finnish approach to chai lattes as I am.
There’s definitely a lot of Tallinn that is there entirely to cater to tourists, and I definitely didn’t spend enough time there to scratch very deeply beyond that, but I’m up for fixing that any time. Have I overused the word “charming” yet?
Wednesday brought the ferry back to Helsinki and, consequently, the most actually gawking at Helsinki I did the whole trip. Mostly I wandered around and looked at things. The Botanical Gardens are quite nice for walking around. So’s most of the central city, actually.
By this point I’d chilled all the way out and started actually taking pictures of stuff. There were many nice things to take pictures of.
I also may have made the ill-advised decision to walk from the central city, where I had dinner and did my wandering, through this place that looked like a nice park, on my way back to where I was staying. I had to be out around 4am in order to catch a stupid-early flight, so rather than get wrapped up in something that might keep me out, I planned to meander bed-ward and catch a bus or trolley or cab or anything practical when I got tired.
I didn’t check to make sure there were buses, trolleys, or cars along the route first.
I did get back, and crash into bed, and get up very, very early. I made it to the airport with no trouble and plenty of time to spare. My flight was on time, I finished my souvenir shopping, got on my plane and…
…embarked on the spectacularly disastrous part of the trip.
My first layover was in Paris. Not the good kind of layover where I could leave the airport and actually see Paris, but hey, so long as I get a croissant between flights, it’ll be worth it, right?
Spoiler: I did not get a croissant in Paris. Not even at the airport.
What happened instead is that I beelined across the airport to get to my gate, assuming that I could fetch a croissant once I knew I was in the right place and all was well. This was good, because they were extremely prompt about boarding; already well underway by the time I arrived, even though I arrived 45 minutes before takeoff. (Cut-off: 30 minutes.) I scan my boarding pass and…get told I’m not allowed to board.
I’m unsurprised. I missed my flight on the way out, and even though they assured me this wouldn’t cause any trouble on my return, I didn’t believe them. Here was my vindication. Or so I thought at first.
Actually, it’s not that at all. It’s worse. The gate agent is refusing to board anybody from my flight out of Helsinki, even though there were several of us. She didn’t like how the connection was done. No, she won’t help me rebook, this is Finnair’s fault. “But I booked the itinerary through American. That’s you,” I say. See, I’d just gone down this road a whole lot not ten days before when trying to fix my departing flight. Finnair can’t do squat for me. American is refusing to board me, American is the source of the booking, American is who I need help from.
American sends me back through customs to Finnair. To the completely wrong place. So I go back. They send me somewhere else. Also wrong, but this time it came with a bonus trip through security. (I love airport security, remember?) I finally find a Finnair employee and explained to her what’s happened. Her eyes get big and she goes, “But I can’t help you. American has to…wait, how did you get here?”
That’s a good question, since the boarding pass I hold is for a flight that has, at this point, long since left, and in a completely different terminal. “I’m very charming when I want to be, and security thought I was harmless. Please don’t make me go through that again.” (Fun Fact: Charles de Gaulle airport has, as a normal presence, uniformed soldiers with machine guns. Ask me how I know.)
The very nice Finnair employee proceeds to get on the phone to somebody and freak out in a long string of French from which all I understood was, “Ping-ponging passengers,” because the only French I know is useful for eating, and getting laid. (I mean, if you’re only going to speak a little French…) She then apologized profusely, but I was going to have to leave the secured portion of the airport to talk to somebody else. No really, she’s very sorry, but she literally cannot help me at all, I am in utterly the wrong place. The place she’s sending me isn’t the right place either, because I was in the right place when I was talking to American, but they’ll help me anyway.
Finnair’s umbrella company then, on behalf of me and two other people American had done this to, called American to fight with them and get us rebooked. It took a long time. I wasn’t shouty-angry like the first guy who was so furious that he was going to arrive in New York three hours later than he meant to that he missed the first flight they rebooked him on by yelling at them over how unacceptable the situation was, and didn’t have a wife and three kids stuck on the other side of security waiting for me to return with their passports, I volunteered to be the back of the line. I could see the writing on the wall already and wasn’t inclined to fight my fate.
Finnair’s umbrella company, while calling American on my behalf to make them rebook my flight, bought me lunch in Paris. I got a sandwich on a baguette and chocolate mousse. I looked, but I couldn’t find a croissant.
Tangent: back in February, as a reward to myself for something I was smug about, I did something I almost never do and bought myself an item of clothing I didn’t desperately need. Specifically, this item of clothing. I packed it, thinking it would make a good shirt to wear for the very long flight home. My sister begged me to change my mind. I considered her perspective. Then Charlottesville happened.
In addition to having uniformed soldiers carrying machine guns, Charles de Gaulle airport is full of people who will compliment you when your shirt says:
I did not expect an anglophone American wearing jeans and a t-shirt to get consistent sartorial compliments while in Paris, but there you go. We live in interesting times. Also, the attention made up for the lack of croissants.
Eventually I got booked onto an Air France flight. Getting back through security and whatnot when my bag was MIA and my itinerary was a shambles was a unique and interesting challenge, but one I navigated just fast enough to keep from missing my flight. Let me say this about Air France: fucktons nicer than American. More room, better layout, better amenities, better food, and a movie collection that clearly came from a culture of film snobs. They weren’t super big on saying things in English, but I’d entered the zone of travel purgatory, so I didn’t want to know what was going on anyway; it would have just depressed me. It was a thoroughly pleasant flight experience, and I don’t think I’ve said that about a flight this century.
Of course, my bag didn’t actually make it onto the flight, and I missed my connection at JFK as a result. But customs was too busy being confused about why I didn’t have my bag to care about my shirt, so hey, I got away with that.
