The prompt was tormenting and insane. Who can come up with a compelling tale about butter? Our authors took this challenge, and churned out a pair of stories that will no doubt be remembered as some of the greatest to ever grace The Writer’s Arena.
If you haven’t taken the time to read the stories, please take a look before going further.
David Webb put on his press hat with “Dairy of a Madman.”
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt froze our hearts with “The Butter Thief.”
Now, to see what the judges have to say.
The end is upon us, friends. This is where we crown our inaugural Arena Champion. Over the last 50 or 60 battles we have been treated to prompts extraordinary and mundane but nothing quite like what our finalists had to deal with: butter. How did our authors handle this slippery subject? Let’s find out:
“Dairy of a Madman” by David Webb – Ok, first things first. That title is either awesome or awful, I haven’t decided yet, but kudos for achieving one of those states.
I love the way the editor is described. His appearance alone allows us to infer quite a bit about his attitude and the publication he is in charge of. This makes May’s desperation all that much greater when she goes on to say that “this job is the closest I can get to old-school journalism.”
The intern, although he seems at first that he is just an excuse for May to voice her thoughts out loud, serves to reinforce the disparity between what May wants out of her career and what she is forced to do to get by.
I’ll admit, I had to Google obstreperous. When I did I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be commentary on the quality of information the hacker collective usually released or what, but it worked.
Probably my favorite part of the story is May going through the files. The way that they are all related but not directly so, and the different file types revealing different pieces in different manners just worked for me. It made it into a puzzle I was working on right along with May. Documents, videos, emails, and transcripts of dialog woven into May’s own chat logs and twitter conversations made it all seem very real.
I saw the ending coming a little ways away, but that didn’t ruin it for me. This was the way it had to go.
There were a couple things I wasn’t crazy about here though. First, more butter! The butter here was mentioned and central to the conspiracy plot but it didn’t actually make a cameo. Secondly, the story suffered a little bit from lack of action. As much as I loved the way that May sifting through the files worked ultimately this story is about a woman working at her desk all morning. I know that the limitations of the Arena often mean sacrifices in story and this felt like that. I’m not sure you could have done it all.
“The Butter Thief” by Donald Uitvlugt – Love the opening line. There is a lot conveyed in just a few words; Drake’s inexperience, the strangeness of the situation they are in.
The interaction between the men was done very well here. Each man has his place and they work together well as a team but their comradeship is one of necessity. These men are not necessarily friends, but they need to trust each other completely to survive. So when it becomes obvious they can’t trust one of them, well we’ll get to that. I will say, the empty butter tins are a great way to foreshadow the trouble ahead.
Cut to someone stealing milk, in some kind of plant run by an oppressive government. Interesting, but I’m not quite sure how or why we are here. The risks she takes and the lies she tells seem more than the milk would be worth, but who knows.
Back to the men in the cold and now the first indication that they have problems beyond the storm shows up. A few empty butter tins mistakenly placed back into the stores instead of the disposal could be explained but half the stores gone missing means someone is stealing it. Under the pressure of the situation distrust boils over into anger right away. Discord between the men erodes the bonds they’ve formed as part of this team. The descent into “every man for himself” seems unavoidable.
Switch over to the milk thief and we see that she is more than she first appeared to be. This milk is not stolen for sustenance or for profit, this has another purpose. What that is we don’t know. A dead son is mentioned, motivation for her actions it seems…
We continue to cut back and forth between the two stories as the men face more and more adversity and death and the women chant and make butter. I kept trying to link the two stories, was the butter they were making the butter in the tins the men had? Were the women causing the butter to disappear? Would one of the tins save the men and turn out to be the butter the women made?? My mind would not let it go.
I have come to the conclusion that there is no connection between them other than butter. Both are solid stories (the story about the women could use a little more fleshing out to stand alone) but I’m not really sure why they are both here.
Dussala’s tale was a bittersweet look at peaceful rebellion in a totalitarian state. She is the Ghandi of butter, if you will. Drake’s story was a gripping tale of an ancient evil stirred by the presence of butter who has its mind set on world domination and the one man who stands in its way. They really could not be much more different and I think I would have liked to see them apart more than together.
It is worth mentioning though that Drake’s story did benefit from the breaks provided by Dussala and her friends. Maybe interspersing another viewpoint within the Antarctic struggle would work better.
David and Donald have bested all that the Arena has thrown at them this tournament, including all the arena denizens, to stand together in the finals. No matter who prevails you should be proud of both your previous rounds and the way you managed to meet the butter prompt in any way at all. As is the way in the Arena, however, one of you must stand alone at the top. My vote this week goes simply to the story that I liked more, and which handled the prompt the best. That story is: “The Butter Thief” by Donald Uitvlugt
Score one for Donald. Let’s see what our next judge has to say.
During the day, Thomas A. Mays is a career US Navy officer and all-around Serious Person. At night, when the moon is full, he taps out science fiction with a feverish madness that would likely get him cashiered if his Uncle Sam knew about it. He is the author of numerous short stories in online magazines, and he has published a well-received collection of his military sci-fi shorts, REMO. His debut military SF novel / space opera A Sword Into Darkness, is available on Amazon or your favorite online book retailer. Helpful links can be found on Tom’s blog, The Improbable Author, at: http://improbableauthor.com/. You can reach him on Twitter @improbablauthor.
Hi, everybody. Tom Mays again, author of A Sword Into Darkness, REMO, and a number of short stories (including two here in the Arena (Damn You, BROPHY!!!!)). I am once more honored to be asked to judge an arena battle, and am blown away to have the chance to weigh in on nothing less than the championship.
