Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Friday, February 08, 2008

Tim Pratt's "The Frozen One"

In the previous post I wittered on about Ekaterina Sedia's "The Disemboweller", viewing it through the filter of me own musings on what strange fiction is and how it works. The entry turned out rather longer than I expected (what's new?), but I still want to take a similar approach to the tow other stories in that issue of Lone Star Stories, so I'm going to give it a bash, but see if I can keep it a bit shorter. (Hmmm. We'll see.)

So, next up is Tim Pratt's "The Frozen One".

This is probably my favourite from the story because it's pulling some tricks which push my buttons because it's not that usual to see them done, never mind done well. Here's the first line

"Wait, don't run away, really, it's okay. "

No, there's no inverted commas there in the original. That's right; it's a direct address to the reader, to you. It's an imperative and a reassurance, a plea, and as such, well, it immediately puts us into interesting territory, into something that fucks with our idea of what narrative essentially is. Narrative as we're used to it is either third person, with the narrator as a disembodied voice recounting the action, or first person, with the protagonist themself as the narrator. In this story, there's a narrative contained within the monologue of the first person of the story, the "I" who's telling "You" to "Wait, don't run away", but there's also a narrative that contains it but is not present. This is the speech of one character (I) to another (You), stripped of all the surrounding context that tells us who and where those characters actually are, what action is taking place other before, during and after the speech. All we can do is infer from the content that there are two characters, I and You, that You has made some sort of a move to run away, and that I is, in response, trying to stop him with this speech. We can and do infer this much of the absent narrative, though.

The question is, what's the subjunctivity level of a narrative that is merely inferred? Well, that's rather hard to decide until you've inferred enough of the containing narrative to know whether the events it is... well... not decribing could or could not have happened. So we have a hook which makes us read on, needing to know all the details of who's speaking and who's listening and where and when and why in order to decide the subjunctivity.

Two extra features factor into this, though. First, we know this is a story because we're reading it in the context of an online magazine. For the sake of that story we have already suspended disbelief, playing the game that there's a narative here that "could have happened" (or, in present tense because the speech is simply present, playing out in the reading, a narrative here that "could be happening"). We're making believe that it is. Second, however, the artificiality of the convention, the fact that we, in reading that speech are being placed in the position of You, addressed directly through the text, confronts us with its own wrongness. We were not in fact about to run away. We have not been waylaid from that act by this speech. We are actually sitting down (probably), reading a story on a computer screen. We're not really that You. You doesn't exist. The narrative metafictionally reminds us of its own pretence then, reminds us that all of this "could not be happening".

This is an inherent effect of second person narrative that makes it difficult to pull off, so often alienating, distancing. "You do this," the writer tells us, "then you do that." No, we say to ourselves, I bloody well don't. Who are you to narrate my actions? I don't like being told what to do; I'm damn well not going to have you tell me what I'm actually doing. The fact that in this instance the speaker begins by addressing us in the imperative might well add to that effect, but in its appeal to wait it is also a direct addressing of that impulse.

Wait, don't stop reading, really, it's OK.

So, we don't. OK, we say. I'll hear you out. Let's start with who the fuck you are.

Actually, in this story our response, though absent, is immediately reconstructable:

"No, I don't come from the future. The future isn't a place."

A number of things happen here. Into the gap between first and second sentence we project the question that elicits the second sentence as response -- "Are you from the future?" or some variant thereof. That we do so makes a second act of reconstruction necessary however, Grice's Maxim of Relevance forcing us to question why this strange question would be offered in place of more obvious options like "Who are you?" or "Why not?" We imagine that somehow in the context of the narrative this question is relevant. We ask ourselves why.

Meanwhile, that very denial has invoked the very narrative it is rejecting, that where I is a time traveller and You some individual they are encountering. The subjunctivity level of "could not be happening" is invoked even as it's negated by the denial of that narrative, the I of the text telling us that this impossibility is not an actuality. Not knowing what that actuality is, the mere fact that You would suggest this impossibility implies that at least something about the situation is very strange. We can infer that You is in some comparable situation, confronted with a nameless stranger, strange enough to merit this wild question.

