bear by san

December 2021



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bear by san

Subverting expectation, and cryptostories

Behind the cut tag are my thoughts on Terry Bisson's "Scout's Honor," up at Scifi.com this week.

Hokay. This is more nattering than analysis, but what I see in this story is twofold. I do think it drags on a bit, and probably could have lost a good third to a half of it's length without detriment; it feels padded to me, and slow. The ending is a bit obvious--anybody savvy to SF can see the twist coming from the bottom of page three, or thereabouts.

I think it's a bit crudely written, and there are a couple of markers--what the Turkey City Lexicon calls 'Smoke Signals' that Bisson also knew there were problems with it: it's a red flag whenever one of the characters
comments on how something in his reality is like a bad story. Because it means the writer is--consciously or not--aware that something about his narrative is weak.

And that twist. Okay, who didn't see it coming? Groaner.

And yet it's still a workable story, in my impression, because it's not about the twist. ("Huh?" What does she mean, it's not about the twist?")

It's not about the twist. The fact that the POV character is also the skeleton he's working on--well, I'm not a big fan of Bisson's work, overall, but he knows his craft--in the hands of a less experienced writer, that would have been the story. And the story would have failed.

Why this story, in my opinion, is good enough to sell to Scifi.com is because it's actually about the non-explicit story, the crunchy bits. You might almost say the crypto-story, and Bisson is as subtle about that as he is in your face about the paradox he uses to drive the plot.

To with: This is a story about loneliness, and about second chances. And there's only one big clue to what's really going on in the story, and what the narrator's choice is going to be. Because it's the Lady and Tiger, and Bisson hides that fact very cleverly.

Here's the first half of the clue:

Ron and I always meet at the same place, which is the booth by the window in the Burger Beret on Sixth Ave at Tenth St. Ron shook his head as he read the messages. That can mean lots of different things.

Here's the second half:

On Tuesday I went to the Bagel Beret alone for the first time. It felt weird. Don't think I'll go back. Today's message, my last, cleared it all up. I now know who the messages are from. I also know that I will fly to
New Mexico. I will have to "suck it up" and go. It is only one stop on a longer journey.

The Burger Beret has become the Bagel Beret. If I'm a science fiction savvy reader--and the story makes it very plain that it assumes that I am, and it *expects* me to have figured out the twist by now--then that one small change tells me a multiplicity of things. The most important one is that I am operating in a reality where the timestream is malleable. The past and future are not fixed. I can either jump to alternate timestreams, a la Larry Niven, or I have a quantum timestream tunneling effect going on, or time is just plain mutable and the past and future can always be changed.

It tells me that the prophecy effect--the 'twist' that I saw coming back on page three--is in fact a double twist, because the protag is not forced to relive those events that are in his past/future.

He can change them. If he wants. Or he can accept his fate.

And by extension, he is not trapped, after all. He can change his lonely, isolated life--either by dying with his future/past friend Grub at the hands of his fellow humans--or he can refuse to go, or--forewarned by his alternate future self, and knowing what will happen, he can try to save that last small group of NTs and Grub from the fate that awaits them.

And it's left as an exercise to the reader exactly what he will decide.

So, in some respect, it's the story under the story that makes this a pro piece.

There's some other really nice stuff going on here, like Bisson's characterization of his narrator (who I would call a high-functioning autistic, I think).

There's a danger here, as well, because I don't think anybody without Bisson's reputation could get most editors to read to the end of this story. Because the twist is so obvious, and so obviously telegraphed.

And what he's really doing with the story is something else entirely, and the very transparency of the twist is there, in my estimation, to keep the reader from believing that that's the entire point. When really he wants you to wonder--what happens next. And he wants to talk about what makes people alone, and whether destiny is destiny.

Or not, and maybe we can save ourselves.

$.09, adjusted for inflation.

cpolk is blogging her take on the story, too.


You know...

I liked that. Sure, the twist is obvious, and he was careful not to make it even worse by spending any time drumming it home after all the other underlining, but I think you're right. For me, it's a story about lonliness and even more about finding each other in the dark, not so much about destiny. He found just the right framework to make it stick.

I'm not a Bissoon fan, and I've often wondered what Ellen sees in some of what he writes, but I have to admit, he does know what he's doing. When he gets something right, he gets it very right, and in the end, it's like you said once. People buy stories not becuase they're flawless, but because they love what the writer got right.