A: Hello and welcome to Be the Serpent, a podcast of extremely deep literary merit, with your classy and sophisticated hosts Alexandra Rowland, Freya Marske, and Jennifer Mace. On today’s special bonus episode, we’ll be discussing three Strange Horizons stories, “Hunting the Viper King” by Kathryn Harlan, “Regret, Return, Reignite” by Audrey R. Hollis, and “Truth Plus” by Jamie Wahls.
[Intro music plays]
A: Hello and welcome to the Strange Horizons special episode of Be the Serpent, which does not have an episode number because we are recording this in October and it’s probably going up some time in the new year.
M: And chronology is hard.
A: What is linear time anyway?
A: I’m Alex, and I’m the Ragnarök one.
F: I’m Freya, and I’m the Orpheus one.
M: I’m Macey, and I’m the Taliesin one.
F: We are three red-headed fantasy authors.
A: And since this is a bit of a unique episode, before we jump into that, what are we reading, fellow Serpents?
F: I am very much looking forward to listening to this in retrospect because I will have finished my fucking novel.
F: So I have been not been reading very much because I have been attempting to drag my work in progress to a conclusion. But I have recently read The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, which is an absolutely gorgeous novel about a girl who discovers she has the ability to find doors and move between worlds.
F: And it was very different from anything else that I’ve read recently and the prose is just sparkling and gorgeous, I had a really good time. I have also recently read—somewhere on the other end of my reading spectrum—a book called Altogether by Brill Harper, which is a very straightforward erotic triad romance about a girl who moves into a share house with two guys and everybody ends up fucking and falls in love.
F: You know, so very up my alley.
M: It happens.
F: Yeah. And I am now in the middle of a nonfiction book which is quite unusual for me, and it is definitely Macey’s fault—
F: —because I saw it on a picture of her TBR pile and went “ooh that sounds fun,” and went and got it out from the library myself. This book is called On Grand Strategy by John Lewis Gaddis, and it’s a very selective trip through history looking at certain political and military leaders, and the ways in which they thought strategically building on things like Machiavelli and Augustine and Queen Elizabeth I, and I’ve just hit some stuff about the New World and the American Revolution. Which is great for someone like me who hasn’t really got a lot of historical, uh, knowledge, having never really studied it. I picked it all up from books. This is a very directed, and very easy to read, but very chewy and thoughtful look at strategists in history, so, that’s me.
M: Yeah, and I am also part-way through that, I think Freya’s a couple of chapters ahead of me. I have this thing where sometimes I like to go wandering through indie bookshops and look at what they have on their nonfiction piles because I really like nonfiction, but not everyone that I know reads it, so it’s hard to get recs. So I like just picking things up. I think this one was a winner. But it’s basically the book version of a Yale class—
A: —that aims to teach posh young from Martha’s Vineyard how to strategise.
M: Everyone from Yale is from Martha’s Vineyard.
F: Yeah, and also some marines, apparently.
M: Also some marines, that bit was...yeah. This guy had gotten told to go teach some high-level naval cadets a strategy course and then lecture them about the ancient Greeks for a while, and Xerxes.
F: Yeah, and why you shouldn’t build large walls around your cities and things. Anyway.
M: Yeah. It’s an entertaining book, but it’s very white and dudely. But there’s some Elizabeth at least, so that helps. But it’s very interesting. And like Freya, I am a book disaster right now, so the only other things I have been reading are Naruto longfics. Specifically, Sakura Naruto longfics, because I am in the mood for overpowering young women, I guess?
A: Nice, nice.
F: Yep, that’s fair.
F: That is a good name.
M: It’s a great fic as well. They’re both overpowered Sakura running around being awesome fics.
A: Wonderful. I have been in the middle of a knitting project, which means that I am watching and listening to audio books of all the things.
A: I am in the middle of listening to the audio book of Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers.
M: [gasps] Yay!
M: Which is a classic mystery novel. Everybody keeps recommending Dorothy Sayers to me and I have heard many, many times that she’s wonderful and I—
F: Wait, you’re starting with Gaudy Night?
A: Yeah, because I was like, this one is the one that is most like A Civil Campaign, or so I’ve heard. So I was just like, sure, this one.
F: It is true. It is the one that has the romance in it, but—
A: Yeah, so I was like, I’m going to do this one. I know it was a strange decision to make.
M: Darling listeners, you really need to see Freya’s face right now.
A: I was not looking at Freya’s face.
F: I’m trying to be supportive, but I’m also being kind of judgmental.
A: Yeah, I jumped right into the good bit. Speaking of the good bit, I’ve also been watching—catching up on the new season of The Good Place. I listened to the Broadway musical Hadestown for the first time, and that was amazing. It’s basically a sort of jazzy retelling of the Orpheus myth, and also the Hades and Persephone myth. Uh, fantastic. I watched Good Omens for the tenth time.
A: I have been watching this very old TV show called James Burke’s Connections, which is based on a 1970s book about historical technological advances all link together into a long chain. So—
M: How We Got To Now, I believe is the book, right?
A: No, I think the book is also called Connections.
M: There’s a new version of it called How We Got To Now.
A: Oh! Good to know. I forget who recommended me that book, but it was on my wishlist on thriftbooks and I saw it and I said, I wonder if there’s a TV show of this actually. Yeah.
M: I might be wrong about that one being the same as the other one. But I know that it inspired the other one.
A: Yeah. So it’s about things like how we used the water wheel to get to space flight and stuff like that. It is fascinating, I’m loving it. I watched two seasons of Schitt’s Creek, which was fantastic, and it keeps getting better as it goes along. And I watched season 6 and 7 of The Great British Bake Off. Lots and lots of things.
M: So many things.
F: Very good. I keep opening Netflix and sighing and going “ugh I should catch up on The Good Place...oh! All of Avatar is now on Netflix, that’s dangerous.” And then I remember that my book exists and I cry and close Netflix again.
M: That’s a mood.
A: One day you will be finished with your book.
F: That’s true, quite soon, I think.
A: Quite soon. Anyway, shall we have an episode?
