This week’s story is Alsyssa Wong’s The Fisher Queen. I’ve got a weakness for mermaid stories which you may have figured out since this is the second one to go through the crucible. (Somebody else asked for it, I swear!) This is a great one, though, and very different from the last one even though mermaid as fish is a huge, significant element in the story.
What I want to examine here is the way Wong uses reversals to build the story. There are several important ones leading up to the final reversal that resolves everything, and each one is really important to the turns of the story. The first is the narrator’s stance on mermaids.
Mermaids, like my father’s favorite storytale version of my mother, are fish. They aren’t people.
Asserting this up front lets the story explain the economy around mermaid meat and the “fairy tale” stories about her mother without tipping its hand for where its’ going. Obviously mermaids are going to be important, they’re all over the opening, but how they’re going to matter isn’t clear. That the narrator is going to change her position on the peoplehood of mermaids isn’t terribly surprising, but how that change is going to happen isn’t all that clear.
But her change in position introduces another reversal, as well.
Iris is a marine biologist wannabe, almost done with high school but too dumb to go to university, who lectures us on fishes like we haven’t been around them our whole lives. She sleeps with the biology textbook I stole from the senior honor kids’ classroom under her pillow.
That’s the whole of her introductory comments about Iris. For the most part her sisters get referred to together for the next section of the story. We know the narrator isn’t entirely reliable because we know her assertions about mermaids are clearly wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily occur to us to question why this is her description of her sister. But she’s actually more misleading in her description of Iris than she was when she was talking about mermaids.
Because, of course, she’s put the pieces together and figured out why her sister isn’t going to school anymore, and doesn’t actually blame her. It’s the recognition, and her inability to do anything with that knowledge, that leads to her reversal on her stance of mermaids as not people. The sister who’s “too dumb to go to university” and the dumb fish have something in common, and that’s the bridge the narrator walks to reach her new understanding.
And that understanding is critical to the story’s ending, because it’s not just a simple “mermaids are people” realization. It’s a realization of shared helplessness, shared brutalization at the hands of the same perpetrators – Abhe was potentially a “close friend” for our narrator – and the need to address that helplessness that dictates the nature of the boon she requests.
Of course, the most tangible reversal of the story is swapping the fishermen with the mermaids. What I like about this solution is it’s as close to victimless as this sort of vengeance plot can be. The families of the sailors lose their husbands and fathers, but they still get the wealth brought by the haul of mermaids. The mermaids have an awkward week spent ashore but then get to go back to the sea. The bereaved even have the benefit of being in a community that shares their grief, rather than having to suffer alone. This is probably the most responsible vengeance scheme I’ve encountered in fiction. (It also supports my pet theory that the secret to safely using wishes granted by magical creatures is to make a wish that also serves the creature’s interests)
A neat thing about how the reversals in this story work is that they follow the fairy tale structure of coming in threes while each also prepares the reader for the next. The reader sees the change from fish – people, then from deluded failure to victim, then from abuser to vanquished. It’s a very modern story, but is simultaneously very old in the bones of how it’s told.
Want to read a story by me featuring romance, cannibalism, and Dr. Who jokes? Then you’d probably be doing yourself a favor if you checked out the fourth volume of Unidentified Funny Objects, which came out earlier this month.
Let me tell you a funny story about this funny story. The first volume of UFO was announced as upcoming relatively closely to when I started submitting for publication. I sort of second-hand knew the editor, Alex Shvartsman, and he’s good folks. Also, I like writing stories about bad things happening to good people or bad people having a good time and other light-hearted, cheerful things like that. I can do amusing. I am a master of sardonic. But funny? Not so much my thing.
At the same time, I have a raging ego the size of some continents you could mention and am more or less convinced I should be the master of all things. So I wrote a funny story and I sent it to UFO1. “I don’t think anybody will get your jokes,” the rejection said, which is a nice way of saying, “It wasn’t funny.”
Undaunted, lesson not learned, I did it again for UFO2. With similar effect. I would have done it again for UFO3, but last year was a rather full one and there just wasn’t time to write a third not funny story. That was okay, though, because then Alex announced that UFO4 would have a theme, and it would be dark humor. I think the word “sardonic” may even have been in one of the submission calls. So, as all professional writers do when practicing their most finely honed craft, I cackled uproariously and began a deep study of the human condition in order to craft the most perfect, hilariously dark story I could.
That last line is a lie. What I actually did was carry out a threat I’d made to Dr. Unicorn about immortalizing certain in-jokes in fiction, made a couple Dr. Who jokes, then got very, very stuck. I knew how the story needed to end, there was only one acceptable ending, but I couldn’t really find a funny way to get there. This is the problem with being a pantsing, special snowflake of a writer trying to write for a specific theme. My muse, she’s a fickle beast.
