Short Story Club: “From The Lost Diary of TreeFrog7”

The story, and the comment, starting with Alvaro Zinos-Amaro at The Fix (link to Google cache, since the site seems to be down):

“From the Lost Diary of TreeFrog7” by Nnedi Okorafor is an inventive tale of exploration in which the pregnant TreeFrog7 and her husband Morituri36 compile entries to upload to the Greeny Jungle Field Guide. Their quest is a fabled mature CPU plant, in pursuit of which TreeFrog7’s friend BushBaby42 mysteriously disappeared. The story takes the form of the field guide entries themselves, a neat structure that provides firsthand perspective on the field guide’s scope and the author’s travails in obtaining their knowledge. Also, it allows first-person narration by both main characters, a useful point-of-view flexibility. The hyperlinking to entries on mentioned creatures is a nice added touch.

Okorafor’s displayed strengths are her imaginative detail and the immersive quality of her world. The plot, though, doesn’t generate as much suspense as I might have wished, and leads to an almost foregone conclusion. This isn’t helped by some of the expository repetition, perhaps resulting from the notion of each entry as self-contained. This story isn’t quite at the level of last year’s other guide, “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antartica” by Catherynne M. Valente, but it is more accessible and more immediately rewarding.

Lois Tilton at IROSF:

There is much here to delight readers: TreeFrog7’s narrative voice, the jungle setting described in evocative prose.
The journey in this case is the reward, more so than the destination. But I have to wonder, if the wingless hawkmoth is guarding the CPU plant, why it has gone so far away to follow the explorers. I wonder also at Morituri36’s name, if it was meant to telegraph the ending, and why. There seem to be hyperlinks in the text to entries in the Field Guide, but they did not work on my computer—as in fact none of this site’s links ever do.

James is less keen:

The language is evocative of the jungle and eventually reveals the characters. However the plot didn’t do enough for me, it was more or less the standard alien exploration story. And I’m not really a big fan of zoological or botanical style stories, I think it might be because I gave up Biology at school as soon as I could and did Physics instead, so the descriptions of the creatures didn’t really do anything for me.

In the end, I kept waiting for the story to go somewhere else, somewhere promised by hints in the story. Instead all we got was a tantalising glimpse of that.

And a lengthier discussion by Charles Tan:

That digression aside, it’s all too easy to admire the widgets and forget the actual story. Okorafor goes for a character-centric piece and her conceit–that her protagonists are explorers who are keeping records–gives the perfect excuse to tackle the setting and its unique ecosystem. If you don’t like the world-building aspect, one will likely drop the story early on but if you’re like me, discovering the nuances of Okorafor’s fabricated world is a pleasure albeit one that can get tedious due to the length. There’s several points of tension in the story but because of the format, only one is truly explored. The interaction between the characters feel human and fleshed out, but the danger of a stalking predator loses much of its effectiveness because of the epistolary form. There’s clearly a build-up in the story but somehow, it lacked the impact I was hoping for. Overall not a bad piece, but it lacks that compelling voice as there’s still a certain sense of detachment despite the first person point of view.

So: what did you think?

12 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “From The Lost Diary of TreeFrog7”

  1. As I mentioned to Niall earlier today, this story reminded me of an Interview With the Vampire parody I read recently in which Lestat writes a diary entry about being on fire. But in a good way.

    It’s a fun piece, which to be honest is very nearly all I can say about it. I would have liked a little more exploration of the alternate universe aspect of the story, and a little less emphasis on the Blair Witch-style plot, but even that is enjoyably well-done, and the characters’ voices are sufficiently matter-of-fact that the inevitable ending seemed a little less inevitable than it might otherwise have done. The field guide entries didn’t do much for me one way or another – unlike Valente’s “Buyer’s Guide,” or some of Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris stories, I didn’t get a sense that the story was being told through these entries, but rather that they were there to add color. Given that the story itself was already quite colorful enough, I really didn’t see the need, but the entries are short enough that they didn’t bother me either.

  2. As Abigail and Martin have said, it is an enjoyable story, but not of the kind that warrants much discussion.

    I think the author has already written a novel in this universe, so the setting has probably been explored more thoroughly there.

  3. I think the author has already written a novel in this universe

    There are two that I know of, but Zahrah the Windseeker is the one that is most concerned with the Forbidden Greenie Jungle.

    I agree with everyone that it was enjoyable but fairly slight. I did have issues with the pregnancy and birth because I am never convinced that these are the words of a woman about to birth/just having given birth. (I haven’t listened to the audio so perhaps it is more convincing when heard than when read.)

  4. Well, this is a sorry excuse for a discussion and no mistake!

    OK, here are some questions:

    What did you think of TreeFrog7 and Morituri36’s relationship? I got the feeling I was meant to be getting “cranky but in love”, but was actually getting something closer to “dysfunctional and probably doomed (even without the events of the story)”.

    More generally, where do you think the story’s imaginative focus actually lies? Is it, as a couple of the quotes above suggest, just an exercise in showing off some worldbuilding? (And how convincing do you find that worldbuilding? I thought it nicely strange, but I have to admit it didn’t feel like an actual coherent ecosystem.)