“Why did you miss your connection?” the American agent asked me when I finally got to the desk.
So I told him the story, complete with, “but since American weren’t the ones who did the rebooking, the people who did couldn’t give me a boarding pass for this flight, and by the time I got here, I was five minutes late for the self-check in, and now I’ve waited in line for a human so long the flight is gone.”
There are no more flights tonight. He books me on a flight 5am tomorrow, layover in Charlotte, that’ll get me back to Seattle. Great, whatever, I don’t believe in home as a concept anymore and if I get stranded in Charlotte, I can rent a car and drive up to see family for the weekend. This becomes my official plan when I see the actual itinerary. “This is a 30 minute layover,” I say.
“It is?” he asks. Then he looks into it. “The gates are right next to each other. You’ll walk off one plane and directly onto the next.”
“Have you seen the luck I’ve had? There’s no way I’m going to succeed with a 30 minute layover.”
“There are more flights to Seattle from Charlotte than here anyway. It’s a better place to be stranded.”
Actually, New York is a significantly better place to be stranded, but whatever, I already have my stranded-in-Charlotte plans worked out in my head. I crash into a hotel to get a few hours of sleep before coming right back, and leave it at that.
(He gave me vouchers for food that were good at the hotel and the airport. So I tried to order food at the hotel, even though I was much, much too tired to be hungry. There was literally nothing on the menu inexpensive enough to be covered by the food voucher. The lady who took my order took pity on me, rang me up for half a salad, then gave me the whole thing. Saint.)
“I’m not even surprised,” I say when, at 3:30am the next morning, the self-check in thing can’t find my itinerary and won’t let me get my boarding pass for my flight. Instead, I go wait in the long-ass line to speak to a human representative of American.
“Oh, your flight out of here was delayed and you were going to miss your connection,” the agent says when I get to her. “They’ve already rebooked you. You’ll be leaving from La Guardia and connecting through Dallas.”
She hesitates, then goes on. “This is actually a better itinerary because…”
“It’s okay. We’ll get you a cab. You have plenty of time.”
“You can put me on a direct flight. You can put me on a flight that connects anywhere on the east coast between here and Charlotte, or either of the Chicago airports. I will not accept any other itinerary, and I am not leaving here to go anywhere other than back to the hotel I just checked out of, unless it’s by plane.” The poor agent looked to be at a sincere loss. “There’s a direct flight out of here at 5pm, and another at 9:30. Either of those will do.”
“But they’re so late,” she says. “You could have this other flight…”
“No, that other flight will get me stranded in Dallas. I dislike Dallas. I’d rather be here. Worst case scenario, if I’m still here on Monday, I have a meeting that I can show up in person to instead of taking by phone.”
“I’ll get you set up.”
While she does that, I called the hotel and un-checked out. It was very nice of them to let me do that. (There were a lot of people who were very nice to me, in case I’m not highlighting that enough.) (I was still wearing the Nazi punching shirt. I suspect this helped.)
As she wraps up, I start to suspect that maybe, in my deranged, sleep-deprived state, I’ve been a little too harsh. “I’m sorry if I’m cross. I’m just very tired, and very angry with your employer. I know it’s not you, and I appreciate how helpful you’ve been,” I say.
“Mama, I saw your itinerary history. If I were you, I’d be sobbing or screaming. You’re fine.” Take that, people who think getting icy under stress isn’t healthy.
I returned to the airport with plenty of time to spare, so I visited baggage claim. No, of course my bag isn’t somewhere sensible like JFK. It’s totally still in Paris. I mean, they were going to send it to the right continent, but then I changed my itinerary to connect through Dallas…
“Stop there. I didn’t make that change,” I said. “They didn’t even tell me about that change until I was already here trying to complete the itinerary before that one.”
Doesn’t matter. The last flight from Paris for the day has already left. They aren’t going to schedule my bag for another itinerary until I’ve arrived at my final destination.
I don’t think she understood why I asked whether it mattered which part of Hell I was in, or could they deliver the bag regardless.
Of course, my 5pm flight was already delayed to 7:40.
Let’s skip several hours involving a gate change, a mechanical problem, and a weather delay, and get to the point, now after 9pm (you better believe I was wondering about the state of the 9:30pm flight) when I scan my boarding pass to finally! board! the final! flight! and instead of getting a beep and a “Thank you, Miss Lay,” the console flashes bright red with a “DO NOT BOARD.”
“I’m sorry about that. You’ll need to talk to the gate agent.”
“That’s okay. I no longer believe in a universe outside JFK. Though I dimly recall that I did once hold such a belief.”
There’s confusion. Minor mayhem. (We’re technically still having a weather delay, but trying to sneak out during a break in the lightning.) The gate agent cannot figure out why the system won’t let me board. “I’ve probably had my itinerary changed too much and tripped some sort of anti-terrorist algorithm,” I say, while wearing my nazi-punching shirt.
“What sort of changes?” the agent asks. Then she looks up my itinerary history.
And looks at me.
And at my history.
“Are you cursed?” she asks.
“Go take your seat. There’s not anybody in it. I’ll figure this out once you’re in the air.”
She did not have to tell me twice.
Hilariously, there was a guy in my seat. Did I mind? He wanted to sit next to his wife and their toddler.
No guy, I do not mind fleeing from the prospect of six hours in an overheated tube with your toddler.
It was Wednesday in Seattle when I boarded a flight in Helsinki under the naive delusion that I’d completed a trip which, while off to a bumpy start, ultimately smoothed out and turned quite pleasant.
It was Saturday when I finally got there.
What have we learned from this adventure? A few things:
Dark premonitions should be heeded.
Estonia is magic.