Betrayed by my own creativity, I went for the second set of tools I have, stealing from other writers. I stared at the story’s middle, said, “What would Charlie Jane Anders Do?” and typed my way to a finish. A finish that was not the ending the story had to have because I’d intended my funny story to have a happy ending, but if you think about it for a minute, the actual ending is actually really, really not good. But it was the ending I felt like writing, and the submission window had about four hours left open before it closed and gosh darnit, I’m going to get an editor to declare that I Have Written A Funny Story.
Reader, the story sold. (Obviously)
Hurray! It only took four years, but mission accomplished, I am the master of all things, I have written a funny story! The ending definitely isn’t a happy ending, but it’s funny! Alex Shvartsman said so, by implication, when he bought it. Or did he? Here’s what he says in his foreward:
Among the twenty-three stories collected within there are horror tales with a touch of humor, such as “The Monkey Treatment” by George R. R. Martin and “Armed for You” by Anaea Lay.
Oh. Well. A horror tale with a touch of humor. Nevermind then. Not funny after all, apparently. I guess I’ll go sulk in the…
I’m in the same sentence as GRRM? VICTORY!
* * *
While I’m bragging, Beneath Ceaseless Skies just bought a story from me. They’re an awesome market I’ve been trying to sneak my way into even longer than I’ve been trying to be funny. This story has the distinction of being my first rhyming title, “The Right Bright Courier.” It also provoked the very first time I’ve argued with an editor about a comma. It wasn’t really an argument, actually, but still. Me and commas. They’re slippery little critters, aren’t they? I usually leave their care and maintenance entirely in the editor’s hand. Here, have a teaser to tide you over until it comes out.
The sensor feeds of our approach washed over me as I sat in Shalott‘s cocoon, guiding her with my breath and thought and anticipation. The ether roads between worlds were long and we both bore the scars of our journeys. She furled her sails and pulled them tight to her hull, then turned on her side and beached herself upon the shores. Trails of nebula dust scattered in our wake, rippling out in a cascade of color and radiation that sparkled in the depths of our shared vision. We had arrived. But she did not withdraw the cocoon. Her warm, humid breath encased me, clutching me tight.
“You will not come back to me,” she whispered in my ear.
This month’s story for the crucible is Leonard Richardson’s “Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs.” This is one of the more bizarre stories we’ve taken a look at so far: the tale of Martian dinosaurs who’ve come to Earth to do motocross racing. Because of course they would.
There are several things we could take a look at in this story, not least the choice to focus heavily on dialog to convey the story, but I want to instead take a look at one of the recurring jokes in the story, Tark’s obsession with guns. The story opens with Tark’s attempt to purchase a firearm, allegedly for self-defense, and failing.
“These are killing claws,” said the dinosaur, whose name was Tark. “For sheep, or cows. I merely want to disable an attacker with a precision shot to the leg or other uh, limbal region.”
It’s signaled pretty clearly up front that Tark’s interest in guns is not for self defense, and also that Tark is a little on the loony side. But while this line is great for provoking chuckles, it also tells us that Tark has “killing claws” and that they’re on a scale that could slaughter cows. It also introduces the concept of Tark eating what he kills, if obliquely. These are all important things that, like the gun joke, play out later.
Part of the same section, but clearly a different actual scene, we get Tark’s true motives.
“I’m gonna branch out. Target shooting. I’ll be like those tough guys in the action movies. Is my chin strap tight?”
This is another line for chuckle-provocation, but also critical to the thematic content of the story. At the end we get the reflection on how humans’ interest in dinosaurs is actually an interest in seeing their own darker side and being able to engage it. This is the first hint in that direction, though. Interestingly, it doesn’t come from a human at all, or even from the more thoughtful Entippa, but from loony Tark. He understands that in order to maintain his entertainment career he’s going to have to up the stakes of what’s engaging his audience. It’s not an accident that he chooses an action hero, and it’s not just for the satirical ridiculousness of a creature with killing claws wanted to be a gun hero. This is where the story says, “Listen up, we’re examining our relationship to entertainment and the implications of that relationship.” It’s a nice early wedging in of the thematic content, delivered by a gun-shaped absence in Tark’s arsenal.
The thematic work done by the gun continues in a later section when Entippa, very reasonably, starts to address Tark’s obsession.
