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May/June 2021
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
David J. Skal
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Mornings Are for Commas

"[It] is not strong leaders or parties that dominate politics as much as powerful political narratives…. This should not surprise us. Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals…. When we ask ourselves whether something 'makes sense,' the 'sense' we seek is not rationality, as scientists and philosophers perceive it, but narrative fidelity…. A string of facts, however well attested, will not correct or dislodge a powerful story…. The only thing that can displace a story is a story. Those who tell the stories run the world."
—George Monbiot,
The Guardian, "How Do We Get Out of This Mess?"


"I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out."
—Oscar Wilde


How did my dream job become a daily torture? I wish I knew, so that I could fix the problem somehow, short of quitting. After all, it had taken me many years of hard work and striving to reach my current position, however humble, and I did not desire to give it up so readily, or to abandon my lifelong dreams entirely.

But I had to admit that my nine-to-five existence as a Junior Narratologist in the federal Department of Story Formation, pay-grade G7, was no longer the exciting career it had promised to be when I first occupied my desk a little over a year ago.

How well I recalled those thrilling feelings of possibility and privilege during the introductory tour of the workplace I had received from my immediate superior, Yaddo Cranbrook. Although, truth be told, in retrospect I might have sensed trouble ahead. A polished and debonair fellow maybe twenty years older than my thirty-one years, Cranbrook had acted a little haughtily and stiffly when we were introduced. That should have served as a warning of what was to come. But at the time, I just sloughed it off.

"So, Mister Hank Buck. I see that you did not attain your employment with us through the traditional route of a Master of Narratological Arts program at one of the accredited universities."

"That's correct," I said, suppressing any irritation. I had met this attitude several times before and knew how best to deal with it. Humble self-affirmation. After all, I had no reason to be ashamed. Rather, I felt proud that I had taken a harder path. "I never had the money to get my MNA. So I just started writing on my own. I sold a lot of stories to various professional publications, and then three crime novels that got great reviews and all earned out. I guess that established my credentials for the job well enough, when I finally chose to apply. I've wanted to work here all my life."

I didn't mention the tie-in novel to a flop movie that I had written under a pen name, even though the check for that assignment had carried me through a year of parsimonious living, and I had invested more work in my end of that project than either the director or the stars had.

Cranbrook sniffed dismissively at my aspirations, and continued his speeech. "Well, in any case, we can speedily train you in the proper methodology employed here at the DSF—assuming you maintain the right attitude. After all, the work we do here is of the utmost importance to the nation's flourishing—if not the survival of all humanity! And so we require the strictest adherence to established protocols and procedures."

Cranbrook had continued his speechifying as he conducted me through the labyrinth of cubicles and offices, meeting rooms and media rooms, stages and studios and print shops that comprised the massive Department of Story Formation headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, right next to the National Archives in its recently constructed building. What he told me—as he introduced me to dozens of wan and unenthusiastic coworkers whose names I could not immediately retain—was interesting and even inspiring, but of course was well known to me, as it was to every educated citizen.

After a run of very bad years for the U.S.A. and the world starting in the early decades of our current century, authorities had finally realized the importance that our national narrative played in events. That core mythology went a long way toward determining not only what happened to the country but what could happen. Hitherto unscripted in any organized fashion, assembled piecemeal over the centuries, the nation's guiding storyline had been taken under control by the newly founded Department of Story Formation, whose Secretarial head occupied a Cabinet-level position. Expert creators had been found who could work on drafting a coherent and unified national storyline according to the dictates of scientists, economists, medical doctors, psychologists, social workers, athletes, and a dozen other types. Academic codification of the new field of national narratology, as well as degree-granting programs, soon followed.

