Monthly Archives: January 2016

Stealing Souls, Chapter Seven: Underground

This is a continuation of my novel. A new chapter will be published every other Sunday until my first hiatus in April. The full archives can be found here. Please feel free to leave me a comment with your thoughts, and thank you for reading!

They tried to take Ainsel by the hand, and she bit the hands that were offered. Then they tried to take her by wrapping her in a blanket, but she saw it coming for her. Unencumbered by the weight of unnecessary legs, she darted through parted feet, and found hiding places in the brush. Finally, somebody managed to catch her by the foot and drop her into a crate.

They put the crate on a cart on the wheels, and drove her deep underground for miles, until they stopped at the heart of the old city. It was at this point they gave her water that tasted strange, and she fell asleep.

When she woke up, her back hurt, where the limp limbs had been cut off. It was a new, different kind of pain; the sting of something devouring. She wasn’t wearing any sort of shirt, or any other clothes, and reaching her arms back she could feel the lower two scars. Her fingers touched warm metal embedded into her skin. They were delicate nubs, almost needles. As she tried to feel them more carefully, the movement hurt worse, and she drew her hand back.

She wasn’t in the crate anymore, or in the metros. She was in an enclosure of metal, plastic and glass, lying on a seat of soft but scratchy fabric. Through the windows, she could see orange torches and grimy pale walls, and many other squat enclosures like hers, the light reflecting off of black, blue, white, silver, tan, and occasionally red. It was a parking garage.

In many of the other cars were human figures. Some were moving from seat to seat, but most stayed in one place, rocking restlessly, or still as corpses. They were young; mostly children like her, a few teenagers, and nobody older than their early twenties. Metropiads didn’t kill. They would provide food and water, and deep underground the garage was a stable temperature year round. But the children died anyway. Even fed, they wasted away. Even given medicine, a cold would ravage through their body like a tempest. Isolated, bored and purposeless, they would die of darkness.

Ainsel saw that no one was watching her, and began to explore. Her fingers explored and found a panel full of little switches and knobs that she could move, but none did anything. The wheel barely budged. The switches along the doors were equally useless. Even the inner lock, which should have worked without a battery, did nothing. The Metropiads had disabled it, and padlocked the doors from the outside, so access in and out would happen always on their terms, never on hers. She did not know any of this, any more than she knew the word for what she was in. It wasn’t even that she expected any of the switches to do anything observable. She was the purest sort of scientist; one open to any discovery, including discovery of nothing at all. She explored for exploration’s sake.

After the doors and dashboard, she found a working lever. It was the one on the side of her seat, and it made the back of it she was sitting on flop forward. She was knocked back into the horn, which she had overlooked before. The long, loud blare set the girl in the car next to her screaming. Ainsel was pinned for a moment, watching the other girl press her hands against the window, the breath of her angry shrieks fogging the glass. She was about twelve, and had long but sparse hair. Her scalp was patchy, like she had ripped it out chunk by chunk. It had gone brittle and tangled, so it looked like winter branches rattling in the wind. Everything else about her appearance was obscured, by dark, by her own breath, and by the motion of her body as she flung it, again and again, against the door. Her hands were up, but not with defensive intent. It seemed that her only aim was to make the most sound possible, as if her voice was inadequate to her rage and she needed the slap of her palms to make her full point known. In fact, her head hit the glass before her hands as often as the other way around, and she seemed to be indifferent to the pain. It was not suicidal, it was not unsuicidal. It was a tantrum, and whether she killed herself in the process of expressing the anger was simply a matter she was indifferent to.

Many would have found this expression mysterious to the point of alien. To Ainsel, it was perfectly understandable. This did not make it any less frightening.

After a few moments of paralyzed shock, she managed to wriggle out from between the seat and the wheel, down to the useless pedals on the floor. Although the horn’s blare had silenced, the screams and the bangs did not. She covered her ears with her hands, and covered her hands with her knees, and this failed to block out the sound. In fact, she began to hear a new sound. It was laughter, low and juvenile. It came in bursts, making an odd rhythm against the screams, the beat of a drum under sustained melody. The ugliest of syncopations.

Then the screams began to fade. The song was ending, and Ainsel could smile a little at the relief. She did not remember when she had started to cry, but her cheeks were wet. Her breath started to come more easily.

“Baaaaaaaaaaaaaeeeeeeeeeep!”

Another horn blared from another car. The screams resumed, and so did the laughter. It wasn’t a song anymore. It was a nauseating merry-go-round of sound. Beep. Scream. Laugh. Beep. Scream. Laugh. It would be so easy to expect one or the other to get tired, for the girl to realize her screams were encouragement of her torture or the torturer to get bored of his game. Neither happened. Beep. Scream. Laugh. Beep. Scream. Laugh. Ainsel tried to crawl under the seats, as if that would be enough to shut out the noise, but she was too big. She wanted to scream herself, but she was afraid to make a sound, so she bit her tongue. She tasted blood and salt and water. She cried until her throat ached from thirst. The best thing that could have happened at that moment was for her to cry herself into exhausted sleep, but that could not happen. Even with the agonizing din, she might have managed if it was at least consistent. But it wasn’t. There was the split second of silence, where the girl caught her breath, ran out of energy, and the question lingered, was it over? Baaaaaaaaaaeeeeeep! Again it started.