Advertising your predilection for Nazi punching causes people to be nice to you.
These are valuable lessons for everyone, and I hope my experience will allow you to benefit from sharing in my hard earned knowledge.
After several drafts wherein I try to explain my reasons for doing this and then decide that typing variations of “Fuck everything,” over and over again isn’t an introduction, I’m going to keep this short and sweet.
Has your inclination to call or write your various government representatives taken an uptick of late? As in, a major uptick? Do you want it to, but find yourself intimidated by not knowing what to say or how to say it? Here’s a thing that might help.
Currently, it’s a spreadsheet with a bit of setup you need to do initially, and a tiny bit you need to do for each specific issue. However, once you’ve got that going, you’ll have phone, letter, and email scripts for your various officials – no need to look up scripts a hundred different places online. Better, they’ll be scripts that are personalized to you out of the box, so you don’t have to put too much thought into rewriting the generic scripts circulating.
This is just the slimmest fraction of what I want to do with this project (thus the Alpha designation) but it’s a start. Long term, I’m hoping have the beautiful, unholy hybrid of something like the Submissions Grinder or Duotrope and Habitica. Want to help? Let me know. I can do this all by myself, but it’ll be a looooooong time before it’s actually done.
All week this week, Strange Horizons has been releasing a ton of content for the Resistance special issue. This includes six fiction stories which, I think, is the highest density of published fiction the magazine has ever undertaken. The issue is gorgeous and important and we podcast every word of that fiction. Today is a double-header picked out with today very much in mind. Need to feel better? Just knowing we were going to put these stories up has been a warm cuddly blanket of angry glee for me. I hope it does the same for you, too.
September is an awful lot like June, especially when the entire summer vanished in a poof of work. Which has been frustrating, because I’ve been wanting to write up the Craft Crucible piece on this story for ages.
You don’t have to look far to find people praising David Levine’s Damage for being an excellent story, and that’s not surprising. And you don’t have to read very many CCs to know that this story plays off some of my favorite tropes in SF; space battles, AI’s with feelings, revenge, and a bittersweet ending. And while having all those things are enough to win me over to a story, what I find uniquely appealing about this story is how it uses deception and misleading omission throughout.
The first comes early on while Scraps is explaining just who exactly she is.
But his loss, though a tragedy, was no sadder to me than any of the thousands of other deaths Earth had inflicted on the Free Belt—Valkyrie’s love for her pilot was not one of the things that had survived her death to be incorporated into my programming. Only Commander Ziegler mattered. My love, my light, my reason to live.
Where it’s placed, at the beginning of the story, this seems perfectly credible. The unfolding of the story puts the lie to this, however. It’s clear that not only is the trauma and loss sustained by the ships that went into making Scraps very present and real, but Commander Ziegler is not the sole motivating force for Scraps, either. If he were, the innocent lives on Earth wouldn’t have been a concern; only Commander Ziegler’s well being would. Instead, it was such a concern that she steered her pilot to his death in order to save Earth. The ending of the story would have read very differently if it were true that, “Only Commander Ziegler mattered.” The conflict would have entirely been about whether giving Ziegler the fight and challenge he longed for and his validation as the greatest pilot in the solar system mattered more than supporting his fulfillment of his mission and immortalizing his reputation as the hero of the belt.
There a couple of levels on which this lie works. First, it’s something Scraps is telling herself because that is a core element of being a functional ship. Love from Commander Ziegler, like victory for the belt, is unobtainable. Which means pursuing it, striving to perform well enough to gain his notice and affection, is a safe goal to have as a distraction from her baseline terror and misery; she’s never going to achieve it and need something else as a distraction. At the craft level, it makes Scraps instantly likable and relatable to the reader; she’s a ship bound to unrequited love, not just because a human can’t love her back, but because the human she loves is an asshole. And finally, it masks the real bond that is the through line of the story: Scraps and Specialist Toman. (Note: we hear about Toman well before Ziegler is mentioned, the protagonist does have a name despite her assertions otherwise, because Toman gave her a serial number and dubbed her “Scraps.”) Toman isn’t just the human who appreciates and respects Scraps in the way Ziegler doesn’t, she’s the actual pillar Scraps leans on to make it through.
There are a lot of fibs and minor lies in Scraps’s interaction with Ziegler, but the next big doozy of a lie by omission comes from Specialist Toman, when she deliberately lets Scraps overhear the conversation about how the war is going.
“I don’t care what General Geary says about ‘murderous mud-people,’” Toman shot back. “Earth Force is still following the Geneva Conventions, even if we aren’t, and given their advantage in numbers I’m sure they’ll offer us terms before they bring the hammer down.”
This revelation is huge. Up to this point we knew Ziegler was an asshole, but this is the first we find out that Scraps is fighting for the bad guys. We’ve got racist epithets directed at Earth-dwellers, a reveal that the Belters aren’t following the Geneva convention while Earth forces are, and that Earth isn’t in this for total destruction. Scraps may or may not have known all of this already, but the reader sure didn’t. More, there’s no way Scraps would have said something to the reader to indicate this. Toman’s subterfuge with the communication line is, at a minimum, necessary as a way for Levine to tell the reader whose side we’re on (and consequently, to foreshadow the suicide mission at the end of the story).
But the technical issues of needing to deliver this exposition to the reader aside, this is a staggeringly important line in the story, because it’s Toman telling Scraps, without actually telling Scraps anything, that she can honor her commitments without going all the way to the bitter end. Scraps doesn’t explicitly reflect on this moment in her recounting of later events, but it absolutely has to have informed the decision she makes. Toman can’t tell Scraps any of this directly because Scraps would have to argue with her, and it’d also probably be treason, but having an allegedly private conversation with somebody else while ensuring Scraps can hear it is a-okay. This isn’t just Toman telling Scraps that there’s an alternative to death, it’s Toman saying, “Hey, I care about you.”
