Commentary: Showing instead of Telling Magic

CASH has been a part of the Angelfools universe for several years by the time our story begins, and the average citizen does not view it as extraordinary.

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As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a big fan of showing instead of telling. When writing from a first-person perspective, I think this makes the most sense: Alex knows what he knows, and he wouldn’t mentally explain it to himself unless he really needs to concentrate on it. So the reader learns about the setting through his observations, actions, and dialogue. What does Alex think is important? How does he treat other people? What does he remember and what is he making up as he goes along? The reader is in the same boat.

However, this can present a problem in speculative fiction when I as the author introduce elements that are fantastic or impossible to the reader, but are mundane to the characters. This is most obvious with CASH, which pulls triple duty as an in-world economic mainstay, a crucial plot element, and a central symbol for the narrative. But CASH has been a part of the Angelfools universe for several years by the time our story begins, and the average citizen does not view it as extraordinary. This is similar to how a novel set in contemporary times would likely not explain how cellphones or the internet work. In science fiction, this is sometimes known as the Heinlein method. While some sci-fi authors will explain in great detail the minutia of their imagined worlds, Robert Heinlein simply wrote “the door dilated.”

Another example: my friend Ted Tinker’s ongoing novel Akayama DanJay features “hallucinogenic bugs” that the characters smoke. The crickets are grown like plants, which is completely normal for his world. Tinker doesn’t write as much as a paragraph talking about the worldwide bug-smoking culture; instead, he shows how the characters participate in it, with bits of direct expository information woven throughout the narrative where it is appropriate.

Thus, after downing their CASH drinks, Alex and Charlie telekinetically spin coins in the air, and neither of them have second thoughts about it. So the reader learns that CASH bestows supernatural abilities on those who imbibe it, and that use of these abilities is neither magical nor mysterious. We also saw in the previous chapter that there are different varieties of CASH, presumably bestowing different abilities. Furthermore, we learn in this same chapter that Alex’s lightning is NOT a function of CASH use — Charlie and others see it as extraordinary, potentially linked to Alex’s visions.

I will say here that although I have included “magic” in the title of this commentary and the linked chapter, CASH is not magic. The “science” behind it is fictional, obviously, but it is merely advanced biotechnology that would be “indistinguishable from magic” to us.

Ib. Indistinguishable from Magic

“To life, while we have it,” he toasts. 

“To a better life, not yet arrived,” I reply. We swallow. 

“Lexi, don’t be cryptic. It’s rude and it leads the conversation.”

“Sorry. Still in the showman mood.”

“Well, get out of it. I’ve known you too long for you to fool me. Now what do you mean by ‘vision of the future?’”

What exactly do I mean? A dream of falling, desolation, and a parliament chamber barely constitutes a vision. And it wasn’t quite a dream, was it? There was an order, a logic. Different times, similar circumstances. Patterns underlying the idiosyncrasies, an influence at the edge of awareness. What did Valeria say? We fought hard for this day. Make sure we keep it. 

“I was at the top of a tower,” I begin. “A man fell to a crowded plaza below. And then I was lying in the mud looking up at the sky, a voice calling my name.”

“That was a week ago. You collapsed after beating the driver. I had to carry you away.”

“And then I was giving a speech to a huge audience about a new nation, or a new government. We had just won a revolution.”

“We? Who’s we?”

“You and me, I think. You were there too, right at my side.”

Charlie chuckles. “I doubt that. I’m a backstage kinda guy. Keep the lights on and the wires hidden.”

So no ego to appeal to. Good to know.

“It wasn’t just you. There was a whole group of us. Two women, another man. And a whole freakin’ army of people just like us cogs.”

“And we overthrew the Regency?” Charlie crosses his arms. He’s much bonier now than later, clothes ill-fitting on a thin frame. “You and me and an army of cogs?”

“I guess so.”

“I guess no.” He flicks his head and we head back into the crowd, weaving a familiar path past familiar storefronts and advertisements.

“Noble Fashions at Base Prices!”

“BOGO Free! Finding the Fountain by Chief Regent Valens Arius Baculum!”

“LIVE with PURPOSE: CASH by Regency!”

