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"Division of Labor" (Lightspeed, July 2013) by Benjamin Roy Lambert craftily combines the quintessentially SFnal "what if this goes on?" idea development technique with the "literalized metaphor," a device which Abigail Nussbaum discussed in her introduction to this series's first installment. The result is something memorable and unsettling, and a perfect example, to my way of thinking, of the kind of effect fantastika is uniquely equipped to generate. To better understand how Lambert's fusion of these two techniques results in the story's haunting quality, let's examine each of them in turn.

A well-known example of a successful story that relies heavily on the "what if" mode is J. G. Ballard’s "Billennium" (Amazing Stories, January 1962). In it, Ballard posits a future in which rampant population growth leads to ever smaller living quarters. Two characters chance on a secret large room adjacent to their private space, and complications ensue. As Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg have written in Cosmic Critiques: How & Why Ten Science Fiction Stories Work:

The story's question isn’t "How will Earth cope with a population exceeding 20,000 million?" It's "Will Ward manage to find happiness in his secret hideaway?" And it's the latter question, pinning the problem down to a particular character's fate, which makes the story live in our imaginations. (p. 1)

This last point is key: an extrapolated idea becomes relevant to us readers when we see it act on an individual. Also, in the "what if" game there's the pleasure of unexpected implications, or conceptual payoff, if you will; the final result of the "if this, then that" process of a story's ideation is, in the best cases, revelatory, taking us somewhere completely unexpected and yet logically implied in all that came before. When we reach this terminus we experience a chill and see the original premise with fresh eyes. In the case of "Billennium," a Victorian wardrobe, in addition to its perceived value as status symbol, comes to represent Ward's "whole private world," and he experiences pain at its removal. The SF payoff is that in a world in which space is more valuable than wealth itself, the absence of something in fact signifies greater riches than the thing's presence. Not perhaps the most startling of ideas, you might object; and yet it satisfies us because it flows neatly from the premise while perfectly matching the story's overall "low-key, understated" (Cosmic Critiques, p. 1) nature.

These adjectives turn out to be relevant when discussing Lambert's piece. In its own way, it deals with absences—the loss of a cognitive skill or function—and how we adapt to them. The story literally begins in silence, with an absence of the voiced response we would expect following something horrific:

No one said anything, but Sull could tell they were all a little jealous when he lost his arms and legs.

This opening line establishes the story's tone, letting us know that the narrative focus will be on character, on inner psychological landscape. It also introduces us to a future where physical transformations (grotesque ones, by our standards) are commonplace. The story’s very next line, which begins with "The arms went first," confirms our first tonal impression; note the softness of the verb "went" to indicate the loss of limbs. A few lines later we are told that his legs "turned into a slightly viscous liquid that ran out of his trousers like toothpaste from a tube." This is an almost comical image, somewhat antiseptic, sterile, in contrast to what we might imagine is an excruciating and messy business. Much later in the story, we're told that "He must have been sitting like that for days, because parts of his hands and legs were missing." Again, "missing" is conspicuously gentle, even self-ironic. Understatement reigns throughout, and is clearly signaled from the outset.

With this opening paragraph we're therefore off to a promising start. The plot has been set in motion (a character named Sull exhibits pride while losing arms and legs), we've been clued in to Lambert's effective stylistic restraint, and we have the first inkling of the story's SF premise.

By the time we reach the third paragraph, two more interesting things have happened. One, the point of view has shifted. In fact, this happens between paragraphs one and two; the opening lines are from Sull's perspective ("Sull could tell they were all a little jealous") and the next lines are from the perspective of someone named Renny ("Renny thought of Sull's smug face"). Before the story has finished, there will be a second shift, this time to a third character, Jesse's, point of view. If there had only been that initial change, from Sull to Renny, we might question its existence. Indeed, it might suppose an unnecessary moment of destabilization for the reader, who, so early into the story, is still trying to grasp the lay of the fictional land. That same first paragraph, one could argue, if rewritten from Renny's perspective, would lose nothing of value and make for a smoother transition, introducing the main character a few beats earlier. And yet that tiny instant of discontinuity turns out to be part of a more elaborate gambit. It elicits in us, in a very subtle way, the types of emotions we would expect to be associated with the character's physical loss (disorientation, confusion, a readjustment), but which perversely seem to be devoid from it. And the shift, as mentioned, creates a precedent for the story's eventual second jump from Renny's consciousness to Jesse's. It therefore helps to set our expectations for the narrative's final developments while drawing us into the characters' experiences.

