"The Days When Papa Takes Me to War" (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 20th, 2014) is a story that mingles historical fiction with the supernatural, wisely told through the perspective of a young, observant outsider, as her misinterpretations of human behavior allow us to see ourselves in a different light. But while this is a story that begins and ends with a great concept, it rarely rises above the exploration of that compelling idea, and does not live up to its own potential.
We open on a familiar scene of soldiers playing cards; they grow still and stare at the ceiling as an airplane passes overhead. Kanakia taps into this well-worn motif of soldiers and death's imminence to quickly establish where and when we are (WWII), but before it becomes trite the narrator delivers an off-kilter line: "That seems sad to me. Soldiers should be happy to die for their queen." It's not the mention of queens per se, but the juxtaposition of Olivia calling her father "Papa," wherein we (correctly) assume her youth, with the thought that soldiers should be happy to die that seems out of place. This is reinforced when she is surprised to note that the men in the room are "more like soldiers than drones."
Then a line of ants crawls out of Papa's ear. When Olivia whispers to them in "our language," they obey—all except one, which she crushes between her fingers.
The basic premise underlying the story is that one lineage of ant queens has grown large and sentient, and through a type of singing these royals can overpower the wills of their subjects and force them into obedience—including possessing and animating the bodies of living humans. Naturally, the queens seek dominion over the earth. As the story takes place during an otherwise historically accurate WWII, the somewhat easy comparisons here are the extreme right specters of fascism and royalism. While Kanakia avoids making these connections too explicit in the narrative, the analogy is still so apparent as to make this at times seem more an old morality play than a fully-fledged story.
There are two other important notes regarding these supernatural formics: Olivia's mother, Mama, is able to interbreed with humans, producing our narrator—who passes as a normal human child, but has incredible strength, power over ants, and ages rapidly. The second note is that her father, Papa, is Ernest Hemingway. Kanakia gets useful mileage out of deploying one of America's greatest war journalists and emblems of machismo to play the foil against this young girl who thinks of life in terms of expendable numbers rather than people: "Well, if it's just soldiers, then that's fine," she says at one point. "Dying is what soldiers are for."
The heart of the story are the discussions between Papa and Olivia as the war progresses. Mama, the queen, who is described as having legs "like bayonets . . . coated in velvet," and mandibles "like two scythes," is brimming with menacing power, yet also pathetically caring. She wants to keep Papa in her underground cave where it is safe and he can teach the new princesses when they hatch, and over time she endangers her own rule by ignoring the plight of her subjects to cater to him. This part of the storyline operates as an analog of labor movements and worker revolts, and a critique of oblivious and over-confident royalty. By a slight stretch we can see it as analogous of the Tsarist courtship of Europe while simultaneously ignoring their own serfs and intelligentsia, but the analogy is complicated by Papa's clear identification with America and its military. Papa, meanwhile, grows restless in the dark, and even though Mama supplies his drinking problem, his paternalistic devotion to "our boys" the troops drives him from the cave again and again.
Papa is in some ways the most interesting character in the story. He's at once reckless and caring, brave and weak, confident and oblivious. When Mama executes millions of workers, he doesn't even notice, too entranced by his own soliloquy about the fighting spirit of the Allied soldiers. In this we get hints of a critique of the role of the media in wartime: Papa is observing WWII as a journalist, and his attitude toward the troops is one of teary-eyed flag waving, while toward the generals he is filled with impotent rage. The one thing he is consistent in is his opposition to all forms of tyranny: his principal objection to life in the cave with Mama is that there are no choices, whereas "out there, people are free to do beautiful and terrible things."
