The obvious vs the oblique

You may have noticed that I’ve been a little quiet lately. Sorry! It’s the whole two-fulltime-jobs thing; doesn’t leave a lot of time for extras. So in the spirit of maximizing efficiency, this is a two-birds-with-one-stone post: I’m going to talk about writing, which I haven’t done here for awhile, and I’m also going to plug a new novel that rocked my socks off. The novel is Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, which has already gotten some nice press. It deserves more.

When I first started out as a short story writer, I had a rough time of it. Some of it was just stubbornness on my part; change is hard. The rest, though, was that I kept making the novelist’s mistake: instead of writing short stories, I just I tried to write shorter long stories. Then, finally grasping that short stories are something different, I went to the opposite extreme. My next attempt was a story full of complex ideas and character interactions in a very strange setting — and no explanation of any of it. Explaining would’ve taken up too much space, I told myself at the time. I’d read several stories at that point which didn’t bother to explain things, so I thought that might be the trick of short story-writing: write it all in media res, toss in some technobabble or magicobabble, bam, done.

My writing group at the time justly smacked me for inflicting the resulting mess on them. “Don’t be afraid to be obvious,” they said (among other choice things). And I realized they were right: I was leaving stuff out not because it improved the story, but because I was afraid. The plain fact of the matter was that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing as a short story writer, so I’d busted out the Handwavium in an effort to conceal my beginning-writer clumsiness and utter ignorance. It didn’t work. So I trunked the story and tried to write something else. Awhile later — after I’d had time to read more short stories, experiment with new techniques, basically grow up a little — I revised it, did a better job this time, and finally achieved my first short story publication.

This was an important and necessary lesson that I had to learn. But lately I’ve come to realize that the lesson was incomplete — or maybe I’m just finally experienced enough to grasp the subtext of don’t be afraid to be obvious. Sometimes it’s equally necessary to not be obvious, after all. Storytelling, like all communication, is sometimes as much about what’s not being said as what is. Consider a simple statement like, oh, “He went to the store.” Straightforward and clear, right? But imagine that the person saying it rolls her eyes, or bursts into tears as she says it. Or imagine that the apocalypse has come and gone and there are no more stores. Is it still straightforward and clear then?

This revelation struck me, again and again, as I read Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique. On the surface it’s the straightforward tale of a mechanical circus in a postapocalyptic world. (Or as straightforward as that gets.) The Circus Tresaulti travels around a land locked in perpetual war, offering battle-weary, hardened survivors a few hours of escape and wonder as they watch tumblers and aerialists perform while wearing — ostensibly — fake clockwork prosthetics and other devices. The clockwork parts are real, of course. But there’s a wealth of unexplained story right there in the premise: why a circus? Why mechanical? Who created it, and what drives it to keep performing in a world so hopeless and broken-down? What is this war about, and why doesn’t it ever end? The story answers some of these questions immediately, others much later, and some of them go unanswered altogether. It quickly became clear to me that the unanswered questions are the most important of them — and the ones that least require an answer, by the end of the story.

For example. The circus is run by Boss: a mysterious woman who seems to have no other name, perhaps because no other name is relevant. She’s the boss; that’s what matters. But there’s a more subtle meaning to Boss’ lack of a name. Boss has mastered the skill of binding human flesh to metal in ways that should seem familiar to science fiction (or rather, cyberpunk) readers, although here it’s done for almost purely aesthetic purposes. The aerialists of the circus leap and whirl through the air better because they have hollow copper bones replacing their human bones. The strong man is all the more impressive because he has turbine engines in his back, powering his feats of strength. Only gradually does it become clear that the power which created them is as much magical as technological. It doesn’t make sense in any hard-SF way; no one should be able to survive having their skeleton replaced, especially not when the operation is performed without high-tech equipment and in unsanitary conditions. And clockwork doesn’t work that way. But it works because Boss is the boss — because she literally wills it to work, and because her will is what binds the circus together. And it works because “getting the bones” has unexpected side effects — like granting effective immortality to anyone so transformed. The reader may immediately leap to logical conclusions here: immortal, super-agile, super-strong cyborgs in a war-torn world = invincible super-soldiers. Someone else in the novel — the antagonist called only “the government man”, also unnamed because what matters is his power — leaps to this conclusion as well. He hunts down the circus, and Boss, in hopes of creating an army that can end the war for good, and usher in a new golden age (of his making, of course). But over the course of the story the government man, and the reader, learns that it isn’t the magic or the technology that makes the performers of the Circus Tresaulti so formidable. Their strength comes from their personalities, and the peculiar relationships that bind and divide them, far more than mere flesh, blood, and metal. This too is never stated explicitly, but because it’s the inevitable conclusion that the reader draws from the story, the point is that much more powerful when it finally sinks home.

