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Uncanny Valley · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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#1 ·
Lots of fun:

It could use another run through the word processor to tighten up the details. In the 2nd paragraph, for instance, when "Her image blurred as she reached beyond the AR frame and punched me in the shoulder," I found myself thinking that she was wearing some sort of light wire mesh suit--an AR frame--that projected the skin around her. When events later in the story made we realize that wasn't how it worked, having to stop and redraw my mental image really threw me out of the narrative. Tell us that the AR frames are the glasses our unnamed narrator's wearing right at the top there, and that'll help.

Maybe let us know what Jane's so brilliant at--we get told a lot how smart she is, but she seems a little flighty throughout. Keep the flightiness, but add some depth to her, too. And I love how the last line puts the whole thing in perspective: changing skins and even whole IRL body transplants are on the same level as finding a new dress. Good stuff!

#2 · 2
All right, let's get cracking. I didn't get an entry of my own finished this round; things happened. Seems like that was the case for quite a few people. But we do have eight entries, and what an eight they are!

I did a preliminary read through all eight before starting in-depth comments for this round, and I have to say I'm very impressed by the overall quality of this field! They're all pretty neat, and surprisingly very close to each other in content and themes. That's fantastic, really interesting, great discussion fodder, and oh god, it's going to make doing these commentaries twenty times harder and they're all going to be walls of text. I'm expecting to go back and forth on some of these for several posts...

And that might make a decent intro to actually talking about this piece. If anything could.

I really don't know what to do with this one. The other seven I have a reasonable order for; I could see a few swapping places, but for the most part I can mentally define them. This story, though... I could put this in first place, dead last, or anywhere in between, and justify it to myself. Most Controversial in my head already.

On the technical side of things, this piece is fantastic. The prose is rock solid, and coupled with pacing and clear imagery that make it evocative and easy to read. (The above comment has a fair point about some confusion from understanding exactly how the AR frames work, but I grasped it quickly enough and wasn't too bothered.) I felt immersed in the text and could easily visualize and enjoy all the details. The dialogue is likewise crisp, presenting convincing banter and characterization with no wasted words. Lots of fun, indeed. Probably the best in the round, and beyond my ability to point out much that could be done better without excessive nitpicking.

Unfortunately, the content side doesn't fare quite as well with me. It starts out innocently enough, as near future speculative science/social fiction, introducing us to mainstream AR and the associated culture of cosmetic changes. You can look like a sexbot, you can be an octopus, you can be a celebrity, you can be a vampire, you can be a catgirl, you can be another gender-

I stopped laughing, staring at Jane Skins in horror.

Whoa! Whoooaaaa there partner. Hang on a hot minute here, because that took a swerve. Let's take a moment here to establish something. Changing one's gender presentation and/or identity is a real thing that real people do, right now, right here, today, seriously. Very seriously. In meatspace, too, no AR takebacks. Major current social issue, "you can easily get murdered for doing this" seriously. There are transgender (and otherwise nonbinary or nonconforming) community members on this very website.

So with that in mind, including the Jayne section radically changes the tenor of this piece. Suddenly, it's no longer "speculative" or "near future" in the slightest, it's very real, very current, and if anything is underplaying its subject matter. It's impossible for me to ignore that as a reader. Of course, it was leaning in that direction already, all the themes of changing one's external appearance could be read as a reflection on present day transpeople, but with this section in the piece it becomes a confirmed and dominant theme.

And what the piece has to say about these issues is, well, not particularly sensitive. The protagonist reacts with explicit disgust and fear:

“I… What?” A wave of blind terror washed over me. “This is another joke skin, right?”

“But do you really want them to see you as a guy?” I pressed, a tinge of desperation creeping in. “Would that just be, you know, weird?”

I’d never considered just how terrifying your crush casually flipping genders in front of you could be.