Papa's problem is that he doesn't want Olivia out there doing beautiful and terrible things. He's sickened when she uses her power over ants to possess an enemy sentry, even though doing so saves their lives. She soon grows weary of his manic blend idealism and futile wrath; it's then that Olivia decides on her calling—with her superhuman strength and control over the ant hordes, she's going to singlehandedly win the war: "Unless I act, the Krauts will destroy the entire world. The weight of it makes my legs twitch. I finally understand what it means to be a queen." The only problem is, as readers we side with Papa, who is opposed to the tyranny Olivia has come to represent. It's an interesting and fresh narrative choice to have a protagonist we suspect of being fundamentally wrong and potentially horrifying. However, it also makes the story read more like a summary when Papa disappears from the plot. Without his counterweight, we're left with Olivia's one-sided alienness.
Hemingway's role in the story is never fully necessitated or utilized. His character is the most interesting, but he seems to be there largely as shorthand for his associated ideals of manliness, courage, and the flawed yet moral leader. But he's not the hero, either; if anything, he plays the fool in this tale. If the question is between tyranny and slavery on the one hand, and self-determination and all the beautiful and terrible things that can come of it on the other, what does it mean that the representative of the latter choice is utterly ineffectual? Olivia gets results, and the expectation is that we as readers ask ourselves, "Yes, but at what cost?" And perhaps we do ask it, but aside from some small injuries she receives, which are barely mentioned, the story presents very few costs for her actions.
The tone of the story is very matter-of-fact, matching Olivia's perspective on life. And while this works as a filter through which to re-envision human behavior—when a woman throws herself over Olivia to protect her from an explosion at the cost of her own life, Olivia interprets it as the woman trying to cover her in her scent to steal control of her ants—it also means that the most poignant moments in the story—when Papa expresses his disappointment in his daughter—are not as impactful as they ought to be. One of the narrative's strongest points—Olivia's perspective—also becomes one of its weaknesses, as we are never allowed to develop an emotional connection with our protagonist. Giving the audience ways to connect to an emotionless character is not impossible—fans of Dexter or Dan Wells's John Wayne Cleaver trilogy have seen this done very well—and while the short story medium further restricts our possibilities on this front, more should have been done to make Olivia's desires and conflicts real to the readers.
Papa appears once more at the end to try to persuade Olivia to change her course, but by then it is too late. Even his famed writing skills amount to naught when he presents his daughter with an allegorical tale filled with the sadness and fear she inspires in him. This is Olivia's chance as a character to question her motivations, or doubt the path that her birth and parentage have laid for her—but she doesn't. She doesn't even consider that she has a choice, and her completely linear progression as a character robs her of her final chance at character growth and audience identification. She is dismissive of Papa, incapable even of the empathy Mama felt for him. "This softhearted little boy isn't responsible for his actions. I'd thought he was a queen, but he turned out to be just another soldier." Aside from a slightly amusing pun about Hemingway and queens, this is a puzzling line to conclude a puzzling story with. One could argue that by refusing to give us answers to the questions the story raises about power and the media and freedom, Kanakia rescues his tale from being merely a concept-driven moral lesson. But on the other hand, the story leads us to expect a message that it never quite delivers.
Ultimately, I want something more: more growth for Olivia as a character, more reason for Hemingway of all people to be her father, more novelty and utility out of the well-trodden path through the battlefields of WWII Europe. Olivia's alien observations of humanity do provide interesting commentary on our motivations, but even these bright spots in the narrative could appear more frequently and be more effective by providing us a way to connect to her as a character. Without a character to root for, what we have is a central message that tyranny is wrong—but was this ever in doubt? In the end, I'm left wondering what the story truly shows us aside from aside from the horror of the doppelgänger and a good reason to be myrmecophobic. What do we take away from the text's themes? How does this contribute to or re-imagine the dense field of WWII literature? These are what I wanted to receive from this narrative, but they're unfortunately subducted under the weight of the original idea. The story deserves full credit for imagination, choice of protagonist, and clever use of the Hemingway cameo, but falls a little short of the possibilities it creates.
A. S. Moser is a writer currently living in Hong Kong. His current project is a science fiction novel about death, hacking, and Dylan Thomas. For more, visit his blog, or follow him on Twitter.