Short Story Club: “Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory”

Some quite divergent opinions for this story. We start with Rich Horton, in the June Locus:

I was impressed last year by Paul M Berger’s Interzone piece “Home Again”. Now he contributes a brilliant story to Fantasy, one of the stories of the year so far, “Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory”. Loran, an old elven warrior, has taken Jessica, a young human, as his wife, and the pair visit a tourist attraction, the ruins of the Gray Fort, one of the last human redoubts in the long war that ended with humans enslaved. We learn of the pair bond between the two, such that they both feel and sense what the other does, and some of human/elf history that led to the current debased state of humans. The title artwork is a very clever invention, and nicely reflected in the story’s two parts, one from the POV of each character. The direction the story takes is on the one hand predictable, but nicely executed, and with some ambiguities and surprises that give it freshness and depth.

For Pam Phillips the story is

the sort of story I was hoping to find when I decided to join the Short Story Club at Torque Control.

A elf, Loran, and his human wife, Jessica, visit a ruined fort. From the first words, the story does an excellent job of portraying how the bond between them allows them to share sensory input, but not thoughts.

Their conversation is filled with suggestions of an epic history, war, conquest, and resistance. Loran is so arrogant, you just know he has underestimated his wife. That we confirm when we read Jessica’s side of the story. I like the Rashomonization in getting different meanings from the same events, but I could live without the verbatim repetition of dialogue.

Only after the story is allowed to take shape, do we get to the conceit that spawned it: a stereogram that can only be comprehended by a bonded pair. This stereogram is wonderful enough, but the best part is the way it pays off in the ending.


And for Matt H it’s the best so far:

Perhaps the most interesting part of the setting, and probably the concept the author meant to actually show in the story’s “stereogram”, is the nature of the colonial government. Loran’s narrative makes it very clear that the Elves only respect strength and were in fact disappointed when they finally defeated humans. Unlike the colonial powers of our world, they don’t seem to be extracting labor or natural resources. There’s likewise no equivalent of the White Man’s Burden, or at least, not since the war ended, since they see humans as only being worthy of respect when they are capable of fighting the Elves. Yet Loran says that in his role as a sort of regional governor he is responsible for “teaching” the humans under his control. What could he want to teach them, then, if not to fight back again? It seems like we are meant to conclude that he has essentially planned his own murder. Although this level of manipulation seems well beyond his ability to comprehend human psychology, even Jessica’s despite the link between them, at least we can say he shaped the outline if not the detail of what happened. Thus what might have seemed like a rousing stick-it-to-the-man ending becomes fairly ambiguous. As readers we’re predisposed to be sympathetic to Jessica’s stand, but when we realize that in doing so she’s adopting the values of the colonial power, suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a good idea. Loran has made her into a William Wallace when humanity would be better served by a Mahatma Ghandi.

But Lois Tilton is ambivalent:

The narrative follows the stereogram pattern by relating the story first from Loran’s point of view and then Jessica’s. What’s going on here is subversion of the notion of the noble High Elf, as Loren regards himself, revealing them as a race that would destroy another civilization to give its people the perverse gift of recovering their own capacity for martial glory – and themselves a partner for war that they could consider worthy even as they destroy them. Loren’s own words indict him even more thoroughly than Jessica’s version of the events. I love the vision of the ruined fort, the scene of former glories, even knowing that the vision is false. But too much of this story depends on the notion of the marital pair-bond, which I can’t help finding contrived.

As is Chad Orzel:

I ended up being unimpressed with this, and I’m not sure exactly why. Mostly, it’s that I could see exactly where it was headed from about the point where the brain-sharing thing was explained, and knew it exactly by the time she picked up the dagger. The shift in perspectives was not that much of a revelation, and the whole thing unfolded with a sense of inevitability rather than a sense of wonder.

But again, as I say, I’m not really sure why my reaction to this is a jaded “Meh”– it’s not like there’s a huge glut of psychically linked elf stories on the market, and as a technical matter, it’s well done. Berger also deserves credit for having a return of magic without turning it into a My Awesome Werewolf Boyfriend kind of story.

