The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

"The Wages of Syntax" by Ray Vukcevich: An Appreciation by Jay Lake

(Originally appeared in IROSF, Vol I, No. 3, March, 2004: Link)


"Cutting Out All the Parts That Aren't Interesting: Ray Vukcevich, Secret Master of Style"
by Jay Lake

Ray Vukcevich may be the greatest writer you've never heard of. He first appeared on the genre scene in 1980 with "The Spokesman" in The Fault #15. Since then he's published dozens of stories in markets ranging from F&SF to Rosebud, put out a critically acclaimed novel and short story collection,1 and been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards.2 He had a novelette on the 2004 Nebula final ballot, "The Wages of Syntax."3

His prose and the power of his work can stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the field's current emblematic stylists, such as Carol Emshwiller or Jeff VanderMeer. Vukcevich measures up just as well with the masters of the New Wave like Roger Zelazny. His stories appear in the major markets to which we all pay attention. So what gives? Why isn't his name in every issue of Locus, on everyone's lips?

Because he's so damned good—so damned smooth—that he's easy to miss. Vukcevich writes in a style that's deceptively clean and subtle, delightfully loopy, and with a fully informed, sophisticated sense of the surreal. Not for him the thundering prose and arcing themes of Zelazny, nor the astonishing metafictional contortions of VanderMeer. Vukcevich lays down simple sentences such as this one from "The Wages of Syntax":

"He might as well have started out telling them he couldn't be killed until he learned Italian."

That's the kind of sentence that lurks at the edge of the reader's consciousness for days, waiting to be unpacked further and further.

Listening to Vukcevich talk about writing offers much the same kind of
experience as reading his work. He's given to gnomic utterances that emerge into meaning over time. Statements such as:

"When I'm working on a story, I cut out all the parts that aren't interesting."

That's a very easy piece of advice to misunderstand, and a very difficult piece of advice to follow in practice. It's reminiscent of what Samuel R. Delany said in his Nebula Award-winning Babel-17 4 about an alien language so powerful its speakers could describe how to build a factory in nine words.

"In English it would take a couple of books full of schematics and electrical and architectural specifications. They have the proper nine words. We don't."

Like Delany's alien language, Vukcevich's advice encodes of a great deal of meaning in a few words. And encoding is exactly what Vukcevich does in his writing. As accessible as his prose is-—eerily clean at the line level—-there is a sort of protocol to reading him that the reader has to develop over time. Which may in fact be why he is not better known: some readers lack the patience or experience to build those protocols.

Consider the example at hand: "The Wages of Syntax." At a little over 10,000 words, this novelette is Vukcevich's longest piece of published short fiction. The average length of the stories in Meet Me in the Moon Room is probably under 4,000 words. He's previously commented that if a writer can't say something in 5,000 words or less they haven't thought it through. Yet in "Syntax" Vukcevich has given rein to multiple levels of his imagination; and to excellent effect.

The work draws very much from the author's real-life experience in neurolinguistic labs at the University of Oregon. The story itself concerns linguist Henry Wolfe, his long-ago paramour Sydney Pavlenko and one Nick Sherwood, a grammarian, who repeatedly attempts to kill Wolfe in order to resolve an arcane point of linguistic theory known as "Spontaneous Competence."

Much as Ted Chiang does in his "The Story of Your Life,"5 Vukcevich takes multiple approaches to the technical idea at the core of the story. The central McGuffin of Spontaneous Competence is first explicated by Wolfe in a classroom scene, then excoriated by Sherwood in both a peculiar second person rant on how to best murder Wolfe, and later denied with the strangely prosaic comment:

"If the universe worked the way Henry said it worked, then the universe was goofy, and I could not abide a goofy universe"

Spontaneous Competence is Wolfe's theory that under stress the knowledge of a previously-unknown language simply manifests for a speaker. This is a time travel effect on the part of the human brain as quantum computer, and the Spontaneous Competence must be borne out after the fact by the hard work of actually learning the language so expressed. Hence his remark about not being killed until he learns Italian. Wolfe has previously expressed Spontaneous Competence in Italian, and since (for other reasons) procrastinated in his efforts to learn the language. Therefore in the interests of preserving causality, he cannot yet die.

