Short Story Club: “The Red Bride”

The story is here. Rich Horton liked this one; from the September Locus:

Finally, at Strange Horizons in July I particularly liked “The Red Bride” by Samantha Henderson. It’s a simple story, slyly told, set on an alien planet (apparently, though the feel is deliberately fantastical) as the long-enslaved local race finally revolts, behind the title character. That’s the penumbra to the story, but the heart is in one servant, telling a human girl what’s going on, and hinting at her possibly merciful (or not!) fate.

The story also gets a positive mention (but no more than a mention) from Gardner Dozois.

Lois Tilton says:

The metafictional aspects of this tale, the issues of translation, raise it above the usual versions. I often wonder about the dissemination of story ideas, when suddenly a number of authors seem to be working with the same ideas. Another story of a slave language and slave revolution appeared only a month ago in another zine; I greatly prefer this one.

And Patrick Hudson comments:

The implied setting, sketched in with great economy and effect, reminded me a little of Gwyneth Jones’s Spirit. The Var in this story made me think of the strange creatures of Sigurt’s world, where Bibi is kidnapped and imprisoned: they seem to have a similar violent streak and there’s also the contested question of common human/alien origins.

The Var, however, have clearly been enslaved by the humans, and this is the story of a slave race revolting. It’s an apocalypse, in fact, scorching the Earth clean to allow fresh growth. The Red Bride is a kind of avenger, coming out in her race’s time of need to help them.

The story is also, and most importantly in regards to SF, a description of an alien race, with an alien culture and life cycle. Henderson infuses the servant’s narration and the uprising of the slaves with details of the way these creatures live – she’s dramatising her novum. Yes, it’s a dark tale, but without that darkness, there would be no drama here.

And, as last week, I’m scheduling this post before my holiday, so you’ll have to add your comments in the comments. (I should be nearly home at the point this goes live, though.)

18 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “The Red Bride”

  1. Hi,

    My comments are quite extensive, but as I don’t have a web presence, I’ll have to stick them all here.

    I was enjoying this story – it was intriguing, interesting and different – until it suddenly ended. This abruptness made the story come over as a vignette rather than a finished story and I would have liked some more meat to it, a longer piece. However, looking back I can see that this is more of a ‘seed’ story than anything else. It’s a riddle that the reader is meant to work out, not a line that one is meant to follow from A to Z. It’s a bit like a condensed Gene Wolfe novel in some ways – allusive rather than explicit. The clues to understanding it, as I see them, are all reasonably clear in the body of the text, though no doubt other people will come to different conclusions to me.

    ‘Also, I think the story of the Red Bride is Varian entirely, nothing human at all, and doesn’t come from the shared tales the scholars say that all the Seeded Races share in common.’

    This flags that the story within the story isn’t a standard one, not like those we tend to see. No standard structures there in the internal ‘told’ story, and probably not outside of it, with the ‘read’ story, either.

    ‘The Red Bride isn’t a story I’ve pondered back and forth in my head and made like a Terran bedtime tale, all chopped up nicely for your eager birdlike gape. I must think it through in the telling and you must open up your mind and believe that a dog-which-is-not-a-dog may be hatched from an egg with all the knowledge it needs to hunt.’

    Again, this is pretty much a summary of how we are supposed to approach the story – something that isn’t ‘all chopped up nicely for your eager birdlike gape.’ The author all but tells us explicitly that ‘you must open up your mind…’ IE not take the elements of the story of the Red Bride literally.

    ‘The story of the Red Bride is a slave’s tale in slave speech, which I do not generally hold in my head around humans lest my face betray me, so I must shift words around from one meaning to another like stones on a reckoning-board, each stone taking meaning from a square where another stone was a moment before.’

    This tells us a little more clearly (as clearly as the narrator ever gets) how to approach the story. One thing in the story represents something else in the story. EG Valhan fits the square where, say, the narrator was a moment ago. The problem is that anything could represent anything in this story. One object in the story could definitely fill several thematic gaps just as a stone can jump onto several squares and so take on different meanings at different points in the narrative. Every paragraph could have a different combination of meanings for each element. Say, for instance, you think that the Red Bride is Sencha, how does this fit in with the other representations – of the Valhan, say – in the story, and could something else be the Red Bride as well at another point in the story?