    I guess what I’m getting at is: I’m not sure why this story was crying out to be told. There’s no element that makes me think — yes, this is what the author was driving at, this is what she wanted to explore, this is the image she wanted to capture. In fact the various aspects of the story — the setting, the relationship, the format, the revelation — felt a bit disconnected from each other. I didn’t get much sense of the elements of the story working together to produce something greater. Which is perhaps what you all mean by “a bit thin”, but in that case: what is it about the story you enjoyed?

    It was pleasant, it passed the time, and I don’t know how much of it I’m going to remember in six months.

    Oh, and one other thing: when TreeFrog7 gets bitten, she says: “Something about a mark on my skin of temporarily-neutralized melanin bothers me”. Did anyone get what that “something” is? My best guess is that it’s meant to signal just that TreeFrog7 considers pale skin strange because (as revealed in the M-CPU screen later) there isn’t any left. But something about the phrasing makes me feel that I should be getting more out of it.

  5. What did you think of TreeFrog7 and Morituri36’s relationship?

    Cranky but in love was what I got. TreeFRog7 just seems understandably tetchy rather than mapping out the first stages of the disintergration of their relationship. I didn’t find the execution of this massively plausible though because like Chance I wondered if these would really be the words of a woman about to give birth.

    More generally, where do you think the story’s imaginative focus actually lies?

    In general I don’t think it is a particularly plausible story, nor is it intended to be. I certainly don’t think its strength lies in world building. As you say, it intrigues but doesn’t cohere. Abigail mentions the “alternate universe aspect of the story” but I read it as being far future, many centuries post our civilisation. So the imaginative focus seems to be that: we shall fall, others shall rise, time is deep.

    what is it about the story you enjoyed?

    The first thing that makes it stand out is that there aren’t any massive problems which isn’t something you can say about most of the other stories so far in this club. So very low expectations played a part. Also, although it doesn’t really worldbuild it conjures up some nice images. But, no, it isn’t a story I will remember.

    Did anyone get what that “something” is?

    Yes, it is meant to signal pale skin is strange and perhaps beyond this the historic weight of white skin versus brown skin which TreeFrog7 is unaware of but we are not.

  6. TreeFRog7 just seems understandably tetchy rather than mapping out the first stages of the disintergration of their relationship.

    It was more Morituri’s side I thought might be troubling. As you say, TreeFrog7 has reason to be tetchy, but from her description Morituri does seem to be acting in a genuinely dismissive way.

    I read it as being far future

    Yeah, me too, although it didn’t give me the sort of deep-time vertigo you describe. Humanity seems basically unchanged, after all.

    Has anyone listened to the audio? Is it any good? The story is not sufficiently exciting that I feel the need to spend twice as long again listening to it, but if it adds another dimension I might.

  7. I think I liked the story a little less than the first batch of commenters — it wasn’t actively bad, but I find it hard to be positive about a story that primarily left me disappointed and frustrated that it didn’t do more. TreeFrog7 seemed like more of a caricature than a character, for all the time we spend with her we get very little sense of her; the pop-up guide entries, completely redundant to TreeFrog7’s in-text descriptions, seemed like a missed opportunity to contrast how such entries are created with the entries themselves; and the end of the story was, as has been noted, thoroughly conventional.

    The actual prose was fine, though, and I did enjoy the disorienting effect of how common modern words and concepts were (presumably) carried down through time/space and in the story mean quite different things that serve similar functions, cars and CPUs and such. The best thing about the story is when I found myself wondering how big a car was.

    What did you think of TreeFrog7 and Morituri36’s relationship?

    It seemed like a not unreasonable portrayal of two people who have talked to nobody but each other for months, combined with, as I wrote above, a bit of a caricature of a pregnant woman.

    More generally, where do you think the story’s imaginative focus actually lies?

    Heck, I can’t even tell you where its thematic focus is. Maybe something about the need to map out and understand the other, and the impossibility of doing so which leads to misunderstandings. We see both between TreeFrog7 and Morituri36, and then we see both on display in the story’s end. Indeed, to answer Lois Tilton’s question But I have to wonder, if the wingless hawkmoth is guarding the CPU plant, why it has gone so far away to follow the explorers, I suspect it’s because they misunderstand its actions as guarding, when really it is herding.

  8. Martin and Niall – although it’s not shown in this story, it isn’t a far future world, but alternate universe which is accessible from our world (after a cataclysm called “the change” or some such which opens the gateways and makes things act weird in our world.) All the tech on this planet is plant based – there are no mechanical machines. The novels that take place in this world/our world are near future-ish.

  9. I liked the intrusion of Morituri36’s very different voice. I don’t think he is dismissive so much as preoccupied and less emotionally empathetic than he might be. A typical girl-boy dynamic in other words…

    Chance: oh.

  10. Matt – I like your “herding” suggestion. It puts a different cast on events and is quite consistent with the text.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s