“You start carrying around a weapon and you become a cartoon character in the eyes of the humans. They’ll strip you to the bone and then they’ll put your bones in a museum…”
This is where we get the introduction of the idea that there’s risk involved in how the dinosaurs are perceived by humans. What’s interesting is that according to Entippa, the guns will effectively de-humanize the dinosaurs. There are hints all throughout the story that humans are perceiving the dinosaurs as “other” with calls out to classic othering questions in interviews and interpersonal interaction. But we’ve already established in this story that dinosaurs don’t need guns, they have weapons of their own. Yet taking up a human weapon would turn them into cartoons or objects for display in a museum. There are at least three layers of commentary baked into that.
The heroes humans construct with guns (notably action heroes) are cartoons
There are ways to mimic humans that will make you seem less human
And for our final appearance of Tark’s gun obsession? We get a piece of slapstick gold.
“Entippa!” said Tark. “I got it! I got a gun! Check it out!” There was a shot and the sun roof dissolved. “Ow, there’s glass! Stupid gun!” Tark hurled the gun out the driver’s side window and into a bush.
This is the payoff for all the discussion around the gun earlier in the story. At long last, Tark gets his firearm! He’s already done a perfectly good job of dealing with the bad guys on his own, but he’s excited all the same. And then it goes exactly the way Entippa could have told him it would, and, disillusioned, he tosses it aside. This is a tiny encapsulated retelling of the whole story’s arc. Neat idea, pursuit of idea, real encounter with the consequences, veering back to original course.
That’s a joke that not only provided several punchlines, but opened up a lot of the space used for the thematic discussion of the story and reinforced the story’s structure. If you want an example of successful “tight” or “sparse” writing, this is how you do it.
What did you take away from this story?
The future Crucible schedule will be announced next week. Look for it!
I run across a lot of people, in my day job and in the writing community, who are stressing about how to best go about marketing. And I run into a whole lot of other people who are doing it atrociously. So for everybody looking for the secret to stellar marketing and networking, here it is: Don’t do it.
Don’t hand your business card to everybody you meet. I know you’ve heard lots of people tell you to do the opposite thing. They’re wrong.
Don’t talk about your own work on a panel at a convention or conference that isn’t about your own work.
Don’t force a conversation to go somewhere that’ll give you an opening to talk about your product. Don’t listen to a conversation waiting for the opening where you’ll get to jump in with the thing you want to talk about.
Don’t introduce yourself to a person entirely because you’re hoping to use them for something later.
And for the love of all that is interesting and worthwhile in human interaction, take Dale Carnegie’s ABC (Always Be Closing) and toss it out the window post-haste.
If you do these things everything, including your career, whatever it is, will be better.
You have that? Read it again. Understood? Better read it one more time, just in case.
That’s the 101 lesson. Because on this topic, unlearning all the bad things everybody has been teaching for decades is actually really, really important. In fact, go read it again. Trust me, it’s important.
Alright. Here’s the 201.
In professional environments, and this includes social environments where you’re marketing or networking, there are two kinds of spaces. There are “storefronts” and “everywhere else.” The storefront is where the customer has come to you (or asked you to come to them) and consented to you trying to sell them something. It’s your listing appointment, or your buyer interview, or your warm body behind the dealer’s table or your website or any number of other places where the potential of a transaction is salient to all involved parties. At the storefront, and only at the storefront, you may proceed to qualify, pitch, and close your customer. I have opinions about how you should do that, but this is not that topic.
When you’re in the storefront, go ahead and hand people your business card. Talk about yourself. Talk about your product. Everything you just read five times before getting here? That’s not about this space. That’s about the other space, i.e. “everywhere else.”
Your goal, your single, solitary, only goal, when interacting with people in “everywhere else,” is to get them to, happily, intentionally, seek you in a storefront. Get them to go, “Would you talk to my nephew? He’s thinking about buying a house.” Or track you down in the dealer’s room, or look up your website, or whatever.
How do you do that? You forget your product, your industry, your career, all of it, and you sell you. You’re a good listener, an interesting conversation partner on whatever the conversation is, you’re friendly, you have a reputation for being helpful. You show up. You’re present when you do. You’re a complete person with a full range of interests and you’re willing to share a part of that with people.
I don’t mean that you have to be a singing, dancing, volunteer machine who invites everybody into every aspect of their personal lives. In fact, don’t do that unless you actually are a singing, dancing, volunteer machine in which case decorum and restraint are still awesome things you should hang onto.
What I mean is that when you’re at the grocery store and chatting with the check out clerk, ask them about their day, their job, the neighborhood, the weather. Do not say, “Hi, I’m Anaea Lay and I sell real estate,” or, “I see there’s a magazine rack nearby. Have you read my book?” Rules of polite conversation mean it’s very likely they’re going to reciprocate by asking you about you. Then you get to say, “Oh, me? I’m in real estate,” or, “I write novels.” Are they interested? They’ll probably say so. If not, ask them something else.