    ‘The Vallhan’s mind is like a prism, gathering and scattering light, and information, and knowledge, and pain.’

    The Valhan might actually be someone else, but this sounds very much like a description of the narrator as she (?) is the one who gathers and scatters information, knowledge and pain. (Everything about the narrator says she’s female to me much more than male.) The info/knowledge is about the natives and their plans, the pain is what she feels about her dead daughter and her own murder of Twigling’s sister, and the oncoming pain for the humans. The narrator tries to keep her own hands clean by killing the sister painlessly and rescuing Twigling, as the Valhan’s hands are clean. So the gender of the Valhan is wrong in this interpretation? Who cares. It’s a parable, not to be taken literally.

    At first I thought the Red Bride might be one of the children (EG Sencha or Twigling) who the literal hound was hunting for. After all, the narrator says of the Red Bride ‘In the story in your head you might say that she is one of a long line of women that are born each from another.’ This sounded like the child Sencha, born of the narrator.

    However, that didn’t make so much sense as I continued reading. It was too literal an interpretation. Instead, I decided that the hound is the revolt of the Var. The egg it is hatched from sounds like anger festering and growing inside their own psyches after years of abuse by the humans. ‘The egg is made from the belly-stones of the Var that go to the mountain-lakes to die; the bird eats them, and crushes them inside it, and makes it all as one: egg and shell and hound.’ That certainly sounds like someone being eaten from the inside out by bile and anger.

    That makes the Red Bride most obviously the human blood shed by the hound, by the anger and revolt of the Var. Blood also fits in with childbirth and femininity, things associated with the narrator, Twigling and the dead sister. The little bird could be the narrator’s own conscience, but probably most likely Twigling – she is the one who, through her compassion, causes the narrator to keep her hands relatively clean, certainly compared to what is hinted the other Var will do. Of course, as mentioned above, the Red Bride could represent more than one element of the story. _Twigling_ could be the Red Bride herself, if you choose to interpret the Red Bride as being a real person. As she’s the only human left after the hound of revolt has killed the other humans, in effect being the last one standing, she is the thing he has been implicitly hunting for – paring away the other humans, if you like, to find her.

    If, as the story says earlier ‘…that I must shift words around from one meaning to another like stones on a reckoning-board, each stone taking meaning from a square where another stone was a moment before’ then other people will probably have found different interpretations to mine and it would be nice to see what other people have decided. This multiplicity of meanings is what John Barnes has referred to as ‘polysemy’, one of the most interesting attributes of science fiction. I call it the cryptic crossword approach, and that’s not meant as an insult in any way at all. I like cryptic crosswords and I’ve written cryptic crossword stories myself.

    The danger here is that every person or element of the story could represent any abstract idea given explicitly, or just implied, within the story, making it meaningless – a bit like the books in Borges’ Library, where every combination of letters is present somewhere on the shelves. When every interpretation is equally as plausible as the others – when there is a many to many relationship between literally everything in the story – how do you find one set of (multiple) interpretations that is meaningful, that is internally consistent? If my understanding is right, then another lazy author could use this as a sort of scattergun approach – ‘I’ll hit something with enough grapeshot in my cartridge!’ (I certainly don’t think the author has done that here.)

    I would like to work out what all of the combinations are in the story (what does the Red Bride represent in this paragraph, and the Valhan, and who or what are they in this next paragraph, etc etc) but unfortunately my brain has run out of processing power. Either that or my ‘multiple interpretations’ interpretation is completely wrong and my brain is intuitively telling me not to go any further in solving an unsolvable problem.

    There’s one question that occurs to me afterwards: If we aren’t to take the internal told story literally, because things can represent other things, as the stones move from square to square, how are we supposed to take the external, read story? Are Twigling, the narrator, Sencha etc, and the events of the story, meant to represent something outside the world of the told story, something in the world of the read story? Something in our world? Maybe I’m reading too much into the author’s intentions here.