What emerged from these massed efforts and inputs was far from old-school boosterism or propaganda or public relations or advertising or public service announcements or ethical nudging. Nor was it simple-minded entertainment that implicitly endorsed a point of view or lifestyle, like Rambo or Ozzie and Harriet or The Brady Bunch, to cite some ancient classics. Rather, it was an art form almost allegorical in presentation. Stories or narratives whose surface-level plots were alluring and amusing, yet not even discernibly related to any civic themes. They were captivating on an action level—the "what comes next?" sense of urgency—but they also carried a subliminal depth charge of persuasion and idealism, powerfully archetypical, operating on a sub-rational level of the psyche. These narratives were presented, for free, in a score of different forms: novels, short stories, live theater, movies, TV shows, paintings, pop songs, sporting events, tattoos, social media, billboards.

There was one large sprawling master narrative for the country as a whole, of course, but a myriad of small-scale stories for the million essential interlocking parts of the nation.

And they worked! Since the creation and dissemination of these tales, the country had never been in better shape. The economy was humming, friction among different social classes and ethnicities and races was at an all-time low, infrastructure repairs were booming, the Happiness Index had broken all previous records, and the nation's carbon footprint had shrunk dramatically. Simply by heeding these narratives and subconsciously allowing them to contour their actions, the citizenry did positive things. And naturally, America's improvements allowed good effects to radiate outward across the planet.

No wonder any ambitious and principled scribe would want to work for the DSF.

Nonetheless, a little disturbingly, the whole field seemed to have plateaued in recent years. After the initial long run of improvements, further installments of the national story had not resulted in any advances. We seemed stuck short of any further gains, not to mention any kind of utopian perfection. Theories abounded as to why. Maybe we had hit the limits of what narratology could accomplish. I had my own ideas, and was eager to start to contribute.

On that first day of my employment, Cranbrook finished his guided tour just as we came to a door bearing a stenciled legend:




"This is where we have decided to start you out. You'll be part of character composition. Just the basics at first, but I'm sure you can eventually work your way up."

Beyond the door were some ten desks, one empty. None of my fellow lackluster Narratologists looked up from their computer screens when I entered.

My station, like every other, held a set of enormous binders. "We don't put this information online, for fear of its being hacked. Not having a degree, you'll have to study it in your spare time, to get up to speed with your peers. Always refer to these manuals when you have a question. I would particularly recommend Basic and Advanced Punctuation Algorithms. Invaluable."

I stared in disbelief at the fat volumes of rules. How could these dry formulas possibly govern the majestic work of shaping the nation's biography?

"Good luck, Mister Buck. Your first assignment will be presented when you log in."

Cranbrook departed. Somewhat baffled, I sat down and signed on.

My beginner's task that day was to describe the hair of a certain villain in a scenario dedicated to discouraging littering. Not any other aspect of the character, just his hair. I had to work within very tight and predetermined parameters found in Binder Ten, Section 5.1.9.a.

Sighing, but still kindling my hopes, I turned my hand to my chore.

And here I was a year later, still stuck in Division 66-F. I had written so many hirsute and epidermal descriptions that I was beginning to have nightmares about baggy wobbling monsters composed of nothing but skin and hair.

Where was my chance to contribute brilliant scenarios and startling imaginary people to the national storyline? Would it ever come, or did I face this kind of assignment for my whole career, with maybe a promotion to GAITS AND GRATUITOUS HABITS?

Today I finished my current boring and trivial task by noon, and turned as I often did to reviewing some of the embryonic narratives that were still under construction. We were allowed and encouraged to sample these previews of read-only files before the public ever saw them, so as to stay abreast of what was being done across the board, even beyond our limited remit.

The narrative I brought up today concerned preparations for the upcoming hurricane season along the Gulf Coast. It was plainly intended to inculcate the proper kind of sensible behavior during killer storms

As I read through it and watched some of the associated AV material, a horrible realization crept over me.

Although totally in compliance with all the accepted narratological guidelines and doctrines, this storyline held a subtle flaw. If it were released as it stood—and it was almost on the point of going live—it would foster actions in the viewers that would result in increased fatalities, when the next big storm inevitably arrived!

Jumping up from my chair, I dashed into Cranbrook's office. He was busy thumbing through Binder One-Eleven, concerning domiciles and conveyances.

"Sir, I've discovered a flaw in this new scenario. Let me show you!"

