Yali on the Bosporus

I hope you have read “The Ocean Between the Leaves” by Ray Nayler from the July-August issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. I’ve read this story four times trying to follow all the plot twists so I’ll be giving away spoilers describing my thoughts from each reading. If you’ve read the story, it will be more fun to follow my bumbling efforts to figure things out. “The Ocean Between the Leaves” is not free to read online, but it was made into a free podcast read by the author. The story is about a young woman who works at a yali on the Bosphorus, maybe like the one pictured above. Ray Nayler has lived all over the world, so this tale is full of exotic details.

I hope Nayler doesn’t mind that I dissect his story. I’m doing it for several reasons. First, my friend Piet asked me to read the story to see what I thought about the plot. He was confused but got some help from Greg Hullender’s review at Rocket Stack Rank. Piet wondered if I would get the story in one reading. I didn’t. I also looked at Greg’s review, and then read it again. After two readings, I thought I got it. But there were many lingering plot questions that kept popping into my head. I then found the audio version and listened to it. Okay, I thought when I finished it this time, I’d gotten everything for sure now and laid down to take a nap. I woke up with more questions. (That pesky subconscious.) That’s when I thought about writing down my convoluted journey through this story.

I’m going to explain all my reading reactions to the story while I still remember them. I hope I don’t hurt Ray Nayler’s feelings. I’m trying not to criticize his story because I don’t know if the problems are with me the reader or with him the writer. The plot of the story is both simple and complicated. It’s simple in that not a whole lot happens, but it’s complicated by how the story is told. It’s intended as a mystery, one meant to make the reader keep guessing. By the way, the story is full of colorful details that make the story enjoyable on other levels, but ones I won’t comment on.

First Reading

Read it the first time on my iPhone 6s Plus while lying on a couch. To be honest, I read it somewhat fast and I just missed the whole issue of mindswapping. That’s a huge plot point to pass over. In my defense though, it wasn’t ever explicit. It was hidden to create a mystery.

I liked how “The Ocean Between the Leaves” started out about a young woman gardener, Feride, on a rich person’s estate. She pricks her finger and it gets infected. Three months later she’s still in intensive care. Nayler describes the infection in gruesome detail.

We’re now introduced to the doctor Melek and Feride’s brother Fahri. Fahri visits his sister every day and flirts with the doctor each time with a 5-minute date. On this day Fahri has a cut that the doctor fixes. Then he goes out to work. We learn that he isn’t rich and his sister’s bills are high. We learn that he makes money tagging skips. I assume this is attaching some kind of signaling device to people who are skipping out on something. His boss Tarik is shady and wears VR glasses. We also learn that Tarik is shaking Fahri down for a lot of money.

Fahri tries to catch three slips in one day to get ahead on the bills but is knocked out by the third slip.

Then the story jumps back in time. Feride is told she is going to die, but the state is going to transfer her mind to another body so she can wrap up her life and say goodbyes. I thought that was rather odd. She/we are told she will be an experiment. At the time, I thought it was an uncommon procedure.

Feride goes back to the yali where she worked but tells people she is her brother. The first time I read this I didn’t realize we had jumped back in time and didn’t realize this Fahri was the same as the Fahri we had already met. Feride/Fahri hears a story from the old head gardener Suat about fighting the system. The first time I read this, I didn’t understand how the story changed Feride into Fahri. I was confused by the pronouns of describing her in his body. I focused on Fahri’s effort to make money and the action surrounding him. I wondered if Feride had died and had been transferred to another becoming Fahri. I was totally confused by the plot. The two similar names Feride and Fahri kept tripping me up, and I didn’t understand why they were the same person. At first, they seemed to be two separate people, and then they were the same person. Probably all of this confusion was due to me reading too fast. But I think some of the confusion was due to information behind withheld from the reader. But I also considered I’m getting old and I’m not sure if I can keep enough of the story in my head to make all the puzzle pieces reveal the overall picture.

Second Reading

This time I read the story on my iPad mini while in my reading chair. I was more determined to read slowly, understand the story, and concentrate on the details. This time around I noticed several references to Fahri being a prince. I also admired the rich background details more in the story.

On my second reading, I paid more attention to the first line, “It began just like a fairy tale; an orphaned young woman pricked her finger on the thorn of a rose, and fell asleep.” With this reading, I only figured this line linked Feride pricking her finger and getting infected. I didn’t try to imagine what it might mean for the whole story.

I also noticed this time we’re told Feride means “the only one.” Now that’s an obvious clue, but only in hindsight. But we’re also told Feride believes it means “the lonely one.”

