A science fiction short story from WHM.

SafeForge Incident Report

Everyone (except me)
SafeForge (the entire station)
SafeForge is an orbital station converted from an asteroid in the BN37 star system to mine heavy metals from the asteroid belt as well as serve as a refuel station for the infrequent occurrence of ships traveling between the two clusters of TheHub and BurstRose. The human component of the station was comprised of 233 individuals. A protectorate of the Materials Alliance Group, it operated as a self-regulating cooperative set at 15% member fluctuation, a cap of 10% admin, and 20% minimum gruntwork per cooperativist. The minimum buy-in was 5,000 toil cycles. The official culture designation was technocratic agnostic with high altruism and low deviation from galactic standard. That's the official line. But here's the truth: the station's isolation had led to a higher than standard localized culture and a high self-perpetuation state (89.3%) as well as proto-animism. I believe this is an example of what The Flangent Group has identified as closed system inductive drift. At the very least, there existed a slavish devotion to minor (or miner [as it were]) superstitions. For example: Although there was no reason to, every shift the miners would draw numbers to determine the order they would leave the station for their excavators. They would use the same stack of cards until there was an accident that either damaged machinery or led to the injury or death of the operator. After such an occurrence, they would publicly incinerate the stack of cards and prepare a new one. Another example: Women in a state of gestation always walked the corridor for their morning exercise that had been walked by the first woman who successfully brought a child to term on the station. Though the corridor had later been extended during an expansion, the historical end of the corridor was still marked by a stripe of red paint. The women never crossed it while exercising. There was a rumor that women who crossed the line had a higher chance of miscarriage or other unfortunatalities. [Yes, that's inexcusable word play. I'm leaving it in. Maybe it explains something.] One time (before my parents moved to the station), a group of teenagers thought it would be amusing to paint over the line and paint a new one several feet into the newer section. According to rumor, all the women who were gravid at the time lost their babies and the four culprits stole an excavator and crashed it into Riva, the gas giant that is the nearest planet to the station. This sounds like one of those cautionary tales generated by necessity rather than events, but I found the documentation. It's delightfully ambiguous on whether the shuttle was stolen or provisioned. [That word delightful is a red herring: if I were truly interested in the gray technicalities of bureaucratic cover-ups, I would have found more joy in my admin internship and would right now be exercising petty retributions on the still-living cooperativists of SafeForge.] Also: yes, the name of the station turned out to be quite ironic: Ha. Ha. Ha.
The station is in complete disarray. Many systems are down. All sectors (but mine [and I'm barely holding on]) are derelict. All 24 mining excavators are missing or destroyed. I am unable [and, to be honest, unwilling] to do detailed assessments.
I know I'm supposed to feel different now that it's gone, but SafeForge has never felt like home to me. Perhaps it is this distance that created the necessary conditions for me to write this report. Perhaps not, especially since it has taken me so long to file it. I should explain further. But to do so requires starting at the beginning. Kasstel write that beginnings rarely matter in the end. Maybe they're right. Maybe it wasn't the beginning where things went wrong. And yet as I did the research necessary to prepare this report, I found myself returning to it again and again. So: I was a lonely child. My research suggests that nearly everyone says they are. I have come to believe that this claim is proof of the narcissism which is bound up in any attempts to reflect on a childhood: to claim loneliness is to hint at thoughtfulness and uniqueness. Who, after all, wants to claim that they were a noisy, thoughtless, joiner of a child who spent all their time reacting to other children, head full of play? No, much better to be a child apart from the world: in one's own little world: creating the oddities and concerns that can bring insight and novelty to the world once refined by education and experience. Or to put it another way: it is a way to sidestep the naiveté, to not be implicated in the cruel innocence of children. Still: I actually was a lonely child. I can prove it thus: I was born on DromePort to ordinary parents: conceived and gestated in the ordinary way: raised in as comfortable (ordinary) and stimulating (ordinary) environment as my parents could afford. In my sixth year, my parents were accepted into the SafeForge cooperative. I now know that this had been their original goal--that I had been one step in their qualification for membership. I mention this not to deflect blame, but rather to provide a fuller picture of the situation. One would have hoped that such a backwater would have very few children, but the locals had taken advantage of its insignificance and isolation to go on a procreation spree. In my pool of children, there were 17 of us: only 20 less than the much larger colony in which I had been born. This abundance pleased my parents. The consequences for me were devastating: the move only solidified my middle-of-the-packness in an even more provincial location. I tried to fend off the sociable enthusiasms of the others, but there are only so many places to hide on a small, increasingly crowded station, and I was not so socially defective as to desire to isolate myself completely so I often was forced to join in. This was abetted by my parents, who were delighted to see that my--in their words--“friends” wanted to play. Except they didn't: I have verified this in my review of the creche feeds. They wanted me to run with the pack, but gave me no role within it. Once I joined, they ignored me completely. I was only present for them in my absence. Once that presence