Short Story Club: “Throwing Stones”

Plenty of comment for the final story, starting with Lois Tilton:

This is a lovely fantasy, mannered and sensuous. There is also a subtle subtext about the nature of gender roles that rouses echoes of our own culture.

Karen Burnham goes into more detail:

Baker offers a beautiful tale of identity, politics, power, and love, all intertwined together. Tuo feels just slightly alien, slightly Other, in an effectively disconcerting way. The gender power reversal works well, and the relationship between the goblin and the man, both physical and emotional, queers gender on several levels. Of course, much is left to the imagination of the reader. But in an allusive tale, the poetry of the prose is key, and lines such as:

I leaned forward and pressed my lips to the slick skin of his forehead; it tasted of salt and fish and something acrid I could not identify. The immediacy and honesty of it hit me like a gust of dry wind blowing fog from water.

show a mastery of craft — the repeated use of water imagery, the contrasts of dry wind and lake fog, and the overall rhythm of the piece all come together to make this tale well worth reading.

Matt H wasn’t so impressed by the gender reversal:

This is a story about a society with inverted gender roles, but the story feels like it was written about a woman in a male dominated society, then had all gender references inverted in revision. Certainly it doesn’t read any differently than its opposite, except perhaps to readers so new to the genre that they haven’t encountered a story challenging gender roles before. The story finally approaches interesting territory as the narrator is given a transient female body via magic, but the author seems like she’s in a hurry to reach the ending by this point and nothing much is done with it.


all that said, I found myself won over to large degree upon finishing the story. Nothing about the writing jumped out at me as really superlative, but as a whole I was impressed with the execution: the slimy, amphibian true form of the goblin, the narrator’s hatred for his own body, the way the goblin’s chaos infects and destroys the narrator’s life in a way that he observes but doesn’t see as important, and then the implication that the goblin is here acting as an agent of Ru, the very goddess in whose name the matriarchs suppress the men in their society. These elements weren’t enough to turn this story into one more to my particular tastes, but they did make it unexpectedly enjoyable to read.

For Chad Orzel:

It’s very well written and paced, and what we see of the world is nicely detailed. But it seemed a little too obviously to be making a Point, and as a result didn’t really connect with me. Despite the fact that it’s a well put together story, I still found myself doing the “Yes, you’re very clever, now move it along,” thing, and that’s never good. But, of course, the usual disclaimers apply– it’s entirely possible that this is an idiosyncratic reaction on my part.

The one thing that struck me as a real flaw in the story, and not just something that failed to work for me, was the passivity of the narrator. I mean, this is supposedly a person who has embarked on a dangerous plan to subvert the basis of his whole society, and yet he never takes any initiative, ever. He doesn’t approach the goblin until the goblin notices him first, he just sort of falls into the relationship with the goblin without really wanting it, and he doesn’t really have a plan for how to get into the Temple structure until the goblin practically pushes him into it.

Maria Lin appears to disagree:

You could call “Throwing Stones” a romance, as the whole of it centers upon the relationship between these two characters. Baker manages to make slimy, froglike creatures sensual, which is some feat. Both the narrator and Luo are reserved, calculating people, but for the narrator at least the strength of emotion pushes through and makes things more complicated. By the end of the story the narrator has entered training in the temple, but their conspiracy has yet to be revealed, and the relationship between himself and Luo remains uncertain.

Because “Throwing Stones” leaves the stone still poised to be thrown in the end, the reader is left to come to their own conclusion about what will happen when our protagonist starts making ripples in his society. Baker has written a neat story with a sympathetic narrator that is worth checking out. She is also apparently working on a novel set in the same world, so if this story appeals you might have more to look forward to.

And for Pam Phillips:

The story attempts to turn our expectations about gender upside down, like the customers at the teahouse being powerful women, or the narrator blaming his/her shyness on being male (rather than just being born shy). And yet, I still mostly read both the narrator and the poet as men. Both feel stifled by the society they live in. Tuo wants the narrator to “throw a stone” into the lake of civilization, raising ripples that will someday lead to change.