I had read Greg Hullender’s review with spoilers. The keyword he gave was androids. I remembered from the first reading there had been androids, but I assumed they looked artificial and were just slave workers on the docks. I didn’t realize that androids could look just like people. I realized I was reading a story much like Mindswap by Robert Sheckley where technology allowed people to easily swap minds between bodies. In the first reading, I thought Feride was being put into a clone body. Nor did I realize that the skippers Fahri chased were minds in rented bodies trying to run away with them.

In the second reading, I realized that Feride was given a three-day rental body to wrap up her life, and she decided to keep it and work to pay her medical bills to save herself. I still didn’t understand some things. Did she skip out with the three-day body, or got a third body on the black market.

However, the story simplified into one of a person saving themselves. That’s a pretty neat idea of paying for your own medical bills by working in another body while your sick body remained in a coma. Pretty cool. Happy ending.

However, more questions kept popping into my mind.

Third Reading

This time I listened to the podcast version. I love listening to science fiction stories. I would have made my second reading a listen if I had known about the podcast. This time I just “read” the story to enjoy it. I thought I had all the plot twists down. However, after the podcast was over, I put the story out of my mind. But once again new questions started bubbling up.

When we see Dr. Melek talking to Fahri in a man’s body the first time we don’t know that Feride is inside, but she would — wouldn’t she? The reader thinks the brother and doctor are flirting with each other. Doesn’t the doctor know that it’s her patient? But did she talk to Fahri like Feride was inside? Was this the same three-day body the Institute bought for Feride? If Fahri had been working for Tarik for a third of a year as a skip chaser, was Feride in a different rented body, or had she skipped out with the three-day body, or had she merely taken up the payments on the three-day body?

Why was Feride given a male body to close out her life? That seemed rather insensitive. And why didn’t Feride tell Suat that it was her? Why did she make up the story about her brother? Obviously, swapping bodies was common in this time period, so Suat shouldn’t have been shocked. Feride was given a chance to say goodbye to the only people she knew and loved. But she didn’t, why? Obviously, Nayler liked the idea of a sister and brother because it diverts the reader’s attention so they will think they are two different people in the story. But that confused me and almost ruined the story.

What happened to Fahri, or his body?

We are told it’s three months later when Melek and Fahri agree to go on daily 5-minute dates. But we also know Fahri has been using the body for a while as a skip tracer. We are told later he’s been doing it for months. Is it the same three months? When did Feride almost die and Melek buy her three days to wrap up her affairs? At the beginning of the three months. Why would a doctor spend so much money on a patient she didn’t know? Or had she gotten to know Feride well enough to fall in love with her? And like Greg Hullender asked, how did the hospital keep a nearly dead woman without her mind in stasis for months?

Fourth Reading

This time I read my physical copy of Asimov’s Science Fiction. I’m currently buying both the Kindle and paper copies. I’m trying to decide which I prefer. I still don’t know, each has their pluses and minuses. However, I’m annoyed as hell that the Kindle version doesn’t display on my Kindle for the PC. That sure would make reviewing stories so much easier. There are times when I’m tempted to buy an OCR program so I can grab quotes without retyping.

With this fourth reading, I’m starting to feel like Phil Conners from Groundhog Day. Opening line: “It began just like a fairy tale; an orphaned young woman pricked her finger on the thorn of a rose, and fell asleep.” This time around I remember the fairy tales Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and read about them at Wikipedia. But both involved pricked fingers and women who sleep in a spell. However, in Snow White, it’s the evil witch that pricks her finger, so I guess we’re talking Sleeping Beauty here. That means Fahri is going to be her own Prince or is it, Dr. Melek? Melek saves her from permanent sleep but only intending it to be for three days. Feride saves her own life, so is Feride her own Prince Charming? If Melek is in love with Feride and not Fahri, is she the rescuing Prince of this story?

Here’s the thing, Ray Nayler knew what he wanted to do with this story and then contrived to make it happen. Readers don’t know that intention, so they read the story guessing as they go what might be happening. I now wonder at the sequence of inspirations Nayler got for this story. Did he first intend for it to be about a woman who gets a three-day chance to close out her life with a mindswap and then gets the idea of Feride saving herself? Or was that the plan all along? Was the love story an afterthought, and the three-day mindswap added in to make a better ending?

Ah-ha! When we’re first told about Fahri and Dr. Melek, Melek asks, “How is your sister?” The POV is following closely to Fahri and it says, “They had met the first night Fahri came in to see his sister. Melek had sat across from him the same way, nearly three months ago now, when they first met.” This is all very definite, and probably why I was so confused in the first reading. At the beginning of the story, we were told that Feride had a brother she never had met. It’s three months after she falls ill. But Fahri has been visiting her for three months. This leads the reader to believe that Fahri is a real person, found out right away about Feride’s illness and came to see his sister.

