Part One of Whatever
Hey, I’m doing this on my Friday night for free.
I had to really think about whether or not to go ahead with the critique of Axanar’s first short story. After all, it doesn’t hold as much interest for Trek fan film fans as a script at the center of a multi-million dollar copyright lawsuit. Additionally, as fan fiction, it’s an amateur piece written for fun, which makes any critique feel a bit mean-spirited.
But I have a black diamond where my heart should be, and we can learn just as much from fan fiction as from Shakespeare. (As I have very little background in art, I cannot critique that aspect other than to say that I quite like the illustrator’s work. I wish it had been a full comic instead of an illustrated short story.)
Give Your Story Identity
“Why We Fight: An Axanar Short Story,” written by Jonathan Lane and illustrated by Mark McCrary, opens in the 602 Club on Earth. The story never leaves this location. Of course, a single location is not necessarily to a story’s detriment. Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” takes place at a bar on a railway platform and it’s the sort of story that you feel in your chest long after you’ve finished it.
I mention the single location, however, because it (along with other elements) influenced how I understood the text as a reader. I didn’t visualize this story as narrative prose; I visualized it as a stage play. My interpretation is not unique to me. Lane wrote in a blog post on 22 February 2018 that what he wrote was similar to a short stage play, making it a poor candidate for conversion into a comic book.
Let’s look at why this text inspires both the author and a reader to draw similar conclusions about its identity.
Short plays—such as ten-minute, one acts—are almost always set in a single location. They’re written for quick changes and minimal sets. (By way of example, here’s an adaptation of a Melville short story that I particularly love.)
A more compelling indication of the story’s identity is its style. It’s almost entirely dialogue, with little narrative description. The story opens
At a table…
The formatting is faithful to the original.
There’s no description to set the scene such as in “Hills like White Elephants.” Presumably, the author expects the reader to be familiar the interior of the 602 Club. If one comes to the text without that Trekkie background, however, one will have to create a bar setting out of whole-cloth. That’s the sort of thing a set-designer or director would expect to do: take the lack of specificity as license to do whatever they wished.
The sense of reading a play is heightened by dialogue formatting. It doesn’t go
“Ajax,” Ron said.
And so forth as one might expect from prose. The capitalized name, colon, dialogue is standard play formatting, however. What little action exists reads as stage direction, e.g. “long, quiet stare” given its own line between lines of dialogue.
I find this lack of commitment to an identity somewhat frustrating. It has illustrations, but it’s not a comic book or graphic novel. It’s formatted like a stage play, but it’s called a short story. It could be a dialogue-only short story, but it has those stage directions. It’s a story with an identity crisis. And if form or structure is a critical component to the success of story, this arrangement does not bode well for it.
How do I even read a story like this? Do I read it as dialogue-only prose short story? Do I read it as a stage play?
Good thing both share many traits because I just don’t know.
I do want to take a minute to say that dialogue-only stories exist. The Newberry Medal-winning author Avi wrote a children’s novel called “Who was that Masked Man, Anyway?” entirely in dialogue. (Amazon link for those who want to take a peek.) There’s a hilarious short story called “They’re Made Out of Meat,” by Terry Bisson, which is also crafted only out of dialogue. Finally, there are many contests for dialogue-only short stories. The linked one was just the first Google hit. So I hope I’ve convinced you that the format of this story alone does not mean it is not a short story.
You Need a Strong Start for a Short
The story opens with names. Lots and lots of names. There are four characters—Ron, Matt, Thalek, and Daria—and they’re listing a bunch of Greek and Roman gods. The only way we know who these people are is from the illustration. Alas, it’s difficult to tell who is who. One can assume Thalek is the alien. Yes, yes. I know it’s an Andorian. Ron, Matt, and Daria are up for grabs, however. Sure, you could say the female name goes with the female character, but that strikes me as quite gender normative for a Trek story, particularly now that we have a female Michael in the canon. Anyway, even if you do take the gender normative interpretation, which one is Ron and which one is Matt?
What might have been useful here is if the illustrator had drawn the characters left to right in the order they spoke. This would quickly establish the characters for the reader in the absence of description.
In any case, they’re listing a bunch of ship names. We know they’re ship names from the start because they’re italicized. Unless they’re just the names of gods being spoken with unusual emphasis. Daria doesn’t actually say they’re ship names until page two.
Short stage play or short story, four talking heads listing ship names is not an engaging beginning. When you have very limited space to tell your story, you need to establish your location, plot, and characters very quickly. In “Why We Fight” the location is established by the illustrations. That leaves the text to established character and plot.
A list of names does not do this. You could take any character name and switch it with any line of dialogue, and nothing would change about any of the characters. If you cover the characters’ names with a sheet of paper, you can’t tell who is saying what. They have no voice and no personality.
Worse, the list of names doesn’t provide a sense of story or plot. Take a look at “They’re Made Out of Meat.” The first five lines read
“They’re made out of meat.”
“Meat. They’re made out of meat.”
“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat.”
Seriously, just go read the whole thing. It’s really short. And hilarious. And makes you think deep thoughts. It does what a good SF story should.
In these five lines Bisson establishes two characters. The first is a scientist-like character. The second is likely a superior. The first is making a report. The second disbelieves it. The kicker is that fourth line, which tells the reader that this story is an alien abduction story…from the aliens’ point of view. More than that, this story sets up interesting subtextual conflict: that the aliens are not “meat” and that humans are. The word “meat” also implies something non-living, something non-sentient, which heightens the tension and makes the reader wonder how it will be resolved.
What do we learn in the first five lines of “Why We Fight”? Five ship names.
There’s a little banter about one of the officers forgetting a ship name and a little more about one ship bearing the Roman name in place of the Greek, but there’s no tension here. Why not? Well, there’s no tension because there are no stakes. There’s no goal and no conflict. There’s no subtext. It’s a list of names.
Now, if the author really wanted to work in ship names and also insert some stakes, conflict, goals, and subtext into the story then it would’ve been possible. Just make it quiz night. Your segregated tables of Andorians, Tellarites, Vulcans, and Humans all battling over nerd questions. As they get tipsier, they get less diplomatic.
That could’ve been an engaging circumstance for the characters (or actors, if you read this as a play) to work with. There’s a story there. Alas, we must play it safe.