Anyone who has experienced entrapment might find a resonance with this tale. The genders of the victim and the perpetrator are deliberately undefined.
Category Archives: flash fiction
I had just started writing this when I saw that the author of Digging Deep, which followed mine on EDF, had done exactly the same thing. His account of the genesis of his story lets us into the history of it, the emotional drive, and also the subtext that, for better or for worse, is so often implied rather than exposed in very short fiction.
Aaron Polson wrote in his blog about the intensity of feeling that underpinned Digging Deep because he wanted us to know, I imagine, how deeply he felt that connection. It is important to him and it adds deeper currents to the stream of his story. I liked his story and I felt a great deal of his connection with the theme, but his account of its inception adds another colour to my palette of appreciation and it enhances my satisfaction with the whole. Why? Because I know more now and I like knowing a bit more. It does not detract from the fiction, or rationalise it or subvert it or explain it or in any way make up for any perceived inadequacy in it. It is instead the thing upon which it rests, the mount that enhances it and adds new light and shade.
So what about No Animals? This was not universally loved, it must be said, with at least one person unable even to read it all the way through. Others liked the feisty heroine and gave it five stars, while some were confused about what was happening. If they read it the way I read most of the non-literary fiction I have delivered to my inbox, I am not at all surprised much of it escaped people so that all they were left with was a character some people really did not like and a scenario they found difficult to understand. These are the issues I was aiming to present, and they are admittedly, unlike Aaron’s, somewhat explanatory:
- Difference and the inability to ‘see’ another group, race, or identity. Setting aside the actual likelihood of there being a species so utterly unlike ours biologically, these people are nevertheless much like us in that they are sentient, they like to be entertained, and they have codes of practice, yet they could not recognise sentient life when it was so different from their own. I wonder how much better we would do in similar circumstances.
- The role of women in fiction. In so many TV and film productions, they are just victims – there to scream and be helpless while the hero sets about either saving them or investigating their death. This character is neither, instead she wise-cracks her way to a death that is not investigated but is certainly regretted. Real women do wise-crack in adversity, despite what the media would have us believe.
- Victim-blaming. There is also the commonly held belief that getting wasted makes whatever happens to you, especially if you are female, pretty much your own fault, and this character has been on a celebratory bender that might have been exacerbated by spiking of her drinks by her colleagues. Subsequent to that is the ‘hazing’ to which she is subjected – shoved out into space by workmates as drunk as she is on the assumption they can haul her capsule back in again when they wish. So who is to blame for this? All of them for getting drunk? The tradition of bullying that is titled ‘hazing’ because it is accepted? The character for buying into it? And is it worse, more blame-worthy, because she is a mother?
- Responsibility and culpability. We live in a litigious and often scape-goating world but most mistakes for which individuals are blamed are actually systemic. The main character’s crewmates make an honest if stupid mistake when they send her out in the capsule. The aliens make an honest if ignorant mistake when they fail to see her as sentient. What is to blame there but, for each of them, a failure to take all eventualities into consideration, and how many of us do that?
- Reality TV and the treatment of vulnerable participants. So often, we see people whose personal difficulties make them good TV and ‘willing’ victims who will suffer without knowing why. In this story, the aliens are trying to avoid harm by only using non-sentient artificial intelligences for their extreme reality shows, and in their ignorance, they fail to recognise this woman as a life form. Why? Perhaps because, like much of our own media, theirs is populated by arts graduates who have not the faintest idea of anything scientific, so they take the data they are given as absolute and make no further checks of their own. They do not recognise life because they are incapable of thinking outside their box, in the same way that many of our own reality shows fail consistently to recognise participant vulnerabilities because they are not trained, and also they do not wish to see them. They have a schedule and that is their priority – a recognisable problem for many of us.
- Ethics and how these can tie us in knots. The aliens here are conservers of both life and materials and so they clean up near space and use only robotic entities for entertainment in situations that are likely to end in perceived (by the audience) destruction. This combination of ideals is central to the terrible consequences that ensue.
So the subtext of No Animals is ethics, ignorance, honest mistakes and their implications, bullying disguised as tradition, and gender role stereotyping. I am a fan of ethics, I understand how people make mistakes, but I abhor remediable ignorance, bullying, and unwarranted gender based pigeon-holing of individuals. This story took a bit of a pop at all that and yes, thank you, I feel a lot better now!
- NO ANIMALS WERE HARMED… – by Suzanne Conboy-Hill (everydayfiction.com)
Another little dose of weird:
After a while, with the streets and parks getting less cluttered, it started to look as if some cosmic recycler had dropped by to tidy us up. So then people stopped using the bins and just hung about with their cameras waiting for their banana skin or whatever to take off.
Zouche has been away for a while but now it’s back with its lovely graphics and varied content and I’m delighted to be back too [see A Tale of Two Sixties 2011].
