Welcome back!!!! A dystopian humdinger of a round here at Flash! Friday, whose terrifying scenes were ameliorated only by the pleasure of seeing returning oldtimers (yes, I mean you, dear Cindy Vaskova! and my precious Beth Peterson!) and some marvelously talented new folks, join the increasingly fierce competition by our resident draggins. Clive Tern noted that some stories cleverly melded visions of the future (“It’s like Orwell and Bradbury had a brain baby”); other stories like Josh Bertetta‘s “7R4N5P051710N” melted more than one reader’s brain (“it was dribbling out my ears,” said Foy S. Iver, shaking her head extremely carefully). Each story was breathtaking (in some cases literally; for legal reasons I shall not tell you about David Shakes and all the dead bodies).
SCRABBLE UPDATE! A very important note thanking all of you for your many suggestions for my game with my mother. I wound up using Clive Tern‘s suggestion of “ashlared” (thanks, Clive!) which didn’t use the Triple Word Score but still netted me 59 points. Upon which my mother promptly played the TW herself and scored 42 points. Our current balance is 247 (her) to 240, and it’s not looking particularly good for me this round. Woe betide and all.
Looking much more promising this round: we’re of course handing out lots of Ring of Fire badges today: remember that if you’ve written stories at least three Fridays in July, your name can go up on the Wall of Flame. Each badge you earn equals a chance at the jackpot of prizes at year’s end. Read all about it here!
Bravely judging for us this round was Dragon Team Seven, IfeOluwa Nihinlola & Nancy Chenier. They battled gleefully over which stories they felt deserved top honors (a battle which improved drastically once additional pots of coffee were served). Judging your fine tales is never an easy task, but I’m sure both would agree the stakes felt much higher this round what with Big Brother’s suspicious eye on them.
NC: Dragon Team Seven’s first foray into the Flash Friday judging lair. It’s proven as rewarding as it is challenging (especially now that most of the work has been done). Orwell’s 1984 was the inspiration, and what a dystopian array you’ve come back with! Gut-wrenching and gut-busting, brutal and hilarious, heroic and desolate. I savored all the many flavors of subversion, cheered at the successes (even minute ones) and crushed dandelions in despair over the failures. What an honor to get to pore over so much talent. If I had but world enough and time (and a toddler who’d take longer naps), I’d gush over all of them.
Thanks go out to Holly Geely, who surmounted electronic challenges to prepare the stories (removing author names) so that our team could give a fair reading to every entry.
IN: Phew! 79 entries from a 1984 prompt. I didn’t see that coming. How the writers manage to do so much with the prompt week in and week out is amazing. It was a pleasure to read through all the entries. There’s a part of me that feels if I had more time to read over all of them again and again, I’d be able to defend including any on this list. Thank you all for producing such good writing.
NC: Usually our first experience with tyranny is via our parents, and through Andrew’s eyes we get a double-barrel of oppression. The father may remind Andrew (and us) that context is everything, that Andrew’s version of history may be a bit skewed. And yet, the father’s actions (trashing the journal, taunting his son) and Andrew’s fear of what his punishment might be (injury to his hand), shows that Andrew’s version may hold at least a kernel of truth.
IN: Oppression is usually communicated to the oppressed physically. Bodies are broken down as a way to deal with the soul. This story shows that in intimate details: burning fingers as sheets whipped them. But the physical is really just a means to an end. It is powerlessness that the tyrant wants the oppressed to feel. “..removing his last line of defence.” The title of the story felt ironic after reading: the pen is only mightier than the sword when there’s a hand to hold it.
NC: I loved the attribution of Rome at its disintegration as the site for this dystopia. The historian character is compelling and my sympathy grew for him with every paragraph, from his writing against the grain of “history” as it appears in the third paragraph by relaying the ugly side of the Empire, as well as in the way he holds the lessons of the past right next to his heart (his optimism over what the events in Kidron might ultimately mean for humanity). The subtle presentation of the “event” in Kidron Valley drew me in. Of course, I was aware of the “event” described. I am really curious as to how it might read for someone who isn’t clear on the references. I like to think the mystery created by the sublime language of the repeated phrase might make it accessible anyway.
