In “Voiceless” by Emily Smith, main character Kanya is 31 years old and a social media influencer. In the beginning, she’s about to share a picture of a mouthwatering sandwich. After posting the picture, she watches the “hearts roll in”, which are probably synonymous to likes on a social media platform. Rather than eating the meal after posting, she instead puts the wine back into the bottle and scrapes the meat into the trash can. Her meals for the day will consist of the bread from the sandwich (sans meat) which she’s cut into tiny pieces.
Kanya sees a post from her friend Tayla, who is at the beach. Kanya notices the ring on Tayla’s toe in the picture and notes how its sole purpose is to be in the picture and that Tayla probably took it off afterwards. Kanya gets a message from her mother, since her mother doesn’t follow her or anyone else, despite this world being steeped in social media.
Kanya then goes to work, although she works from home. Her job is to provide customer support, and when she does well she gets points that she can spend on shopping. All of her clients live “by the water,” a place where only the richest or most successful and well-known seem to live. Kanya herself desperately wants to reach the water.
She reveals that she is at the same weight she was when she was 12 years old and puts a lot of work into maintaining that weight, including intensive workout videos. This is because “everyone loves watching a tiny girl eat fat food,” and so Kanya diets excessively and does high intensity workouts to maintain this weight. Instead of yoga, which she posts about sometimes despite not actually doing it, Kanya’s workouts include a large man screaming at her to “get down then get up” repeatedly.
Naylen, Kanya’s boyfriend, then messages her about how he liked her post. Although she is fond of Naylen, she’s concerned that he’ll get 15k followers before her and make it to the water–if this happens, it’s implied Kanya will break up with him.
Towards the end of the story, a follower has tracked down Kanya to her small apartment. He wants to have dinner with Kanya but she refuses. He breaks down her door and then takes photos of her in her apartment, showing her life in all its truth: the scattered paint cans, the desperate bursts of pastel on the walls like patchwork, Kanya herself making a noise like “the cry of an unknown animal.” The follower scene could also be interpreted as a hallucination due to Kanya’s malnutrition though.
She later wakes up in the hospital. Her mother is there and tells her that they are bringing her back to life. Kanya thinks back to her apartment where the evidence of her superficial lifestyle resides.
The chronic tension is Kanya’s desperate desire for validation.
The acute tension is Kanya’s obsessive follower accosting her at the end, though I think this could be argued against since it’s also the climactic scene and happens near the very end.
This story takes place in a dystopian future where social media rules people’s minds. That’s what first grabbed me. It is so real, as if written in present 2018 or even earlier, perhaps back to when Facebook or Myspace was making its rounds as something revolutionary. Social media has invaded this society to its core, but the funny thing is you don’t get a sense of this being a dystopia or too far in the future because the subject matter is so current and believable.
The only overt sci-fi element is a marginal mention to “the Bot” that brings Kanya’s purchases to her door, and that isn’t even that high-tech. There’s almost a George Saunders feel to this story–words that normally wouldn’t be capitalized are capitalized, like Food, Travel, and Music, much like Saunders’ weird product names that he uses to worldbuild.
That’s kind of the beauty of “Voiceless”’s world. It does not need to be explained because we are already in it. I can clearly see the social media influencers of today following almost exactly in Kanya’s path, from the fake yoga aspirations to not eating the delicious but fattening foods she posts to not even harboring genuine emotions for her equally social-media obsessed boyfriend.
I love stories like “Voiceless” that make you realize something off about society, something unsettling, and I guess this is me hearkening back to Saunders and how he too makes unsettling worlds that, behind the vast veil of sci-fi tech and terminology, are deeply familiar to us 21st century readers.
Onto the things we can steal:
The first craft technique I chose was how Smith uses “the water” as a mechanism for social advancement in her story. Throughout “Voiceless,” Kanya thinks of the water. She wants to reach it so desperately, even crying at her first 1k followers because that goal of the water finally seems attainable. The water is a distant almost abstract concept. Smith doesn’t write about what the houses by the water are like or how it’s better than Kanya’s current circumstances.
We instead read between the lines. The water is probably more luxurious, full of people who are high class with high-maintenance needs, people that complain to customer support to solve their problems because it takes away from time they could be using to putz around on the toilet. The water probably has nicer apartments than Kanya’s Maker space, which is sparse and almost institutional in the uniformity of Kanya and the 13 other Makers in the building.
The water is a symbol for something more than moving to a nicer place; it represents moving up in society so Kanya can maybe live a life similar to the one she posts about. This is ironic because those that live by the water probably have to work even harder than Kanya and her 13 fellow Makers to maintain their follower count and in turn maintain their place by the water.
The second technique I chose was using food as a way to highlight artifice. The first few words are about food, setting up a situation that the reader later realizes is not at all what it seems. Instead of being delicious, something to be desired, food is instead treated as a means to an end. It loses its sustenance and becomes calories to maintain a low weight. What ends up on the screens of Kanya’s followers differs vastly from what she actually consumes, and sometimes she doesn’t eat any of what she posts. Sometimes what she posts isn’t even edible, such as the lemon lavender glaze. At first this seems absurd. Who would go to such lengths?
But even today there is this artifice in advertising, so is it so far of a stretch to imagine it pervading social media spaces? Most milk in milk commercials isn’t milk. It’s glue. A lot of those fresh vegetables aren’t vegetables; they are models of vegetables–wax, paper, and glue. Kanya’s yoga mat goes unused. Her candles are lit for mere seconds before being snuffed out again. This sounds like some weird chef adage, but the food highlights the fakery. Yes, fakery is a word.
Fun fact before the questions: one of those crackpot baby naming sites says people named Kanya have a “SoulUrge Number” of 2. This means that they have a “deep inner desire for love and companionship” or something.
- Is the story too preachy for making the social issue of social media oversaturation a central focus?
- What was your interpretation of what happened in the ending?
- Is Kanya a sympathizable character? Is she just a caricature of a social-media obsessed millennial or instead a well-rounded character you can relate to? How excusable are her flaws?