For a long time I’ve been promising to write a piece on the three stories that made me stop reading Asimov’s. I will, once I dig them out of the box they’re in. But along the way there had been a growing dissatisfaction with the magazine that unconsciously led to my “to read” stack of them exceeding eighteen issues. After a while I began to put my finger on why. The stories were all about setting the situation up, and then instead of having an ending, they just… ended. I called this “All count-down, no blast off.”

I recently ran across a story that exemplified this quite well, this whole business of trying to set up a good, meaty Science Fictional idea, then mincing around it without actually taking it on. This was Cat Rambo’s Clarkesworld story “Tortoiseshell Cats Are Not Refundable” (archive link here) the story itself isn’t that recent, about four years old, but it really typifies the problem I’m getting at. Let’s do a read-along:

Okay, our protagonist Antony is depressed. Really really fucking depressed. We can see how depressed he is in exquisite detail. It goes on and on about how meaningless his life is since Mindy died, whoever she is (His wife. It takes quite a while to get to that detail). We do find out he lives in Seattle (over 90% of Science Fiction stories seem to take place in Seattle these days. Don’t ask me why). He deals with the pain by aimlessly wandering around Fry’s (A west coast electronics chain), getting stoned (because Yay Recreational Pot in Washington, instead of drinking because Boo Alcohol). He’s SO depressed he can’t even talk to his Mom, who calls him every day. And he feels guilty about this because he moved her across the country to be near him and away from his horrible sisters.

I am not loving this story at this point.

But he’s a good boy, and loves his mother, and apparently his mother had a cat he’d gotten her that she really loved which had died a year earlier. (I ended up doing a little math. Mom is Elderly, Cats average lifespan 8-15 years. He’s got to be in his late middle age.) So, since mom might be as depressed as he is, and old folks are better off with something to care for (since, well, her SON isn’t that available with his three months of moping) he decides to get her another cat. Oh, and not just another shelter kitty (PSA: Please adopt shelter kitties. -M), but ripped from the headlines two decades ago, a clone of her last cat, because you can get them by mail order now. And finally we start hitting some SFnal tropes — he apparently has some kind of cash account/brain computer implant called, get this, a “Shunt”, and Drones take deliveries.

I’ve gotten a bit more sensitive over the years about picking up on the unsubtle digs stuck in stories. When he mentions getting his shunt when he’s in college, he pays for it with his aunt’s old gold coins, and mentions that a) she’d died in the SEVENTH Gulf War, and b) that he never regretted it. Let’s take a moment to unpack the SJW Reusable Cloth Grocery Bag in this short paragraph. Who invests in gold? Conservatives. So Aunt Mick (“Mick”??) was a Conservative. Now libs like to imagine Ironic Deaths for Conservatives, so Gulf War 7. Because they believe Conservatives love war, and war never solves anything, so there have been 7 of them. Now the lack of regret appears to be about selling the coins, but it’s hard to tell because the sentence is one comma-spliced mess. That could be saying that Aunt Mick was dumb about investing in Gold because spending them decades ago in college was no loss. Or it means he had no attachment to Aunt Mick anyway, thus no sentimentality about his inheritance.

Anyway, back to the story, such as it is so far. Actually, I’ll jump ahead about, since the story is chopped up into non-linearly arranged segments. He gets the cat, but it doesn’t look like the original, because tortoiseshell fur patterns are a random expression of the genes, and they have a list of critters that this might be a problem with, and therefore Tortoiseshell Cats are Not Refundable. Boom, Title. Mom is lukewarm about the cat, but eventually warms up to it in spite of the differences.

As an idea, it’s a great one. Everyone assumes DNA is like destiny, that you grow a clone and you will get exact copies. Inverting that trope could lead to a brilliant story. Let’s see what she does with it….

Well, apparently because Antony is such a good customer, buying one Cat and getting marginal results, they send him an offer. “Hey, got any loved ones you might want us to make a clone of?” I guess they knew he was really depressed, because he goes on about it for a while after he gets the info packet and decides to blow his retirement money on doing it, and then some, even though they got the cat wrong.

Okay, this is where the story really gets fucked up.

Apparently the process will produce an adult clone. How they get there isn’t touched on at all, but kind of a good thing, since he probably doesn’t even have 20 years left to wait for his girlfriend to grow up before he kills himself over his depression.  (If someone doesn’t kill him first getting sick of his moping.) So, how do you make an adult clone with an adult mind. Well, apparently, secretly, those shunt thingies have enough memory capacity to download your entire brain.

Holy shit! Talk about “We have altered the terms of our privacy policy”! Not only is the shunt company secretly invading the privacy of their customers in the most intimate way possible (Shunts are also mentioned as enhancing sex), but they are providing that information to a third party without a release. I guess there’s a posthumous lack of rights. That’s a huge damned story in itself. I mean, imagine a story where that kind of data is subpoenaed in court, but that is dodged by saying it’s not admissible.

