I haven’t written in forever but this morning bad captions on MSNBC led to joking with Don about “election day blues” and suddenly I knew how to write that. So I did. It’s meant to be sung, and it’s as much the blues as a poor white girl from central CA can manage (which is a lot, but maybe not enough; your mileage may vary and I’m okay with that). And yes, I’ve already voted.
Election Day Blues
I woke up today and it felt like snow And oh it’s cold, the day before the US election It’ll all be over, for good or bad Or it won’t and this is the beginning Of the end of democracy
But it’s been ending, or it’s been changing As long as we’ve all be alive And we can make it, if we vote now So they tell me, but Lord I don’t know
Everywhere someone will tell me I’m wrong For believing we could ever be better than this Or I’m wrong for saying we’re worse than we should be And history judge us, we’re as good or as bad as We ever were now/I don’t know There has to be better than this
But it’s been ending, or it’s been changing As long as we’ve all be alive And we can fix it, if we vote now So they tell me, but Lord I don’t know
I want to believe that a vote makes the Dif’rence, I want us to rise up and cast out A monster but he’s just a weak man who hates us For not being afraid, And we all deserve better I want to have hope/I don’t know There has to be better than this
But it’s been ending, or it’s been changing As long as we’ve all be alive And we can save it, if we vote now So they tell me, but Lord I don’t know
But it’s been ending, or it’s been changing As long as we’ve all be alive And we can save us, if we vote now So they tell me, but Lord I don’t know.
In 2016, Apex Magazine published my short story, “That Lucky Old Sun”, to my great delight. You can still read it online for free, here. You can also buy the whole issue for Kindle here. AND it was made into a radio play by Redshift in 2017; you can listen to their performance of it here.
Before I talk about the story, I want to mention their publisher/Editor-in-Chief, Jason Sizemore. He’s been going through some health problems – Bell’s palsey, a painful cyst, required surgery – and chose to use the current issue to find inspiration in the darkness. You can read his editorial online here.
Apex Magazine has been publishing for years and has given us work by some amazing writers. While Jason’s surgery tomorrow shouldn’t affect their ability to keep publishing, maybe today is the day you subscribe? You can choose whichever format suits you best:
I know that I look forward to reading each month. I hope you do, too.
Now, about my story…
(If you haven’t read “That Lucky Old Sun” yet, be warned that there are minor spoilers below.)
I was nervous before “That Lucky Old Sun” came out; it’s the longest short story I’ve published to date, and it plays with an old SF trope in a way that readers might either love, or hate, or not notice at all. You can never tell until a story ends up in the world and out of your hands. I was more nervous because this story is important to me. They all are, of course, though some of what I write is fun, some is dark, some is about projecting the future – I’m usually pushing at the edges of what I can do in a story, but the boundaries I’m pushing aren’t always the same.
In classic, golden age SF, we have these grand stories about building rockets, escaping doomed worlds, blasting off into space with limitless potential in front of us. I could write that again a hundred times, and who would question it? We know that tale. We’ve all read it. With this story, I wanted to talk about the people who get left behind. Not the rocket scientists or astronauts or the child looking out the porthole at a dwindling blue marble that used to be his home. Just regular, everyday people. Families. Neighbors. Small town folks, faced with things much bigger than themselves.
Carrie’s “end of the world” science fiction story is time and world ambiguous, telling this often-told story from a new perspective. The protagonist is a small girl, innocuously spending what could be her last day with her loving mother, who knows what’s coming. The author touchingly portrays the mother’s loving patience and the girl’s innocence in this easy to read tale.
Telling the story from the little girl’s perspective made it darker and more compelling. I found the writing engaging from the very beginning and it continued to hold me even though I could guess where it might end; a pleasing new variation on an old theme.
Lastly, and with the most spoilers… At Quick Sip Reviews, Charles Payseur said:
………….okay then. Yeah, this story is a bit dark, a bit…well, a bit very dark, about a child, Melanie, and her mother as they sort-of wait for the end of the world. The setting is vaguely futuristic and also rather dystopian, a place where people are judged based on their skin but not exactly the way that they are now. Here it’s not exactly race it seems but something in the blood that changes the skin’s color and might do other things to it. Whatever the case, it means that there are vast systems in place to try and “contain” it, mostly by reporting on neighbors and living in a police state and it’s an all around not-good scene. And yet the “problem” persists and so the government decided to just bomb everything. Bomb it all and then return to reclaim the wiped slate. And that the story follows a mother and her daughter on this day is bleak as fuck, but also I rather enjoyed it. There is something to be said about this, that this is where fascism leads, that this is where intolerance and bigotry lead. That there are “understanding” people who are just part of the problem and that everything is built on hate without reason, hate because that’s all it is, and in the end it tears everything apart, tears families apart and lets the central lie of the story fester and burn like the fires of the bombs being dropped. Because a large part of the story is the absence of the father, who is “pure” and who has the chance to survive. It’s a wrenching story and a sad one, very much worth reading but maybe prepare some cat videos for the aftermath. Indeed.
