This week on Rich and Strange we head over to Clarkesworld, a venue that became one of my early favourites for online reading but that I’ve inexplicably been neglecting recently, to read Dominica Phetteplace’s “No Vera There.”
Full Disclosure: I had never read or heard of Dominica Phetteplace before her good friend Christopher Caldwell recommended this story on Twitter. Christopher Caldwell is also my good friend and I have eaten his jambalaya, which is superb.
As it happens, so is this story.
“No Vera There” is one of those stories that simultaneously engages parts of my brain that appreciate very different things: in this case narrative and structure. There’s something supremely satisfying about a story where form follows function before using form to reflect on that function. In this case, Vera is a piece of a human consciousness that’s been uploaded to a cloud and then imperfectly downloaded into a body again, trying to piece her memories and sense of self together through the medium of internet-era quizzes.
The writing hooked me immediately: it’s dynamic, tongue-in-cheek, delightfully surreal and high stakes all at once. It reminded me, favourably, of some of Benjamin Rosenbaum’s work in The Ant King and Other Stories, deliciously engaged with interrogating and appreciating the incidental culture saturating our present moment.
What type of sudoku puzzle are you?
You are a black belt puzzle. You are practically unsolvable.
What type of heart do you have?
A red hot heart. It tastes like cinnamon.
What Tarot card are you?
The fool. You are starting over.
What type of white girl are you?
Cool white girl. Everyone wants to be you.
Vera wasn’t sure how to interpret these “quiz” results, if that’s what they really were. She didn’t know sudoku, cinnamon or Tarot. She didn’t know what a white girl was, though if you had to be one, might as well be a cool one.
The beautiful irony of Vera needing to learn herself through quizzes that we all more or less acknowledge tell us nothing about ourselves sustains a plot to which hacker cults and the Singularity are completely incidental. The tension comes from Vera’s interaction with quizzes, her thoughts, the other 200 fragmented copies of Vera 0.0, and eventually Vera 0.0 herself. The richness of this—quizzes that give you the most bafflingly esoteric views into your self one animal, food item, or old song at a time becoming the means to developing your individuality among flawed copies of an original—is confidently and wonderfully explored. It’s an intricate, fractally poignant story, that ultimately resolves into the metaphor of a pearl:
What type of pearl are you?
#201 was a baroque pearl, beautiful despite being misshapen. The other downloads found her, and eventually her main clientele was her cohort of others. […] They liked the quizzes because the quizzes made them feel like individuals. Otherwise there was a tendency to feel like a small lump of clay broken off from a larger and better one.
A pearl, a tiny piece of roughage around which a shape and identity accrete (all while, in hilariously story-appropriate fashion, irritating a host), is the governing sense of self Vera #201 chooses, rather than something broken and diminished. The catalogue of odd things Vera #201 is—toast, brontosaurus, the “Gomotophere”—are the layers in which she dresses herself and also the grains from which she builds herself in order to give a sense of self to others. It’s beautiful, kind, and uplifting in the most endearingly odd way. I sincerely look forward to reading more of Phetteplace’s work.
Amal El-Mohtar is a sonnet, Silent Night, an Artificial Mechanical Assassination Lifeform, Han Solo, and Shakespeare’s Beatrice, according to irrefutably accurate LJ quizzes from Back in the Day. She is also the author of The Honey Month, a collection of stories and poems written to the taste of 28 different kinds of honey. She has twice received the Rhysling award for best short poem, and her short story “The Green Book” was nominated for a Nebula award. Her work has most recently appeared in Uncanny; in Lightspeed magazine’s special “Women Destroy Science Fiction” issue; and in Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy. She also edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry. Follow her on Twitter.