On its own, this would be a thin thread by which to hang 10,000 words. Like any great story, "The Wages of Syntax" has many other layers. The emotional resonance of the story is in middle-aged disappointment with young love, and the unexpected opportunity for redemption.

Perhaps in keeping with his own dictum about 5,000 words being enough to tell a story, Vukcevich elects to merge his technical McGuffin and his emotional arc within a framework of structural experimentation reminiscent of a strain of New Wave SF characterized by stories such as Pamela Zoline's classic "The Heat Death of the Universe."6 In an analog to Zoline's numbered paragraphs, Vukcevich employs a six-act structure—each act explicitly numbered and named—to frame a story that is both terrifyingly ordinary and passing strange. The ordinariness is that middle-aged disappointment with life choices, while the strangeness stems from the curious question of Spontaneous
Competence and the unfulfillable murderous impulse that question raises in the grammarian Sherwood.

Each section is told in a different voice, ranging from a nearly-anonymous second person rant in Sherwood's point of view, to Sydney's first person section in the conventional narrative past, to Wolfe's present tense recollection of his youth in Italy with Sydney. These changes in tense, person and point of view would be considered ill-advised by any standards of manuscript technique, but Vukcevich
accomplishes them with an astonishing transparency.

All of these storytelling choices underpin this novelette's sense of style. Vukcevich has always eschewed traditional approaches, not by way of making a specific post-modernist point, but simply in the interests of being true to his own voice. "Wages of Syntax" is no exception. That same sparse, loopy elegance weaves through the disparate sections.

In the first section, entitled "Brainstorming," Sherwood in inner monologous rant reads:

Shoot him.

Poison him.

Feed him to the alligators. Tie him up first. Make sure the alligators are really really hungry. Don't feed them for weeks. Wait until they're so hungry you've got to poke them back into their scummy concrete pond with a big stick.

In section two, "Spontaneous Competence," Wolfe is teaching:

He pulled down a white screen over the chalkboard, flipped on his laptop, and projected a picture of a human brain onto the screen.

"You probably already have one of these," he said. "It's a quantum device."

And so forth.

As previously noted, this is neither Zelazny's thundering prose nor VanderMeer's metafictional twist. It's not the hypermodified erudition of a Gene Wolfe, nor the elegant social commentary cum fetish play of a Delany. Rather, Vukcevich's language is so deceptively clean and simple that it doesn't look like style at all.

Which is the best style of all.

Consider first the title. Upon reading "The Wages of Syntax," the reader thinks of the King James Bible's exhortation that "the wages of sin is death."7 A sly pun, funny both on the face of it and at a deep level, and foreshadowing the themes of linguistics and murder that infuse the story.

Then move on to the already-cited opening sequence:

Shoot him.

Poison him.

Vukcevich leads the reader, still smiling ruefully from the title, into the story with two incredibly simple statements, both apparently delivered in the imperative. Reminiscent of the death of the nearly-unkillable Rasputin, among other things-—another set of cultural echoes. He has violated half of the serving standards of manuscript critique in those four words.

Onward to the next paragraph:

Feed him to the alligators. Tie him up first. Make sure the alligators are really really hungry. Don't feed them for weeks. Wait until they're so hungry you've got to poke them back into their scummy concrete pond with a big stick.

"Tie him up first" is more Rasputin. Alligators, however, are decidedly American and were definitely absent from the icy Neva where the late, great monk met his end. Suddenly we're grounded in geography if not time or perspective. Then Vukcevich drops us into a bit of silliness that echoes the punning-yet-serious sensibility of the title, "Wait until they're so hungry you've got to poke them back into their scummy concrete pond with a big stick." It's a funny sentence, it sets a specific image in the reader's mind, it ameliorates the potentially creepy seriousness of the first two paragraphs, and gives a sense of the semicompetence of
the character we soon discover to be Sherwood the murderous grammarian.