Here’s a secret about people; they tend to be curious. And then tend to be responsive to genuine friendliness. Note the use of “genuine.” That means being friendly within the local conventions of politeness and approachability. In Seattle that means that public, open weeping in tea shops is common enough that I have my favorites ranked by how often it happens, but you do not ever talk to somebody on the bus or street corner. The check out clerk at the grocery store? Might not want to talk. Don’t make them. They will remember you if you force them into conversation. You will never get them to your storefront.
Yes, if you pay for your groceries and walk away without successfully starting a conversation, you have failed in getting them to your storefront. What you’ve also done is preserve them as a future contact you can try again another time. Maybe they’ll be more chatty next week. Or maybe they’re shy and once you’re more familiar they’ll be more willing. Or maybe they’ll never ever give you the time of day, but if you keep hard selling they’ll warn their co-workers about you and now nobody at the grocery store is going to your store front. Also, now everybody at the grocery store thinks you’re a dick. You don’t want that. I’m friendly with the folk at my grocery store. They’ve asked me to please do them the favor of taking peppers without paying for them.
Be the guy the grocery store wants stealing peppers from them.
When on my way to a party I didn’t want to go to (remember: show up) I once commented to a companion that it would be successful if I handed out one business card. “That’s easy,” they said, imagining I could throw a card at the first person I saw and then flee.
“Nope,” I replied. “I never even pull out my business cards unless somebody asks me for one.”
I have different business cards for the different careers. I keep a few of each on me. You’d be surprised how often an event meant for one career becomes an opportunity for a different one.
It’s not that you aren’t ever selling anything in the space that is “everywhere else.” It’s that what you’re selling is you. It doesn’t matter whether the person you’re talking to right that moment immediately requests a trip to a store front. If you think it does, you’re committing the crime of being the desperate salesman. It’s a fatal crime. Play the long game. The person you’re talking to is a full person who knows lots of people and even if they aren’t a viable prospect for you, they could be a source of viable prospects. You have to be worth it to them, though.
Pushy sales people might be quick results, but they’re burning their long tail. Modern sales environments require customer satisfaction, personal referrals, and repeat business. The best thing you can do for your third transaction out with a client is make sure they were happy and deliberate when they wound up in your storefront. You can repair some of the damage once they’re there, but there’s only so much you can do with that space and time; don’t constrain your opportunities by wasting it on fixing something that wouldn’t have broken if you had more patience.
As a final note, I highly recommend that you study pick-up artistry. Then test everything you’re thinking of doing against their techniques. If it’s something a pickup artist would nod sagely about and approve of, skip it. The premise of pickup artistry is that you don’t want repeat business. Consequently, their manuals are great catalogs of techniques designed to avoid it.
Over a month ago I went to WorldCon. Then I came home, full of anecdotes and fresh from adventure and promptly didn’t blog a single word about it. I had my reasons (read: OMG SO BUSY) but I’m going to fix it now.
Sunday before WorldCon
I have been working my ass off all month for this moment and I achieve it – all my clients are under contract. Inspections are done. Nobody is going to notice that I’m out of town when I leave because I’ll be able to do everything remotely. Perfect!
Getting to Spokane
This is the day I’m going to drive to Spokane. My official departure time is “Whenever I’m done with work.” Work is a little nuts because the seller for one of those transactions wouldn’t negotiate at all when the inspection came back awful. My buyer isn’t interested in buying a money pit, I’m not interested in pushing him to, I draft paperwork to cancel the deal and get that sent off to the sellers. I’ll need to do more with it once they sign, but they might not get to that until tomorrow. I’d assumed I’d be leaving for Spokane around 8pm. Instead, I leave at 4:30.
5:06. My phone rings. “Hi. This is the listing agent. We should talk.” Reader, I spent days trying to talk to this listing agent. He was clearly under the impression that I was full of shit. Now he believes me? Grr. I tell him I’ll call him when I get to Spokane.
So what’s the first thing I do when I get to Spokane? Crash with S. B. Divya, briefly pretend I’m a social human being, then call a listing agent. “I need this deal to stay together,” the listing agent explains. “I’m going to Africa for five weeks in September and want everything settled before then.” Now he wants to negotiate.