Cranbrook merely raised an eyebrow, pursed his pruny lips, and let me give my spiel after I had brought up the relevant item on his screen. When I wound down, he said, "Mister Buck. This particular narrative has been composed by several experts possessing doctoral degrees in narratology and vetted by half a dozen auditors with many years of experience. I think they would have found any defects. Please return to your desk, and don't make any further wild assumptions about things you, without a degree, could not possibly comprehend."

I returned, seething, to my chair. I studied the hurricane narrative over and over and knew I was right. It all came down to the precise tone of voice used by the Princess when she discussed breakfast with a large talking rat. My writerly intuition, developed from years of independent storytelling, insisted on that point. A simple tweak was all that was needed to correct the narrative and accomplish the intended goal.

And so that evening, I pretended that I needed to work overtime to make my day's quota. When everyone had left DIVISION 66-F/HAIR AND COMPLEXION ATTRIBUTES, I sneaked into Cranbrook's office, logged into the system with his password and ID (written on a piece of masking tape affixed to the underside of his chair; I had seen it once when I bent to pick up a dropped pencil), and implemented the fixes per his authorizations. Then I went home, happy and proud, but of course a little nervous.

Several weeks went by. Hurricane season was imminent, so the narrative went live to the public. Days later Hurricane Bastet blew in and inflicted hundreds of millions of dollars of damage on Miami.

But not one life was lost.

The following day I approached my boring tasks happily, with a sense of renewed dedication to the Department of Story Formation. My elation lasted until four large Secret Service operatives showed up and asked me politely to accompany them.

Trying to master my shaky legs and quivering innards, I assumed we were heading straight to some CIA or NSA secret prison, and that I would be vanished, never to resurface.

But instead, they took me to the White House. Specifically, the large and impressive Cabinet Room, where I found a single person awaiting me: Secretary Cleo Moussa, head of the Department of Story Formation.

With a wild head of untamed graying hair and her bronze skin (grade UI-17/q in the indices), Dr. Cleo Moussa was a dignified and impressive diva of a gal in her late sixties, who had held this office for decades, since its formation, across several rival administrations. She famously favored long white robes resembling those of a Supreme Court justice. On her bosom was a pin depicting the joined masks of comedy and tragedy.

She addressed the Secret Service guys soberly. "Leave him with me."

But when they had gone, she turned a beaming smile upon me.

"I can hardly believe it. You've shown up at last."

I dropped into a chair as if whomped upside the head. When I could talk, I said, "What…what do you mean?"

"We run those subtly flawed narratives all the time, hoping one of our employees will recognize the errors and do something about it. But the vast majority of our workers never notice—or if they do, they choose not to speak. The few who make a stink are generally persuaded to back down by bosses who are not in on the scheme, like yours. And not one person so far, in all the years of our existence, has dared to sneak in a change as you did. Oh, by the way, we would have repaired the narrative ourselves before it went live. But not the way you did! That was a lateral master stroke, something none of our word-engineers could have come up with. Imagine having the Princess marry the rat at dawn atop Mount Pancake! Brilliant!"

"So this was all just a test?"

"Not so much a test as a sieve or honeypot or welcome mat. You see, the department realizes we've reached the apex of what formal narratology can accomplish. We need wild talents, raw storytellers who are not steeped in the rules and codices, and can inject some primal symbology and energy into our narratives. We think that's the only way we are ever going to break on through this current intellectual blockade, and create a better world."

"So…I'm not fired and I'm not going to jail forever?"

Dr. Moussa laughed. "Far from it. In fact, we're going to be setting you up in the office right next to mine, with a pay-grade of G20++, and a job description that basically says, 'Go for it!'"

I stood up with new vigor and excitement. "I'm honored and ready to start right away! Just let me go back to my old division first."

"We can get all your stuff from your desk and transport it here for you, if that's your concern."

"Thanks, but it's not that. I just want to tell Yaddo Cranbrook in person and watch his face turn that special shade of red known as TY-96/s!"


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