M: Let’s have an episode!
A: So, first of all, before we get started, let’s talk a little bit about why this episode is special and how it ended up that we got here, getting to do this thing. Macey, would you like to tell us a story?
M: So I suppose you could say that this begins at—would you say Nebulas? Or at San Jose WorldCon? Probably the Nebulas before that.
A: Hmm. I think so, yeah.
M: Because Ness, who is a good friend of Alex’s and is also the managing editor—is that correct?—at Strange Horizons.
A: Ness does magic and wizardry and I’m not exactly sure what vees title is.
M: Ness is an Strange Horizon.
M: Official title, gifted by the Serpents, there you go.
A: Yeah [laughs]. A single strange horizon.
M: Yeah. An exceedingly strange horizon. But no, ve was very supportive of us as a young snake podcast that had only been around at that point for, what, four months? Five months?
A: Mmhmm. Yep.
M: And was super stoked about the stuff we were doing with fanfiction and we were talking about doing a collaboration. And so when the Kickstarter came around this year, ve reached out again and asked if we would want to be one of the stretch goals. And so, stretch goal we were.
M: This is what we be!
A: Stretch goals, now. [Laughs]
M: Now we are stretch...stretch snakes?
M: Don’t stretch your snakes. That’s bad for them.
F: No, no, no.
A: So what are we doing this episode that is different from our usual episodes? But also, how is it the same?
M: So, it’s the same because it’s going to have dick jokes.
A: And swearing.
M: And it has some tent poles.
M: But it’s different because the way that we prepared for this was that we all sectioned off ten or twelve of the Strange Horizons' most recent stories when we were recording, and read through them all, and each of us picked out a favorite to make the other two read. And those are going to be our tent poles. But we’re really talking a little bit about short stories in general, craft, fiction, Strange Horizons trends that we’ve noticed, and yeah, we might be pulling in some references to fic, and some references to media, but it’s going to be a lot more focused on short fiction than we are usually.
F: Yes. And because we like to have a theme for our episodes, we did try to pick some stories that, as you said Macey, that we really, really liked, but also ones that did have a common theme that we could really dig into and talk about.
F: And the three stories that we chose, we decided that the theme that they had in common, really, was that of desperation.
F: Which is a delightful emotional theme to talk about.
F: What will humans do when they’re desperate?
M: And I particularly love it for short fiction, because I think it makes for a really compelling small slice of story, right?
M: When your main character is just absolutely at the end of their tether, they can’t do anything but push forward, they’re desperate.
A: It’s good emotional stakes.
A: I mean that’s plot stakes too, it’s the tension, like if they don’t do this thing, what terrible thing will happen?
A: And how is their striving going to affect the outcome?
M: Yes and it also makes you kind of admire them because they are working hard and fighting hard for the thing that they want.
F: Yeah, and from a craft perspective, if you’re working within word count constraints of a short story, it does take, I think, quite a lot of talent to be able to set up that amount of emotional stake in a short space.
F: And then pay it off in a way that’s satisfying. And all these stories do it really well.
M: They do. So, shall I start us off?
A: Please do, yes, what’s our first tent pole?
M: Our first tent pole is serpently relevant.
A: It’s true.
F: It is.
M: It’s very snakely. This short story is “Hunting the Viper King” by Kathryn Harlan. And this is a short story about a young girl who has grown up with a single father in an RV, kind of bouncing from town to town, city to city, kind of on the edge of being able to afford food and clothes and things like that because her father has a quest. And that quest is to catch, kill, and render that fat of this viper king, which is a mythical creature that supposedly can give you all the wisdom and all the knowledge in the world. But only to the first person who eats its fat. And I really adored the forward motion, the drive in this story, right?
M: You really get pulled along, you feel how desperate this kid is to achieve this quest. She doesn’t entirely think that her lifestyle is normal but she still thinks within the constraints of the quest anyway, because it’s been her entire life.
F: Mmm. Yeah, I felt like I had read almost an entire middle-grade novel by the end of this story.
A: Oh, yeah.
F: Or like, the end of this story could have been the turning point that then led you into the second half of a YA novel, there was so much going on.
M: Yeeess. Because the thing that happens at the end of this is—spoilers for short stories, friends, these are short, you could pause and go read them—
A: Mmhmm [laughs]
M: —but of course they do catch up to this snake that nobody was really certain was real, and they manage to kill it, and the father goes off to flirt with the woman who led them to it and leaves his daughter rendering down the fat. And so she tries it. And so she gets the knowledge, not him.
A: Is it time for Alex’s fun facts mythology corner?
M: Maybe. I do want to make sure we talk about the story first, before we talk about the analogies of the story.
A: Okay, go ahead. I will just sit here and vibrate with excitement.
F: My favorite thing about this story is the complete ambivalence that the story has for most of its length about the truth of the myth.
F: Because, from this girl’s point of view, she has been dragged around and her life has been subsumed into her father’s quest for something that she is becoming increasingly convinced may not be a real thing.
F: And the driving force behind it is that her father was told by a fortune teller, that he was the one who was destined to catch the viper king and to taste the fat, and to have the wisdom. And I think there’s a part of the story where she finds out—is it part of an epilogue—when she gets the knowledge—
M: [simultaneously] When she gets the knowledge.
F: —that’s right, when she gets the knowledge, part of the knowledge she gets is that this fortune teller was basically bullshitting her father, and made this up.
F: And so there’s this beautiful theme in this story of, if you are told a lie that then drives you and makes you desperate, you are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, so it doesn’t actually matter about the truth of what you were told.
M: Right. Like, is objective truth even real? Which is a fascinating thing for a story which is about discovering absolute knowledge to ask, right?
F: Yeah absolutely. There’s a lot of really interesting things to do with the nature of truth and beginnings.
M: But I also love that, early on one of the things that happens is, we see the two of them cutting pages out of a library book on the myth, right, so there’s this complete disrespect in some ways for knowledge and receptacles of knowledge, and what that means.
A: It’s theft. It’s theft, essentially. Because a library book is something that is supposed to be open for everybody to read and take knowledge from, but since they steal the pages from it, it’s essentially theft of knowledge.