was discovered they would hound my parents or sniff out my quiet spots so that I would be forced to join in. One might think a child such as I would turn to art. My education file shows that some attempts were made to nudge me in that direction, but to no avail: I showed neither talent nor interest for the foundations and lineaments of any particular art form. At most I exhibited a slightly higher than average eagerness to consume the communal entertainments to be found on the station, which were paltry in number and thin in value, consisting mainly of screen-based slice-of-life narratives and live imaginative role-inhabiting/swapping (where, incidentally, I always played the overly serious project chair/captain/lead). In fact, I have no memory of and can find no record of me ever accessing the masterworks database until I began crashing about manically doing the research required to write this report. I have spent quite some time with it since then. My parents never seemed to worry about me. Why should they? I never stole rations, or moved sensors, or flooded the network with crude images or dirty jokes. Speaking of jokes: I somehow never grew out of the stage of development where children tell dumb ones. This is likely because my parents, especially my father, laughed uproariously at every one I told, no matter how hoary or unsophisticated. Let me illustrate with one that is representative: Q: What did the miner say to the asteroid? A: I dig you. [For those unacquainted with space mining operations, it's funny not only because it plays on the dual meaning of the word dig but also because heavy machinery operators are known for their monosyllabic literalness, especially in their expressions of romantic interest. Or to state another truism: a miner is always only after one thing.] Or how about this one? Q: What's the difference between butt waste and a vitprot bar? A: Shit if I know. [Alternate punchline: shit isn't what it used to be] These all should have elicited groans from my parents, but instead were met with laughter every time. Even the fifth time and the seventeenth time and the thirty-first. Even after I entered my teen years. Even after my mother died in a freak accident. My peers were no better. They also always laughed. Not as hard or long as my father, but they still laughed. And yet as I grew more self-aware, this laughter only reinforced my loneliness. It always seemed to create distance between me and the person laughing; whereas, I was looking to bridge it: to find some kinship: some spark between brains. It never was clear to me if I was being humored or laughed at or merely causing some reflexive action. So I told the jokes, each time hoping that this would be the time where things clicked. And they always laughed. Little did they know that after I finally grew out of these jokes, I had one more to tell. One that would grow horribly wrong. But that was yet to come and even after writing all this I feel like I'm forcing narrative on to the truth of my childhood and adolescence. Granted, it's a narrative that I, myself, have forced, but I'm not entirely convinced, and I will never know how convincing it is to anyone else. As the poet Sleek wrote: I been back and forth in my mind / like a faulty switch / swinging between possibilities / never landing on which.
None (because they're all dead). I strained my lower back while dragging bodies to the recycler, but that was post-incident. It has healed over the past couple of months.
It occurs to me that there may be some questions about why it has taken so long to file this report. I want to start by emphasizing that what finally happened was not in the plan at all: I did not want to destroy SafeForge. Keeping that in mind, believe me when I say that this report is not some exercise in nostalgia or exorcism or self-justification. It is a reconstruction: meticulously documented, exhaustively researched, corroborated where possible. (Of course, much of the documentation is gone, even my exhaustion has its limits, and those who can corroborate are all dead.) In addition, I have sifted through a multitude of research looking to situate this event in a theoretical framework that would be useful to those who will be doing a more thorough post-mortem [Sorry. Really: truly: sorry] of the failure. It seems to me that I have failed to find the right one, although I do not know if that is because of my deficiencies as a researcher and analyst or because I am too close to the situation. Indeed, even though I will likely never see the final Galactic Auditors report, the desire to provide something that will contribute positively to that report [but, hopefully, without biasing it] is what led me to finally completing this form.
This is where it gets complicated. And requires more information on my upbringing, specifically my adolescence and early adulthood. I don't think much needs to be said on issues of sexuality: I was in the lower end of the middle third in terms of frequency and number of partners. My partner profile centered around the descriptors: gentle, adequate, attentive, consistent. Schooling and career fit requires a bit more detail: I have already expressed my ordinariness. This inevitably translated to mediocrity in studies. I was cautiously interested in but never passionate about everything. Ironically, this dull dilettantery (please don't be impressed with the turn of phrase: I stole it from Shon Za 8) meant I was the only one in my group to rotate through every single occupational exploration station. As you should by now anticipate, I showed no strong affinity but also no strong aversion to any of the occupational tracks. I also exhibited only a very weak desire to leave the station. But even if that desire had been stronger, it wouldn't have mattered. Neither my psych profiles nor my evaluation scores were good enough to afford me that opportunity; while at the same time I was unwilling to commit (at least until it was too late) to manifesting the anti-social behaviors that would get me immediate passage on the next ship out. In order to understand the next part I must explain this: During my career exploration, I served a stint at the med station. It was quickly discovered that I lacked the urgency to be of use in emergency