If I didn’t know better, I might think the Arena Masters are trying to butter me up . . . .
Thank you! Thank you! I’m here all week. Tip your waitress.
Seriously though, I’m Twitter pals with both of these contenders (some HILARIOUS responses to my @improbablauthor inanity) and these guys absolutely DESERVE their championship slots, not only for the work they’ve done for the Writer’s Arena reviewing and making such valuable critiques, but for all their past fiction, and — most especially — their two tales here. Both are fun as hell to read, and its going to be tough deciding between them, but judge them I will.
“The Butter Thief” by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt – If I had to describe this story in an elevator pitch, it would be The Thing meets Silkwood in an Indian dystopia. I love Donald’s conservative use of language. His prose is spare and efficient and he absolutely commands your attention. I loved the scene setting for both threads, his well-drawn, distinctive characters, and the ever increasing sense of dread and mystery. I also appreciated his focus upon the prompt as well as the inventive ways he brought it in for both storylines. I had to sit down and do some research afterward (thank you, Donald, I am now not nearly so ignorant on Vishnu and Hindu beliefs as I was). I really liked how the title worked on at least three different levels.
In regards to criticism, there were a few spelling/grammar errors that escaped editing, but that’s a quibble. I might wish for a stronger initial hook early on, or that Dussala’s tale came in earlier, possibly during that first break in Drake’s story, so I wasn’t so thrown when I realized it was a dual tale. Also, not enough is explained or tied together in the end. I like speculating, but I wish my speculation was not so total. I can guess how the threads tie together, but it’s frustrating to not know more how the puzzle resolves in the end. Is Dussala’s tale taking place in the future, after Drake is rescued, or is it simultaneous? Is the “fortification” in the milk the ancient, invasive life form they found in the Antarctic, or am I missing some other tie? Is Dussala’s rescue by Vishnu in the end an actual supernatural rescue, or just a euphoric flash at the moment of her death? I also might recommend taking some elements from Dussala’s tale and sprinkling in those details or themes into Drake’s and vice versa. I don’t necessarily want everything wrapped up for me in a nice little bow, but I needed something more in the end than what I got.
“Dairy of a Madman” by David Webb – First of all, I LOVE the pun in the title, but I’m a terrible person, so go figure. This is a very Laundry Files-esque story, and that is to its credit (if you don’t know Charles Stross’ series, it’s sort of an IT nerd / James Bond / Harry Potter / Lovecraft hybrid, very fun). I could immediately see what sort of story it was when he named the hacktivist group Obstreperous, and I was in no way disappointed. The Protestant work ethic barb was too funny, and there were a number of little British-isms that I found flavoring the story which simply delighted me (but a brie and grape sandwich? With or without butter or mayo? That crap is just weird. Keep that on your side of the pond, David). The mystery engrossed me and I adored the way David revealed the information over time, especially the technique of describing the video footage in the format of a screenplay. The flavor of the writing and emotions of our main character really came through. May is an excellent POV character.
Criticisms? Quibble: an animal autopsy is called a necropsy, but that may just be over here in ‘Merica rather than where the words were invented. Butter did not come into it until the very end, and then seemed fairly arbitrary as a transmission vector when milk and cheese were not. What of the beef itself? Why just cows? Is there another file in the folder saying goats were also flayed to check them, and the public believed it was chupacabra? I did not see any real character growth from May, Julian, and the nameless walrus-like editor. They spectate upon the periphery of a mystery and poke a few investigatorial holes, but they don’t take any actions which change things, which lead to resolution of the plot — even if the plot is much too large for them to realistically have any great affect. Perhaps I might have better appreciated seeing this story from the viewpoint of someone it was happening to, rather then reviewing it and learning about it after the fact. The mystery was enthralling, but telling it to me in this manner puts an automatic barrier between the danger and thrill of the plot and my investment in the main character. Why tell the story at a remove? I know I said May is a great POV character, but I’m uncertain she is the best one to use. And, as with “The Butter Thief”, I missed out on a firm resolution beyond “this is happening.” If a hacker drops files in the forest, and a journalist isn’t there to hear it, does it make a sound? And even if the editor is in fact a victim of this species-changing retrovirus, can we do anything about it? Does it emotionally impact us or May?
So, in the end, I really enjoyed both stories and I’m very happy these two gentlemen made it to the championship. Congratulations to both you guys. But, if forced to pick the winner, I’d have to go with “The Butter Thief”. In the end, it used the theme/prompt more effectively, and it contained an immediacy and investment that the otherwise enthralling and well-told mystery in “Dairy of a Madman” lacked.
Our judges our unified in their selection! Donald Jacob Uitvlugt is our winner! Congratulations Donald, you are the first Writer’s Arena Champion!
Before we finish, let’s take a look at the popular vote. Do our readers agree with the judges?
In the eternal words of George Takei, “Oh my.” It looks like our audience is heavily in favor of David Webb’s “Dairy of a Madman.” Take heart David, you are the People’s Champion in this particular bout.
What a wild finish to a crazy year in The Writer’s Arena. Dozens of stories, many thousands of words, and a whole crowd of amazing authors have found their way through the arena, and it all culminates in this post.
On top of that, more than 1,000 comments were left by our dear readers, whom we would not have an Arena without. Thank you all so much for coming back time and time again. We who are about to die, salute you!
The arena will slumber for a few short weeks, but we will be back in January for more amazing action. Be sure to join us for the 2016 season!