October 19th, 2012, 01:00 PM
The Lottery (WIP, looking for critique)
A story I'm currently writing for submission to Asimov's. Please give your honest opinion. All comments, positive and negative, are appreciated.
The room we were living in was pathetic. The four walls seemed always to be closing in, worn and beaten and torn. We had a refrigerator that didn't work, a water conditioner that, half the time, refused to change the temperature to anything other than two degrees Celsius, and a toilet room no bigger than the toilet itself. I slept on the floor, a patch-job of cheap carpet, no two yards the same pattern. I shouldn't have been living like this. A home, with a proper living area, and two bedrooms, and a bathroom. A place I shared with my wife, one where we raised our children, that should have been my home. Instead, I got this.
I couldn't take it anymore, these thoughts. The only way I was going to help myself, help my son, was to find a job, find something that could get us out of this hellhole I called my life. I sat up on the floor, put my head in my hands, and waited. Waited for the inspiration. Waited for the drive. Waited for the fire. It didn't come. It never did.
Lucas was lying in our cot, a worthless little stretch of fabric, calling to a man only a few feet away from him. Not that he had any way to know. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe he’d change his mind.I had been staring at the ceiling for hours. It seemed a nightly ritual those days, to lie on the floor and wonder where my life went wrong, what I could do to fix it. They were useless thoughts, I know. There was no worth in self pity, it was a feeble and dangerous indulgence, and it solved nothing.
Damn it. I crawled over to my prosthetic leg, leaning against the wall, and put it on, rolling the latex skin up my thigh. God I wished it were the flesh and blood again, warm skin I could massage, cut, bruise, bathe.The foot fidgeted slightly as the nano-machines in my blood established a link to the prosthetic. It worked about as well as a wooden peg.
He was scared now. I could hear it in his voice, could almost see the tears that were no doubt already forming in his useless eyes. “I’m right here” I hissed, perhaps too harshly. It seemed to satiate him though. My joints cracked and strained with the effort it took to rise from the floor, another reminder of all the time I’d just wasted. Taking a deep breath, I stood. “Alright, what is it?”
“Do you remember where the sink is?”
“Drink!” He was agitated. It happened easily, and he had no control over it. If I didn't help him soon, he’d start screaming, and I wouldn't be able to get him to stop for half an hour.
I assumed he had no idea what I was saying, and let out an exasperated sigh. It didn't seem to matter how much I worked with him, how many hours I spent showing him around the house, going over the alphabet, counting to ten. He never remembered more than abstract phrases, using them as a toddler does, to notify me of whichever stimuli was causing him discomfort. A twenty-three year old toddler. I picked him up, an easy task considering how thin he’d become, and put him in his Chair.
“Alright, let’s show you again.” I moved behind him and began chiding him to move forward, calling out directions as we went along, his Chair responding to a combination of my voice and Lucas’ brainwaves. Even had he been able to see, I doubt he could have operated the machine on his own, but it made life much easier. It was the one thing the Regency had given us.
“... and then we go forward and here we are!” I sounded more angry than playful, I think, a sarcastic steel beneath my words.
“Drink?” Somehow, it infuriated me, the way he always stretched out his vowels, taking twice the time it should to say any one word.
“Yes, drink!” I set the temperature to two degrees Celsius and pushed the lever up violently, causing water to spill all over the the floor and myself. I’d forgotten the cup. Cursing, I grabbed one out of the dish sanitizer and pushed it under the spout.
“Da?” He meant no harm, but I snapped. I don’t know why. My words came out harsh and fast, everything I said lost in a haze of both anger and despair. By the time I was finished yelling, Lucas looked like a beaten animal, tears streaming down his face like rain. For what seemed like an hour I watched him, remorseless, before I broke. I was as scared and alone as he was. Lost in a world I didn't comprehend, surrounded by people that didn't care. After a while, we both calmed down, the tears dry on our cheeks and on the floor. I gave Lucas his water and a grain ration. I was going to be gone for a while.
“Listen, Daddy’s going to go away for a little bit, OK? If you get hungry, eat your snack, and if you get thirsty again the sink is right in front of you. I’ll be back soon.” I stood up and looked at him. His head lay back on his chair, rolling around without reason. His eyes were covered by the thin black bandanna he’d loved so much as a child. His legs were thin, twigs long since fallen from the tree. The “snack” that lay in front of him was one of our last rations for the month. We had three more, and needed somehow to make those last a week and a half. As always, we needed more. We really never seemed to have enough.