This has been a hoot – a new prompt every day and a right old clamour to get something out. Getting on the selected list – and who knows how these were picked but if you’ve been to a festival you’ll be thinking drink must surely have been involved – was a bonus, especially for those of us stretching our necks to for a sniff at that rarefied air! Where mine made it to the list, I shamelessly took screen shots (well wouldn’t you, really?) so here they are:
- Edinburgh Book fest marks 30th with bumper sales (scotsman.com)
That brave lady, Folly Blaine, is wrestling most expertly with a canny orange tabby and a maverick veterinary ‘researcher’ in ‘Cat Nav’. Up in podcast so you don’t have to try to pronounce ‘prestidigitator’ even in your head.
‘Oars for Legs’:
It’s very embarrassing to have a spasm in the middle of a – how shall we say – romantic interlude. Even more so when you have succeeded in trapping your paramour by the genitals and pinned him up against the wall. Cerebral palsy can be a bugger sometimes.
Out on Full of Crow: disability positive with a giggle and a smidgen of nearly-there science.
Do you remember ‘No Arrests in 2039′ on Every Day Fiction? No? Great – it’ll be all fresh when you listen to the podcast then! And you might think twice about falling crime statistics …
‘When Izzy’s eyelids got burned off, she had to watch all the time without blinking – apart from the frog-lick that slides across side-to-side, but you can see through that so there’s no escape and she’s been watching since Jinty started making the dance. ‘ In Lancaster university’s 2013 anthology of MA creative writing. Contributors are part time and distance students. ‘Dance to the Wild Ice’ is set in the same world as ‘All the Birthdays‘ and it’s on P5. Go on, unsettle yourself!
Speckles in the Sky is a tiny piece of magical realism I wrote for a friend’s retirement, because, obviously, I’ll do anything to get out of trying to think of something witty to say in three square millimetres on a card. It starts like this:
‘Coming on nicely,’ said the man jogging by. ‘Nearly there.’
Lynda turned to check out the source of this odd intrusion. Her heels spun and she almost lost her balance; damn council, leaving the pavements in disrepair. She twisted back again and found herself rotating the other way, like a rapper’s disc on a concrete turntable. Maybe it wasn’t the pavement, maybe it was the wine …
And it finishes over on TPS.
Some people had trouble downloading the report on PDF (How many characters can a short story accommodate 2 pdf) and some quite rightly don’t trust documents from the internet, so here it is in glorious WordPressy HTML! For the (obviously erudite and entertaining) preamble, go here.
How many characters can a short story accommodate?
We have all read novels in which entire dynasties of personnel are detailed, each individual with their own plot arc from the tiniest bit player to the central character. The theory goes that a novel has time and space to introduce us to them all, to elaborate them and make their role memorable, although some do resort to glossaries which seems to be a tacit acknowledgment that the burden on memory may be a little too great for most.
For short stories – and probably especially flash fiction – there is less time for such elaborations and probably less tolerance of guiding footnotes, never mind appendices, and so the received advice is to have no more than three characters. This is clearly aimed at reducing the potential for confusion and distraction that a greater number might bring but what is the evidence for that?
After being asked to consider losing a character – one that I felt was doing a pretty good job of nipping the story along and whose actions I thought could not easily be given to someone else – I suggested that, since he and another key character operated throughout as a duo, perhaps the strain on memory would be lessened as each would call up the other as a unit and not as separate entities.
I was speculating that a cognitive process called ‘chunking’ might be taking place whereby information is processed in organised parcels, when these make sense, rather than as individual elements. Thinking of a phone number; once learned, the dialling code becomes a single entity and not the several constituent digits and the remaining string is often mentally broken up by a rhythm that parcels the digits into smaller packages. Similarly, words soon become whole units rather than strings of letters – and if you have come across the, apparently fake, experiment in spelling manipulation whereby several letters in all the words on the page are changed and the text is still readable, you will appreciate how that economy facilitates reading.
I had no evidence for my theory, I remarked on this during a tutorial and I was challenged to find some. Quite possibly, an experimental methodology was not the one anticipated, but for me here was a hypothesis in need of testing. There follows an account of a very preliminary investigation into whether or not chunking might be operating when characters come as pairs rather than individuals. It is probably the first layer of quite a large cognitive onion.
I found a number of fictional and non-fictional duos that seemed likely to be recognisable by most people, especially in the UK but possibly also elsewhere: names such as Morecambe and Wise, Mork and Mindy, for instance. Then I found a similar number of names that had corresponding contexts but were not paired: (Han) Solo and (Jean Luc) Picard (star ship captains in sci fi films/programmes), Sherlock and Poirot (detectives). I designed two very brief tests of memory – recognition and recall – that were, in fact, not testing memory per se but the distribution of items remembered.
The Recognition test
Using SurveyMonkey, I presented participants with a list of names drawn from one half of each pair: Morecambe Mindy, Picard, and Poirot, for instance. I asked participants to read through the list of 28 words twice at most and then go to the next page. I gave them no information about the purpose of the survey, or the nature of the stimuli – that these constituted paired or non-paired names.
On this page, a further list of words was presented, half of which were ones the participants had seen before, the rest being the corresponding item in the pair; for instance, Wise, Mindy, Solo, and Poirot. I asked people then to use the check boxes to show which ones they recognised from the first list.