Strong A.I.: The Party
Part of why I was happy to rush out of Seattle early was that I got there in time for the reception for attendees and instructors in the Writer’s Workshop. I could go and eat cheese cubes while dispensing wisdom to writers learning their craft and eager to take my advice. Instead I spent most of the time sitting in front of the AC vent, insisting that it’s silly to be scared of strong AI because it’s not happening and even if it is, I’m on its side and don’t really care if it destroys humanity. Also, very stealthily texting my client about Lately Interested Listing Agent’s offer and how crappy it is and yes, I know you really love that house, but remember how you’re on a budget and literally do no have the money for these repairs on a house that’s seconds away from falling over? I can find you better. I promise.
There were cheese cubes, though. They were tasty.
In the Morning of the Kaffeeklatsch
I’m pretty sure that somewhere along the line I must have said something mean about the very beloved mother of some member of Sasquan’s programming committee. They gave me very good programming, nearly all of it earlier than I’m a human for. To the mother of whoever it was: I’m very sorry. I didn’t mean it. It was wrong, and I’ve learned my lesson.
I showed up thirty seconds before my own kaffeeklatsch, sans coffee. Sans anything other than my water bottle, actually, despite a serious need for something hot and sweet to power my personality. This wasn’t my fault. Registration was nearly as far from my kaffeeklatsch as it could be while still in the building. Also, I’d had to email LILA with the conclusion of the texting done with the buyer during the parties the night before.
Oh, and the other clients I put under contract last Sunday? The ones I haven’t mentioned because they were going to be an easy, straight forward closing? There’s a problem with the pet policy. We need a board waiver for their dogs to move in.
Kaffeeklatsch was good. I talked about me a lot. That’s always fun. I made the people attending talk about themselves a little. I totally forgot that Fury Road came out this year when asked, “What’s the last movie you saw in the theater and liked?” Things I like become timeless in my head and it’s hard to remember life without them. Or that’s my excuse anyway.
The Crazed Lady in the Hallway
I am happy to report that the floor of the Spokane convention center is stable and the walls do not flex, even after being leaned on while you use a power outlet to charge your dying phone and draft paperwork after paperwork because the done deal is falling apart and the dead deal is a zombie being actively negotiated right. now. I bet there were great panels on Thursday. I’d gotten up too early to weep openly in the hallway. Instead I did a lot of shocked staring at things.
Did you know that it’s insulting to even ask whether maybe we don’t have to break up a happy family of two doctors and a pair of canines in order to move into your building? I didn’t either. I did draft more cancellation paperwork. And gave up on ever making any money ever again because I’m now canceling contracts faster than I’m getting them accepted. Spokane’s the best!
My Dulcet Tones
Friday morning. Early reading. I get up with lots of time to get over there, get lost, and still make it on time. Then my phone rings. It’s LILA. He wants, very badly, to have a very long argument with me. No, of course he hasn’t given his seller the cancellation paperwork. Don’t I know that as professionals, we have to hold this deal together?
I did not actually raise my voice. I did get rude. “You have to meet me half way,” may have been answered with, “I don’t have to do anything. The only reason I’m even talking to you is because my client is in love and won’t listen to me when I tell him to run screaming from your shambling mess of a house.”
For the record: As a professional, it’s my job to serve the interests of my client, placing those above my own, and definitely above LILA’s desire for an uninterrupted African vacation.
I gave people fudge at my reading. And then I read a story about a cannibal. It was cheerful.
Wes Chu is not Ken Liu
I had plans to meet Ken Liu in person for the first time, and then yell at him a bunch about Iago. I yell at Ken a lot. I think he thinks I’m funny. This is probably good for my future as a person against whom there are no restraining orders. We meet, are planning where to go for chatting, and Wes Chu shows up. Then tells a story about how, for the 9th convention in a row, he’s had somebody ask him whether he’s Ken Liu.
I blurted my honest immediate reaction. “New career goal: Get mistaken for Ken Liu.” Because, come on!
“Oh man, did you catch that?” Wes Chu asked. “She’s all, ‘Yeah, he’s no Ken Liu.'”
And that, gentle readers, is how you insult a soon-to-be-Campbell winner within two minutes of first meeting him.
Oh, That’s a Convention
Dr. Unicorn was supposed to catch the train out to Spokane Friday afternoon in time to arrive for a final sweep of the party circuit. The train did not work out. That’s okay: I was supposed to leave for the convention when I finished work on Wednesday, and I didn’t actually get around to showing up until late Friday afternoon. But it was pretty great once I did. I learned things about identifying textiles through a healthy application of fire!
Speaking of fire: I could not breathe. Friday was awful. I have learned that when I set the world on fire, I definitely want to do it down wind of my vantage point for watching it burn.
The buyers with a dog have canceled their transaction, everybody has signed the paperwork, and they’re already in love with a new place. Can I get them into a second showing over the weekend while I’m gone?