In the first scene with Fahri and Melek, there is no foreshadowing of things to come. And there’s an indication that Fahri has been a skip chaser for some time because he’s worn out. Knowing what we know from previous readings for this story to work Feride nearly died immediately after entering the hospital and Dr. Melek bought her a three-day rental on a body right after she arrived. We are told that the Institute did this as an experiment, but the very ending of the story suggests that Melek spent her own money. Why?

This also suggests that Melek never saw the rental body, or Feride got a third body. But this now brings up another interesting question. Did Melek ever know that Fahri was really Feride? The last two paragraphs are:

     "But the expense. It must have been ... I remember struggling to pay ... it's thousands of lire a day ... you can't possibly afford ..."

     "Hush." Melek presses a finger to Feride's lips. "It's my choice to make, Fahri. And where else would I find such a hero? And who would I go on my five-minute dates with? Are you trying to make me drink my coffee alone?"

Notice Melek touches Feride but addresses her as Fahri. I assume, and that’s dangerous with this story, that Feride survives and Feride/Fahri is back in her original body. But when did Melek realize that Fahri was Feride? If Feride had stolen the three-day body, didn’t Melek know? When Feride is visiting Suat she’s already thinking of the body as Fahri. Wouldn’t Melek have seen this rental body? Feride in her new body awakes with Dr. Solmaz Haznader explaining things. But there’s another clue on page 105. Feride/Fahri asks Tarik about the Institute who rented the three-day body when Tarik offered him a job chasing skips. (I don’t know why it says Tahir in this paragraph and not Tarik. Is it another person, or a name change not corrected?)

"I'll deal with the institute," Tahir said, "That's what you'll be paying me for. That' and your nice new body not full of poisonous bacteria. And your other body, drifting on the edge of death. And the price for all three together is going to be very, very high."

He’s paying off the Institute, the rental on the new body, and the medical care of the original body. But we don’t know if he keeps the three-day rental or gets a new body.

Because of Tarik/Tahir conversation with Dr. Haznader I think the Institute story is real, and wonder about Melek’s involvement. Then why does Feride think at the end of the story that Melek paid for everything? But the lengthy discussion of the Institute’s research suggests that they planned all along for Feride to use the rental body for an extended period. So Feride/Fahri stayed in the same body.

But now I have a whole new theory. Feride thanks Melek for the three additional days. Maybe Melek didn’t pay for mindswap, but just three more days of healthcare. And that all the story about mindswapping was in Feride’s feverous mind. Oh no, do I need to read this story again? But wait, Melek thinks about Fahri and mentions their 5-minute dates, so that can’t be right either.

This could go on forever, but it stops here.

(I hope.)

Asimovs Science Fiction July-August 2019

James Wallace Harris, 9/1/19

p.s. – To further explain how hard it was to read this story and write this essay I wrote: “Quantifying My Cognitive Decline.” I believe aging is affecting my reading ability.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “Untying a Knotted Plot

  1. This is fun – watching a reader try to figure out the plot. I have answers, of course – but I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun. To answer a question you ask: yes, I plotted it all out beforehand. No, I never changed my mind about anything in the story.

    One small thing – could you kindly correct the spelling of my name? It is Nayler, not Naylor.

    A few things to remember when unwinding:

    There is one replacement blank.
    The doctor doesn’t know about the Institute experiment(s)
    You got it with the medical bills.
    Remember, there are two Institute experiments, run by separate departments.

    Happy to chat if you want more answers . . . But it sounds like you got most of it, in the end.

    Ray

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    1. Sorry about that Ray. I spelled it 3 times as Naylor and 5 times as Nayler. I’ve fixed it now. I realized writing this essay that my mind is slipping. I struggled constantly to spell your name and the character names right. I even held the copy of Asimov’s in my hand and constantly looked at the spellings. From from looking to laying the magazine down, I kept messing the names up.

      Whoa! Two separate experiments? I totally missed that.

      Does the Melek ever know that Feride has been away while in the hospital? Not knowing at the beginning solves one big problem I had. Wait, Melek at the very end calls Feride Fahri. So when does she learn? When Fahri returns to Feride’s body is she Feride again and remember everything she did when she was mindswapping?

      Are Tarik/Tahir two separate people?

      I might have to read it a 5th time to see if I’ve completely untied all the knots.

      Did you plan your misdirections?

      Thanks for stopping by.

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      1. Hi James,

        Thanks for all of the time you spent analyzing this story: I’m flattered you would invest so much into it.