Same sedimentary buildings, same wheeling and webbed streets and alleys. The setting sun paints the walls with fire. No graffiti though, and lots of people. Factory workers in gray and brown coveralls, drivers with color-coded suspenders and sleeve garters, Regency Security officers in deep purple uniforms and wolf head badges, merchants and barkers in whatever they found on hand. Sizzling sausages of mystery meat, fresh fruit concealing less-than-fresh fruit, bottled drinks of dubious origin. Ready-to-wear dresses billed as bespoke, jewelry with the oily patina of gilded pewter or painted quartz, eyeglasses that looked more likely to damage vision than correct it. And every so often, a ram-headed seal of approval from the Regency Commerce Department, ensuring quality and inflating prices.

After twenty minutes of wading through the throng, we enter Honor’s Quad. Surveying the square is a statue of a regal man in a dress uniform, shod in silver. His face is angular, but gentle. Laugh lines frame the corners of his eyes and a beard rounds the corners of his jaw. He holds a goblet in his right hand and a medal around his neck bears a pair of circling fish. The pedestal names him Honorus Piscus Calix.

“Blessed memory,” Charlie whispers as we pass the statue.

Premium Timepieces by Barnum has seen better days. Despite a RegComm seal of approval featured in the storefront and an attractive window display, no customers browse the aisles of wristwatches, pocket chains, and standing clocks. Barnum sits behind a glass-topped counter and nurses a tumbler of dark red liquor. We don’t enter through the front.

Charlie and I walk to the narrow alley alongside, and he retrieves an aluminum staff from a hideyhole behind a loose block. The staff is topped with a three-taloned grabber, and Charlie pulls down a ladder from the balcony above. We climb up and slip into the apartment.

I recognize the layout of the flat. What was the second-floor living room in the other times is the entire apartment in this one. A dangling lightbulb reveals a wood burning stove, ice box, slump sink, a small table with two chairs, a lockbox, and a single mattress on a makeshift boxspring.

How we got all this stuff up a ladder is beyond me. Then I see the trapdoor in one corner, large enough for the furnishings to pass through. Maybe it’s locked from the other side.

Charlie transfers produce from a backpack to the table. He takes a pair of glass tumblers from the sink, checks for cleanliness, seems satisfied, and retrieves a bottle of something alcoholic from the ice box. He pours a small amount into each glass. From one pocket, he takes a pill bottle with an ornate label edged in gold ink. FarReach. He takes a single round tablet and grinds it on a metal tray in the center of the table, then divides the crimson powder into two small piles. He mixes it with the liquor, swirling it around until the powder is dissolved and the liquid turns a deep gold color.

“To life, while we have it,” he toasts.

“To a better life, not yet arrived,” I reply. We swallow.

It burns less than I expected. Actually, it’s warm and soothing, with a deep sweetness like molasses. As the heat trickles down my throat, it stretches like a cat into my skull, shoulders, down to my fingertips, quivering its tail in my groin. I almost purr. Charlie doesn’t hold back.

“Now,” he breathes, “tell me more about this vision.”

I take a handful of coins from my pocket and spread them out on the table. “Things were different. From coins to clothing to this apartment. Even the city had a different name: Free Fortune.”

“Does different mean better?” He takes a coin, palm up, and it slowly rises into the air. His face starts to flush.

“Maybe. Better for us, in specific. Better for cogs in general. Honestly though, I didn’t get a great look at it.”

“Meaning, you’re not sure if it’s real?” The coin slowly turns in midair, head over tail. “Did it seem like a dream?”

“Too detailed to be a dream. Take the coins.” I do. “Different minting. An angel on one side, and some geometric pattern on the other.” I place it on edge, start it spinning. It winks in the light.

“An angel. Like an Angelfool? Do you think you’re one?”

“I don’t know.”

“I haven’t heard of one outing themselves in my lifetime. Not counting Ricimer, but he’s always been open. It would explain the visions.”

I draw my fingers together like I’m pulling a puppet string, and the spinning coin rises above the table, still winking. Charlie’s gaze and spinning coin match mine. Sparks dance between my fingers and the bits of metal.

