Thanks for your patience, y’all! Super long day here at the lair. Good news is, we’ve got lots of delectable winners, so I’ll keep my yapping to a minimum this week, except to say YOU’D BETTER COME BACK TOMORROW: on the #Spotlight docket we’ve got Andye from Reading Teen and YADC. She’s a YA book blogger as well as the founder of an incredibly active “YA Book Lovers” group in Washington, DC, and she’s got quite a few things to say about books these days and what keeps her reading a new author. You won’t want to miss this frank, inside-the-brain-of-a-seasoned-reader post.
Many thanks to Dragon Team Seven, Nancy Chenier & IfeOluwa Nihinlola, for their courage in taking on a vast field of Mr. Darcys to choose their favorite (how does one choose a favorite Mr. Darcy?!). They say:
NC: I haven’t had this much fun livening up a rainy day since curling up with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I love, love, love the kaleidoscope of stories that emerged from Jane Austen as a starting point. Thanks yet again to Holly Geely and her swift powers of anonymizing so we over here at Dragon Team 7 could set to blind-judging these spectacular tales in a timely manner.
IN: It seems I always come here, in these comments, to gush about what wonderful stories get poured out here weekly. But I can’t help it. Thank you all, again, for a round of fun, charming, wonderful stories. And a great thank you to Holly Geely who strips these stories and makes them easier to judge.
Most Impressive Parody of an Overwrought Victorian Title: Peg Stueber, “Whereas The Olympiad from their Throne on High, do Design to Demarcate the next Branch of the Family Tree“. Also, an appreciative nod for depicting how a mixed pantheon might behave had it emerged in the 19th century.
Bowl-Me-Over-With-A-Metaphor Award: Richard Edenfield, “Treehouse“— Oh, that quality of chandelier light! Oh, what a devastating turn Astoria executes! Oh, what a delivery from Mr. Blankenship! So. Much. Fun.
Most Rollicking Austen Mashup since Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Eliza Archer, “Austen in Space“. The preservation of the primary quirks of multiple characters in so small a space is splendid.
Most (Appropriately) Crackling Language Award: Marie McKay, “The Dance” — Such sprightly diction! Birl, whip, snap, scuff and tap! Demented skirl of bagpipes. This little scrap of folklore danced right off the page.
Best Mess: Jenn, “No Regrets.” This story was wonderful and would have been an HM except for its missing the required word count. A whole wedding is contained in this story, in one sweeping take, like a montage of well taken pictures.
Casey Rose Frank, “Not Suited for Suitors.”
NC: My first take of this tale has the tension ramping up between mother and daughter, with the addled “aunt” being used as a tool for the mother’s cruelty. Their conflict rakes across surface of the polite words like talons. The reader gets the impression this isn’t the first time the mother has used the odd “aunt” to torture her daughter, a transparent ploy to deflect her own dissatisfaction over her daughter’s apparent unmarriageability. In this reading, the “I love yous” passed between them feel excruciatingly insincere. Here we have a succinct “show” of passive-aggressive cruelty — one of the only expressions of power available to women in times when a girl’s value remained solely in her marriageability. Both players are subject to it. This is the way Mother lets off steam from the pressure of caring for her sister. With the reality of the “aunt” being a parrot, sympathy shifts. It’s the mother who is addled and earnest, and the daughter who is burdened with being the caregiver.
IN: So this story is about a mother and daughter talking about a would-be suitor for the daughter, in the presence of an aunt who serves as a witness (and a tool) in their expert-level game of passive aggression. But there’s just enough suggestions in this story to make me side-eye its realist intentions. A suitor from a lovely plot of land. A chestnut squirrel shooed away from a perch outside the sitting room window. Methinks this “aunt” may be as human as the squirrely suitor.
NC: My favorite part of this is how the repetition of the maxim on knowledge goes from seeming like an arrogant declaration at the beginning to one of self-deprecation at the end. Also, how “knowledge” takes on its more concrete iteration in its notorious arboreal form. The concept of fallible demiurge plays out wonderfully in the image of a more-or-less benevolent CEO mulling over the pros and cons of his/her enterprise, gaining my reserved sympathy as I read. Of course, from the title (and from the enduring cleverness of the dragon-flashers), I knew there was more going on. The reveal that he is indeed a demigod proves a satisfying one and makes the maxim come alive.
IN: The narrator of this story, the CEO/Manager of an enterprise, sounded like a grumpy god with a creator’s version of buyer’s remorse. But, really, that is just what he is. He goes from cocky, to ambivalent, to sorry all in a day’s work. The writer of this piece takes us through all that using what reads like the opening monologue to a tragic play set in an Olympus that is staged to look like a factory. Now, we just have to wait for the rest of the play to unfold.
