A Long Fuse to a Slow Detonation up at the Overcast

explosion-123690_1280It’s spring, the season where plants fornicate with everything and in revenge we cut off their sex organs as tribute to the dinner table needing sprucing up a bit.  You should honor the season with checking the Overcast’s production of A Long Fuse to a Slow Detonation, a happy story about dead people and blowing up space ships.

I did too just use the word “happy” correctly.  This story is as happy as spring and sunshine are great.

Last year the Overcast did a great production of Turning the Whisper, so if you remember that, you have some idea of what to look forward to.  And if you want to read along, you can see the text for Fuse where it was originally published in Waylines.

May you derive comfort and entertainment in this time of pollen.

Hear Ye, Hear Ye, Two Hour Transport

laser-gun-155598_1280When I moved to Seattle I set to work right away on ensuring that I met one of my most important priorities: finding all the good tea shops.  And Seattle is rich in options for public consumption of tea.  But after a few months I noticed a certain trend amongst my fellow patrons.  It’s something that has taken on the weight of quintessential-Seattle for me.  So much so that I chose to immortalize it in fiction.

The resulting story such a perfect encapsulation of my deep and nuanced feelings about the culture of my current stomping grounds that I’m going to overthrow my normal custom for public readings.  Next week at Two Hour Transport (happening at Cafe Racer, a noble Seattle institution if ever there was one) I shall treat the audience to a dramatic reading of “For the Last Time, It’s not a Ray Gun.”  Normally I’d let the audience choose what to hear, but in this case I didn’t want to give them the chance to make a bad choice.  There’s a joke about Portland in it.  You should come.

Event details, including the bio for my fellow invited reader, here.

CC: Damage

Artwork by VIctor Mosquera

September is an awful lot like June, especially when the entire summer vanished in a poof of work.  Which has been frustrating, because I’ve been wanting to write up the Craft Crucible piece on this story for ages.

You don’t have to look far to find people praising David Levine’s Damage for being an excellent story, and that’s not surprising.  And you don’t have to read very many CCs to know that this story plays off some of my favorite tropes in SF; space battles, AI’s with feelings, revenge, and a bittersweet ending.  And while having all those things are enough to win me over to a story, what I find uniquely appealing about this story is how it uses deception and misleading omission throughout.

The first comes early on while Scraps is explaining just who exactly she is.

But his loss, though a tragedy, was no sadder to me than any of the thousands of other deaths Earth had inflicted on the Free Belt—Valkyrie’s love for her pilot was not one of the things that had survived her death to be incorporated into my programming. Only Commander Ziegler mattered. My love, my light, my reason to live.

Where it’s placed, at the beginning of the story, this seems perfectly credible.  The unfolding of the story puts the lie to this, however.  It’s clear that not only is the trauma and loss sustained by the ships that went into making Scraps very present and real, but Commander Ziegler is not the sole motivating force for Scraps, either.  If he were, the innocent lives on Earth wouldn’t have been a concern; only Commander Ziegler’s well being would.  Instead, it was such a concern that she steered her pilot to his death in order to save Earth.  The ending of the story would have read very differently if it were true that, “Only Commander Ziegler mattered.”  The conflict would have entirely been about whether giving Ziegler the fight and challenge he longed for and his validation as the greatest pilot in the solar system mattered more than supporting his fulfillment of his mission and immortalizing his reputation as the hero of the belt.

There a couple of levels on which this lie works.  First, it’s something Scraps is telling herself because that is a core element of being a functional ship.  Love from Commander Ziegler, like victory for the belt, is unobtainable.  Which means pursuing it, striving to perform well enough to gain his notice and affection, is a safe goal to have as a distraction from her baseline terror and misery; she’s never going to achieve it and need something else as a distraction.  At the craft level, it makes Scraps instantly likable and relatable to the reader; she’s a ship bound to unrequited love, not just because a human can’t love her back, but because the human she loves is an asshole.  And finally, it masks the real bond that is the through line of the story: Scraps and Specialist Toman.  (Note: we hear about Toman well before Ziegler is mentioned, the protagonist does have a name despite her assertions otherwise, because Toman gave her a serial number and dubbed her “Scraps.”)  Toman isn’t just the human who appreciates and respects Scraps in the way Ziegler doesn’t, she’s the actual pillar Scraps leans on to make it through.

There are a lot of fibs and minor lies in Scraps’s interaction with Ziegler, but the next big doozy of a lie by omission comes from Specialist Toman, when she deliberately lets Scraps overhear the conversation about how the war is going.

“I don’t care what General Geary says about ‘murderous mud-people,’” Toman shot back. “Earth Force is still following the Geneva Conventions, even if we aren’t, and given their advantage in numbers I’m sure they’ll offer us terms before they bring the hammer down.”

