Can you talk a little about the genesis of this story, “Ragged Claws,” and the thinking behind the title?
The title comes from a line in one of my favourite poems, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot—“I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” It seemed to me to evoke the atmosphere of the story, and the emotional mental state of the main character. The story grew out of reflections on how much of life for many people is spent in the fantasy worlds created by movies, books, games, or their own imagination—and also how many occupations now are carried out at a remove from the real world. Saying “the real world” seems wrong—what is reality if we’re not in it? But when you think about the way we live now, so much of the time we’re interacting with other people through screens, and even physical labour is performed by machines, supervised by people at some remove from the nitty-gritty, and as we explore places inhospitable to life, like the earth’s core or outer space, we do so through drones, probes, and transmitters. I don’t think people are easily divisible between body and mind, yet often the mind is one place and the body occupies another space entirely.
The characters argue a bit about the value of a life lived in VR: If your mind and body are being fully fed an experience, is there any substantive difference, in your opinion? Do the origins of the externalities matter?
It’s this very question that I wrote “Ragged Claws” to explore. It’s a fascinating problem. Although in some ways it seems that if you experience something fully with your body and your mind, that is your life, so the theoretical perception of an outside observer shouldn’t make any real difference—I think most people would feel uneasy accepting that whole-heartedly. There’s the idea of some basic, underlying “real” reality, and if you’re cut off from that for whatever reason, then your virtual life won’t be accepted as totally equal and equally significant to a life fully integrated into the “real world”—whatever the consensus view determines that to be. I’m not a philosopher, so I can’t take you through a logical argument for one side or the other; I wrote this story to play with and think about the question, and to invite readers to think about it, too. But I don’t know the answer, so the story leaves it open to argument.
Why is the saying, “The journey, not the arrival, matters,” so important to the protagonist? On the surface, it would seem like his justification for recruiting people for Eden, but why then would the import of the saying be obscure to him?
I think this line may be the very heart of the story. Bear in mind that narrators are not always to be completely trusted, and that when people say they don’t know something, it can mean they don’t want to know—and then he admits that he doesn’t want to think about it, and puts it out of his mind. There can be various reasons for this, and “Ragged Claws” is not a quiz—I did not intend for it to have one single meaning or answer, but more to cause pleasurable puzzlement and speculation in the reader (see my answer to the previous question!) Something I thought about is that little bit of wisdom he quotes could be considered either comforting or bleak in connection with the narrator’s own experience.
If Eden has a vast array of recruiting approaches, why then use a broken-down, depressed ex-employee to recruit one-on-one?
I don’t know if it’s realistic or not, but word-of-mouth still seems to be one of the best marketing devices, used today by plenty of companies with large sales forces and big budgets. Why does Amazon want customers to leave reviews? Why are people recruited to spread the word to their friends about various products? I don’t suppose this way of selling will die out anytime soon. The other thought I had was that the Eden corporation has basically “broken” this man and made him pretty useless for other jobs—and they know it. So this could be their conscience-salving gesture; but rather than offering him the charity of a straight-forward pay-off, they disguise it as a commission or bonus, and thus keep their old employee still working for them, still tied, never free.
“Ragged Claws” is largely a single conversation: What were some of the challenges you encountered with this approach?
Almost every time I have an idea for a short story, I face the challenge of how best to tell it. (I say “almost” because there are exceptions—some stories are more straightforward than others.) With a science fiction story, especially, there’s the problem of how much background information the reader needs, and how to get it across in a way that feels natural. Conversation is a good way to transmit information. Especially when a story is told in first person, it can raise unwanted (and unanswerable!) questions if they do too much explaining: Who do they think they’re telling this story to? Back in my teens, when I was first trying to write professionally, I was very impressed by Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and considered it a model for how to write a great short story. Maybe that memory was part of my inspiration when writing “Ragged Claws.”
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