It’s just… Something about the way it all unfolded wound up feeling, for me, more like the completion of a checklist than a compelling story. Remark about technology making humans weak, check. Remark about our world being too amazing to be true, check. Change in perspective making “courtship” seem really creepy, check. One of linked couple able to hide thoughts and plans from the other, check. And so on.

I’ll be interested to see where everyone else comes down on this one.

17 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory”

  1. Just for once, I’m with Lois and Chad, more or less. The working of the pair-bond — how much Jessica was able to hide from Loran — felt too easy, and I recognise Chad’s characterisation of the story as a checklist. It’s also the case that the weaknesses Matt H identifies in the story weigh more heavily for me than they evidently do for him — the mismatch in the period of time covered, and the fact that both narratives (not even, I would argue, only Jessica’s) stand well alone, and reinforce each other rather than revealing a new and complete perspective.

    That said, the detail of the story is good, I think, and I tend to agree with Matt H’s reading of the ending as somewhat ambiguous.

  2. I liked this story very much until the point of view switch, then found myself wondering why Berger felt the need to tell the same story twice. The metaphor of the stereogram isn’t fulfilled – we’re told that each image is incomprehensible on its own, and that only together can they combine into a picture, but that’s not what’s going on in the story. As Pam says, Jessica’s state of mind is easy to guess from Loran’s narrative, and Chad is right to say that her actions are easy to predict. And, as Lois says, “Loren’s own words indict him even more thoroughly than Jessica’s version of the events” – his unreliable (except not really because it’s easy to see that he’s simply wrong) narrative is so much more interesting than her straightforward one. There’s nothing in Jessica’s narrative that sheds a different light on the story, setting, or situation as they’re established by Loran’s narrative.

    It’s the introduction of the stereogram, I think, that undoes the story. If Berger hadn’t introduced it at the end of Loran’s narrative, and created the expectation of a meaningful perspective shift – rather than a blow-by-blow, at points verbatim, retelling of events we’ve just witnessed, and confirmation of easily-arrived-at assumptions – these wouldn’t have come as such a disappointment.

  3. If you add Abigail’s irritation towards the second half (I stopped reading soon after the switchover, the first time I read it) to Chad’s general take on the obviousness of the story (as soon as the new bride is revealed as human, it was pretty clear where we were going), you’ve pretty much got my take on it.

    I give points to the story for being fairly scathing towards the virtues of the strength of arms and the mindset of martial pride. This is something that I don’t think fantasy spends enough time doing (quite the opposite: most epic fantasy and perhaps even paranormal romance have large elements of violence porn to them).

    I think that Matt H’s point is interesting. It’s one that I didn’t think of. I’ll have to dwell on it some more, but I don’t think that it saves the story for me.

  4. Something else occurs to me. If the elves were really just interested in the fighting, they would have withdrawn after they won, and attack again once humanity had rebuilt, rather than occupying and subjugating humanity. Their reason for invasion is never really established well enough to make any real sense. Matt touches on this, but I think that it deserves some extra calling out because it puts an extra strain on the credibility of the setting.

  5. Yeah, I think this has already been said but was there anyone who didn’t read the first couple of hundred words and think “ey up, Loren’s in for a fall”. The only thing that wasn’t predictable about the story was the final revelation that Loren wanted this. And the reason it wasn’t predictable was because it was totally out of character.

    I liked the prose, I wanted to like the story but it is all so obvious and the central device of the story – the narrative split – is so badly and repetetively done.

  6. This is one of the few stories where I’ve really been surprised by the reactions of others. Even a couple of weeks ago, when I liked a story nobody else did, I understood that, because my reaction was fairly personal.

    This, though… I didn’t read his final words as the culmination of any sort of plan on his part. I took the “I chose well” as “I picked a human with some spirit.” Having the whole deal be something he planned seems way out of line with his narration. It strikes me as a needlessly complicated reading that tries too hard to make Loran sympathetic.

