Friday, October 14, 2011

Dissecting the Short Story: "Turning It Off" by Susan Forest

This is the fifth entry in my Dissecting the Short Story series. If you're not familiar with the series, every other Friday I examine a short story from a recent major fiction digest magazine to see what we can learn about how the author approached creating the story.

"Turning it Off" by Susan Forest
Published in:
December 2011 Analog
Approximate Length:
4000 words
Third Person, Chronological
Summary [WARNING: Spoilers Included!]:
In the future, just about everything and everyone is equipped with "safeties." Though these aren't described in any detail, it is apparent that the safeties protect people and things from accidental damage of most kinds. The other major technological facet of this story is something called the "communient" which appears to work as a sort of "mental internet."

The story starts with a family -- father, mother, and the main character a (probably 14 or so years old) boy named Carter -- having breakfast. The father insists that the three of them have an actual verbal communication without using the communients to speak. As they talk, he mentions that someone died recently from a car accident. This was only able to happen because the driver had disabled his safety.

A family friend and his daughter Sam stop so he and Carter's father can go out golfing. The daughter suggests to Carter that she and he sneak off once their fathers leave. She asks if he thinks that they can take his mother's "secondary vehicle." Carter protests that she'd find out and notes that it only seats one.

Sam shows Carter that she's stolen a safety remote, one of many spares that her father keeps around their house. She wants to see if they can turn their safeties off and also suggests that they drive back to her family's house in Carter's mother's "secondary vehicle" with its safety off. Without warning Carter, she uses the remote to deactivate his safety, opening him up to a huge amount of new sensory input. While he's in this state, his mother comes back into the room and lets them know that she's slipping out for an impromptu "computer club meeting." When Sam asks why the club is meeting on a Saturday, Carter's mother instead says that they should tell his father that she is in the shower if he calls.

Carter asks Sam to turn his safety back on, but instead she turns hers off as well. She accidentally burns herself on a ceramic stovetop and has no point of reference for the feeling.

When Sam refuses to turn Carter's safety back on, they wrestle over the remote. In the process, it falls to the ground and shatters, as its own safety is deactivated as well. Without a remote, they can't re-engage their own safeties. Sam says that this means they have to go back to her family's house to get another spare remote. The two teenagers cram into the one-seat car, with all the awkwardness of driving and close contact which that suggests. On the way to Sam's house, they crash into another car.

The driver of the other car is Carter's mother. She arranges for the cars to be fixed and the kids' injuries to be treated. She also uses a spare safety to restore the protection around Carter and Sam. Later, Sam and Carter are talking quietly and she notes to him that the only way they could have crashed was if Carter's mom's car's safety was also disabled. They make plans to get together again the next Saturday and see what else they can experience without their safeties.


The thing that struck me most about this story is the way that the author avoids over-explaining a number of things, leaving them to be simply understood by the reader. Early in the story, when the main character's dad is talking about the person who died in the car accident...
"Freakish. A car with its safety turned off. That would make it kind of like... Carter looked around to see what they had with no safety. Not much. Dad once even put safeties on their kitchen knives, which meant everything had to be cut slowly so the knife wouldn't bounce. It didn't work very well."
So, we get an idea of what the safeties do to some extent, without a big infodump. Also, the author "snuck" this bit of information into a humorous passage, which also helped.

It's also left ambiguous where Carter's mother was going. My interpretation was that she was having an affair. There are a fair number of references to sex in the story, mostly indirectly in the main character's own dawning realization that the fact that his friend is a girl has some interesting ramifications. ("Recently, Carter had been more and more interested in what kind of top Sam wore.") It's also possible that his mother is an "underground Risker", someone like the dead man who turns off safeties for a thrill. Either way, she's doing something that her husband wouldn't approve of, and this leads her to help out Carter and Sam after their own car accident.

The other thing that I found interesting about the story was the way that she worked with the characters unfamiliarity with things like pain to make the story interesting. The very concept of being "hurt" is unfamiliar to the children, as this dialogue illustrates:
"People get hurt that way!"
Sam looked askance at him. "How would driving with your safety off hurt anyone's feeling?"
"I don't know. My parents won't tell me. It's bad, though. It happens when a car crashes into something."
Sam's simple line of dialogue there tells us everything we need to know. The safeties are so prevalent and so effective that two teenage children have no idea of what it's like to feel pain. Later, this is reinforced when Sam touches a hot burner:
"What happened?" Two of her fingertips looked redder than the others.
She gulped a breath and wiped her eyes. "I don't know. It feels... it feels... I don't know. Freakish. Really freakish. And it -- I don't know. It's bad."
"I think this is hurt. Kind of like hurting peoples' feelings, but different."
There were other examples of this in the story. One which isn't science-fictional is the way that Carter was experiencing unfamiliar feelings of attraction for Sam. Besides the earlier mention of his interest in her clothing, there's this other mention: "Sam sat on a footstool, and Carter got a good look at the upper part of her chest, which made him feel warm and pleasant inside." At the end of the story, there's another bit that shows both his interest in her and also the effect of the safeties:
"Sam reached over and held out her hand. He put his palm in hers, but there was no magic this time. No tickle, no pleasure, no pressure. It was just a hand."
Both of these aspects of the author's writing -- indirect and/or incomplete explanations of things in the story's world and descriptions of the characters' unfamiliarity with certain sensations -- worked to make the story feel more organic. It can be tricky to write a story about a world where characters are unfamiliar with concepts which come naturally to us (such as "hurt" or "broken") and I thought that the author did a good job with that here.

Did The Story Work For Me?

Yes, I enjoyed this one quite a bit. It's a nice variant on a coming-of-age type story and the voice in which the story was told was engaging.

Thanks for reading this dissection! If you've read this story and have comments, I'd love to hear them. 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. I typically consider those to be Fantasy & Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction, Analog, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I've considered including some from the pro-rate online magazines such as Daily Science Fiction. Any thoughts on that possible addition? If so, please comment below. Thanks!

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