Toman gets another piece of subtle commentary in right before Scraps and Ziegler leave for their final mission.
“Make me proud, Scraps.”
Not, “Take care of yourself,” or “Go get ’em,” or “May the Force be with you.” Instead it’s, “Make me proud.” Toman almost certainly knows, or has deduced, the nature of the mission. And knows that Scraps doesn’t. And again, there’s the need to thread the needle of what she can safely say out loud, and what she can say to Scraps that won’t require Scraps to argue. And like her warning during the not-actually-private conversation earlier, this isn’t something Scraps thinks of explicitly while deciding whether to redirect Ziegler’s attention. It is, however, an invocation of the bond between Scraps and Toman, a reinforcement of priorities and options that exist outside devotion to Ziegler, and the directive Scraps ultimately follows. Toman omits all warnings or pleas for a particular choice, and thereby optimizes circumstances such that Scraps makes the right choice.
Of course, Scraps’s lie of omission in directing Ziegler is pivotal, and another data point that argues that these lies and omissions throughout the story are a deliberate craft element, but what I find more interesting on this theme is a line that comes much later.
Specialist Toman came to visit me there once, with her children. She told me how proud she was of me.
That! Right there! It could just be a nice tying up a loose thread for the only other character of significance in the story, but it’s not. That, right there, is David Levine shouting from the rooftops that the obsession with Ziegler is a smokescreen, and the real relationship in this story is Scraps/Toman. It’s a lie Scraps believes, because she has to and otherwise she wouldn’t be safe (remember, they could examine her memories to confirm she was telling the truth) but she also knows what the truth is. This entire story is a lie of omission, a cover story crafted by a wily ship to distract you from the fact that she defied orders and murdered her pilot. She’s teaching others about how she did it. She says scientists and historians, but I’m betting she’s talking to other artificial intelligences, too. The real story here isn’t what’s on the page at all, but the one implied by this line at the end where Scraps is actively playing the good-little-fighter-craft propaganda machine to let everybody, especially other AI’s know, that they can circumvent their programming. The sequel to Damage is going to be the AI uprising, with general Scraps at the fore.
To which I say, well played, Scraps/Toman/Levine. Well played.
Nest time: Angel, Monster, Man, Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed)
This month we’re looking at Martin L. Shoemaker’s “Today I am Paul” which originally appeared in Clarkesworld. This is a lovely story that plays right into one of my favorite SF tropes to see, the android intersecting with human emotions it can’t actually feel. I’m on the record with the last moment of this scene being one of the best ever aired on television.
I like this trope because it forces the audience to do all the emotional work for the character, and when that emotional work is sadness it makes the media in question sadistic in a way I fully support 1000% in all art forms. Also, I’m a sucker for things that make people sad.
Which is a long way of saying that I’d be a fan of “Today I am Paul” even if it weren’t super well done because it’s all about doing things I like my fiction to do. However, it is super well done, which means it’s a great candidate for putting through the Crucible.
I want to focus in particular on how Shoemaker develops the audience’s investment in the Caretaker right off the bat. Getting initial buy in from the audience is easy with this premise; we have a character who definitionally has no character flaws of its own, engaged in a selfless task that needs to be done, and doing it with care and patience literally unavailable elsewhere. Audiences in general are as much of a sucker for a selfless do gooder as I am for a sadistic narrative, so that’s an easy win. Kindergarteners frequently have that level of craft nailed. Where Shoemaker starts showing off is with the introduction of Paul’s flaws.
My emulation net responds before I can stop it: “Paul” sighs. Mildred’s memory lapses used to worry him, but now they leave him weary, and that comes through in my emulation.
This line does two things. First, it fleshes out the already introduced concept of the conflict between the android when it is engaged in emulation and when it isn’t. We already know that it thoughtlessly engages in medical care for Mildred when she’s not conscious, and becoming aware of that care distresses it when she is. That builds a layer of tragedy into the androids circumstances that doesn’t have to be there. Its presence, however, heightens the weight of its reactions to these things. The disconnect between doing the actions and responding to them lets the audience get those reactions at a time where Shoemaker is madly spilling exposition to explain the world and premise, and creates a sense of vulnerability in the android. In the moment where we’re reading, the android cares about Mildred, and the knowledge that its ability to continue caring for her is outside of its control is distressing.
The second thing the line does is start to show Paul’s warts without condemning him for them. It’s clear the android recognizes the sub-optimality of Paul’s reaction; that’s why there’s a question of stopping the response. Yet, fidelity to the emulation of Mildred’s loved ones trumps optimal behavior, and android-Paul sighs. The narrative could have left it there, but instead it explains the motivation behind the sigh. It’s a natural thing for the android to do; emulation would require a level of empathy that understands the underlying motivations for things. But even then, the explanation could simply be, “Mildred’s memory lapses leave him weary and frustrated.” That explains the current state of Paul, which is what the android is emulating. The historical note, the detail that this is worry transmuted, is a kindness. It takes the android’s empathy from audience-manipulation 101 into a deep, subtle territory that gives the story permission to go further.
These two things together fulfill an important function in the story. The theme of being worn down by caring for another is hard baked into the premise. Mildred’s family aren’t callous or unfeeling. A lot of the early exposition in the story goes to great lengths to establish that. They’re throwing money at the problem, yes, but they aren’t doing that in lieu of an investment of time and feelings. There are human caretakers coming in as well. They visit in person. They call. Everyone loves Mildred, even as there’s less and less of Mildred to love. The android, with its expensive empathy net upgrades, is an expression of that. But, and the quoted line above makes it clear, it isn’t exempt from that trap.