    And I’m really puzzled by Matt’s “There’s likewise no equivalent of the White Man’s Burden.” It doesn’t get more white, manly, and burdensome than “We destroyed your civilization but it was for your own good.”

    After reading the comments here, and thinking about it a bit more, two other things come to mind: first, that it’s kind of interesting that the sympathetic human character here is effectively a suicide bomber, and second, that the only really SF (in the broad sense) element here is the stereogram of the title, and not much is done with that. You could easily write essentially the same story set a hundred years ago in, say, India, or forty years ago in Vietnam, and not need to change much of anything

  7. Chad: I thought the references to Loran’s longevity were a nice touch; if the story were set in our world, you couldn’t have the same character be part of the conquest and be the ruler generations later. That linking of the two timeframes was effective.

    (And now I’m thinking that the stereogram concept might even have been better with two character separated in time; easier to create a situation where the two narratives combine, perhaps.)

  8. And I’m really puzzled by Matt’s “There’s likewise no equivalent of the White Man’s Burden.” It doesn’t get more white, manly, and burdensome than “We destroyed your civilization but it was for your own good.”

    I guess I just interpret the phrase a little more narrowly. The Elves enjoyed destroying human civilization. It wasn’t burdensome at all…quite the opposite. Unlike the apologists of empire, Loran doesn’t try to spin the conquest of humanity as anything other than a means of achieving greater glory for the Elves. And he isn’t seeking to impose a particular flavor of civilization, he’s hoping humans will cast it off (and then only because it will again give the Elves an opponent worth fighting).

  9. I think I have to disagree with those two point, Chad.

    first, that it’s kind of interesting that the sympathetic human character here is effectively a suicide bomber

    I really don’t see how she can be considered a suicide bomber. She thinks she might die as a result of killing Loren but she isn’t sure and they are the only two people involved, there are no innocent civilians. It is an assassination.

    second, that the only really SF (in the broad sense) element here is the stereogram of the title, and not much is done with that.

    I don’t think it is done very well but you can’t say not much was done with it since it is the whole story: it is the structure, it is the central novum, it is the over-riding metaphor. So I don’t see how you could write it as a historical story.

  10. I think Berger fulfilled the metaphor of the stereogram. Loren and his elvish people are happiest when they have a challenging foe. They are proud of their conquest, but the best days, the “days of her glory,” are in the past, back when humanity posed a challenge.

    At the end, when Loren senses Jessica’s intention, the two POVs merge. He gets what his people have desired since the conquest of humanity: a challenging foe, and the hope that humanity too will rise up again in resistance. And she gets what she desires: murder of their leader. Together they become a dysfunctional, single organism.

    What I found most satisfying about this story, however, is the irony inherent in a conquering empire that can only feel glorious in battle, not in victory. Thus Loren’s fate is perfectly fitting, and Jessica’s betrayal filled with layers of futility. How can humans win if this is what the elves ultimately want? I personally enjoyed this piece very much.

  11. Interesting divergence of views! I found this easily the best of the bunch on the first read through. (It’s the only story that’s engaged me enough to make me comment.) Despite the criticisms I haven’t changed my mind – though I will admit it’s not perfect. I like the title, liked the central conceit of the stereogram, and even liked the repetition.

    The predictability of the story didn’t matter because this wasn’t about plot but atmosphere: the ruined fort and the swarming hucksters with the echoes of India and the Raj, the educated man reduced to being a tour guide for people he hates, the imperfect bond between the main characters because one’s human and the other’s an elf.

    That’s important. Loran is an elf, not an alien invader from another planet, and I think some of the less favourable comments stem from reading this as science fiction rather than fantasy. Loran comes from a heroic society: the rabbit is made to be food for the hawk; the warrior is made to die fighting in glory. The Fair Folk are – as they should be – dark, dangerous, fickle and careless of life. Cold iron and human technology are anathema to them, but their magics are very powerful.