As this strange I of the text continues their monologue (his monologue? hers?), we're given hints and clues that explain at least why this question should arise. The speaker is, we learn, identical in appearance to the listener; (we're even given details suggestive of that appearance -- "blemishes and nose-rings"), has been made that way on the bequest of "bosses" who thought it would somehow help in some sort of mission they have apparently sent him on. This is presented as a deliberate strangeness -- "if we showed you something straight-up impossible right up front, it would save time trying to convince you I'm telling the truth" -- a twisting of nomology in order to demonstrate a seriousness of intent. The very point of the strangeness is that it "could not be happening".

But we're not sure what level of impossibility is at play here. Without a context, without a narrative other than that which we have inferred, there's no way of knowing whether this doppelganger is artifice or anomaly. If the stranger is not from the future are they nevertheless from some elsewhere/elsewhen in which this constructed appearance is achievable by natural means, an artifice? Or are we dealing with something that requires a complete revision of our nomology, an anomaly? We simply don't know. The nearest thing we have to an explanation is the rejection of one in the denial of time travel.

What we do learn, however, is that this is important. At the end of the first paragraph, while we're still trying to fit the few details we have into a suggestion of an outline of a potential narrative, a note of menace is introduced, jarring with the stranger's tone which, up until this point, has seemed casual in its informality. They won't try the doppelganger thing again next time, the stranger tells us. There is a period, a pause for effect, to separate out and thereby stress what follows. "If there is a next time". We know suddenly that whatever the stranger is attempting to achieve, if they fail that attempt may be unrepeatable. Into the ambiguity of the narrative, the absence of explication, we project an inchoate threat which is all the more threatening because it is inchoate, a formless peril. That peril could be any negative consequence, up to and including the End of Everything, the most negative of negative consequences and the one we can be certain would mean that there could be no "next time". Unarticulated, that peril is not something we can even begin to know how we might deal with it. It is too unknown. It is, essentially, the unknown -- the uncanny, we might well say -- loaded with a boulomiac modality of "must not happen" that drives us forward into the story.

The story carries on in this suggestive mode, sketching in details of setting (a "park bench") and character ("you don't need to get back to class, you were planning to cut class all afternoon and hang out smoking in the park"... "the pimple on your forehead and the weird hair"), hinting at a rational explanation while refusing to give it ("Like, ten semesters of intensive lecturing just to give you the background, and we don't have that kind of time"). All that we learn, all that we will learn is that the stranger's mission is... to tell a story, a "parable", a "a story about some little thing that's supposed to teach you something about a big thing."

Needless to say, we're immediately reminded of the strange mode of this story, that it is presented as a direct address to a You whose position in the reconstructed narrative we are occupying for the duration. There's even, perhaps, a knowing little nod to the actual context of the story as a work of "genre", most likely being published in a "genre" venue and read by a "genre" reader, a reassurance that the parable will not just be some tedious lesson, that "it's got monsters and heroes and swords and shit, because we know you like that stuff". As a result, we may again be distanced from the fiction, this metafictional highlighting of the textuality of the story (and the story we are about to read within the story) refusing us the very immersiveness we tend to associate with the most conventional "Fantasy" narratives dealing with those monsters and heroes, etc..

Or maybe not. In genre fiction, I think, there is an aspect to metafiction, or to fiction which uses quasi-metafictional devices, where the effect is not to distance the reader but rather to draw them further in. Developing, perhaps, from that tradition of representing a text as a found article (from Edgar Rice Burroughs's presentation of his Barsoom stories as transmissions from Barsoom by John Carter, up to Mark Z. Danielewski's presentation of HOUSE OF LEAVES as a text found and edited and reconstructed on too many levels to detail), the trick used in genre fiction is actually to break down the barrier, to draw the reader in through the levels, such that we are, in the end, suspending disbelief in a character first, then suspending disbelief in a story that character is reading or hearing along with that character. Which is to say, deepening our level of identification with that character because, for the duration of the nested story we are in their place.