But what is the change they want? The way the women in Jiun-shi are keeping (at least some) men from being what they want to be, suggests that no matter what, one side will oppress the other. Or maybe the idea of a city ruled by women is just trying to get us to think about how our world feels to some people. And this is where trying figure out what this story wants to be gets all slippery on me.

So, as ever, the floor is open. And pop back next Friday for a general discussion of the short story club — favourites and least favourites, what worked and what didn’t.

29 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “Throwing Stones”

  1. This story starts out strong – if I’ve read a better opening paragraph this year, I can’t remember it – and so, almost inevitably, what follows is a bit of a letdown. I like the world the story is set in and the way that Baker shades it in, but its events didn’t grab me as strongly. They felt, as other reviewers have said, familiar, despite the twist of swapping the gender roles in the story’s society.

    On the question of gender roles, I find myself torn. I agree that there switch is perhaps too clean – you might mistake the narrator for a woman pretending to be a man if he didn’t take care to remind you that it’s the other way around. But that strikes me as a deliberate and part of the point the story is making: that the character traits the narrator associates with maleness – passivity, submissiveness, neediness – and which in our society are stereotypically feminine, are actually bred into him by matriarchy just as surely as in our society they’re the result of patriarchy. I also found it interesting that the story subtly subverts the way we tend to look at female impersonators. Because we live in a patriarchy, men who pretend to be women tend to do so because they feel that they are women, and usually give up a lot of privilege, even if their pretense is successful. The narrator here is very definitely male even as he pretends to be a woman, because he’s doing it in order to amass privilege, not in order to express his inner self.

    On the whole, then, an interesting premise and some nice writing, but not especially winning.

  2. Interesting ideas, but despite some good passages of prose the execution is poor.

    There’s no real sense of a society dominated by women, so the gender reversal comes across as a gimmick rather than an integral part of the story. As Matt H says, it reads as if all the gender references were inverted in the second draft – which is a shame, because the underlying themes are interesting.

    The plot is contrived. The narrator won’t disrobe in a room with a locked door for fear of someone bursting in, but he’s perfectly prepared to undress late at night in a public place – where surprisingly enough somebody sees him. The consequences of this are never fully explored. What would it be like to be a man who hates his body impersonating a woman who then actually becomes a woman for a time? We skirt around it, but it never comes to life.

    And there are sentences like this: “In the untold centuries since Tuo had begun visiting Jiun-Shi, not a single person had ever seen him without his veneer of humanity.” How can the narrator possibly know?

    There’s a good story in here, but it’s well buried.

  3. I read this story at Chad’s request, but before I read his comments.

    My reaction is:

    1) I do not understand why a story that’s explicitly swapping gender roles to subvert stereotypes would nevertheless choose to have _women_ be the gender that kills themselves when they aren’t loved.

    (It may be that that’s actually a swap of roles in a culture from which the setting in drawn; but since the story’s written in English and published in a U.S. venue, the effect is completely lost.)

    (Also the bit where the narrator becomes “something primal, a beast” when having sex in a male body with a female body.)

    2) I was hoping for He had not yet specified the nature of my disguise, and I knew enough of goblins not to volunteer the whole truth myself. to lead to a more interesting secret, and accordingly was disappointed when it was not.

    3) And, as a minor note, I am not sure whether I am supposed to read the narrator as trans, rather than as simply cross-dressing for practical purposes. To the extent that I am, I am troubled by the connection that seems to be drawn between the narrator’s feelings and the society’s prejudices, the same way I would be at a connection between a lesbian’s sexual orientation and our society’s sexism.

  4. Somewhat like the previous story, this one had an feeling of expectedness–once all the cards are on the table, it goes pretty much as you’d expect: it’s a Faustian pact story. That said, it was a well-written and solidly-plotted story, and those don’t need to rely on surprises. As Karen noted, there’s pleasure to be had just in the way certain sentences are written and certain images used. Considering this was Baker’s first published story, the level of craft on display is pleasingly high.

    The gender switching felt like it was supposed to be the star of the story, and in general it was. I might have liked a bit more on how our narrator found being a woman from a social standpoint, what it felt like not just physically but to have that place in society.

