There is a moment in David Stevens’s “My Life as a Lizard” (Crossed Genres #15) when the protagonist laments, “Why do I keep doing shit no one would expect me to?” It’s a moment of pure honesty from the narrator, as he isn’t talking about his actions in that moment. He is bemoaning his entire existence; every decision that has led him to the climax of his piece. His problem, as he sees it, is not that his brain is having trouble readjusting to life as a human after a period spent as a lizard – it’s that he’s the sort of person who volunteered to become a lizard in the first place.
I have a bottomless reservoir of sympathy for weirdos and outsiders, especially ones as hapless and naive as Stevens’s. Disconnected from social norms, they have the ability to expose the absurdity or cruelty of conventions we take for granted, or, in the case of Stevens’s narrator, the ability to see the monsters among us. To the reader, this perspective is heroic: it is the superpower that allows the narrator to step outside of an ordinary life and accomplish extraordinary things. But the outsider’s perspective is gained at great personal cost. This former lizard doesn’t want to be an outsider or a hero. He wants to be warm, fed, and, memorably, rutting amidst the special scent of cow carrion. He wants to regain his place in his regular suburban life. Suffering from a kind of PTSD, the narrator craves a normalcy which he may never have possessed.
Though his wife, therapist and brother are initially sympathetic to the trauma he has endured, that sympathy soon becomes impatience. Much of their – and his – frustration is rooted in the fact that he volunteered for this experience, a notion so unfathomable to his post-lizard self that by the story’s end, we still have no idea why he did it. “I warned you. I told you. I begged you. You volunteered,” his brother says to him. Where the post-lizard man wants comfort, the pre-lizard man was apparently more comfortable walking the road less traveled. Ultimately, he comes the closest to succeeding in recovering some sense of his old self when he goes back off the beaten track, choosing to track down a killer his lizard brain tells him to avoid.
I have a bottomless reservoir of sympathy for weirdos and outsiders, especially ones as hapless and naive as Stevens’s.
Our narrator’s conflicted sense of who he might be creates a paranoid atmosphere. We are supposed to wonder why anyone would want to put a man’s mind into a lizard, but the narrator’s inability to think beyond his own problems gives this question less weight. Any hint of conspiracy is undermined by the eye-rolling and generally dismissive attitudes of the supporting characters. It is more important to him, and us, that he rediscover his own motivations and find some kind of peace that way. When the narrator ultimately rejects the safe, normal choices and goes to confront the monster, we’re rewarded with a multifaceted chase scene which deliberately answers no plot questions at all. Stevens resolves his narrator’s existential crisis, however: his final gambit to be a hero fails, and he retreats into the simpler world of being a lizard.
“Break! Break! Break!” by Charlie Jane Anders (Lightspeed #46) offers us another outsider perspective, this time of a society in turmoil and, probably, on the brink of collapse.
Rock is the class clown, a kid obsessed with physical comedy and “hilarious pain.” Though he is, ultimately, no more of an outsider than any other teen with a weird hobby, he takes being detached from the present to near-religious levels. His world is filled with Buster Keaton and Krazy Kat, Jackie Chan and roller disco. He’s resolved never to fall in love because “Nobody had loved right since 1926.” He has friends and “Yangar fame” but at the end of the day, he is committed to not having a clue about current affairs in what is ultimately a political story.
As Rock and his friend Sally ride out their teens making short films and posting them on the internet, everyone around them seems to be gearing up for major change. We see social shifts in glimpses: snippets on the news, rumours of riots and a sobering of the other people in their lives. Rock ignores the world in a way that goes beyond your usual teen solipsism. He is dismissed as a bit thick by his parents, teachers, and the rest of his classmates – an ostracism that Rock cultivates and welcomes – but his apathy is more armour than idiocy. Rock is perfectly aware of what’s going on in the world, and Anders pairs each dump of disturbing world-building with a totally unrelated digression. Comedy is his escape, the equivalent of humming I can’t hear you! over an unwelcome truth.
Rock is the class clown, a kid obsessed with physical comedy and “hilarious pain.”
As the moment of crisis approaches, Anders skillfully draws our eye to the game by keeping Rock’s so firmly off it. As everyone around him starts buckling down for a war draft and inevitable social unrest, he sees how it affects his films. Serious things threaten to disrupt his fantasy. “I’d never had any artistic intentions in my life, and didn’t want to start having them now, especially not retroactively,” he tells us. “Even if Raine hadn’t been scheduled to go die soon, it was pretty obvious we were done.” As soon as he has to take things seriously, he has to admit people are going to die.
When it comes to the moment of crisis, though, it is the stubbornly oblivious Rock who can see exactly what is going on. His more politically-aware friends lack the clarity Rock, watching from the outsider’s perspective, has. For a brief moment, he caves to reality and tries to save the day, or at least his friends. The moment is heart-breakingly brief. As soon as his lucidity is no longer required, he has painted the scene in the rosy hues of his illusions again. Knowing now that his escapes are deliberate and, probably, self-aware only makes them more tragic.
A. Merc Rustad’s “How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps” (Scigentacy #4) manages to be simultaneously the saddest and happiest piece I have read in months about, overtly, being an outsider.
Tesla feels disconnected from human existence. “I am really a robot, not a female-bodied biological machine,” Tesla tells us (for the purpose of this review, I will use they/them pronouns when referring to Tesla). This is a list-style story, and Tesla’s lists are full of razor-sharp insights and well-reasoned arguments for why they would be more suited to robot existence than a human one. Tesla has even fallen in love with a robot, a J-90 SRM. Tesla’s isolation and depression become more pronounced as they scramble to fix the broken J-90 SRM.
Among the many reasons Tesla would like a robot body is that “Robots are perfect machines that are capable and functional and can be fixed if something breaks.” This is, of course, nonsense as they discover in trying to fix J-90 SRM. Although they know it can be fixed, there are other issues. Money, skill, time – and permission. Tesla worries that the robot may not want to be fixed just as they admit they themselves “have no operating procedures for accepting help.” Tesla’s isolation goes beyond being in the wrong body. Knowing the correct procedure to interface with a biological social construct does not mean it will feel more real. “Sometimes you can fake it. Sometimes people even believe you when you do. You never believe yourself.”
This is a list-style story, and Tesla’s lists are full of razor-sharp insights and well-reasoned arguments for why they would be more suited to robot existence than a human one.
What makes this piece really pop is how Rustad shows how isolated and alone a person can become despite the presence of a supportive, understanding social network. Tesla has Jonathan – the gay “fake boyfriend” – a best friend about to get married, and Jonathan’s real boyfriend, Bernardo. They do everything they can for Tesla, but Tesla must ask for and be ready to accept help. Tesla’s self-destruction lists are devastating because Rustad has shown us all the perfectly good reasons Tesla has not to self-destruct, and yet there is nothing the reader, nor Tesla’s friends, can do except wait, read, and hope they find that connection that keeps them holding on.
Rustad’s piece deconstructs biological social conventions in a way that clearly shows how lost connections and unconventional desires can end in tragedy – but don’t have to. No matter how far away an outsider feels, the safety net can and must be there for them. It’s a wonderful read, funny and clever in addition to smart and important. Highly recommended.