So it is here, with us as readers in place of the unnamed You of the absent narrative, a narrative which, in its absence from the text, is essentially outside it, in the world, a weaving of possibilities around the focus of our invested and immersed imagination, surrounding it, surrounding us. It is we who are being told the parable, we to whom it is directed, we who are, we should realise, being told this because somehow, in some way, it is crucial that we hear it. We are reticent for the same reason the You of the story is; didacticism is something to be suspicious of. But there might be no second chance if we, in failing to listen, make the stranger's mission a failure. There might be negative consequences, the most negative of negative consequences. This "must not happen".

And so we listen, even if we are dubious as we do so.

The nested story tells us of a great city, a city so great it requires the majesty of upper-case as "the City". It is not just described like Peake's Gormenghast, as on a scale that renders it of dubious possibility ("Nobody had ever seen the whole of The City, because you could start walking from one end to the other and die of old age before you explored every basement and tower."), but in fact posited as a breach of nomology at the most basic spatio-temporal level ("Inside some of the oldest buildings, space and time didn't work the way they did elsewhere"). Anomaly is the explicit base-line here, then. The laws of reality are themselves inconsistent. The more mundane "monsters" of the mountains around the city, the "Halfway People", are not really necessary for us to know that the subjunctivity level here is "could not have happened".

Not that this matters. We don't have to totally suspend our disbelief in this story-within-a-story; it is, after all, presented to us as a fabrication. No, we are meant to be looking for the meaning of this parable, the moral, the message. Parables are direct that way, stories with plain, didactic meanings, intended to be obvious. Primed like this we might well attempt a reading of the Halfway People on this level:

"They looked like ordinary people, most of the time, except when they attacked you, and then they sort of grew extra arms and legs and wings and claws and sometimes even tentacles, and that's when you realized they always had those teeth and spines and stuff, you just hadn't been looking at them the right way before."

Is this a warning of monsters masquerading as men and women, of people who appear to be just like us but actually have secret aspects, hidden inhumanities, bestial, predatorial qualities?

There is much in this nested story that plays with familiar tropes of traditional Fantasy ("craftspeople and artisans and engineers and magicians and thieves"), with the odd mundane incongruity thrown in ("schools and restaurants and great dusty warehouses full of ancient stuff, magic and technology and cursed things and treasure"). There are airships because, hey, airships are cool. And there are heroes from various genres ("swordsmen and fighting monks and necromancers"), including comics ("this one woman with green skin who could shoot fire from her eyes and fly...") but offered with more than a hint of tongue-in-cheek ("... but only for short distances.") The casual tone of the stranger's narrative constantly undermines any sense of gravitas, lending an air of pastiche and parody to the tale. When the core image of the titular "Frozen" One is introduced as the hero encased in a block of ice used to keep beer cool in a bar, we know not to take him seriously. This Arthurian "Chosen One", subject of a grandiose prophecy that one day, when the City is in its deepest peril, the ice will melt and he will save the day, doesn't seem terribly... realistic.

A prophecy is, in a sense, another sort of a story. And if we are wary of the parable (as the stranger of the story, perhaps, actually makes us, raising the doubt in us by trying to quell it in the listener), then that wariness now attaches to the prophecy. It's all faintly ridiculous, just a little silly. This isn't how reality works. So the laws of reality emerge again within this story-within-a-story. Prophecy is a thing which inhabits that subjunctivity level of "could not have happened", and in the casual tone of the stranger, the anachronous details and turns of phrase, even in the vaguely contemporary context we have reconstructed for it, or in the reality of the here and now in which we are the addressee, we are invited to see through the artifice, to ask ourselves if the claimed epistemic necessity of the prophecy -- that it "will happen" -- is even remotely plausible. Actually, I'd say, we're pushed by the satiric aspect of the tale towards the epistemic necessity of it not happening that way at all.

Given that what the prophecy says "will happen" is the saving of the City, we are in fact faced with the "could actually happen" of the City being destroyed.