In the end, figures came and took the other girl from her car. The boy continued to beep the horn for a while, but with the absence of someone to torment, he finally stopped, and did not start again when she was brought back. A while later, those same figures came for Ainsel. She tried to hide from them, crawling back to the recesses of the back seats, but there was no hiding place. Every door, which had seemed a solid wall to her, could be opened as soon as she backed away from them. Her teeth and jagged nails, which so often were such an effective defense, found hard leather gloves and masks that were as impervious as a falconer’s gloves.

She was thrown over someone’s shoulder and carried up a stairwell, through a dark hall into what had been a public restroom. She was strapped to one of the toilets. In the stall next to her, she heard feet kicking and a grunting moan. She began to kick and cry as well.

Someone came in with a tray of crackers and water, but Ainsel was angrier than she was hungry. When it was brought within reach, she made it the scapegoat of her rage, knocking the contents to the floor and nearly tearing the tray out of it’s carrier’s hand. The carrier backed out quickly, and Ainsel was left alone, to kick and cry.

After some time, the leather clad Metropiad came back. He or she unstrapped her, ignoring her exhausted punches. Ainsel was returned to the prison of a car, where she slept a little.

For a while, her life was tears, both her own felt and others heard. It was darkness so constant that sleep came when it pleased, which was not as often as Ainsel wanted it. Any nightmare was better than this; or at least, it provided some comforting variety. Every so often, figures came and took the children in the cars to the toilets, where they would be given food and strapped in place until they relieved themselves. After a few of these rotations, Ainsel became hungry enough to take the food, though she still hissed when she was taken and sometimes she still knocked the tray to the floor on principle.

One day, when she was relatively calm, the tray they put before her on the toilet did not carry crackers, cheese or berries, but little tiles of letters. Half of them were locked into a line on top, the other half scattered on the bottom. They were kept from falling out by a raised lip, and there were little square holes for them to fit into. The Metropiad took her hand and got her to put them in, one by one, copying the row on top. Then Ainsel was given a cracker. After she had eaten her cracker, the tiles were taken out of their slots, and she was shown the tray again. The Metropiad took her hand and put the first few letters in, and Ainsel completed the row on her own. She was given another cracker.

At last, she was being given a challenge. The next time the tray was brought out, she copied it without help, and received a piece of cheese. After two more successful copies, the tiles that had been locked in piece were removed, and the Metropiad again took her hand and began to show her where to place the tiles in. Ainsel pushed the Metropiad away and began to place them in again. When the last tile was put into place, a spark jumped from the tile and stung her fingers. She began to wail.

The Metropiad took her hand again. Ainsel fought this time, trying to avoid touching the tiles again, but she was forced to transpose the tiles in three places. Then she was given another cracker. In her frustration, she spat it back out. She kicked and screamed until they took her back, but the next day the tray of tiles was back, and she soon learned it was copy the rows as best she could, or starve.

This went on, until Ainsel could copy the lines of tiles from memory without error. It did not occur to her to be surprised at how easily she remembered the lines, as she had no idea of what a child her age would normally be able to do. All she knew was that her back still throbbed, and the throbbing ebbed and flowed, and when she reached back to touch sometimes she felt warm, smooth metal, growing from her back like lichen.

To occupy herself, in between meals, she would destroy her prison, but not with any aim except to give her something to do. There were frayed threads to be plucked at, foam to be ripped out, and flaking bits of plastic to break. It gave her a sense of progress and activity. In a sense, it was art; her futile rage and boiling boredom made visible and tangible. It was through this methodical destruction that she discovered the hole.

Three Things a Theme Needs

Ideas in stories fascinate me, and one of the things that interests me most is the lack of consensus on what makes a good theme. I write about this a lot.

I’ve been trying to look at themes in stories from a different angle lately. Instead of just thinking about whether I agree with the moral of what I just watched or read, I’ve been thinking about how the idea was presented. Regardless of whether I consciously agreed, how did my heart react? Did the ideas seem well supported by the story, or were they awkwardly wedged in?

In the process, I’ve noticed three basic things that help a story’s theme not only sound true, but feel right.

1. Complexity. The story shouldn’t be populated by straw men. The utopia shouldn’t have gaps that the writer has conveniently overlooked. The world should feel multi-dimensional and complicated, just like the one we really live in. It’s seeing high-minded ideals interact with a messy world that makes stories so interesting. That’s the reason we forget the PSAs we saw in our teens but remember the gangster films.

