Reading the Hugos (2018) “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”

This is a tough one. When I read the, what at first seemed like a wonderfully nonsensical first sentence, of this story “There’s a ticket booth on my tongue” I felt that this was it, the Hugo story of this year, and if you have read my 2017 Hugo reviews, you know that’s not a compliment. But then I read the story, and I was seriously confused, first because it is, indeed, quite confusing, but also because it wasn’t what I was expecting. My fault, really; my PSTD from reading some other Hugo finalists, encountering this story’s jumpy, fragmented style and narrative, and the use of (oh-my-god) second-person narrator  (and the title! I mean, come on!) made me think that this was one of those artsy literary experiments (and it may be, to some extent.) And with that in mind, that’s how I read it… and I understood nothing. Then I read it again, without expecting anything, and I understood it a bit better. Finally, I read it a third time, and ah, then I got it (I think.)


Now, there are two broad things that, as a critic, you can say of a story, although I suspect most critics mix both or have troubles imagining a situation when they are not the same. These are: Is it good (achieves what it tries to accomplish and how it relates to other works with similar goals) and… did I like it? Usually, they are the same, but in this case, I’d say that… no, it’s not really good because I can list many things that would have made the story better, but, I kinda liked (appreciated?) it for what it is. I’m wary of using the word oddity due to, as you will see, the story’s “plot,” but yeah, I appreciated it as an oddity of sorts. I probably won’t read it a fourth time, and I wouldn’t recommend it either as a great model for… whatever genre this may be, or to a general audience, as an “entertaining” tale of fantasy or science fiction, but I think I will remember this story it for some time.

I’ll use the first sentence, “There’s a ticket booth on my tongue” as an example of what I mean by “it’s not really good.” To sum up, the story (if you can call it that way) follows an anonymous visitor (the “you” in the narration)  through a somewhat nightmarish mixture of XIX-century hospital, museum, and circus freak show, one that now seems to be run by the inmates, so to speak. The narrator, who is the real protagonist of the story, seems to be both a patient and a guide, and it’s also alluded that she is somewhat… reptilian? It’s hard to tell really, because there are no proper descriptions or it’s hard to know if they are really descriptions or… metaphors (I have come to the conclusion it’s the former, just clumsily presented.) In any event, my theory about the first sentence is that the visitor has to literary insert the ticket in the (possibly deformed? Forked tongue? a facial cleft?) mouth/tongue, or even that she is in a glass case of sorts and you have to insert the ticket there, in a slot into her mouth, as if she was part of the exhibition, but also a machine and a guide? Who knows, nothing besides the first sentence is described, and understanding what is going on may be an interesting exercise in literary deduction for the reader with enough free time on his hands, but it doesn’t make for good description and narration*, or storytelling. In fact, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to imagine that any of the above theories/explanations, if actually written and narrated in a more traditional style, would make for a much better story.

*There’s actually little of these since the “narration” is basically the “protagonist” talking to you. Everything you read is actually words, although she also seems to slip twice into old-fashioned narrator describing what “you” are feeling. It’s all a monologue as the guide drags you along the corridors and rooms of the place. This makes all basic forms of description and exposition almost impossible to accomplish.

What happens in the story? Well, a sequence of rooms and their contents (the remains of deformed people, ancient surgery tools, victims of phrenology excesses, that sort of stuff) are described, and, as the visitor goes deep into the place, you can see the tension and danger building up (the whole narration has an undercurrent of intimidation, making the visitor notably powerless.) Eventually, as an act of revenge or ironic justice, the visitor who came to gawk at the weirdos and “freaks” (and you’d be surprised how hard it is to deduce that) is made into one of them before being allowed to leave (or sort of leave.) He is given “beetle hands,” which may be literal but I suspect that, like previous references to “claw hands,” might be ectrodactyly (lack of central digits in the hand), but who knows, there are no proper descriptions here and chitin is mentioned, so perhaps he was made a beetle-human hybrid?. There are a few other conditions mentioned in the story that I believe I have been able to identify, but… it’s hard to tell, really.

So, no… I don’t believe the story is “good,” although I don’t believe it’s creepy or disturbing either as other reviewers have said. A bit “meh” sometimes even. Also, it has no fantasy/science fiction element I could notice besides the (perhaps?) fact that the narrator may be… amphibian (fish out of water? Between two worlds?)? Or the beetle hands if that is supposed to be literal. But… that’s it. It feels more like a diary entry of someone writing an emotional allegory (revenge fantasy even, against gawkers and doctors?) of a medley of many personal experiences, and some elements in the story seem to point out in that direction. Did I like it? Somewhat, and in spite of the many things it threw at me with the apparent goal of making me dislike it. But I think I unpacked the puzzle -its purpose and reason behind it- and understood it for what it is. It left me less indifferent than the previously reviewed story (Carnival Nine,) which also deals with disabilities (must be this year’s theme,) and… it made me think for awhile, which is quite odd for one of these Hugo finalists. It’s also somewhat short, so there’s that.

I’m not sure how it got nominated for a science-fiction/fantasy award, though, and this story would work better in a more literary genre/magazine/award, but eh, this is the Hugos we are talking about here.

Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand, by Fran Wilde, can be read here.



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