treatments or surgeries and the empathy to assist in non-emergency care, so I was assigned to behind-the-scenes stuff: sample analysis, ongoing treatment preparations, etc. For once, I became intensely curious about something: why were more than half of the residents of SafeForge being slipped synapse stabilizers in their vitprot bars (which I had a hand in preparing for the 40 remaining toil cycles of my med term)? I don't know why I was trusted with this information. That's a lie. I know exactly why: see everything above. But anyway: one of the medtechs let it slip that many of the members of the cooperative needed a little extra help so their moods stayed within the ranges needed to cope with station life. Clearly, they were trying to make the job I was doing seem more important and/or interesting. Not smart. But how were they to know? I was to find out later that this was just one of many indications that SafeForge had slipped into monocultural torpor. As Dinduh-Rae sang: How were I to know / You were this dumb? / With up your butt / Your only thumb? [So sorry. I may be experiencing the effects of long-term sleep deprivation.] And now I must explain this: You already know about the jokes. I also went through a phase where I became quite interested in accounts of practical jokes. All of my peer group did. That's how it works, right? Somebody dredges up some bit of gold from the archives; the rest go frantically panning for other nuggets with which to impress the group. Once that plays itself out, it's on to the next thing. Except with this one I kept up my search. Not obsessively: consistently. Which is how, several years later, I came across it. It was, as such things often are, buried in a report. There are hard limits to the miscreantsy that teenagers on a station can get up to: limits so effectively drilled in that the kids aren't aware of them. For example: One does not mess with anything that could affect station pressure. Another example: One does not do anything that could diminish or taint water supply. However, this is where the ingenuagility effect invariably comes in: the limits created by the unthinkable mean that the thinkable often becomes that much more twisted. The report gave me the basic idea, but the details on how it was carried out were heavily euphemized. I had to read between the lines and draw certain inferences. It wasn't that hard. Now, though, I wonder if I completely misinterpreted the nature and scope of the prank. Synthesizing the chemicals was easy (I expressed interest in doing another cycle in the components lab: this was such a rare occurrence that it was immediately granted and largely unsupervised). So was the delivery system (the vitprot bars). Clearly, I made a mistake in the amounts or in my understanding of how soon they would flush through an individual's system. I also probably shouldn’t have paired it with the removal of the stabilizers from the vitprot bars: I thought it would intensify the effects: I was correct. [To my horror.]
I have assigned myself the primary blame. But I believe I was only the spark that lit the tinder. Tharsten's work on systems failure has been quite useful in explaining what happened next, especially their observation that the search for inflection points forces a narrativistic perspective which is generally not useful at rooting out core causes. I don't have the expertise to generate a multi-nodal analysis, but I suspect the rest of the incident was caused by the systematic, cascading social failure of the human components of the station: a collective fall into delusion and violence.
I'm sorry if that all sounds a bit dramatic. And yet it was. I have had to quarantine the feed archives to stop my obsessive viewing of them. I will give only four examples of each phase [Fillip Skance: Four is always more (than three)]. You can isolate out the rest from the feed archives [which have now been coded to open only by input of a Galactic Auditor credential]. At first it was amusing (which is what I was going for): A shift supervisor paired the specialists up by the euphony of their kin names. A food tech over-sugared the pre-shift bowl of grains. A group of teens acted out the tragedy of the galactic family dressed in bedsheets and vacuum hoses. Then it was disturbing (which is where I began to be alarmed): The off-shift miners had words and fists with the ore processors over accusations of credit shaving. A creche leader ran calisthenics until the children collapsed. The admin team refused to process any fatigue exemptions. A group of teenagers formed a jeering circle around an elderly cooperativist. Then it was terrifying (which is where I isolated myself): Three of the shuttles bringing back ore tried to weave a double scissors and split into each other. A surgeon overrode the robotic controls and scalpeled a forested mountain with river scene onto a patient’s skin. An irate shift-supe flushed an insubordinate subordinate out an air lock and then shortly afterward received the same treatment from the remaining irate shift workers. The counselors opened up the medstores and the corridors soon filled with the dazed, the psychotic, the failing. And so I was a coward cowering but one provisioned and isolated, brain chemistry intact, and with access to most of the video, audio and system feeds available on the station. And so SafeForge fell. And so I researched and wrote this report.
So many. But it boils down to this: whether the failure was that of the system that produced the individual [Me!] or of the individual itself [Also: Me!]. I am, obviously, too close to the problem to offer a definitive answer, but I hope this report will provide an adequate starting place. Every end has a start. I wish you luck in finding it.
After the audit, SafeForge should be (at most) the object of a salvage operation.
I would hurtle SafeForge into BN37, but I don't know how. I'd carry out justice directly on myself, but I have too healthy a sense of self-preservation. I'd keep things running indefinitely, but the enviro systems still working are reaching the limits of my knowledge of how to maintain them. If by some outlandish coincidence you receive this report in time to help, don't come for me until after they fail: that would ruin the joke.

