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 Veilonaut’s Dream
Clarkesworld Magazine. Issue 143 August 2018
Life is Hard. It’s even harder when your a protagonist
I’m not going to apologize for bastardizing a John Wayne quote. Writers have heard the standard advice of “run your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them” to emphasize real consequential conflict and get away from pages of navel-gazing. We read knowing things are going to get tough for the characters. It’s why we follow stories. Overcoming conflict and resistance is vicariously uplifting.
So what happens when things are bleak? I mean really bleak. A vast, mind-boggingly immensity of bleak. Is there a point where the reader can become so distressed that they remember it’s only a story and they can put it down? I almost–almost–got that way reading The Veilonaut’s Dream. This story hit so hard that even though it is a first-person narration I had the thought that it was somehow snuff story.
We open floating out past Pluto, avoiding the classification dilemma, and staring into a gap in the void. This gap is famous for it’s one-way trips and complete refusal to give up any secrets. We know the gap kills. Its recent victims are the subject on conversation and dig a little deeper into our narrators soul by revealing a secret relationship with one of those victims that had not ended well. This builds up to extreme reticence in our narrator to actually do the thing they are floating in deep space to do.
Of course they do it. Of course things go wrong. They are cut off from all other life in the universe. One of them suicides rather than die a slow death.
How did Szabranski keep me reading? This is certain death. Hell, this is certainer death. Even the plan is not one based on any sensical idea other than to keep a person from losing their shit immediately. Yet the story continues.
Another conversation brings in the flashbacks and backstory and a desperate move to change their very thinking plants the possibility of a solution in their heads and at least they actually try something and that something works and we are left with…well, either delirium at the point of death of an oxygen-starved brain or salvation. The final line does not reveal which.
So how did this work? The opening line plants the idea that the Discontinuity is alive, or life-like, or at least life-like enough to make people think it’s alive. This is dismissed and the Discontinuity is treated like a random unknown thing for most of it. This random thing killed Su, our narrator’s lover. There’s an emotional connection right there. The argument unfinished between them. Not only does this hit me with the sense of hopelessness, it lays some groundwork for later thoughts. It also drops a hint of Mad’s World without naming it or explaining it.
The next memory of Su has her calling the Discontinuity a ghost. This serious/playful memory hit me with the emotional loss again, but under the hood I think it planted a seed for the ending. It also connects to another character calling the Discontinuity “haunted.”
After the tragedy, or I call it “the rock so big God would hesitate to throw it”, there is a conversation that expands on Mad’s World as a specific memory and a concept, then the backstory explaining all, and one more memory of an argument with Su that leads to the open ending.
Exercise: Scrapping the Plot
In trying to understand how this story was written and how it worked, I thought of a plotting exercise I learned from Kate Risteau, Tina Connolly, and Alex Renwick at a workshop a while back. I give them full credit for this even though I suspect what I’m offering here is a bastardized version of the real thing.
The exercise involves information flow: What does the reader need to know?
Start with a powerful image, perhaps in image that’s the seed for your story. Itemize the thing: What’s there? Why? What props do your character’s have that matter? How can you make the reader get it without having to spell it out right then and there?
I don’t know how Szarbanski created this story, but let’s imagine for a moment that the generative image, that powerful moment that started this whole thing was a person floating in space dying of asphyxiation in front of this thing that could take her home but she has to actively control it.
The immediate questions are:
- What is this thing?
- Why can’t she control it?
To answer the second question: She doesn’t believe she can control it, so ask
- Why does she believe she can’t she control it? Because it’s a thing, not a living being.
Well any time a person says it can’t be done, a good practice to make someone argue that it can be done. So:
- Why does she believe it’s thing? Because it doesn’t show any signs of intelligence
From there we try to fill in the arguments, assign those arguments to other people, make those other people important.
I feel like I’ve gone off the rails here. I also think that the Scrap-Plotting exercise is way cooler than I’ve presented it, and probably works really well for text-adventure style games.
- Being wishy-washy isn’t an internal conflict. No dithering over what to wear to school because this outfit was complimented by that person last time and that person no longer has any status but it’s really comfortable but that outfit is too much like what that other person wore two days ago and nobody wants to go to school in a copycat outfit and I’ve missed the bus so why don’t I stay in my pajamas wait for the parents to leave and break into the liquor cabinet because clearly the UNIVERSE wants me to stay home today scene is going to be fun to read. Even Hamlet would scream “get on with it” at some point.
- I think I have three Douglas Adams pastiches in this one. I don’t know what came over me. Sorry.