BASS 2019: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, “The Era” from Guernica, 4/2/18

I had what would become Ben’s voice rattling in my brain for a while. It was a postapocalyptic-sad-boy chorus that was strange and funny and alive to me. An idea of a world emerged from this voice, a world that was brutal in the name of “honesty,” a world that had learned to forsake kindness as a virtue. And once these general ideas were in place, I let the voice take me where it would.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brehyan, Contributor Note

I first read this story about a week ago, at the end of my Summer Read II, in Adjei-Brenyah’s collection Friday Black. My impression at the time was that it was remarkably sterile and cool in a collection bursting with energy, violence, and rage; I briefly mentioned it combined concerns about human genetic engineering with the pushback on political correctness and high-priced self-help scams. On re-reading the story individually, I have a very different impression; the interactions are anything but sterile and cool. While it isn’t five kids getting beheaded outside the library, it’s still amazingly violent, but the violence is interpersonal and institutional, not physical. It’s Mean Girls on steroids, and everybody, including teachers and parents, plays.

Adjei-Brenyah has gone to some trouble to create a pretty complete outline of a future world, from language to technology to social institutions and attitudes. The tentpoles are familiar, however: money talks, revisionist history supports the power structure, let’s make sure everyone thinks they’re happy, and exclude the outliers. Ben, our protagonist, is in high school, so we learn a lot about the setting, both historically and socially, by looking over his shoulder in what passes for History class:

“Suck one and die,” says Scotty, a tall, mostly-true, kid. “I’m aggressive ’cause I think you don’t know shit.”
We’re in HowItWas class.
“Well,” Mr. Harper says, twisting his ugly body toward us, “you should shut your mouth because you’re a youth-teen who doesn’t know shit about shit, and I’m a full-middler who’s been teaching this stuff for more years than I’m proud of.”
“Understood,” says Scotty.
Then Mr. Harper went back to talking about the time before the Turn, which came after the Big Quick War, which came after the Long Big War. I was thinking about going to the nurse for some pre-lunch Good. I do bad at school because sometimes I think when I should be learning.

Complete story available online at Guernica

Truth telling and pride are central values in this world; emotion is the prime evil. Kids are genetically engineered for various qualities, but sometimes it goes wrong, resulting in various abnormalities and disabilities. Sometimes it goes right-but-wrong, as with the case of Ben’s sister Marlene; her seven indices all landed on ambition, creating a real monster, but one fully compatible with and prized by important parts the world in which she lives.

Ben’s decline makes up the plot. I’m still not sure what the reason is for his decline. He’s clear-born, that is, not genetically improved (after the experience with his sister, his parents thought it best not to take chances again), which comes with some disadvantages in a world where most of his classmates can read thirty-five pages in a minute and a half. The requisite dose of Good given every morning isn’t working very well, so he goes to the nurse for more during the day. Is this a common reaction in clear-born kids? Is he on his way to becoming a shoelooker – someone without pride or communicative skill? Is this physical, or the toil of emotional strain? Fact is, no one seems to care, including his parents, who, with prideful honesty, only note that he’s a mistake, slow, and disappointing, and they’re disappointed because that’s a reflection on them. Apparently narcissism is part and parcel of the pride-and-honesty thing.

I’ve always had an antipathy towards people who claim “You may not like what I say but at least I’m honest.” That’s always struck me as a translation of “You don’t matter enough for me to learn basic social skills or care about any relationship I may have with you.” And now this society is built on the same attitude: that interpersonal stuff might have been useful when there were a few thousand of us scattered about the savanna, but now it’s like an appendix, useless and prone to infection, so let’s tell stupid people they’re stupid and ugly people they’re ugly and not worry about it.

There’s a match for every misfit, and in Ben’s case, it’s Leslie McStowe:

Leslie was a twin, then her brother, Jimmy, died. Jimmy was a shoelooker who cooked his head in a food zapper. Leslie is always telling lies about how great things are or how nice everyone looks and how everybody is special. Leslie McStowe is one of the least truthful people around, which is frustrating because she and I scanned high for compatibility on our genetic compatibility charts. Probably because we’re both clear-borns. Leslie’s parents have protested against the Opti-Life™. They don’t believe in perfect. I believe in it—I just hate it.

It’s Ben’s birthday, which apparently is ignored in this post-emotion world, but Leslie invites him to come to her home where the McStowe family introduces him to birthday cake, jokes, and the idea that human relationships create a natural form of Good that obviates the injections. At this point we’re ready to go with the plucky-band-of-resistance-fighters trope, but plot twist: they give Ben a brochure explaining the prices of various packages for sessions of basking in the warm glow of friendship, which turns it into something closer to Scientology or whatever the financially-exploitative cult of the day is. Life in the Era, they call it.

Except, not so fast. Ben runs into trouble the next day, and Leslie is there. Alas, so is Marlene. And Ben has a choice to make. It could be a simplistic ending, but it’s choreographed nicely, using a lot of physical sensation to emphasize the nature of his decision.