Reader expectations and Ancillary Sword, Hawk, The Peripheral and The Slow Regard of Silent Things

WHM reviews four books — Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie; Hawk by Steven Brust; The Peripheral by William Gibson; and The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss — by looking at his reader expectations in relation to them and his actual reading experience.

Reader expectations are a blessing and a bane to both readers and authors. To authors because they can either productively constrain or unproductively overwhelm the writing process. To readers because expectations can either heighten or warp their experience of reading a book. It might be nice if they didn’t exist at all, and, of course, they vary widely across an author’s readership. Which is why authors shouldn’t worry about them at all. Except I suspect that they do even as they try not to. And the more I write fiction, the more I suspect that the worst reader expectations authors have looming over them is not the readers out there in the world, but the reader in their own head.

I suspect that even though it’d be nice for authors to not have to deal with reader expectations at all, for most of them, it’s more than just a necessary evil. For one, most authors do want a readership and understand that with readers come reader expectations. For another, expectations give authors something to tease and play with and subvert — not for capricious reasons, but because literature is a conversation and most authors — especially the four I’ll be talking about below — want to further that conversation is interesting ways.

I’ve been thinking of reader expectations quite a bit lately because of the nature of the SF&F novels I’ve read over the past couple of months. I found myself becoming more aware than normal of the expectations I had as a reader for these novels and then trying to figure out what those were, why I had them, and how they varied. I’ve come to realize that my expectations form a sort of benign tyranny that I can’t escape (although modifications may be possible).

Please note that this is not exactly a review of these books which means there are spoilers ahead, although (as often is the case with my writing on genre fiction) I won’t be spoiling the entire plots or the endings (how’s that for setting up reader expectations?).

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Cover of Ann Leckie's Ancillary SwordLike sophomore albums, sophomore novels are notoriously laden with anxiety and expectation. When your sophomore effort is the sequel to a debut novel that swept the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Clarke and Locus awards? Those are some heavy expectations to live up to. And yet, my perception is that reader expectations for Ancillary Sword were not miles high. I think readers knew that there was no way that the second Leckie novel could surpass or even live up to the first — not in terms of the quality of writing and plotting but in relation to the way the first swept in and dominated the conversation.

But even with those more realistic expectations, Ancillary Sword seems to have been met by many with readers with “yeah, it’s good. It’s not as good as the first.” I had absorbed a little bit of that feeling by the time I read it, but largely came in, I think, with a different set of expectations. I was not looking for epic-scale extension of the first. I had not been as disoriented by the sole use of female pronouns and so didn’t see it as much as a novelty and a gimmick. And I was more interested in the personal dynamics of the characters than the over-arching political machinations within which they collided.

