How much can you predict about a story from its title and first sentence alone? Aliette de Bodard, Ann Leckie, Cati Porter, Rachel Swirsky, and I are in the process of finding out! We have taken the first sentences of five stories from July’s issue of Lightspeed Magazine (kindly provided to us in advance by John Joseph Adams) and attempted to predict the plot of each story. [Note: Ann and Rachel attempted to predict based on the first sentence alone, while Aliette, Cati, and I also looked to the title for clues.]
This week we do our final two stories of the month. First, “5x5” by Jilly Dreadful, which begins:
Sugarloaf Fine Sciences Summer Camp Bunk Note: Cabin Lamarr 07.12 Dear Scully, I should’ve been suspicious of the girl in the lab coat offering me psychic ice cream.
Due to a transcription error, only Ann and Cati saw the first three lines. Aliette, Rachel, and I just saw the text starting from “Dear Scully,”.
Uh-oh. Psychic ice cream! So... what do we think comes next?
(I've put a link to the full story at the end of the post.)
Our Guesses (order of authorship has been randomized):
(Note: I admit I’m a bit biased because I am writing a story about psychic ice cream. Yes, really.)
Scully turns out to be Scully from the X-Files, and this is Mulder writing to her. We’re in a universe that’s X-Files reminiscent, but covered by parody, so it’s not a violation of copyright law.
Mulder goes on to tell her a detailed story about his experience eating the psychedelic ice cream. The letter is about a page long, and ends with his sign-off.
The rest of the story is told in letters to Scully of approximately the same length (with a longer one at the climax, and a few shorter ones peppered in for humor and pacing reasons), detailing a lot of zany adventures that are gently mocking—in the spirit of tribute—the X-Files.
A through thread involves an alien-human conspiracy which is developed lightly in references during the early part of the story, with a direct encounter about 1/3 of the way through. After halfway through, the references become thicker, and the story eventually becomes mostly about the conspiracy, with a climactic scene that’s longer than the others where the alien conspiracy thing comes to an urgent state, and is subsequently resolved.
The story ends on a final letter or two which incorporate both humor (in reference to new zany adventures now being embarked upon) and a note of emotional resonance based on Mulder’s recent experiences.
What’s immediately clear is that: a.) this story must be at least partially comprised of letters home from summer camp; and b.) this is not your summer camp! Addressing it to “Scully” could mean that this is X Files fan fiction; or that this letter-writing duo has taken on the names of X Files characters; or, could have no relationship whatsoever at all! But because of how popular the series is, I have to think that it was a deliberate attempt draw some parallels between the show and this story, and to immediately point to something strange, supernatural, or super silly about this story.
A lot of information is conveyed in these first few lines. Sugarloaf is a small mountain town near Big Bear City, so we’ve already been given a location. Most of us know what to expect from a summer camp and psychic ice cream from girls in lab coats is not one of them! So it subverts expectations and invites us to read further.
If we assume that the speaker is the “Mulder” to the recipient’s “Scully”, then there is likely some active investigation taking place. Because of the way the speaker is reflecting on how they *should* have been suspicious, the fact that they weren’t indicates that either they have somehow been tricked or that they didn’t realize what they were getting themselves into. The presence of a girl in a lab coat is indicative of a clinical setting, and in such a remote location, it could be that the camp is taking advantage of unsuspecting “campers” and conducting sneaky scientific experiments on them. The “psychic ice cream” points toward some form of mind-alteration, whether that be via some crazy cap covered in electrodes or telepathy or drugs. My sense is that the speaker is in peril and this letter is intended to bring aid. Except: The “bunk note” is the return address? So it’s not as though they are being held against their will, if the camp is allowing letters to be sent and received. And I’m not sure about the numerical notation - a date? A time index? And then there’s the title, “5x5”. Square feet? The size of the room (or cage?) in which they’re housed? It’s definitely an intriguing opening that is both mundane and mysterious, inviting the reader to keep going to find out what’s going on.
Aliette de Bodard:
This is going to be a surreal, dreamy story about different realities. I'm guessing the psychic ice cream will end up causing some kind of extended mental travelling. The setting will be modern or "mundane" future (i.e. not more than 30 years out), and tinged with fantasy. The title and the epistolary format also make me think that the relationship between our narrator and Scully is going to be key to the story--and quite probably some focus on how they talk and communicate with each other. Wondering if by the end the narrator is in a different reality altogether?