As with most SF/F stories, this one plays with long-debated questions:

Where is the line between honesty and cruelty? While visiting the McStowes, Ben asks, “Is that the food sector your son killed himself in?” This understandably creates a shock wave for Mrs. McStowe, who, unlike Ben’s parents, operates with what we would consider a normal emotional palette, and drops a plate.

Father McStowe looks at me. He touches my shoulder. His hand is large/heavy. “You know something,” he speaks low so only I can hear him, “one of the things we like to do in this home is be careful of what we say. What you said didn’t have to be said. And now you’ve hurt my wife. She’ll be fine, but—”
“Lying for others is what caused the Big Quick and the Long Big,” I say.
“Maybe. Or maybe it was something else. I’m talking about thinking about the other person, ya know?” Father McStowe whispers to me. “I’m sure you have a lot of ideas about this, but it’s something we try around here.” He smiles and touches my shoulder again. “Let’s eat some cake,” he says in a big voice, a voice for everybody.

I recall a Miss Manners article in which she recommends considering what’s behind a question with a potentially devastating answer, like “Do I look fat in these pants?” or “Would you like to see pictures of my grandchildren?” If, in the first case, if a fix is possible (like in a store dressing room, pre-purchase), suggest it, otherwise (like just before the questioner goes on stage to deliver an important address), don’t destroy someone’s confidence for no reason; and in the second case, the question is really “Do you care about me?” That’s a lot easier to answer.

There are times when it will be necessary to tell a painful truth: “I don’t love you” or “You didn’t make the cut for the team/class/job.” It’s possible to cushion the blow, but that requires taking into account the other person’s feelings, not something a society that devalues emotions is likely to care about. I find this particularly important in the contemporary struggle around political correctness and safe spaces. In general, they are built on courtesy and compassion, on the simple idea of caring about others’ feelings when possible. Somehow, exaggerations turn into heated calls for “I’ll call you what I damn want and you’ll put up with it, bitch” rhetoric. Given that a perfect balance is not possible, personally I prefer to err on the side of kindness.

This leads to another theme, perhaps a central one: what is the best balance between reason and emotion? Philosophers have gone back and forth on that for millennia. Plato and Aristotle both felt reason should consider, but rule over, passions; David Hume felt otherwise: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Kahneman got more psychological, proposing System 1 and System 2 thinking, one jumping in immediately to protect us from danger, the other one considering consequences but perhaps coming in too late; several contemporary philosophers, Jonathan Haidt among them, see morality and judgment as an emotional response – the quick, “hot” System 1 take – then System 2 is brought in to find a way to justify it. Cognitive therapy uses the concept of wise mind, a blending of emotional mind and rational mind, as a way of balancing two inputs into decision making. In all these examples, where the balance lies is debatable, but no one advocates sliding the bar all the way to either side.

Ben’s society slides the bar hard over and gives emotion zero weight, but you can’t tell me there isn’t more than a little surreptitious delight in some of the crueler episodes. Power might be the motivation, the ability to hurt others; but in his blog post analyzing the story, Jake Weber makes a great case for the essential role of shoelookers and other misfits in Ben’s society: they provide someone to feel superior to. This makes sense, in light of Ben’s evaluation of shoelookers:

And then there’s Nick and Raphy who are the class shoelookers. All they do is cry and moan. They were both optimized and still became shoelookers. Being emotional is all they are and it means they aren’t good for anything. I’m glad Samantha and Nick and Raphy are in the class. Because of them I’m not bottom/last in learning and I don’t wanna be overall bottom/last at all.

It’s interesting how differently the story reads in Friday Black, versus in BASS. I see a lot of little choices that give it depth. Some of the particulars of the world confusing, but, given the space of a short story, Adjei-Brenyah has done an excellent job of setting us up with what we need to know to understand Ben and feel a stake in his struggle.

BASS 2019: Let’s Get This Party Started

Last fall, when the indefatigable Heidi Pitlor sent me a first batch of forty stories, I dove right in….
By Thanksgiving I felt as though I had lucked into the best gig ever….I was discovering brilliant similes everywhere; I was meeting adulterous Alaskan moms and White House switchboard operators and nuns buying beehives. I kept thinking: there are so many brave voices singing out there!
it was mid December when I remembered, Shit. I’m supposed to decide why some of these stories are better than the others. I panicked. I spent an entire mourning constructing a spreadsheet; I built fields to score and summarize and evaluate, and in about fourteen seconds all the pleasure ribboned away.
Evaluating is a very different experience than enjoying, and I suppose this is true when it comes to parenting, traveling, eating, having sex, and reading short stories. Evaluating sucks. Evaluating turns eating a delicious piece of pie into homework.