    I did like the gender ambiguity–did narrator really prove that a man could be a seer(ess), or does the fact that she does biologically change invalidate this?

    (It’s a little unfortunate, though, that the narrator becomes bad at math as soon as (s)he becomes a woman. A “math is hard” moment.)

    The combination of these gaps and ambiguities does mean that it’s not a story that offers a lot of insight into gender differences–and I might have liked a little more insight, more ambition in milking the subtleties for content. (Similarly, the idea that there was a goddess of chaos was underdeveloped–what would a world like that feel like to live in? There was too much expectation of explanations by the populace, plus the staticisity of the society, that made that element ring false.) On the other hand, there’s something to be said for bringing these topics of gender roles and changes to more surface-level, matter-of-fact fantasy stories–which en mass tend to be among the more conservative.

    On that topic, I did note that it is a highly individualistic story in its belief that one person can shake society–a great man/woman theory of history. It assumes that no other shake-ups will occur while our narrator is waiting. (And that the goblin has made just this one plan.)

    It is also one of those stories told in first-person that I can’t believe the narrator would ever actually put in words. I mean, this is all needs to be a secret, right? It might have been more effective if told from the future, at or near the moment of revelation, not the present when that moment is far distant. Or as some sort of found document.

    Finally, the very last paragraphs seem to shade more toward slight than deep to a truly unfortunate degree–is the narrator really just doing all this out of a feeling of debt? To end on that note turns this into a story whose message can easily be read as, men believe in causes and can be self-sacrificing, while even in a society with the gender roles switched, women will always be victims of obsession toward men.

  5. Kate:

    Your point 1 threw me as well. I suppose she’s trying to say that the women’s pride is too bruised for them to go on living, but in our world that kind of damaged ego usually results in murder, not suicide (though sometimes both). Which points to the major flaw in Baker’s worldbuilding – who wields martial strength in this world? We see women who are merchants and seers, but who are the soldiers?

    On point 3, as I say in my comment it seems pretty clear to me that the narrator is not trans, and that his ambivalent feelings towards his male body are the result of socialization and the sacrifices he’s chosen to make in order to achieve his dreams.


    I don’t see the story as advancing a Great Man approach. The narrator is explicitly likened to a stone causing ripples in a still pond, and both his plans at the beginning of the story (to get as far as he can in the screening process before he’s discovered and executed) and at its end (to become a figure of power and then reveal himself, causing embarrassment and challenging the status quo) are inherently passive plans – his greatest contribution to his society will be to reveal his gender and die for it.

  6. Abigail, yes, “great man” may be a little too strong, but I think the model of historical change implied by the story–that of the world as a “still pond” that is changed by someone from outside throwing a single stone into it, causing ripples–is fairly congruent.

    Kate, yes especially to your #1, that’s what I was trying to get at with some of my comments as well–the sense of unpleasant gender essentialism that seems to lurk behind some parts of the story.

  7. My biggest problem here is my problem with a lot of BCS stories, which is that this is more properly an opening for a novel rather than a reasonably structured short story.

    Most specifically, I find the worldbuilding is too low-density to be convincing, both in terms of the social aspects of the story (which really need to be sold to make it convincing) and the more practical aspects that they would flesh out. The author doesn’t seem to have spent a lot of time with the second-order effects of the changes she’s decided upon. The pacing also suffers from the length, and as others have noted, the story essentially ends without any resolution, either just past the point where it would have made sense structurally, or way, way before.

    I agree with Matt D that the theory of change put forward here seems overly simplistic, and never hints at any broader movement that could size on the character’s sacrafice, or even any proof that the powerful in this society aren’t going to just make the whole thing go away without any of the other citizens hearing about it.

    More positively, I thought that the story was well-intentioned, decently written, and willing to grapple with big subjects. I’ll definitely keep on the look-out for Baker’s work in the future.

    My real issue here, I think, is with how BCS seems to work. A number of the stories that they’ve published this year have a suite of similar problems. Many of them seem under-developed, as if the editor is unwilling to ask the author to work on the issues that their stories so clearly have. I don’t want to be too harsh, because they’re clearly not the only venue with this problem, but I think that the lengths BCS targets and the subject matters it focuses on exacerbate the problem.