  2. See also Chance’s comments.

    I liked the story more than she did, though I’m less interested in its fantastic aspects than some of the other responses cited. I just like the narrator’s voice, which is nasty without undermining our awareness of her suffering. It’s a short piece too, and that gives it added force. I don’t think that it matters that The Red Bride is a figurehead instead of a leader (and anyway I read her effect as one of removing reason from all Var, male and female, and turning them into killing machines who don’t require leadership or direction) because the point of the story is the narrator and her conflicted feelings for Twigling, which seem to me to have been perfectly captured – anger and resentment, but also appreciation. The mercy she offers is also tempered – one gets the sense that Twigling will not live as an equal among the free Var.

    By the way, does everyone agree with Chance that Twigling is a boy? Halfway through the story I started to wonder if she wasn’t a girl – perhaps it was the parallel drawn to the narrator’s daughter. There’s not much evidence in the story one way or another, but I imagine that Henderson knows.

  3. I liked this one overall. Some of that to be sure is its short length: it doesn’t have time to make any crippling missteps. But more than that, there is a general economy of both language and storytelling that I find appealing–I like stories that trust the reader–combined with a mixture of implied specificity in the names and concepts, and yet a timelessness/placelessness that lends the story the broad, universal sense of applicability that its closing line makes good use of.

    Similarly, I liked the open-endedness of the question of whether the story of the Vallhan and the Red Bride were cultural constructs or actual physiological adaptations. Again, there’s that balance of alien specificity with universal applicability. And also, of course, for a lot of storytellers, this would be the story of the Vallhan, not of the Red Bride: Henderson makes good use of the fact that telling the female side of the story still feels somewhat “alien” to SF. Chance makes a good point, however, about the sense that the Red Bride is more of a figurehead, a repository for emotion (typically identified as female). I do suspect that the gender roles of the Var are at least a bit different than most contemporary human cultures: Var men are dreamers, or gatherers, or arbiters; I wonder if that means the women are the warriors, given the Red Brides traits of being “like a warrior…adventurous”? But I do agree with Chance, that aspect of it–as seen in the focus on the appearance of the Red Bride, on what she looks like–is unfortunate.

    Matt H interestingly contrasts this story to Watts’s “The Things.” While I think the ideas in Watts’s story are more compelling, what’s appealing to me about this story is how it doesn’t belabor its ideas as Watts’s narrator does. Henderson instead stops the story with the horror only implied–we see from the story that humans haven’t learned, that it will very likely happen again–rather than going for the sort of shock value of bald statement that Watts does. As is often the case, I find the implied, open-ended horror more affecting.

    The writing is in general quite fine although there were a few false notes. There was the unnecessary repetition of “But past this night, I do not think that your mother’s whip will be used for anything after tonight…”; also the unlikely phrasing of “as far as the humans are concerned we all speak the same debased patois.” Obviously one could imagine reasons for both of these things–a narrator unfamiliar with English, who had yet read or overheard some human scholar–but I think those are the sorts of quirks that are best either used more pervasively, so as to be clearly intentional, or not at all.

    I find it interesting that both Matt H and Chance assume that the narrator is talking to a boy; I assumed a girl. Henderson does leave it vague, but I think there are hints in lines like “However you think of those princesses of yours, […] however you think of the most beautiful of them, or the most adventurous, the one you want to be….”

  4. My comments that Matt D was referencing are here. To summarize, the story talks a lot about its non-human viewpoint but it didn’t seem alien to me. Allegory is not alien. I didn’t find the story very satisfying but probably that’s the length more than anything. Accepting that constraint I guess it’s fine for what it is.

    Matt D: The focus on the appearance of a Var princess versus a human princess may seem superficial, but the narrator basically says that human and Var differences are only skin deep, so what other difference can she point to? Of course the gender roles mentioned suggest there are more differences than just that, so maybe the narrator is wrong?

    Meanwhile, I can’t believe I just assumed Twigling was a boy. I have no explanation for this. I assumed the narrator was female while reading and then, while writing my comments, went back and revisited this and decided it wasn’t clear. In the slave and servant systems the story is alluding to most household servants were female, I think, but I could imagine a male butler whose daughter was killed at the whipping post. I don’t really think it matters to the story one way or another though.

  5. Matt D: The focus on the appearance of a Var princess versus a human princess may seem superficial…

    The contrast I was thinking of was more the way that the male Vallhan is described in terms of character qualities, whereas the female Red Bride is described in terms of her idealized physical appearance. Picking up on what Chance wrote, in other words, about the stereotypical treatment of gender displayed by the Var in the story. I suppose it’s another way they are similar to humans: their women are judged from the outside in, their men from the inside out.