“And it would explain that,” he nods. Then he leans back in his chair and his coin clatters to the table. “But Angelfool or not, you and I aren’t going to change anything. Fortuna’s been ‘Fair’ for a long time, and real change doesn’t happen in a week.”

“What about a year? Two? Seven?” I float more coins to make my point. “Plus, in one of the visions, I was a much better fighter than I am now.”

“That isn’t hard to imagine, Lexi.”

“But certain things match up. The lightning, this spring-whip thing. You.”

He furrows his brow. “How much fighting do you expect? Revolutions are violent, bloody. They tend to get out of control. The Silverfish have killed a lot of people, not all of them Regency drivers.”

“Then we’ll be careful. Plan it out, keep things quiet until we’re ready to strike.” I reach across the table and rest my hand on top of his. “But I need you with me to pull it off.”

He weighs risk and reward, weal and woe, boon and bane, drifting my coins in slow circles like moths around the bulb. Inhale, exhale.

“You do need me. To keep you on track and off the edge, if nothing else. I’m with you, Lexi. Now can we please leave the rest till morning?” He reaches up and clicks off the light.

Commentary: The Structure of Time

“I’m happy to inform you that we have now established the structure of the story, and things should be much clearer from here on.”

Curious reader, if you’re still hanging in there with me, I’m happy to inform you that we have now established the structure of the story, and things should be much clearer from here on.

In case you haven’t figured it out by chapter headings and in-text references, the structure of Angelfools is inspired by tarot cards. For those of you less familiar with the archaic divination device, a reader’s digest explanation: Tarot cards come in a deck of 78, featuring 56 Minor Arcana in four suits (rods, cups, swords and coins) and 22 Major Arcana numbered from 0 to 21. The cards typically feature archetypical characters and rich symbolism that make them well-suited (haha) to fortune-telling. Personally, I’m more interested in the story that the cards tell.

My story is an expansion of a long poem I wrote a few years ago that dramatized the so-called “Fool’s Journey” of the tarot deck. It was more linear in structure, moving from Key 0 to 21 in order and telling a story through the symbolism of the cards inspired by the “Legacy of the Divine” deck designed by Ciro Marchetti. But then as I was thinking about this story, I had a different idea: why not shuffle the deck?

Fear not; I haven’t shuffled the entire story beyond recognition. A writer may rearrange time completely, as Kurt Vonnegut does in Slaughterhouse Five, but I think a reader benefits from at least some linearity. I think my protagonist will, in any case.

So this is how the story will flow. We have now seen three timelines. In the first (and chronologically the last), Alex finds himself in the ruined city of Fortuna in the aftermath of a mysterious catastrophe. In the middle, Alex is the leader of Fortuna after a successful revolution. And in the last (and chronologically first), Alex is a callow youth working to set the future on its proper track by fomenting civil unrest. The timelines will correspond (roughly) to the numbered Major Arcana: XV-XXI, VIII-XIV, and I-VII.

Why did I choose this structure? Why not just tell the story in chronological order like a normal person? Well, I’m telling three different and interrelated stories. Each of them has their own separate rising actions, plot twists, climaxes and resolutions. They parallel each other with corresponding sets of characters and incidences. Plus, I think it’s more interesting this way. I’ve read a few stories where characters have prophetic dreams and then try to act on those dreams, and you probably have as well. Instead, Alex has a prophetic experience.

More on this later. For now, Viva la Revolution!

Ia. Indistinguishable from Magic

“We’re more than just cogs in someone else’s machine. If we want it, we can have for it.”

Different place, different time. Earlier, I think. Charlie has fewer lines on his face, no anxious crease between his eyes, less salt in his hair. Pinky raised as he points his bottle at me.

“This young man saved a lot of lives that day,” he says. “Well, not the driver’s life, but that’s no great loss, am I right?”

The others around the table let out a whoop of agreement and drink. I do too. Keep up appearances. 

“Not only,” Charlie continues, “did we give a bunch of cogs a new chance at better jobs, but we made out like bandits with a whole shipment of top-grade CASH. Made it a whole lot easier finding new lodgings in Blueroof once we got into town.”

“Not to mention this snazzy new jacket,” I say, brushing imaginary dust off the sleeve, crimson and blue murmuring like blood and wine in the low light.

