Set in the same universe of Learning the World, where stars are surrounded by green habitats, “Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?,” by Ken McLeod starts out looking like a romp across the stars. The narrator sleeps with the wrong woman, and rather than work for the next 257 years to pay off his fine, he agrees to go “clean up” Wolf 359. He then receives a series of rude surprises and deals out a few surprises of his own. Like “Always,” the first-person narrator is never named. Your conception of him shifts radically through the story. He starts out acting like Don Juan and ends up more like Genghis Khan.
The overall effect is jarring, but right there in the beginning, the story tells you what to expect:
When you’re as old as I am, you’ll find your memory’s not what it was. It’s not that you lose memories. That hasn’t happened to me or anyone else since the Paleocosmic Era, the Old Space Age, when people lived in caves on the Moon. My trouble is that I’ve gained memories, and I don’t know which of them are real. I was very casual about memory storage back then, I seem to recall. This could happen to you too, if you’re not careful. So be warned. Do as I say, not as I did.
Some of the tales about me contradict each other, or couldn’t possibly have happened, because that’s how I told them in the first place. Others I blame on the writers and tellers. They make things up. I’ve never done that. If I’ve told stories that couldn’t be true, it’s because that’s how I remember them
It reminds of me of what happened when I read “Stars Seen Through Stone.” The opening promised that weird things would happen, but you might not notice them. I didn’t notice, and I was way past wondering where the fantasy element had gone, when the weird things finally started happening. Wikiworld, on the other hand, told you exactly what was going to happen in the first few sentences. The fun part was seeing exactly how it happened.
In all these stories, the opening follows the principle that the beginning should tell you what kind of story you’re getting into. I already know that I’m a lazy reader, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that sometimes I failed to catch the clue train. For those of you who have read some of these other stories, I’m curious: did you remember what the beginning told you as you read the rest of the story?
Tomorrow: “A Small Room in Koboldtown”
Update: A reading is available on Escape Pod.