  6. Aha, I know this one! Great to have an excuse to read it again, as I think this is a great story.

    I’ve posted some more comments on my blog, but here they are: On rereading, I really admire the skill of how the story is told through what’s left out. It all unfolds in the spaces left between the narrative – all the while we’re hearing this folky-tinged thing there’s a terrible slave uprising going on, with rage and violent death and all sorts. It’s done with a great deal of skill. However, there’s something else there, again, that I didn’t see first time around, a story of how we can rise above violence.

    A more conventional shape for this story might be: description of human plantation (I was use the word deliberately!); Sencha, the narrator’s child/descendant/var equivalent thereof is killed and there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth among the oppressed var; the oppressed var invoke the Red Bride (or maybe she’s just due to arrive anyway? that’s a little ambiguous); there is general rejoicing among the Var that the humans are going to suffer.

    But the narrator has learned better. Having experienced grief and violence, the narrator refuses to give in to it. The narrator realises that violence just begets more violence, and mercy and forgiveness are going to important in rebuilding a world where the and humans var can live in peace, as they are going to have to do at some stage.

    Again, I really like the way this is nestled within the narrator’s story telling. We start off thinking we’re hearing one sort of story – the myth of the Red Bride – then think we’re going to hear another story – a slave uprising – but in fact we have a third, different sort of story. Of course, it’s ALL those stories in one, as well as the more anthroplogical (xenolical, I guess) kind of a thing I talked about in my SFW post. All in all, this one is a pretty sweet piece!

    Having read the comments here, I’d add:

    The comments about “seeded races” make me assume that there’s a great deal of common cultural and historical baggage between the var and humans, and the var are still sexually dimorphic. How this connects with the stones and the eggs is a little mysterious: the exact nature of the varian lifecycle is not entirely clear.

    The story invites us to fill it in by ourselves. The narrator gives us more than enough wiggle room to speculate on the details – the hound is not a hound, but could be anything from some other sort of beast to a non-corporeal effusion to just an idea of vengance that rises from the sites of oppression. As I said in my original post, there’s a an anthropolgical angle to this story that’s intriguing in quite a trad sci fi way.

    I also assumed the twigling is a girl, btw!

  7. I took the Red Bride not to be an actual individual but rather the revolution itself with Vallhan the active political instigators and the hounds their agents. I can’t see the story as literal. Which means that it seems a bit strange for Henderson’s narrator to make such a meal out of her story being alien and hard to translate when what we are presented with seems like a straight forward allegory.

    I liked the story for the same reason’s as Abigail: the voice and the narrator’s conflicted feelings. However, I think Henderson had a few too many ideas for her story and there is a suggestion of more to come. Matt H gets at this a bit in his review but I think there is too much unexplained backstory here for a story of this length. The idea that human and var are both seeded races who are ultimately the same is a pretty massive one but it has no implications for the story and is unexplored. The reader can fill in the blanks (as Patrick suggests) but does this add anything to the story? Yet despite this, Henderson tries to use this to provide emotion weight to her conclusion: “We’ll stay in the long woods until the Red Bride has ended her reign and the Var remember, as the humans have not, that we are the Seeded Races, and one under the skin, as the scholars say.”

    And yes, I read Twigling and the narrator as female.

  8. Ian:

    ‘Sean W: I suspect your review may be longer than the original story.’

    That’s because, as I said, the story is a seed and it’s grown to Jack and the Beanstalk proportions in my head.

    The bonsai version: unreliable narrator, because either driven mad with grief (‘they know I’m half-mad, anyway’) or just plain alien and incomprehensible (kudos to the writer), tells a story with constantly confused or shifting roles/symbols during a revolution, such story being something of a non-consistent fairy tale version of what is happening in the narrator’s society.

    Matt H: “the story talks a lot about its non-human viewpoint but it didn’t seem alien to me.”

    I originally found the narrator’s voice confusing more than alien, until I twigged that, with the clues at start, the narrator was revealing her own unreliability – at least from a human viewpoint.