        First of all, my apologies: Tahir and Tarik are the same person. This is an irritating glitch which slipped by myself and everyone at Asimov’s. I had decided on one name, then changed it to another because Turkish names have specific meanings which I use as hints to readers who bother to look them up. Unfortunately, the draft did not get changed.

        No matter how many times I edit a story, something always gets missed. Irritating, but I am not alone: I just noticed a typo in VALIS, so that made me feel a bit better. Surprisingly, you are the first to notice this typo — I guess the two names are so similar that people’s minds skipped right over it. There is one other glitch in the story which I only noticed later — a small one. I’ll keep it to myself for now.

        Now that we have that out of the way:

        Here is the plot in sequential order (which is different, of course, from the story)

        (Massive irreversible spoilers ahead)

        Feride pricks her finger, contracts a massive staph infection, and ends up in the hospital.

        Feride is given a blank to say goodbye to her loved ones in, and is briefed by Dr. Solmaz Haznadar

        Feride takes the blank and goes to the Yali, where she impulsively lies to Suat and pretends to be her own brother. (If you are interested in the psychology, I am happy to discuss).

        Feride meets Tarik/Tahir on a bridge. He is also from the Institute, but the does not tell her this. He is piggybacking a second experiment on the first. His experiment is a study of how much people will pay to rent a blank to keep from dying — he is from the department of motivations.

        Feride completely assumes the identity of her own brother, Fahri, and begins work as a skip tracer, funding her own medical care.

        Fahri is choked unconscious by the Institute because the experiments have been cancelled, and the blank Feride’s consciousness is inhabiting needs to be reclaimed. “His” consciousness returns to Feride’s body in the hospital.

        Melek notices two things: a change in Feride’s condition, and a loyal “brother” who is suddenly gone. She puts two and two together, and funds Feride’s medical care, also realizing that Fahri / Feride are one and the same.

        Feride wakes up.

        Yes — I planned my misdirections in advance. Before being a science fiction writer, I spent years as a writer of crime, noir and hardboiled fiction. This story is a nod to those genres.

        I have a question for you: what car chase is Tarik watching in his glasses? Recognize it?

        Again, thanks — glad someone cared enough to read the story so many times. Happy to answer any and all questions you have. And give my story in Nightmare, “Beyond the High Altar” a read. It’s available online starting tomorrow.

        Ray

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      2. When I read your story I thought it was plotted like a mystery/thriller. I meant to mention that in my essay. One reason I don’t read mysteries and thrillers is the complicated plotting. I’m a linear kind of reader. Did you ever consider telling the story in its natural sequential order? I think it would have worked that way too. Or were you wanting to create a puzzle for readers? I see nonlinear storytelling as puzzle-solving, appealing to our analytical nature, and linear storytelling appealing to our temporal nature. I also believe linear stories work better at the emotional level.

        By the way, I never saw a reason why Melek would feel for Feride more than any other patient and assumed she was only flirting with Fahri because of his physical appearance because we were never given evidence of an emotional connection.

        I did get the two experiments then. I was just counting them as one because I thought the two worked for the same Institute.

        I assumed the car chase was Bullitt.

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      3. Hi James,

        You nailed the car chase.

        No, I never would have told this story linearly, for a number of reasons beyond just the mystery element: every story has its proper form. I tell linear stories, epistolary stories, nested tales – there is always a reason for the form. I don’t agree about the emotional distancing, but I think that is personal to the reader – and emotional impact is something I am sometimes, but not always, going for. Sometimes intellectual impact, or a mix of both, is what I want.

        As for evidence of emotional connection – well, one could argue, I suppose, (and it is implied – search for the word “prince”) (there’s that fairy tale again) that to some people the courage, loyalty, etc of a brother who is working himself to death to save his sister and visits her every night might be attractive – more attractive that the “appearance” of a person who is never physically described beyond a few chance details, and who I never said was handsome . . . but then every instance of a story is a unique collaboration between writer and reader, never quite what either intended.

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  2. Hi James,

    Good job nailing the Bullitt car chase!

    No, I never would have written this story linearly, and i don’t think it would work well that way — its form is fit to its content — think DOA, think Sunset Boulevard. If you prefer linear, my “Winter Timeshare” is a linear tale set in the same world. And “A Threnody for Hazan” also set in Istanbul Protectorate, is mostly linear.

    There’s lots of evidence of an emotional connection between Fahri and Melek (from his perspective, as this is told in third person limited perspective, with a good deal of indirect discourse) — I’m not the kind of author to hit people over the head with an emotional hammer, but there’s lines and lines of emotional connection in there if you look.

    Thanks again, and take care!

    Ray

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