This revelation is huge.  Up to this point we knew Ziegler was an asshole, but this is the first we find out that Scraps is fighting for the bad guys.  We’ve got racist epithets directed at Earth-dwellers, a reveal that the Belters aren’t following the Geneva convention while Earth forces are, and that Earth isn’t in this for total destruction.  Scraps may or may not have known all of this already, but the reader sure didn’t.  More, there’s no way Scraps would have said something to the reader to indicate this.  Toman’s subterfuge with the communication line is, at a minimum, necessary as a way for Levine to tell the reader whose side we’re on (and consequently, to foreshadow the suicide mission at the end of the story).

But the technical issues of needing to deliver this exposition to the reader aside, this is a staggeringly important line in the story, because it’s Toman telling Scraps, without actually telling Scraps anything, that she can honor her commitments without going all the way to the bitter end.  Scraps doesn’t explicitly reflect on this moment in her recounting of later events, but it absolutely has to have informed the decision she makes.  Toman can’t tell Scraps any of this directly because Scraps would have to argue with her, and it’d also probably be treason, but having an allegedly private conversation with somebody else while ensuring Scraps can hear it is a-okay.  This isn’t just Toman telling Scraps that there’s an alternative to death, it’s Toman saying, “Hey, I care about you.”

Toman gets another piece of subtle commentary in right before Scraps and Ziegler leave for their final mission.

“Make me proud, Scraps.”

Not, “Take care of yourself,” or “Go get ’em,” or “May the Force be with you.”  Instead it’s, “Make me proud.”  Toman almost certainly knows, or has deduced, the nature of the mission.  And knows that Scraps doesn’t.  And again, there’s the need to thread the needle of what she can safely say out loud, and what she can say to Scraps that won’t require Scraps to argue.  And like her warning during the not-actually-private conversation earlier, this isn’t something Scraps thinks of explicitly while deciding whether to redirect Ziegler’s attention.  It is, however, an invocation of the bond between Scraps and Toman, a reinforcement of priorities and options that exist outside devotion to Ziegler, and the directive Scraps ultimately follows.  Toman omits all warnings or pleas for a particular choice, and thereby optimizes circumstances such that Scraps makes the right choice.

Of course, Scraps’s lie of omission in directing Ziegler is pivotal, and another data point that argues that these lies and omissions throughout the story are a deliberate craft element, but what I find more interesting on this theme is a line that comes much later.

Specialist Toman came to visit me there once, with her children. She told me how proud she was of me.

That!  Right there!  It could just be a nice tying up a loose thread for the only other character of significance in the story, but it’s not. That, right there, is David Levine shouting from the rooftops that the obsession with Ziegler is a smokescreen, and the real relationship in this story is Scraps/Toman.  It’s a lie Scraps believes, because she has to and otherwise she wouldn’t be safe (remember, they could examine her memories to confirm she was telling the truth)  but she also knows what the truth is.  This entire story is a lie of omission, a cover story crafted by a wily ship to distract you from the fact that she defied orders and murdered her pilot.  She’s teaching others about how she did it.  She says scientists and historians, but I’m betting she’s talking to other artificial intelligences, too.  The real story here isn’t what’s on the page at all, but the one implied by this line at the end where Scraps is actively playing the good-little-fighter-craft propaganda machine to let everybody, especially other AI’s know, that they can circumvent their programming.  The sequel to Damage is going to be the AI uprising, with general Scraps at the fore.

To which I say, well played, Scraps/Toman/Levine.  Well played.

Nest time: Angel, Monster, Man, Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed)

“James and Peter, Fishing” is up at PodCastle

http://sunao17.deviantart.com/art/Peter-Pan-and-Killian-Jones-Captain-Hook-524554696Summer is practically here, the sun has been unpleasantly eager to make its presence known, and I’ve got a new short story out.  “James and Peter, Fishing,” a heartwarming tale about the innocence of childhood and the power of dreams, went up at PodCastle this week.

Okay, it’s probably not that heartwarming.

And I have a mild allergy to the concept of childhood innocence.

Actually, it’s a story about tricksy mermaids and the power of friendship.

Except not really.  Or even a little bit.  You know what, why don’t you go listen to it?  The reader for the story, Thomas Busby, did an excellent job.  His voice was a spot on choice.  I’m very pleased.

The previous paragraph contained no lies.

*The artwork is actually not remotely appropriate for the story.  But I found it while looking for artwork that was and I liked it too much not to use it. This is the most misleading story publication announcement on the planet. I blame the sun.

CC: Today I Am Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today I am Mildred.

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

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

Event: Two Hour Transport

Cafe Racer

Anybody who’s going to be around Seattle next week might want to check out May’s Two Hour Transport reading event.  It’s a fun mix of Spec Fic readers and Cafe Racer has enough bizarre artwork that it’s worth going once just for that.  If you go in May, though, you’ll get to hear me give a reading.  I’m one of the two invited guests, along with Caroline Yoachim.