And then, worst of all, it simply moves on, as if that section really was just another joke skin, and now we're going to move on to something that's actually important, with no self-awareness about how that passage can and will be read. As a reader, I was shocked. My jaw dropped, I sputtered at folks in chat, I took a minute to reread the piece, decided to reserve judgment before finishing it, and went on and finished it. And nope, it doesn't come back to address the issue. If anything, it doubles down on the sentiment that "people who change their appearance are icky and bad, you should be satisfied with the body and looks you've got."

So... was there any self-awareness? I did say it was "unfortunate" earlier, and I meant that. I don't know if all this was intentional or not. Writing is often a very different process than reading, and I can easily see the line where the author was in a speculative sci-fi mindset, grabbed at some ideas, and genuinely didn't realize they had fully stumbled into the hornet's nest of the present.

I can also see a line where this was done deliberately, but poorly, attempting to be sensitive and present the disgust and horror as "these are the thoughts of Buck, the character, who is not necessarily meant to read as a socially conscious or admirable person." I can see it... but I don't really buy it, because the piece does not make any attempt I can find to insert that spacing. It reads like a message piece, wherein Buck is the narrator and the mouthpiece of the author's Intended Message.

“Yeah, but it’s your body,” I pressed, trying and failing to find the words to express how insane the idea was. Given time and maybe a genetic screen I was sure I could find dozens of things to ‘fix’ about myself, but I rather liked my body. Sure, I wasn’t the definition of masculinity nor some Olympic athlete but it was lived in. I was used to it. I couldn’t image going to sleep one day with new eyes. “You’re really just going to throw it all away?”

I can't find any removal, any nested voicing, any irony, any hint that this is intended to be read in any manner other than forthright and just as it says, the message of the piece being that Buck is right and Jane is wrong (or at least, less correct). If anyone else sees some layering I'm missing, please do point it out. There's one moment where he lampshades the fact that he has no actual response to Jane's practiced arguments, but he shakes it off and presses on, and I don't read much irony in the line.

Of course, that leads to another important facet of all this: Buck's views are never actually given backing or developed upon. The tone of the piece wants us to believe him, but he's not actually very convincing. The quote above is the closest he ever gets to expressing why he takes this ethos (well, that and "Plain Jane is hot and I want to get with her (and steer her life onto my path instead of what she thinks she wants for herself).") Buck himself doesn't get much of a personality other than his specific social conservatism and (unexplained, unexamined) crush on Jane. So that's a significant issue in its own right, and one that can be laid squarely on the content writing rather than wading into maybe-accidental sociopolitical quagmires.

So. What do I do when the best technical writing of the round takes a cold glass of casual transphobia and dumps it out all over my head, in a manner that may have been well meaning but clumsy, just plain clumsy, or even intentional? Right at a point in time when America (and other nations, but America especially) seems to be on the brink of a literal culture war involving this very issue?

I could vote it highly on technical strengths. I could put it middleish for clumsy messaging and an iffy message protagonist. I could bottom it on ethical principle, emotional reaction, and standing policy ("don't do flagrantly edgy pieces in Writeoff, because every entry here comes packaged with the implicit context that the author wrote the piece and made the choices they did because they're trying to elicit strong emotional reactions from readers in order to score well in the competition.")

It's certainly an interesting and well constructed piece, though. Thanks for writing!
#3 · 2
Buck kinda comes across to me as someone we should not be rooting for.

Body positivity stories (which I think this wants to be - it is possible to read this as a subversion where Buck is intentionally presented as a bit of a problem character, but I don't feeeeel like it is that intentional? The framing hews pretty close to what I'd expect for a "Be yourself!" story) have some problems for me. Primarily that, while it is fine and good to encourage people to be okay with themselves, there is also that undertone of "changing things/aspiring/etc is bad" which always reads badly to me. If someone WANTS to change something about themselves, why shouldn't they? Flaws are not things to be ashamed of - everyone has them - but at the same time I'm not going to begrudge it if someone who is fat wants to lose weight or someone who isn't happy with their looks wants to alter them.