2. Continuity. In music, the theme is an arrangement of notes that recurs throughout the piece. They tie the whole piece together. In a story, images, situations, phrases and dilemmas that occur over and over again create a sense of coherence. When, in the last fifteen minutes of a story, a character blurts out an aphorism and everyone nods at how profoundly it fits the moment, it feels clunky. We roll our eyes and think, “oh, right, they’ve gotta have a moral. Whatever.” But if that idea has come up before, and been examined by different characters from different angles, depending on their personality and what is going on at the time, the theme feels integrated with the story, not tacked on to check an item off a list.

3. Intersectionality. Contrary to the common idea that you need a single theme, stories are most interesting when they explore the overlap of a few values and ideas. The theme can’t just be love. What about love? That it conquers all? Well, you can’t literally have it conquer everything. The story has to end sometime. So maybe all in this case is represented by families who object because the two belong to different religious castes. Great! But now you’ve got a society with a religion and family obligations, and you’ve got to develop those things to flesh the story out. Now there are themes involving love, religion and family. The author might think its about love conquering all, but someone else could write a whole paper on how well it demonstrates religion stifling free expression of love.

These three aspects, complexity, continuity and intersectionality, combine to create a story that feels like its definitely about something, but still leaves the readers freedom to figure that out for themselves.

Darth Vader, Kylo Ren and the Coolness of Villains

It’s a commonly known trope; Villains are Cool. The good guys are so blandly pure, they spend most of the time reacting to what the villains do, and they are honestly a bit conventional. In contrast, the bad guys are complex, active and surprising. The average audience member might not want to emulate Darth Vader in real life, but who wouldn’t want to show up to a party in that black cape and helmet? It’s no trouble to come up with other examples of this principle, from Hannibal Lecter to the Joker.

Darth Vader

Given that Darth Vader was one of the greatest villains of all time, it was interesting to contrast him with Kylo Ren, villain of The Force Awakens. He’s certainly powerful and evil, but in every other sense, he is Vader’s opposite. Vader was cool and collected. He inspired awe because of how unflappable he was.

Kylo, in contrast, is a short-tempered, entitled little bully. You don’t want to dress up as Kylo. You want to watch that SNL sketch where he participates in Undercover Boss.For all that, he is still an effective bad guy. He is clearly a legitimate threat to our heroes, and you want to see him taken down. While Vader frightened because he was so totally in command of any situation. Kylo frightened us because of what can happen when someone so unhinged is given that much power.

Kylo Ren

I’ve noticed a number of other villains in the same class as Kylo. One of the most famous examples has to be Joffrey from Game of Thrones. He was an arrogant little shit who filled the world with joy when he died. Nobody wants to be Joffrey. Similarly, Immortan Joe from Mad Max: Fury Road was intimidating and theatrical, but I haven’t seem people getting excited over their Immortan Joe costume. Everybody wants to be Max, Nux or Furiosa. One more example I can think of is Kilgrave, from Netflix’s Jessica Jones. He is interesting because he isn’t as transparently unhinged as Joffrey, Kylo or Immortan Joe. He is a well-dressed man with an English accent, and feels like he should be lumped in with the Vaders, but unlike them he skips right past that stage of “I know you’re bad but damn, you’re just so cool” straight to an unfettered desire to see him dead, dead, DEAD.

There are a lot of theories on why villains can be so appealing, and many of them hinge on inherent advantages that bad guys have, but given all these detestable counterexamples, I have another theory. The villains we think of as cool have likable and sympathetic traits. Not necessarily moral ones, but likable ones. For example;

  • Darth Vader has a collected authority. He is intelligent, perceptive and commanding. Furthermore, later movies establish that he could potentially be turned back to the good side, which is intriguing.
  • Hannibal Lecter is sophisticated and eloquent. He is also resourceful and, again, intelligent. The contrast between his crimes and his aristocratic bearing makes for an interesting contrast. Furthermore, while he is evil he is mostly shown cooperating and even being kindly towards the protagonist.
  • The Joker is damn funny. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Adding complexity to a character typically makes them more relatable, but it is possible to create a multi-dimensional villain who still lacks sympathetic traits. Joffrey’s complexity lies not in a hidden good side, but in the contrast between the kingly image he and his family work to maintain, and the cowardly sadist who lies beneath. The lies he tells himself about what kind of a person he is gives him realism, while adding “hypocrisy” and “self-delusional” to his list of faults. He does not need admirable traits like intelligence, restraint or resourcefulness; his privileged position makes him frightening enough.

Furthermore, how the story is told can have as much bearing on how much we like a character as what their raw psychological makeup actually is. I already gave some hints about how Hannibal and Vader’s stories set the audience up to like them, despite what they have done. That can work the other way too.

  • Kilgrave has the power of mind control. He can compel anyone to do what he says with a word. This allows him to take on many of the trappings of a suave, manipulative bastard, but now there is no skill involved. The audience has no reason to admire his control, because he didn’t have to work for it, so we have no distractions from the pure horror of what he is willing to force people to do. This makes him utterly despicable.
  • Immortan Joe might have needed to use resourcefulness and discipline to build his society. He might have had to combat difficult circumstances. Or maybe he just got very lucky. Because we are not given his backstory, we can focus not on how he got his power but what he does with it. Unlike Hannibal, who we see through the eyes of someone he has never wronged, we see Immortan Joe through the eyes of those he has kidnapped, raped and brainwashed.