“And RegSec hasn’t come after you?” This from a dark young man with dry patches of skin on his arms.

“The static storm must have wiped the video feeds. Between the equipment damage, injured RegSec officers and dead driver, I guess they figured a few AWOL cogs wasn’t worth the trouble.”

“But a CASH shipment probably is worth the trouble, Charlie,” I cut in. “Maybe we should be a little cautious about spreading word of our exploits around a crowded bar.”

“Au contraire, Lexi! Don’t be so humble!” He rubs my back with one hand. “I was the worried one after we escaped,” now to the others. “And Alex told me that RegSec was probably so embarrassed by the whole thing that spreading word about it would keep them off our case. No one wants to tell their superiors that one cog took out a whole division of Regency Security, a driver, and stole twenty kilos of product by himself. With a little getaway help from his workmate, of course.”

Charlie reaches into my coat pocket and pulls out a small glass bottle filled with carnelian pills. The label reads StrongArm. The eyes around the table gleam with hunger. “And we’re offering very reasonable prices for the stuff. Twenty crowns per pill.”

“With a ten percent discount if you buy the whole bottle,” I add, swiping it back to my pocket.

“I don’t know, boys,” says a round-faced woman a few years older than the rest of us. “I’ve heard some rumors goin’ round that Arius told the Tinbeaks to scan the city for undermarket CASH more than usual. Maybe making a deal in a Prosper Plaza bar isn’t the most…discrete way of doing business right now.”

“Oh, forget discrete!” I slam my hand on the table. The bar goes quiet, and folks turn around towards me.

“Don’t you think it’s a bit ironic that in Prosper Plaza we’re supposed to be afraid to do business how we want? Has anyone in here prospered recently? We’re only doing alright because we’ve been selling illegal shit. Does that seem right? Does that seem fair?”

The crowd seems more inconvenienced than indignant. Time for some showmanship.

“We deserve more than this. Drinking our money away after a long and painful day at work. Scraping together what’s left for rent, food, clothing. Hiding in the shadows to make a profit on an undermarket deal. And the likes of Arius and Regency Security have us running with tails between our legs while they go where they want and have what they want. Well I want more. Don’t you all want more?”

This gets a rumbling of approval.

“So let’s take it.” I stand with one foot on my chair and the other on the table, scaling the world’s smallest mountain. I fish a coin out of my pocket, stamped with a stern, heavy-browed face on one side and a bundle of rods on the other. “We’re more than just cogs in someone else’s machine. If we want it, we can have for it.” I flip the coin in the air, feel the energy in the room coil and hum, every eye rapt on me.

“And like a flash of lightning—” I snatch the coin midair and my fist crackles with electricity — “we can change the world.”

 

Gasps. Whispers. Murmurs.

Angelfool.

Charlie stares with a blend of awe, affection and amusement. Quite endearing, really. He’s kind of the only one. Then a gruff voice from the back: “I bet there’s a reward for a freak like him!” A large man with chemical-bleached green-blonde hair lurches across the room towards me.

The others at my table scoot back in their chairs, stand up, ready to fight. Great, we’re doing this again. I reach to my belt, grabbing the rod that I know will be there. Oh look, it has a button on the handle. I wonder what this does. I point at the staggering drunk and click. A spring snaps out and strikes him across the shoulder, then wraps around his arm like a physics-defying whip. A quick tug and he falls off balance, and the spring-whip coils back to my hand.

Then I fall off balance as someone grabs me from the side, and we crash to the floor. What happened to my finely-honed battle instincts? Watch the peripherals next time. The grappler smells like smoke and rubbing alcohol. Charlie lifts him off me, slaps him one-two across the face and sucker punches his gut.

“I’m the only one who gets to do that,” he quips.

“Is now really the time, Charlie?” I say as I take his preferred hand off the floor.

“Never a bad time, Lexi. Let’s get to work.”

By now the bar is in full brawl. The staff has helpfully cleared away the furniture in the center of the room, and the brawlers are helpfully fighting away from breakable property. Another drunk man rumbles towards us. I grab my drink, sling it in his face, and Charlie drops down to sweep his leg out. The next one gets a napkin across the eyes, and I spin around to his back, grab his arm and press his lower back to make him fall.