I chatted with Juliette Wade on Dive Into Worldbuilding in 2016, about writing without a visual imagination, and semiotics, as it’s applied to writing. Last week, I tweeted about the semiotics of MAGA hats, which got me thinking about how useful the study of semiotics is. I’ve updated this post a little; Part 2 will post next week.
Semiotics (not to be confused with the Saussurean tradition of “semiology”) is basically the study of what visual symbols mean. It examines how signs become a kind of short-hand for meaning, with the context of the specific time and culture where that meaning developed. Semiotics is related to the study of linguistics, but isn’t confined to written or spoken language. Instead, semiotics considers whether everything is a symbol, and if the display of those symbols has an extra layers of meaning which are instantly obvious to those who understand the symbol.
Imagine a billboard. There’s a message on it, and the text of the message has at least one obvious meaning. (You can read the words.) But the letters on the billboard have extra meaning, because the font choice, or colors, or size of the letters, has an effect on the original meaning of the message. The same words printed in Comic Sans give a different impression to a reader than if they’d seen it printed in all caps, using a heavy Impact font, right? If it’s written in simple black letters, you’ll probably think of it as basic, or serious, or cheap, depending on the context, but if it’s written in ornately scrolled gilt lettering with an abundance of brightly painted flowers in between the words… that implies something different. You know this without even really thinking about it, because your life experience gives you a greater understanding of the extra meaning, based on context.
But wait, there’s more! Semiotics also looks at images as if they are components of language, imparting meaning. In other words, you can look at things which are not text – art, objects, fashion – and “read” their meaning. Here’s one example:
Fidelity has long been metaphorically portrayed in Western Art as certain historical women, as a plant, or as a dog. (“Fido” even means “trust” in Latin.) In van Eyck’s famous painting, Arnolfini and His Wife, the little dog between the two figures was obvious to viewers at the time as a reference to the faithfulness the couple should have during their marriage.
Jan van Eyck Giovanni, Arnolfini and His Wife (1434)
The National Gallery, London
It’s important to note that I said “viewers at the time”. The Arnolfini Paintingwas created toward the beginning of the Flemish Primitives period, during the Northern Renaissance. Anyone who viewed it during the 15th century understood about the dog, and probably several dozen other symbolic references as well (there’s a lot in this particular panting). They didn’t need it explained to them, because they were living in the culture that created this visual shorthand. The curtains on the bed were red, and left open, hinting at the consummation of the marriage, the future lovemaking they’d enjoy… which wasn’t any kind of a secret to the painting’s intended audience. The fruit on the windowsill implied both fertility (it’s ripe, round, and fresh) and wealth (those fruits were expensive to import) — which would have been obvious at the time. For outside, untrained, or later, viewers, it doesn’t give the same immediate impression.
In other words, for people alive when the painting was completed, semiotics turns this classic work of art into a meme. You knew what it meant because you’d seen the evolution of why these images had that meaning. You got the references. You could look at the painting and just know.
Decoding semiotic clues becomes harder as you move away from the originating culture. This could be a movement in time — most of the interpretation was done in the 20th century — or place, which is why early archeologists got so very many things wrong when they applied their 19th-century British or German worldviews to Ancient Egyptian relics. (Or any other African finds, or Native American sites, or South American, or… pretty much any dig that uncovered anything, anywhere. White privilege in action!)
Writers use the semiotics of their invented world to help their readers understand people, art, culture, and events through the lens of interpreting the things left unsaid. It’s also used to understand the written depiction of things outside of dialogue. (It’s been used on you ever since you started reading, even if you didn’t realize it.)
It’s why you probably think of “Sherlock Holmes” when you see a deerstalker hat, or the image of man in a long beige trenchcoat, wearing a fedora, standing in the shadows, implies “early 20th century detective”. It’s why that same trench coat paired with a blue suit and Converse makes you think of the Doctor, instead. These things are the visual expression of “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” a phrase that means much more than the individual words suggests… To fans of Star Trek.
For some writers, putting in semiotic clues is a way to skimp on the writing. If you show us at the beginning that your main character looks and moves like Ronald Reagan, then you don’t have to work as hard to convince us that this person is charming, affable, and secretly suffering from memory loss or dementia. We’ll know that, because Reagan has become an archetype, and his presence means those things to many people now.
(There are some sub-genres that work well for this sort of writing: space adventure comedies, and Mythos stories, for example. But unless you’re careful, it’s too easy to rely on flat archetypes and facile writing, putting the work on your readers instead of yourself.)
I’m not saying that semiotics is only a cheat for lazy writers, though. It can be, sure. When done well, it also adds layers and layers of subtext to original stories. Think of the way the color red is used in The Sixth Sense or the lighting cues that Dean Cudney used in John Carpenter’s The Thing. The way Sandy changes into the black outfit in Grease and the boys instantly know what she’s trying to say about herself.
To use a more current example, it’s how you know something about a person based on the type of ballcap they wear:
When you know, you know.
(Part 2 will be published on Sunday, Feb 3, 2019. Stay tuned!)