This month’s installment of Old People Read New SFF is Caroline M. Yoachim’s award nominated Carnival 9, an endearing tale of clockwork people second cousin to children’s toys and inevitable, implacable mortality. The Hugo nominated it garnered suggests reader appeal and the fact that it was also nominated for a Nebula means professionals enjoyed (or at least appreciated) it was well. But will my Old People find it worth reading?
Carnival 9can be read here.
Life among the wind-up toys: they have trains, traveling carnivals, a “maker’s workbench” where the vitality of your thousand days (or so) is determined by the strength and elasticity of your mainspring. What they don’t have, I’m sorry to say, is a world that’s more than a fairly straightforward conceit, or any consistent scheme of relation to us that could make the story matter more.
It’s much better than most of us came up with in fourth grade when we were assigned “Write a story as if you were your favorite toy” – but not up to ‘Toy Story’ or The Velveteen Rabbit, let alone Pinocchio, as a fable to remember or inspire.
A tale of mechanical people, told throughout the course of one of their short lives. The beats of the plot are largely translatable to our human world; being a child, growing up, venturing out into the world, love, loss, having children of your own, making sacrifices, meeting death.
The details, however, are ingenious; we are slowly introduced to their world through the day-to-day particulars of it. The idea of a mainspring that must be wound daily, and whom by. That ones parts might be interchangeable. That children are something one actually makes with intention, from spare parts and tools. That one’s mechanical energy, like the metaphorical “spoons”, is limited and needs to be conserved if you want to achieve things throughout the day — doing too much is simply impossible: if you exhaust your spring you’ll simply wind down and spend the rest of the day (embarrassingly) motionless.
The idea that there is a limited amount of time and energy available throughout one’s life is a powerful one; definitely relatable if not translatable. The characters must make significant plans far in advance, and when confronted with dreams rendered impossible by simple physics, handle them realistically.
I thought the telling clever in these details of the mechanical people, but ultimately the story itself is just a simple biography. There’s nothing in the arc that is too surprising beyond discovering how the author would map the technical details of the world to one or another fairly standard trope.
It is a story well told, though in its reach towards poignancy is sabotaged by its own simplicity. There are no plot twists or surprises. Perhaps the story itself is a simple wind up mechanism, eventually winding down to a predictable ending.
I liked it, though.
‘Carnival Nine’ is a fantasy story about the inner life, the outer life, and the utter life of a clockwork marionette named Zee, who lives in a many-roomed world-house (or house-world) that is populated by some very large number of other clockwork marionettes similar to herself. The implication seems to be that there are at least many hundreds, and quite possibly even many thousands of clockwork marionettes “living” in this strange-yet-familiar toy-world.
All of them live at the very most for a thousand days, or a little less than three years. Many “die” before then. Basically, the analogy is that every hundred days in one of their lives, is the metaphorical equivalent of ten years in one of our lives.
This life-span of the marionettes is dictated by the eventual expiry of their capacity to carry any “life-force”, in a mainspring that serves, in effect, as their heart. This life-force takes the form of “turns”, as by a key winding a toy. Depending on the capacity of their mainspring, one marionette may simply have more energy each day than any other given marionette. Zee for her part was gifted from birth with a very strong mainspring, one far stronger than that of most of her kind, and so typically she has, at least in her youth, far more daily energy than do most.
Each day, a marionette must start by planning how to spend the “turns” they’ve been allocated for that day, so they can get what needs to be done, done. Also, this so that they do not (as “adult” clockwork marionettes) suffer the social embarrassment of running out of turns, and so freezing up from turn-exhaustion before they have returned to their home for that day.
The “turns” that they wake up with on any given morning, are given “overnight” apparently solely by the ineffable grace of their key-turning God. This God is their “Maker”, a Being as fittingly under-described and mysterious in the telling of this story as any true capital‑D Deity ought to be, in any context.