This brings me back to Kylo Ren. What is his backstory? Essentially, it’s of one who bought into the Cool Villain trope too hard. We are told in the other films that the dark side is the quick and easy path to power. Kylo could have chosen a better way, in fact he sometimes even struggles with his choice. He is complex, but the film reminds us that he chose evil, and won’t absolve him of the responsibility. It shows us how pathetic that actually is, how even with his awesome strength with the force he is undisciplined and weak-willed. It puts his condescending attitude in the spotlight. I love these posts about how well he represents toxic masculinity and misogynistic trolls. Also, he reminds me of those so-called pick-up artists, who decide that if being a Nice Guy (TM) isn’t getting them laid they’ll just become a douche, never realizing that by making that choice they have proven themselves the most pathetic little monsters of all.

Vader Helmet

There are advantages to both kinds of storytelling. The cool villain is better when portraying a threat to a positive status quo; their intelligence and charisma is key to making that threat credible. The uncool villain is better when heroes are rebelling against an oppressive status quo. They need to be abusers of power who deserve to be overthrown. The cool villain can explore morally complex questions, make us wonder where evil comes from and remind us that our enemies are people too. The uncool villain reminds us that there comes a time when it is no longer productive to look at complexities and the two sides to every story. A tragic backstory will not heal their victim’s wounds.

Stealing Souls, Chapter Six: The Voiceless Girl

This is a continuation of my novel. A new chapter will be published every other Sunday until my first hiatus in April. The full archives can be found here. Please feel free to leave me a comment with your thoughts, and thank you for reading!

During the journey from Vienna to Ballston, Avalon watched Ainsel. She was beginning to think of Ainsel as having two modes. One was quiet, expressionless and intensely observant. The other was the toothed, clawed fighter, almost daring people to come at her. Even as she wished it gone, there was something admirable about that side of her. Ainsel was so tiny, even compared to the other children her side, and she would take on any number of them at once.

When they emerged into Ballston, Avalon saw a new side. She saw Ainsel smile. The trigger was a pack of dogs. There were six, all with the thick, pure white fur that every handler envied. Their elderly handler was haggling with a spinner, and all of them were sitting or lying in the shade, panting a light and friendly rhythm, blinking patiently. Ainsel slipped in among them. Avalon did not know how else to describe it. She did not charge them, but nor did she move in her usual cautious, testing way. Avalon noted Ainsel’s smile, and then in the space of time it took to look away, locate the source of the smile, and look back, Ainsel was no longer by her side, but was settling in next to the nearest dog, holding her hands up for it to sniff and then nuzzling against its chest. She moved from dog to dog, greeting them with no fear, and they happily submitted to her gentle petting. Avalon stayed where she was and studied this new phenomenon.

When the handler was finished and returned to her pack, Ainsel lost her smile. She re-entered the frozen, expressionless, tense mode, and huddled down against the fur of one of the dogs, as if she hoped she could hide in it. Suddenly Avalon became afraid of what would happen if the handler approached her, and she went up to talk to him. At her approach, Ainsel fled up a tree.

Avalon was disappointed, but instead of showing it she smiled at the handler and explained the situation.

The handler nodded. “Must be an Empty then,” she said, through old cracked teeth.

“I do not think so,” Avalon said, tightly.

The handler shrugged. “Not the worst thing if she is. I hear they’ve got a new use for them, down at the library.”

“Yes, I know all about that. But I do not think she is Empty. I think she’s just afraid.”

“I’ve seen lots of afraid, but I’ve never seen anything like that.” The handler nodded up at the tree. Avalon thanked her for her opinion and said goodbye.

She waited until Ainsel was hungry enough to be coaxed down the tree, and they began to wander together. As they passed other dogs, Ainsel ran away to visit them as well. Avalon noted that she had a very sweet face when she smiled, and it sparked a painful hope in her. There had to be a way, she thought, to transfer that trust and love of animals to humans. Ainsel could be a wonderful handler, if only that wall of silence and fear could be broken through.

Before she solved that question, Petruchio came. Avalon did not exactly find Petruchio intimidating. Not many people had that affect on her. However, she was aware that he intimidated other people, and she was aware that there was power in that. She was intimidated by that power more than the individual himself.

Officially, all placements were the decisions of high priests, but for the most part their approval of the selections made by the children and physicians themselves was a formality. Petruchio went through the physicians one by one, for the most part approving of the placements they made and advising those who had an undecided. Avalon, to her embarrassment, was the only one with two children unplaced; Bernard and Ainsel. After making some observations, he took her on a walk through the woods to discuss things.

“Bernard seems quite intelligent,” Avalon began. “He has been very diligent in studying his reading, and shows a great interest in the our philosophy.”