This becomes -especially- true in a society where the tech level allows this to be more or less totally safe.

Throughout the story, Jane's stuff seems pretty reasonable. She wants to mess around with new skins which is both apparently a common thing given the tech seems to be in reasonably high proliferation and utterly harmless, while she mentions the weird Mexican surgeries she seems to well know better than to do it, and the body swap (while it could be considered maybe a stroke too far - YMMV) is also part of a 10 year plan which again indicates relatively careful forethought, not rushing into it, and giving herself lots of time to reconsider.

Buck meanwhile is just... hella possessive. He seems very anti-his friend doing anything she wants, and this reaches a troubling head at the end with the "I can't let her go" thing where it feels like it crosses into full on he's holding her back territory. Which kinda makes the end icky in a lot of ways... "We both hate this kind of thing" Jane says, but since HE wants them to change and do this, it is fine. Unlike all the things Jane wants to change about herself.

Ultimately I am very conflicted. If this is intended towards being a be yourself story, I think it falls into some of the more problematic traps for that kind of story. If it is intended to criticize that sort of view, then I feel it doesn't well defend Jane's views (or really bring home why Buck's views have issues), and if it is intended to throw it in the air and just be ambiguous, then fie, I say! Take a stand! :p

All that said, writing is super solid and idea is great fun. I do feel the tech is a little awkwardly positioned (this feels like a world positioned at some point between ours and GitS, so things like the skins are kinda tricky to really judge how much they matter) and this creates some additional tension with the characterization (Buck ends up reading as a bit backwards/a bit of a luddite without any real insight into why), but I don't think it is a huge issue.

Seriously though, super solid prose quality.
#4 · 3
Not to pile on the problematic gender presentation writing here, but ... *sigh* I've gotta pile on.

It's probably been done, though.

My first exposure to the idea of transgenderism was in early grade school. (The father of one of my childhood friends left home suddenly, dropped all contact with his family, and wrote home a letter signed with a female name.) That was in the early 1980s. And I'm pretty sure that, in the 1980s, that made me an outlier.

But it's 2017 now and, as I type this, one of the top stories on Google News is U.S. President Trump declaring that transgender individuals are no longer welcome to serve in the military.

Your world is past that. They have moved past Facebook (which still exists) to AR and working tail implants (!) and yet somehow a character can shrug off a transgender thought experiment with an "it's probably been done". I'm sorry, that's like writing a story about 21st century dentistry and then you suddenly reveal right before your climax that nobody on Earth has molars.

not be the queen of hentee. Hentani? Hentai?” She shot a quick glance at a screen and her eyes widened with alarm. “Ooo, that was not something to Google with SafeSearch off.

How sheltered are these kids?! You just can't write a believable story with this level of oblivious innocence in 2017.

(The more so since right at the beginning it's clear that Dick knows Korean porn well enough to recognize its body models.)

Unfortunately, the treatment of transgenderism goes from oblivious to problematic when you build up to it through the idea of changing species. Contrast Dick's reaction to Jane-as-octopus:

I blinked, staring. The skin was a terrifyingly large octopus. While it was at least in a friendly orange and blue in colour, it’s bulbous, watery eyes looked like it was about to devour my soul. “It’s...” Horrifying, hideous, monstrous, Lovecraftian, sickening. “Unique,” I settled on at last.

A bubbly laugh escaped Jane, and she waved her tentacles wildly. “I knew you’d like it. I’m a sure in for the aquatic crowd at College.” She bared her beak at me and I pressed myself as far back in my chair as I could manage.

“Can you please pick something else.”

With his reaction to Jane-as-male:

I stopped laughing, staring at Jane in horror.

“Like it?” Jane asked, in a rich tenor. The voice had a slight reverb, and I could almost make out Jane’s real alto underneath a layer of noise cancelling. “They actually let you mix and match modules for this skin so you can look like yourself, not generic meathead number five.”