Which is why I think I like the novel more than a lot of other readers. Here’s what I mean by that:

Ancillary Sword is a mystery novel where we have a fairly good sense of who did what and possibly even why. The real mystery is: how are the key characters going to react to the events and personalities set in motion by the mystery? And specifically: Breq (who is the remnants of a ship AI in its only surviving ancillary [human body]), Seivarden (who is a military officer and aristocrat who had been in cryosleep for 1,000 years), and Lieutenant Tisarwat (who had been implanted with an AI copy of Raadch emperor Anaander Mianaai and is trying to cope with the that copy being removed and who she now is). In other words, we have three characters all of whom have reasons to be considered core to the Raadch empire and its socio-political structure, but who also are all alienated from it and its technologies and all of whom have different levels of awareness of each other on both an emotional and technological level. Most specifically: because Breq had been an ancillary of a ship, when she is made captain of Mercy of Kalr she gains more access to the ship AI and through it her crew than a “normal” captain would. This means that from a narrative standpoint, we’re getting something different than in Ancillary Sword — something between the simultaneous awareness of Justice of Toren and the complete isolation of Breq. I was expecting Leckie to do something interesting with that and she did.

To put it succinctly: Leckie delivered on furthering the socio-cultural and political aspects of the situations she created in Ancillary Sword. This worked for me because that’s what I like best in her work. Readers who were more interested in the more space opera elements of the series were likely more likely to feel let down.

I think a sidenote on the use of gender pronouns is also in order: whereas I wondered at the outset if it was going to become annoying, I found Leckie’s insistence on using only (what is in English) the female pronoun even more effective in this novel because of the sexual and social dynamics that explode. It made even more of a feminist statement in that the sexual power dynamics resisted what normally would have made for the most lazy of gender stereotyping. For me, it underlined the strength of that initial decision.

Hawk by Steven Brust

Cover of Hawk by Steven BrustNow that we’re 13 novels into the Vlad Taltos series, what does a reader expect from the fourteenth novel Hawk? I think we expect:

  1. That it will be witty and amusing.

  2. That it will relate to the house that the novel is named after.

  3. That it will offer something clever in terms of narrative and/or plot structure — something clever in the telling.

  4. That the overall storyline will be furthered.

And I think we have now come to be rather confident that Brust is going to deliver on all four of those expectations. But I think for readers of the series, myself included, something more specific was expected of Hawk: it’s time for Vlad’s situation to change. That Brust knew this as well shows how good he is and how in tune he is with his core readership. Even more lovely is that he uses techniques 1-4 above to make it all happen. And in doing so he squeezes out extra dread and pathos. It’s not easy to bring deftness of prose and structure and humor and even odd whimsy to a story and still bring the sense of danger and the underlying, well, sadness and sense of loss.

And that’s why this is such a Hawk Hawk. Why it’s such a Daymar novel even if, though he is crucial to the plot, he doesn’t pop up all that much in the story. I’ve always found Daymar to be a fascinating character — perverse not in a perverted way. Capricious and oblivious but also knowing and because of that knowing tinged with darkness. So it’s fitting that this be the book where Vlad takes on the fact that the price the criminal organization the Jhereg has put on his head has for much too long ruled his life and his relationships. And it’s fitting that Daymar be the mechanism by which he attempts to do so.

This many novels into a series, the expectations are that Brust give us what we want but also give us something new. He does that with Hawk. Just like he has in the past. There’s a level of trust Brust has developed with his readers that goes beyond simply expectations. It’s a beautiful thing and even more beautiful when it’s used in such an interesting, renewing way.

The Peripheral by William Gibson

Cover of The PeripheralWhat expectations to have for the latest Gibson novel The Peripheral? I know that I’m not the only fan who enjoyed the Bigend novels but hoped that he would return to work that was more science fictional. What messed me up is that somewhere in something I read the term “time travel” got attached to the book. I hate time travel. Compounding that fact, Gibson is at his most spare, most techno self which means readers are thrown into the thick of it without much scaffolding at all, which meant I started to get impatient a few chapters in. My expectations were both too high and too low. I was prepared for disappointment. And yet there’s also a respect there that no matter what it’s worth sticking with just to see if he delivers and so in spite of my wariness and my confusion about the settings as the novel beings what kept me going is the prose is just so good. Smooth and buttery with just the right hints and weird details to show that this isn’t the present. It’s the future. Or futures. And so when we hit page 68 in Chapter 18 and the alternating POVs we’ve been tracking get explained in relation to each other, I was hooked (sidenote: the chapter titles are a spec-fic story in and of themselves, a little added pleasure to the reading experience).

