Friday, September 16, 2011

Dissecting the Short Story: "Aisle 1047" by Jon Armstrong

This is the third of a series of posts (introduced here) which will appear once every two weeks on the blog. In this series, a short story from a recent major digest will be analyzed in detail, to see what we can learn about how the author approached creating the story.

"Aisle 1047" by Jon Armstrong
Published in:
September/October 2011 Fantasy and Science Fiction
Approximate Length:
5000 words
Third Person, Essentially Chronological
Summary [WARNING: Spoilers Included!]:
Tiffan3 is a saleswoman in the 3000-aisle Atlantic and Starbuk GroCity, a futuristic shopping megaplex. The sales-staff are brand-oriented and use technological aids to track customers and encourage sales. Tiffan3 also is trained in "warTalk," described as "the poetry of fashion commerce." Her brand, Proctor, has been losing sales to competing brands which have lured consumers with discounts, coupons, and bonus products. "Regional" informs Tiffan3 that there is going to be a major change in strategy and Proctor is going to escalate into a "haute war." Tiffan3 had hoped to move up to more prestigious sales lines such as Gowns and Gloves, but now she is being threatened with a move down to a transitional spot in Hair care. Despite Tiffan3's reluctance to believe that the more aggressive tactics of a "haute war" are appropriate to the products which she is selling, she insists to be put in charge of the strategy change rather than being transitioned out.

She trains at the Whole Sales Dojo Boutique. She graduates, but the Sensei tells her that she needs to "find her Brand." Tiffan3 objects vigorously, but the Sensei is firm. After her training, she is sent back to a changed Aisle 1047. Instead of seducing customers with flowery pitches, Tiffan3 is moving product as fast as possible to people only interested in the best deal. When Tiffan3 turns away a crude customer, the incident escalates into a fight between the Proctor and Venis (a competing brand) saleswarriors. Tiffan3 comes to the realization that Proctor is her Brand, and always will be.

General Analysis:
The first two stories I've dissected were very straightforward and traditional in their approach. That's not a bad thing at all. I enjoyed both stories and a good portion of what I write is similar in its feel. "Aisle 1047" is, I think, less straightforward and that's part of why I chose it for this week's Dissection. It is, at heart, a "If This Goes On" type of story and that's certainly a theme which has existed in Science Fiction for as long as the genre has been around. But while the same plot could have been presented in a less-stylized manner, that would have made for a very different story.

The two most prominent themes I saw in the story were about the relationship between sales and sexuality and a dehumanization of people through the future commerce environment. In some cases, both themes come together. Early in the story, Tiffan3 encounters a customer who intends to purchase a deeply-discounted Venis product. She presents a jar of Indulgence, "Proctor's Breath Synth" and tries to woo him back.
Stepping closer, she wanted to fortify the invisible web of connection between them and reel him back. "Our passion is clean, fresh, tingling --"
"The night breeds," she continued in her sexiest murmur, wishing she could just wrap her arms around him, hold him, keep him, "but the pure morning washes naked our flesh and bone."
After the sales war has escalated and Tiffan3 has returned, she has an encounter with another customer which has a very different feel which helps illustrate the dehumanization of the sales culture:
"Gimme the DoubleStuffed Sinnahot Breath Wash."
When Tiffan3 handed over a gallon jug, the man caught her by the wrist. His pinkish eyes were half-hidden under his hood, his lips highlighted with spittle. "How much do you love it?"
Tiffan3's reply felt like it came up her throat covered in acid. "Joy fills my mouth, stirs my tongue."
His eyes belied disappointment; turning, he headed toward Venis.
After that experience Tiffan3 realizes that "The triple of poetry, persona, play was dead -- replaced with product, credit, and a sloppy spill of eroticism."

Another very strong dehumanizing element is how Tiffin3 came to be in the employ of Proctor in the first place. She had graduated from her training program in warTalk and put herself up for Auction, but no one made an offer. "For days she ambled the hallways of Seattlehama Mall in a dark state of demise, avoiding the inevitable vocation of service and scut" before Proctor put in a bid for her and acquired her services. Both the notion of a person being auctioned, and the fates she had forseen for herself reinforce the dehumanization.

Interestingly, the character who seems most "normal"/human in terms of today's behavior is Cindi, the saleswoman partnered with Tiffan3 for her return to Aisle 1047. Initially, Tiffan3 is dismissive of Cindi -- "nothing but a strong blonde with no verse talent, no sales slam, no mystery. Tiffan3 cursed her and cursed this haute war. Without it, Cindi would surely still be in the packaged meat aisle or from wherever she had come." When Cindi later comes to Tiffan3's defense, Tiffan3 warms to her.

Detail (Word choice, etc.) Analysis:

Armstrong does a lot of interesting things with words in this story. Some of it is direct -- the "haute war" which is a play on words for "hot war." Some of it is more subtle. The name "Tiffin3" manages to sound both like it could be a robot's name and also like it could be the name of a brand of razor.

The warTalk training which Tiffan3 underwent shows in her speech even when she's talking off the sales floor with Regional. "The scores I have seduced run now to their soiled bloomers for discount and tease! What happened to the gourmands who used to shop our Aisle? Moreover, what has happened to our Brand?" (As an aside, the lack of any other name for "Regional" is also an example of dehumanization.)

There's some great visual imagery in the story. When Tiffan3 returns from her Dojo training to the changed Aisle its description -- "New display filled the aisle like trenches and fortification" -- reinforces the martial themes. The Venis saleswarriors in the aisle are described as "chatting and laughing. They slumped over their displays and leaned against the shelves like pumas sunning themselves, tails idly wagging." This latter was both very vivid and a literal dehumanization of those people, comparing them to large cats.

Did The Story Work For Me?
In the sense that I think the author did what he set out to do and did it in a way that I could envision the world he was trying to create, yes. The story didn't really speak to me personally but not every story, not even every good story, will speak to every reader. I liked the imagery and some of the wordplay and, obviously, the editor of F&SF thought enough of the story to add it to this issue.

Thanks for reading this dissection! If you've read this story and have comments, I'd love to hear them. I'd also be very interested to know what you might like to see done differently in future installments of "Dissecting the Short Story" and, as always, if there's a story from a recent issue of one of the major digest magazines which you'd like to propose I tackle, please do let me know.


  1. Just hopping by before I crash for the night but I'm following you now. Here's my link. :)

  2. This is a very useful way of learning Craft, Michael. My comment earlier did not save, but it basically thanked you for doing this series!

    Join me at the Rule of Three Writers' Blogfest!

  3. Jacob, thanks for stopping by!

    Damyanti, glad that you found it useful and sorry to hear you had trouble commenting. Still considering Rule of Three; thanks for the reminder!

  4. Hi, Jacob. Had a chance to stop by your site this evening. Good luck with your new blog!

  5. Hi Michael, Great Disecrtion so glad I had time to visit and let you know. I gave you an award on my blog today, because indeed your blog is Mucho Versitile!. Will visit back soon.

  6. Writing Well, thank you so much for the award! I hope that you enjoy your Disney trip -- we went once about eight years ago and it was a great time.

    I posted random facts about myself and links for the Versatile Blogger award last Sunday, if you are interested to see what I had to say.