Stepping through the Fun House Mirror

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. (And subscribe to support the magazine.)

The Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half-Savage Dec 14, 2016

This is an alternate history/alternate world story that deftly introduces the reader to the world.

Introducing an Alternate Reality

Most genre fiction exists in an alternate world. Genre world-building can be largely metaphorical and extrapolative (Mike Brooks’ The Machine Society takes consumerism to extremes, for example), or simply fanciful (Tolkien’s Middle Earth is meant to be “pre-historical” but he never finished the connections to history as we know it). Alternate reality is a tricky genre that borrows from our history just enough to establish the world, and then tweaks it.

The danger is creating a parallel that is so close the tweaks become hard to believe. This can be fixed by introducing tweaks early. Here they are introduced
There are various clues confirming this story is alternate reality:

  • The opening paragraph begins the task of giving us a firm date and place but a different context. Most American readers know everyone born in 1892 on the banks of the Mississippi grew up with an coast-to-coast country. It’s still considered to be a border between the Eastern US and Western US in some situations though (radio and television call letters, for example).
  • By using a brief biography, the story splits East and West in her own heritage, Irish and Amerind. This is renewed describing her brother as the product of a Christly white man who crossed the river to bring his tortured god to the red man.
  • Finally, the Imperial American River Company‘s mere existence in this world tells us the American revolution didn’t happen (or failed).

There are further changes to our history, such as a footnote citing Darwin’s The Voyage of the Spaniel, that are small enough to sound plausible but enough of a lie to make this story’s reality work in close parallel.

Exercise: Assume the Reader Already Knows

This is a tricky one. You can tell the reader what they need to know, or assume they already know the salient points about the world. This story falls cleanly into the latter school. It must be handled well, though, because if the reader pauses too often to ask what the hell is going on, they are probably going to stop reading.

Introduce your world by highlighting a distinct difference, and then find a few steps away from the common equivalent in the real world to that difference, and see if they fit in the story.

The Mystery Hook

This story is not a mystery, but there is a central one for the reader to suss out: Why is the word for mapmaker the same as the word for traitor? It’s not just a cool phrase, it’s central to the world. Colonization from the East (presumably Europe) is about consistency and taming land that shifts. The west is wild not because it’s not populated by “civilized easterners” but because the land truly is wild, mercurial, and reflects hostility back on those who traverse it. Ooma, our narrator, is a mapmaker because she can calm the local area long enough for it to be tied town by surveyors and artists.

To do this is to be a traitor to the land, and the Westerners who live there.

Exercise: Use your coolest throwaway line to build the world

Trust your draft. If there’s a line that sounds cool, use it to build the world. Justify the line. Make the line matter.

Literalize the Metaphor

Genre readers love world-building. There is a chance to explore new realities. We understand that while story is ultimately about people, the relationship between people and their environment is strong. The Environment shapes people in genre more than in non-genre fiction. The Environment challenges people differently. Here the world changes, bring the land you need on your journey (if you are friendly) or changing into dangerous forests full of carnivorous trees (if you aren’t friendly).
The “Wild West” is a metaphor (or a cliché), but this is a literal wildness of the landscape. Another story that comes to mind is Silver Linings by Tim Pratt (also published by, for doing the same thing.

Exercise: List your metaphors, and see if you take them literally

This could be a fun way to generate ideas. Take a phrase that any English teacher would tell you to cut and take it as seriously, as literally as you can.

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I am a genre writer from the Great Metropolitan Rain Forest.

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Posted in Alix E Harrow,

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