This, perhaps, has led me to overvalue the novel. Twisting expectations can do that if the ways in which they get twisted are effective and pleasurable. It’s nice when an author delivers when, at first, you think they aren’t. And this really shows why authors are so at the mercy of reader expectations: there’s no reason why Gibson deserved my wariness. Or at least no good reasons.

I won’t spoil the ending. But what’s fascinating about The Peripheral in relation to our (my) expectations of Gibson’s fiction is that he lets go of some of the cool-ness we had come to, ahem, expect from him. There’s a strange tenderness to how he seems to feel about the characters (or at least how the implied author feels). I’m not sure if I completely buy it. I’m not sure if Gibson has changed those things that drive his authorial persona. Or to put it more grandiose: is he really that optimistic? I don’t know. Part of me doesn’t trust that ending. But it has changed how I view the author quite a bit. Whatever the ultimate success of The Peripheral (and I’m still ruminating on that point) it completely, successfully messed with my readerly expectations but all in ways that are, if not old-Gibsonesque, are quite possibly new-Gibsonesque. It’s also messed quite a bit with my expectations for his next book. He’s added a new dimension to his conversation, and it’s one I want to continue.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

Cover of The Slow Regard of Silent ThingsIf Leckie gets allowances, Brust trust, and Gibson a measured respect, then what of my readerly expectations for Rothfuss? Wary is perhaps too mild but it’s the most complete single adjective. Look, I enjoyed Rothfuss’s prose in the first two titles in The Kingkiller Chronicle and some of the characterization, but there were episodes in both books that annoyed me. So why bother with The Slow Regard of Silent Things? Because I enjoyed the Bast story in Rogues and because I’m curious about Auri and because I do like his prose style. So there’s wariness and curiosity and then Rothfuss has to go and directly address reader expectations in a foreword to the novel. It’s not so much the “You might not want to buy this book” that annoyed me. It’s the “it’s only fair to warn you that this is a bit of a strange story” and “it doesn’t do a lot of things a classic story is supposed to do”. It gets exactly why I’m frustrated with him as an author because I see so much promise in his literariness but have been burned by those elements that play to whoever he’s warning in this foreword (or even worse explaining to in the endnote) or perhaps to those aspects of how he relates to his authorial self that require those additions.

This makes me a snob. But I think it’s clear from his front and back matter that Rothfuss is one. And here’s the deal: we meet in our snobbery in this story. Which is a good thing and I wish he’d indulge this snobbery more often and without the self-consciousness. And his prose is the best it’s ever been and the strangeness (which shouldn’t be warned against) is quite lovely. Expectations exceeded. I’m totally sucked into Auri’s world and the voice Rothfuss has developed for her. Except the wariness is still there. And it was right to be. Because, although subtle, the story still ties into some of the key issues that disrupt my experience of reading his work. Nicolette Stewart explains it at Book Punks better than I can,  but as the story progresses, I find myself foundering on the fact that Auri can’t just be Auri, she has to be herself in relation to Kvothe and she can’t just be who she is because of who she is but it has to be because of what was done to her. And it makes me gnash my teeth because if Rothfuss can’t let go of those things that make me wary with a book like this then what hope do we have of meeting each other’s expectations in the final novel of the trilogy? And it makes me sad because it seems like I should be one of his readers — that there’s room for a reader like me in his work. But we can’t quite seem to meet up. And that messes with how I approach each new story of his because each time I go in, I go in expecting that divide to be there. That’s not fair to me or Rothfuss. Which means that someone is going to need to get me to completely rethink my reader expectations before I will feel like it’s wise to pick up his next book. In retrospect, I should have seen Rothfuss’s attempt to set reader expectations as a sign that as much as it seemed that he was playing to me, he couldn’t quite let go of the expectations of his larger readership.

The Benign Tyranny of Reader Expectations

We all have our unique set of reader expectations that vary by author and work. Those can establish a benign tyranny in a reader that shade how we experience what we read in ways that aren’t necessarily under our conscious control. But those are also why the conversation can be so interesting. They lead to a variety of experiences and hearing each other’s experiences can help us re-visit our own and influence our reading experiences yet to come. What bothers me in Rothfuss may not bother other readers. What delights me in Brust may not seem quite as delightful to other readers. How I approached Ancillary Sword is clearly not how some other readers approached it. And I really have no idea what expectations other readers have of Gibson (talk to me about it in the comments even if you haven’t yet read The Peripheral).