“I… What?” A wave of blind terror washed over me. “This is another joke skin, right?”

You specifically explain his revulsion over the nonhuman skin to a latent fear of octopi. The male skin gets no such lampshading — and arguably his emotional reaction (suddenly-dying laughter and "blind terror") is portrayed as more severe than his revolted-but-still-under-control octopus negativity. That is, you're saying that viewing your protagonist's female friend (not even girlfriend!) as a male is more terrifying than something the narrator compares to Cthulhu. That's ... kind of breathtaking.

(Then you double down: "I’d never considered just how terrifying your crush casually flipping genders in front of you could be." That is the point at which I had to stop reading. Two of my last three partners have been trans, as well as many of my friends, and I have seen firsthand some of the ugliness that these sorts of attitudes can lead to.)

So, look, author: There's nothing particularly objectionable about the rest of the story (unless it gets worse after I stopped), and (hopefully) it can hold together without the problematic parts. More importantly, I'm not going to hold this story against you — Writeoff stories are first drafts, and a lot of regrettable shit gets written in first drafts that's not representative of your real skills or opinions. But please, please, take this as a learning experience (and for gods' sakes, edit the fuck out of this if you plan to republish it elsewhere). Not only can mishandling of a sensitive current-events topic swerve your story into a wall, it has real emotional effects on readers.

Tier: Misaimed
#5 · 3
Aw geez you guys are really railing on this one..
*Sigh*. Attempted Devil's Advocate mode engaged!

The 'trans' bit fit in well in the context of the story. Judging by your comments I read before I actually finishing the entire thing I was honest to God expecting shitstorm levels of... someting...
And after reading i felt a sense of 'thats it?'
This is a future were talking about, one with cloning and all the other stuff J mentioned. You'd assume casually flipping genders would not be that big of a deal
I cant understand the rest of you flipping out so much about a future where, as i see it, the issues of today have long since been cleared up, for the better if anything. If were going for commentary its a GOOD thing! That its an accepted fact of life and noone is going for the pitchforks is, if nothing else, a future we should be aiming for.

Sure the main charachter isnt that great for the others reasons pointed out and maybe the reaction was a bit uncalled for but even as a bi person if someone i liked suddenly flipped genders with no warning i too would ask what the fresh hell theyre thinking

And "cold glass of casual transphobia"? Seriously? If we're going for faults than it cant be anything more than ignorance because i very much doubt an actual transphobe would ever bother going out of their way for the perceived jab that you seem to find here

Also im not going to comment on the rest of the story because im not a qualified enough literat, but seriously people youre making mountains out of molehills here.
#6 · 2
Skins — B+ — More or less a one-trick story with boy-girl talking about how their outsides influence the way others view them, and each other. Interesting, but it drags something fierce because the author likes to describe the outfits/skins more than the main focus of the conversation. Admittedly, the costume-porn of virtual reality is done *very* well, but it’s a distraction.
#7 · 2
I think I'm going to have to side with enamis here. It's not that I don't understand where you guys are coming from, but... although we have Buck's reactions, the story never really gets into why he reacts that way, or what that actually means, for Buck or the people around him. At least, not in any way that felt really concrete to me. And that makes it problematic for me to really back any one view on what this story (or even what Buck himself) means by that part. Sure, the reaction is clear, but so what? It doesn't really mean much, as-is.

That's indicative of my biggest problem with this story, I think, which is something like... it doesn't draw enough conclusions? There's definitely a fair amount going on; Jane's leaving, trying to find her place in the world, trying to figure out what she wants to do, and what the means for who she is; Buck doesn't want to lose his friend, but isn't really willing to take drastic steps to do anything about it, he has a crush on her, but again, isn't really willing to make a step towards or away from commitment. Through the whole thing, the characters just kinda... dance around all the issues that are raised, leaving all the implications to just spin in circles without ever really reaching either a positive or negative a conclusion. It sorta feels like pulling a bunch of stuff out of the fridge, stirring it around in a pan, and then dumping the whole thing down the sink, without cooking or eating it. It might have been capable of being a perfectly good soup, but it would take more than just seeing and smelling raw ingredients.