M: Yeah, and especially since we see them photocopying things at other points in this story!
A: Right, like why would you cut it out instead of photocopying it? Yeah, it’s taking something so that nobody else can have it, which is kind of echoed at the end of the story.
M: At the end, mhm.
M: It’s really well-crafted.
A: Yes, agreed.
F: It is, and I like the different types of desperation that you see really vividly through this young girl’s perspective. She’s desperate to believe in what her father believes so that her life won’t have been dedicated to something that isn’t true. She’s desperate, on the other hand, to also feel like she’s not alone and strange.
F: So I love the part where she tries to work out how many other children like her there might be.
F: Also being dragged around on quests. She tries to work it out from First Principle, statistically, which is just adorable. And, again, it sounds like the beginning of a world. Like there’s this silent population of children who are being pulled around while the adults in their lives are so desperate to find this one thing.
M: It’s very like Supernatural.
F: Yes, yeah yeah yeah. Absolutely. This idea that your parent has a quest that drives them and you are pulled along for the ride.
M: You’re at its mercy.
F: You’re at its mercy, yeah.
A: Have I ever told you about my childhood? Because I was a homeschooled kid and we did spend a full, probably six months living in an RV because we were on this giant road trip because my parents wanted to do a huge genealogy research trip thing. So I have been the homeschooled kid living in the RV, being dragged along on a quest.
M, laughing: You are one of these children, Alex, you would be part of this. You would be a friend. But I think that we promised that you would be allowed to explain why I am Taliesin.
A: Okay, yes, so at the beginning of the episode we listed which ones we are, and we all listed mythological things because, as it turns out, all three of the stories that we picked out have kind of mythological parallels. This one is paralleling the legend of Taliesin—
M: This is now Alex’s Fun Fact Mythology Corner. Buckle up!
A: This is now Alex’s Fun Facts—Yes. Can I tell the whole story on air? If I make it not—
A: Okay! I will make it fast! I will make it less than five minutes. Probably less than that.
M: Oh gosh. [laughs]
A: Listen, Freya one time got to monologue about Australian bushfires. You will give me this.
M: They weren’t even metaphorical bushfires, listeners.
A: I know.
M: It was very disappointing to all of us.
A: Once upon a time—
F: And then you edited it down, so.
A: Then I edited it down. I’ll probably edit this down, too.
M: We’re going to stop heckling eventually.
A: Eventually. So, once upon a time, there was a witch-goddess called Ceridwen and she had a beautiful daughter who was lovely and kind and perfect. And she had a very ugly, very evil son. And she figured, “WELL, there’s not a whole lot that I can do about him being ugly, even with magic. But I might be able to do something about him being evil and stupid. It won’t matter so much if he has all the knowledge in the world. Then that might stop him from being a stupid asshole.” So she decides to brew a potion and it takes lots and lots of complicated ingredients and a long time to put it all together. And then when it is ready, it has to brew for a year and a day. It has to be stirred once every hour and it has to be over a constant, low heat.
So she finds, wandering in the woods, a young boy leading a blind man. And she offers them a job. She says, “Can I hire you to tend to the fire and to stir this cauldron for a year and a day?” And they say yes. The little boy’s name was Gwion Bach and the blind man’s name was Morda. SO, for a year and a day, they tend the fire and once every hour they stir the pot, exactly once. And Ceridwen goes about her business. She’s very busy being a witch-goddess.
Toward the end of the year, Morda is very tired so he falls asleep and leaves Gwion Bach to stir the pot and tend the fire, all by himself. But he feeds the fire too much wood and it burns really hot and high. And just as the clock ticks over and finishes the last day of the year and a day, the cauldron comes to a boil and splashes out three drops that land on Gwion Bach’s fingertips. He cries out, he says, “Ow!” And at that moment, he receives the Awen, which is all the knowledge of the world, all the wisdom of the world, and especially poetic inspiration. And he sees, in this flash, that the three drops he received was the entirety of the potion, and what is left in the pot is now poison and it will crack and spill all over the floor. And Ceridwen is going to come back and be super fucking pissed.
So he runs. And Ceridwen comes back and is super fucking pissed and she follows after him. With his Awen, he sees all the secrets of the world and he sees how to transform himself. They turn into a bunch of different animals while she chases him, and eventually she swallows him and he becomes a child in her stomach. And she curses and swears to destroy him as soon as he is born. But when he is born, she can’t do it. So she puts him in a basket and throws him into the ocean, where he’s saved by a fisherman. Who, upon seeing this beautiful, radiant child, says, “Oh, what a radiant brow!” except he says it in Welsh which is, “Ah! Taliesin!” And that becomes his name and he becomes the greatest bard in all the world. In fact, he becomes King Arthur’s court bard.
A: And so, if you have read the story that we’re talking about, “Hunting the Viper King,” you can see the parallels between the child being left to tend to the fire and stir the cauldron and then accidentally receiving the Great Wisdom.
M: I mean, one of the things I did really love about this story, though, was that it wasn’t an accident. Was that she made a decision. She made a selfish decision which, if this had been a story that was concerned about morals, which it really wasn’t—which I found delightful—the father would have been doing this quest for his daughter. He would have been looking for the knowledge for his daughter. But he wasn’t! And she just took it.
F: Hmm, and I think that the story doesn’t give you much indication that that is. Like, she doesn’t have that as a plan in the narration.
F: You just see her frustration and her loneliness and her love for her father and her willingness to go along with this and her wavering belief as to whether it’s a real thing. And then the decision that she makes to taste the fat and to get the knowledge for herself is made somewhere, but you never actually see the decision being made. You only see the action.
A: She strikes me as a fairly young girl and I remember being that age. You sort of would just do things on impulse, without really thinking about it.
F: I think it comes across as this act of revenge, really.
M: For what her father’s put her through?
