For some the lottery is a retirement plan. For others a tax on the stupid. The odds might be astronomical but the only way to win is to play. In these two stories the playing came from very different angles.
Before we dispense judgement, let’s take a look at the stories.
Tony Southcotte checked his phone in “Culling Numbers.”
Christina Durner let the cards decide in “The Luck of the Draw.”
The lottery. Dreams of striking it rich or a tax on those people who aren’t good at math? Drawing straws to decide who lives and who dies or deciding the draft order for a professional sports league? Such a wide range of topics available within a prompt that seems pretty specific. Which lot did our authors throw in with? Let’s see:
“The Luck of the Draw” by Christina Durner – We start off with some very vivid descriptions of the town this story is set in. I know it’s meant to show how bad things are in the town, but there are still touches of small town charm mixed in and I don’t know if they’re meant to be there. I liked it anyway.
The interactions at the bank were done well, the uncomfortable way Irene gets through small talk hints at her social life as a whole. She seems a little awkward, someone who only has a few close friends and no desire to make any more. This is confirmed in the next scene.
The fall carnival seems like one you might see set up for a week or a weekend in any number of locations outside the big city. A temporary distraction from the tedium of daily life, it still isn’t Irene’s cup of tea. I kind of get the feeling she would be much happier reading at home.
The fall carnival wasn’t her style, and the fortune teller is even further outside of her comfort zone. This may be why the girl who hasn’t spoken up for herself yet in this story chooses now to put her foot down. She calls out Endora as a charlatan and a thief.
What happens next is where the story really starts to pick up. Endora rises to Irene’s challenge and convinces her to allow the gypsy to read her palm. I was very interested to see how this payed out. Was this a tale of a con artist or someone with a supernatural gift? A few details that seem a little too close to home to be faked and Irene’s skepticism is being challenged now. And with good reason.
The gypsy’s prognostications play out just as she said and soon, Irene is wealthy and a new believer in fortune telling. After a second reading as positive as the first she is rescued by an attractive man who eventually becomes her husband and fulfills her fortune.
It wouldn’t be an Arena tale if we stopped there. No happily ever after for Irene. In a little bit of the “letter of the law” with the gypsy’s predictions, Irene is with her husband until the day she dies but unfortunately for her that day comes pretty quickly.
I enjoyed this story quite a bit. It’s one of those that I wish for a longer version of. I’d like to see more of Endora. She seems like a character with a treasure trove of stories in her past. That’s the part of the story I had issue with also. We don’t see enough of Endora and her son to get a feeling for what kind of people they are. Did evil prevail here or was it a justified vigilante killing? Endora also wants to make an example of Irene, but nobody knows that it was her in the end. Minor nits to pick, I know.
“Culling Numbers” by Tony Southcotte – This was an interesting take on the lottery theme and I liked it.
Sometime in the future the Earth has reached an unsustainable population level. The UN unanimously passes a resolution to thin the herd. Our main character, Simon, is one of the programmers tasked with modeling the largest sustainable population for the planet. This is an unenviable position and one that takes its toll on Simon as the story progresses.
When his algorithm is chosen as the one, Simon becomes, at least in part, responsible for saving hundreds of millions of people. And for killing just under 19 billion others. That’s a number that Simon just can’t get over.
As the time passes between the selection of Simon’s program and its induction the world descends into chaos. The lottery for survivors is really more of an application process that Simon is inexplicably put through. This was the most confusing part for me, he mentions a number of times that he is on the “white list” but he still doesn’t know if he is safe. He talks about smart ass answers on his application but still worries over the lottery notification.
My favorite part of the story is also my least favorite part. The time between Simon’s “Congratulations” wait list notification and the final blue approval screen is full of musings and ponderings. I love that some of these are so small and inconsequential but mean something to Simon. The part about the ease of buying domain names seems a little out of place, but it’s one of those things that just pops into your head sometimes. It may also be a sign that Simon is really starting to crack. The hip thrusting reaction that came with the first false positive “Congratulations” is nowhere to be found 12 hours later. That was the part I found hardest to believe. The first response seems like more of his gut reaction and he talks himself into the swan dive at the end. I have a hard time wrapping my head around that thought process.
There were also a couple of inconsistencies in the story that threw me off a little. For example, he is in position 16 of 453 million at first which seems near the top but 12 hours later, there are only 100k people ahead of him…
Two completely different takes on the prompt this week and two very strong stories. As is befitting the arena, though, both stories managed to kill off the main character. Choosing is never an easy task and this week is no exception. Ultimately, though, I had to give my vote to the story that felt more polished. That story is
“The Luck of the Draw” by Christina Durner
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt is our second judge this week. On top of being the current TWA Champion, Donald strives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scope but big on impact. Find out more about haiku fiction here. He welcomes comments at his blog http://haikufiction.blogspot.com or via Twitter @haikufictiondju).
It’s hard for me to read this week’s prompt without thinking of Shirley Jackson’s classic story, “The Lottery.” The pop culture dream seems to be one in which lottery winners are the socio-economic equivalent of Cinderella: six little numbers fit and you live happily ever after. That sort of Disney-fied fairy tale ending doesn’t seem to match reality, however.
I’m glad to see that both of our stories approached their lotteries in a much darker fashion. As is my custom, I’m going to comment on the two tales before giving my vote.
“The Luck of the Draw” by Christina Durner – There’s a lot that I like about this story. I think Irene is a very enjoyable “Everywoman” character. It’s easy to see what drives her, how that in spite of her setbacks in her job it doesn’t stop her from being a good friend. (At least to Lori; not sure she’s such a grand friend to Gary.) Her skepticism towards Madame Endora is also believable, as is her attitude when things turn out as the gypsy predicted.
I really have only two difficulties with the story. While I enjoy the narrative voice and the way in which the gypsy curse plays out has come unique elements, I feel a little like I’ve read this story of the gypsy curse before. I’m also not entirely sure how essential the lottery aspect is to the plot; any other large monetary windfall would I think have served just as well. But the psychology of the story is very compelling.
“Culling Numbers” by Tony Southcotte. I didn’t really want to like this story. I don’t really buy into the whole idea of a Malthusian apocalypse. As I read and saw the world of the story through the protagonist’s eyes, I never felt the pressing need for such a radical solution to overpopulation as that established by the Unity Institute. Part of me wanted the pressures of overpopulation to be much more viscerally realized.
Yet if one takes the overpopulation apocalypse as a given, I think that the story is a very effective parable of power. Or perhaps more pointedly, a parable of the abuse thereof. I find it frighteningly easy to imagine things going down this way, with the powerbrokers carving out guaranteed niches for themselves and their cronies, while leaving things to chance for the rest of us. Simon is caught in a dilemma almost on the level of a Greek tragedy: In trying to come up with a solution to overpopulation, he has the best of intentions. Yet he cannot bear the moral weight of the solution he comes up with.
There is a depth here that I really, really dig. (Plus, bonus points for mentioning David Icke.)
This week was a really tough decision for me. One of the stories I think had a richer psychological portrayal of the characters. The other was more cerebral (at least for me), but I think it may have nailed the prompt a little better. I think this is the toughest decision that I’ve had to make as a judge so far in 2016, but for this week I’m going to cast my vote for
“Culling Numbers” by Tony Southcotte.
A split decision! This means that our dear readers will have to pick the winner this week. Let’s take a look at the polls.
Christina Durner is the winner of TWA 75! She laid the smackdown on Tony for her first Arena victory! Congratulations Christina, we will surely see you again soon in the arena.
Be sure to come back tomorrow for short story action. This time we take you to the moon!