6 August 2020: "The Square Pegs" Critique & Updates
In attempting to prepare to write for this blog post, I read quite a few short stories and wasn't sure which to focus on, either one from The Best American Short Stories 2018 or my new collection of Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales. I went with the latter, settling on "The Square Pegs" by Ray Bradbury.
As a reminder, I do these fiction critiques because it forces me to think critically about stories in a way that I don't often do as a reader. By analyzing these stories, it helps me as a writer to pick out strategies and techniques that could benefit me in some way. In any case, enjoy!
The story opens on a woman named Lisabeth, trapped in a cell on a rocket headed to Asteroid Thirty-six. Voices outside of the room reveal that Lisabeth is their sister and they're taking her to the asteroid because she believes she is Catherine the Great. The siblings—John, Alice, and Helen—discuss what is to happen to Lisabeth. While the sisters believe that they're taking Lisabeth to an insane asylum, John explains that they're actually taking her to a society prepared to accept her as Catherine the Great.
Lisabeth, on the other hand, believes that they are disingenuous with her and she doesn't trust them. When they speak to her, they don't call her Catherine as she wishes, and she doesn't trust the food they give her, believing it to be poisoned. When she realizes the cell door is unlocked, she sneaks out of the room while her siblings are distracted, and she runs to the automatic pilot room to sabotage the console with a hammer.
This causes the rocket to crash onto Planetoid One-Oh-One, which is a killing land, populated by Killers who were sent there to spend the rest of their lives killing. Outside the rocket, a group of men approach and Lisabeth, believing them to be the bodyguards of Catherine of Russia, opens the airlock and demands that they kill her siblings.
Unfortunately for Lisabeth, the group that has approached the rocket isn't a group of Killers, but the Ones to Be Killed, those who have been dropped on the planetoid to provide the killers with a willing group of victims.
John explains it like this:
"Their culture is sane to itself and all inhabitants within it. That's all that counts.
Take a man who wants eighty-nine wives. On Earth he goes insane because he can't have them. He's frustrated. Bring him out here to the asteroids, put him on a planet full of women where marriage in triplicate is okay, and he becomes the norm, becomes happy.
On Earth we tend to try to fit square pegs in round holes. It doesn't work. In the asteroids we've got a hole for every peg, no matter what shape. On Earth if pegs don't fit we hammer them until they split. We can't change our culture to fit them, that would be silly and inconvenient. But we can bring them out to the asteroids. There are cultures here, thousands of years old, convenient, preferable."
They are then rescued by another ship, which flies them out to Asteroid Thirty-six, passing by various other planetoids that are mentioned—one with a Joan of Arc, another with an Othello, a Shakespeare, a Cleopatra, and so on. It is explained that there are multiple people believing they are a certain figure, and so there is an application process in order to fill that role on the appropriate planetoid. The previous Catherine the Great has just died, so Lisabeth has been selected as her replacement.
Finally, they reach Asteroid Thirty-six where Lisabeth gets the queen's welcome she wants, greeted by the cheers of people ready to accept her as the Mother of all the Russias, their empress. When asked about her siblings by the Spanish Ambassador, Catherine claims she does not know them, that they are strange and they should be gone from Saint Petersburg within an hour.
This story is about the importance of finding where you belong, as well as the importance of being open minded when it comes to the perspectives and cultures of other people, regardless of what you believe yourself. What is strange to some is normal to others, and not everyone's reality is the same.
The world-building of this story is interesting, not only a world where space travel is possible, but that they've discovered so many planetoids suited for a person's particular needs. It's still a bureaucratic world, where a person must fill out applications and get on a waiting list for such a placement, but when accepted, they simply drop a person off to live in this world forever.
The POV switch between Lisabeth and the others works well to contrast the perspectives of the situation. She believes they've kidnapped her, that they have ill will against her, while they believe they have no choice but to force her to an asteroid without her consent.
Additionally, the issue of consent and mental health is also brought to attention in reading this story. Lisabeth is framed as the victim of mental illness, being forced into a facility meant to 'help her,' much like insane asylums. Patients are often admitted unwillingly, subjected to treatments they don't want and often cause more harm than good, and are infantilized because they're 'incapable' of understanding or making decisions for themselves. It is only luck that Lisabeth is actually being taken somewhere she'll be accepted, but it is still without her consent and the story makes that very clear to the audience.
I also loved the details of Lisabeth's delusion—she would lay only on a red velvet rug in her cell, her refusal to eat from dishes that are not monogrammed with her name, Catherine, and the assumption that the Ones to Be Killed are her royal bodyguards. All of these details confirm to the reader that she really, truly believes that she is Catherine the Great.
I didn't care for Alice or Helen's characters because they didn't feel fleshed out enough to me; they were shallow excuses for John to explain the situation to the audience. Granted, the focus of the story is on Lisabeth, not them, but they felt too flat for me to connect with them or appreciate their presence.
I also would have loved more background on how Lisabeth assumed this persona—has she believed she was Catherine since childhood or is it a recent development?
I really do recommend that you read Ray Bradbury and this story in particular.
In any case, onward to the announcements!
Starting today, my blog posts are scheduled to come out on alternating Thursdays, so look out for the next update on August 20th, then September 3rd.
Make Me Read! is my new Instagram Live series, making its debut with the first installment on August 15th! I will be reading books from my TBR list for 15+ minutes, making commentary, asking questions, and being a general delight every 3rd Saturday of the month. I encourage you to join me, interact with me, and enjoy my nonsense as I read!
Also, on the 20th of every month, I will be releasing exclusive Patreon/Ko-fi content for paying patrons! This exclusive content shall include in-depth book reviews (likely books I'll have read for Make Me Read!), any miscellaneous writing I've done, poetry, potential video content, access to the same exclusive content as my newsletter, and more as I think of it.
For Patreon, I am updating my patron tiers: [$3 - Level 1] earn a social media shout-out and access to exclusive content (this pricing is to match the $3 minimum donation on Ko-fi); [$5 - Level 2] Level 1 benefits + voting power on Patreon-specific polls; [$7 - Level 3] Level 2 benefits + early access to purchasing my book upon publication; [$10 - Level 4] Level 3 benefits + recognition in my book on a designated "Thank You" page. More rewards will be added as I can think of them.
Finally, as a reminder, my newsletter Alaura's Bookish Bulletin comes out on the 15th of January, April, July, and October, so the next issue will be out on October 15th. Please subscribe in order to gain access to exclusive content such as excerpts, deleted scenes, playlists, early access to story audio, character profiles, and more!
So, that's basically it! A bunch of scheduling announcements and self-promotion! But, in case you'd like to keep track sequentially, here's what to look forward to through the end of the year:
15 August: Make Me Read! installment 1
20 August: New blog post & Exclusive Patreon/Ko-fi content release
3 September: New blog post
17 September: New blog post
19 September: Make Me Read! installment 2
20 September: Exclusive Patreon/Ko-fi content release
1 October: New blog post
15 October: New blog post & Alaura's Bookish Bulletin 2nd issue released
17 October: Make Me Read! installment 3
20 October: Exclusive Patreon/Ko-fi content release
29 October: New blog post
12 November: New blog post
20 November: Exclusive Patreon/Ko-fi content release
21 November: Make Me Read! installment 4
26 November: New blog post
10 December: New blog post
19 December: Make Me Read! installment 5
20 December: Exclusive Patreon/Ko-fi content release
24 December: New bog post
Looking at it like this does feel a bit overwhelming, especially as I will be back to work in September, but I'm determined. After all, this is all self-imposed so I can scale back if need be, though I'd prefer not to. But oof, October looks rough.
Hope to see you on the 15th!