I’ve now read four more stories in Fat Girl in a Strange Land. I’m just going to post about the first two right now, though, because the reviews I’ve written so far are relatively long.
Before I get to the reviews themselves, I want to link to a short interview with the author of “Cartography and the Death of Shoes”, A.J. Fitzwater. She also has a list of places you can buy the book.
“The Right Stuffed”, by Brian Jungwiwattaporn, is a sort of cyberpunk story: there is a network called the Grid, which is sort of like the internet but with virtual reality (or sort of like Second Life but with virtual reality). I say “sort of” because, although I haven’t read a lot of cyberpunk, my impression was that usually, almost all of it takes place in the cyberworld, and only about half of it does here. The protagonist does not like the Grid: “The Grid, where everyone was beautiful, shapely, and generally meaner than they were in real life turned Anna the wrong way.” But she unexpectedly gets a job where she has to go on the Grid–although she’s going to a part called the Void where she’s not interacting with other people for the most part–because she is recruited by the military, along with another fat woman, Michelle. Although they have artistic abilities that may prove useful, they are primarily recruited because they’re fat:
“The most efficient way to capture information, keep it secure, and transport it out is to consume it. My soldiers, with a lifetime of athletics and nutrition, have a natural aversion to this process. Even if it’s all virtual, the quantities of information and the forms they are in provide an obstacle. In short, they are unable to eat, and we need people who can eat. It’s the quickest, and I think safest, way to get information when you are out there. If you noticed, the other applicants were all… robust women…. It may be similar to deep hibernation and we believe that your bodies will be more resilient for extended trips in the Void.”
If Anna and Michelle are part of the subtype of people who are fat because they consume large quantities of food, and/or if they’ve dieted and binged after coming off a diet, this makes certain amount of sense; they may feel conflicting emotions about eating large amounts of food, but at least it’s not new and strange to them. One of the information packets comes in the form of a cake, and another is in the form of a stream of water. Most fat people aren’t in the habit of eating two whole cakes, but someone coming off a diet can binge and eat quite a lot of food, and Anna has dieted in the past. (It’s Michelle who eats the cake, though; it’s not clear if Michelle has dieted, but anecdotally it seems like fat people who haven’t dieted are in the minority.) The quote above makes sense when the information is in the form of a cake. Michelle and Anna also end up needing to eat some non-food items, though; but I suppose that none of those were actually information packets. The eating in those cases was to neutralize a threat, and while I don’t think that the experience of eating large amounts of food would do much to prepare you to eat non-food items, I don’t see any reason it would make it harder.
The whole “eating data to obtain it” thing is an interesting premise, but I kept struggling with my suspension of disbelief. It’s believable that the virtual world they’ve come up with for humans would show the packets being eaten, but wouldn’t there have to be more going on beneath the surface? Maybe you/your computer is scanning the code and deleting the source or whatever? Eating seems like a form of representation that would simplify the computer stuff for the benefit of human observers, not what’s really going on. And therefore, if eating is a problem for the other soldiers, why not just represent it to them in a different way? It seems like a reification of something that’s just an arbitrary metaphorical representation of the real process.
I can’t say I really like the protagonist here, either. She did have her moments:
Anna looked at the sky from which she fell. Slinky toy type creatures were being corralled and eaten by screeching rabbits, AI-created programs designed to consume data… Looking above, Anna aimed her pistol and fired. “Silly rabbits, information wants to be free.”
Something about the “seemingly normal but in the right situation is able to do incredible things!” narrative seems to appeal to me, so I did like that aspect of it, and I think that was part of why I liked “Survivor” from earlier in the anthology. I did think that recruiting people by saying they would get a data entry job with the government, when they were really recruiting for a military intel job, was an interesting plot device. But Anna seemed like a bit of a stereotypical sad fat woman. At the end, she has her Moment of Self-Acceptance, but it didn’t seem to follow naturally from the rest of the story. This had some good/interesting elements, but overall it didn’t appeal to me that much.
“Tangwystl the Unwanted” by Katharine Elmer–here’s another protagonist who is unexpectedly able to do incredible things! In this case the reason she’s able to do incredible things is not because she’s threatened with death–at least, not primarily–or because she just happens to have the right talents for a military intelligence job, but because of love. In a way this is also an accepting-yourself story, because she has the opportunity to join the fairies, the selkies, and the trolls, but turns each of them down in order to try to find her home. This story is somewhat similar to the Rapunzel story, but takes it in a different direction than the original. You could say that this story is also about adoption, albeit in different circumstances than most adoptions today… And yet, there is some similarity in that many adoptions are done with the goal of a better life for the mother, the child, or both.
Here are the circumstances of the adoption in this particular story:
Many years ago, [Tangwystl’s] mother, Queen Bregus, stole from the sacred fruit tree. Aberfa [Tangwystl’s guardian] promised a curse so powerful that her family would feel its destructive effects for nine generations… unless the Queen could appease her. Placing a warm, shrivelled hand on her majesty’s swollen belly, Aberfa ignored offers of riches and power which leaked from Bregus’ lips. Aberfa wanted the child. Give her the child, and all would be forgiven. When the Queen delivered a girl, to the King’s disappointment, Bregus surrendered her first born.
Tangwystl is not exactly prepared for a big adventure:
[A] lifetime spent in confined spaces with no opportunity for exercise and a diet which included daily cake had not prepared Tanny for a rigorous journey. Tanny would be hard pressed to fit through the window, much less scale the tower (and that before she got to the river or the mountains).
(We find out later that she actually can fit out the window, though it does involve “complicated manoevring”.)
The paragraph above sort of implies that Tangwystl wouldn’t be fat if she had grown up in a “normal” environment, but it’s possible that it’s simply intended to say she is more fat than she would otherwise be, which I would find more plausible. (Of course, if “normal” is “being part of a royal family”, I wonder how true that is?) Being in a small tower all your life is a pretty extreme environment, and the combination of boredom and tasty food would probably lead to boredom eating.
This story also provides a brief but well-written description of comfort eating.
I liked this story quite a bit. Probably part of it was the protagonist just seemed likeable, part of it was the “normal person can do incredible things!”, part of it was exploring an aspect of the Rapunzel story that I’d wanted to see explored (the adoptive mother-daughter relationship–although Into the Woods didn’t do a bad job with that, either)… and, I don’t know, maybe I just like fairy tales?