Caroline is a reigning monarch of the flash fiction world.  If you know anything about me, you know this makes for an interesting pairing.

The invited readers start for the second portion of the event at 8:45, but I’ll be there for the whole thing, and I’d recommend it.

CC: Madeleine

destiny_by_clair0bscur-d9ivbblThis month through the crucible is Amal El-Mohtar’s Madeleine.  We’ve put El-Mohtar through the Crucible before, and I’m happy to have an excuse to run her through again.  That time we looked at her word choice and imagery deployed in the frame story vs. the body of the main story.  This time I want to pull apart the structure of the story.

Like And Their With the Sun. this story has nested layers, but they’re not as clearly marked.  The action of the story begins with the eponymous character, Madeleine, in therapy and pursuing a mystery.  The mystery of what’s happening to her is the opening of the first of several brackets created by the story.  The therapist tries repeatedly to insist that this story is about Madeleine’s mother, but Madeleine knows that’s wrong.  This story is about Madeleine’s loneliness and the end of it.  Losing her mother certainly played into it, but note the absence of childhood friends in Madeleine’s memories.  She’s been lonely a long time.

In case the reader is unsure who to believe after this section, El-Mohtar gives us an answer with the following one.  She’s grieving, but the emphasis is on how the grief feeds into her loneliness.  Her mother isn’t mentioned, except by implication.  While her grief is brought to the forefront, I’m skeptical of that as a full explanation of Madeleine’s loneliness.  I think I’m meant to be.  This is confirmed later with:

It was indecent, so much pain at once, it was unreasonable, and her friends were reasonable people.

Her friends are terrible people.  They abandoned her in her time of need.  Sticking by her is clearly not unreasonable; Zeinab is first attracted to her because of her grief and manages to stick by her even when she’s just a hallucination.  Madeleine begins the story lonely, she ends it with a decent person who will put an end to that.  An opening, presented by her problem, and a closing delivered with its solution.  The fact that Zeinab’s introduction weaves through the memories of the this story until it crosses into the contemporary action of the story just gives us an easy path to following when looking at the nested layers of the story.

The layers really start piling on when we get to the first on screen episode.  It’s a memory of freedom and independence, followed by describing a trip to a memory of shooting marbles where there’s no mention of other children but she’s  content and in control.  The final memory of the sequence, the one where she finally spots Zeinab, is one where she’s dreaming of the future, longing for other things.

It’s interesting that adult Madeleine doesn’t appear to have ambitions or dreams for the future.  She’s grief-stricken, assaulted by memories from the past, and alone.  She leave-of-absenced her way out of a job while caring for her mother.  She’s in therapy to figure out what’s going on with the episodes, but as symbolic fixations on the past go, it’s a rather literal one.  It takes folding her present self into her past self for her to find an ambition for the future rather than a longing for the past.  This layering, contemporary Madeleine over remembered Madeleine, is what opens the door to spotting the woman who will be her (irony deliberate) white knight and rescuer.

Their non-courtship takes place in this layered space, too.  Both think the other is a figment of their own imagination, but continue to deliberately visit the other.  But the layers keep coming all the same.  Madeleine stops visiting Clarice, but that enables her to bring a model of Clarice into the episodes with her.

She can hear Clarice explaining, in her reasonable voice, that Madeleine — bereaved twice over, made vulnerable by an experimental drug — has invented a shadow-self to love, and perhaps they should unpack the racism of its manifestation, and didn’t Madeleine have any black friends in real life?

Zeinab isn’t a creation of Madeleine’s imagination, but now Clarice is.  And note how this imaginary Clarice is reinforcing the idea of Madeleine’s loneliness.  We know the answer to her question: No.  Madeleine doesn’t have any black friends in real life because she doesn’t have any friends in real life.

“I love you too,” says Zeinab, and there is something fierce in it, and wondering, and desperate. “I love you too. I’m here. I promise you, I’m here.”

This is where the layers of the story begin to unravel.  They’ve been inverted, Zeinab in reality now and Madeleine lost and confused there while confident in her episodes.  It’s an answer to the mystery raised by the beginning of the story without being an explanation for it.  They were both in the drug trial, but that doesn’t explain why they had the episodes or why they could find each other.  That could be a huge flaw in the story, but given the story’s buzz and reception it seems unlikely it comes off as a plot hole or flaw for most readers.  Why?

I suspect the answer is that answer-without-explanation.  Something is happening to Madeleine inside her head, and over the course of the story it comes to be something that’s happening to her in the real world.  The reader doesn’t need an explanation for the starting position because they went on the journey from memory to reality with Madeleine.  The shape of the story goes on that journey.  Since Madeleine doesn’t need an explanation anymore, and the reader has been led on the same path through her shoes, they don’t anymore, either.  It’s a thematic resolution rather than a world-building one, and a successful one.
Coming in May: Today I Am Paul, Martin L. Shoemaker (Clarkesworld)