The clockwork marionettes are “born” from spare parts which are chosen from bins and assembled by the “new parents” (so, nothing like pregnancy exists, as such, for either of them). It is because this act of procreation is done at the workbench of the Maker, that the Maker is The Maker. And, it is the Maker who installs the requisite mainspring in the “child” as the final step, imbuing the child marionette with Life by a first key-turning.
“Gender” in this world seems to be defined by who assumes, or is expected to assume, the primary burden of “child” “care”, during the roughly first two-hundred days of a given child-marionette’s 1000-or-less-days-long life. Although it is not exactly clear of what this “care” consists, it is clear that it is exhausting and demanding. So, again, a metaphorical match-up with a human life.
The clock-work marionette’s world-house has “cities” each apparently located in one of its various rooms, which are inter-connected by a system of toy-train railways. At the start of the story, Zee lives in “Closet City” together with her father & her aging grandparents, who are too frail to fend for themselves and need constant care. We learn that Zee’s mother had basically abandoned her and Zee’s father, to live a life of adventure in one of the several numbered Travelling Carnivals that make regular circuits on the toy-rails, going from room-city to room-city within the house-world of the clockwork marionettes.
In this story of Zee’s thousand-day life, the main conflict is one of selfishness versus altruism, and that is true not only of Zee but of her fellow clockwork marionettes. It is both a strength and a weakness of this story that its economics are left quite vague. Thus, the reader has to infer as to what cost is, but on the other hand the author can communicate with immediacy whether clockwork marionettes in any given transaction share or steal, cheat or act fairly, pull their weight or shirk.
The tale seems to be effectively the thoughts and reminiscences of Zee in the final few days of her life, as she reflects on the choices, mistakes and sacrifices she has made over her nine-hundred-odd days lived thus far. She concludes that, despite the fact that she was unable to live out the fully adventurous life she dreamt of when she was still very young, she has had a satisfactory life.
It is very strange that a story about clockwork marionettes should be a Morality Tale, but that is what this is. I found the writing style to be engaging, the world-building to be brilliant, and the extended metaphor to be exceedingly well-executed. I am not at all surprised that this story was a finalist for notable prizes. I cared about the “lives” of the characters. I am glad I read this.
This story… well, it’s not the sort of story I would normally read, certainly. It was well-written, and the analogy of someone having to deal with raising a child with some sort of limitation or handicap was done well, but for me, the sketchiness of the world-background continued to be intrusive. This was mainly because the key elements OF that background — “the maker”, turns of a key, etc. — kept being brought up. I kept expecting to find out who or what the Maker was, why he made these clockwork people and why, since apparently they could go straight TO the Maker, literally, why no one ever asked the Maker to make springs with more turns, or why the Maker couldn’t or wouldn’t give replacement springs, and so on.
This really bothered me. I mean, if the Maker is meant as a substitute for “God”, this is such a primary difference that it ruins the analogy. We don’t know if God exists and if He does we certainly can’t find him, while in this story you can
literally go somewhere and “meet your Maker”.
The fact that such questions were never asked, nor discussed, was a big impediment to me. Your world has to make SOME sense in context, and for me, this just didn’t work.
As I write this, this story just won the Hugo. Many folks think it is an exceptional story.
The protagonist, Zee, is a clockwork person powered by a spring. Springs have various capacities, and each person gets a number of turns to his mainspring during a sleep period. That number is limited by the capacity of the person’s particular spring. A person’s life is counted in the number of such windings – nominally 1000. Zee as a youth can receive many turns – she is a very energetic person. (She is referred to as she, and she collaborates with a male to build a youngster out of recycled parts, but there is nothing in the description to indicates that such a pairing is necessary.
There is no attempt to describe what provides awareness.
It seems to be a telling of life, with life’s limitations represented by the limitations of the clockwork. I didn’t see its exceptional merit. I seem to be in the minority.
One commenter described this story as a dramatization of spoon theory – and in the grinding, implacable tyranny of the number of turns, it is as literal a representation as you are likely to find. But it’s more than that: it is a portrayal of a society in which there is no society. Zee and her fellows are almost entirely on their own in their struggles, with no one outside of family to assist. Even at the end, Zee is counting on reciprocity for her endlessly-offered turns to the other workers of Carnival Nine to sustain Mattan in the days after she is gone (although Chet appears to offer something more).