This is a Summer Camp AU X-files fanfic. Middle-school aged Mulder writes to his skeptical friend about discovering that his summer camp is run by aliens disguised as humans, who are luring campers to a secret facility underneath the dusty, spider-ridden shack by the lake. Several campers have disappeared altogether. Others were only gone for most of a day, and insisted on their sudden return that they were merely on a hike, but they are oddly hesitant to discuss the details of their outing and they seem weirdly cheerful, where the day before they had been homesick and complaining. They tell Mulder that once he's gone on the ice cream hike, he too will discover how much fun camp is. He finally breaks into the canoe shed to find only spiders, moldy life-jackets, and a not-at-all dusty empty reagent bottle, which he snuck back to his cabin and hid in his sleeping bag, intending to take it home and run tests on it. It's gone missing, though, and the ice cream hike looms.
Scully's reply suggests that the bread in the dining hall might have been contaminated with ergot, and thus the aliens are toxin-induced hallucinations. The disappeared campers got sick and went home, of course, and as for the ice cream hike, well, Mulder, maybe it's actually a lot of fun!
Of course, this is the X Files so Scully's wrong--the ice cream hike is no fun at all.
Scully?! You mean like Mulder and Scully from X Files which I’ve only seen once? Or isn’t there a Scully in Monsters Inc? Is this a common name?
This can’t be the actual Scully of X Files. Based on my intimate knowledge of X Files from watching one episode in 1995, I know that Mulder would never accept psychic ice cream from a girl in a lab coat! The character will be X Files Scully-like in some way I won’t understand because I don’t know X Files. No biggie.
Look, no one writes ”should’ve”. People speak that way, but to write that way is forced casualness. It’s a false show of casualness. It’s important to Mulder -- I’ll call the narrator Mulder just to pick a random name out of a hat -- that he seem to be causal, but in fact he’s not causal at all about seeming to be casual. This forced casualness will be his downfall, even more so than the psychic ice cream, which wouldn’t really be harmful to someone without that tragic flaw. The ice cream is symbolic.
I love the tease of the last three words of the first sentence. Don’t we all want to know what psychic ice cream is? The one thing we know for sure is that it’s not what it appears to be!
And “5x5” -- what’s with that title? I already feel boxed in. It’s a tiny three-character title to name a tiny space. The story will end tragically, with Mulder in the moral equivalent of a 5x5 box.
This second story brought out longer responses than the earlier ones, even though three of us didn’t see the camp address header, because the (seeming) X-Files reference gave us more to work with. Everyone seems to agree that the writer is Mulder to some version of Scully and that the story will be a mind-bender with weird twists. De Bodard and I predict that the Scully-Mulder relationship will be central to the story, while Swirsky, Porter, and Leckie seem to see aliens, conspiracy, hallucination, and weirdness as more central.
So is it an alien conspiracy with a zany end (Swirsky), a hallucinatory trip with Mulder in trouble (Porter), a story of mental traveling and the nature of communication (de Bodard), a cheerful hallucinatory hike gone wrong (Leckie), or a story about Mulder’s false show of casualness and resulting downfall (Schwitzgebel)?
Further Thoughts from the Contributors:
What I like about this line by Swirsky:
Well, it’s an obvious, disconcerting attention grabber. There are a lot of implied questions to propel the reader onward, and disconcerting imagery to grab their attention. Unusual ideas pop out – “psychic ice cream.” The combination of “girl” and “lab coat” is a contrast, since the latter is usually associated with respect, and the former isn’t. And of course, the beginning – “I should’ve been suspicious” – prepares the reader to ask why, while also highlighting the weirdness in the second part of the sentence.
Diagnosis of our guesses (warning: SPOILERS) by Schwitzgebel:
So yes, the story is set in a summer camp, and yes the X Files Scully-Mulder reference is central to the story – but those points are so obvious that we hardly deserve credit for getting that right.
De Bodard was spot-on that the heart of the story is the Scully-Mulder (actually “Fox”, but same thing) relationship and that it’s all about communication styles. How did she figure that out? I still don’t see the clue to that, rereading the first lines, unless maybe De Bodard knew that the title was also about communication, “5x5” being radio jargon for “loud and clear” (and not, as Porter and I had guessed, reference to the size of a room or box). I’ll give myself partial credit for thinking that Mulder/Fox starts with a forced casualness that becomes his [Jul 27 -- actually "her"!] downfall. He [she] fell hard for Scully right away, and he [she] doesn’t reveal that fact to her in the casual-seeming first letter. He [she] lets go of that pose by the bioluminescent end! But “downfall” probably isn’t right.
“Psychic ice cream” is a bit of a diversion. It’s Scully’s science fair project, and it reappears in the story, but it’s not central. Although the story has some paranormal weirdness in the science fair projects, the paranormal weirdness is mostly a backdrop for a sweet, funny love story. So I’ll have to count the guesses about aliens, hallucinations, etc., as mostly off-target. On the other hand, if we interpret the idea of “alternative realities” in a mundane way, I suppose we can say that Mulder/Fox is in a different reality from the other kids.
I’ll give us a group grade of 60% for this story, with a gold star for Aliette.
Continued at First Sentences Project (Part Five).