The second item of note is that by paragraph three we've been introduced of the story's main thematic preoccupation, that of "efficiency" as measured by one's "ValueIndex." We now have the backdrop that helps explain the earlier loss of limbs. More importantly, we're made aware of the society's baseline departure from our own; we would construe any maximization of efficiency that leads to the loss of functional body parts as unacceptable, a kind of body horror. But a therapist asks Renny what about efficiency so bothers him, thereby making it clear that Lambert's fictional society considers these extreme body modifications quite natural, even desirable, as long as they promote efficiency.

This question of efficiency is fleshed out in Renny's interaction with Jesse a few paragraphs later. As we learn of taxable "biomatter" and one's "contribution-to-cost ratio," the main speculative interrogative at the story's core clicks into place; what if the world came to value cheap productivity so much that ordinary people were willing to forgo pieces of their bodies in order to minimize distraction and physical maintenance? The idea that inaction can lead to the literal dissolution of ordinarily stable matter (such as arms or legs) is, to use Darko Suvin's terminology, the story's central novum.

Renny's conversation with the therapist neatly encapsulates the two positions I've mentioned, albeit in slightly different terms: a dichotomy is established between performance (doing things "not very well") and versatility ("someone who knew how to do many different things, not just one thing"), rather than efficiency and bodily integrity. Or, in yet other words, specialization (at the cost of body parts) versus generalization (at the cost of efficiency). Stated this way, Lambert's idea is in dialogue with a number of much older SF stories. I'll name three by Isaac Asimov that I'm familiar with: "Sucker Bait" (Astounding Science Fiction, February and March 1954), "The Dead Past" (Astounding Science Fiction, April 1956), and "Profession" (Astounding Science Fiction, July 1957). The element common to these stories is peril of overspecializing in a certain discipline as pitted against the purported benefits of remaining a generalist in multiple fields. For example, Ralph Nimmo, a generalist, says in "The Dead Past" that by obtaining a highly specific degree in one field or another "you end up a thoroughgoing ignoramus on everything in the world except for one subdivisional sliver of nothing." This is precisely the behavior valorized by Lambert's extrapolated world.

In fact, Asimov's worry harks back much farther than 1950s SF. Consider the following quote from Pliny the Elder: "The power and majesty of nature in all its aspects is lost on one who contemplates it merely in the detail of its parts and not as a whole." Asimov warned of the risk of overspecialization by illustrating the various sociological and technological losses that would result from it. Lambert illustrates it by showing how we could become inhuman.

This brings us back to the technique of the literalized metaphor. Lambert conflates physical and mental losses through his careful use of language. When Jesse describes the experience of having relinquished higher mathematics, she talks about it in physical terms: "There's just an empty hole in my head where that stuff used to be." The "hole"'s homophone "whole," a term that doesn't differentiate between physical and metaphysical states, is used repeatedly ("people . . . who wanted to stay whole"; "Don't you want to be whole?", and so on), further blurring the lines.

It's worth dwelling on this, because it suggests that by so heavily relying on the literalized metaphor this story may not be truly SFnal, at least not from a purist's perspective. In their introduction to the excellent The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010), its editors point out that "In general, techno-scientific verisimilitude (not quite the same thing as scientific accuracy) is considered to be a sine qua non of works in the genre" (p. 2). But Lambert's story isn't particularly grounded in any scientific explanation of how body parts spontaneously liquefy. All right, you may concede; true enough. But outside of genre nomenclature, why should that matter? We've already established that the story is powered by the "what if" technique so common to SF; isn't that enough?