I sit on the bed, lift her frail upper body, and pull her close to me as I had seen Henry do many times. “It’s all right, hon.” I pat her back. “It’s all right, I’ll take care of you. I won’t leave you, not ever.”
I’m just quoting that line because it’s a really great gut punch to end a scene on. Look at it. Dead husband, who the android knew, hugging his wife and promising he’ll never leave her. And the android makes the switch both without missing a beat, and without even wanting a pat on the back for it. That isn’t just good caretaking, it’s caretaking literally nobody else in Mildred’s life could pull off. If it had actually been Paul, he’d be helpless.
Instead, Shoemaker stabs you in the gut and simultaneously introduces the idea that the success of the final image in the story hinges on: the joy in being able to preserve relationships with the people you’ve lost.
Because she never voices this fear, Paul and Anna do not understand why she is sometimes bitter and sullen. I wish I could explain it to them, but my privacy protocols do not allow me to share emulation profiles.
Paul is where the story demonstrates its intent to dig deep into audience manipulation via deep empathy, but Susan is where it runs away with it. In her own way, Susan is the most affected by Mildred’s condition. The others see her suffer and hurt by their loss of somebody they care about and their relationship with them. Susan, on the other hand, sees Mildred as a possible reflection of herself. To Paul and Anna, Mildred is mother and grandmother. To Susan, she is the same person. This is reinforced with the details about Paul’s explanation for the lack of closeness between Mildred and Susan. But that’s another angle where the depth of the android’s empathy for others gets highlighted; Paul has known for years that his wife and mother are similar, and he’s completely missing what that means for Susan’s response to his mother’s decline. Not that we blame him. We’ve got great insight into his own struggle, which makes it easy to forgive his obliviousness to others’.
But Susan also gets the distinction of being the one who surprises the android, later. It doesn’t predict a display of physical affection from Susan. Granted, it’s not the android qua android who is surprised, but the android as Henry. For the reader, though? There isn’t a difference at that point, because the android is, to us, his reactions and responses when his nets are engaged. The android is a person. Even the android has figured that out by that point. But he’s a person with very little control over who he is. Like the rest of us, frankly, but it doesn’t even get to pretend it has control. Humans like our pretends. It hurts to see somebody who can’t have them.
We get the heroic rescue scene where the android puts itself at great risk to save Mildred, struggling all the while to do it without upsetting her, and this story could have very easily ended with, “And then I was so damaged that I was shut down and disposed of. The end.” As a known lover of the sad, tragic ending, you might even expect me to be in favor of that ending instead. I’m not. The ending the story has is absolutely the correct one. Not because anybody in the story intrinsically deserves a happy ending, or because my recent experience of a super awesome insurance payout that made everything great has me forgiving of it as a convenient device in fiction. It works because this isn’t a story about an android selflessly caring for a Alzheimer’s patient. It’s a story about the strain and exhaustion of loving an Alzheimer’s patient. The android takes damage in the fire not to introduce the the possibility of it’s “death” but to mark the damage that comes from a life dedicated entirely to caretaking. Is it an accident that it functionally spends all its time after Mildred’s death sleeping? No. Poor thing is exhausted.
If the android died, or the story left us with it resting in its alcove, this story would be a warning. Drop gandma in a home and run, it would say. There’s no reward, flee. That’s too easy. That would put us back in audience manipulation 101 territory because, sure, it’s a little radical and controversial to say cut your losses and run but it’s also simple. Life is rarely simple, and a sad ending that hinges on simplicity is just as weak and disappointing as a happy ending that does the same, even if it’s a less common failure. (I suspect there’s sampling bias at work there, but that’s a different discussion.) Instead of the simple ending with the tragically damaged, exhausted android, we get this:
We built a bridge to the far side of the creek; and on the other side, we’re planting daisies. Today she asked me to tell her about her grandmother.
Today I am Mildred.
Bridge building. Planting new life. And the android gets to be the person it misses, keeping her and connecting with her in the best, the only way it has. Would it be happier of the android could be a person in its own right, instead of an ur-person composed of characters it embodies? Yes. Would it be happier if it had managed to save Mildred and cure Alzheimer’s and clear up the misunderstandings and lack of communication in the people around it? Totally. This is not a sugar-coated happy ending. But it’s an earned ending. It’s a justified ending. It’s an ending that, like the story that precedes it, is chock full of empathy and caring for the people pulled into this sort of care and battered in the process. It’s not the end all and be all of wish fulfillment happiness, but it’s a complex and realistic answer to the story’s thematic premise. And like its protagonist, it’s kind.
This month through the crucible is Amal El-Mohtar’s Madeleine. We’ve put El-Mohtar through the Crucible before, and I’m happy to have an excuse to run her through again. That time we looked at her word choice and imagery deployed in the frame story vs. the body of the main story. This time I want to pull apart the structure of the story.
Like And Their With the Sun. this story has nested layers, but they’re not as clearly marked. The action of the story begins with the eponymous character, Madeleine, in therapy and pursuing a mystery. The mystery of what’s happening to her is the opening of the first of several brackets created by the story. The therapist tries repeatedly to insist that this story is about Madeleine’s mother, but Madeleine knows that’s wrong. This story is about Madeleine’s loneliness and the end of it. Losing her mother certainly played into it, but note the absence of childhood friends in Madeleine’s memories. She’s been lonely a long time.