F: You can tell she has not—For what her father’s put her through. She has not actually thought, “This is what I will do with the knowledge once I have it.” And I think you have to have that because it is a deliberate act. So the versions of the Taliesin myth, and there’s another version called the Salmon of Knowledge, where again the salmon is given to the servant who has to cook it for the person who caught it. And, again, fat splatters, he licks his thumb, he gets the knowledge accidentally. It’s not the person who was originally having it. And so if you’re changing the story to make it a deliberate theft of knowledge from somebody else, I’m not quite sure it would have been a different sort of story if she had had a clear idea of what she wanted to do with the knowledge once she had it. But it did come across as this impulsive, “This is this thing you have put me through. I have gone through all of this just as much as you have. I deserve this just as much as you did.”
M: I think I really loved that it was that way. You know?
F: Mm, me too.
M: I think it was really powerful and it felt very real. But I do think that I didn’t know any of this mythological background at all when I was reading it, and it’s interesting. It didn’t need it.
F: No, it doesn’t.
A: No, absolutely it stands alone.
M: But it’s super cool to know about it.
A: Yep, yep. Shall we move on to the second tentpole?
A: All right.
F: So, the second tentpole. This is a story called “Regret, Return, Reignite” by Audrey R. Hollis. And the reason I was Orpheus in the Which Ones Are We is because this is a very clear, again, take on a particular myth. In this case, the myth of Orpheus and Erudite. This is a story about a world in which going to the land of the dead and bringing back your loved one is something that is just done.
M: Sort of.
F: It’s not done lightly. It’s not often done. But it’s a thing that can be done and people know about it. So, this is a story about Lyra, whose wife Justine dies. And Lyra goes to the Underworld and does what you gotta do to get back your loved one, which is to play a song. And the whole point is that you have to demonstrate your knowledge and your commitment.
F: So what this story says is: you can bring back the parts of the person that you know.
F: And you have to demonstrate your knowledge. So she sings a song about all the parts of Justine. She says, “I know her, there is nothing unknown between us. I can do this.” But what she ends up bringing back is a semi-transparent version of Justine. You could see her entrails. Not all of her is quite there and she cannot speak anymore. She just opens her mouth and music comes out.
M: It’s so creeepy!
A: It’s very creepy.
F: It’s very creepy, but the way it’s written has this lovely deadpan humor and the fact that it is presented as just something that happens in the world you get to see how people around them react to it and that Justine has to go back to work as a university lecturer. And, well, there’s a quote saying, like, “You can’t just stand there and be transparent and not address it.”
F: And it ends up with them deciding that they will go back to the Underworld and try to recover the lost parts of Justine because she’s becoming increasingly frustrated by the fact that she doesn’t feel whole. And, you know, without some certain memories and the parts of her that were unknown to Lyra. Is she still the person that she was? So it’s got a lot to do with whether you can fully know another person and the things that you will do to get somebody else back if you have lost them. But I think it’s a neatly crafted little story, I really loved it.
M: It’s also, one of the things that I found deeply charming but also hilarious was how fucking lesbian it was to discover that your girlfriend is dying and be like, “Right. Marry me right now. I’m going to learn everything about you. Give me some flashcards. We’re gonna get this shit done. Supernatural U-Haul here we come!”
M: It was like, the most lesbian thing.
F: Yeah. She’s like, “It will make people take us more seriously in the land of the dead if we have a marriage certificate!”
M: Because it could have been a story about people who, you know, have been married for twenty years and they were so intertwined, but it’s not.
M: It’s a story about two idiot over-achieving girlfriends who’ve been, what? A few years together. Just like, “We’re gonna do it!” They’re so type-A that they spreadsheet death into submission. And I love them.
A: Macey, you love a creepy lesbian story.
M: I do! I feel like there’s nothing wrong with a creepy lesbian.
A, laughing: Of course there isn’t!
F: Nobody’s saying there’s anything wrong with creepy lesbians. I feel like the entire Strange Horizons list, we could have pulled out ten or so creepy lesbian stories.
M: That’s fair. That’s a mood.
F: And done a very good episode on them.
A: Strange Horizons is doing the work for creepy lesbian representation.
M: There we go! It’s very important.
F: Yes it is.
M: But I super loved the use of music here in an unnerving way. Like, the use of music as a substitute for voice and how it kind of silences you, right? Because so often we see music only as something beautiful, but in this case, it’s something horrifying.
A: Yeah, yeah.
M: And I found that really cool.
A: You would.
M: I do. I am.
A: You’re into creepy lesbians and music. This has everything! This is all the things that Macey likes.
F: And the two types of desperation in this are, first of all, the desperation, obviously, to return someone that you love from the dead, but then it turns into the growing desperation of Justine to get other parts of herself back, so she can be the person that she vaguely remembers, but not quite remembers being. And that’s a very unsettling thought.
M: It’s very much like a disability narrative, I feel.
F: Yeah, I can see that.
M: It certainly resonated like coming back after a stroke, or something along those line, right? Coming to terms with who you are now and the pieces of you which work and the pieces of you which don’t.
A: Yeah, yeah.
F: Hmm. I liked, there’s a line that said, “Lyra didn’t know if Justine would still be wearing her ring if she had a choice. Justine’s own ring had been on one of her missing fingers.”
F: And it’s this thing about, if somebody has changed so dramatically—Obviously, Lyra is convinced that she is absolutely, wholly, still the same person. This is my wife. This is the person that I love. And Justine is the one who has to say: Well, actually, I am a bit different now, and I think we have to address the fact that I’m a bit different.
F: I’m still a whole person, but I’m not quite the whole person that I was.
M: Right, because the whole point is that she is the whole of what Lyra knows of her.
A: And in addition to having this parallels with Orpheus, it also—and explicitly referencing Orpheus—it’s also referencing Prometheus. There’s the line that this game is rigged and they have this thing that they’ve always said to each other, if the game is rigged, play a different game.
A: And so it might not be about bringing Justine back. It might be about bringing as much knowledge back as possible. And telling the world.
M: Yes. But she gives these lectures at the university. Everybody wants to learn from her now because she is one of the few people who has gone and come back. They want to hear about it, right. So it’s very much bringing back the knowledge. But this is also not the only Orpheus story that I read, at least. I don’t know if the two of you went and read the one I recommended. The other one?
