In fiction workshop this semester, we’ve each been asked to bring in a selection from the last ten years of Best American Short Stories to lead discussion on craft choices and literary devices. My classmates have brought in some great selections, from old favorites like “Brownies” by Z.Z. Packer, to “Tooth and Claw” by T.C. Boyle and “We Didn’t” by Stuart Dybek – two stories which have inspired my latest short story currently underway (likely my next workshop submission). In tonight’s fiction workshop, I’ll be leading discussion on the short story “Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down” by Ryan Harty. I’ve included the craft analysis essay I wrote to support my presentation. You can see I’ve concentrated on theme as craft choice, and relate it specifically to science fiction as a genre.
Why the Theme Feels Strong When the Story Goes Science Fiction
At it’s best, science fiction has the capacity to take fantastical settings and characters and make them relevant to prominent issues faced by modern-day society. Theme can be made universal through its specificity, meaning that the more precise a writer is in how they deliver a story, the more pristine the theme can emerge as identifiable, relatable, and palatable – the last being particularly important for an oft-overlooked genre such as science fiction. In Ryan Harty’s short story, “Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down,” evokes themes of family dynamic and dysfunction, of abortion, human rights, genetic manipulation, and the over-medication of children, and above all, the emotional bond between a parent and their child – all within the confines of a science fiction story about a father’s deep love for his android son.
The story opens with a seemingly standard setting void of anything fantastical. A father, Mike, is contacted by another parent to hurry over and investigate a bad injury that befell his son, Cole. On page 156, the setting turns more fantastical through this paragraph, referencing how Mike sees Cole on the hill:
“We climb the hill. From the top I see Cole lying belly down on the back slope, his legs splayed out behind him. He is in shutdown – there’s that stillness about him – and I’m relieved to see it, though it’s clear he’s in horrible shape. His neck has twisted around so far that his chin seems to rest in the shadow valley between his shoulder blades. His right arm has come off completely and lies, bent at the elbow, a few yards away, multicolored wired curling out of the torn end. I get a lightheaded feeling and have to crouch for a moment and catch my breath.”
This paragraph signifies a transition from a modern-day setting to one in which androids are commonplace. The first three sentences stay in a world the reader knows, in fact the “shutdown” line lends itself to how a child might become, emotionally, when dealing with an injury and embarrassment. The next sentence, however, depicts a wound no human could survive, taking the reader into a new world. Cole’s mechanical arm, unattached on the ground, appears in the next sentence and by this point there can be no mistake this is a science fiction story. At this point, the reader could tune out, or assume they cannot relate to the story. However, the next sentence detailing how Mike feels as a father bearing witness to his child’s destruction brings the piece back to its emotional center – that tying thread that links the science fiction elements of the story with its themes.
Themes of how to manipulate children to provide a better parenting experience are prominent in the story, mostly through scenes between Mike and his wife, Dana. On page 160, Mike refuses an offer to transfer Cole’s “approximate” personality to a new unit, though Dana would rather have a healthy child than her own; this evokes thoughts of genetic manipulation. Media reports science is not far from being able to choose physical traits in offspring before their birth, if the technology is not already available to some degree. Additionally, Dana’s brother, Davis, has a new center chip installed in his android son, Brice, to brilliant results. Mike resents the treatment as the easy way out. This notion of fixing the brain can lead readers to how children are medicated for behavioral issues, particularly today when the debate over whether said diagnoses are always accurate or an oversimplified solution to a complex problem.
Dana skirts around the abortion issue on page 165 in this conversation with Mike: “Suppose this is the beginning of more bad times with Cole. We’d have to make some decisions then, right?” … “Of course,” she says. “But you already know what you’d want to do,” I say. “Isn’t that right, too?” This discussion of whether or not to dispose of Cole because of his malfunctions brings to mind how some parents see abortion as an option to giving birth to children with physical or mental challenges. Dana is fed up and wants to move on with her life, while Mike’s emotions are tied to Cole despite his issues. By presenting the story from Mike’s point of view, Harty makes his stance on this issue clear.
Finally, the theme of how people can find ways to love others despite hardship – even if it doesn’t always work out that way – comes in the form of Dana’s desertion of the family and Mike’s decision to remain with Cole. On pages 169-170, the parents find themselves at a crucial crossroads decision point, and decide to part ways: “I was very in love with you,” she says, and puts a hand on top of my own. “You know that, right? I still love you very much.” “I love you, too,” I say, and let6 out a laugh, because it all seems so crazy. “It’s not as if we’ve lost everything, is it? It’s not as if everything’s gone.” “I don’t know, she says. “That’s what I worry about sometimes.” In this final exchange between the married couple, they find their philosophy on family at odds and finally, irreconcilable. With a modern-day American divorce rate of 50%, one can relate to the gravity of Cole as a catalyst in Mike and Dana’s ultimate decision to separate.
The topic of melding hardwired and human emotion is not a new venture for the science fiction genre. At least four other stories have reached prevalence through their and subsequent film adaptations: Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (Blade Runner), “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss (Artificial Intelligence: A.I.), Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot,” Carlo Collodio’s often-adapted literary classic, “Pinnochio.” What each of these stories accomplishes – as does Harty’s – is present an emotional element to the story which evokes true consideration for how the story can be related to modern life. Taking science fact and twisting it into science fiction isn’t anything new, but the genre’s ability to drive home theme through its specific storytelling makes it a genre that captures imagination and drives many young readers to read on.
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On a personal note, I chose this story for five specific reasons: the first is it’s in the same Best American Short Stories collection (2003, edited by Walter Mosley) as “Space” by Kevin Brockmeier, one of my favorite short stories. Second, Harty’s story was originally published in Tin House, a literary magazine I subscribe to and believe has excellent taste in writing. Third, it’s a science fiction story and to see science fiction recognized as great literature gives me both joy and comfort. Fourth, I’m a sucker for a good father / son story, and I think Mosley must be, too (“Space” is an amazingly sad father/son story). Finally, it’s just plain well-written, no bones about it.
I’ll let you know if any new ideas about the story come out during class. One of my classmates will lead discussion on “Space” next week, and I cannot wait to discuss it again.
[tags]short story, ryan harty, best american, walter mosley, kevin brockmeier, why the sky turns red when the sun goes down[/tags]