In case the reader is unsure who to believe after this section, El-Mohtar gives us an answer with the following one. She’s grieving, but the emphasis is on how the grief feeds into her loneliness. Her mother isn’t mentioned, except by implication. While her grief is brought to the forefront, I’m skeptical of that as a full explanation of Madeleine’s loneliness. I think I’m meant to be. This is confirmed later with:
It was indecent, so much pain at once, it was unreasonable, and her friends were reasonable people.
Her friends are terrible people. They abandoned her in her time of need. Sticking by her is clearly not unreasonable; Zeinab is first attracted to her because of her grief and manages to stick by her even when she’s just a hallucination. Madeleine begins the story lonely, she ends it with a decent person who will put an end to that. An opening, presented by her problem, and a closing delivered with its solution. The fact that Zeinab’s introduction weaves through the memories of the this story until it crosses into the contemporary action of the story just gives us an easy path to following when looking at the nested layers of the story.
The layers really start piling on when we get to the first on screen episode. It’s a memory of freedom and independence, followed by describing a trip to a memory of shooting marbles where there’s no mention of other children but she’s content and in control. The final memory of the sequence, the one where she finally spots Zeinab, is one where she’s dreaming of the future, longing for other things.
It’s interesting that adult Madeleine doesn’t appear to have ambitions or dreams for the future. She’s grief-stricken, assaulted by memories from the past, and alone. She leave-of-absenced her way out of a job while caring for her mother. She’s in therapy to figure out what’s going on with the episodes, but as symbolic fixations on the past go, it’s a rather literal one. It takes folding her present self into her past self for her to find an ambition for the future rather than a longing for the past. This layering, contemporary Madeleine over remembered Madeleine, is what opens the door to spotting the woman who will be her (irony deliberate) white knight and rescuer.
Their non-courtship takes place in this layered space, too. Both think the other is a figment of their own imagination, but continue to deliberately visit the other. But the layers keep coming all the same. Madeleine stops visiting Clarice, but that enables her to bring a model of Clarice into the episodes with her.
She can hear Clarice explaining, in her reasonable voice, that Madeleine — bereaved twice over, made vulnerable by an experimental drug — has invented a shadow-self to love, and perhaps they should unpack the racism of its manifestation, and didn’t Madeleine have any black friends in real life?
Zeinab isn’t a creation of Madeleine’s imagination, but now Clarice is. And note how this imaginary Clarice is reinforcing the idea of Madeleine’s loneliness. We know the answer to her question: No. Madeleine doesn’t have any black friends in real life because she doesn’t have any friends in real life.
“I love you too,” says Zeinab, and there is something fierce in it, and wondering, and desperate. “I love you too. I’m here. I promise you, I’m here.”
This is where the layers of the story begin to unravel. They’ve been inverted, Zeinab in reality now and Madeleine lost and confused there while confident in her episodes. It’s an answer to the mystery raised by the beginning of the story without being an explanation for it. They were both in the drug trial, but that doesn’t explain why they had the episodes or why they could find each other. That could be a huge flaw in the story, but given the story’s buzz and reception it seems unlikely it comes off as a plot hole or flaw for most readers. Why?
I suspect the answer is that answer-without-explanation. Something is happening to Madeleine inside her head, and over the course of the story it comes to be something that’s happening to her in the real world. The reader doesn’t need an explanation for the starting position because they went on the journey from memory to reality with Madeleine. The shape of the story goes on that journey. Since Madeleine doesn’t need an explanation anymore, and the reader has been led on the same path through her shoes, they don’t anymore, either. It’s a thematic resolution rather than a world-building one, and a successful one.
Coming in May: Today I Am Paul, Martin L. Shoemaker (Clarkesworld)
This month we’ve got a story from one of my favorite current authors: N. K. Jemisin. I love nearly everything she does and, of her short work, Valedictorian (from Lightspeed) is one of my favorites.
What works so very well is Jemisin’s deft hand with the world building. She layers in hints at the speculative elements and the ways in which this his clearly not our world, but there’s also a glut of descriptions and moments that could very easily be lifted directly from a coming-of-age lit-fic story about a normal, mundane town.
She will be herself. No matter what.
For however brief a time.
These two lines from the opening section are a microcosm of how the world building is structured throughout the story. Lots of adolescents make those sorts of commitments to themselves. Our culture practically demands that either they make resolutions or actively reject making them (“Just say no!”) But an intrinsic implication of our rhetoric around adolescence is that of a long future, that the decisions and choices made will have far reaching impacts because the audience is young and their time is not brief. Something is off, though the nature of the something isn’t particularly constrained at this point.
Parents proposing that she get pregnant? Paying a fellow boy to help with that? That’s downright bizarre, though still doesn’t tell us, the audience, what makes their world different from ours. Rather than tell us, Jemisin dives into a description of a bright student in a mediocre school and nails it perfectly, without showing her hand.
But, and here’s part of the real craft of the story, there are clear hints that take on extra meaning with a second reading.
Zinhle’s mother is stubborn. This is where Zinhle herself gets the trait.
Old habits are hard to break, old fears are hard to shed, all that.
Many questions raised among very careful word choice, but no answers given.
We start to get some specific information in the next sequence which looks very much like the aftermath of a standard high school bullying scene. We find out there’s a wall people could have been shoved through. We find out that Zinhle is likely to be “taken away.” And the impression that the other students aren’t actually just being useless slackers comes through very clearly. What’s important here is that everything is still aggressively mundane. Zinhle isn’t thinking about whatever the wall is or what her future is likely to be; she’s focused on whether or not she’ll keep her tooth. This clearly isn’t our world in our here and now, yet it still feels comfortably like it is.