The "what if" tradition in which the story operates is indeed enough to make it feel, in some rudimentary sense, like SF. But it's the literalized metaphor that enriches the narrative in at least two substantial ways. First, as John Clement Ball, building on a discussion by Geoffrey Galt Harpham, has observed, the merging of metaphor and literalness can be considered a "property of mythic narrative." Its use therefore coats the story in a patina of mythos, leading to resonances with us readers on a deeper level. And second, it renders the grotesque imagery, which is essential to the story's novum, creepy and insidious, because the grotesque may be understood as precisely the intersection between "figurative metaphor and literal myth."

Further, literalizing metaphor can be seen to create an "infinitely inclusive field of significance that embraces contradiction." This too is relevant. Lambert has made his world relatable to us by suggesting, among other things, that it is corrupt ("The best models couldn't be had for any price: You had to have connections"). But it's the story's concluding revelation, "the rules work differently past a certain point," that is so well-served by the ubiquitous literalized metaphor: seen in this light, the revelation transcends the grimly ironic and serves to describe a more fundamental aspect of the world at large, one that is mysterious and appears to be in contradiction with what came before.

Lambert also relies heavily on repetition to connect various moments of his story and create the illusion of repeating cycles and experiences, another myth-type attribute. For example, "liquid that ran out of his trousers," from the fourth line, is echoed in the fifth, which begins with "The liquid ran down the drain." Then, opening the second paragraph, we're told that "Renny thought of Sull's smug face while" followed by the next line's "Sull's smug face when." Later, "At dawn the roof was cold and windswept," and later still, "Outside it was cold and crisp." These repeated beats lend the prose a certain cadence. On occasion, though, they seem clunky ("'So for this man Platt,' he said finally" and then "'It would be interesting,' said Renny finally"). But we shouldn't be too harsh. The less graceful repetitions are a minor technical blemish in an extremely accomplished story by, amazingly, a first-time published author.

If "Division of Labor" is part "what if" elaboration and part grotesque allegory, it also inhabits the category of dystopia. Renny is guilty of civil disobedience resulting from philosophical opposition to a tyrannically efficient society, one in which purely intellectual pursuits are compared to pornography ("Renny shoved his book under a stack of papers, as if it was one of those dirty magazines showing giant penises sticking themselves into giant vaginas") and stray biomatter is sniffed out by drones. In chronicling an alienated character’s dissent with regimented conformity, but not explicitly focusing on the oppressing regime's political methods, the tale is a remote descendant of E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" (The Oxford and Cambridge Review, November 1909) and a cousin of Ray Brabdury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), as well as Harlan Ellison's satirical "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" (Galaxy, December 1965) and post-apocalyptic "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" (IF, March 1967).

One of Lambert's key accomplishments with this story is to weave a richly concretized tapestry out of broadly familiar themes. Expert touches, like the non-conformist club's unimaginative yet self-important name ("The Dawn Brigade"), evidence Lambert's writing confidence and playfulness. And, as the story wisely reminds us, if we're seeking to develop our empathy, "Novels can be good, or going to bars and making yourself listen to strangers."

How true. Renny may be a stranger, but his story is worth listening to.


References:

  1. Asimov, Isaac and Greenberg, Martin, ed. Cosmic Critiques: How & Why Ten Science Fiction Stories Work. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1990.
  2. Evans, Arthur B. et al., ed. The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2010.
  3. Bloom, Harold, ed. Salman Rushdie (Bloom's Modern Critical Views). "Pessoptimism: Satire and the Menippean Grotesque in Rushdie's Midnight Children" by John Clement Ball. Broomall, Pennsylvania: Chelsea House Publishers, 2003.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is the co-author, with Robert Silverberg, of When the Blue Shift Comes, a Stellar Guild series team-up published by Phoenix Pick (Nov 2012). Alvaro has also published short fiction, reviews, essays, and interviews in a variety of markets. He is still, however, waiting for his Aineko.



