The Tractor Story from ICFA. Also, Vericon fun!

Greetings Earthling carbon units.  I am a digitized uploaded echo of Max’s consciousness, which is still in traction after ICFA and Vericon.  I have been instructed to inform you all that he had an excellent time, and / though he is still somewhat unhinged as a result of sleep deprivation.  Do not fear, however: he endures, recovers, and grows stronger through a combination of espresso, dark magic, exercise, and metal.

Current exhaustion is irrelevant, however, compared to the general excellence of guerilla poolside readings, hot tub luxuriation, good food with excellent people, wonderful readings, far too many cocktails, books and signings at ICFA, Smallworld (with Saladin Ahmed and ML Brennan and the Durdands, & Pat Rothfuss looking on; Saladin crushed us all with a vicious combination of Stout Skeletons and Merchant Humans), and some of the best panels it’s ever been my / meat-Max’s pleasure to participate in.  Different in many ways, Vericon and ICFA were amazing, and it was a pleasure to attend both.

Hugo Reminder 

If you’re voting for the Hugos this year, we only have a few days left so I figure it’s fair to sum up my eligibility: I’m still eligible for the John W. Campbell Best New Writer award this year; Two Serpents Rise is eligible for the Best Novel category, and Drona’s Death is eligible for Short Story.  If you’re not voting for the Hugos this year, let me offer you some non-voting reminders so you can get in the spirit: the discursions in Hugo’s Les Miserables are not as irrelevant as they seem at first glance, and if you liked the musical you really should read the book sometime.  Also, an early film version of The Man Who Laughs was a primary inspiration for the Joker’s character design.  Anyway!  Enough Hugo.  On to Tractors.

The Tractor Story

The International Conference on the Fantastic in Art this year shared convention space with a John Deere brand meeting, and of course, being writers, we had to do something with that in true Heian garden-party fashion.  Evidence is hazy on who proposed the initial idea, but after a few drinks poolside a number of us including Fran Wilde, Ilana Teitelbaum Reichert, and Emily Jiang embarked on a flash fiction contest with a John Deere theme.  Ellen Klages agreed to judge.  The prize: a John Deere hat.  And so without further ado, a brief adult language warning, and many apologies (among them to Kenny Chesney), allow me to present the contest winner: my story, Sam Ogilvy’s Lament.

Sam Ogilvy’s Lament

 by Max Gladstone

She thinks my tractor’s sexy.

And she don’t even think it for the right reasons. A kind of attraction I’d understand: he’s a sharp John Deere chassis with top-shelf Yoshida trinary brain and 16 nanometer mag field resolution to guide its little critters as they unsalt the chem-fucked earth. Cleans and plants a field ten times faster than the A-230. One season with him and some of Grampa’s old high pasture what hasn’t sprouted shrub in years can carry a crop to term.  Keep him away from over-fucked soil and he’ll run forever. Apple candy green, with shiny canola yellow stripes and highlights. He is some machine, worth every drop of sweat it’ll take to earn him off.

But that ain’t what gets her. I mean, she respects him—her folks’ farm’s just two miles over, and she knows from good equipment. When I got him, at first I thought that’s all it was. She walked over that morning, fresh and full in Daisy Dukes and sweating from the sun, and looked all the way up to me on the back of that John Deere and asked for a ride. I asked him, and he said fine, so I had her climb on up and she straddled him and held the touch ‘trodes and I said take him for a spin, and climbed down to watch them roll to the old mended pasture fence and back, her whooping high and long as the sun rose.

And watching her holler with her head back and hair streaming I had some unchristian thoughts, I tell you.

She thanked me. I said she could come see him any time. She smiled and said she’d take me up on that.

“Sam,” he said once she was gone and we got back to work, “your friend is a fascinating person.”

“Irene?” I was happy about it then. I thought, she’ll be by regular to see the tractor and who knows what might happen.  “Yup.”

But she took to coming by in the evenings long after work, just settin’ in the barn talking to him, crosslegged in overalls on the floor by his big wheels. I snuck up on them once to listen. “A cookie?” she asked.

“A madelene is a kind of cookie, from the writer’s childhood.  Our parents would have used chocolate chip. Of course there’s no chocolate now.”

I tried to joke with her about it one night, but she gave me that angry frown makes her lower lip stick out like a ledge. “Fred’s third generation hipster. His folks were trapped in Brooklyn after the Big Seal. He ain’t ever seen proper stars but through those camera eyes, and when they plug him out of the Turk he goes home to a three-room apartment he shares with fourteen guys all high on federal dope. We never had to live like that and it wouldn’t hurt you to show some human feeling, Samuel Ogilvy.”