Dang, I forgot to have lunch today.

ANYWAYS, I can get where people are coming from with their reaction to Buck's thoughts. The thing is, I don't feel like what the author means by the character's reactions is ever conveyed clearly enough for me to draw conclusions about whether or not this a good/bad thing in the story. I feel like people have kinda defaulted to bad, and... I just don't really get it. Sure, I can't necessarily say that the intentions were something I'd consider good, either, but I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt. Maybe Buck's asking Jane out in the end was a refutation of trans-phobic (this word really bugs me; people who are 'trans-phobic' aren't 'afraid of trans people' usually. They're just bigoted, and... blergh, prescriptive grammar, sorry, moving on) thoughts that he hadn't even realized he had, or something like that, which would give the whole thing a nice positive spin. Or maybe he realized somewhere in there that he doesn't really know Jane half as well as he thought, and he'd like to actually get to know her instead of just pining after her from a distance. Or something. Either of those would give this more character arc.

Which is something I think it needs more of, either character or plot arc. As I said before, there are a lot of good elements in here, that could make for any number of really strong and emotional arcs. But it feels like the characters (and hence the story) are too hesitant to address them meaningfully, and it leaves me rather cold. It is, at the very least, not obviously self-contradictory, but when I got to the end, I basically ended with something like 'that's it?' I mean, over the course of this entire story, the most significant thing I saw the ostensible MC accomplish is asking Jane to go to prom. Which, like, good for him, but that doesn't really address any of the other things that were brought up. Does this mean she's not leaving now? Probably no. Does this have any implication for Buck feeling abandoned or inferior? Probably no. Does this address Buck's weird visceral reactions to the idea of her looking (just looking, mind you,) like a guy? Not really, to my mind.

I think it's like... lack of narrative chaining? Like, narrative is, simply put, x happens, causing y, which causes z, which causes... something else, right? But the important part here is that things cause other things to happen. This story doesn't have much of that. It's Jane continually jumping from one thing to another, and Buck responding. A causes B, and then cut to C, which causes D, but then cut to E... see what I mean? There's no real strong narrative thread tying each of these things together. Instead of having a chain, you have a bunch of loose links. There's good potential here, but it needs to be a bit more... cohesive, somehow.

So I guess... I like a lot of what's here. The dialogue generally flowed well, the descriptions worked, the world was interesting, the characters were complex (even if their reactions seemed a bit skewed at times) but I ended up feeling like this really wasn't doing much of anything in the end. I won't say I was bored, but I really didn't feel like it was worth all the time I'd put into reading it. This doesn't really need more ideas or even conflict; it just needs to do a bit more with what it has, and give the whole thing some cohesion and conclusion, so the ending is satisfying. I think part of why people are focusing so much on Buck's little freak-out is because they're trying their best to make the story make sense, to find a narrative in here, and the thing that's most obvious is the easiest to grasp at and start linking things together with. Oh, the story's about transphobia! Well, maybe it is, as much as it's about anything, I guess.

Then again, maybe this is just me. I do tend to have somewhat less tolerance for 'slice-of-life' style stuff than some. If you want something really easy-paced, this is totally fine. I just didn't find much exciting or interesting going on, I guess.

Also, it's hard to focus when I'm hungry. People talk about randomness in the writeoff; I'm beginning to think that 'reader mood' is one of the more fickle aspects of the competition. :P I hope some of my rambling here was useful or entertaining to you, and I apologize if I came across as harsh. Thank you for writing!
#8 ·
I've gone shopping with very fashion savvy women, so I can relate to the tribulation that is Buck's life right now. Not too much to add to the above, except to note that I found myself visibly smiling at how you ended the story. That was a really cute way for her to say "yes."