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Old 01-19-2021, 01:57 PM
DarkAngel DarkAngel is offline

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Mana Stone by Stone, Commentary and Analysis

Stone by Stone is a short story for the world of Overwatch by Christie Golden. While it was released November 17th, I held off on doing a review because I didn't want to go picking on her twice in a row -- but also because I was...afraid of what I'd find. My reasons for that are something I'd rather address separately.

The document itself is in some ways remarkable for having less design than other recent Blizzard releases, but that seems appropriate for a story about putting aside pretensions. In fact, aside from illustrations on pages 5, 9, 20, and 22, the only pictures are the cover, the model, and the icon. Even the font is an unadorned sans-serif. The brown-and-gold color scheme from the advertised skin is carried throughout, lending a sense of visual unity. Somewhat surprisingly, the page numbers reflect those of the PDF (but good luck guessing the URL).

Something I felt was a failure of my Terror by Torchlight analysis was that I focused too heavily on what was wrong instead of highlighting the many things that were right. In that sense, Stone by Stone is poetically appropriate for working to appreciate what's in front of you, even if it's imperfect. Criticism is easy; finding the kernel of wisdom buried in all things is difficult. Therefore, I want to start by saying that Stone by Stone is beautiful. It's beautiful as a concept. It's beautiful as a structure. The flaws are almost exclusively at the surface level -- almost as if it is the very statue it describes.

Structurally, there are four scenes, but length doesn't mean as much here as it does in some other stories.
  • Opening (2 pages)
  • Temple sequence (8 pages)
  • Orb discussion (4 pages)
  • Presentation (5 pages)

Golden opens with a discussion among the Vishkar officials about the unfolding PR crisis, which is essential context for everything that follows. However, the WAY she does it is a high-risk writing strategy that can come off as stupid or brilliant. Remember, the chief objective for the first scene of any story is to be an attention hook. You must offer enough information to invite questions about what's happening, but not enough to answer them immediately. Deliver too much too quickly, and the reader will feel confused and in over their head. If you contrast this opening against that of Terror by Torchlight, one difference is obvious from the very first line: We never see the conversation begin. This can be very dangerous because there isn't time to introduce core ideas. However, it can also work very well precisely because it doesn't work. In this case, the absence of context is what creates the all-important sense of mystery. There's very little description, and narration is mostly in Satya's head. If not for their emotes, these characters would be nothing but voices.

The following scene is the polar opposite of its predecessor, bursting with description. This helps to make the temple seem like a real place. In contrast, the meeting feels like an abstraction -- perhaps symbolic of how detached the Vishkar leadership has become. The illustration on the left of page 5 also makes concrete what was mentioned before: a shining city on one side of the river, and a squalid village on the other. What's important to realize about this scene is that it isn't really one scene. It's four welded together. To explain, Satya's confrontation with the crowd could be thought of as its own idea, which then flows seamlessly into the initial tour with Zenyatta. The connection to the lunch conversation is more tenuous, as is the final meditation on the relief of Aurora. However, all of these sub-scenes are filling the same purpose: explaining the situation and seeding ideas that will be important going forward.

From there, the pieces of passing scenes become a kind of montage. Satya puts on the robe; Satya works in clean-up; introduce Orb of Perception; Satya adapts to new routine; Sayta helps serve the poor; and finally, a fully developed exchange that expounds the philosophical thesis of Stone by Stone. Likewise, the final scene assembles key moments to wrap up the story threads. First, Satya chooses to go public in pilgrim's garb, symbolizing the change in her self-perception, which is then reinforced by a brief conversation with Zenyatta. Then, Sanjay appears, representing the intrusion of her old life into the new -- and his words make clear he hasn't changed a bit. Satya conducts a tour to highlight the new decor, then adds the finishing touch as the crowd watches. After she's done, Golden ties back to the opening ideas again. Grewal once more serves a spokesman for the villagers to close one thread, and Zenyatta's parting gift closes another. Last of all, even Sanjay has a moment of reflection.

The story is well-handled at every turn, hitting all the right beats in the right order from the right angle. However, there are still many questions it brings to mind for the careful reader. For example, what kind of "development" is Vishkar doing? Why would it cause earthquakes? After all, the advantage of hard light is that it's weightless. Such buildings would put little pressure on the ground and would require minimal foundations. Also, why are Indians using American idioms? To my knowledge, every language has a rich library of metaphorical expressions, and their use would add further flavor -- but then, the American primary audience might fail to recognize the symbolism in a foreign phrase. Or would that very fact generate more sympathy? Why is Sanjay so surprised to see gold light used for the repairs? Is it simply a matter that Satya doesn't usually work in gold, or is blue light somehow stronger? Can hard light be any color? Why does the illustration on page 20 show her working in blue light?