Petruchio nodded. “I will interview him for the priesthood. And the other one?”

Avalon hesitated, trying to find the right words. Why hadn’t Mother Miranda given her more time? “I think her potential is still an open question.”

An eyebrow went up. Petruchio was already forming an opinion, and Avalon did not like it.

“Isn’t it correct that the child does not speak?”

“I don’t think she’s incapable of it. She makes sounds, and she seems alert. Conscious. She does seem to be listening when other people talk. I think she’s afraid to talk.”

“Afraid to talk?”

Avalon knew from the way he repeated her phrasing that nothing she could say would convince him she was right. She decided to try, nonetheless.

“Her initial environment showed significant neglect. I believe she is currently recovering from some great trauma. She has shown some interest in animals, and I think that if she were given more time to recover, she might be willing to become a handler.”

“Is she not willing at present?”

“Not exactly. She runs away from most people.”

“Does she make any effort to communicate?”

“No.”

“Does she demonstrate any other skill that would be typical of, how old did you say?”

“My best guess is that she is three or four.”

“Well?”

Avalon sighed. She had lost. “No. She really isn’t an ordinary three year old, in any way.”

“Well then, it’s clear you had an Empty.” He patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry. That isn’t the failure these days that it was in the past.”

Avalon ended her conversation as hastily as she could without seeming rude, and decided the only thing to do was find a place to feel miserable. She came across a brook that seemed like an appropriate place for the kind of thing, with a nice flat rock to sit on. The actual tears did not last long, her tears never did, but the feeling of melancholy lingered for a while. It was Bernard who found her.

“Avalon!” he said. “They’re taking Ainsel away!”

“I know,” she said.

“She’s screaming. Will she be all right?”

Avalon breathed in slowly, through her nose, gathering enough steadiness within herself to talk without trembling. “I’m not sure she’s the sort of person who was ever going to be all right.”

“Because she’s an Empty?”

“Yes.”

“I heard someone call her that. What does it mean?”

“People are meant to be full of all sorts of things. Intellect, creativity, compassion, emotions, logic, hope… all kinds of things. But just like you can be born without a limb, or lose one from trauma, some people don’t have everything in their heads that a person is supposed to have. That’s an Empty. We can solve all kinds of things. We can’t fix an Empty.”

“So what’s going to happen to her?”

“Well, you know the nanonerves in your hand? They copy nerves in your body that carry information. Your brain is just a mess of nerves. Nanonerves can’t copy brain nerves well enough to fix an Empty, but they can store some information. Ainsel is going to be part of an experiment to make a biomechanical library. Understand?”

“They’re going to put books in her head?”

“Yes. Or, they’re going to try.”

Bernard suddenly smiled. “That’s wonderful. That means she’ll have a purpose after all.”

“Yes, I suppose it does.”

“Petruchio says purposes are very important. He’s a nice man, don’t you think?”

“He’s very popular.”

“He said he wanted to talk to me later today. What do you think he’s going to say?”

Avalon contemplated keeping it a secret, and decided there was no point. “Bernard, do you want to be a priest?”

At the mere mention of the word, he was delighted and speechless. Avalon could recognize the answer in his face. “He is considering inviting you to join the priesthood. If you show him you are eager to learn and listen well, I am sure he will accept you.”

Bernard wrapped his arms around her neck and squeezed. “Thank you! Thank you thank you!”

She patted his back. “Better run off. He will want to be able to find you easily.”

He ran off, all fears relieved. She sat on her rock until the sunset, a rotten feeling growing in her stomach. Her explanation of what Ainsel was comforting to him, but she only felt worse about it for having had to say it aloud.

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Esther, the Girl Who Became Queen

As I recall, I didn’t care for this episode much as a child. At the time, I mainly attributed that to the absence of Silly Songs of Larry. A valid criticism, younger me. A valid criticism.

Typically my Veggie Tales reviews have a summary of the plot, some stuff about how funny and well done I thought it was, and then I wrap up with my feelings about the message. Was it a good lesson, was it bad, and how well did they express it? In this case, I’m going to turn that around. The moral of Esther is “do the right thing even if you are scared,” and the context is the protagonist protecting her people from an evil vizier. Clearly all that works and I don’t think I need to argue why, but I really can’t say the story was well done or even charmingly funny. So for once, this atheist has nothing to say about religion, but a whole lot to say about good writing.

Esther is one of the two books in the Bible named for women. It takes place in Persia, where Jews are a conquered minority struggling to keep to their faith despite all the hardships and prejudice in a strange land. The episode, like the Bible story, starts with the current queen of Persia being banished for refusing to get up in the middle of the night and make the king a sandwich. I mean, she wasn’t making a sandwich in the Bible. She was called to appear before the king and his drunk partying friends and, well, I’m pretty sure she was expected to do some old-timey equivalent of a striptease.

