The Art of Steven Carr: Moral Ambiguity in 'The Festival of the Cull'
In an earlier article, we examined how Steven Carr, as a master of Irony, often tends to mesmerise the reader into a false sense of security, subverting it with an unexpected ending. This is one of the features of Irony as one of the four basic genres, the other genres being Epic (where the bulk of fiction has its home), Tragedy and Comedy - Irony ‘tricks’ the reader and usually leaves him or her feeling introverted, lost, thoughtful or even depressed. But there are other features of the genre, and Carr uses these too. One of them is the continuous conveying to the reader of underlying tension and dark meaning. As with the earlier article, I’m going to briefly look at one of the stories from Carr’s first collection, SAND, which I will assume that you have read - if you haven’t yet done so, you can get a copy here.
In The Festival of the Cull, Carr paints a deft picture using the imagery of science fiction in his opening scene, thus establishing the sub-genre of the story, but he does much more even in the first half of this first paragraph too:
Shamina walked into her viewroom in the middle of the night and whispered, ‘Twilight’ and sat down in an anti-gravity chair as the walls began to glow in soft dusky tones of the time between day and night. With her legs crossed and feeling weightless as the chair hung in the air above a field of zero gravity, she said, ‘Peoplelook’ and a large square section of the wall in front of her came to life with the symbol of a winking eye. ‘Scan,’ she said, and as she twirled a long strand of her mauve hair images of faces of her friends, co-workers, acquaintances and even a few who were practically strangers flashed on to the viewscreen one after the other. She had narrowed her scan selection down to ten and was feeling guilty that she hadn't given more time to making the right selection.
Typically sci-fi compound terms like ‘viewroom', ‘anti-gravity chair’ and ‘Peoplelook’ plus the way in which Shamina’s environment is obviously high-tech are the swift brush-strokes which locate us in the sub-genre - but the real hook for the reader is the mystery: what is Shamina doing? Lightly touching on the present-day reader’s fears of infringement upon privacy, the idea of someone scanning through friends, co-workers, acquaintances and strangers in this way, especially with such apparent ease, is already faintly disturbing. Then we hear of a ‘selection’ and Shamina’s guilt about not making it correctly. The blend is unsettling, and this is then magnified when we are told of the explicit reason for the scanning: a civic duty to select out fellow human beings so that they can be gotten rid of. We have entered the ‘dusky tones of the time between day and night’, a moral twilight.
That might have been enough for a lesser writer - but the focus is tightened still further. We are told that a cull of the most unpleasant and useless is part of the setting here, but Shamina ‘was staring at the image of the woman she considered her best friend, Manua, when her husband, Brackill, came into the room.’ Her best friend? Juxtaposed with what we have just learned about the selection of the unpleasant and useless? This is the stuff of horror - we have been drawn into a chilling world in which personal intimacy is under the microscope. The description of the husband does nothing to dispel the sudden alarm: ‘He was naked as usual, and sat down in an anti-gravity chair next to hers. With his legs spread and outstretched, he looked at the image of Manua.’
Note that Brackill does not question Shamina’s actions, even concluding that, though she is looking at the image of her best friend, she is engaged in the culling process. And it quickly gets worse when the image on the screen changes to that of Jamse Moorehouse, an eight year old child.
Our attention has been captured. A best friend and a child are part of Shamina’s choices, as she says: ‘I've at least narrowed my selection down to a manageable number to think about.’ The superficial science fiction elements of the story recede in the readers’ minds just as the viewscreen melds into the surrounding wall. We are dealing with an icy subversion of human emotion and the rest is just trappings. To underline the main issue of the story, this twisted perspective on human relations, Carr immediately undermines the intimacy which we assume to exist between married couples in the following exchange:
'Wait,' Brackill said. 'I want you to pleasure me.'
'I'm going back to bed,' she said. 'Use the erotical.' She left the room just as the erotica plasti-bulb began to lower from the ceiling from above where her husband sat.
Gone is any warmth between them as man and wife - the science fiction imagery of the ‘erotical’ is a device used not for its own sake but to underline the terrible emptiness in human relations which is the focus of our attention now.
What follows are further reinforcements of this dismantling of the basic affinity between human beings and the world around them: Mika is absent from work ‘getting a body change’, something which is apparently commonplace in this brave new world. Zess, another worker, underlines the point with her comment: 'I try to tell her from my own personal experience that changing body parts won't bring her love.’
Then, when the group find out that they have to find more people to cull to meet the quota, Shamina laughingly states that she could easily add Mika to the list. She goes on to have a conversation with her father in which suicide is made light of as ‘it’s done all the time’. Life and death mean less here, and that has an effect on us as readers. But for Shamina, the festival in which people are selectively put to death is ‘what my life is all about’, as she says.
Then, during dinner, the child Jamse behaves irritatingly. Normally this would be a passing incident, but Carr has set us up so that when Shamina strikes the girl and her family take her away, the tension is much higher than normal: Shamina has the power of life and death, even over a child. This creates an odd and strangely potent moral vacuum for us: Jamse is irritating, and she has been found on ‘Peoplelook’ selecting people for culling just because she ‘didn’t like their faces’ -but at the same time, she is a child. Shamina and her husband (‘naked as always’) discuss the child later:
'You can't vote Jasme for the cull simply because she is a brat,' Brackill said. 'She's only a child.'
'I don't need to remind you that the cull weeds out all undesirables no matter what age they are,' Shamina said. 'Only two years ago you cast a vote to have that Menke boy culled, and he was, and he was only twelve.'
Here for the first time we hear a moral voice, through Brackill:
'I've had a change of heart since then,' he said. 'I'm not sure culling people is the way to handle those we simply don't like.'
What ensues is the moral argument which the reader has had bubbling away in the background until now - the justifications for the cull, the social fear of overpopulation. Brackill has had a moral epiphany and is more clearly aligned now to our own view of what is right and wrong:
Brackill lay back on the panel looking up at the starlit ceiling. 'I'm not voting for anyone to be culled anymore no matter how much I dislike a person.'
'There are laws against not voting for the cull, Brackill. And besides I'm on the committee of the Festival of the Cull and to have my own husband not vote would be very embarrassing, if anyone found out.'
'Then vote to have me culled,' Brackill said.
But our moral sympathies for Brackill are quickly undermined when it becomes apparent in the next scene that he has been having an affair with Manua, Shamina’s best friend. Our conventional moral anchors are powerless here - we even discover that people can be culled for the slightest of reasons, like the newscaster ‘who everyone thought dressed atrociously who got culled last year’. By the time Shamina makes her final choice and slides a piece of paper across to her decision-making mother, determined to have whomever is written on the paper culled, we have several likely candidates, including the child Jamse, her husband Brackill and her best friend Manua. The tension is almost painful as we have nowhere to turn: this society is remorseless, shallow, merciless.
Dressing as a pig, an outward image for her apparent lack of humanity, Shamina goes out to join the crowds in the festival during which those to be culled will be listed. Carr’s stroke of genius at the end is what makes him an above-average storyteller: instead of Shamina’s selected name being any of the proposed victims we have been lured into believing it might be, or indeed someone else whom we haven’t suspected, we discover it is her own. The final sentence swings us back into balance:
She removed her pig head and waited, grateful to soon be culled.
By choosing herself, Carr’s protagonist restores a sense of justice and the reader experiences a complex release from the moral tangle into which we have been led.