IN: This story attempts to tell all that should be known about Kidron Valley within the word limits, and it manages to achieve that with great use of language. Past, present and future all come together in the valley, presented as sweeping array of details. All is held together by the kindling sacred ground, a tinderbox ready to ignite at the slightest spark.
NC: Wonderful opening sentence. Even though I had a fairly good idea I know where this was going, the deft execution of it left me satisfied. The details are just tantalizing, blending gustatory indulgence with the slow poison of subversion. The descriptions of the Fair Society’s excessive appetites inspire so much antipathy that even if the MC hadn’t defended his/her subversion with the loss of family, I would have been rooting for him/her. I’m hungry to know how s/he bent those “thought-walls”.
IN: First line: “Revolution rode the backs of my croissants.” Verdict: Perfect. From there, the story moves deftly to show food as a vehicle for rebellion. There’s a rhythm to the chopped sentences that added depth to the story (some great use of commas too). The penultimate paragraph sealed its place on this list for me, starting with “As their stomach curved, so their minds followed.” It is such a nice description of potbellies that is one of the symbols of the political class in my darling country.
NC: Oh, the little rebellions are the best, like a dandelion growing through concrete. Here is a piece that really illustrates the strength of show over tell: here we see the battle being played out over a child’s drawing, the argument over the “right” color (as opposed to the true color) reveals so much about the world and the players. The interplay between characters holds this all together for me: the main conflict between Mrs. Melrose as the representative of an oppressive, thought-policing society and Parker as well as the alliance between Parker and Eleanor. I’ve taken to heart the lesson I got out of this: that the crayon is mightier than the sword.
IN: There must be something about censorship and rebellion that takes writers back to school and childhood. And of the stories that explored that in this round, this was one of the best. There’s the idealistic child who is bent on keeping his alien view of the world, and the teacher, Mrs Melrose, whose imagination has been calcified by constant surrender to the status quo. “Water is the color I say it is” has to be one of my favourite lines.
THIRD RUNNER UP
NC: This is one of those stories that I finished and said to myself, “Oh, yes, I liked that.” The voice is just great: flippant and naive despite being subjected to some of the worst the totalitarian government. S/He seems to trip along in his/her simple way doing his/her own thing, not necessarily meaning to be subversive but being so anyway. The short paragraphs unrolled the world in nice bite-sized chunks (appropriate for the simple-seeming MC). I chuckled over the creation of “syntacticians” (which is probably where my genetic profile would slot me) and then laughed aloud over them being jailed with the MC for their rage. The ending echoes the beginning—challenging the idea that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. This narrator remembers quite well, but doesn’t recognize the repetition — and there is probably a lesson in that.
IN: I did a U-turn on this one. At first, a formatting method I had no knowledge of kept me looking in the wrong direction. First line was great: set the tone for the story and established character with the question, “Where’s the harm in that.” The lightness of the story—I could see the narrator grinning at “That hurt”—disguised the horrible realities it’s been subjected to: maximum security, gene therapy. The ending hacked back to the beginning in a way that suggested the narrator was stuck in a vicious cycle, undermining his/her cheery view of the situation.
SECOND RUNNER UP
NC: First line and I was won over. It didn’t let me down the rest of the way through, either. Every time I read it, I feel like I glean a little more. The pivot around the middle verse just obliterates me: the volatilizing of memory until “Imagine loving your family” becomes “You have no family” through a series of brutal, soul-crushing steps. As depressing as that is, my optimism is kindled the tiniest bit, because the speaker doesn’t continue to parrot the commandments in the last stanza despite the repetition of waking to the radio (which is most likely talking about cockroaches again). That s/he can still imagine, can still feel, may be a source of torture, but it also provides a spark of hope for change. The positioning of the radio in the first and last stanza bespeaks of the media’s role in rewriting even the most personal of histories and its persistent hand in “othering” enemies of the state. Emotion simmers through each and every line until it dares to break out at the end (even if the admission is one of futility). I love how this could be a future dystopia as easily as it could be any oppressive regime from history.
IN: At first, the imagery in this story is what kept it on my list. I went back to it again and again, not comprehending, but also unable to demote it on the list. Then my partner shared her thoughts about it and it became a favourite. I recently read about how people dehumanise others to enable oppression without guilt. This story brought that home. The writer could have chosen to write the story in conventional paragraphs, but leaving the sentences on individual lines gave each image room to make a strong impression.