A: I didn’t have a chance to, but will you tell us all about it?
F: No, me neither.
M: Okay, sure! So, there was another story that I read among this crop which was “Many Hearted Dog and the Heron Who Stepped Past Time,” which is about a time-travelling and a non-time-travelling pair of assassins who are in love who take a mission to have their client die and then bring her back--
F: --Are they lesbians, Macey?
M: They are not. They are gay. I believe one of them might be non-binary actually, but they are queer. So the time-travelling one has to baffle with goddess of his time-traveling troupe to win back the soul of their client who had to die briefly and then get brought back. And so, that was super fun! And it was very samurai narrative style. Cool.
A: Very cool.
M: But I know Alex has an Orpheus thing, so you might enjoy that later.
A: I do have an Orpheus thing. I very, very much have an Orpheus thing. See: how hardcore I have been enjoying Hadestown.
M: That’s fair!
A: Everybody has been telling me to listen to this for like a year and a half now--
F: --Yes, we have.
A: The more--I have this thing where if many, many people tell me to listen to a thing or watch a movie or read a book, I start digging in my heels and going no, I’m going to be a hipster about it and not listen to it.
M: I think everyone has that thing. For some reason, above a certain point, you’re just like, no.
A: No, no. You’re pushing me too hard on this. No. And so I got that with Hadestown and finally I got around to listening to it, and I’m like, Oh you’re right! I should have listened to this! This is fantastic! Ah… yes.
M: But! Now! Your tentpole, Alex!
A: Oh yes, my tentpole! The reason I’m the Ragnarok one is because this story is about the end of the world! It is “Truth Plus” by Jamie Wahls and it is about the--it’s set in the modern day, on regular old Earth, except that there is a giant meteor heading straight towards us and we’re all going to be dead, and there’s nothing we can do about it. And there’s nothing we can do about it. And there’s nothing we can do about it. But then one person! A--what was his job title… like, public relations coordinator or something like that?
M: Or something…
A: Yeah! Decides to do something about it. Except that, he can’t do anything because all he’s good at is writing speeches, right? He doesn’t have the scientific knowledge and his ex-girlfriend who does have the scientific knowledge says there’s nothing we can do about it.
F: I loved her so much!
A: Oh my god, I loved her.
F: She was such a good character!
A: She was great!
F: Him being like, “But we can save it, right!?” And she’s like, “Here are the statistics. I’m not doing anything with these statistics. We’re all fucked.”
A: “The statistics are so bad, in fact, that I’m going to fuck off and have as much sex as I want and do all the drugs that I want. And just spend the last couple days of my life having a good time, ‘cause we’re dead.”
M: [cackles] Like sure, you can lie about my statistics if you feel like it. I honestly don’t give a fuck.
A: It’s not gonna work! Right. So what our main character does is that he gets some people together and they make a CGI movie and they fake having the launch of an ark, which is this spaceship they’re trying to build to save some of humanity, to get some of them off the planet so that the species has a chance of survival. So they fake--instead of faking the moon landing, they fake the launch! So that at least humanity has the opportunity to perish in flames and torment with the hope that at least some of us got out. And it is so heartbreaking and weirdly uplifting.
M: I’m so mad at this story.
A: Oh my god it’s so fucking good.
F: I know! You read it and the great thing about it is it’s just kind of upbeat.
F: Like it’s got some obvious moments of strong emotion and despair and desperation, but at the same time it’s just some dude attempting to do his job and having to call people who don’t want to cooperate with him, and the everyday life that’s ticking on. I think the genius of it is that it is paced like an everyday life story.
F: You don’t actually get a sense of acceleration towards disaster, because that’s not what’s gonna happen, it’s just going to be everyday life, everyday life, everyday life, and then we’re all dead.
F: And the pacing of the story in quite a short space, manages to mimic that very, very well.
M: And I think that maybe what we’re seeing here is that the desperation is in the girlfriend, not in him.
A: Yes. I would agree because he, from day one, is like, “I’m gonna do something about this. I don’t know yet what I’m gonna do about this, but I’m going to find something to do, and then I’m going to do the shit out of it. Just to feel I have done as much as I could, and if that thing is lying to the entirety of humanity, so that they have a moment of hope in this darkest timeline where everyone’s about to die, then that’s what I’m gonna do. And I think that that’s a worthwhile thing. I experienced a really weird thing reading this story where even though I have the perspective from behind the curtain, right? I could see what was going on in the backstage. I still desperately wanted to believe that somehow he had actually gotten an arc together and launched it. [laughes] Like, it’s just fiction about fiction and I still wanted to believe that the… that it was true! You know? I wanted to believe that they got out.
F: And that’s because he--the character is drawing on that most desperate desire of all of us that there would not just be a senseless end. That something will continue.
F: And it’s such a strong emotion that that’s why his plan works. Because everyone is so desperate to hang their hope and meaning onto. And it’s true. It transmits itself all the way through the fourth wall and you find yourself with exactly that same hope.
A: It is peak Chant bullshit.
M: Yup. Yup.
A: And it’s also hopepunk as fuck. But at the very, very core of this is thing that I have--this motif that I have running through my books, which is: it doesn’t matter if it happened that way in real life as long as the story is good. As long as it’s truer than truth. It doesn’t matter whether or not humanity actually got out, it matters the effect that it had on everyone in those last moments before they were completely annihilated.
F: Yeah. And it’s a story of someone thinking, “How can I do the most good?” It’s a very Hufflepuff kind of--
F: --approach. Kind of saying how can I do the most good in the hour that all of humanity has left. I can’t actually perpetuate the species. I can’t actually get us off this rock and into space. But I can increase the net amount of happiness and hope in the world by this small amount by this small action.
M: Which you also saw, in general. You have these friendly neighborhood drug dealers just giving away heroin. Like, I’ll help! You’re never done this before? I can help! It’s fine. Here! Have a little happiness!
F: Yeah! They just want to make people have as much happiness as they can. That is a driving human urge.
M: Yeah! It’s the non-fic book that I will get you to read at some point, both of you, which is the A Paradise Built in Hell.