We continue like this, trick and trip, feint and fall, one and the other, Charlie and I slipping through the crowd like needle and thread. The spring-whip lashes out to snap, snag, and startle. No lightning; I don’t want to seriously hurt these folks. Charlie nudges me towards the exit, and I get the hint. We sneak out into the street crowd as three navy-uniformed security officers rush to the bar. I hear barks and cracks as they lay into the brawl.

 

We head down an alley and catch our breath.

“Lexi, that was a bit much. What’s gotten into you?”

“The future, Charlie. A vision of a brighter future.”

Commentary: Meet the Motley Crew

“We run into a snag: where’s the Chick?”

Until now I’ve been rather slow with introducing you to characters. Abel Carter showed up in the first proper chapter and Valeria appeared a couple of chapters later. Now I’ve dropped another three on you — Calla Heffer, Charlie Sterling, and Virgus Ricimer, as well as a more detailed setting than “some desert city.” Why all of these characters at once?

One of the common ways of organizing groups of characters in fiction is the Five-Man Band. The archetypical set up looks like this: Leader, Lancer, Big Guy, Smart Guy, and the Chick. It’s a fairly reliable structure with some nice character stereotypes that go along with each role, but the real fun comes in playing with the reader’s expectations.

At first glance, it may be easy for you as the reader to place the five characters in this scene into their archetypical roles. Alex is of course the Leader, Valeria is the Lancer (Alex’s right hand, a bit of a foil, and backs him up no matter what), Charlie is the Big Guy (straightforward & argumentative), and Calla is the Smart Gal. And then we run into a snag: where’s the Chick? The Chick, according to TV Tropes, is the heart of the team, the glue that holds them together and mediates their tensions. The Chick doesn’t necessarily have to be female, though the character often is. In this case, however, Ricimer fills the last slot in the team, but he’s almost an anti-Chick. He agitates tension, and seems all too willing to get into conflicts with the other characters. At the moment, I haven’t given you anything on his motivations (or really anything about the Consuls), but Ricimer in particular doesn’t seem like a team player. He’s more of the Sixth Ranger archetype, the late-coming outsider who presents a different, contrasting philosophy to the Leader.

This is a team with a crucial member missing. They’ve gone extra before they get their basics down. There will be consequences.

On a different note, I’ve been using “FLASH” to indicate Alex’s shifts, accompanied by bright light in the story. Hopefully you’ve realized by now that these are shifts in time. If you haven’t, it’s a sign that I need to go back and edit to make it more obvious. It may be a bit of a cliche to use a literary “lens flare” for this mechanic, but for me it fits with Alex’s established connection with electricity and lightning, which has classically been a symbol for radical change. More to come on this.

VIIIb. Strength Borne of Clarity

“What a bunch of rubes.”

Hundreds of cheering people fill the spherical chamber, crowded on benches and steps that terrace up to the equator. Above rises a colossal brass dome ribbed with steel, festooned with banners and bunting in crimson and sky blue. The centerpiece of the hall is a large table with a map engraved in the bronze surface, detailing a coastal region with a wheel-like city at the center marked Fortuna. A simple podium stands nearby.

Waiting for me at the table are two men and a woman. The consuls, I suppose. The woman is short, stocky and spectacled, her brown suit practical and a bit worn. One of the men is sharp and lithe in a long black tailcoat and bowtie with shocking blue eyes . But  I can’t help but shiver at the second man. Older, stern, conservative. A pale gray suit matches his eyes and hair, but his skin is tanned and leathery from the sun, and his applause is measured and slow. Is he judging me?

Valeria kicks my leg. “Move.”

I move, and people reach from the aisles to shake my hand. Most of them are dressed in the best that they can afford, which apparently isn’t that great for many. I see threadbare coats, faded shirts, ill-fitting jeans. But all of them boast the angel pin somewhere on their outfits.

As I approach the table, the short woman draws me into a tight hug. “I’m so proud, Alex! This is a great day for all of us.”