And, perhaps most glaringly, how did Golden manage to write a story about sympathizing with machines -- even emphasizing similarity of thought -- without ever mentioning Satya's arm?

Also notable is Stone's relatively sympathetic portrayal of Sanjay Korpal. Here, he is not a wrecking ball of corporate cynicism, but actually seems to consider another way. Nonetheless, Satya should arguably be more suspicious of his motives after the events of "A Better World." Speaking of which, what were those events in Rio he spoke of? The ill-fated competition with Calado, or the Null Sector invasion teased for Overwatch 2? In any case, the shift is interesting because Sanjay's design purpose is to be a diabolic influence on an otherwise good-hearted character.

As a mostly self-contained story, Stone by Stone offers very little in the way of new information -- but also a lot. In fact, the legend of Aurora might be the biggest piece of world-building yet to drop in a short story. One can't help but wonder what Dr. Liao thought of it. Otherwise, Roshani and Suravasa are new places that hadn't been mentioned before. (They don't appear to be real.)

One thing I've been trying to do is to keep the focus on the things Stone by Stone does right, and they bear repeating. For one, Golden clearly did some research on Indian temples, what's in them, and what happens there. She knew the cuisine of the region, and her description of Satya's weaving process is both detailed and passionate. In a sense, the only improvements that could be made to the story would be to carry these same ideas further, such as to name which incenses are being offered. Golden calls out no less than four spices in the food, but speaks only of "incense" every time it's mentioned. Likewise, she tells us how the incense brings back memories, but leaves it at that. The scene would "pop" much more with even a single concrete example, no matter how briefly described.

Another avenue of research would be to consider what a non-practicing Hindu thinks of Buddhist teaching. Even if she isn't religious, Satya would have preconceived notions about what religion is and what it's for -- ideas that vary tremendously across cultures, and lead to all sorts of misunderstandings.

Grammatically, the only error I could find was on page 6, where the phrase is usually "like nails on a chalkboard." (Though it also brought back memories of the sentience/sapience controversy that once erupted on this forum.)

Now, with all of that out of the way, it's time to address the elephant in the room. As mentioned above, I held off on reading Stone by Stone for over a month. I was trying not to look because I expected to be offended by what I saw -- which perhaps says more about me than it does about Blizzard. To wit, I was late getting the memo about Satya Vaswani being autistic, instead chalking her up as OCD. It wasn't until Blizzard began patting themselves on the back for including this character that I became aware of what they were doing -- and my immediate assumption was that autism had become a last-minute addition to the diversity checklist.

This is a curious response, given that Satya all but says so on page 4 of "A Better World." How did I miss that? Or did I in fact recognize the code, decide not to mention it in my review, and then forget about it? It was years ago. In any case, a true review of Stone by Stone can't avoid evaluating Golden's handling of autism. Know that everything I'm about to say is coming from someone whose expertise in the subject comes from the inside.

First, I will again start by pointing out what Golden did right. The autistic mind does indeed demand order and stability. We like routine. We like things to be "just so." We like events to happen in a predictable order at expected times. We hate surprises -- even good ones. For Satya, the idea of having to meet with one angry person (let alone a crowd) would fill her with paralyzing apprehension. In fact, she might rather be shot at on one of her missions, because she'd at least know what to do about it.

Another thing Golden gets right is the tendency toward literal thinking and the trouble it causes with idioms. While this was never a problem for me personally, I do tend to see colorful images in my head whenever they're used. (And I like to mess with people by taking them literally.) However, metaphors and especially sarcasm are very much areas of difficulty for others, and it's wise to test the waters before using them.

And of course, autistic brains come with superpowers. You're reading one of mine, if you haven't guessed by now.

Now, while Stone by Stone is an accurate portrayal of the parts it does show, there are many that it doesn't. Most obviously, the autistic brain has a skewed sense of perception, leading to sensory inputs being too strong or too weak. Stone by Stone makes no mention of being overwhelmed by bright lights, strong smells, or too many people talking at once -- nor does it consider seeking a familiar sensation for purposes of internal balance. We all have a "stimming" behavior that we use to keep ourselves operational; mine is bouncing, for example. (I'm sitting on a chair-ball as I type.)

Another missing element is narrow, intense interests. Executed properly, an autistic character will be compulsively memorizing everything there is to know about something random -- and almost everything else will be framed in relation to it if possible. So, while Satya is gifted in spatial perception, visual arts, and dance, she might make sense of new information by how it pertains to, say, hummingbirds. This is in part because the autistic mind finds information a pleasure for its own sake, seeing beauty where others do not. In my case, I see beauty in information itself, the way one fact builds upon another to create an edifice of connected ideas. Others see it in mathematics, or appreciate music or art to a level their neurotypical peers can't perceive. Satya likely sees it in the layout of buildings.