Beautifully done, and a sustained gut-punch from start to finish.
OK, this is one where being an Old Person provides some context. See, back in 1973, O Best Beloved, a virtuosic and ambitious progressive rock group called Emerson, Lake and Palmer (because those were their names) wrote and performed an epic piece called Karn Evil 9. Only a small part of it was ever played on the radio because the whole thing was more than half an hour long. The lyrics writer, Pete Sinfield, depicted a world where machines were in charge. Real experiences like art and religion were commodified, automated, and sold as entertainment.
I was introduced to Karn Evil 9 by a guy named David on whom I had a mad crush in 1981. He was known for being able to recite all the lyrics from memory while hanging by his knees from a beam in the kitchen of the camp where we worked. I never got anywhere with him, but I did pick up a taste for bombastic ‘70s prog-rock.
Just from the title, I was prepared for Yoachim’s story to take me to odd and scary places, and she delivers. Zee lives in Closet City, one of a population of wind-up people whose mainsprings give them only a certain number of “turns” each day with which to accomplish everything they have to do that day. (Think of “spoon theory,” popular among those with chronic illness and those who interact with them.) Her small family is ruled by these limits, yet within them she manages to enjoy a certain amount of adventure and fun.
I won’t spoil the story, but in a small and fanciful space, Yoachim manages to tackle meaty themes of disability and ability, motherhood and fatherhood, and the purpose of an individual life. Well done, and I will definitely look into her other works!
I’m not sure about the direction of this “New SF” we’re reviewing. Limited sample size, to be sure, but half the stories so far seem to be about old people reaching the ends of their lives, or running out of turns in the idiom of this story. Is that what the young things like reading about these days?
Not that I disliked it; the setting was intriguing, and as a metaphor for the lives of those of us without actual mainsprings it was sufficiently different to give another angle to viewing our own stories.
It’s the kind of story that leaves some unanswered questions. Quite properly so; though I’d like to know who’s placing the mainsprings in the narrator’s people, supplying the answer would only have changed the story into something less interesting and less affecting. I hope the author is never tempted to expand or otherwise enhance it.
I more or less liked this story. It was very sad, but it was well-done.
It’s a literalization of spoon theory– spoon theory is a way of explaining what it’s like to live with a disease or handicap which causes serious limitations on what one can do.
In the story, people have springs which need to be wound up daily– they know how many “turns” (actions) they have in a day, and some people have stronger springs which can take more turns.
The viewpoint character is a woman who has a strong spring, but she also has a fragile child with a weak spring. Taking care of him means she doesn’t get to do much of anything else she wants. That’s her life.
“The spoon theory is a disability metaphor and neologism used to explain the reduced amount of energy available for activities of living and productive tasks that may result from disability or chronic illness.”
“Wanderlust is a strong desire for or impulse to wander or travel and explore the world”
“The phrase “filial obligations” is generally understood to refer to special duties — specific kinds of actions, services, and attitudes — that children must provide to their parents simply because they are those parents’ offspring.”
This was so good. Through the conceit of a mechanical world where everyone is wound by a “maker” who creates them all and winds them every night, Yoachim presents a world in which the resources of any individual are defined by turns of a spring. Where labour is measured on those springs, even so far as the labour of expressing an opinion.
What kind of world would we have if we had to be frugal with our resources because we might not have enough to share a word with a loved one otherwise? If every pull of wanderlust had to be measured against the obligations towards family?
North America prizes the independent streak, the wanderlust, the urge to “run off and join the circus” as prime elements of youth while at the same time the cultural insistence that we give up everything we’ve dreamed about to care for our families, both old and young, is incredibly strong. The idea of doing things for yourself first is deemed selfish and unworthy and something to be ashamed of.
I love how this story interweaves those concepts, taking someone with such a strong wanderlust and an abundance of “turns”, giving them the ability to barter them, resent it, horde them, share them and eventually acknowledge that they’ll lose them.