The younger man embraces me as well. “Knock ‘em dead, Lexy,” he whispers, lips brushing my ear. He passes me a speech.

The old man is silent and stony.

I take to the podium, speech in hand. Oh, good, it’s short.

I look to the consuls, and Valeria mouths to me.

Hard sell. Here we go.

 

“It seems like just yesterday we lived in a different world. In many ways, yesterday is aeons past, and tomorrow will never arrive. How many days did we feel that the present was eternal, that change could never come in our lifetimes, that the city and the nation that we dreamed of was merely a dream?

“Yet it was the distant past and the unattainable future that saw us to this day. When our steps flagged and our strength waned, we remembered the pain of our parents and grandparents, and we longed for our children and grandchildren. The past and the future were our constant companions, and they must continue to be. We honor the memory of Our Fallen Star and all the sacrifices we made to save ourselves from poverty, slavery, suffering and despair. We hold our wishes for prosperity, liberty, joy and hope as the light that guides us into the dark days yet to come.

“And like a flash of lightning from on high, we have changed our world. With clear eyes and the highest standards we walk arm in arm into the desert, ready to make it bloom.”

“As Prime Innovator, Consul Calla Peck will show us how prosperity is the entitlement of all those who strive for it.

“As Prime Defender, Consul Charles Sterling will ensure our liberty against foes within and without.”

“As Prime Coordinator, Consul Virgus Ricimer will guarantee that the tools of industry build a joyful tomorrow that honors our past.”

“And as Proconsul, Valeria Baculum will reach out to all the voices of our nation and bring their hopes into reality.

“You have honored and humbled me by choosing me as Electus, and I can only hope that I live up to the promise I make today: It’s a new day under a new sun, and I will rush out to greet it. May angels guide you, and may angels guide Free Fortune!”

The crowd erupts into cheers and applause, calls of love and adoration.

What a bunch of rubes.

 

The five of us sit down at the table and Valeria runs us through the items in the dossier. I tune out much of the discussion, nodding in approval when they look to me for confirmation on a unanimous decision. While the Consuls go back and forth on grain storage and wealth redistribution and defensive readiness, I frame my chin with one hand and scan the room.

The map on the table shows Free Fortune with open plains and forests to the east, desert to the south and mountains to the north, and ocean to the west. Inscriptions mark them respectively: Pecunia, Baculum, Gladio, Calix. Surrounded on all sides. The audience, so enamored with the speech seems as uninterested as me in the actual policy-making. They wander, whisper, file out of the room. Some are taking notes, but the majority can’t be bothered to be involved.

Someone’s watching me. The old man, Ricimer. That gray stare cuts my concentration, pulls me back to the table.

“…some time before the Houses can make a move,” Heffer says. “They’re probably still reeling from our victory.”

“We shouldn’t let our guard down,” Valeria replies. “A lot of resources went into keeping Arius stable and in power during the Turn. They won’t cut their losses and forfeit so easily. Consul Sterling, still nothing from the prisoners?”

“Not yet, but they’ll crack. They’re soft and pampered, I doubt they’ll stay resilient for long.” It’s a lie, but not one that’s meant to convince anyone at the table. Curious.

“What’s the state of our defenses, Consul Sterling?”

He blinks at me. “Uh, fine, Electus.” He wasn’t expecting me to be formal. Oops. “We have troops on the walls and scouting the suburban perimeter every thirty minutes.”

“Make it twenty. Can’t be too careful.”

“Uh, yes, sir.” There’s a bit of a question in it, but the look says “later.”

Valeria coughs. “We should move onto the matter of CASH distribution.” I see several audience members perk up. “In accordance with our guarantee to provide safe access to CASH for all citizens who want and need it, the Consulate recommends decentralized and unregulated CASH production, as well as Chariot-run and funded CASH clinics to monitor use, prevent abuse, and treat any withdrawals or overdoses that will unfortunately and inevitably arise.” She looks at me.

“I disagree.” The other three stare at me, and the audience murmurs. “At least for the short-term, we should keep CASH production in-house and under control.”

“Folks on the street need easy access to CASH, especially after the Broken Bank Incident,” Sterling protests. “I’m not saying it should be running in red rivers through the gutters, but it needs to get out there one way or another.”