However, autism also comes with a certain difficulty in seeing others' perspectives. (The word 'autism' comes from a Latin root meaning "selfish.") This is in part because severe cases struggle with theory of mind, but also because autistic brains perceive the world in such a radically different way. I myself have a few incidents each year in which someone is suddenly insulted and angry for no apparent reason -- and I wonder, "That wouldn't have offended me. Why are you so upset?"

It can be a very lonely existence when no one sees the world the way you do, and consequently, no one values what you value. Inevitably, this builds a sense of alienation -- and that can cross into misanthropy. The preoccupation with favorite subjects and abrasive brutal honesty give many a negative impression. And yet, multiple studies have found that people with autism have near-zero psychopathy scores, and are thus the most trustworthy, conscientious people on Earth. Alas, we are also among the easiest to bully because we find conflict so stressful.

Lastly, and most importantly, no portrayal can hope to capture the autistic mind unless it deals with the crippling deficit of executive function, the area of cognition responsible for deciding what to do and when. This is something the neurotypical brain does without even being aware of it, and the incomprehension of this handicap is the single biggest cause of prejudice and misunderstanding in my experience. People just can't grasp how different life looks when every decision is a titanic struggle -- when the most daunting task of the day really might be deciding what to wear or what to eat, the things that have no objectively superior option. When everything is equally important, you really might spend a whole day agonizing over which five-minute task to do first. (And I have done this.)

Executive function is why routine is so comforting. Yes, it's familiar, but it also saves you from having to make decisions. It's why precedents instantly become laws, and why unstable and unpredictable situations are so harrowingly stressful: There's simply no way to make a choice in time. It's why interacting with other people brings so much angst, and why a plan, once made, is painful to change. Furthermore, without the ability to assign priority, one's attention is almost certain to be in the wrong place. I myself am notorious for my ability to spot obscure implications while overlooking the obvious; having above-average IQ, but often appearing stupid.

Arguably, though, the strangest aspect of executive function is its close relation to subjective time. This implicit sense of how much time is passing and how much is worth spending on a given task is the linchpin of efficiency and accomplishment, and its absence is devastating. In my case, unless I'm actively watching seconds tick by on a clock, I have no sense that any time at all is passing. I've been known to spend upwards of an hour lost in my own thoughts and come away figuring that "five minutes" has passed. As you might expect, people with autism can be unbelievably patient -- even self-defeatingly so. At the same time, having no sense of how long things ought to take, combined with fixation on preferred subjects and activities, can also lead to extreme impatience.

As a final example, consider this very essay. I finished it on day nine of an expected three-day project -- and before that, spent a week considering whether or not I wanted to write it. Now that I have written it, several important life tasks, each with serious consequences should I be late in doing them, have been delayed. Would you hire such a person? I wouldn't. And that is why more than 80% of those on the Spectrum (myself included) are chronically unemployed. See how much you get done when keeping track of where you are in the sequence leaves no concentration for the task itself!

I write this to describe the the daily beating that I and those like me face. How a character responds to it is a matter of individual personality, and I can't claim to know the direction Blizzard intends for Satya Vaswani. Nonetheless, it would be nice to see how her ordinary activities are "quirky," how she struggles with unwritten rules, and hates to leave anything unfinished. Let's see her coping mechanism for deciding toss-ups and some self-coaching against her expectation of being rejected. Perhaps her gross motor gift is balanced by a fine motor deficit. There's much that can be done.

That said, autism adds a great deal of depth to Satya's situation from a character development standpoint, as she would indeed be likely to end up in quasi-slavery, with a parent-child relation to her employer. Her talent has carried her from starving refugee to the highest echelon of society -- but she's here as a pet, not an equal. Truth be told, Vishkar Corp. cares about her only insofar as she is useful to them, and they have no qualms about forcing her to do things that go against her code. Yet Satya fears life without Vishkar. They are the ones who keep her environment stable and give her meaningful work. They made her who she is; and without them, she is nothing. At some point, though, she will have to "be brave" and break from them -- lest she keep "learning" the same lesson over and over.

But then, that's what makes Stone by Stone so refreshing. Golden has set aside the obvious narrative and cast her protagonist as both learner and teacher, which takes no small amount of open-mindedness and compassion. In fact, I applaud Golden for her willingness to tackle such a character. It's one that I myself have avoided for years -- not just because it hits so close to home, but also because I wouldn't trust myself to do it justice. Therefore, Stone by Stone is a bold step toward inclusion -- but there's far more to autism than being a savant who's confused by idioms. It could be said that, like Satya, she is only just beginning to understand.
Every ending is but a new beginning.
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