Mondays are a slippery thing while fall slides into winter. Our days are shorter, our bellies fuller. Offices and homes are laden with sweets and orange arrangements. Industrious children rake leaves for cash while parents meticulously prepare their tables for the coming feasts.
Perhaps its fitting that this semi-final round is all about parents. We all have them, whether or not we want to acknowledge them. Both of our arena authors this week are fathers, so their perspectives can be very personal. Once again it’s amazing how different authors can stumble onto similar themes without knowledge of the other’s work. While the plots end up going different places, they both start in similar spots.
Our judges and officials had to take a slightly longer recess to decide the winner of the parental battle, but their decision is in. Who will they choose?
Donald Uitvlugt gave us “My Mother, The Superhero.”
Thomas Mays struck back with “Padre de Dios.”
Parents. This is one of those wide open prompts that can be a little tricky to handle sometimes. Parents are people, usually, and as such can run the gamut from saint to the devil himself. What kind of parents did our authors inflict upon their stories? Let’s see.
“Padre De Dios” by Thomas Mays – I really enjoyed the setting of this story. Using the populations of simulated agents as a background for the simple personal story of a man coming to grips with his dying father just worked very well.
Zef, our main character has been the leading researcher at Iterative Innovation Inc for a while but has slumped recently in a timeframe that seems to mirror his Dad’s declining health. Unable or unwilling to confront what that means, Zef puts all his effort into his work and gets nowhere.
We learn through the course of the story that Zef and his father shared a pretty clinical relationship. Driven to succeed and unable to meet his father’s expectations, he chose to avoid contact with his parents. Now he is forced to confront old emotions and fears and isn’t sure he is able to. This is actually a fairly common story but it is done very well here.
I love the layers of “parents” in this story. On the surface it is Zef and his mother and father, and his boss is introduced as “fatherly” but then through his colleague we are introduced to the idea of software agents as children. Zef’s reaction to this idea is the trigger that finally allows him to process things and see his father. I think he saw how much he was becoming his father when he looked at how he treated his “children” in the lab and had to come to grips with it pretty quick.
There is almost a twist in that instead of applying the parent/child model to his agents (he much prefers the god/creation model as you can see in the title of the story), he turns it around and applies the evolutionary agent model to his relationship with his father. He will “iterate” himself once his father is gone, keeping all the good parts that his father taught him and getting rid of the rest.
This is a very strong entry and one that meets the prompt in a number of ways. Excellent work.
“My Mother, The Superhero” by Donald Uitvlugt – Ok, just from the title I thought I was getting a completely different story than I actually did and I am really glad for that. I had visions of the difficulties of living day to day when your mother was a superhero and instead we got to examine the humanity of the superhero a little.
I’m actually not sure if I have seen a story that deals with the aging superhero quite like this. Both Watchmen and The Incredibles touch on certain aspects of it but nothing grapples with it head on like this story does.
I really liked the background of the story. Superhero Mom, normal Dad, Sis inherits the powers and our main character doesn’t. Makes for some interesting family dynamics. The details put into the story were great also. Marcus as a kid thinking everybody’s parents were superheroes put a smile on my face for sure.
The nursing home for super powered seniors was a nice touch, too, and one that the world would definitely have to address.
If this story had a weak point it was the incident. When Marcus’ father dies after his mother chooses to save his sister instead. I was a little confused as to why his sister didn’t use her powers to save herself and Ms Miracle could save Jack. I know what the author was doing here, creating a Kobayashi Maru type scenario, I just wish it was a little clearer.
The emotions at the deathbed scene, though, were done beautifully. When she mistook Marcus for his father and asked for forgiveness it cut right through me, and when Marcus forgave her as Jack, it was perfect.
The pressure is pretty high this week as we select our second finalist in this year’s tournament. I know the author’s feel it and us judges feel it too. As I sat down to write this verdict I thought I knew for sure who I was going to vote for, then I started to write and I started to feel a lot less sure. Both stories ( and both authors) are worthy representatives of the best of the Arena. Ultimately, I kept coming back to one story, however, and that is the one that I had to choose. My vote this week goes to “Padre De Dios” by Thomas Mays.
Our second judge is an amazing A/V editor, archiver, meticulous reader, and all around thoughtful badass. His name is Jon Jones and you should definitely follow him on twitter.
This week’s prompt, “Parents” promises to bring an especially personal element to the Arena, and it has come down to two very skilled and seasoned writers in Donald Uitvlugt and Thomas Mays called to the task of building a narrative around this theme. I very much admire the body of work from both combatants, and I am honored to serve as a guest judge for the round. So let’s begin:
“My Mother, The Superhero” by Donald Uitvlugt:
The title immediately promises a concept that is both surreal, yet unexpectedly accessible – the notion that not only do superheroes exist, but that as such they live real lives, have children and raise families. The first paragraph confirms that the story will deliver on this promise. Through the opening exchange between brother and sister, however, we also learn that this reality introduces an implicit vulnerability in that this life will one day end. The superhero is dying.