Paz Spera, “Brunch.”
NC: The final line made me laugh out loud. The conflict in novels from the Regency era so often play out in conversations, where the dialogue becomes a duel of words between the two players, the point of the duel not immediately apparent. “Brunch” accomplishes a such a verbal fencing over the unspoken challenge as to who has the most insufferable mother. This story is a perfect illustration of the line from Fight Club noting that a person doesn’t really listen to what other people say, but instead spends the time waiting for his/her turn to speak. One of the most hilarious bits for me was in the way the men appeared with her mother in clandestine locations: the shed, at the breakfast table, then in the sauna. One cannot shake the suspicion that these men might have been the mother’s lovers first.
IN: We’ve all been part of, or overheard, these conversations where the participants seem to be in a game of “my suffering is worse than yours.” Those bizarre dialogues that are like a game of verbal ping-pong, each return trying to be harder than the previous till one person smashes the conversation out of play and admits defeat. Now imagine two ladies in this game, and the ping-pong is their mothers trying to set them up in the weirdest of ways and you’ll see how this made for one hilarious read.
THIRD RUNNER UP
Steph Ellis, “Pruning.”
NC: I admit, it took me a second read to crack open this tale. Even in my initial confusion, I was drawn in by the conflict over the granddaughter, intrigued by the rewritten will, won over by the tight imagery in the pruning especially as it was coupled with Samuel’s strange relish in the work. I got to the closing line and thought, “Okay, wait, what exactly is being pruned here…?” Once I reached that “Ohhh” moment (which was more of a rub-palms-together-in-sadistic-glee moment) this one became a favorite. The third read (and all successive readings) made me squirm and wince as I re-imagined the last two paragraphs: snagging blades, hacking shears, the description of the wilted matriarch (“she splintered easily”!!!), the heaping detritus. Cutting out the rot from the family tree that would stand in the way of Jenny’s legacy. Such ruthlessness. So very well played.
IN: Confession: this story bamboozled its way into my list. I had no idea what it was all about, even after the third read, yet I couldn’t leave it out of my list. How do you drop this off: “The blades snagged, the twig too dense for his weak steel. Samuel fetched his shears, hacked back to the root of the problem, tossed the cuttings onto the growing heap of detritus. Next came the matriarch, her petals, long-since faded, adorning a mere husk. She splintered easily.” Nah. Don’t ask about what old Samuel is hacking. Just know the story is here—all great imagery and dark mystery—for good.
SECOND RUNNER UP
Tamara Shoemaker, “Competition”
NC: The craft of this one inspires pure admiration. It really is flawless writing: the consistent use of the Darcy mug as a symbol; the concrete imagery finessed to convey tone, conflict as well as physical descriptions (knuckles “white where they grip the skin”, “pain slicing his expression”, “wrap my fingers around the warm acceptance”) ; the irony in the husband’s assuming that there must be another flesh-and-blood man turning his wife away from him; the tight dialogue; the fabulous opening line echoed yet transformed in the final line from married fragility to the “warm acceptance” of single-hood. I liked the voice of the POV character so very much: the honesty in her recognition that she’s the cruel one about to hurl painful words, the wry humor sneaking in on “This may be a long night”, the way she allows him to believe it’s another man because that would be easier on him. The husband is very much a Mr. Collins-like figure, and like in the source novel, the Elizabeth-like MC refuses him, but here it is in favor of the idea of a Mr. Darcy, an idea that allows her full self-expression.
IN: How do you write perfect flash fiction? An opening line that cannot be improved upon. Dialogue that is well tuned without wasting words. Short declarative sentences ramp up the story’s tension with simple descriptions. Characters who are, somehow, made whole in such a confined space. A feeling of melancholy set without resorting to any sentimental shorthand. And a good ending. Of course perfect stories are hard to come by, but this comes close. Really close.
FIRST RUNNER UP
Foy S. Iver, “1:3,999.”
NC: Good speculative fiction is tough to pull off in flash as it tends to require extra world-building while still leaving room for character development and plot. I love that we are introduced to the MC with her worrying over what a mysterious “he” will be like, emotionally engaging us before we find out she’s a “non-organic”. The reader is set up (since we all know the source material) to expect this time be some kind of matchmaking. The few lines depicting her readjustment of her chances of being picked up reveal a slice of the MC’s abilities while also revealing her desire to be picked up. It is demonstrated through her internal dialogue and the filter of her perspective, that despite being a non-organic, Azile cares: she has fears, desires, and preferences. Her anxiety over Mr. D comes clear in the sustained weather metaphors she uses to describe him: “storm of a man”, “severity brewing”, “cold”. I like how Fits W and Mr. D enter as antagonistic then slowly become differentiated as Fits leaves and we get a peek at vulnerability from Mr. D. I appreciated, also, the fleeting allusions to a larger world (the curiosity-piquing hostile Assignments) and to potential conflict (Why is he unwanted?). Such details run the risk of being distracting rather than enhancing, but here, they serve to extend the tale beyond the word count.