But here, that huge idea is merely used as a shortcut to get to the goal of a perfect replacement clone. And our Hero’s reaction to this news? Go for it.

And even though this procedure is an experiment, only in its third iteration, he has to pay for it. Good lord that looks like scamming the bereaved. But none of that is reflected upon.

Now apparently they don’t think the Shunt is enough, and they mention pulling in social media and such, and they send someone to research her shopping habits and interview him about details of their life together. So apparently there is active editing of the memories to be implanted, but this is totally glossed over. Really, it doesn’t occur to him to “Improve” her? I mean, that’s a huge story idea right there. Nothing is done with that.

Finally, we get to see her clone, sort of. Her appearance is kept very brief, and spoken of indirectly. She is subtly different, but that isn’t really explored too much, maybe a paragraph, a very indistinct one.

Antony decided that against the doctors orders, he’s going to tell her the truth. Because, you know, she’s not an EXACT copy, but now he can finally mourn his old Mindy (What the hell has he been doing for the last three months?) and start over with the new one if she wants to. And Wow! That right there is a Big story, telling a person they are actually the reconstructed clone of your dead wife. That would be one hell of a tale to tell. It would be worth putting up with all this dithering about and moaning to see how that turns out. And what does Cat Rambo do with this story next?

The End.

Yeah, that’s it, that’s where it stops. The whole angle with the cats being different is to make a point about a human clone being different, only those differences are not explored at all. The existential questions that Science Fiction alone is equipped to explore, glossed over for expediency, and then finally ignored just when they should come to a head. All of this story, 3500 words of it, leading up to what happens if you tell a clone she’s a clone, and it stops right before you tell her. It stops without telling you what happens with the story it’s actually leading up to.

All count down, no blast off.


And that is typical of what passes for short SF these days.

25 thoughts on “Fizzle….

  1. Going by the comments she leaves various places, Cat Rambo seems a bit… vapid? An un-serious scholar, to be sure. Very taken with whatever is avant-garde this week.

    You said: “I’ve gotten a bit more sensitive over the years about picking up on the unsubtle digs stuck in stories.”

    Yeah. Me too. Lately, I want to say since around 2010, the story seems to exist to be a carrier for those little digs. That and the never-ending drumbeat of socialist themes.

  2. I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees those digs. They get real old, real fast. I sometimes wonder whether I’m seeing them where they weren’t intended, but at this point, who can tell?

    I was never a subscriber to SF mags. Too cheap and those I did read were pretty hit-or-miss. Nowadays I try to rely on recommendations from sources (blogs mostly) whose judgement has panned out in the past. Haven’t run into any of those “and then it stops” stories fortunately.

    • I figure a lot of authors were shopping around the beginnings of novels they intended to write, but never did. It read like it.

      • Either that, or the annoying “Writing and releasing Book One of a series as a standalone short story” which is far too common nowadays. It’s gotten near impossible to buy a decent standalone single-story finished-in-one-book book on Amazon, they are nearly all opening tomes of some multi-part series.

        Which would be okay, I guess, if they told the buyer that up-front, but they don’t. And I dislike getting 10-20 pages from the end of a book, only to realize there is no way all these conflicts are going to be satisfactorily resolved in the remaining space. Annoying doesn’t BEGIN to describe it.

  3. Even as a kid I had a similar issue with some of the movies shown on TV from the late 60’s & 70’s. It felt like the film ran out but…. there wasn’t a proper ending. They just stopped. Not even a “we leave you to imagine a possible choice of ending” but more “we ran out of ideas so, he, we’re done now.” Meh.

    While I wasn’t a fan of many of the Big movies of the time (Jaws, Rocky, Star Wars) they did at least have proper endings.

  4. The sad truth is, these people aren’t writers and they’re certainly -not- science fiction or fantasy writers. They can’t get into the ‘real’ literary magazines they want to, so they go to scifi and fantasy periodicals and dress their literary pap, (which wasn’t good enough for a real literary mag) up with some buzzwords and then go: See! SciFi!!!

    The Mags they go to have all been fully converged, so they’re looking more for virtue signalling than they are any kind of a story. So yes, they walk right up to the edge of ‘what if’ or some other science fiction premise, but because they have no clue whatsoever about scifi, they never explore it.

    It’s kind of sad too, that a person with such a small amount of writing experience got elected to the head of a once major writing organization. But then, after a previous president drained that organization’s bank account so they could have a free paid vacation traveling all over the country, that organization has become a pale shadow of its former self.

  5. I’m wondering how a “Shunt” improves sex. I’m imagining something like a “Pop-Up Video”: ” Here it is, you clumsy oaf!”

      • I can imagine how AR could significantly enhance sex. Mapping a young Linda Carter or Scarlet Johannson onto one’s girl-friend/wife would be one plus. If the AR can track things like blood flow in one’s GF, and use that data to indicate degree of arousal to the users, then one could concentrate on those actions and areas likely to produce the best results.