M: You know exactly which one I’m telling you to read again.
F: Oh yeah! I’m very open to non-fiction. It just keeps getting overtaken by all of the other fiction I need to read.
M: That’s fair.
A: Yeah. And podcast homework.
M: That’s also a mood.
F: And podcast homework.
M: Shall we talk a little bit about craft and desperation?
A: Yeees let’s!
F: Yes! Yes. I wanted to talk about the fact that desperation, as we discussed at the beginning, is a great emotional driver for a story, and it’s related to--you’ll hear this very common piece of writing advice when you’re talking about how do you create story, how do you create conflict--they say make sure your protagonist wants something desperately. From the very beginning, there should be something that they want. The thing that they want can change throughout the story. What they want could turn out not to be the thing that they need, which is a very common way of changing things around in the last act, but it means that you have a driving force from the word go. And obviously, you want everyone else in the story to also want something. And I think that all of these stories lean very hard into that for very good effect.
M: Yeah, and I think that it’s telling that these are the ones that really jumped out to us. I mean, I think that all of us had a few other runners up that we also loved. The ones that really stuck with us were the ones where there was this burning need of some kind.
M: And Alex, yours is interesting because it really isn’t the protagonist who has that burning need, it’s the whole of mankind around him.
A: Yeah. I mean, he still has a burning thing happening, but it’s this burning intent. He’s going to find some way to make this better.
F: Mhm. So how do you guys use that ‘wants a thing’ in your own writing?
A: Well, as we all know, I have a hard time with this because I keep writing these sad crying boy protagonists who just sort of want to sit around and be exquisitely beautiful and sort of mope for awhile, and then I have to get the crowbar and pry them out of the front door and be like, “Go find some plot! Go live a life!” It’s challenging.
M: So, when I’ve found this working well in short fiction--because I think you have to be more concise in short fiction, right--
A: --Yeah. And disciplined.
M: --you have to be much cleaner with it.
M: I’ve… One of the short pieces I’ve found some success with is the… what was it--a feather witch wishes to go stab her girlfriend because girlfriend nearly got the village killed. That’s a pretty obvious and clean and straight-forward desire. You want something that can be easily understood, maybe?
M: Or maybe not. I don’t know. I think it’s hard to put your finger on how to do this. For me at least I’m very method writer, if that’s even a thing? I have to kind of feel like I’m on the inside of the character. I have to feel like I am the character to really get at the heart of this. And so it’s hard to convey how to do that, right?
F: Mhm. And in short fiction, usually, not always, but usually, you only have space to explore one person in depth. And I’ve had--the story that I sold to Analog, the point of view character had two conflicting things that they wanted desperately. Number one, they wanted to--it was the sentient AI of a spaceship--they wanted to get fixed and get away from the space where it had been stuck for ages, but in conflict with that was it wanted to be loyal to the woman who had built it but woman who built it was now the reason they were stuck. And so if you can start from a place of conflicting things that you want and then introduce something into the story that allows one to be furthered or reached at the cost of the other, then you’ve got quite an interesting play that you can make a good emotional hook with.
M: But it’s definitely not the only way to make a compelling story. I mean, you think of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” right? And the desperation comes from the other side of the fourth wall. There is no desperation, per se, inside the story, it’s just a description, but we feel that because we imagine ourselves in that situation. I think that’s super interesting. But maybe you have to be le Guin to pull that off.
A: [laughs] I mean…
F: There are some short stories, and I think there were some that we read in Strange Horizons reading that were less about ‘here is a person’ and more about ‘here is a vignette about a situation, isn’t it interesting?’
F: But the ones--you’re right. You have to come up with something that’s actually quite compelling for that to work as a short story.
M: The one that it’s reminding me of is called “Road: A Fairytale,” which was a story in this--in the set of stories that we read, about a road that accidentally gains sentience and is really polluted and upset about this fact and all the traffic is honking and giving it a headache. And it was deeply charming. But yeah, it isn’t a character that’s desperate, per se.
F: Yeah. And if you’ve got more space, then wanting something desperately is a very good way to do character dynamics. Like me. I’m about to leap back into the arms of romance writing. I’m going to have a break from my fantasy novel, and it’s a very easy setup for a good romance to have your two love interest characters have directly conflicting driving motivations. They both want something desperately, but it’s the same job. Or this person’s company--wants to do this thing for his company, but it requires knocking down somebody else’s, you know, native park or something like that. So if you can set up two people with direct conflict, then you have something that will pull you immediately through the story, and it means you have an external obstacle for them to overcome when it comes to finding true love. So, the more people you can cram in who want different things, the easier it is to generate a plot and that’s why I think when you’re doing it in a short story, you either have to have conflict within the individual or you have to have something that is very easily identifiable as ‘this is the thing that this person wants. Let’s go!’ And you just drive them into the short story, and 5,000 words later you sort of emerge going ‘phew! That was a good ride!’
M: And I think this is a fascinating thing. There are so many ways of doing a short story as well. And different people will respond to different types of engine. There’s so many different story engines you can use. I’m reminded of… I think it’s Nino Cipri’s “Super Little Dead Girls” is the short story I’m thinking of. Which is just a meme. Right? It’s a quiz that you take to discover which Super Little Dead Girl you are, and it’s delightful and charming, but is it a story? I mean, it absolutely is but for me describing it to you as a meme, it doesn’t sound like it would be, right?
A: Yeah, yeah.
M: But I was also thinking about different the engine of something you might read in Strange Horizons is from a 6,000 word fanfic.
A: Yes. So I was thinking about this earlier and I was thinking, well what is fanfic fueled by? And, since this is a Strange Horizons special, if we have a bunch of new listeners who are really into Strange Horizons but haven’t listened to us before, we do talk a lot about fanfic and its role in the literary conversation. And I think that fanfic is mostly fueled by character. For the most part. Except for your, like, big ol’ epics, like the ones that Macey reads.
M: I think that it’s fueled by—this is a tautology—fanfiction is fueled by interaction with canon.
A: Okay, sure.