“Da?” His mewl ruined me.
“I’ll be back soon, I promise. I love you.” I turned and walked out of my home.
Level seventeen was a terrifying place. Trash and grime was everywhere, the pedestrian platforms dangerously miskept. It always seemed to me that my life was constantly in peril, whether or not that was the reality. Perhaps most disconcerting to me, having come from level 58, was the number of people who seemed to stand on the platforms doing, well, nothing. They did not work, they did not play. Often you’d see those who weren't even in company, just standing on a corner, listening to music or simply staring into the distance. They terrified me. Where I came from everyone always seemed to be in a rush, on their way to work, or to school, or the store. Before my business failed I’d prided myself on being able to reach any of my regular destinations in under three minutes, with a little help from a public Magni. Here, Magni’s weren't even kept. They weren't in demand, and they weren't necessary. The people on level seventeen were more than happy to simply let day bleed into day, never doing anything. After all, the world was ending anyway, wasn't it?
These people helped me to know that a job search in level seventeen would be useless. What was I going to do, pass out the rations? Clean up the filth that paved our platforms? No, those weren't jobs for me. I was above that. I’d try to reach level thirty-seven, an industrial level, factories and the like manufacturing Magnis and sattoid containers. As long as the Lesser Regents didn't stop me, I’d be able to look for work from that level all the way down to the base floor. You could go down as far as you wanted in the city, but you weren't aloud to rise above your station. It’s how it always was.
I walked. It still amazed me then how big the city was. Miles and miles of skyscrapers rising higher into the sky than the eye could see, seeming to spiral into infinity. As a child, I’d stared for hours up into the sky, watching the world turn. I’d always wondered at that age what life would be like in the upper levels, the living quarters of the Regents and the Greater Ones, their bedchambers and their grand hallways. A life of luxury. A life free of these worries of jobs and money and family. If I were a Regent, I’d have been able to afford my sons operation, the brain reconstruction, the spinal restoration. He’d be off in school now, getting his degree. He’d have been a doctor, I think. A brilliant doctor, maybe even selected for the Colonies. Now he’d be no better than the people on the walkways, staring into the distance, waiting for someone to come along and feed him, to bathe him, to put him to bed at night and help him rise in the morning. That someone, I knew, had to be me.
I only saw the man when it was too late. My shoulder slammed into his, causing him to stumble back. He was one of the starers, his mouth agape, eyes barely coming into focus, just enough to register me. His clothes were torn, the fabric as dirty as his skin. He was bald, his face and scalp scarred. He wore only one shoe, the sole separated, the laces long gone. He had three teeth, each of which was sharpened to a point. Slowly, his expression turned from a look of surprise to one of utter rage, a sound escaping his throat like an animal, a gurgling growl rising like a slow fire. My feet moved of their own accord, pounding into the ground like hooves. I turned back to see if he was following me. He stood in the same place as I’d bumped into him. Staring eyes. Open mouthed. Somehow, it was scarier than a chase, having him just stop like that, go from bestial instinct to that same vacant state, from a primal man to a statue. He was still in my way.
“Hey!” I called out. I don’t know why I expected a response.I knew better. I moved tentatively towards him, just a few yards. “Hey, I’m going to move past you now, ok? I don’t want to fight!” He kept staring, straight ahead, not even his eyes wavering. What the hell was wrong with these people? I began moving again, my pace increasing as I drew closer and closer to the man in rags. By the time I’d reached him, I was practically hopping on my good leg, my prosthetic useless at anything more than a brisk walk. My heart was pounding, the blood slamming through my veins like a torrent. Not even a finger shifted, he was again a statue made of flesh. I wasn't even sure I could see his chest move with breath. He was an even sorrier sight from behind, his shirt completely torn down the back, a scar spiraling down his back. I kept walking, wading through a crowd of the more talkative do-nothings. I didn't look back.
Again, thanks for your comments and support.