Once the superhero factor is established Mr. Uitvlugt doesn’t linger on it, save for passing mention to keep side references in context. The story instead moves quickly to the grounding core of a mother-son relationship and all the complexities that it endures through his rebellious teen years into young adulthood.
I very much enjoy how efficiently this story is told, a hallmark of Mr. Uitvlugt’s writing. There is an element of world building, but not unnecessarily so, as it is constructed of our familiar reality, but with an added complication of a society struggling with how best to accommodate its aging and declining super-human citizenry. Even in this regard, Mr. Uitvlugt has managed to keep it especially personal. The son, now well into his adult years comes to grips with his role in this mother-son relationship after decades of evident resentment, punishing his mother with his silence, for the impossible choice she was forced to make.
One of the things I especially liked about how this story was written is not so much in what is presented, but rather what is not. Through the narrator’s juxtaposed blend of his memories of youth, of loving and admiring his super-human and invulnerable mother, against the stark reality of his being confronted with her present failing state we perhaps have an insight to his burden of resentment. Not just at the tragic consequences of her impossible circumstances, or even finding that his invulnerable hero of a mother was in fact vulnerable after all, but even more deeply that being raised with such a family secret involves a necessary degree of dishonesty and isolation. His mother was the most amazing and powerful being in the world, and he couldn’t tell anyone. That’s a lot of responsibility to put upon the shoulders of a child.
I loved how in the end, through a brief and simple exchange we see for a moment that the narrator steps out of his own thoughts in realizing the burden of guilt his mother carried for so many years for having made the impossible choice that resulted in the loss of his father, and cemented the growing bitterness in his heart for the mother she was…for the person she had to be. This made for a powerful yet tender ending to this story, and I was emotionally touched by it.
But I also admit that despite the precision and efficiency of the narrative overall, the closing segment felt slightly rushed. I would have liked to see a bit more exploration of this revelatory moment, particularly within the mind and heart of the narrator, perhaps even in the context of exploring a bit more the dynamics of who his father was, adding impact to how his tragic death compounded the growing weight of bitterness in his heart for so many years – and adding even more personal resonance to the moment of being mistaken for his own father – an unexpected clarity through the cloud of dementia, and compelling a forgiveness for the sacrifice that they all shared in common.
This is a beautiful story. While on the surface it is imaginatively framed with an element of the fantastic, it is still fully grounded in something real and personal, and I was quite moved by it. I commend Mr. Uitvlugt for a job well done.
“Padre De Dios” by Thomas Mays:
With this story, Mr. Mays enters the fray with guns blazing. Laser guns, that is. From Sentence One it is evident that we are about to be treated to an adventure in science and futuristic wonderment. What was to follow certainly did not disappoint. My inner nerd excitedly buckled up and enjoyed the ride.
While the first part of the story introduced us to Zef and his colleagues at Iterative Innovation Incorporated, and provided insights as to their characteristics and motivations, the real gem for me was the scientific exposition that bravely manages to incorporate elements of simulation theory, computational disciplines, “god” game mechanics, and even “Matrix” style philosophizing, along with the generally unacknowledged truth that absolutely everything is quantifiable, all deftly tackled in an impressively expansive way given the constraints of a short story format. It even edges slightly into the realm of social commentary, but ambiguously enough to let the story evolve as we learn more about the main character throughout the story. The conflict between Zef and Diane illustrated through their differing perspectives and lab results is ingenious.
I loved everything about the science aspects of this story. It is exciting, complex, and above all conveyed in so unique and novel a way, while still remaining comprehensible to the reader, thanks largely to the reductive simplicity of Iterate-Sift-Wipe-Refresh. Mr. Mays is an expert at juggling technical complexities in storytelling.
The challenge I found in this story was in finding a resonant through line in the second half. While I was engaged in the expositional shift of people gathered in the hospital corridors, and learning more about the backdrop of Zef’s upbringing, I ended up feeling uncertain about the transformative element for the main character, whether or not it was carried over between the first and second halves of the story, or whether or not any redemptive element in the end served to underscore or overturn his initial motivations, or perhaps a mix of both. I felt that while I learned more about Zef’s past and what motivated his development, I suddenly was unclear about the person he had become.
That all being said, I enjoyed reading this story very much. I found the science aspects to be especially fun and exciting to read, and I commend Mr. Mays for this achievement. It speaks of a very skilled writer.
In the end I must cast my vote for only one of these two stories, and while they each demonstrate notable strengths and merits in terms of narrative arc, character development, technical proficiency, and pacing, my vote ultimately goes to the story to which I felt most emotionally engaged. This week my vote goes to “My Mother, The Superhero” by Donald Uitvlugt.
A split decision! That means that the winner and eventual tournament finalist will be decided by you, the fans. Let’s see what the polls say.
Wow! A one vote difference for the defending champion! Donald Uitvlugt and David Webb will be having a rematch of last year’s Writer’s Arena Tournament! What are the odds of that rematch?
Tom, take heart you were only one vote down in an amazing tournament, and made it right up to the very end.
For now, we will mop up this mess the Parents battle left behind. We will be back in a few weeks with the stunning conclusion of The Writer’s Arena tournament. Stay tuned folks, it’s gonna be a good one.