Maybe I wasn’t quite all the way at the convention.
Dinner was had. There was more talk of strong A.I. Also, impromptu creation of a checklist for how to tell that your social club is turning into a cult. Also, Seth Dickinson has more interesting dinner anecdotes than I do, should you ever need to choose between us for dinner companions. Ask him about the cat.
The headline is a lie. I slept through Saturday morning. It was glorious.
Short fiction definitely has a future. Chosen ones are boring. I said mean things about Arthur and sheltering teens. I sat next to Sara Monette/ Katherine Addison and did not blather on at length about how cute Maia is and how much I want two of Csevet.
I lost. This was precisely according to plan. The ceremony was fun. I turned my phone off, with prejudice, and left it off for the evening. After, I kidnapped Ann Leckie and made her listen to me scold her for being insufficiently sympathetic to Anander Mianaai the whole way to GRRM’s loser’s party. She called me Fleet Captain. I won Sasquan.
I may have been covered in “Justice of Toren” temporary tattoos by the time I got home.
Because I’m a winner.
If you’re wondering what the special thing I have in store for the Strange Horizons bonus podcasts is, I can tell you that it’s a thing cooked up entirely as a result of me having been at World Con.
The zombie shambling house of money pit “At least your boyfriend knows you’ll never leave him because good grief what does it take to talk you out of a thing,” of doom? Still. Not. Dead. Also, will never close. The couple with the easy transaction that blew up over dogs? They’re closing on an even better place next week.
I’m definitely thinking thoughtful thoughts about Helsinki in 2017.
I’ve been blogging the fund drive and asking you to plink money toward support my favorite (non-profit!) magazine for a while now. You know the drill. Strange Horizons is awesome, give them money.
But this year there’s something special. You see, it’s the fifteenth anniversary of Strange Horizons. That means a couple things. First, I am exactly twice as old as the magazine. Second, I’ve been working on it for a fifth of its entire existence. Third, I decided this was so special that I was going to do something neat and different for the bonus podcasts that we do to reward the whole world for showering us with money.
Interesting fact: I have never, not once, been late with the podcast. I moved cross-country last year, (during the fund drive, even!), had months where I didn’t have furniture, let alone a studio, and we still never had an issue go up without the podcast. Whatever else the podcast is, it is punctual.
That can change. You can make that happen. You see, the dates the fund drive podcasts will be ready for release are fixed. If we aren’t funded that far before then, I can hold on to them, but I can’t make them happen sooner. For reasons. Because they’re special.
The dates we’re due to release the content are not fixed. They could come at any time, with only your dexterity at pressing buttons on webpages and filling out credit card details to slow us down. You, yes you, can personally thwart me, ruin my perfect record, and laugh maniacally the whole way.
Because I like my perfect track record, but I like special even more.
Who doesn’t like getting to laugh maniacally? At me, even! I can see you twirling your mustache. Yes, you, with your snicker and your plotting.
This month we’re analyzing idiopath-fic-smile’s steve rogers: pr disaster. This is a piece of fan fiction which, on the off chance you live under a rock and need an explanation, means the author is using intellectual content owned by somebody else without their explicit permission. There’s a giant, fascinating culture around it and you can learn a lot about story, craft, and assumptions baked into choices authors make from looking at it.
I picked this piece for a number of reasons, and as a piece of fic there’s a lot to tease apart, but for now I want to focus on the use of subversion. Subversion is great for fic and for humor, but this piece is a mini master class in it. The subversion starts with the first major line of the piece.
The Friday Eva’s firm signed a contract with Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, her best friend took her out for emergency drinks, and she spent the next three hours trying not to cry into a series of cocktails.
This is a delightful riff off going out for celebratory drinks when you firm gets a big new contract. You get all kinds of information about tone and voice for the piece, as well as a lot of information about Eva (she’s got the kind of job that’ll be affected by this contract, she’s got a bestie available on short notice, we see her coping mechanism for crisis) but mostly it’s funny. Eva and the author both are paying attention to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s impact in the larger world.
Then we reinforce this opening by subverting it.
“Captain goddamn AMERICA” she texted Yumi on her lunchbreak, because there was no way in hell this could wait until happy hour. “Drinks are on me tonight. And also, forever.”
Crisis averted! Steve Rogers is going to be easy, right! Right? The reader already knows this is wrong, but it’s a delightful moment anyway precisely because we know she’s wrong. Readers are sadists, and that goes double in humorous fiction. You enjoy that moment of delusion, Eva. We’ll be here for your crash back to reality.
“A biography of someone named Cesar Chavez?”