October 19th, 2012, 10:13 PM
it could be worse
This is interesting. I can't say I enjoyed it, though. The prose needs a little work, and the story also seemed a bit lacking to me. I liked the tone and some of your turn of phrases, those were nice. And I thought you did an excellent job of making me feel the horror and loneliness of both he and his son's situation. Good job, but, well, the story is a bit depressing and doesn't seem to go anywhere. Did he actually leave his kid? And just who was the guy that he had a run-in with? Do you mean to say that everyone is like him? If so, why isn't the narrator in the same condition? Frankly, though you did a good job of describing the scene and where he's at, I'm not sure you gave us enough clues on your world-building. Is this a partial or the whole short story? Also, this is just my opinion, but it is very hard to sell a piece wherein the protagonist is severely depressed - as the narrator in this piece is. You have to give us a bit of hope that his situation will improve or that he is trying to improve it. At least, that's what I want out of a story. I hope that helped. Also, remember, I'm just another internet yahoo.
Oh, and welcome to the forum!! I can't believe your first post is a piece of your work! Very brave.
October 20th, 2012, 06:30 AM
I agree that it needs development (and that it's a damn brave way to introduce yourself!), and my reading is that this is only the introductory scene setting for a larger story. Some points, which you should consider yourself free to disregard or not.
In the opening sequence, I start with no frame of reference for the larger world of the story. Until you give us the detail of the nano-aided prosthesis, this is just a depressed man in a low-quality apartment - it could be any time, past, present or future. Everything is saturated with the protagonist's crippling depression; this is fine, in a sense, but makes for tough reading alone.
Once you leave the apartment, obviously we have more to go on; automated walkways, the implication of enclosed-high-rise living, social status based on numerical floor level, etc. All this is more characterising of your world, and your protagonist, so giving it greater priority in the text might be a good move. If I'm interested in his situation, I'll likely have more patience with his negativity. Going the other way around, you might lose me.
I'll follow this with some suggestions regarding how you might make this very gloomy scenario more engaging to a potential reader, but before I do I have to say that, in my opinion, your prose needs some work on a general level. There are a few nice turns of phrase along the way, but overall the text is more telling out his story than showing me his world. "Toilet room" sounds clumsy, and the beat at the end of the first scene where he "snaps" doesn't work for me - a paragraph where he rants, regrets, runs the emotional gamut - but all in summary.
If you seperate out the dialogue from the narrative text (and give us line breaks between paragraphs, though this might just be the post formatting) the piece will look more professional, but you'll also find it looks very repetative: Daaa, Daaa, Da, Da? etc. I would give the child's voice to us once, then have the protag tune it out, exactly the way a weary parent would with their wailing brat - and any guilty feelings he has for doing so are fine (better, even, if he feels nothing or doesn't even notice).
Okay, here are some changes I would suggest to improve reader engagement. Try beginning your story with the protagonist out in the world, establishing the general sf nature of the story; perhaps he is in the lift, returning home after another fruitless job search, and either notes the passage of level 58 on his way down or notes not going that high on his way up - now you characterise his fall from grace more visually than simply having his inner voice tell us what the deal is. Then you take us along the walkway, past the freaky starer and back to his home - giving you time to set up the erosive sense of dread he feels about his life.
Now you hit us with the miserable details: the enormous needy infant waiting for him, the weird discomfort of deactivating his nano-infested stump and plucking off his prostetic leg; even though he's starving he forgoes a meal for the sake of the man-child, before crashing in bed and praying he doesn't dream. Then you cut to Next Day, out in the world again, and dive into the real story.
In broad terms, this is just what you have now: the reader has seen the cruel circumstance he lives in, the disastrous lifestyle he needs to escape from or repair, and is primed to support him as he goes about doing it - but I think it will be a more accessible approach than sinking us into pure depression and hoping we hang around long enough to see what's outside.
Hope some of this is useful, and good luck.
Last edited by Noumenon; October 20th, 2012 at 06:36 AM.
October 20th, 2012, 09:16 AM
Very good descriptions. Like how you immediately get empathy with the main character. That said, I'll now go off in a corner and shoot myself. (grin)
Okay, TMSO is right about the depressing part. Your writing is good enough to pull that dark cloud over a reader's eyes, but you forget something. The reader has come to you to be entertained. To escape. Now, I'm sure that there is an eclectic bunch of folks (isn't there always?) who would eat this up along with their dark rooms and black wall paper. I'm thinking, however, that you need something else here to provide, at least, an impending feeling of high adventure.