17 thoughts on ““Calved,” by Sam J. Miller”

    1. Asimov’s put out their Reader’s Choice finalists in three different length categories! Do you know how MANY stories are waiting for me? ::dramatic angsty wail::

    2. I was a bit surprised to find the reader’s choices so different from my own — there were many among them I didn’t like at all. But why am I surprised, really? Of course I know my tastes aren’t universal! and there is no such thing as "quality" independent of taste! I only hope it doesn’t mean that the editors of Asimovs will publish less stories I like in the future.

    3. Levana Taylor: This has been my beef with the "Best of the Year" anthologies. And the Locus list. And every award ever.

      …I’ve grown to suspect most people feel the same 🙂 Everybody likes their own favorites the most. And we’re each our own thing, it seems.

  1. Hmmm, so, spoilers: I actually really saw the end coming. I wonder if knowing there was a "puch" influenced me? But honestly, I don’t think so.

    I enjoyed the story, don’t get me wrong. But the punch ending… I’m not sure it worked for me. Something’s bugging me about it.

    Setting aside that punching people out, robbing them, and throwing them in the river is Not A Nice Thing To Do: we end the story with the father being presented as an uncomprehending monster. But… y’know, Thede lies to him. When he attacks Han, he’s working off Thede’s very explicit agreement to the fact that his keepsake shirt had been stolen by bullies. Not that I’m in a position to make demands of fictional closeted teens, but this is ALSO the story of a teen who rejects his fathers overtures and affections in the limited time they have together, and his secrets wind up being misinterpreted in an awful way.

    …and really, what *happened* with that shirt, that forced Thede to make up such an awful excuse? By telling his dad it had been stolen from him, he’s cornered himself into not wearing it ever again. That doesn’t make any sense if he just lent it to his boyfriend. A gift? It seems like a really *weird* gift, entirely out of character. Could he really not have just said "It’s in the wash"?

    1. So I read this the other day and I think I have similar feelings about it. I don’t know if the ‘twist’ was telegraphed but the father’s idiocy was, and the son’s actions/motivations weren’t well-drawn enough for me – I didn’t know enough about him to be surprised by his sexuality. The setting was interesting though.

  2. So, an interesting point: how well does this ending work if you *aren’t* assuming that Thede is heterosexual by default?

    I thought the option was open as soon as Thede brushes his father’s comments on girls walking by. And honestly, for plenty of people, "straight" just isn’t a default to be assumed to begin with. At the end, the father doesn’t seem *upset* that his son’s gay, but it also seems to be something that’s never occurred to him as a possibility.

    And honestly, you see fiction written in either mode: stories written where it’s pretty clear that straight is the default, and others where it’s unusual, surprising, out of the ordinary.

    How does a story manage to set reader expectations for that? Am I supposed to be *surprised* that Thede’s not straight, or am I supposed to be rolling my eyes that the possibility wasn’t obvious?

    1. The father’s been cornered by a very specific set of macho assumptions learned from his father in turn. It’s a bit of a caricature of a certain set of views about manhood (I was about to say lower-class, but that’s not the only people it applies to, especially in the US), but is it really such an inaccurate one? It’s not about whether Dom thought of his son being gay as a possibility — from his own point of view, that’s more like, duh, I made a thoughtless assumption, now it’s cleared up I’m okay with it — but the fact that Thede *assumed* that his father would think that him being gay was the worst thing in the world, so bad that he told this stupid, stupid lie in a panicked spur-of-the-moment reaction. Neither of them understands the other, and it’s because of Dom’s style of communication. He’s learned that you DO NOT talk about important things, especially feelings, in words (he only said "I love you, son" at the end, when it’s too late). He expresses himself through gifts, through trying to share subjects that he’s been taught are appropriately manly like fighting and women; he’s been taught that violence is not unmanly, but affection is, so the opportunity to do something "good" for his son in a violent way seems like perfection. Thus his ironic reflection that his son both misunderstood him (that he’d reject him for being gay) and didn’t misunderstand him at all (that he was violent and macho). It’s all so very familiar to this American; does it not seem that way to you, outside our country?

      In a way, the futuristic setting is a bit superfluous; this story could happen in other times and places. But there are at least two advantages to it: Firstly, the reader can empathize with Dom’s dislocation in Qaanaaq, since we know even less about it than he does. He feels both lost, and powerless because of his low economic status and outsider position; that made it all too tempting to assert some control in the way that felt comfortable to him, through violence. The second advantage of the setting is that it’s meant to confront American readers with the experience of being both out of place and at the bottom of the economic scale. "A Maoist Nepalese foreman, on one of my first ice ship runs, said white North Americans were the worst for adapting to the post-Arctic world, because we’d lived for centuries in a bubble of believing the world was way better than it actually was. Shielded by willful blindness and complex interlocking institutions of privilege, we mistook our uniqueness for universality." I don’t know, but I bet that most of the people who love this story are white North Americans.

      Let’s compare this to the same author’s "When Your Child Strays from God", a story with a very American setting. In that one a woman, Beth, the wife of a fundamentalist preacher, takes an empathy drug to try to understand her estranged teenage son — she starts out wanting to know why he’s angrily rejected her, hoping to bring him back to her, but winds up realizing a bunch of uncomfortable truths about what she’s done wrong herself. No one except her is surprised when she finds out that her son is gay, but the significant fact about that from Beth’s point of view is that he’s committed what she ironically calls "the ultimate crime" of choosing love instead of what his parents tried to mold him into; that is just what she didn’t have the courage to do when she was his age. The reason that "When Your Child…" has a happy ending is that not only does Beth have the courage to take the drug, she is a very different person from Dom: talkative, and shown always touching people (not just her son who she would like to be able to hug if he’d let her). How very different from the manly distantness Dom maintains. Both Beth and Dom realize that they are simultaneously victims and victimizers in the patriarchal system. But Beth is not nearly as broken by the system as Dom is. She has done a lot of wrong to her son, but nothing unforgivable, mostly abetting his father, and she has the empathy and communication skills to mend the rift. Dom, on the other hand, sees himself as impossibly screwed up and thinks that his son can’t and shouldn’t forgive him. The position of men and women in Miller’s critiques of patriarchy are different.

    2. As to the issue of whether we are supposed to be surprised… I think it is brave of Miller in both stories to try to get even very cosmopolitan readers inside the mind of a narrator for whom "straight" is an unquestioned default assumption — two first-person narrators who have to convey that *they* were surprised. I think "When Your Child…" worked better for me on a second reading (I’ve only read "Calved" once) because I wasn’t expecting some kind of narrative revelation that was barely a revelation; I was just following along with Beth’s thought processes and appreciating the changes she goes through. I think maybe both stories would have been structurally stronger if this secret had been mentioned at the beginning; I believe that the narrators would still have been able to explain how surprised they were, without it seeming like the author was setting up the reader for a "big reveal" that falls flat. I suspect some readers were actually surprised and I suspect they were in a minority. The effects of these stories don’t entirely depend on the issue of heterosexuality, luckily. The other issues raised along the way are more important.

    3. All Miller’s stories are good! Personally the one that affected me most was "To Die Dancing", being closest to my own fears.

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