The tale plays out in this way, with a war bringing refugees to the City, the people of the City refusing them entry until it's too late, until they've forced their way in out of desparation, the Halfway People amongst them, and everything goes to shit. And all the while the supposed heroes sit in the bar, waiting for the ice to melt and the Frozen One to save the day. There's a further level of storification when a traveller between worlds arrives and tells them a parable within the parable, an entirely naturalist tale of the mugging and rape of a woman called Kitty in New York, and neighbours who did nothing to help. Why not? The traveller refers to real-world experiments, real-world psychology. "They discovered that, when people are alone, they usually rush to help a person in distress. But when people are in groups, they don't rush—instead, they seem to expect that someone else will do the rescuing, or the calling for help." Finally, he reveals the utter phoniness of the prophecy:

"It's written on the back of a restaurant take-out menu."

All seeming lost through the complacency of the herd mentality, the City in the thrall of a Mayor who is himself one of the Halfway People, the heroes in hiding, a hint of hope is offered though, at the end, in a call to arms.

"The heroes despaired, but finally the green woman rallied them—they might die, but at the very least they could kill the Mayor, and hope that without his guidance the Halfway People would lose their grip on The City. And so they steeled themselves, and went into the office, and did battle."

It's not, perhaps, the most subtle point (I don't think it's difficult to see a certain relevance to America's current political climate), but maybe it's a point that doesn't demand subtlety, that demands bluntness instead. The brute force that comes from smashing the reader up against the naturalist narrative of Kitty -- the subjunctivity level of "could have happened" -- right at the point where the narrative is at its most obviously fanciful -- at the subjunctivity level of "could not have happened". The directness of face-to-face, first person to second person, monologue with the reader stuck in the position of the listener. The teasing, hinting suggestivity drawing the reader in through layers of fanciful imagining only to smack them in the face with reality.

And as we are brought back out to the stranger and the listener, the I and the You, that sneaky genre twist on metafiction is still at work. Now it (finally) offers us a solution (and a resolution in that) to the mystery of the stranger in the notion of parallel worlds:

"I'm from . . . someplace else. Sort of a kingdom next door."

And as it does so it opens out the meaning of the parable, slipping away from a crude political interpretation in which this could, I think, be read as a sledgehammer call-to-arms against the Bush administration, and offering us a wider reading:

"And there's some bad stuff happening there, way more complicated than heroes and Halfway People, but there might be some . . . refugees, you could say. Things might spill over here, to this world. And if they do, and if you're in the right place at the right time—you might be, but we're not sure, it's not like you've got a destiny, you're just some guy—we hope you'll try to do the right thing."

That wider reading, in its suggestion of a vast multiverse, rejects heroism in labelling the listening You, and the reader with them, as just another little everyman,a point driven home by the revelation that this is not an isolated incident ("So we're coming over, talking to as many of you as possible in the few moments we have."), but it nevertheless comes with more than a hint of wonder, of that boulomaic modality of "this should happen". That wonder is there to be co-opted into the service of the affirmation, to make us feel that this we are, or might be, or could be, part of something bigger. The sense that it "should be happening" is there to feed into that sense that this "could be happening", that it "could be happening" now, to fuse them in an affect of passionate resolve, a fierce determination that in any such circumstances -- political, personal or whatever -- we should and could and will be ready to act.

I rather like the story for that alone, never mind the rest of it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another level of Moebius-like subjunctiveness: I think Howlaa is Harlan, who told Kitty's story decades ago:

- Steve Cranmer

PS: first comment here. Loved Vellum and Ink.

3:26 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Steve: Cheers, man. Glad ye liked the books, and thanks for the comment. Yeah, that's an interesting twist to it -- simultaneously adds to the metafictional acknowledgement of falsehood by referencing fictional roots, and lends the anecdote the "did happen" or "may have happened" subjunctivity of (possibly dodgy) reportage, if you know the Kitty story is not just realist but based on reality.

2:23 pm  
Blogger Tim Pratt said...

I didn't intend Howlaa as Harlan (or as Rorschach from Alan Moore's comic Watchmen, who also tells Kitty's story), but it's an interesting interpretation! It's one of Harlan's most powerful stories.

10:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kitty Genovese's story is a well-known and oft-quoted example of herd mentality.

6:40 am  

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