Standard disclaimer: This post looks at the text of a short story for educational purposes, and does not shy away from spoilers. If you don’t want the story spoiled. read the original story first.
Habeas Corpus Callosum
by Jay Werkheiser
Analog Science Fiction and Fact, November 2014. Available at newstands and online retailers.
Analog has always been the home of “hard” science fiction for me, and mostly that means idea-driven fiction. Of course, the characters are important to any story, so the ideas need the right characters. It is also easy to imagine Analog stories as stories that come not from “there’s this guy who” but “If this happened, how would it change…” I’m not saying this is how Habeas Corpus Callosum was created, but the central idea, the theme, is more apparent to me as a reader.
The central question of this piece is how would immortality affect life sentences, or even death sentences. The character to deal with this question is Jared MacDonald, a man living out a life sentence for raping and killing a girl, so he is not immediately sympathetic, but there is some sympathy for his situation.
Here’s the background: There is a relatively new treatment that bestows immortality on people and that means Jared has a chance to be freed. At some point in the past, the right to the immortality treatment became a constitutional right.
This means Jared can get the treatment, even though he’s a lifer in prison. His lawyer has decided that if Jared can get the treatment, then his life-in-prison sentence needs to be changed. By definition, in the real world, life in prison is still a finite time. With immortality, it’s not.
The External Story: This story tries to answer the question of what a life-sentence means, and how our legal system may respond. The external story is interesting, but it takes a seat behind the internal story.
The Internal Story: Jared is an old man in a world where immortality also bestows the appearance of youth. He has been worn down over the decades of incarceration by visions of his victim’s mother. He is intenally punishing himself with guilt.
There are five major scenes: Jared and his lawyer set the stage in a few paragraphs of the first scene, skimming past “As-you-know-Bob” dialog by having one character (Jared) not understand how certain information is being presented. It needs to be summarized by his lawyer. The end of the first scene introduces Jared’s internal story: How can he apologize for his crime.
The second scene moves Jared from point A to point B, but the main point is to contextualize the problem within society.
The third scene presents the argument for Jared’s freedom and the benefit of his taking the treatment would bring. It touches on Jared’s internal story with a contradiction to his freedom.
The fourth scene presents the argument against Jared’s freedom. It includes a disturbance from the formal scene with his victim’s mother, to bring the internal story to a head, and Jared is told, blatantly, that he has a choice. He makes his choice.
The fifth and final scene (a coda, really) shows Jared about to do the thing he’s never been able to figure out, and thus close the internal story with an impending apology.
Impending apology? Yup. In my mind, Jared found the words he needs to say to this poor woman whose life he ruined. I’m satisfied, even that I don’t know what those words will be. I don’t think any words would suffice. This makes it, technically, an open ending, but it’s closed. It’s an off-screen closure. It still manages to answer the question Jared poses in the first scene.
What impresses me about this story is the dialog between the external and internal stories in each scene. Yeah, the ideas presented are interesting. The legal ramifications of immortality and some of the brain science side effects are cool. They are the kind of ideas that could inspire a themed anthology, and that means there’s a lot of space for conversation. This story doesn’t try to answer that, and that’s important.
In fact, the resolution to the external story is a great example of the “third choice.” A story that asks a yes or no question works better when the answer is the third choice.
Lesson: Don’t try to make your short story a themed anthology.
A cool idea is a cool idea, but a story only needs to answer one question regarding that idea. As a new writer, I often find the brainstorming process leaves me with a bunch of ideas, and those ideas also just beg to be written. Tuck them away. Add them to the list of ideas you always keep with you.
Habeas Corpus Callosum hints at some of the possibilities in the courtroom arguments, but they are hypothetical. None of them become reality in
Exercise: Look for the external and internal plot points in a story you’ve recently read
The external plots points are fairly easy. Look for the internal plot points, and map them against each other. Do they line up? How do they affect each other?
Exercise: Plot the duality
Take a story you’re working on and list all the scenes. List the external plot point and the internal plot point in each scene. See any gaps in one and not the other? Can you re-work those scenes so the missing pieces get filled in?