Distinction started out as a workshop story almost eight years ago. Scary to think that. When I read it now, it hardly resembles the original composition. It's a great example of a simple concept that has changed so drastically over the years, changed for the better I think, as I've matured as a person and as a writer. Distinction in the Darkness was published today by Bewildering Stories, a weekly webzine (or “e-zine”) devoted to speculative and experimental writing, and ... If you haven't read it yet, I'd encourage you to hop over to their site and check it out before you finish reading this blog entry. You can read Distinction in the Darkness here. If you have read it, then keep reading after the jump to read some of the background on the story. Spoilers ahead!
Last Chance, Spoilers Incoming!
When I originally wrote Distinction, it was a very different sort of story. It was a total gimmick, and it didn't work at all. The main character spent much of the story in a coma, but he didn't realize he was in a coma. The story was an homage to Distant Voices, a Star Trek Deep Space Nine episode in which... Dr. Bashir is rendered unconscious by and alien and runs around in a coma (without realizing it). I tried to write interesting clues into the story, cluing the reader into what was going on. I really don't remember it working well. In fact, in retrospect, it was probably a disaster. The workshop concluded, and I promptly forgot about the story for years.
Last year, something like six and a half or seven years later, while listening to my weekly dose of Pop Culture Happy Hour, the gang discussed unreliable narrators. This got me thinking about some of the truly great stories that I have enjoyed over the years that featured unreliable narrators. Movies like American Psycho and Fallen, and books like the Catcher and the Rye and Fifth Business (although, I think my wife would disagree with me on this one). There's also the occasional episode of Star Trek, Dr. Who, The X-Files, etc. that is absolutely not what it appears thanks to an unreliable telling of the story.
I didn't feel like any of these works were gimmicky, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that they had some things in common. First of all, each of these are very well established in their universe. There's a lot of detail about the physical locations to help ground the characters and the unreliable narration. There's also a very compelling story that pulls the reader through the narrative.
This all came to a head some weeks later when I was preparing to travel home to visit family. My grandmother suffers from dementia, and the forthcoming visit was weighing on me. This got me thinking though. What might it be like to write from the perspective of someone with dementia? Even more, what might that character look like if they didn't realize that they had dementia?
This lead me to Alex. Alex's case is particularly tragic, as not only does he have dementia and not realize it, he experiences a lucid day that is ten years late. As his day unfolds and he gradually realizes what is happening, the light fades back into darkness, and he disappears back into the fog of dementia that so obscures his day-to-day life.
I wrote distinction in one sitting on the plane somewhere over the Mid Western United States. It's certainly not my usual sort of story, as it's much more literary than scifi / fantasy, but I still enjoyed working on it and I'm so happy that it is available for you to read now.
What stories have you enjoyed that had an unreliable narrator? I find so often that this approach works best in small bites, in movies or on TV, but that doesn't mean it can't be effective in fiction too.
Special thanks to Jill, Erin, Ashley, Shane, Jen for taking time to read the story ahead of time, and to Bewlidering Stories for publishing it.