M: And, and I think that a lot of the things that we respond to and decide to interact with are the characters. We fall in love with the characters. We fall in hate with the characters. We want to save the characters.
A: But it is essentially an answer or response to canon.
M: Yeah, I think so.
A: I think that makes sense to me.
F: I think it can also be a response to the world of the canon.
F: It’s often a response to what we see as potential, or hidden pockets, that are unexplored. Especially in speculative canons, it doesn’t necessarily have to be about the individual characters, I agree that it usually is. But fanfiction is saying, here is something that exists, here is a pocket of it, or something that could be done with it, but wasn’t done. And here’s me showing you that interesting pocket.
M: I think that specifically with very short fanfiction, so much of what’s conveyed is an iceberg.
M: It’s reflecting an interaction with a much larger body of work. One of my favourites, a 1400 word fanfic—I can count that low—
F: Surely that’s just like blinking for you, Macey.
M: Yes! It is, and I bookmarked it, which tells you something.
M: It’s beautiful, and painful, and it just kind of pulls back the curtain on one particular aspect of canon that isn’t really dug into. Which is the events of Rogue One on the people who were just kinda living in this city that got bombed into nothing.
M: And I think that’s something that fanfiction can do that short fiction can’t, because: what is it pulling back the veil from? What is the bigger work that it’s referencing?
F: Yeah. And I think that when you read something like that, it doesn’t exist floating in a vacuum of nothing.
F: It exists attached to something. There’s this house that someone has introduced you to, you’ve walked through some of the rooms, everything is quite nice. And then someone says, “you know what, there’s some really interesting architectural features above this door, let’s go and just look at this.”
F: Let me explain to you how this door is interesting. Here’s some really nice curlicue things, isn’t that nice? And you go “yes it is,” because you’re aware of it as part of a larger house.
F: It’s not like someone has just handed you the top of a door and been like “Isn’t this great?” And you’re like, “It’s a fucking door.”
M: Right. That’s why I’m so impressed with stuff like ”The Viper King,” or Marissa Lingen’s ocean story.
A: Yes! Yes, that was one of mine.
M: Was it “Wrap Me in Oceans Wide”?
M: With the depth of world and context that can be conveyed in such a short package, compared to what we’re used to over in our fanfic-land where we have so much luxurious space.
F: Yeah. I often see people talk about short stories, not necessarily even positively, saying “this felt like it was an extract from something bigger,” in a way where they think, well why didn’t they just write the bigger thing, or this was unsatisfying because I wanted to see the rest of it. Whereas that’s one of my favorite things about short stories that feel like they are a slice from a house that you can’t quite see, but you have been given enough to get a sense for what it might look like. What the shape might be, what the other rooms might look like. I keep banging on about Margo Lanagan, who’s an Australian short story writer.
F: She does this better than almost any other writer I know. All of her stories take place in very different worlds and you get this sense of the size of them, even though all you’re focusing on is a few people, or a small family, or one person’s quest. She has this gift for dropping details in and capturing unusual voice. And it makes you really feel like you are being given a glimpse of something huge. That’s one of my favorite things about short stories. When they do it well.
M: “Singing My Sister Down” was the one you had us read, right?
M: That was amazing.
A: That was so good.
F: It’s great. All of her collections of short stories are fantastic in their own way. I really recommend them.
A: So, we had like, thirty stories that we reviewed, it was a lot. And we broke it into ten each. Do we want to give a shout out to some of the others that we really enjoyed?
A: Also, here’s a fun game, let’s see if we can imagine a parallel universe where this episode was about different stories, what might the theme have been? Can you put together a set of three. Or a set of two that was missing a third.
A: Who wants to start?
F: You’ve already discussed that we had two Orpheus stories.
F: I could probably make a third about resurrection.
F: Because one of the other stories that I really loved out of my set was “Notes on a Resurrection” by Natalia Theodoridou.
F: Which is a story about a fairly simple concept. It’s about somebody who comes back to life in a town after a lot of the young people have been killed, and what happens afterwards. My favorite thing about this story was the structure, in that it is lots of very short vignettes from the point of view of different people. So there’s this person’s friend, their parents, their sister, somebody else, somebody whose son did not come back to life. It builds up this slightly unsettling story about this very common fantasy/horror theme of someone has come back, but they have come back wrong.
M: But they came back wrong, yeah.
F: They came back not quite right. Where “Regret, Return, Reignite” played with that and made it straightforward, and actually kind of charming—although part of the story’s concept but not actually creepy in the horror sense—this story began to feel more like traditional horror.
M: Right, mmhmm.
F: It was about small, close-knit communities and how something going slightly off can then cause ripple effects. I thought that was a great story.
M: That sounds super cool. I did actually, I will admit, go through and read Alex’s, so you should tell us about your—
A: You didn’t have enough to read so you read mine as well? I see how it is.
M: No I went and read both of your—a couple of the ones you particularly enjoyed.
A: Oh, okay. Yes, yes. If I had one more story, I could have made a set of three built around a theme of The Sea.
A: Because I had in my set, and really, really loved Marissa Lingen’s “Wrap Me in Oceans Wide,” and Jordan Kurella’s story about the sea, and also eating men alive.
M: Which, mood.
A: Huge mood. “The Wind Whispers Secrets To The Sea,” both of them are excellent, and I really enjoyed them. But I needed one more.
M: But I thought—also the thing that got to me from “Wrap Me in Oceans Wide” was this theme of pollution.
M: Which I also saw reflected in the one that I saw.
A: The “Road” right?
M: The “Road” yeah. “Road: A Fairytale.” There was also somewhat “Sequestration; Vitrification” touched on that. So I think that’s something that I noticed a little bit. Reading this much of one magazine’s stories in fairly short order, you get a little bit of a feel for what they were buying at that time.
M: And there’s this emphasis on the impact we have on the world, that I saw in a lot of these stories.
A: Mmm! Yeah.
M: Which I thought was a really interesting theme.
F: Did you want to talk about oracles?
M: Yeah, I actually realized that we have another one for oracles, right?
A: Oh, do we?
