Metal Chest, by Chris Yee (4:27)

IOD score cardToday we see that smooth and interesting prose isn’t enough. The narration also has to suit the tone and character of the narrator.

What I gleaned about the story: Silas is a robot, alone in a broken world, searching for a last hit of power before his lights go out for good. Then some dudes show up.

Find this book on Amazon.

Note: I love a simple cover that manages to convey a mood, establish its genre, and be visually interesting, all at the same time. Plus, the simplicity here works well at thumbnail size. It’s astounding to me how rarely those points all seem to come together with indie covers.

WTF #1: Incongruous POV

Analysis: The scene opens on Silas, our POV robot, nearly drained and searching for a power source in a broken and inhospitable terrain. The first tremor for me came pretty quickly, in this passage from the opening paragraph: The faint hum of his dying battery grew weak as he slid his feet along the wooden floor.

A hum? From his battery? I’ve never heard a battery hum before. They’re silent, aren’t they? Did he mean the hum of some internal motor, laboring because the battery was supplying insufficient current? Or maybe he has ultra-hearing of some kind and can detect an audible sound that falls below human hearing? It was a minor point, but I did pause to wonder all this as I was slipping into the world. Not enough to yank me out, but enough that I was now questioning the abilities of this robot and left vulnerable to the next stumble.

Which came a few paragraphs later: A loud chime sounded from inside his chest. The sensor on his oil gauge. He needed some oil to loosen his rusted joints.

Here I paused again in puzzlement. This is a robot, right? Apparently autonomous, apparently intelligent. What reason would it have to sound an audible, external oil alarm? Surely the sensor isn’t designed to get his attention via his external microphone, right? It would be connected internally. It should be silent to external witnesses, unless they needed constant human supervision to keep them functioning, but his autonomous behavior seems to belie that.

Many of you might say that I’m overthinking it. Hell, you’re not wrong. But that’s kind of the point I’m making. Once a reader begins to question a thing, they become increasingly sensitive to it. I don’t think it’s a matter of becoming pickier so much as it’s a concern that we’re not understanding the story. So once we’ve made an initial stumble, we become hyper-aware as we search for confirmation that we really do understand. If we get validation, great. But if a second stumble comes along before we’ve found it, things can go off the rails in a heartbeat—even if the thing that finally pushed us out would have been otherwise trivial.

And so in my case, as I was casting about for that validation, and not seeing any, I began to question more. For example, I started asking, “Why is the oil alarm sounding now?” It seems Silas has known about his rusting joint problem for a while now, so why did his alarm sound at this particular moment?

Unfortunately, the only answer I could come up with was, “So that Silas would have a reason to narrate about his oil situation and thereby inform the reader.” And that’s when my immersion finally snapped. Both the stumbles leading me here were quite minor points, but they opened the door to my inner questioner, and that relentless little termite began to ask whether the narrated events properly suited the sensory reality of an advanced, sentient robot. Sigh. Sometimes I hate that guy.

WTF #2: Incongruous POV

Analysis: As Silas continues his search for juice, we are presented with a bunch of images from his viewpoint. A crucifix, broken windows, twisting ivy, bodies, blood, spilled oil, rotting flesh, etc. All very gruesome. All very appropriate to a scene of destruction. And all very human.

But that’s actually the problem. The more I see through Silas’s eyes, the less I feel that I’m in a robot and the more I feel like I’m seeing the world through a human narrator, and this doesn’t sit well. It’s uncomfortable for me. It feels human, but the claim is robot.

This conflict came to a crescendo for me with the final line of that section: He hated it all.

Hate? From a mechanical being? It’s not that I object fundamentally to the notion of robots sufficiently advanced that they have rich emotional lives, which could easily include hate. It’s that I’ve been given no signals of any other advanced technology involved, nor any hint that the author is aware of these incongruities. A quickly hung lampshade would set me completely at ease about all this. Assure me that, yes, robots have feelings in this world and they process thought in exactly the way humans do, and I’ll explain all that in good time.

But in the absence of that helpful lampshade, all I’ve got to work with are indicators like the word “robot,” the need for oil, the use of batteries, and references to metallic construction and rust—all of which point to a relatively unsophisticated design. One incongruous with the personality reported inside. And the conflict between the two snapped my immersion.

WTF #3: Unusual usage

Analysis: Here’s the passage I tripped over:

There were four men, one on his knees in a red flannel, and three standing in a triangle around him.

Is there a word missing? A red flannel what? A hat? A red flannel cape? A sleeping bag? In my world, flannel is a material, not a specific object. I’m aware that the UK uses the term to mean a washcloth, but that certainly doesn’t fit this context. I’m also aware that some regions use “flannels” to mean a pair of pants, but the usage here is not plural. Maybe it’s a typo? But no, as I read on, this guy is referred to several times as “the man in the flannel.” Singular.

Even after a trip to Google, I find no definitions that seem to fit, so I’m left to wonder. Maybe the author has used a word that has regional meaning for him, but is not universal? Eventually, I conclude from the context that it must mean a flannel shirt, but the damage has already been done. I’ve actually been to Google and back, so clearly my immersion was disrupted.

Afterthought: I’m not sure if I’ve written about the “Incongruous POV” problem before, but it’s revealed crisply here, showing us that smooth and interesting narration isn’t enough—it also has to suit the character who’s doing the narrating. When the language being used and the tone of his observations seem to be at odds with who he claims to be, it creates a cognitive dissonance in the reader that makes it hard to stay immersed. Readers are happy to stick with such a cognitive conflict, but only if they can be confident that it’s intentional. So throw them a bone. If you let that sense of wrongness fester, they’re probably going to pull the plug.

Last Note: For some reason, I feel bad stopping so quickly on this one. Judging from the scenario that was beginning to take shape, and the quality of the prose itself, this might actually shape up into a good story, well told. But the rules of IOD are clear: stop the clock when your immersion has been broken three times, and so I bow to that unflinching task master and stop to write this report. But I just might continue my journey with Silas after I’m done. I’m honestly curious.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

Survival in the Robot Dawn, by C.W. Crowe (6:46)
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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.