PSF6 Review: “Prisoner 2501″ by Philip Corpuz

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On January - 26 - 2012

This post is a part of our story-by-story review of Philippine Speculative Fiction volume 6. You can see the introductory post, and our disclaimers here. Bold font is Mia Tijam, everything else is Paolo Chikiamco.

This is a story by a (publishing) virgin… Congratulations young dude, you are not a virgin anymore! And you win the award for the most marked so far (see for exhibit A, first page. You should see pages 48 and 50.) Let’s start with the POV: the “I” here is a schizo, it swings from and to—

A) I-as-3rd-person omniscient (the “I” speaks like the narrator)

B) I-as-1st-person-limited (the “I” speaks of internal reality/train-of-thought/the character)

C) I-as-Author (it’s the author unaware that he has become the storyteller acting as the storyteller with an “I”)


A)    The first line of the story; in fact, the first couple of paragraphs in the story.

B)     Page 46, after the first Click, the lot of those paragraphs.

C)    Once the furor died down. See that’s the language/vocabulary of the author, not the “I” character.

What say you, Counsel?

For me, this was overshadowed by other concerns during the first reading, but on second reading I see that schism, though I’d conflate (A) and (C) into one–not sure that I know enough about the POV character to have a firm grasp about what is or is not in his vocabulary. (Though that’s not to say some word choices didn’t jar me – the use of reclusion perpetua, for instance, since that’s a legal term that doesn’t gel well with an “eternity” of punishment…)

It’s the difference in the constructs of the “I”. Think of I as A, B, C— these are three different characters/realities/perspectives. The problem then is that the story is using “I” and an “I” intrinsically will only have one identity unfolding that identity’s reality. But the “I” here is playing Holy Trinity, hahahaha.

It’s less of a POV issue for me, as it is an immersion issue.

Dude, POV is immersion. Latter is dependent on former. How in the world can a reader be immersed in the story without the POV?

[Pao: You need a POV for any story of course, but I think you can be immersed in a story with a mishandled POV. I don't think it'll happen often, but it is possible, if the thoughts/reactions that the reader is shown remain authentic.]

I didn’t see instances where the text was giving me information that the POV character wouldn’t have. I don’t see much of a problem with a 1st person POV being used both to narrate external events and give us a survey of an internal thought-stream, but my problem was that, with the first scene in particular, the distance of the “I” from the immediate events was inappropriate given the nature of the scene.

Hence I as (A) = inappropriate. I as (A) would be objective reality. I as (B) would be subjective reality. I = A : B = Dudong you’re being burned alive and hindi ka umaaray? Oh right, you’re narrating the burning kasi so dapat hindi ka maglupasay sa sakit because you won’t be coherent. Grabe naman the tolerance for pain this dudong!

But it can happen and does happen, you know. Amid the overwhelming emotions in the midst of pain, one can experience a psychological detachment that leads to objectivity which enables one to narrate such events. Think of the movie “Equilibrium”.

[Pao: Holy crap, I thought Shaps and I were the only people to watch that movie. That's the one with Christian Bale and the two second climactic battle right? And sure, it does happen, but like most things out of the ordinary, it's hard to spring out of the blue without proper groundwork, or an explanation after the fact (something to the effect that it has happened so often that the character is desensitized), none of which I felt I got here.]

A situation wherein the POV character is undergoing torture, virtual though it may be, isn’t really the time for a distant “I” that trades the immediacy of physical sensation for a more neutral tone that allows the “I” to reflect on the Father and Mother constructs. It just struck the wrong tone with me.

— Precisely my point. The “I” being a schizo affects the believability of the narrative. Unless the author is experimenting with “I” as a camera that pans in and out of POV’s so as to move the story along and if that’s the case then apparently it has failed. Because if he had succeeded then we wouldn’t be seeing the schizo schims.

[Pao: I guess my definition of a POV problem is just narrower, limited to the realm of what information is made available to the reader, as opposed to the authenticity of the POV subject.]

The problem with tone goes beyond just a distance issue–while there are dark stories where a humorous sentence or two can work, the blips of humor here just don’t work (they don’t come across as the gallows humor typical in dire straits).

There was humor? Man I must be losing my sense of humor haha.

[Pao: Maybe an attempt at a certain flippancy would be more accurate.]

And the “cake is a lie” line–most gamers who read that line would immediately be taken out of the story. It’s not the type of tale that lends itself to that sort of sly, authorial, pop-culture reference, especially given the “evil computer intelligence” parallel with “Portal”.

