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Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Flash: Enigma

I'm not participating in #fridayflash, but when I found this old story I thought I should post it -- but not for the usual reasons.

Friday Flash is supposed to be an encouraging activity, and I think that's a great thing for the community; but maybe there's something to be learned from stuff that's unpublishable, too. I wrote Enigma almost ten years ago, before I was writing anything seriously, and it shows. Don't get me wrong, it's not terrible, but it's not something I would publish now if it were submitted to me, and I'm not going to submit it anywhere else, either.

So let's use it as a good example of bad flash: Eviscerate it. Tell me all the things that are wrong with it. I have my own thoughts, too, but I'll hold off on them until the Friday Flash community has had a shot at it first. Then, in the January issue of Flash Fiction Online, I'll collect all the comments up and publish the results in a “worst practices” article.

Thanks,
Jake
Enigma
by Jake Freivald

Please. “You can’t expect me to believe that.”

“I’m not kidding.” Colm didn't look up from his specimen. “Once we discovered that the objects contained complex but highly regular patterns, we had to entertain the possibility that they were artifacts, and that the patterns encoded some sort of language. And they do. Constructing the reader took longer than deciphering the code.”

Ariel wasn’t impressed. “Everybody knows that when computers are told to take a data set and match every possible pattern, they sometimes alias patterns that weren’t the intent of the set creator. People analyzed Shinglee’s so-called 'discoveries' for a decade before she let on that she derived the data from housing rubble.”

Colm scowled. “Shinglee deliberately selected a data set with a high incidence of regular patterns, and then she only published its most regular subset. She was intentionally and artificially trying to fool computers into finding things that weren’t there in order to prove the superiority of mind over machine. In short, she was a smart-ass. What she did wasn’t science. What I have done is science, and I’m telling you that these little artifacts incorporate such sophisticated information encoding techniques that they must have been built by an intelligent life form. There’s no way around it.”

“Okay, let’s say you’re right. What does your wonderfully scientific analysis say they encode?”

“It’s very, very clever. It uses a self-referential language that describes its own distributed computing system, the sensors that cover its chassis, its pervasive materials distribution system, everything – including, mind you, the description system.” He paused. “It’s a brilliant way of ensuring that an unknown but sufficiently advanced culture could recognize the artifacts as the craft of an advanced civilization. Much better than our attempts. They distributed a physical object that manifests an encoded language that describes both the object and its description. No-one can fail to interpret correctly.”

Colm at his worst. Overconfident, pedantic, boring. “Has the funding dried up yet?”
He took a collection container off of a shelf, inspected it, put it down. “There are quite a few very important people who are interested in our research,” he said. He took another container down, inspected it, put it next to the first. “But you’re right, it has been at enormous cost. The biggest fear is that we’ll use up all of the artifacts before learning enough about them. We’ve destroyed half of them during the decoding process, and some people are trying to get us to preserve a few until we invent a less consumptive analysis mechanism.”

“And you?”

“I think that no one will ever again study them as closely as we’re studying them now. Storing them away is tantamount to giving up on the investigation altogether. We have the public interest and we have the funding. We need results, or both of those will dry up. Can we possibly say that we have time to waste?”

He raised the front part of his body so that only half of his sixty short, metallic legs remained on the floor. He stretched for the gloves on his highest shelf, brought them down, and put one on each of his two gleaming metallic claws. "To avoid contaminating them, not to protect me," he said, and moved to the specimen jar.
The artifacts activated at his approach, making little warbles as he unscrewed the top and thrust his right claw deep inside. One of them moved rapidly between his claw and the other artifacts. Ariel, fascinated despite herself, stood up on her hind legs to get a better view, balancing against the wall with a few legs and her right claw.

“This one appears to be a decoy,” Colm said. “It always interferes with collection. Its noise patterns are loud and fairly regular, so I’m saving it in the hopes that a breakthrough on the physical code will help me get resources for a detailed sonic analysis.” He pushed the decoy aside and took one of the other specimens.

As he walked away, the rest of the artifacts collapsed back into a neutral state. The only exception was the decoy, which was shouting: “The people of Earth will come for us, and they will not stand for this!”
That's it. Tear it apart in the comments section.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. In other words, you can copy and paste it, post it, change it, make a two-hour long movie out of it, or anything else you'd like to do with it as long as you attribute the original story to me. Thanks.

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2 Comments:

Blogger William Highsmith said...

Revenge! Revenge is mine!

Late reveal that the speakers are not human...Twilight Zone ending (like my robots in a cosmetics store story, soundly rejected)

A disconnected feel, since there is no context for who, where, when. (Talking heads.) A little hard to keep track of who is speaking.

“It’s very, very clever. It uses a self-referential language...." (It is clever, but better to let the reader decide that, or else it feels like the author is patting himself on the back.)

Narrator speaking: Colm at his worst. Overconfident, pedantic, boring. (Jarring intrusion by the narrator.)

Ending: TZ twist ending as noted. Does this constitute a plot? I don't think so. The aliens had no character arc and there was no story arc. The research and funding issues were described, but there was no resolution in which the MCs could play a part.

December 11, 2009 11:22 AM  
Blogger William Highsmith said...

This post has been removed by the author.

December 11, 2009 11:22 AM  

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