I’m not doing the story justice, frankly. Mechanique is a layered tapestry, rich and knotted, full of characters who aren’t likable but whom the reader nevertheless loves, and settings and themes that are horrific but nevertheless beautiful. I can’t even define the story’s genre, because it feels more like a glancing reflection rather than a specific nailing of any one: steampunk but futuristic, cyberpunk but curiously Victorian, weirder than New Weird, a not-quite dystopia, beautifully baroque horror. For me, Mechanique is also an object lesson in the power of oblique storytelling. I’ve played with a few of these techniques — Yeine’s unnamed grandmother, for example, in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. She’s unnamed (“Beba” is just a term for grandmother, like “Baba” in Russian and “Obaasan” in Japanese) because what matters is that she’s Yeine’s grandmother, and because she represents the Darren lineage and legacy that Yeine has striven all her life to fit. But I don’t think I did as good a job as Valentine has with her unnamed characters. By leaving them unnamed, she has reduced them to nothing more than a role or a cipher for some higher idea (in “the government man’s” case, he is Authority — all the things that governments do for, and to, their people). But she’s also managed to keep these nameless characters three-dimensional and human, somehow. It’s a skill I have yet to master. But that’s OK, because in this novel I get to watch a master at work.

Go check out Mechanique.

7 Responses »

  1. I killed a ton of scenes in my book due to handwavium. I never knew what it was called until today.

  2. Genevieve also wrote a short story with the same characters (sans government man) set in this world published last month in Fantasy Magazine… I had the pleasure of reading it before it came out in part to help inspire some ideas for an accompanying non-fiction article I wrote for Fantasy, published on the same day.

    The story was good; unconventional, but touching. Of course, I’ll definitely have to check out the book, now…

  3. Genevieve also wrote a short story with the same characters (sans government man) set in the same world that was published last month in Fantasy Magazine… I had the pleasure of reading it before it came out, in part to provide inspiration for a non-fiction article I wrote that Fantasy published on the same day.

    The story struck me as very good – unconventional but moving and intriguing. It asks many of the same questions, but most of those go unanswered in the course of the short.

  4. …Are comments being moderated, or just those with links? I tried to post something about a short story Genevieve wrote, but it just disappeared… I thought it was a glitch on my end, so I reposted it, and that disappeared too, so now I feel like a spammer… :(

    Please feel free to delete this (I encourage it), as I’m really just trying to see if there’s a problem on my end with submitting the comment…

    Otherwise, what I was saying in those mysteriously not-here comments was something about a short story Genevieve published last month in Fantasy Magazine set in the same world, which folks should likewise check out.

  5. Stephen, sorry ’bout that. I’ve been bombarded with comment spam for the past few weeks — and apparently it’s becoming a problem for all WordPress blogs — so I guess all the spam plugins are on “hair trigger”. Rescued your comments from the spambin.

    And yes, I heard her read that story at the KGB Fantastic Fiction readings a couple months ago; loved it, too!

  6. Thank you very much for the review. I’ve bought this book for my Kindle and will start reading soon. :)

  7. No worries… It’s a pretty uncomfortable cognitive dissonance when you realize you’ve become a spammer… ;) Thanks for freeing my comment. :)