    I have more thoughts about the issue, but I’ll save them for Friday, since they span a number of the stories we’ve read.

  8. Matt D: It is also one of those stories told in first-person that I can’t believe the narrator would ever actually put in words.
    Do other people agree that this is a problem? I think most first person narratives are written without expecting the audience to demand to know when, why, and how the narrative is coming from. For that matter, third person narratives can also be given this sort of context…but usually aren’t.

    It was only through reading most of Gene Wolfe’s work in a relatively short amount of time I really started noticing this issue, because Wolfe always locates his narratives (to the point that his short story collections read like a broken record: every few pages another story starts and a narrator is explaining why he or she is telling you this story).

    Currently I feel like a narrative without this sort of context loses an opportunity to add a little more depth, but for me it’s not an actual strike against the story.

  9. I agree with Evan. It’s a real weakness of BCS that he keeps insisting on these first-person narratives, whether appropriate or not.

  10. Matt H: I don’t have any problem if I can imagine a narrator simply recounting the story to a friend, or in some sort of club story situation. The way Wolfe uses epistolary techniques to add motivations and other layers to his storytelling is for me a bonus, but isn’t essential. What I had a problem with here, why I mentioned it, was that the events of this story needed to be kept secret at the point in time that the story is told.

  11. I found the depiction of the goblin by far the most interesting thread. The story’s world is shallowly imagined and in fact quotidian: it’s a standard medieval culture with just the pronouns reversed. The protagonist is also thinly fleshed and far too passive (such people exist — they just don’t make compelling short story characters).

    Finally, except for the interesting backstory of the goblin, which remains partly hidden, the story feels entirely like foreplay. Perhaps it will become more substantial and original as part of a novel.

  12. Do other people agree that this is a problem? I think most first person narratives are written without expecting the audience to demand to know when, why, and how the narrative is coming from. For that matter, third person narratives can also be given this sort of context…but usually aren’t.

    I do notice it, but it doesn’t usually bother me unless the story has other flaws that knock me out of the narrative. If the first-person voice is distinctive and enjoyable, I’m willing to roll with it even if there’s no conceivable way that the narrator would ever be telling that story in that manner.

    Wolfe is a good one for clearly positioning his narrators in a reasonable place. Peter Beagle also has some good ones, and Steven Brust occasionally but not always.

  13. Matt D: I don’t have any problem if I can imagine a narrator simply recounting the story to a friend, or in some sort of club story situation.

    Sure, but the fact is no one would ever tell a story to a friend the way most first person narratives are written. How long does it take to read a typical novel out loud? I don’t actually know but I’m guessing a long time. And unless your narrator is Severian, reproducing dialogue after the fact is going to be a joke. I don’t remember the exact words I used in conversation earlier today, much less months or years ago. A lot of Wolfe’s writing, though not all, is conscious of this and either explains the recall (Severian’s alleged perfect memory, Latro is writing a diary so it is recent) or else acknowledges it as a reconstruction. But he’s pretty unusual.

    All of which is to say, the first person narrative is almost always going to be contrived, so should we just accept the convention for what it is, the same way Shakespeare’s audiences accepted asides as inner thoughts and boys portraying women?

  14. I have no problem with a first person story written in a voice that does not sound like it was being spoken out loud, or written in a letter, or a diary, or a message in a bottle, or whatever. A written story that //does// sound like a proper heir to oral storytelling, is pretty unusual. That sort of effect is part of the impact of “The Red Bride” and “Somadeva”. It seems to me that if you’re worried about why or where a narrator is telling a story and to whom, that’s a sign that the story is not engaging you as a reader enough to keep your mind from wandering off into theoretical mechanics.

    I’m more bothered by the //unnamed// first-person narrator. Everyone else in the story has a name? Why can’t the narrator?

  15. Matt H: I don’t think that we should. I hate to be all fusty, but a story should be told in third person unless there is a good reason not to. This is something of a matter of opinion, but honestly first person can be a newbie writer crutch. I don’t think that that statement requires a lot of justification, but call me out on it if you think that it does. There are, of course, a lot of reasons that someone would use the first person, but I don’t think that this or very many of the stories that we’ve read in the first person really qualify. The writers have simply done so because it was easier, and it worked to their detriment.

