I read Ian McDonald’s short story in the January issue of Clarkesworld, and it got me thinking about endings. If you don’t want spoilers, you’d better either stop reading or go read “Driftings” first because this essay is going to be spoilerific.
story is about an artist who picks up debris from the ocean, much of it
from the Japanese tsunami, and uses it to make art which he then sells
to galleries. He meets a mysterious young woman and shows her what he
does. She tells him a story about the pain that goes along with some of
these artefacts. Meanwhile the water in the air over the seaside town is
turning to salt water: salt fog, rain of salt water, the smell of
rotting fish permeating everything. Acting on the woman’s gnomic
pronouncements, the artist lovingly collects some of the debris he
recently picked up, and offers it back to the ocean.
OK, now at this point the story gets three endings.
1) Reith drove back slick as a seal in his wet-suit. As he stepped out of
the car the air caught him, breath to sigh to near-sob. Clean. Fresh.
He turned his face to the clouds and let pure, sweet water fill up its
hollows and stream from its angles.
think that if the story had ended there, I’d be satisfied. The
character realized that there were angles that he hadn’t considered
regarding the kind of art that he was making, and he started the journey
towards increased thoughtfulness, metaphorically speaking. But the next
2) Mouse Heart Robot:
he had a pure, sweet idea for it.
He’s got a new idea for an art piece. Is this idea a
continuation of what he had been doing, showing that he hadn’t really
learned anything? Would it be art in a radically different direction,
incorporating his greater sensitivity and awareness? Having put this
sentence in there, I would prefer that the author follow through and
develop the consequences. Otherwise, it doesn’t add much--could go
either way. It’s ambiguous, but not necessarily in a way that leads to
greater understanding or reflection. And then...
3) Reith opened the door.
living room was filled with hair. Long, sleek, black hair, hanging from
ceiling to floor, sleek black hair, dripping with sea water. The door
closed behind Reith. The wet hair rippled, as if someone were moving
through it. The End.
now what? The story just stops there--what happens next? I believe it’s
a sign of a strong story if you wish that the author had written more
rather than less, but I seriously feel that ending the story at this
point does it a disservice. Yes, it is ambiguous. But the character has
taken actions, and those actions have consequences. One consequence is
that the rain stops. OK, that’s a neat ending point. Another consequence
is now a room full of hair, probably connected to the mysterious young
woman. The consequences of that are not played out--the story just
was thinking about endings as well when I read a reprint of “Solitude”
by Ursula K. LeGuin in Diverse Energies, an anthology edited by Tobias
Buckell and Joe Monti. “Solitude” is about a woman who was raised by her
anthropologist mother to be a bridge to another culture. Realizing that
children adopt culture more readily than adults, she raised her
daughter and son in this particular culture from about elementary school
age. When they grew older she wanted to take them back to her home
culture, a more “civilized” place, so they could continue their
schooling, etc. The boy was ready to go, but the younger girl wanted to
stay. She was now part of the culture, and returning “home” felt very
alien to her. The story has a lot to say about growing up under the
pull of two cultures.
However, one thing that really struck me was the structure. Midway through the story there
comes a climax when the girl has to rebel against her mother in order
to stay. She has to make a choice and then fight a battle to make her
choice stick. When she returns to the planet, it serves as a resolution
to the central conflict of the story, right? Having a read a whole lot
of stories for Strange Horizon’s slush pile a few years ago, I can tell
you that a less confident author would end the story at the moment of
choice, not telling the audience which way the character chose, leaving
it “ambiguous.” In the hands of a better author, you could have ended
the story with the choice made, returning to the planet. And it would
still be a darn good story.
LeGuin is LeGuin, and she is brilliant, and so the story follows the
protagonist into middle age. She re-integrates with her culture, has
children, raises them, makes sure that they know about her original
culture, and even makes sure that she communicates some of her
observations back to her mother’s ship. It completely plays out the
consequences of the choice that was made in the climax. There are other
sub-plots with sub-climaxes in the latter part of the story; it’s a long
enough story that there’s room to do that. To be fair to McDonald, he
was working at a much shorter length. But that said, I would argue that
the shorter story either needed to end with the fresh water rain, or a
longer story was needed to develop the consequences of the room full of
hair. Having the room full of hair without any further development seems