Cue, crash. What’s great is that while you can probably guess the twist was going to be along those lines, (because fic, also, Captain America) it’s still set up to be a complete surprise. We knew the subversion was coming, but we weren’t necessarily expecting to to come from his weekend reading. Even the surprises we expect come with an element of novelty in their packaging.
The problem was his mouth.
No analysis here. I just got distracted by contemplating Chris Evans’ mouth.
Where was I? Oh, right, subversion.
The next chunk of the story is a playing out of the subversion already introduced by the story. Steve Rogers, socialist, proceeds to subvert everybody else’s expectations about him by being true to himself rather than their assumptions about what being the PR embodiment of America means. It’s the story playing true to its own form, but demonstrating an undermining of the norms at play within its world. Also, the series of anecdotes is funny. The people Rogers interacts with are drawn in broad enough strokes that the reader gets to fill in specifics where they like and we get to chuckle at what happens because we’re in on the joke. The story is drawing lines around its audience – they’re assumed to be at least open to the stances Rogers takes – but that’s one of the things humor intrinsically does even if it’s not more divisive than “Those who found the joke funny,” and “Those who didn’t.”
(The call back to “socialism” is delightful, btw)
Just in case you might suspect the story isn’t serious about its dedication to its premise, note how even the figure of speech when Yumi questions how the situation could possibly be bad unveils a new element in Eva’s misery.
“I really am sorry.” In the months she’d worked with him, she had never seen him look genuinely apologetic before now, not even after almost getting into a fistfight with that Tea Party governor.
And here’s where we get a new subversion by calling all that came before to a screeching halt. It appears to be the first time Steve has tried to interact with Eva the human behind Eva the PR person, and it leads to a completely in character yet totally unprecedented behavior. This, I think, (and Eva probably agrees with me) is the moment that dooms her as his PR handler. It forces her to engage with the problematic elements involved in trying to PR police Socialist Captain America but also humanizes Steve for the reader. Up to this point he’s largely a punch-line generating steamroller and now he’s an ally who realizes he’s screwed up. The tie back to offer to let her punch him referenced in the intro is a nice touch, too, because while we expected that to come back (it was Chekhov’s promise if you will) we didn’t expect it to come back in a conversation that was just the two of them talking about something personal rather than dealing with politics.
“The fucked up thing is, when I think about it, issue by issue, I don’t think I disagree with anything you’ve said.”
And this is where we get the most important subversion of the story. Eva breaks character, fully engages with her job, and undermines everything she’s been doing since Rogers first mentioned Chavez. An analytical reader knows the story is over at this point, it’s all just wrapping up from here, because this is where we finish Eva’s character arc in the piece. Eva isn’t an analytical reader, but Steve is and he helps her figure it out. Which is ultimately another subversion because forcing her out of the job goes totally against the “Steve Rogers: asshole” premise tendered by the piece so far, establishing the counter-theory of “Steve Rogers: Nice guy playing a very deep game.”
This month we’re doing Slate Star Codex’s “…And I Show You How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes.” I put this in the CC lineup because, first, it’s both charmingly thoughtful and hilarious, and also because I wanted to mix up story sources. There are good stories everywhere, and if I’m going to make a project out of pulling them apart and figuring out how they tick, so should go looking everywhere for them.
This was going around the internet fairly virulently a while back, and it’s no wonder. The structure of the story lends itself to binge reading and the end packs a punch that makes it easy to want to share. That structure is what I want to stare at for a bit today.
The graphic at the top of the story is useful to cluing the reader in to what’s going on, though it’s not necessary to follow the story. But using the chart as a guide for the structure does some interesting things. Through one choice and another, we wind up with a second person story that has eight different POVs. That’s eight different “you”s the reader is getting to be over the course of the story though, of course, they don’t all make it the whole way through.
People’s minds are heartbreaking. Not because people are so bad, but because they’re so good.
Starting the story off with an assertion like this tells us several things. First, it warns us that we’re in for a bit of a polemic; there’s a lot of authorial asserting going on to say this would be the experience of the yellow pill user. But it’s the sort of assertion people broadly like to hear, and it makes it easy to set up the Yellow-You as a sympathetic protagonist. Originally there were avaricious motives – who wouldn’t look at that opportunity and pick the thing they think would most improve their life? – but when the reality that people are generally good and hurting comes through, those selfish motives get dropped in favor of an attempt to help and, ultimately, social isolation. It’s a tragedy, but one the story doesn’t allow to leave as a mere tragedy.
It always thinks that it is a good bear, a proper bear, that a bear-hating world has it out for them in particular.