“Don’t see where his books come into it, is all. They got us into this shit in the first place. He should want to learn from us ‘stead of thinking he knows best while he flies the bugs and fixes the soil.”

“Not all those books were the problem. Some of them, if anyone had listened, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess. And Fred is learning from you. You know he started a rooftop garden? They’re getting tomatoes off that. Real ones. Fruit of their own hands, not from Turk-for-Food or anything.”

“Well color me fucking impressed” was I guess the wrong thing to say, because when I did she looked at me like I’d grown a third eye and then she stormed off.

I felt bad about that. Fred and I didn’t talk for a few days. Thursday night, though, the stars were bright and brilliant out the window, a high clear sky with the Milky Way as real as a dusty road.  And the pair of them stood out in the back field: him huge and still green even in the starlight, and her with one hand tender on his wheel.

I went to join them.

The night was cool and the kind of dark that has light in it. At first I thought she must have moved around to his other side, because I couldn’t see her.

Then I saw something move on top of him.

I heard the generator’s whine, and a soft moan I’d hoped to hear elsewhere. Human body ain’t got much metal in it—but enough for a 16-nanometer resolution mag field to touch lightly.  Or less than lightly.

She didn’t holler. She was trying to keep quiet. After a while, she laughed like falling rain.

I left.

But I’ve got to thinking: there’s this old field up past Grampa’s we own but haven’t plowed in twenty years on account of the soil’s too chem- and critter-fucked. Try to work it and I’ll break the bugs the tractor uses, brick the thing and end up stuck with a bad loan and a long wait for my next. Have to go back to the old A-230. But the A-230 don’t read books, and hell, without that new John Deere maybe Irene and I could work.

Besides, the A-230’s that same pretty shade of green.

<The End>

8 Responses to “The Tractor Story from ICFA. Also, Vericon fun!”

  1. ICFA Roundup « ~ fran wilde ~

    […] Teitelbaum Reichert, Ellen Klages (as judge) and I accidentally started a flash fiction contest. Max has a great write up of it on his blog.  Still waiting on that photo of you in the hat, […]

  2. J. Singleton

    The ending of, “Sam Oglivy’s Lament,” was the most interesting part of the story. It depicts Sam contemplating whether or not he should destroy his tractor. Sam’s dilemma stems from a desire for another but at the beginning of the story this other was in fact the tractor. He worked hard to earn the money to buy it, picked out just the right color, and took care of it knowing it was a good machine and would run forever. But as his crush Irene becomes more and more attached to the tractor Sam begins to feel the first burnings of jealousy. It is an interesting concept to think about. How easy it is for any human being to change, like a twig snapping in the forest, so easy and irreversible. This type of story targets the part of human nature that no one wants to see but that is always there. How easy is it to turn on something that at one time you cherished. For Sam it was easy. Just take it up to the land that was no good and run it into the ground. But would the decision have been so easy if it was another human? Arising questions like this is what makes “Sam Oglivy’s Lament,” such an interesting and insightful read.

    • Emily A

      I agree with what J. Singleton has to say about the inconsistent relationship between the tractor and Sam.

      The irony of Sam’s relationship with his tractor and Irene, is that the tractor will last forever, where as, Irene is temporary. Is Sam willing to risk his main source of food, for someone he loves? Even if Sam decided to ruin the tractor, would Irene want someone who could not provide basic essentials for her like food.

      From the perspective of Irene, falling in love with the tractor is an economically smart decision. The tractor will provide her with plowed fields and food.

      The relationships between Sam, Irene, and the tractor are a good representation of human nature. Everyone does what they need to do in order to get ahead. People put themselves first, to ensure that they are not “screwed over”. It is a very sad truth about today’s people.

      I enjoyed reading “Sam Oglivy’s Lament”, as it so effectively relates to human nature today.

  3. David S.

    Although not seemingly significant the post-environmental catastrophe setting definitely resounds with the audience and affects the overall story in a great way. The main plot line regarding the tractor and Irene may have never occurred if there wasn’t this dependency on the tractor as a provider. If the Earth still gave crops, such as the now non-existent chocolate, Sam may not have even needed the tractor. Sam could have impressed Irene with his skill in growing crops and his natural productivity if the world were different. However, because the Earth is so “chem- and critter-fucked” prevents this.