This puts the episode in an awkward position. Esther will end up married to the king (King Ahasuerus, who the veggies simply call “king” for obvious reasons) and if he’s the kind of person who throws a woman out into the night over a “sandwich,” he’s an awful guy. This isn’t a fairy tale marriage that the kids can feelĀ  happy about. The episode deals with this by making the king come across as simple minded and easily swayed, so most of the blame lies with his advisor, Haman. Unfortunately, this solution creates two more problems. One is that they pick the Mr. Nezzer/Mr. Lunt duo to portray the king and Haman. Mr. Nezzer is deep voiced and serious, and we are used to seeing him as sinister. Mr. Lunt, on the other hand, has a high voice, a long pencil-thin moustache and is typically the hapless toady. For those who haven’t seen any of these episodes, imagine somebody is doing a live action version of Aladdin, with Aziz Ansari as Jafar and Ben Kingsley as the Sultan. That’s about as off as this felt. I think if Archibald or even Larry had been the king, and an Evil Scallion had been Haman, it would have worked much better.

Mr. Nezzer...
Mr. Nezzer…
...and Mr. Lunt
…and Mr. Lunt

As for the other problem, maybe I should just get along with the review. I think it will become clear.

So, now that the king is wifeless, Haman sets off to find a new bride. He runs across Esther, who is hanging out with her Uncle Mordecai. Her friend recently stole an apple, and Esther is too afraid to confront her, which sets up her character as kind of a wuss. Now, I’m not saying that confrontation wouldn’t be hard, but I think most of us can confront people when we feel strongly about the issue at stake. Because Esther doesn’t find that courage, she comes across as either someone who is fairly cowardly, or who doesn’t really care about the confrontation to begin with. Mordecai is actually pressuring her a lot in this scene, and will do so for every decision she makes in this whole episode, so I think you could make a case for either one.

Haman nabs Esther for a game of Persia’s Next Top Queen, and Mordecai advises her to keep their family connection a secret, because Haman hates him and their entire family. Haman’s motivation for hating them isn’t really explained. In the Biblical version, Haman just hates Jews (anti-Semitism; providing narrative impetus since 550 BCE!). In this episode, however, Esther and Mordecai carefully and awkwardly refer to their “family” not their religion or ethnic group, and nobody says the word “Jew.” I’m not sure why not; the protagonists of Josh and the Big Wall were clearly Jewish.

Esther sings a pretty song about God and wins the queenship, if winning is the right word. She explicitly states that she doesn’t want to be queen and she’s scared. When Mordecai meets her later on a balcony, he rolls his eyes at her anxiety with the statement, “you’ve always had a mind of your own.” That line really bothered me. For one thing, I’ve noticed that toxic, domineering people often respond to normal emotions and healthy boundaries with “you’re just being stubborn.” It makes people feel guilty for having things like the basic capacity to think for themselves, or a vague sense of selfhood. In this case, even if you ignore the sexual consent issues, the king’s last wife got kicked out for refusing to make a sandwich in the middle of the night. That’s a pretty valid reason to be scared.

This is also bad storytelling because if there’s one thing Esther does not come across as, it’s headstrong. That’s another recurring problem in this episode. Mordecai and the narrator constantly inform the audience that Esther is brave, but I don’t think there’s a single scene where she does something based on personal conviction and motivation, rather than being pushed around by outside forces. This characterization comes all the way down to the nonverbal elements of her characterization; she is limp and her voice is mild and quavery.

Just look at that face.
Just look at that face.

The next scene is an assassination attempt by the French Peas. It is simultaneously the best and most disappointing part. It is the best because it is the most funny. There’s a cake and a giant piano and peas with French accents. It’s disappointing because it exists to set up three plot points that will all be paid off very awkwardly. First, it is illegal to approach the king without being invited. Second, Mordecai saves the King’s life. Third, in this version of Persia, criminals get sent to the Island of Perpetual Tickling.

The Grim Tickler
The Grim Tickler

When Haman tricks the king into signing an order for Mordecai’s family to all be killed Perpetually Tickled, Esther has to approach the King in order to convince him to save her people. She’s terrified, because that’s forbidden. We are supposed to be scared for her because of the dire fate of the French Peas, but the king didn’t react much when they showed up unannounced and was easily tricked to stand under the giant piano of near-death. The king didn’t seem bothered by anything that was going on until it was clear they were trying to kill him. He’s also clearly smitten, and doesn’t seem disturbed by what nearly happened to him. Even as a kid, I couldn’t identify with Esther’s terror. It was too obvious that nothing bad was going to happen to her.

The second plot point gets paid off by the king rewarding Mordecai for saving his life. This makes Haman mad. This would, in most stories, be the point at which Haman decides to get revenge because he is jealous of Mordecai’s new status, but in this episode Haman has already put his murderous tickley plan into action. His increased anger changes nothing in the plot, so the whole thing is fairly pointless.

In the end, Esther finally tells the King what’s up and he freaks out because he likes both her and Mordecai. Obviously that was going to be his reaction, and that’s the second problem with his characterization. In the original biblical story, the king was fickle and brutal, which made the story rather family unfriendly, but maintained the suspense. In this story, the question isn’t whether the king will turn on Esther, but whether Esther will whine and hesitate until it’s too late and everyone is dead.