All of this-—cultural allusions, Biblical reference, setting and character development—-done without a single extra or distracting word.

Another passage worthy of careful consideration comes in a flashback during Sydney's narration, as she describes coming from her home in Italy—where she was born and raised—to her American mother's funeral in California.

We gathered at the house of my mother's friend, Alice, afterwards. The food was piled high and strange. There were two wiggly green hemispheres like a soccer ball cut in half or maybe alien boobs. It turned out to be green Jell-O with shaved carrots. I wondered if that was one of my mother's favorite dishes. She had never made such a thing in Italy.

More setting, brilliantly realized, which at the same time drives character with a wonderful depiction of Sydney's fundamental alienation from her mother's culture. The loopiness is there, in the description of green Jell-O like alien boobs. Yet at the same time as it distracts the reader into humor that image drives a sense of misplaced sexuality, which in turn is one of the core themes of the story.

Sydney's misacculturation is there as well, in the phrase "the food was piled high and strange." Shades of Midwestern funerals and the American obsession with vast food. When Sydney wonders why her mother had never made Jell-O and shaved carrots back in Italy, you understand how out of place she is in this setting, in this story. She's like an incarnation of Spontaneous Competence, appearing from foreign parts as needed at her mother's funeral. This prepares the reader for Sydney's role in the unfolding of the story and Henry Wolfe's ultimate fate.

And so on through the story. Vukcevich has scattered gems for the careful observer, so smoothly polished that the casual reader will flash by them with a smile and nod without ever reflecting on what has been laid before them. In short, Vukcevich cut out all the parts that weren't interesting—for an entire 10,000 words—to deliver to the reader a fascinating novelette filled with charming quirks, interesting theory and just strange folks. His clean, elegant language is the most powerful style of all.

Check out "The Wages of Syntax." It's vintage Vukcevich. If you've got a little more time and a few bucks, pick up his collection Meet Me in the Moon Room. You'll learn why Ray Vukcevich is one of the secret masters of style. The more people that read him, the less of a secret he'll be. And our whole field shall profit thereby.

Link to story.


    1The Man of Maybe Half a Dozen Faces, St. Martins Minotaur, 2000; Meet Me in the Moon Room, Small Beer Press, 2001.

    2Stoker, 2001, "Whisper," originally appearing in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction; Nebula, 1996, "Count on Me," originally appearing in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction; PKD, 2001, Meet Me in the Moon Room

    3Sci Fiction, 10.16.02

    4Ace Books, 1966; currently available in an edition from Vintage, 2002; winner of the 1967 Nebula Award for Best Novel (tie).

    5Originally appeared in Starlight 2, ed. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Tor Books, 1998; winner of the 1999 Nebula Award for Best Novella.

    6Originally appeared in New Worlds, July 1967; short-listed for a retrospective Tiptree Award in 1996.

    7Romans 6:23.

Jay Lake lives and works in Portland, OR. He is the 2004 Campbell Award winner, with fiction appearing in markets worldwide. His most recent book is his novel ROCKET SCIENCE from Fairwood Press.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there,

This is a question for the webmaster/admin here at

Can I use part of the information from your blog post right above if I provide a backlink back to this site?


6:00 PM  
Blogger Dave said...


I would suggest you contact the author of the post, Jay Lake at if you're concerned about permissions. Thanks for your interest!

- Dave

9:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there,

Thanks for sharing this link - but unfortunately it seems to be not working? Does anybody here at have a mirror or another source?


8:23 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Hi Daniel:

If you mean the link to the story, sadly SciFiction is now defunct and the story is not available there.

If you mean Jay's email, you can find some alternate means of contacting him at his website.

9:45 AM  

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