FIRST RUNNER UP
NC: Someone has written their way right into this trekkie’s heart. There is so much to like about this one. The light, hilarious conflict between the two characters over language lures me in, but then it sets up a shockingly stark contrast to the man vs. society conflict of the world in which they live, a conflict that seeps in through the window and manifests in hints like the MC’s raw red hands. The central image of a playing child getting trampled by marching soldiers illustrates totalitarianism at its ugliest: the cruelty of mindlessly following orders no matter how horrendous the consequences–and, further, the paralysis of the common folk to speak out against the atrocities of an “average day”. I think what I enjoyed most is that some of the “mistakes” speak a more accurate truth than the correct trek-maxims in this horrible world.
IN: Simple descriptions, no exposition, yet the stilted conversation and the internal monologue were good enough to help me form a good image of the characters in the story. “They tread on him with no second thoughts, and soon red joins the monochrome color scheme.” That third line in a sequence that showed one of the characters looking outside the window into the story’s world gave me have all I needed to know about its horror. It’s a simple story that makes me wonder about the relationship between the characters, and how much of their circumstance is a result of the evil outside their window. Loved it. Did I mention that I’m a trekkie?
And now: join me in congratulating the he’s-not-going-to-believe-it, first-time
“Five Cerulean Flowers Under a Dandelion Sun“
NC: Right from the title, I knew I was in for something special. The voice of the child is wonderfully captured, in the clear language, the short simple paragraphs, and especially in the interplay of insecurity (“Do dogs have feet like that?) and childlike confidence (“clearly it’s me”). But what really strikes me is the tightness of the conflict. I can feel the child’s pain over the Daddy figure lurking upstairs. The misdirection with the flowers is the kind of resourceful-genius a child would resort to—and all the more tragic since the teacher could offer an escape. At first I thought it might be a divorce and the father has been estranged from the family. Then the last line was a lance straight through the heart. It made the lines about both Daddy AND Mommy assuring the child that “Daddy loves me” hurt so much more. So, despite my being a die-hard speculative fiction fan, this piece of flash throttled me into ranking it on top. Well done.
IN: The matter-of-factness in the narrator’s voice was one of the most striking things about this story. She had the curiosity of childhood as shown by the question, “Do dogs feel like that?” But the stark clarity of the rest of the story showed this is was child forced to grow up, forced to manage the feelings of those who were meant to protect her (teacher, mother), while dealing with the worst form of tyranny. By writing about the beautiful things she was drawing in that flat, mature voice, the writer made it clear the girl derived no joy in the activity. I went through the story with this on my mind, and yet, was sucker-punched by its ending.
Congratulations, David! Here’s your very own incredibly ornate (if somewhat dark and creepy) winner’s page and your winning tale on the winners’ wall. Please contact me here asap with your email address so I can interview you for Thursday’s #SixtySeconds feature! And now, here’s your winning story:
Five Cerulean Flowers Under a Dandelion Sun
The sky is blue. I drew it myself at the top of the page, next to the yellow sun.
“And who is this?” Mrs Reynolds asks, pointing to the dog.
I tell her, wondering if I should have made it browner. Do dogs have feet like that?
“And is this you?”
I nod. Clearly it’s me. Yellow hair.
“So this is Mummy?” Pointing to the person next to me.
She’s smart, Mrs Reynolds.
Her finger drifts over to the house. Pink walls. Smoke curling from the chimney.
“And who is this, looking out of the upstairs window?”
It’s like that feeling you get when you lose mummy at the supermarket and they have to say your name over the big speaker. I look at the face in the window and it makes my chest hurt.
But I don’t let it show. I know what Mummy says. I know what Daddy says. We love Daddy. Daddy loves us.
“Is it Daddy?”
I nod again. The blue crayon is still in my hand, so I make flowers on the front grass.
“Those are pretty flowers.”
I draw five, because she’s not pointing at the window any more.
I can still feel him though; watching me plant the little blue petals. He’s in my room. Looking out.
We love Daddy. But I wish he wasn’t in my room.