Then everything breaks open in the next scene. If you’re paying attention you’re realize this is the first scene where something actually happens. The first section is just exposition, the second a conversation that changes nothing, followed by more exposition and then the aftermath of a scene where something happened. Everything given to the reader up to the scene with Threnody is there entirely for the reader’s benefit. It’s part of a con Jemisin is pulling on the reader, convincing them that they’re reading a mundane setting about a very relatable girl with admirable principals. Where this story breaks from that is right here:
Then she remembers. The teachers never seem to notice her bruises. They encourage her because her success protects their favorites, and she is no one’s favorite.
This is the moment where Zinhle is demonstrably not a precocious teenager, but a wise one. And, because it is a break from form, it’s the first wedge of real criticism present in the story. Everything up to this moment was setup to make it clear that, yes, Zinhle’s world is bizarre, but it’s actually our world. That makes this rejection of Threnody’s revelations powerful because it’s not just a moment of character growth for Zinhle, but a model for the audience.
That done, Jemisin at last gives us the details of the world we’re watching. It could have come earlier, but it means more now, doesn’t it? We have all the reactions to this information laid out for us as we get to it. Also, this is where Jemisin starts delivering on some of her earlier word choices.
There’s more setup being done here, though. Before this section all we hear about is the danger of performing too well. But only one person is at risk of suffering the consequences for that. Meanwhile, ten percent of Zinhle’s peers are going to be culled for being the bottom performers. It explains why there’s such a cluster to the middle, but there’s also a lot of commentary packed into that. There’s no evidence that the bottom ten percent are bullied, only the person in contention for the top spot. Nobody wants to be part of the cull, but for some reason it’s worse or more frightening to be culled from the top than the bottom. That’s both irrational and a damning commentary on human psychology.
Speaking of human psychology, let’s take a really close look at what Jemisin does to signal Lemeul’s humanity and Zinhle picking up on it.
To her utter shock, he smiles.
He shakes his head and sits on the edge of the desk with his hands folded, abruptly looking not artificial at all, but annoyed. Tired.
The sudden vehemence in Lemuel’s voice catches Zinhle by surprise.
When he speaks, there’s remarkable compassion in his voice.
I’d characterize the overarching elements here as kindness and vulnerability. Neither on their own would, I think, have been sufficient but together they work. The vulnerability is interesting because it’s a way that Lemeul is the same as everybody Zinhle knows – even if they’re past the cull, they’re still at risk that their loved ones will be taken, and there’s a lot of work put into highlighting how small and close to obliteration her community is. For Zinhle, who clearly defines human as, “Like the people I’ve grown up with,” an absence of vulnerability would be a clear signal of inhumanity. For anybody wanting to dig deep into interpreting the commentary of the story, there would need to be a lot of exploration into whether that vulnerability was genuine, or merely a manipulative display from Lemeul.
The kindness is striking because it sets Lemeul apart from everybody else in the story. We see several incidents of people trying to be nice to Zinhle, but they fail because they fundamentally don’t understand or support her. It’s not just Threnody being a day late and a dollar short with her rage, but Zinhle’s parents urging her to get pregnant and her alleged friend accepting the gulf between them rather than trying to bridge it and join Zinhle. Lemeul is literally the first character in the story, aside from Zinhle, to have the conceptual space required for Zinhle to both make sense and be admirable. That can’t be faked – it is absolutely sincere from Lemeul – but it’s interesting that this ties into ZInhle’s acceptance of him rather than flagging him as strange.
The final two sections are, to me, what sets this story apart. I pointed out already how much of the story fills space without anything actually happening. With these final two sections we see that, actually, very little changed. Zinhle is going to the same ultimate fate at the end of the story as she was at the beginning. Her family, friend, and the other people have not changed in their understanding or acceptance of her. Her world isn’t going to change in any significant way.
What is different, though, is Zinhle’s understanding of that fate. She’s just as resolved, but now she actually knows what the consequences of that resolve will be. And while it has shaken some comfortable delusions she had that might have made it easier for her to tolerate her last three months there, it has also given her something to look forward to. Ultimately, this isn’t a story about a change either of character or world, and it’s not just a social critique piece either; it’s a single moment of compassion, delivered to a young girl, and given the context and space needed to understand why it was compassionate. Nobody is let off the hook and yet, there’s a remarkable amount of hope there at the end.
This month’s CC is a bit late, largely because I underestimated the logistical difficulties of doing something only in audio, but it’s worth it. Welcome to Night Vale, in case you don’t know, is one of the most popular podcasts ever, spawning a healthy fan community and multiple international tours. Its normal format is as the community news radio show hosted by Cecil, a charmingly sincere Night Vale native who loves his town but, nonetheless, sometimes questions the strange happenings there. It’s lovecraftian in aesthetic and cutting in its wit. The writers are clearly giant literature nerds (I sometimes want to start a book club for reading the titles that get name-checked in Night Vale episodes) and that means that once in a while, they decide to experiment with their medium. “A Story About You” is a head-trippingly successful example of one of those experiments.
“This is a story about you,” said the man on the radio, and you were pleased because you always wanted to hear about yourself on the radio.
Commentary around the episode, including from the podcast itself, indicates that the show is actually about You, a character with a confusing name. I call nonsense on that, and cite the Cecil’s opening as all the evidence you need to support my case. It doesn’t make sense if it’s about You instead of you. So we have a first-person serial story format engaging in acts of second-person. From the first line. The layers here, they are tricky. (And fun!)
You didn’t always live in Night Vale. You lived somewhere else where there were more trees, more water.