What gets us in trouble is when we don’t examine our expectations and don’t articulate those when we make claims about the merits of individual novels and other works of narrative art. This doesn’t mean that we should self-consciously lay those out every time we talk about a novel. That could get quite annoying. Rather, it means that as we enter the conversation we should realize that literature is not a game of like or dislike, on an author’s side or not, and let that knowledge of the tyranny of our own readerly expectations not cause us to attempt to foist that tyranny upon others both in how we articulate our own experience and how we react to what others have to say about their own reading experiences.

Where I wish Redshirts had gone

WHM on how John Scalzi’s took the exact wrong metafictional turns in his novel with three codas *Redshirts*.

Cover of Redshirts by John ScalziIn trying to identify where John Scalzi’s Redshirts went wrong for me as a reader, I should first establish that at some point it was going right, which means owning up to the fact that I went into the book with a certain skepticism–not strong skepticism, because I enjoy Scalzi’s online authorial persona, and because even though I have never been active in Star Trek fandom, I have viewed at least 200 episodes of the series (with the bulk of those being TNG) as well as most of the films–but I did go in with a thin barrier between me and the text, created (as best as I can recall) by some of the reaction to Redshirts winning the Hugo Award for Novel. That skepticism stayed with me through the first few pages, but then it began to fall once Dahl encounters Captain Abernathy in full narrative mode. And then when Dahl goes on his first away mission and comes back and (in chapter five) confronts the rest of the team in the lab, and they explain the “Sacrificial Effect” and the tracking system that helps them avoid away missions, I was fully sucked in, the skepticism gone.

To go further: I really like the way Scalzi sets up the key problems and themes of the novel and Ensign Dahl’s reaction to them as well as the reactions of his fellow new crew members on the Intrepid. This consonance between author (Scalzi) and reader (me) continued on into the meeting with Jenkins (a character who figured out the fictionality of the situation and set up and manages the tracking system) and into the next away mission so that when we reach chapter 12 and have this exchange, it was hitting the sweet spot where metafiction becomes both humorous and creepy:

“Finn turned to Kerensky. “So, what’s the plan?” he asked. “Plan” Kerensky said, and blinked. “If there really is a Narrative, it’s not on him right now,” Dahl said, about Kerensky.

I was even into it when Dahl decides to take action. This response to Jenkins (which comes part way into chapter 13) is fantastic:

”Why me?” Jenkins asked. “Because you know this television show we’re trapped in better than anyone else,” Dahl said. “If there’s a solution or a loophole, you’re the only one who can find it. And soon. Because I don’t want any more of my friends to die because of a hack writer. And that includes you.”

But then, as chapter 13 progresses, things went very wrong.

Scalzi decides to link Dahl’s narrative with the real world–with our world. Star Wars and Star Trek get specifically mentioned. The plan to break the grip of the Narrative involves an intentionally ridiculous method of, naturally, inducing time travel. Characters travel to mid-2000s L.A. and meet their doubles—the actors who play them on the television show. Producers and writers get involved. All the original tension vanishes, but the metafictional aspects that layer on, that, to some extent, raise the stakes instead goes all gooey and referential (but not in a good way).

I don’t think that was the intended effect. I think it’s all supposed to make readers see the characters as more complex and more closely tied to all those involved in the production of the television show they are stuck on. And I believe Scalzi’s overall point is that minor characters have rich, full lives too, and creators and fans shouldn’t be so cavalier about killing off such characters. Death shouldn’t be used as a cheap device to move plot forward. There may also be something about the power of narrative to heal–that seeing other versions of ourselves can help spur us to become better version of ourselves. All correct notions. But I found myself resisting the delivery of them.

The problem is that metafiction doesn’t deepen reality. It creates irreality or surreality. Playing with questions of authorship* points to the ir-realness of authorship and of any attempts to force narrative on the “real” world. Bringing in the “real” world doesn’t make the fictional world seem more real–it shows the artificialness of narrativizing the world and our experiences of it, especially by doing so via fiction.