Er, tickled.

On top of all those plot and characterization problems, this episode just didn’t have that Veggie Tales charm. They went for something of a gangster movie pastiche, which didn’t work for two reasons. One is that you can’t parody something when most of the target audience isn’t familiar with it. Do you know any six year olds who are fans of Martin Scorsese? The other is that the design elements this concept brought in were all very dreary and adult; a narrator with a slow, drawling voice, for example, or veggies wearing fedoras, which isn’t any sillier than veggies wearing robes and crowns. The thing about most Veggie Tales is that no matter what I’ve thought of the episode, I’ve felt like the writers were having fun. This didn’t feel fun.

Stealing Souls Chapter Five: The Homeless Boy

This is a continuation of my novel. A new chapter will be published every other Sunday until my first hiatus in April. The full archives can be found here. Please feel free to leave me a comment with your thoughts, and thank you for reading!

Over breakfast, Avalon explained what would happen over the next few days. First, they would go to a place called Vienna. In Vienna, they would be separated from each other for a time. They would be examined by doctors, and given whatever they needed to become whole, and then be watched until the doctors were certain they were all healthy. Next they would be taken to a place called Ballston, where they would all be claimed by the Metropiads who would apprentice and raise them. It would be like an adoption fair, with everyone leaving with a family, sooner or later.

Vienna itself was a terrible disappointment to Bernard. He had anticipated the first great underground city. The elegant way that name danced on the tongue belied the simple starkness of the place itself. It was a box of cement and glass, covered in ivy and straddling two pairs of metal rails. Nothing more, except for a lot of tents. Little, white canvas tents, interspersed through thick trees, one for each of them, plus dozens of other children that other adult Metropiads had brought home. The bed inside his was a few inches too short, and his feet had to hang over the edge. It was a reminder that he was not quite what they had gone looking for.

All that was forgotten soon. His pre-quarantine examination had him declared “maximally healthy” and he was given the minimum confinement of one week. While he was in the middle of this week, it felt like eons, but when it ended, it disappeared with the slippery amnesia of a dream.

Before his quarantine, the stumps at the end of his arms had been cut and something silvery injected deep into them. He was told they were called nanonerves; a sort of living machine that had been made by the people who came before him. The details of how they worked had been lost, but as long as they were provided with bits of scrap metal they could reproduce each other, and when they were immersed in human flesh they bound with the nerves and would live off of his own electricity. He was advised to spend his quarantine imagining that he already had hands, and to flex his arms as though he was moving them. These thoughts would somehow prime the nanonerves to grow in the right ways. Avalon had taken detailed measurements of his arms, and promised him that when he came out, they would have new hands ready for him.

They were made of bronze pipes, already slightly browned with age so they resembled his reddish brown hair. Between them and his hands came a small drawstring cloth bag, with five little electromagnets woven into it, one for each metallic phalanx. He was about to ask how he should move it, but the moment he thought of it he felt his fingers twitch spasmodically, clicking against each other. He jumped, and the doctors clustered around him laughed. One handed him a little rubber ball and told him to practice squeezing it to learn control.

He found his feelings impossible to express. The bronze hands felt simultaneously like an impossible miracle about to be revealed as an illusion, and, oddly, something that had been there all along, like invisible hands had been lurking at the ends of his arms all along and only now chosen to reveal themselves, like a friend popping out from behind a curtain saying “boo.” He was happy, but the sort of happiness he felt was so excessive it could not be directly expressed. It felt like if he thanked them with his loudest voice, it would still be inadequate, and his feelings would burst through him like water destroying a dam. So, instead, he stared in silent awe. Over the next few days he found his happiness seeped out in other ways, as though his mind was letting his joy out through a carefully controlled valve, before it made him explode. The meal that night he declared the most delicious of his life (it was only rice with beans and mushrooms). The next morning, when he was asked how well he had slept, he declared it wonderful (a bug bite had woken him in the middle of the night, but otherwise it had been tolerable). He had no difficulty enthusiastically praising the crushed flower necklace Sigyn had made for herself, when ordinarily he struggled to make his approval for anything childlike sound genuine.

Once that jubilation had worn off, he began to notice disappointments once again. The primary one was that he had no family, as of yet. Avalon, he learned, was there to bring him into the fold, not to adopt him, and all his attachment to her felt like a lie. The same was true for everyone else, from Cambio to the doctors who had examined him to all the other children. In his heart, he felt a flicker of regret for leaving Peddler Jack, but he quickly squashed it. It was too late to go back, and the man had never been his father.

He knew he was going to be assigned as an apprentice to some clan of Metropiads, and that would be his family, and that he should be patient. He tried, unsuccessfully. The best he could do was look forward to a chance for a family that would come sooner. Ainsel would emerge from her own quarantine.