Alvaro is a Hugo and Locus award finalist who has published forty stories and over a hundred reviews, articles, essays and interviews in venues like Clarkesworld, Asimov's, Analog, Lightspeed, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nature, Galaxy's Edge, Lackington's, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Foundation, and anthologies such as The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016, Cyber World, Humanity 2.0, This Way to the End Times, The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories, 18 Wheels of Science Fiction, Shades Within Us and The Unquiet Dreamer: A Tribute to Harlan Ellison.
3 comments on “Short Fiction Snapshot #5: "Division of Labor" by Benjamin Roy Lambert”

There were three main things I disliked about this story (and stories in general):
1) The shift in viewpoint. The initial one is weirdly unneccessary and confusing. The second and more significant one is necessary but just suggests that the story should have been written from Jesse's viewpoint to begin with.
2) The literalised metaphor that only works at a metaphor. I can't read this as a 'SFnal "what if this goes on?"', quinessential or otherwise; it is a fable.
3) The trite moral. "The rules work differently past a certain point." Seriously?
So I guess what you see as features, I see as bugs.

Thanks, Alvaro, for this write-up; lots to chew on.
I agree with Abigail and Alvaro that the point of view shifts work, and seem justified, since one of the central beliefs of the story's society is the interchangeability of experience (people can be reduced to specialised units), and the shifts help to highlight the falseness of that premise. And simply as a reading experience that second paragraph is what made me sit up and take notice, it was too clear to be accidental, so it made me want to know what the author was up to.
I'm not sure that I agree with Alvaro that the society is perfectly efficient, though. It seemed to me to be a piece about inequality -- the resources, literally the biomatter, of the workers taken and funnelled to the elite -- as highlighted by that closing moral, which I agree with Martin is clunky and unnecessary. I also have a slight problem with how firmly the story positions itself against specialisation; that is, not all specialisation is exploitation. There's a whiff of competent-man valorisation in there that doesn't sit well with me.
All of which said, ultimately I think it's a story that stands or falls by how compelling you find the images it evokes, more than by narrative or character. I think the image of Renny sitting in the cell, sweating away, is rather good (the more so because we were in his head a few paragraphs earlier). It's not enough that I could call the story a complete success, but I'd read more by Lambert.

I certainly welcome Alvaro's perspective, it is just radically divorced from my own reading!
On the shifts: purely as a reader, that second paragraph did make me sit up but it made me sit up and re-read the opening in annoyance. My first thought was, is this a mistake? My second thought was, this isn't a mistake but to what end? I was none-the-wiser at the end of the story.
Alvaro suggests it causes the reader to empathise with the disorientation and confusion of loss and prepares the reader for the second perspective shift. Since, as a reader, I didn't want the second shift, I certainly don't want a prior shift. I do wonder if this purely mechanical role is the reason Lambert deployed it (perhaps retro-spectively?). The point on loss is stronger but just doesn't resonate with me (although it clearly does with others).
Nor does Niall's suggestion that it "help to highlight the falseness of that premise" that "people can be reduced to specialised units". That premise seems to me both false and true in uninteresting ways. People can indeed be reduced to specialised units, it is how society functions. At the same time, they can't be reduced solely specialised units, they retain their humanity. This is part and parcel of me finding the moral too trite and the shift certainly doesn't add anything to that.
On extrapolation versus fable: for me, it falls into an uncanny valley between the two. It certainly has elements of 'if this goes on' but the 'this' is too weak for me and the outcome too attenuated. I need such a story to have a greater connection to the present; since it didn't, I wanted it to move further away into purer fable.
On the moral: no, I think we are agreed on that one.
I did like the image of Renny sitting in the cell, sweating away, and the viscous liquid that ran out of Sull's trousers like toothpaste from a tube. So he can write but I don't think this story is a good vehicle for that writing.

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