M: Yeah, so who was reading these ones?
F: Yes, that was one of mine.
M, eagerly: Well, what are those two like? What are they about? I didn’t read these ones.
A: So “The King’s Mirror” is set in the Inca Empire and it is about a mirror grinder who is attempting to make a mirror perfect enough that the king can use it to see the future.
M: That’s cool.
A: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. But while the mirror grinder is making this, he speaks to the gods and the gods show him the future and it’s terrible. And I don’t want to spoil the end for you because it’s pretty rad.
M: Cool. And yours?
F: Oh, yeah, “Cassandra Draws the Four of Cups” is about climate change.
M: Ah! See? See?
F: Yes, I was sort of looking at the notes that I made. I wrote that it’s about passive vs. active pessimism about the future.
F: And also lesbians.
M: And also, I mean that’s fair. Whom amongst us. No, I was thinking that “The Quest for the Viper King” one, the hunting the viper king was actually about oracles.
A: Oh, yeah, that has oracles.
F: That’s true.
M: It was about, if we were talking about it from the perspective of thinking about oracles, more specifically I would have talked more about the juxtaposition of the false oracle who lied to them to set them on the quest and the absolute truth of the viper itself. Which I thought was super cool.
F: Mmm, yes.
A: And then we could have talked about the symbolism of the tarot card and I would have looked up for you what that particular card—was it the High Priestess?
M: Maaybe. They just called her the Lady because they did.
A: I thought it was the High Priestess card.
M: It may well have been, yes.
A: But I would have looked that up and brought that in, I’m sure it’s relevant.
F: Yup. And I had, within the ten stories that I read, and I sorted these on a spreadsheet, essentially, so it was very random as to who got which and we just made sure that everybody had the same amount of words to read, roughly. But all within the ten that I read was a tryptic about magical houses. And we know that I love me a fuckin’ magical house.
M: Awww, you love magical houses! You do love those.
F: So I was quite happy about this. So there was “What Cradles Us But Will Not Set Us Free” by Nin Harris which I really, really loved. This was one of my favorites from the set that I read. It had a very Zen Cho kind of feel to it and I love Zen Cho’s short stories. And it’s about becoming a monster—
F: —and a magical house that protects monsters and about transformation and memory. It was gorgeous, so I really loved that one.
M: Oh, I love that.
F: And “Who Has Never Loved a Gentle House?” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu is actually from the point of view of a magical house which is kind of ambivalently malevolent. You know, it wants some stuff.
F: But it’s a house, so there’s only so much stuff it can do. But I really like that one as well. And the third one in that set is called “Sublet” by Ian Kappos which is actually about a magical room within someone’s apartment or, I think it might be within a townhouse. Where if he goes into the room, he can see his friends’ deaths.
M: Mmm. Mhm.
F: That one is actually, I think, about survivor’s guilt and social isolation. Again, it’s using that frame of a house that is in some way a magical or horrifying or other.
M: No, for sure.
A: Well, I think that Freya wins this hand of poker.
A: Since she’s the only one with a full set!
F: I’ve got a three, anybody else got three?
A: Three of a kind? Three of a kind, anyone?
M: No, no! Now I’m poring back through mine. Can I do anything with three? I have lots of stuff about children? That’s not really a theme, though, is it?
A: I could have done death.
M: I mean—
F: There’s a lot of them that are about death!
M: I have one story about terrifying clowns. We should stop playing poker with these poor people’s stories.
F: We could probably do a whole fucking Royal Flush of death, honestly.
A: True, true.
M: Yeah, yeah. Where is the lie. Darling listeners, darling Strange Horizons readers, thank you for sharing these stories with us.
A: Thank you for joining us on this journey.
F: Indeed, we had a good time reading them and an even better time pulling them apart for you.
M: Such fun.
A: And also, thank you to Strange Horizons for asking us to be one of your stretch goals. It was such an honor and we are so glad to have helped out.
M: Yep! Bucket List Item.
A: We’ve made it, at last! We’re grown-ups now.
F: We’re past over.
[outro music begins]
M: We can all go home.
F: We can all go home.
A: Not really.
F: Not… not really.
A: We will never be free.
M, quietly: Oh god.
[outro music continues]
A: Hey, everybody. Thanks for joining us for this episode of Be the Serpent, a podcast of extremely, extremely deep literary merit. And thank you also to Strange Horizons for asking us to be one of their Kickstarter stretch goals. We are delighted and honored to have helped you out, please keep up the good work of publishing great short fiction. Because this is a bonus episode, I don’t really know what the episode before this one was about or what the one coming after will be, but I’m sure it’s great. So go check out last week’s episode to find out what next week’s episode is going to be. And if you have a friend who’s into podcasts like this one, give them a heads up.
In the meantime, feel free to continue the conversation with us. Questions, comments, breathless adulations? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, @serpentcast on Twitter and Tumblr, or join in the conversation on our fan Discord chat, linked on the About the Show page of our website. If you enjoy the podcast, please consider supporting us on Patreon or leaving an iTunes review.
And, by the way, speaking of myths: your smile is legendary.
What We’re Into Lately
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
Altogether by Brill Harper
On Grand Strategy by John Lewis Gaddis
Hoshigaki by writer168
Five Kingdoms for the Dead by Evil Is A Relative Term
Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers
Connections (TV series)
Other Stuff We Mentioned
A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold
How We Got To Now by Steven Johnson
Connections by James Burke
“What We Named the Needle” by Freya Marske, in Analog
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin
“Road: A Fairytale” by Shalini Srinivasan
“Super Little Dead Girls” by Nino Cipri
“Remains” by Basingstoke
“Wrap Me in Oceans Wide” by Marissa Lingen
“Notes on a Resurrection” by Natalia Theodoridou
“The Wind Whispers Secrets To The Sea” by Jordan Kurella
“Sequestration; Vitrification” by AJ Lucy
“The King’s Mirror” by M.K. Hutchins
“Cassandra Draws the Four of Cups” by Ruthanna Emrys
“Who Has Never Loved a Gentle House?” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu
“Sublet” by Ian Kappos