Anthony Doerr, Introduction

It’s maybe the most narratively engaging Introduction since Richard Russo told the story of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “To entertain, and to instruct” lecture back in BASS 2010. Considering the guest editors are themselves short story writers, it’s odd that so few use their storytelling skills in their introductions, preferring to use more of an essay style to outline their process and thoughts on the state of fiction in general, and how it relates to the real world. But Doerr starts out with some wonderful anecdotes about his writing as kid: his stories usually featured a boy leaving school on some adventure, because “[t]o a kid with a science-teacher mom and a perfect attendance record for four years running, walking out of school in the middle of the day and never returning was the most epic beginning to a story imaginable.”

We read about his first short story competition during his junior year in high school,

My current story-in-progress was “Avalanche”, about a boy who strolls out of a trigonometry test, steals a delivery van containing thousands of chocolate bars, and drives to the Yukon only to become caught in (surprise!)an avalanche. I had loads of fun describing the snow whooshing and tumbling and grinding around the van , then switched to the point of view of a nearby dog who, out of the goodness of his dog heart, begins searching for the buried kid. Then I jumped into some back story on the dog (nice farm girl, mean farmer, a misunderstanding involving chickens) and I described how the dog smells all that chocolate through six feet of snow and digs out the boy and they eat frozen Twix bars and the boy never studies trigonometry again.

Boy, do I want to read that story (hey, that would be an interesting anthology: established authors rewrite their earliest stories, from the vantage point of experience)! But the young Doerr came upon a “how to write stories” book, and realized he’d broken all the rules enshrined within: subplots, secondary characters, multiple povs. So he wrote a different story, followed all the rules – and someone else the contest, of course.

He did, as we know, go on to learn the rules, and, most importantly, when and how to break them –

Indeed, whenever I came across a list of rules like the ones above, what I really wanted to do was write a story that was all backstory, in which multiple protagonists, none of which are exactly likable, wake up, tell lots of different stories inside the story, argue significant moral points, then wake up a second time and realize the whole thing was a dream.

– and, as the guest editor of this anthology, when to allow other writers to break rules. He abandoned his spreadsheet for a more gestalt approach: “I wanted sentences that pulled me in multiple directions at once, structures that unsettled pre-existing patterns, and techniques that took some previously ratified rule and poked it.”

Although I’ve always considered myself to be more about introspection and ideas than story – a preference I just re-remembered during my Summer Read II of fiction and nonfiction – and though I have been increasingly anxious and depressed about current events over the past several years (reaching bottoms previously considered unreachable), I found this introduction to be the most uplifting in years. Maybe because it countered, rather than echoed, my despair, maybe because it was just so much fun to read. I’ve enjoyed all of the Doerr stories and essays I’ve read, but I never thought of him as light-hearted and fun. It’s wonderful to make this discovery, that he – and, more selfishly but importantly, I – can laugh. Yet he is not out of touch with the present reality:

These stories push back against tradition even as they simultaneously embrace it, and help us remember that in art, so long as we humans manage to keep having children, and our children keep growing up and looking around at the stories their forebears have told and deciding they can tell them better (which is to say faster, or slower, or greener, or longer, or with more monsters, or fewer verbs, or more stolen vans full of chocolate bars), the resistance is always happening.

But… did it have to be orange?

I have a longstanding aversion to the color orange. I like oranges well enough – I eat clementines regularly – and I quite like shades of peach, burnt siennas, dusty ochres, and the like. But in clothing, walls, and, yes, book covers, orange-orange grates on me. Not since the Great Chartreuse Horror of 2011 have I had such a negative reaction to the look of BASS. But then, when I hold it, I notice it has that velvety matte finish I love so much… maybe I just needed to shut my eyes until I open the cover.

I see in the Table of Contents the usual combination of Famous Names (Ursula Le Guin, Jeffrey Eugenides, Wendell Berry), BASS repeats, and writers I’m unfamiliar with. I’ll be doing my usual “reacting to stories” rather than reviewing or critiquing, because I have no training in the latter skills. Fortunately, Jake Weber will be working in parallel on his blog, offering a more writerly analysis of each story (and as usual, he’s a step ahead of me already). And, if we’re lucky, we may have another writer joining us in some capacity. Everyone is welcome to comment, offer differing opinions, and point out what I’ve missed.

I’m nervous about this particular volume for another reason: last year’s was extraordinary. For that matter, to me BASS has been crescendoing for about three years now. How do you follow that? How do I tame my own recollections, my expectations? Not to mention my angst?

Both Doerr and Pitlor acknowledge the impossibility of living up to the title “Best”:

Here’s a secret: every year, in some way, I find myself telling the guest editor that there are not twenty perfect stories. There is not even one perfect story. There is, to my knowledge, no such thing to all people. What one person sees as implausible, another sees as imaginative. ….You learn to keep your gaze on something bigger and broader, the horizon of a story, say, rather than the potholes. The horizon – the place where voice, mood, plot, characterization, language, and perspective coalesce and expand – the horizon is where you’ll find, as Anthony calls it in his introduction, the “magic.”

Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

Maybe that’s a step. Stop worrying about last year, about the orange cover – or whatever’s breaking on Twitter – and read.