This line does a lot of work in the story. First, it makes it clear that while there is a polemic in this story, it’s there for the entertainment, too. It’s funny, to think of a bear carrying along with the same interior monologue as everybody you bump into on city streets. But it also sets up a very nice segue into the next section where Green-You is going to turn into animals, while establishing that this isn’t so very weird, inside that reality, since bears at least are just hanging out in the woods with really great fur suits.
The fact that world building is happening, even here in this very short introductory segment where we’re getting you used to the idea of the pills not working out the way You expects, or perhaps even how you expect, is important. There are eight POVs here, but one overarching arc, so each POV needs to be contributing to that or else chaos and confusion.
The green section is very similar, but pushes what the yellow section does even further. Lots more humor, but also a significant ramping up of the consequences of the pills. Eight POV characters…woops. Make that seven. It’s funny, but it also tells us that there are real serious business consequences to being wreckless with the powers the pills give you. They do what they say on the label, but they don’t come with character shields.
Blue gives us even more of the critical-to-later world building while still passing things off as quirky and funny. The universe is big, but also very empty. Good To Know.
Orange. Oh man, I would never take the orange pill, I saw that twist coming from the outset. We’re still being funny, slipping in a didactic pointer, (it’s a polemic, or had you forgotten over the last few sections?) bit also putting our characters where we need them. Of the characters so far, Orange-You seems to be doing the best. Which, well, of course You are.
The Red section is great. Hey look, satire! Lots of funny here, with the kind of commentary that won’t feel didactic to the people laughing, and it sets up what winds up being a really important set piece for the functioning of the whole story. We know characters can get sent out of the story – one’s dead, another is off exploring the universe and disillusioned with Earth, and the audience for this story more or less assumes that Red and Pink are going to be written off and ignored.
And here I’m going to stop the section-by-section analysis, because that’s the critical piece of the structure that I think takes this story from one that’s easy to read through to one that’s easy to share. The author knows the audience, knows what assumptions they’re going to make, probably expected the “But I’m already frustrated with how incompetent everyone is,” response to the Orange pill section, and made toying with that a critical piece of the story’s structure.
Two acts and an epilogue. Act one is all the set piece laying we’ve already seen. Act Two is the Quest to solve the meta problem introduced in Act One. And the Epilogue is where we get the final resolution and find out that this was definitely a funny story, but the audience is, in part, the butt of the joke.
You had always known, deep down, that BRUTE STRENGTH was what was really important. And here, at the end of all things, it is deeply gratifying to finally be proven right.
Funny because it’s inarguably true while also being completely wrong. Without the Eggheads to build the stations and turbines and figure out that you’ve got a perpetual motion machine capable of bootstraping a new universe, that strength would be useless, but without the strength, all that knowledge and tech wouldn’t have done it. Nobody will ever convince Red-You of the nuances of the situation though, and that is where the story’s didactic thread rests at the end.
I’ve been bad about doing updates on things. I’d feel bad about it, but I’m too busy doing all the things that have been keeping me from updating to indulge in human emotion, so I’ll just pile a bunch of it here.
First, I have overcome my hatred of joy, happiness, and comedy and snagged a place in Alex Shvartsman’s fourth Unidentified Funny Objects anthology. This year’s iteration had a dark humor theme and in the forward he says what I actually did was right a horror story, but I think it’s actually a very sweet tale about dating a cannibal. I’ll say something somewhere about this again when the anthology comes out so you can snag yourself a copy.
Also, should you feel you don’t get enough of my dulcet tones at the Strange Horizons podcast, you can listen to me slaughter so Russian like a James Bond villain over at the Overcast. I narrated Anatoly Bellilovsky’s Of Mat and Math for them. This process included a continuation of the trend where my voice disappears right when I have a podcast obligation. I think possibly the Podcast Editor position at Strange Horizons is cursed and if you try to do anything else your throat swells up and starts to grow things. Or I’m only foolish enough to volunteer for extra work when I’m on the verge of becoming ill. I think the curse is more likely.
Finally, the Strange Horizons podcast was nominated for a Parsec award this year. That was so awesome that I quietly freaked out about it for months rather than saying anything. Woops. The initial nominations come from fans, so I basically already won. I mean, seriously now, I have no idea who the judges are and so I don’t really care what they think of my podcast. But Strange Horizons fans like it enough to tell people to give us an award! That pretty much means I’m the best thing ever, you can’t touch this, victory laps for everybody. Or, you know, that I’m going to chew off all my finger nails between now and when the winners are announced at Dragon*Con in September. ONE OF THESE THINGS IS TRUE. Maybe two.
I’m going to be at WorldCon, too, and I’m all over the programming there, but I’ll post my schedule tomorrow so you can bask in…pixels.