    I believe that this story is about storytelling systems as much as anything else. The third and fourth paragraphs of the story all but make this explicit with their discussion of Varian and human ways of telling stories. I found that this interpretation then made the story much more interesting, satisfying and indeed alien. Unlike Chance, who said that ‘This story just happens to wear SF clothing’ my interpretation allows me to see something indisputably science fictional. (Allow me this delusion, please.)

    Matt D:

    ‘the stereotypical treatment of gender displayed by the Var in the story’

    That’s an interesting point, but it wasn’t something I got. As far as I can see, there is no display of anything by the Var, certainly not as a species or a society. We have nothing but one person’s words: the narrator. We can only go by what she says to interpret what is happening. This interpretation might imply things about her society, as she is embedded in it, but we can’t be sure if any of our inferences (EG about gender) are true.

    Indeed, there is no evidence that any of the characters mentioned in the narrator’s story actually exist in the world of the read story. As I implied before, but perhaps didn’t make explicit enough, I believe there are two stories here: the read story of the actual world of Twigling et al, and the told, rather fantastic, story of the narrator containing the Red Bride, Valhan, the hound etc. The latter is very 1001 Nights, which makes the narrator something of a Scheherezade.

    There’s more evidence for this in the narrator’s musings on the nature of the little bird that sings on Valhan’s shoulders. (‘I think I may be that bird.’) This shows that the narrator accepts that she is telling a story of metaphor, not of literal truth. If the little bird can be a representation of something or someone else (EG the narrator), then why shouldn’t the same hold for the Red Bride? For Valhan? And why not multiple interpretations? After all, they are aliens who don’t think like us.

    In fact, we now have three layers of meaning, or perhaps two layers with some struts between them: the read story, the told story, and the narrator’s brief interpretation of how these two relate to each other (the narrator as little bird). It reminds me of how Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons used two stories in Watchmen (the original comics, not the film): the inner pirate comic reflected the events of the outer main story. At the end, the character Ozymandias made a brief link between the two layers of story, as the narrator does here.


    I composed the above before I read Patrick and Martin’s comments – much to digest in what they said, especially P’s point about the third story. On a first impression, this seems to map onto my idea about the ‘struts’ between the two layers.

  9. I’ve got to re-read this story because I completely missed the nuances that people are discussing here. For example, the first sentence:

    “You are to imagine, Twigling, the Red Bride to be a human, such as yourself, although she is in truth a creature of the Var.”

    I had to re-read a few times because of the four commas. It just didn’t flow, and I found that problem throughout the story. But, I’m willing to accept that I’ve completely missed the point of this piece.

  10. I think Chance has entirely misread the story by casting it in terms of gender, as if the Red Bride were a person. The name is almost certainly a metaphor for a phenomenon, the shedding of blood.

    The only other alternative is that of a god, or the avatar of a god, and in that case the entire point is personification. That’s what gods are. Eris is strife, Ares is war, the Red Bride is revolutionary bloodshed, whether metaphorical or incarnated.

    This might provide a clue into the way gender works in the Val society, as the narrator makes comments about the nature of their men. But what this suggests to me is that the women are doing the killing.

  11. I share Patrick’s admiration for the layers upon layers in this story, packed together with great economy. As Sean says, the story grows in your head.

    To me, the “seeded races” suggest a universe in which it has been determined that life was deliberately seeded on many planets by some distant agent. Whatever the common ancestor between humans and Var is though is very distant. The stones left behind by dead Var sound like the grinding stones of a gizzard, which makes me think the Var world might be one where creatures like dinosaurs evolved into the intelligent species.

  12. My only real comment here (other than calling ‘stale trope’ & saying ‘meh’), is that the framing narrative here took me right out of the story. We’re viewing the action through too many lenses to see it clearly (yet it’s still obvious from the first where it’s going).

  13. I’m not sure that framing narrative is quite right. We’re hearing about the action of the slave rebellion at a remove, but that’s not the same as the full separation of a frame narrative – I would call it a point of view. And the narrator’s relationship to Twigling, her reasons for saving her, are clearly as important to the story as the rebellion, so I don’t think it’s right to say that these details obscure the business of the story.

  14. It’s a kind of monologue that has an implication of current action. The narrator is actually doing something as the story is being told (as opposed to a first person narrative where the action is taking place at some ill-defined remove.) I’d say this takes us directly to the action of the story.

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