Friday, September 2, 2011

Dissecting the Short Story: "Less Stately Mansions" by Rob Chilson

This is the second 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.

"Less Stately Mansions" by Rob Chilson
Published in: 
July/August 2011 Fantasy and Science Fiction
Approximate Length:
6000 words
Chronological Narrative, Third-Person Limited
Summary [WARNING: Spoilers Included!]:
An older man, Jacob Mannheim, lives as a farmer on Earth of the distant future. Many people on Earth have emigrated to colonies; there are generous buyout offers for people who own land on Earth and will emigrate. An impending ecological disaster -- a great freeze -- will lead to his land eventually being worthless. However, Jacob has no interest in abandoning his farm and his younger relatives are distraught that he won't accept the buyout which would enrich their eventual inheritance.

The younger relatives force a mental competency hearing which Jacob passes with great ease. The judge criticizes the family for having attempted such an obviously-unreasonable legal maneuver over a disagreement over a matter of judgement. Jacob returns to his farm, pleased to have retained his land and freedom but aware that his already-strained relationships with family members may turn for the worse.

Several weeks later one of the family members which he was on relatively-good terms with before the court hearing comes to visit him. She brings the news that the rest of the family will be emigrating, with or without him and the buyout money from his land.

He considers the future of his farm. As the story ends, he is looking into the night sky. The nature of both the colonies themselves and the ecological crisis Earth faces is made clear. The colonies are a vast array of spaceships, constructed from the matter of other bodies in the Solar System and powered by solar sails. As some colonies have moved between the Earth and the Sun, they have reduced the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth.

General Analysis:
The last story I dissected was all about plot and the twist at the end. This story is much more character and setting driven. The plot strikes me as being primarily a chance to explore the lives of the characters and the society in which they live.

There is a reveal at the end of the story, in terms of what and where the colonies are and how they relate to the ecological crisis which Earth faces, but this is not a "twist ending." The explanation could likely have been provided earlier in the story without detracting from the narrative.

Preceding the story is a quotation from Oliver Wendell Holmes's "The Chambered Nautilus".
Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave they low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!
The epigram provides the inspiration for the title which, in turn, suggests that the colonies are not a "new temple, nobler than the last" but rather a step backwards.

The nature of Jacob Mannheim's character is illustrated immediately in the story. In the second paragraph he is described as "kneeling, feeling the soil where the potatoes had been harvested -- dark, friable, still faintly damp. It smelled rich, and the earthworm in the handful was long, strong, and vigorous. Good." Jacob is aware of subtle details of the land and has knowledge of what makes for "good" earth.

The relatives who lead the attempt at having him declared incompetent aren't the main focus of the story, but the contrast between them and Jacob is shown clearly in this passage:
His grandnephew's face appeared, sideways and reddened, either with emotion, or, more likely, the effort of ducking out the aircar's low door. His hussy of wife, Tomoko, followed, her shoes and silk-clad legs incongruous above the brown soil.
His grandnephew is out of shape and the wife of his grandnephew is wearing silk stocking, ill-suited to life on a farm.

These characterizations continue throughout the story. Tomoko speaks in a "bored nasal whine." Late in the story Jacob wonders "what time of month it was now. He could have consulted his extra-brain, but he was a farmer; he went outside." (This passage also made me wonder if it's a hint that perhaps Jacob's mental capacity is indeed starting to wane.)

The other major element of the story besides the characterization is the setting. There's never any explicit sense given of just how far in the future this story is set, but it must be rather distant based on clues throughout the story. His farm "covered much of the northern part of the old province of Missouri, lapping over into what had been Iowa." St. Louis, where the competency hearing was held "had been a sprawling city generations ago, when there were cities; built at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, when there'd been a Missouri and a Mississippi River." And the space colonies, built from the substance of other planets, had a long history. "Mars, Mercury, Venus were gone long before he was born, and Pluto, then Uranus and Neptune."

There are some other signs of societal changes. The concept of an "extra-brain" is introduced early in the story; it is described as being "tattooed under his scalp" and functions as a sort of brain-linked computer. Also, there are hints that society is very multi-cultural. From the character names -- Mannheim, Tomoko, lawyers Sam Nganya and Jamal Poonai -- to the snacks served by the Judge presiding over the competency hearing -- "coffee, dim sum, and crullers."

Detail (Word choice, etc.) Analysis:
In this case, a lot of the word choices that stood out to me go to the broader analysis of character and setting which I've described above. One that stood out to me besides those is at the very end of the story. After describing the nature of how the colonies came to be, at the cost of other bodies in the solar system, Jacob is looking at the Moon. The Moon apparently is supporting life since it "had been given water and an atmosphere." The closing line of the story, though, is "It was past the half, waning. It looked gnawed." This hints that the Moon itself may someday be devoured for yet more colonies.

Did The Story Work For Me?
I liked this story well enough. The setting was nicely drawn with a variety of methods -- some personal introspection, some narrative, some dialogue -- to explain the world Chilson was creating without the dreaded "infodump." I also really liked the choice of title and epigram. I thought they did a great job of solidifying the themes of the story in a way which was clear, but not overly-aggressive.

Thanks for sticking with me to the end of this piece. I hope that it was as informative for you to read as it was for me to write. 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."

Finally, new digest magazines have come out this week. I'll probably choose a story from one of them for the next "Dissection" two weeks from today. If there's a story you'd like to draw my attention to in particular, feel free to mention it in the comments!


  1. I'm not a short story writer, per se, but I admire the way you've broken the story down into parts to reveal its inner workings. It's a great way to learn craft.

  2. I am a novice short story writer and your analysis is very helpful. Thanks Michael.

  3. @Ann, sorry I didn't get back to you sooner! I'm glad that you found this piece useful. I'll be doing one every two weeks. If you read any of the major pro digests (Analog, Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock) and would like to suggest a story for analysis, feel free to do so!