There’s also that very jarring change in dialogue tone when, during a sim of an interrogation, a construct of a military man says things like “Hot damn… that’s cold. That is fucking cold man.”

—- Hahaha, there goes a TOINK.

The next point of contention in the story is the Adverb/Word Choice/Syntax problems. The common rule is that you take out adverbs altogether like in …unintentionally bareling madly… It just all becomes chatty clutter.

As for the word choice— besides the vocabulary of the author leaking into the language of the “I” character, I just blinked on the use of “emphatic” on page 45. Did he mean “empathetic” instead? Because the logic of the sentence would have to use the latter instead of the former. And I’m kinda thinking Yeeeee to the UP Creative Writing Program and hat-tip to EE Cummings with the story’s “She’s got such beautifully delicate hands” haha.

You’re probably right on that count, though the burden for that should go to editing, as much as the writer (and that’s not to say it isn’t understandable it was missed – I didn’t notice that until you pointed it out).

—- Why thank you, Counsel. Hey it’s a tricky piece.

As for the Syntax problem, I find that the story could have used a little bit of more clarity and conciseness. There were clichés and redundancies and if these were taken out then the story could have packed more of a wallop via brevity. Especially since we’re dealing with a mindscape story here.

The story did seem to wander a bit in the first part, then compress itself at the end. The most persistent redundancy for me came in the form of the repeated emphasis on the fact that the computer program could control everything that the prisoners see, taste, hear, etc. Issues of brevity aside, the problem I had with that was that it sort of undermined other aspects of the story: why would any Prisoner with possession of his/her faculties trust what he/she experienced in Greyspace? Given that the Prisoners spoke freely in Greyspace, why would the computer be unable to use the information gleaned there to inform their sims? (In one sim, the computer gets the name of the protagonist’s daughter wrong.) While we’re on the topic of the sims, if the goal is to immerse the target in that reality (which seems to be the point of all the role playing), why continue to refer to the prisoners by their numbers? That would serve as an anchor to the reality of the virtual incarceration of the prisoners.

The story itself could have been a combination of the psycho-horror-thriller vibes of the movies The Cube + The Cave. Except that it was still too hesitant to really explore the dark side of the storytelling force. The story should have been moving to be bleaker, darker, and deeper into a mindfuck. Like in page 50— the language does not match the violence of that scene. C’mon, push and you’d really hear that—-


As for that click, if that click moved around on the page (let’s say indent it or whatever), you think it could have better generated a more sensory use for it? Like:


I will say that I did like the final CLICK on page 52, which served to make the reality of the succeeding scenes ambiguous. It doesn’t really matter that we don’t hear a CLICK at the end, since we heard the CLICK at the beginning of that scene.

As for how the story ended, it warrants the “Well, of course” reaction because stories like this don’t have a happy ending. And yeah, it wasn’t horrifying enough because the horror did not build up enough for the end to become horrifying.

See, I love it when we see Filipino science fiction stories, I really do–there aren’t enough of them. The problem I have with this type of coerced virtual reality scenario, however, is that there are only a limited number of ways it can play out. Once the focus is placed on the fact that the virtual is being made indistinguishable from the actual, there’s almost a gravitational pull toward a certain type of ending, and this story adheres to that pretty closely. Now, I know that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of non-linear structure, but I think that telling the story in something other than a straight chronological order would have allowed the tension to be built up, allowed more confusion as between the real and the virtual, and made the ending seem less like the final stop of a train. What do you think, Ms. Outside the Narrative Box?

Seriously? The answer is in brevity: make it all out like the sims are flashes in effect so that even if it followed that gravitational pull towards the expected ending it would still have a whallop. OR put the ending in the middle haha. OR use the CLICK more and not just a matter of signals for transition into the next sim. Man, I want to meet and talk to the author hahahahaha.

Over-reading this would be the “I” actually playing with the reader so that the reader is now part of the sim. Make it out like it all was a sim happening in the reader’s mind. That would have been just evil that it would be so good haha.

What I like about this story though is that there is something in the way the story was told— its language or unfolding— that grew on me, like Patrick Star spouting sporadic wisdom or like the most absurd of cartoon characters like that catdog making sense. It engaged the Critical-Going-OC-Apeshit-Construct in me hahaha.

I liked the attempt at exploring the confusion between the real and the virtual, a rich field, and the idea of a good cop-bad cop AI, but the story just didn’t hold together for me.

Hahahaha you sound like a rejection letter, Counsel. May I recommend Alfred Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit” then for the young dude’s reading. All reet! Be fleet!

[Pao: A rejection letter? I suppose, in the end, all readers end up being the gatekeepers of their own tastes in fiction. ]

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