    All that said, I don’t think that a framing device is crucial. A clever writer who has strong reasons for doing the story in first person can skip it, but they’d better know why they’re telling the story that way. This story doesn’t seem to know why its told as it is, and suffers for it.

    Lois: I think that the preponderance of first-person narratives is a problem, but I think that it’s more of a problem of finding new writers but not really working with them on polishing their stories. This is, of course, speculation, but I think that the continual feeling that things are underbaked is more what’s bothering me than the first-person narrations.

    Do you think that the editor is actively soliciting first person stories or just settling for them?

  16. I think there are two very good reasons for using a first person voice in this story: it allows Baker to conceal the narrator’s gender until she chooses to reveal it, and it suits the story’s theme of closely-guarded secrets – would it feel right for a third person narrator to tell us how the main character is concealing his gender?

    I’m not a big fan of the first person voice, which is rarely handled well and can often obscure both the speaking character and the people around them, but I think it works in this story. The fact that it’s unbelievable for the narrator to be telling someone their story at this junction in his life doesn’t bother me, and in fact I rarely look for that believability. What I look for is a good, flowing voice, and this story has it.

  17. I found the plot point Patrick mentions extremely irritating too. It is the sort fo sheer idiocy that bumps you straight out of the story. To make matters worse, I don’t see why it is need. He’s spotted, immediately recognised, the sighting is taken seriously enough that he is forced to strip, he proves he is a woman, it is all forgotten. Why does this scene exist? It shows us that the goblin can change his sex but we find this out latter anyway and this doesn’t really foreshadow or amplify that. It is also curiously skirted over. The narrator has just changed sex – this is the most amazing thing that has ever happened to him but he essentially ignores it. This whole section seems full of bizarre authorial choices.

    Like others, I found myself torn by this story. I like a lot of the mood, the world, the sentence level writing. However, not only are there fairly big errors like the above but the story seems a bit underdone: the hurry to get to the end, the overly simplistic inversion of the genders, the fudging of political and gender identity. I didn’t realise this was Baker’s first story and she definitely shows a lot of potential but not quite there yet.

    On the question of first person, I never worry about when or how it is being told unless – as with Wolfe – the author makes it clear that this is relevent. I usually consider it to simply have been beamed direct from the character’s brain to the reader’s.

  18. I usually consider it to simply have been beamed direct from the character’s brain to the reader’s.

    In that case it should also be in the present tense.

    Context for a first-person narration is something I wish more writers (and readers) would be more demanding about. I think its absence is usually a substantive flaw in a story, because it draws attention to the artificiality of something that’s pretending to be naturalistic, but it’s not usually a fatal flaw.

  19. Niall and/or those of similar views: I assume you don’t think an absence of context for a third person narrative is a flaw? The difference being first person’s naturalistic pretensions? Not really disagreeing, just thinking out loud. Is a third person narrative improved by context the way a first person narrative is? Is Lord of the Rings a better book because of the thin conceit that it was written by some combination of Bilbo and Frodo and then “translated” by Tolkien?

    Evan: My opinion is that stories where the inner state of the main character is important (by which I mean sense impressions, reasoning, or emotion) work best in first person. Extreme examples would be Flowers for Algernon or The City & the City, but I would put “Throwing Stones” in this category as well. At least it should have been, but like Martin I was disappointed by the narrator’s lack of interest in the experience of switching gender.

    However, I’m not sure there’s a similar principle for when to use third person. Well, maybe one: when multiple viewpoints are required, but only because most authors can’t write voices distinct enough to share the same story. But I don’t really see why it has to be the default.

  20. I assume you don’t think an absence of context for a third person narrative is a flaw?

    More or less. I’d actually argue that any third person narrative automatically has a coherent context — there is an implied author telling the story, constructed from word choices and the things they pay attention to, even if they never declare themselves in the text. (Note that the constructed author is not the same as the human being who wrote down the words.)

    Is a third person narrative improved by context the way a first person narrative is?