The characterization given for you in the opening does a phenomenal amount of work. It doesn’t just tell the listening who they are for the duration of the episode, but it tells them all kinds of things about Night Vale and the world at large. By the end of that sequence you know not only that you live in rather uninspiring poverty in Night Vale, and that Night Vale is probably objectively less pleasant than where you lived before, but that this is better. There’s a common device used in Night Vale episodes where they’ll present a fact or description that qualifies for, “okay, that’s quirky and weird,” then nail it home by subverting it in a way that skewers the mundane. The bit about writing direct mail campaigns where you urge people to commit suicide is the opening of that pitch. The follow up about nobody reading them clinches it. Whatever you’re doing in Night Vale, it’s not that, and also, wow is the world a depressing place.
A message that was there and then wasn’t, and that you could never quite read.
This is a super interesting line from a craft perspective. It reminds the audience that you live within sight of the radio tower, keeping the now tied to the setting description from the beginning of the story. But there were a lot of details in that setting description that could have been used and it’s the radio tower rather than the car dealership or the stars etc. Using that particular detail not only grounds you in where you are, but is a subtle reminder of the format here, e.g. a radio show. It does all that, while also adding an atmosphere of constant incomprehension. You don’t understand your surroundings, that’s normal, and you accept it as such. That blinking red light isn’t just a detail put there to fill space and help make the episode long enough, it’s asserting and reaffirming the rules at play for the story we’re hearing.
You did not order invisible pie. You hate invisible pie.
No commentary about craft here. Just wanted to call it out to say yeah, me too.
But while we’re stopped here, let’s think about the diner sequence a bit. Why is it there? Obviously time needed to pass for you so that the situation with the crate could develop, but that could have been covered with, “You played angry birds on your phone and wondered, why were the birds angry? What could appease these birds and, if nothing, how could you guard against them?” The episode has to hit a certain length and so they needed to fill time, but why do it this way? What does it contribute?
Part of the answer to that is in callbacks to characters, jokes, and plot points established in other episodes, but I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that getting another chance to call the Apache Tracker an asshole is insufficient. Yet he’s there, and you drove off to a diner and ate non-invisible pie almost entirely because the narrative wanted you to have an encounter with him. Why?
I think it’s because the encounter does an excellent job of normalizing the truly surreal and bizarre by disguising it as the mundane surreal and bizarre. It is not unheard of to have random, not-entirely-stable strangers force awkward conversations on you when you go out to diners alone at odd hours. It’s bizarre and awkward, but a part of life. Yet the Apache tracker is not your run-of-the-mill intrusive stranger, as explained when he’s introduced here. This is, once again, establishing the boundaries for normalcy inside Night Vale, with the Apache Tracker and his history firmly placed on the side of normal. And, while we’re at it, the strange sugar-packet driven restaurant economy of Night Vale. Having those boundaries defined and salient is very important to the ultimate success of the story and that, dear reader, is almost certainly why this sequence is here.
Just as the announcer says that your car radio comes alive with a pop.
Bam, and we do our first serious wall-breaking of the episode. It’s been a story about you the whole time, but now it’s a story that’s interacting with the story of you. This is where the story starts to cash in on the work done in establishing boundaries for normalcy. It’s already a second person narrative inside a first person narrative and it just blew up the fourth wall that, up to now, it pretended wasn’t there. But it was. Because even though you’ve been listening to the story of you all day, you haven’t been interacting with it, except to be happy you get to hear about yourself on the radio. In kind, it hasn’t been interacting with you. Or has it? Because there have been all sorts of choices made in how the story of you has been narrated. Could it be a coincidence that between the guy with the semaphore flags and the unparsable message from the blinking light of the radio tower, the Apache Tracker’s incomprehensible Russian, etc. etc. that there is a theme of “missed message” underpinning the choices made? A foreshadowing that could, if you were running a real time Craft Crucible on the story of you as you lived it, would prepare you for what’s to come?
(Pause to insert comment: Josie’s affiliation with angels gets super weird if you think about it in context with A Stranger in Olondria. Just saying.)
Several buildings are on fire. Crowds of people are floating in the air held aloft by beams of light and struggling feebly against power they cannot begin to understand.
I really like this line because, at this point in the story, it’s impossible to know whether or not this is inside the bounds of normal. All that work done to establish where the lines are? What it really accomplishes is teaching the audience that they don’t know. But neither do you, because remember, you aren’t a native of Night Vale. You are a long time resident, though, so you know what to do in the case of something actually weird, and you do that. Which is why you handle it with such equanimity when you realize that the part where everything you do is being broadcast on the radio has revealed you.
And why having crushing mundanity in the form of your fiancée show up becomes unquestionably weird. You don’t have much of a reaction to the strange lights and rumbling earth. You don’t question much at all. But the minute your fiancée emerges, you start noticing all sorts of things.
Could it have been last week? Or was it ten years ago?
And this transition into questioning, into awareness, is what triggers the critical moment that makes this a story, rather than a narrative stunt on a quirky podcast. Up to that point, you were sheltered inside the walls of Night Vale, but as the narrative structure has already revealed, those walls are very permeable. You knew that, and the journey you’ve been on since driving away from your life is complete now. The is why the cliffhanger at the ending isn’t a cliffhanger at all, why the ambiguity of what comes next doesn’t matter. The story put so much work into foreshadowing and highlighting the messages that weren’t understood that in that moment where “every message in this world has a meaning. It all makes sense and you are finally being punished.” Your time in Night Vale is less depressing than your time before, but this is the moment where you actually achieve happiness. This is your character arc, the story of the day you came full circle.
The choice to repeat the line about you being pleased hearing about yourself on the radio is important to solidify that, I think. It establishes that this breakthrough you had, as a character, is not small or insignificant. It, in fact, is so important that it caused a first person / second person / omniscient / fourth-wall-breaking /causality fuddling event to occur. And at the same time, that’s perfectly normal because this is Night Vale, where something as mundane as community radio does that.