Welcome to the new installment of my Dissecting the Short Story series where every other Friday I look at a recently-published short story from a major genre fiction publication. This time, I'm doing something a little different. The story being examined this week is one published by Daily Science Fiction, a pro-rate publication whose stories are all made available to read on-line for free.
"Call Center Blues" by Carrie Cuinn
November 2nd, 2011 Daily Science Fiction
First Person, Chronological
Summary [WARNING: Spoilers Included!]:
Claire answers a phone call and is informed that a "household unit" isn't working. She gets more information from the customer. While his account is being pulled up, she notices that a coworker is also on a call and Claire is also multi-tasking, dealing with emails and instant messages.
Claire gets the information from the customer's file. He confirms where he lives and explains that his "machine just doesn't work." They discuss the problem and he explains that the machine turns on but won't do anything. She looks happy until she sees him, then sits down on the couch and won't do anything, the customer says.
Claire notes that he had ordered the "Care and Compassion" package and, while it makes his unit more receptive to his needs it also causes a bad reaction to hostility on his part. She asks whether he is phrasing his requests as a question and saying please. He rejects this advice and asks if his robot can simply be rebooted. She tells him that it can, but the problem may recur if he continues with his behavior. He insists, and she performs the necessary procedure.
After completing the call, she commiserates with her coworker Patty about the man's lack of interest in his robot's feelings. She also asks if she can help her Patty with the "loose lever" that's making her head bob. Patty thanks her for offering, saying that she's getting dizzy. Claire opens Patty's neck and adjusts the spring-and-lever system inside, noting that this same problem happens to her as well.
This is a great example of a traditional flash fiction structure where a bit of information revealed at the end adjusts the reader's interpretation of the rest of the story. (Dave Zeltserman's "Hostage Situation", which was the first in the Dissecting the Short Story series, has a similar structure, though it's about 2000 words in length and so is about twice the maximum typical length for a "flash fiction" story.)
Here, there aren't many clues along the way (at least, not that I sussed out) which will alert the reader to the possibility of the reveal at the end. Two which I noted after the fact were in Claire's reactions to things the customer said to her. When he tells her that he's not asking his unit to perform any "weird" tasks, she notes that "they" all claim that. While "they" could refer to customers, it can also be read to refer to "humans." A slightly stronger clue comes closer to the end. The customer asks why he should have to say please and notes "She's a damn robot!" Claire sighs "as quietly as possible" and notes to herself that the customer is "clearly prejudiced." Having the clues closer towards the end be stronger makes sense for this sort of structure.
As I discussed in my first point in "Five Tips for Writing Flash Fiction", it's important when writing at this length to stay focused. The entire story consists of one scene, spanning a handful of minutes, with only three speaking characters. The point of the story is to look at Claire's life in the call center and, in particular, how she has to deal with a customer who has an attitude about robots that Claire, as one herself, finds offensive. In under a thousand words, you have to stick to that point. A digression about the history of how personal robots came to be prevalent in society and the effect they have had on that culture won't fit. Every word has to be driving towards the main point.
Finally, the author notes which are presented with the story let us know that the author herself has worked in a tech support call center. I felt that the story had a good sense of realism, which her experiences undoubtedly helped with. My favorite little "nugget" along those lines was when the caller is yelling "But refusing to cook my bacon is not sweet!" and Claire notes that his head was turned away from the receiver and he was yelling at his robot, not at her. It's a little detail, but one I enjoyed.
Did The Story Work For Me?
Yes, I enjoyed the story. I didn't tip to the ending until it was right upon me, but when it arrived it was fully consistent with what had come before.
Two quick points, post-dissection. One, I hope that some of you who haven't already read the story will take time to go read it. It's a quick read and I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on it and my analysis above. Two, the author has graciously agreed to have a follow-up discussion with me, just as Dave Zeltserman did back in August. So, look for that coming soon, probably next week as long as her and my schedules work out.
Thanks for reading along and I'll see you for another Dissection in two weeks, the day after those of us here in the US have been busy with our own dissections of Thanksgiving feasts.