    It can be for me, although more generally I’d say that I just find atypical approaches to narration — which basically means anything other than unspecified first person or generic third person — interesting. The way the narrative in Galileo’s Dream appears to be third person but is revealed as first person, for instance, or the playful address of the narrator of Redemption in Indigo.

  21. Evan, the editor has made very clear that he prefers first-person. Says it conveys “immediacy” or something of that sort. I have also known authors who had their work rejected there because it was not in first person.

    I think a lot of new writers just use first person as a default, without really considering what voice would be best for telling a given story. I tend to accept it until the story itself rises up to bring it to my attention, usually not in a good way.

    But reading a number of BDS stories in a row, as I do, the repetition of “I” “I” “I” sometimes brings it to my attention.

  22. My brief snippet of a review, from the October Locus, reveals that I was largely in agreement with many of the commenters here — a promising piece that didn’t really work. I wrote:

    Mishell Baker’s “Throwing Stones” is an enjoyable gender-bending story of a man passing as a woman in a place where women are considered the only potential sorcerers, and thus apparently have the only potential power. He – or she – hopes to prove his/her ability, but how will he avoid execution for blasphemy if discovered. A dangerous encounter with a demon may provide an answer – but certainly at a cost. Interesting stuff, but I thought it didn’t quite engage with the story that really needed to be told, and thus didn’t quite emotionally convince. I’d still like to see more in this milieu, though!

  23. @ Matt H:

    All of which is to say, the first person narrative is almost always going to be contrived, so should we just accept the convention for what it is?

    There isn’t a blanket yes or no answer to your question, for me at least. It depends on what works best for a given story. It isn’t precisely about believability; as you say, different storytelling methods have different conventions, that are nearly all contrived. So it is more about artistry in an story’s awareness and use of those conventions. My sense of the convention for the first person past tense is that such stories are recountings–they may be understood to be spoken, or written in some form, or they might be memories being examined, etc. I think then, that just as we might question such a story if a reasonably reliable narrator did some activity within the story that was out of character, so too we should question stories where recounting the story itself is out of character. As is the case with this story, I’d argue. On the other hand, context doesn’t necessarily add to a story. Take the Dellamonica werewolf story we read. That also was told in the first person past tense. It was never stated why the story was being told, or to whom, or how exactly (written, spoken, etc.); and it did contain information that needed to be kept secret from many people. But the inclusionary aspect of the first person telling fit the community-oriented message of the story: I could imagine the narrator telling the story to a friend, and as a matter of political strategy the story tries to make us that friend, wants to make us friends of its community. That, for me, makes the story more effective as-told than if it had been given a more fully defined context.

  24. Lois: Kind of an odd editorial position to take, but I suppose that it’s his money to spend.

    Matt H: Personally, I am far more likely to be OK with first person when done for stylistic reasons, whether they be Wolfean or simply to get deep into the idiosyncratic and interesting voice of a character. I generally find close third good enough for the situations you describe, but it’s definitely an arguable thing, largely resting on preference.

    I tend to prefer third person just because it’s the least distracting of the standard voices, especially when the author is attempting prose fireworks that don’t have to do with character voice.

  25. I was finding it hard to articulate my feelings about the story, but then Martin summed them up with his description that he is torn by the story, that it seems underdone. I’m with him on that and find it hard to add anything that hasn’t already been said above.

    However, the story does make me think of the work of Alma Alexander/Alma A. Hromic. I’ve never read anything by her before, but I bought a second hand copy of The Embers of Heaven recently which I’ve yet to read, and it looks similar to this short story in a thematic way, but inverted. It’s about the secret language of jin-ashu, used by women in the secret society of jin-shei, in a fantasy version of China. Baker’s story is set in the city of Jiun-Shi, which looks like a very similar word. I know nothing about Chinese but I wonder if these three different names mean the same or similar things in Chinese, just translated slightly differently into English, and if so what the original means in Chinese. Does anyone know if Baker is deliberately drawing on the original version of this idea (if it exists)?

  26. I think that the problem lies with Baker who has an alienating effect on Tuo. This leaves a sour taste in the mouth considering the gender roles – especially after the story starting in such a strong way.

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