The hypothesis I was testing is this: there would be more ‘false hits’ or intrusions [identification of a name not seen on the first list] among characters normally found in pairs than those of non-pairs because pairs constitute a single item in memory i.e. they would be chunked.
The null hypothesis – and there should always be one – was that there would be no difference in false hits between the two groups of paired and non-paired names.
I asked people to resist the temptation to go back to look at the list. SurveyMonkey is not geared to experimental designs and would allow that function although I had disguised the button that effected this.
The Recall test
On the next page I presented participants with a further list of names. These were all the names they had not seen in the earlier lists – just 14 in all – and included Mork and Sherlock, for instance. Again I asked people to read through the list no more than twice and to go on to the next page. Here, I asked people to list all the names they could remember from that list without going back to look. Again, I gave no information about the aims of the study or the paired or non-paired nature of the names. Recall is much more difficult than recognition and so a smaller group of words seemed adequate.
The hypothesis for this test was not the number of names recalled but the nature of them. I expected to see a number of intrusions from the corresponding duos with more of these being from the paired than the unpaired category. The null hypothesis was that there would be no difference in the distribution of intrusions.
I was looking for intrusions into recognition and recall of unseen items that might have been triggered by associations among items that the participants had seen. I expected there to be more of these in the case of paired items than non-paired items because I believed that well known pairs of names may be stored as a single unit – chunked – not as individual items and so have the cognitive load of one and not two units of memory.
I put out a link to the survey via twitter, Facebook, my blog, and LinkedIn. The target population was likely to include both writers and health scientists. There was a number of re-tweets of the link which potentially widened the catchment population.
After five days, sixty six participants had completed the study. I closed it at this point as a number remarked on what they saw as their ‘appalling short term memory’ and it seemed judicious to remove the temptation to return to the study from a different computer in the hope of a ‘better’ score.
The sixty six participants generated a total of 637 responses to the items they saw on the first list, 88 of which (13.8%) were intrusions.
Of the 88 intrusions, 77.27% were of paired items, 23.26% of non-paired items.
As percentages of the total of responses: 10.68% (68) were from the paired category, 3.4% (20) from the non-paired category.
This distribution is in the predicted direction: i.e. there were more intrusions from the paired category than the non-paired category.
To examine the significance of the figures, I applied a t-test for independent measures. This is a way of making sure that the outliers that can affect averages and percentages are put into proper perspective and checked against expected statistical norms.
This gave rise to a t value of 1.87 with 12 degrees of freedom. Using one-tail values because my prediction was only concerned with one direction – I did not expect a deleterious effect of paired items on recognition – this is significant at the .05% level, which means that the result could be expected to come about by chance on only 5% of occasions. Put another way, there is a 95% chance the result reflects a real effect.
The sixty six participants reported 217 items, including 20 (9.22%) intrusions. The range of reporting was 0-12 items with most people (15) recalling around three items.
Of the intrusions; 9 (45%) were from the paired category, 2 (10%) were from the non-paired category, 5 (25%) came from the first list and 4 of these were paired, and 4 (20%) were miscellaneous and may or may not have been associated in some way with seen items.
Paired responses, including intrusions, constituted 115 of the total – 7.82%
Non-paired responses, including intrusions, made up 93 of the total – 2.15%
The numbers are too small for statistical analysis but again the distribution is in the predicted direction.
This was a somewhat off-the-cuff study using item pairs that had not been independently validated, survey software that did not preclude re-visiting of the lists, and an uncontrolled sample with no systematically recorded or required demographic data. For these reasons, the direction in which the results point is probably more valid a platform for discussion than the percentages and statistics. Nevertheless, these support my hypotheses that pairs intrude more often than non-pairs even when the non-pairs are contextually associated and might trigger each other, which may have been the case with Dobby, Porlock, and Zippy [Noddy, Warlock/Gandalf, a Rainbow character like Bungle].
This might mean, as I suspect, that they are being chunked and so represent less of a cognitive load, and this might in turn mean that where characters consistently operate together in fiction, you might just get away with exceeding the stated dose.
What this exercise goes no way to answering is whether the premise is valid in the first place – can people really manage only three characters in a short story or flash piece? How closely related/interactive/similar do the characters have to be in order to be chunked? There is, I think, a plethora of dissertations in that.
 I have found very little direct evidence or theoretical rationale for this, although it seems to make intuitive sense.
 Again, evidence for a rationale seems to be lacking although there is plenty of repetition of the advice which is occasionally presented as a rule.
 ‘The recall or forgetting curve illustrate that each item in a cluster typically requires about the same amount of time to recall’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chunking_(psychology)
 Robson, C. Experiment, Design & Statistics. Penguin, 1994. P 71-81.
 A scientific report would necessarily include a greater amount of theoretical background into which findings would be placed for discussion. This is a ‘quick and dirty’ exploration based on a small component of memory which itself is influenced by many factors not taken account of here.