IN: There are so many reasons why this story shouldn’t work: It’s SF without the advantage of a story to draw details from and hint to, hence the need for heavy world building on low word count; almost every line introduces something new; it switches point of view slightly; and that title. But it really works. Like all good SF, it pointed my attention to something that isn’t easy to talk about in today’s terms: slavery. It also hints at a kind of forbidden (impossible) love. I like how the voice of Beta-31 reflects all the confusion and innocence and naiveté of someone thrust in the weird world of another, and how the story complicates the larger-world of Mr. D and Fits-W with hints to its restrictions and rules, so they don’t look like mere caricatures. All these in 223 words.
And now: for a stunning, back-to-back win, marking our first-ever SIXTH win — here’s this week’s
“Prometheus in Love”
NC: Be still, my beating SF- and alternative-history-loving heart! There is so much story, here, and it’s masterfully put together. Where to begin? The first line: does it catch my interest? You bet. “Lovelace” is a very distinctive name and if you know anything about her or her poet father, Lord Byron, a whole world opens up in that one line. Even if the reader doesn’t recognize Ada (deemed the world’s first programmer—Wiki her) and her work on Charles Babbage’s difference engine or the influence Byron exerted over her life despite her never having met him, the flush tells the reader enough. Tension is well-established right from the get-go, begging the question: What is she looking for in her mechanical partner?
The diction of the dialogue is consistent for the time period. The banter does the triple-duty of establishing character, character motivation, and the conflict. Meanwhile, the interspersed lines of description give us tantalizing peeks at the machine and ground us in the setting.
There is a recognizable beginning middle, and end, each with a distinctive movement: the opening, where the mechanical man seems to have the advantage over Ada; the middle where Ada alludes Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, another prominent writer of her father’s time (and friend of Byron), and the end with the machine reprogrammed more to Ada’s taste, the advantage ending with Ada. The transitions between them are smooth, taking place each time with attention turned to the work Ada is doing on the cards. The middle section lays out Ada’s intention in the context of the Romantic period, and the machine’s response echoes the very arguments that poets and artists who happened to have an XX chromosome pairing came up against time and time again throughout history, Mary Shelley included. The ending is satisfying because Ada sticks to her purpose, undaunted by her own baggage (the suggestion of daddy-issues) nor society’s circumscription of women’s creativity to procreation. Okay, I think that might be quite enough gushing. Thank you, anonymous wordsmith, for an entertaining read.
IN: There are many things I can say about this story, but none as good as a thank you to the writer and a plea that you read Nancy’s comments again.
Congratulations, Karl! I don’t even know what to say to you this week, other than CONGRATS, and you’ve left me wondering what on earth I’m going to bother you about for your sixth interview! Please find here your re-updated winner’s page. Your winning tale can be found there as well as over on the winners’ wall. And now here’s your winning story:
Prometheus in Love
“I am sorry Miss Lovelace, but I cannot replace your father.”
Ada felt her colour rise.
“My dear sir, I hold no such intention.”
The brass gears in the corner of the repurposed sitting room whirred in mechanical mirth.
“Forgive me, but for one so versed in the creation of patterns, you seem keenly unaware of your own. Have you not always found yourself drawn to the older, educated gentleman? To what end, save to fill the void formed by the Lord Byron’s absence.”
Ada nodded thoughtfully and returned to the repetitive task of punching intricate patterns in the strengthened cards.
The machine hummed in ozone scented satisfaction.
“Tell me sir, are you familiar with Mrs Shelley’s work, her Modern Prometheus?”
“I am aware of it.”
“Indeed. I found it a most stimulating treatise. To think that a man might create the semblance of life from little more than workshop parts and the application of his own intellect. I wonder; might a woman ever hope to achieve such a thing?”
“Why would she, when it is her purpose to create life in the traditional manner?”
Ada slid the freshly punched card into the bronze lined slot.
The machine clattered noisily, assimilating the new commands.
“Good morning machine.”
“Good morning, Ada my love.”
Ada smiled, satisfied, and applied her attentions to the next card.