Everything has a lifespan. Eventually we’re all so much scrap parts, waiting to be turned into something new. What we do with our turns between the start and the end is what defines us.
That’s not a bad story to tell.
This is a short-short based on a similar concept to the SF fandom theory of “spoons”. The characters are clockwork, and each one gets rewound a variable number of “turns” each day. Someone with a strong mainspring might regularly get 50 turns, others less. On a high turn day, you could have enough turns to do your work and then go out and have fun at the carnival, but on a lower turn day you might hardly be able to complete your chores. Zee has always had a strong mainspring that’s wound up tight each night, but her child has a weak mainspring – he is literally ‘special needs’ as she has to carry him, using up her own turns in the effort, since he does not have enough to walk by himself.
With its exploration of a family dynamic, it feels like a Russian novel set in Pixar’s Toy Story world and once again in this New SF series, the short words and simple sentences grated on me after a while. It was certainly effective in getting across what it means to run out of “turns” (or “spoons”) before the day is finished.
My grandfather once said to me, “God never puts more burden on a person than they can carry.” The grandfather in the story puts it differently. “Sometimes the maker turns your key more, and sometimes less, but you can never have more than your mainspring will hold.” Zee was given a strong mainspring because she had a lot of work to do. It’s a nice thought, but as an Old Person, I’ve met people who didn’t have such a thoughtful maker.
I kind of want to call this piece charming, which isn’t quite right. There are a lot of not quite right words, actually: sweet, moving, pretty, quaint. I mean, it has aspects of all of these, but it mixes them together in a way that makes the story all and none of these. There’s a synergy that makes this feel unique.
I like steampunk as an aesthetic, but not as world-building. The use of clockwork as instantiated metaphor in this story takes on an interesting depth, but I keep on fretting about exactly who/what the maker is, and how the characters get wound. The commentary on supportive roles in community, on disability, and on parenting are explicated and supported by the central conceit. But I still get stuck wondering who winds them. I can’t make their economy make sense. Perhaps my problem is that I am trying to read this as science fiction, rather than fantasy. All that said, I really liked the story.
If you’ve been reading SFF books that explore post-scarcity societies, “Carnival 9” may feel like the perfect clock-work counter-example. There is a hint that the wind-up people of this tale have a currency (“[I]f you didn’t buy any tickets I’ll let you work for a play — a turn for a turn, as they say.”) We never see that currency.
Instead, we learn about those turns. Turns come from an unseen maker. A person who runs out of turns freezes in place until the maker winds them up overnight. Running out of turns is described as an embarrassing experience akin to a child failing to reach the bathroom in time.
Social status is a function of the parts people start with. If their parts are good, they can take a skilled job like carnival acrobat. If their parts are not good, they can run a rigged game.
For wind-up people, life is fundamentally transactional. Zee’s mother is selfish with her turns. There’s nothing wrong or unreasonable with her choice, yet Zee comes away from their meeting determined to user her turns for the good of others. She later identifies this giving as love.
With fairytale irony, the the invisible maker (the author!) gives Zee a child worthy of her love, a literal burden. She must carry Matts because he hasn’t the strength to walk. His weak mainspring prevents him from replying to casual conversation. Listening doesn’t have the value of talking, as it doesn’t cost a turn.
I can’t read about turns without thinking of “spoons,” the measure of effort in a noteworthy essay about chronic illness. Perhaps this is why the story’s resolution brought tears to my eyes. If you don’t give until it hurts, is it really love?
I love the universe of this story. Superficially, it reminds me of E. Nesbit’s *Magic City*, without the children. I used to build worlds like this out of my toys as a child.
But the author takes this surreal world, and its mechanical inhabitants, and tells a story about being human. This is what the best science fiction does, and the author manages to distill all of the emotions and experiences of a lifetime into a short story.
One of the ways this is done is the metaphor of turns of a wind-up key, which is at the same time a real limit and concrete reality in the story. I find myself reading the story as allegory and story at the same time — and each one strengthens the other.
