Place is, arguably, the element that defines speculative literature. When we speak of science fiction and fantasy, we speak of other worlds and other lands, places which are made up. Characters transcend genre, even when they are meant to be alien or otherworldly, but where they are gives the story its unique shape. Well-rendered places become characters in their own right, like Gormenghast, Bas-Lag, Camelot or Moria. A vague sense of place can weaken a story, putting too many questions in the reader’s mind and leaving them feeling adrift.
Mari Ness’s “Ink” (Journal of Unlikely Cryptography) is set in a bleak, oppressive world which dominates the story despite being as baffling as it is fascinating. We know nothing about when, where or why the story takes place, and yet it is impossible to separate the setting from the unnamed protagonist’s conflict. Ness almost offers us too little information to imagine this place, opening questions that nag at the reader. Who rules here? What issues are at stake? Is technology waxing or waning? What do “ordinary” people do? Almost, but not quite. She sprinkles just enough clues throughout the text to give the impression of a complete, cohesive world that we could see if we could just turn the page a little, just peek behind the curtain.
Our hero works as a covert intelligence bearer, transmitting coded messages via touch. We are given to understand that her employers recruited her because of her lingering need for revenge, though who she wants to be revenged upon and why is unknown. We can guess from the measures taken to safeguard the messages she carries that she is working against the dominant power. This is corroborated by her paranoid assertion that “everyone watches,” though she could as easily be engaged in spy-versus-spy-style espionage on behalf of the government. Her bosses, after all, seem to have the power to mobilize a vast network of agents, reorganize them, wipe their memories, and to effectively incarcerate people until they are “forgotten.” She is constantly preoccupied with her role in the system, even while the system remains a complete mystery to us. Her obsession feeds our own.
The relentless uncertainty coupled with just enough hints to suggest there is a truth out there builds the piece’s paranoid atmosphere. This is a world made for conspiracy theories. As our protagonist struggles to purge the messages she carries from her flesh, the world seems to tighten around her like a noose. Failure to do her job properly could result in her losing it, a prospect so horrifying to her that she is willing to try to remove the ink from her skin at the point of a knife. The cuts force her to purchase medical contraband from the local alchemist, which exposes her to further risk. Day-to-day trips to the coffee shop are steeped in anxiety as she obsesses over whether she has been seen, although what laws she might be violating is obscure.
The tension is almost entirely in the imagination of the reader. The text has told us nothing about what makes this world so dangerous, and yet we are absolutely certain that it must be because we can feel it lurking just beyond what has been said. The world building is in what has not been, or cannot be, explained. Ness has done a masterful job of manipulating the reader into doing the work. We can imagine far worse than what could ever be said.
Kenneth Schneyer pulls of a similar trick in his unusual piece “Levels of Observation” (Mythic Delirium 0.3). Structured as a series of bureaucratic questionnaires, the progressively sinister nature of the forms suggests another oppressive setting.
Schneyer manages to make the players and stakes clear, despite the unconventional format of the story. We can imagine the protagonist to whom these forms apply. We follow them from childhood, through their education and into the workforce as an Observer. The succession of forms leads us to assume the imagined protagonist is an unusually powerful Observer, capable of Level Three Observations and resistant to the Observations of others. The forms suggest the protagonist has a strong moral core, being the sort of person who will jeopardize their own wellbeing for the benefit of others; a sort of rogue agent of justice who follows their own sense of right and wrong, rules be damned.
Of course, other narratives could be read into these forms. Is the protagonist injured? Conflicted? A revolutionary? In love? There is a wonderful flexibility to this format, a bureaucratic choose-your-own-adventure. The weakness, on the other hand, is that once the reader has a handle on the direction of the story, reading the forms can become tedious. By the time we have come to “From the Observer Detention Intake Inventory,” we have a clear idea of what our Observer is capable of. We no longer want to read a multiple-choice list of their potential “certified Level Two Observation range” — we assume it is the highest. At this point, because the reader has settled on a narrative, there is a strong temptation to skim the text.
Nevertheless, Schneyer has provided a totally collaborative exercise in world building, giving just enough information for the reader to fill in the blanks and imagine a complete setting. It is a great deal of fun.
Rose Lemberg paints another ambiguous setting in her stunning story “A City on Its Tentacles” (Lackington’s #1). The City is Luba’s city, a wondrous place on the Undersea where poor people live in carved caves of limestone and the rich in towers of bright red coral. It is a world of sun and salt, music and mystery, and it is entirely a creation of Luba’s dreams, which she must give up in order to heal her daughter, Maya.
Luba can grow dreaming pearls inside of herself. As the pearl grows, the world she sees changes. Her wonder and storytelling ability grow with the pearl, transforming her bleak, poverty-stricken existence into a wonderland of incredible imagery. As Luba waxes, Maya wanes; falling sicker as Luba settles in to her dream world. When Maya is so ill she cannot open her eyes, Luba must travel in to the heart of the city to have her dreaming pearl removed and traded for medicine.
In the throes of the pearl’s dreamscape, Luba’s narration is unreliable and she knows it. The world she sees will vanish after she has acquired Maya’s medicine. Her magical city is a place only she can live in, a place that excludes everyone, including her daughter. As an addiction narrative unfolds in the wake of the pearl’s removal, we have to question more of Luba’s reality than simply her fanciful imagery. Is Maya really sick? Lemberg gives us no clear answer. Luba believes she is. Even after the pearl has been removed, when she is so beset by apathy that she cannot find her way home, she tells herself, “Maya existed—a nine-year-old girl with a ponytail who was sick.” She has given up the pearl’s dreams for Maya’s benefit, even if it is just to be able to return to her daughter’s reality for a short time.
The use of a magical city of stories as a metaphor for addiction is brilliant, told to a genre audience. Readers want to “escape” into stories, just as Luba does. The city of Luba’s dreams is a beautiful, haunting, wonderful place. It’s the place where her voice comes from, her spirit. It is hard not to try to frame it as an essential part of the human experience — we need stories. We need poetry and beauty. That’s what makes the dream so addictive. But it is also what has taken a mother from the daughter who needs her present in the real world. Lemberg has us share the longing for the space of addiction, and thereby helps us understand why so many fail to resist it. Bravo!