“I agree with the clinic idea, but we don’t have enough experts to make the stuff.” Ricimer’s syllables are clipped and military. “All the folks with alchemical expertise are locked up for war crimes.”

“We have the formulae from Arius’ records to synthesize the chemicals,” Heffer cuts in. “Besides, we have expertise already. Plenty of people have already been making home-brew batches for years.

“That amateur cut CASH on the streets does more harm than good. You let this stuff run around, people will get hurt.”

“You’re one to talk, about hurting people, Ricimer,” Charlie shoots back.

“Consuls.” Valeria puts a hand on the table. The air is warm and thick between us. “WE have no consensus at the moment, so I motion that we deliberate further.” In private, she doesn’t say.

A long pause while we look at each other, my Motley crew.

“Quite the first day,” I say. “Anyone bring sandwiches?”

And that does it. The group laughs nervously, but the tension is broken. The rest of the meeting goes without incident, and I bang my rod against the table to adjourn for the day. Not bad for a new government that I know next to nothing about.

The crowd starts filing out, and the Consuls and I start to head out as well.

“You did very well, Alex.” Valeria’s hand on my shoulder, warm and reassuring. “We fought hard for this day. Make sure we keep it.”

We head for the stairs with the rest of the audience, and some of them are clamoring to reach me.

“Electus, I love you!”

“Sign my poster!”

“PIcture with your biggest fan!”

A camera bulb pops.

FLASH.

“And then this fool starts wailing on him,” says Charlie, gesturing with his drink, “whipping him like he’s the driver and not the cog. And he’s going ‘I! AM! NOT! A! NUMBER!’ I didn’t know if I should stop him or cheer him on. Lexi, you were beautiful, a vision from heaven.”


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Commentary: Hooray for Exposition

“Exposition in a story can be tedious.”

Exposition in a story can be tedious. On one hand, the reader needs to know important facts about the world that the story takes place in, especially important in a science-fiction story like Angelfools. But on the other hand, huge paragraphs of background description — info dumps — are often the most boring segments of a story. How does one circumvent this?

Different writers take different approaches. Kim Stanley Robinson, author of Red Mars among many other excellent sci-fi works, unashamedly drops info dumps into his novels, and to hell with readers’ criticism. Frank Herbert of Dune renown has a glossary of terms in the beginning of the book that the reader can reference if something is mentioned in text (the Butlerian Jihad, for example), that all the characters know about but the reader doesn’t. Many authors take the “show-don’t-tell” approach, letting the world come into focus as the characters interact with their environment.

Others supplement their descriptions with “found text,” a strategy that appeals to me for a few reasons. First, it provides the writer practice in writing different voices, always good exercise for a storyteller. Second, it can offer a contrasting perspective on the world, which creates ambiguity about the truth of the situation. Third, found texts can weave additional stories into the larger story that can supplement and elaborate on the theme. Take the landmark video game BioShock, helmed by Ken Levine: though the audio logs scattered throughout the game are completely unnecessary to move the main plot forward, they provide a lot of meat to the story, as well as horror and in-world philosophy. The story of Diane McClintock parallels the player’s, but this character is never actually seen or encountered. Instead, her experiences are a counterpoint to the player’s own.

I always knew that I wanted Angelfools to have found texts as a component. At this point in the writing process, however, I’m not ready to compose them. I want to focus on the core story before getting into side plots too much, and I need to see how my characters evolve as I write them. So for now, a key tool in providing the reader exposition is being left in the toolbox. However, I can’t leave the reader — or Alex, for that matter — completely in the dark, as I’ve done for three installments so far.

So I give you an info dump, in the form of a literal info dump offered to the main character. I’m also lampshading this device by having Alex get bored with it before he can digest the material. This also presents a new and important character trait: Alex’s impatience. He is the newly appointed leader of a complex and conflicted city-state, with an uneasy populace and testy neighbors. But though the task is important, he doesn’t give it the necessary attention. This will — and must — come back around.

In contrast, say hello to Valeria, who put the unappreciated info dump together. She knows more of what’s going on with Alex, and unlike Abel, she’s willing to share her knowledge. More on her next chapter.