    I take it that what Loran wants is for humans to rise up and fight the elves hand to hand with swords and shields in the manner of the old Irish or Homeric heroes, not with guns and tanks and missiles. As Jessica realises, the elves have come ‘to be shaped by the struggle,’ which is why their rule now seems so arbitrary.

    At the end, Loran falls to a worthy opponent: somebody brave enough to stab herself in the leg to bring him down. That’s what he’s applauding – he doesn’t choose or foresee his death, but he does approve its manner.

    And of course there will be reprisals, and Jessica’s city will burn, and maybe humanity will indeed rise, and there will be war again ‘to the terrible delight of both our peoples.’

    Loved it.

  12. I think a lot of the positive reaction to this story comes from the title, which casts a spell that takes a while to wear off. Something with such a title HAS to be good. Doesn’t it?

  13. Fascinating takes on the story. I enjoyed Berger’s conceit of using the story structure itself to mirror a stereogram. Indeed, as with the stereogram, not until we see *both* Loran’s and Jessica’s points of view do we understand the full picture of what’s going on. I have to disagree with those who say Jessica’s POV doesn’t add anything. While we’re in Loran’s POV I assumed her to be a captive bride who’d given up the fight. It’s only when we’re in her POV that we understand what she’s actually up to, that humanity’s fight is not lost. And only when we take both perspectives together do we understand the additional complexity that Loran is actually *pleased* by the fact that he “chose well” and that his assassination at Jessica’s hand is likely to lead to another great war between the elves and humans. Very clever, I thought. I’m in the Rich Horton camp.

  14. I’m generally in the “too obvious” camp with this one–once we see the title, understand the way the shared sight works, read enough of Loran’s account to glimpse his character, and see Jessica receive the dagger, does the rest of the story even need to be told?

    It is also too disjointedly manipulative for my tastes. Loran’s words at the end, that suggest he has chosen Jessica because he hopes she will kill him, contradict his earlier thoughts on his wisdom in choosing her as a wife because humans are short-lived. And as Evan says, some of the worldbuilding is rather rigged or underdeveloped. What bugged me the most is that if humans knew the elves were harmed by metal, why did they make their crucial fortress out of bare stone?

    I did like most the writing in this one: there are some phrasings, particularly in the earlier paragraphs, that sound wrong until we realize how very right they are in their description of the situation. That initial disorientation before things come into focus is enjoyable, especially in light of the story’s title.

    And I did like the element that the other Matts–Hilliard and Kressel–mention, the ambiguous prudence and results of Jessica’s act. I think that If I Were Editor, I would have suggested switching the order of the two parts, and making Loran’s now-second section more knowing: using the obviousness of the structural concept rather than treating it as though it should surprise.

    But even then, hasn’t the story of the old warrior-conquerer who has come to crave death now that the fighting is over, the love-hate relationship that develops between enemies, already been pretty well done?

    What this story could have added to that trope, seems to have been inspired by, is colonial awareness; but it really doesn’t delve much into that. Violence may beget violence, but have other forms of resistance been tried? What was the elven attitude toward them? And how transferable are human ideas of such things, given a truly inhuman conqueror?

    I will say that, contra Abigail…

    The metaphor of the stereogram isn’t fulfilled – we’re told that each image is incomprehensible on its own, and that only together can they combine into a picture, but that’s not what’s going on in the story.

    This worked a bit better for me, albeit in a more limited and literal way. The picture that doesn’t emerge until the end is that Loran chose Jessica for hidden reasons as much as Jessica chose Loran. The Fort is a continuing symbol for human resistance in a way Loran doesn’t quite credit to the “sheep” of humanity; but it’s also a symbol of continuing elven victory, in dictating the terms of the conflict, in a way that Jessica can’t understand: only we the reader see both images.

    That said, I agree with Abigail that the “left/right” structure of the story isn’t well-served by the title…I wonder if the two accounts could have been intertwined more, to better pay off the title, avoid the obviousness implied by the structure, and avoid the repetitions that bothered Pam.

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