The Story Doctor is (In) by James Patrick Kelly

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The incomparable Jim Kelly is back, story-doctoring the equally incomparable Maurice Broaddus’s “At the Village Vanguard (Ruminations on Blacktopia)” for your delight. Learn how Maurice works his magic in this original story.

The Story Doctor is (In): Broaddus’s “At the Village Vanguard (Ruminations on Blacktopia)

by James Patrick Kelly

Not every story needs to be told in the same way. In my experience, the gene for experimentation in a writer’s DNA is most frequently expressed in the short form. While the straightforward craft of building upon the three-sided foundation of plot, character and setting works best for most readers—and writers—other strategies can pay unique dividends. Limiting narration to one point of view is not a law of nature, nor is sequential narrative required to earn one of the coveted spots here on the table of contents at Mothership Zeta. What is important at the end of the day is whether the reader has a sense of a time and a place, whether she can appreciate the motivations of someone who takes action and whether she understands the importance of the matters under consideration by the writer.

Case in point: “At the Village Vanguard (Ruminations on Blacktopia)” by Maurice Broaddus. By my count there are eight points of view on display in this intricate story, with only one brief dip into the point of view of the character who is arguably the protagonist, Astra Black, born Livinia Watson II—and that is actually a brief transcript of her final transmission. The vast majority of this story is told in first person narration by friends, colleagues, rivals and enemies. To call it jumpy would be an understatement, but Maurice manages his transitions so adroitly that soon the reader settles in the rhythm he has established. The story purports to be part of a historical feature from a future news outlet and is told in reminiscences, or perhaps testimony, as the many characters try to understand Astra and the meaning of her sacrifice. While the exact nature of her sacrifice is this story’s subject, we are told at the outset that the lunar colony survived “a terrorist threat which nearly ended it” because of “the heroic actions of the Science Police Officer, Astra Black.” Since the narrative consistently refers to Astra in the past tense, most readers will intuit that her heroism will cost her life. So we know the ending almost as soon as the story starts. This one is not about suspense in the traditional sense.

One thing that struck me as I read was how little we see of Blacktopia, the lunar colony that is the setting of the story. One exception is the extended and lovely passage told from Astra’s friend, Nora Bradford, that ends:

When you walked the streets, no one minded the darkness. Night time was personal. Light from houses, the occasional passing electric buggy. The buildings were three and four stories high. A series of modules, rows and rows, much like the farms of solar panels that fed into the converter station. Shiny intestines of the city, stout and resolute.

Astra was always proud of the city we created.

Otherwise fans of hard sf worldbuilding must content themselves with stolen glimpses and throwaway lines: skittering nanobots, black unitards, trade in He-3, EMF meters. But so what? This isn’t a story about physical infrastructure and we have spent enough time on other fictional lunar colonies that we can easily find our way around. Rather this is a story about a cultural infrastructure, what it means to the residents of Blacktopia to have a homeland of their own. “At the Village Vanguard (Ruminations on Blacktopia)” is not really about one heroic person. Rather it is about a people and the pride they take in the unique world they’ve made, and the ferocity with which they are prepared to defend it. I would argue that Maurice’s choice of using multiple narrators is exactly suited to the point of his story. Astra is important as the embodiment of the citizens of Blacktopia’s common dreams—and their courage. “Astra Black never set out to be a hero, but that was the thing about heroes. They were ordinary people who did the right thing in extraordinary circumstances.”

It has often been said that science fiction is not really about the future, but rather it is about the present moment in which it is written. This is the secret superpower of our genre, sez me. Back in the 1950s, the great Rod Serling was writing mimetic political teleplays that ruffled the feathers of the conservative CBS network. So instead he sold them a science fiction TV series that combined his righteous political sensibilities with his storytelling genius. He called it The Twilight Zone. It got past the network execs because they could tell themselves that it was “just science fiction” and not really about racism, bigotry, xenophobia, McCarthyism or mindless consumerism.

We take science fiction more seriously these days, and the importance of the matters under consideration by this writer is reflected in our toxic political climate. When the terrorist Randall A. McCarthy (yes, McCarthy!) says, “Don’t get me started on your name. If we called our society ‘Whitesville,’ you’d call us racist.” we can’t help but hear echoes of right wing criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement. But while this story is certainly more overtly political than some in MZ, it is not political only. Maurice has the moves to bend traditional story values to his own purposes. His entertaining and thought-provoking experiment is a success.


Jim Kelly has won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards and teaches at the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. He has a new collection of recent stories (and one unpublished!) coming in October, 2017 from Prime Books. It’s called THE PROMISE OF SPACE AND OTHER STORIES.