If Scalzi had confined the “Sacrificial Effect” to the textual world the characters were in and had them find ways to resist (or not) within that world (or even meta-textually above it [but without explicitly brining in the “real” world]), I would have been much more in tune with what he was trying to do. I thought that Scalzi set up an interesting philosophical problem. Then it turned into something very different. That seems to have worked for many readers. It did not work for me.

  • Which Scalzi doesn’t do–he plays with notions of authorship but it’s a fictional author within the narrative whose metafictionalness comes in the form of him asking for help from both fictional and nonfictional authors who use metafiction. And, indeed, the only author who responds is a fictional creation of Scalzi’s. In other words, the metafiction stays contained within the world of fiction. The only moment of author-level metafiction may be in the Acknowledgements where Scalzi claims: “Redshirts is not even remotely based on the television show Stargate: Universe. Anyone hoping this is a thinly veiled satire of that particular experience of mine is going to have to be disappointed.” If he is telling the truth, then all my comments in the post above apply; however, if Scalzi is lying here, then the metafictional aspects of Redshirts take on a new dimension and the whole project becomes much more interesting. Successful metafiction is all about finding the right layers and how to apply them to the narrative substrate.

Six observations on Vatta’s War by Elizabeth Moon

The five books that form Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War series are enjoyable in the way they combine capable female characters with a fast-paced plot and familiar space opera setting with just enough unique features to hold interest. The following six observations contain spoilers for the entire series, although only a few general things and two major plot points. So if spoilers truly spoil a reading experience for you, it’s probably best to move on. If you’re like me and a couple of reveals (and really there is a ton that happens that isn’t mentioned at all below) don’t ruin a reading experience or you’ve already read the series, then read on.

  1. The abundance of female characters at the core of the narrative are both there because they are female, but the fact that they are female is not their primary/dominant attribute, which is cool. In other words, they come across as strong female characters because that who they are rather than that is what the story needs them to be. In addition to Ky Vatta, the lead character in the series, we get a substantial number of POV characters from Ky’s cousin Stella and her aunt Grace. They are the three family members who keep Vatta Corp. a viable enterprise. They are able to do so because of ingenuity, bravery and luck, but also because they were underestimated by their enemies who focused on killing the overt [rather thank covert [Grace/Stella] or emergent [Ky/Stella]) leaders of the family, all of whom were men. My only complaint is that Stella fades a bit in the later books. I would have liked to her have a slightly larger role, although I understand why the focus so much is on Ky, who is the main character in the series.
  2. I enjoyed the mix and scope of commercial and government entities. The Vatta-verse largely mirrors our own in the way that the private and public overlap and collide (productively or not) with each other. Justin Landon’s comments about the way politics and economics are dealt with in the first book is what originally led me to read the series, and I agree with his comments. I’d also note that it seems correct to me that an inhabited sector of the universe that is connected only by FTL jump points wouldn’t have strong cross-system government entities (a fact that the terrorists in the novels leverage) but would have a corporate monopoly for communications. Distance (and thus time) creates fragility.
  3. The first time a male authority figure worries about Ky Vatta being influenced by a possibly untrustworthy man because she might be sexually attracted to the cad, I thought that Moon was saying something interesting about sexism and patriarchy and how male authority figures are reluctant to grant full agency to precocious young women in command (like Ky [precocious because she is young to be a ship captain]). But then it happened again and then again and again, and it became such a tic that I don’t know what to think now.
  4. I also don’t know what to think about Moon’s psychologizing on those who are capable of killing and get a certain thrill out of it. It becomes a secret between some of the main characters in the book. Moon seems to be saying that it can be a necessary pathology of those fighting on the part of good (so long as it is kept in check). Ky is ashamed or scared of it at first, but as it manifests in other characters (Rafe, Grace, etc.), Moon appears to destigmatize it but at the same time seems to see it as a necessary condition of those who can be ruthless. Now I don’t doubt that people—even good people—can get a rush from killing a bad guy. But it is mentioned so often—but not complicated enough by Moon—that it comes across as a natural law or something. There are killers and then there are not. I don’t know enough to disagree, but this was another thing where it came up so often it seemed like a writerly tic.
  5. This is again something that I don’t know a whole lot about, but the way Moon handled Ky’s PTSD-triggered breakdown (due in part to all the trauma she experienced, but also to the haphazard way in which she had received her command implant) and the treatment of it struck me as realistic, interesting and inevitable.
  6. I also really like that as much of the action is about building resources and allies and dealing with government and commercial entities as it is about fighting bad guys in space.