        Of course one could also more readily determine whether she was faking it…

  6. Maybe it was supposed to be a Lady or the Tiger moment? Nah, no way. Nothing like “continued next issue!” I guess.

  7. I see your point, but I also think that some of my favorite stories leave a lot to the imagination. I’m thinking about “Division By Zero” and “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.

    And then a lot of Philip K. Dick’s stuff seemed to fall into a category of “great count down” followed by “forget about the story, let’s talk about God…..”

  8. Quite honestly, it sounds like self-indulgent tripe. The author seems (and in fairness I haven’t ready the story, I am going by the description here) to be far more interested in talking about himself than anything else, which is of course quite common in what passes for sci-fi these days. No ideas, no exploration, just ‘me, me, me…’, the “literary” equivalent of posting a picture of your meal on social media

  9. I absolutely loved the movie “Arrival” and bought the book, because the book is always better. It wasn’t. There are something like 12 short stories in the book and only 2 have anything like a real ending. I really only enjoyed one of the stories about a tower into the sky – in a world were there is a roof over the world a tower is built to reach it and miners are trying to pierce it. The rest were mostly the start to good stories, but no endings. I’m getting sick of this stuff.

  10. I can almost see a certain logic in the Seattle setting for SF. I decided long ago that the Atlantic coast is morbid & countries and communities therein trade rocks back and forth calling it progress. While meanwhile real change and exchange is happening around the ring of fire.

    Hence Seattle does sit at the edge of chaos & anything can happen. Alas though most writers imaging Seattle (& I suspect today most folks living in Seattle) are stone traders, not chaos raiders.

    At least that’s the way it looks to me from up here on top of the world.

  11. It’s been quite a while since single-volume stories dominated SFF. Series started becoming popular in the early 90s, and now almost everyone is writing them. I have an intuition that one of the reasons for the phenomena you describe is that writers who came of age in the 80s and 90s learned fiction as series, and simply don’t think in terms of a satisfying final conclusion. A single story may start well and include impressive world-building, but at some point it just…stops. The obvious next step is for the same characters to appear in the same setting, do a few things, and then…stop. Repeat until author and/or readers tire of the characters and setting, at which time the author begins a new series.

    I’m old (first published in 1974) and so I don’t have this problem, which may be why I can see it as clearly as I do. My own problem is quite the opposite: I try my best to tie up all the loose ends and make the end of a story the END. I’ve never even written a sequel, though people tell me I had better start learning. Better late than never, I guess.

      • Well, yes–because readers have had their entertainment habits formed by TV series for almost 70 years. On TV, an ensemble of characters talks and has little adventures and a few car chases, but very little changes over the course of a season, or in some cases over the entire run of the series. There used to be TV anthology series (Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, and further back, Science Fiction Theater all being good examples) where the actors, situations, and settings are completely different for every episode. Those are pretty much extinct. So when readers who grew up on TV-shaped entertainment demand TV-shaped novels, writers get in the habit of writing TV-shaped entertainment. Do enough of that, I think, and episodic series fiction is what begins to come out of a writer’s subconscious. Now, none of this is unbreakable psychology. But I think this theory explains the phenomenon Dr. Mauser is describing.

      • As a reader — I like series, but I want the next one to be about something else, a new chapter in the life of, a new set of problems. And for THIS book’s problems to be sufficiently well resolved.

  12. I think I can empathize with both the author of the story and you on this. I can read this story and see both what the author was attempting “I want something back that I lost” and your point “This seems to be a random ambling” In short, A over B = C over (X) fill in for X. The cat parallels the girlfriend, only taken further in order to allow the reader to anticipate what will happen with his decision. The end point of this story is not the anticipated reaction of the ‘girl’ but the decision of the boy. (or it could have been extended to book length)

    I’ve written fiction like this in writeoffs where the judges completely and totally miss the point I was aiming at, leaving me angst’d over my failure for days. Practice let me get more comfortable with the occasional reader missing it and more accuracy about getting more readers to ‘get it.’ Still, if I hit 95% ‘hit’ on a story, I consider it to be a smashing success.

  13. Darrell Schweitzer invented a technical term for this kind of story: an aborted beginning. They have been depressingly common in sf/fantasy/horror, if only because someone sold the beginning of a novel to a magazine because he needed money NOW.

    “Farewell to the Master,” which vaguely inspired the great film THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is and aborted. The ‘story’ sets up a very interesting situation, then stops. Some of Lovecraft’s least successful pieces did that too (“He’s dead”). Heck, ol’ H. P. sold one that pretended to be a novel (AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS), and threw in so much stuff that a lot of people never realize that nothing happens, except right at the end, when the real problem is very briefly glimpsed.

    But at least in the past, they were seldom stuffed with political cliches.

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