    Imagining a different world, one that did not contain salient machinery and an nutritionally-ruined soil the story seems to lack its full effectiveness. Instead it would appear to be about an insane girl who prefers the companionship of a machine over a normal human being. Sam’s consideration of destroying the tractor would seem less morally unjust because the tractor could not feel, let alone express human emotion and speech. Without this setting the story could be told in a few concise sentences.

  4. Natalia K.

    I agree with David S. statement regarding the way the story is run by the idea of the destroyed environment. It is interesting to think about how different the relationship between Irene and Sam would have been if there was not such a dependence on the tractor. It is the reader’s hopeful thinking that maybe without the dependence on the tractor, their would have been an attraction and a blooming relationship between the two people.
    The tractor plays a symbolic role in this story for the hope that people have in order to survive in this environment. For Irene the tractor might be the last hope she has to get the needed food. This is a sad, yet a very realistic symbol since so much of our environment is nowadays ran by machinery and technology. People are already putting more importance on their iPhones and laptops rather than on true human connection. This is why “Sam’s Ogilvy’s Lament” is such an interesting and relatable story for people to read. It depicts the future of our environment and the affect which technology has already, and will continue to have on the relationships with other people.

  5. Jessica P.

    I found the most interesting aspect of this story to be that when comparing a man vs a tractor, the tractor is more likable. Fred has a hard lot in life, and as such he is easy to sympathize with. He lives in an apartment with 14 roommates, has never seen the stars, and, oh yeah, has to live as a part-time John Deere. Moreover he is an avid reader, innovative, and just seems to be an all around nice guy. Sam, on the other hand, scoffs at literature, degrades his hard-working tractor for his efforts, and is willing to kill Fred just because he didn’t get the girl. The fact that he isn’t likely to even get Irene after the brutal act only serves to make the deed more despicable. It is easy to see the differences between the two, and it’s clear why Irene would choose the tractor over the man.

    It makes you reconsider the line “She thinks my tractor’s sexy” as a commentary on what people consider to be “sexy”. A tractor certainly isn’t the picture most conjure up at the word, and yet Irene falls in love with one. Irene found Fred’s personality and cold chassis to be much more attractive than Sam’s cruel tendencies and human form. “Sam Oglivy’s Lament” makes a statement about how looks are not the only basis for attractiveness, and instead appeals to the ideal of love based on sexy personalities instead of appearances.

  6. K. Frazier

    It is the ending that proves to be the most interesting and straightforward part of the story. The ending is where we see the true natures of Sam, Irene, and the tractor. Although there is human interaction that Irene could find with Sam, she chooses the tractor over him. This would be a symbol of how people in today’s society put so much into machines and technology that they neglect human interaction with the people who are seemingly right next to them. In addition, the ending of the story shows an insight into human nature by Sam becoming so jealous that the tractor gets the girl, causing him to want to turn around and send the tractor into essentially destroying the tractor. This concept gives rise to many questions, especially how far humans will go in order to feel that they got what they believe that want, even if it is just temporary. These elements that are depict throughout the story allows “Sam Ogilvy’s Lament” to be a very thought-provoking read that readers could discuss through many different viewpoints.

  7. Brenna M

    The depiction of machines as living creatures is fascinating, and yet frighteningly prophetic. It seems to fit in with the category of sci-fi that predicts the takeover (or attempted takeover) of society by artificial intelligence. The Matrix and I-Robot come vaguely to mind, but this story has an interesting twist that I haven’t yet encountered: the machines are portrayed as sexual competition in daily life to the male main character, rather than describing an attempt to enslave or suppress humans for their own good.
    It is reminiscent of the recurring concept in society of machines taking over the labor that previously would have been done by blue collar citizens. It foresees a more realistic threat. While here Sam Ogilvy experiences sexual inadequacy when presented with the pleasure his John Deere gives this girl, in society blue collar, wage-earning workers are cast aside for machines that will prove to be a more profitable investment in the long run. Their inadequacy exists in their need for consistent pay and their potential to become a liability to their employers. The message itself is frightening, but the use of story to relay a far advanced form of this growing societal problem in a more authentic comparison is refreshing, whether it was intended or not.
    It wasn’t forced, either. There were no speaking machines having philosophical disputes with humans, and no war to save the human race. The John Deere instead subtly yet efficiently struck a sore spot for Sam by simply entertaining the girl he was after. Consequently, he returned to an older model that may not have been as efficient, but didn’t give him the same feelings of inadequacy. Is this a hint that large corporations and businesses should do the same? Possibly. I could be reading into it far too much as well. Regardless, the parallels between current society and what I perceive as this futuristic and yet oddly primitive society are there, and I quite enjoyed tho aspect of the story.


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