Another tool the author uses is scale — defining the limits of a day and of a life and providing a framework which is filled with the experiences of the protagonist. I was frustrated by some of those limits, but I accepted them within the story as natural and inevitable.
This is a well-crafted story, and I recommend it.
Beginning with a reference to Emerson Lake & Palmer. Nice start.
I’m not sure if this is fantasy, or reverse-steampunk, or what. But it’s delightful, both as a (slightly twee but not in a bad way) story, and as an allegory for the Mystery Of Life And Death. (Calling the winder-upper the “maker” when the windup people all make their own children from spare parts – quite right.)
The characters were fresh, the setting quite unexpected – I found myself picturing a huge house, full of windup toys and electric trains – and the denouement perfect for the situation.
But the style … amazing. I can feel the clicking of the mainsprings, the whirring of the gears, in every sentence.
This is a nice story that could have filled a fantasy slot in any issue of F&SF ever. I have no idea why it comes to me labelled as SF, and am slightly boggled that it warrants Hugo and Nebula Awards nominations.
I like the way it marries the subdued and slightly melancholy story of clockwork love and duty with its sepia-toned background scenery of railway and carnival.
I would read more stories by Caroline M. Yoachim.
There are fantasy stories that feel real except for the fantastical elements, and there are fantasy stories that are set in a total non-mimetic setting. “Carnival Nine” is one of the latter. It’s a beautifully told story in a setting that I can only read as allegory. (Another story of much the same sort is Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation.”) This story takes a lot more suspension of disbelief than most, and it doesn’t entirely work for me — though it may be that that says more about me than about the story.
It’s an interesting way to say things about the phases of life, and disability, and loss. For me, I’m not sure it actually works, but in that I’m apparently in the minority.
This is where I confess that I hate short stories. I have not voluntarily read a collection of short stories. Ever. If there is an author I really really like, I will read their short stories, but the whole time I am annoyed that these each aren’t a full book.
So. Carnival Nine appears to be an allegory where everybody dies. They struggle to deal with the limitations of their world and then they die. They search for answers to questions, and the answers raise more questions and then they die.
Okay okay. I’ve done this analyze the text shit before, so let’s give it a go. We find out the lead character’s name, her spouse’s name, her child’s name, her mother’s name, her spouse’s parents’ names, but we don’t find out her father’s or grandparents’ names.
Evidently all these people are activated every morning by being “wound up” – yes they have keys in their backs – but it all seems to happen simultaneously until whoever does the winding doesn’t wind a person any more.
Why don’t these people wind each other up (ho ho). When people wind down at night they sleep, but what happens to their consciousness when they aren’t wound up in the morning, and their descendents take them to be dismantled?
We seemed to start out in a house – the lead character’s home is in Closet City, and a trip to the bathroom for soap takes a long time, but then the Carnivals seem to be in endless supply. The “maker” doesn’t appear to be a child, but nor does the maker seem to be a toy maker, because all of the people made there, stay there – until they die, of course – and then their bits are reused in new people/toys.
The lead character seems unthinking. She mentions that her father never has turns for anything but boring grown-up things, but she never, even as she ages and her turns are used only for her responsibilities, wonders what her father may have wished for as a young man – what adventurous streak was it that deposited him in the arms of Lady Arachna. Her grandparents are dismantled, and she and her spouse later collect the parts for their son, but she never wonders who might have used those – or even her own – parts in the past.
Anyway. It feels like a lot of these things could get explored in a book-length narrative, except … I’ve recently read something that proves that sometimes a short story is just a short story: Golden Delicious by Christopher Boucher. Both Carnival Nine and Golden Delicious do some interesting incomplete things which feel a bit magical realism and a bit like they should mean more than they do. Carnival Nine doesn’t seem like Science Fiction, or Speculative Fiction, or Spiffy Fantasy, or whatever label is currently used for the old SF grab bag. It feels like literary fiction, which is fine, but I don’t like short stories – because everybody dies.