Ainsel’s time in isolation had to be longer, because of the extent of the surgery required to remove her extra limbs. In the meantime, the children told stories about her. The waiting kids were used to missing limbs, but deformities like hers were still unusual. Combined with the way she behaved, it was easy for them to turn her into a boogeymen. In a situation where they were all displaced from diverse homes and might have little in common, she was a common enemy with the potential to unite them. Bernard, for his part, refused to take part in this. He was already too old to be their friend, and he felt a special attachment to Ainsel, because he had found her, so a moral stand against demonizing her was easy. At least, it was before she came out.

Ainsel was no stranger to the game the other children wanted to play, with her as a spook. She knew there could be real danger in it for her, as to them she was not quite a person, and rocks could be thrown with no hint of guilt. Old strategies were resumed. She lingered on the outskirts of the encampment, up trees or under bushes, where she was close enough to steal food but hard for others to find. If she could not escape, she would back herself up against a rock or two split tree roots, bare her teeth and prepare to fight. Normally some adult chased the children off before they could hurt her, so these conflicts never came to anything. Bernard found something gratifying in her defensive reaction at first, because he was sure that when he approached, she would remember him as her savior. That would make him special; the only one who could handle little Ainsel. She would be his beautiful little sister.

Things did not quite work out that way. When he first tried to approach her, she ran away, just as she did from everyone else. The same was true for the second, third and fourth times he tried. On his fifth he managed to catch her ankle and drag her back towards him. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do. All he had was a vague sense that if he could trap her with him for a few moments, she would realize who he was and come to love him. Instead, she scratched his face.

This betrayal convinced him to leave her alone, and he sulked until the rest of the Metropiads came.

As they passed through the encampment, Bernard began to grasp how Metropiad society really functioned. There were the weavers, who spun wool into yarn or matted it into felt, dyed it and made it the soft, durable fabric that Metropiads were known for. The secret of the cloth was not in the weaving, but in the dog handlers. They did not herd anything; rather, the dogs themselves were the source of the wool. While some were lean, muscled creatures, used for hunting and patrolling the borderlands, the vast majority were luxuriously long-furred, kept in the heart of the city and groomed regularly, and the shed underfur was collected, cleaned and traded to the weavers. Then there were the glassblowers, who kept the secrets of glassmaking and exquisite pottery that the outside world found so valuable. Traders took these, along with any extra cloth, and got anything else the community needed. Each group also contributed to communal food stores. Weavers grew potatoes and soybeans. Glassblowers tended apple orchards and brewed cider. Dog handlers smoked game their dogs caught. Anything else was either gathered or procured by the traders.

The vast majority of Metropiads fell into one of those four groups. The sophisticated scholars who Bernard had heard of were only a small sliver; the priests. These too were divided. There were the physicians, like Avalon, the librarians, who maintained the stores of lost knowledge from before the plague, and the high priests, who made laws and heard complaints from the rest of the people. Bernard waited and waited, but no priests passed through the encampment looking for apprentices, and he did his best to look for a future home in the other four.

None were anything but a disappointment.

It was soon apparent that Metropiads were not the unified community that he had expected, but rather a conglomeration of allied states, or perhaps an ecosystem of symbiotic organisms. The four types of working class Metropiads were so distinct that Bernard could quickly distinguish them by their speech and mannerisms. The glassblowers were terse and meticulous. Their speech was direct and to the point, and they were quite comfortable with others of their own kind, less so with anyone else. The weavers could scarcely stop talking. They traveled in cliques, and spoke with a slow drawl that, despite their deliberation, was so full of inside jokes it was nearly incomprehensible. Dog handlers were nearly as sociable as spinners, but their speech was crisp, clipped and commanding. They were leaner and more athletic as well, while the weavers’ constant sitting gave them fairly soft bodies. The traders were the most diverse group, but there was a distinctive feel to them. Bernard could identify them with consistent accuracy within a few days. They had a thorniness, yet they were gregarious. They were the sort content to be solitary for long periods, so you hardly saw them wandering in groups of more than two or three, but they were good at handling people. It was this contradiction that marked them like a fingerprint. Bernard sensed immediately that he would not fit in with any of these people, even if he could get past the dissonance between his lofty expectations and the mundane reality.

Eventually, it occurred to him that priests must adopt new children like anyone else, but that they must come looking more rarely. After this thought occurred to him, it made more sense upon each reflection. Naturally, people as elegant and refined as Avalon would cast all the common workers in a dull light, and the society would become bloated, with all children begging to become priests and none willing to take the necessary work. They would bide their time, and only look for those who were truly motivated to join the priesthood. So Bernard waited, keeping his hopes to himself in case someone would think it was vain of him.

Finally, Petruchio came. Petruchio was a high priest. He was not tall, but had a way of carrying himself that made everyone misremember him as a giant, and it was only when he was standing next to someone six foot two that people realized he was average in size. A few hours later, they would forget again. He wore his head entirely shaved, and wore a thick, rounded, pure piece of amber glass around his neck.

Unfortunately, he seemed more interested in Ainsel.