February 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Charles Coleman Finlay, Jeanne Cavelos, Leah Bobet, and Liz Bourke. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

“A Brief History of Alien Invasions” by Paul Marino

“A Brief History of Alien Invasions” caught my interest this month because of how effectively it exploits a simple-looking structure to tell much more story—and communicate much more context—than strictly appears on the page. What looks like just a narration of how tropes have changed in stories about aliens blooms into a nicely subtle story about fear, illness, courage, and a phone call being avoided. However, from the author’s notes, “A Brief History of Alien Invasions” isn’t quite connecting with its potential audience, and this month, I’d like to explore both what makes this sort of oblique narrative style work—and where it might jump that last gap to connecting with readers.

The major misconception about pieces like “A Brief History of Alien Invasions” is that they’re stories that run on tone: a distanced, serious intonation on a slightly random topic or situation that creates, somehow, a profound narrative. What actually tends to make a highly abstract story work is its very lack of randomness—its structural strengths—which “A Brief History of Alien Invasions” has in spades. The piece is essentially a puzzlebox, the kind of narrative that grabs the parts of our brains that evolved for pattern-matching, and uses readers’ instinct to take that puzzle apart to lead us to uncovering a piece of story.

What makes “A Brief History of Alien Invasions” very much catch my interest is that it’s a box with not just one, but two puzzles: the game of calling out which movie or TV series is being described in each vignette, and then the slow uncovering of the story’s actual plot, the protagonist’s grapple with an impending diagnosis, found through matching the tropes and mood of those shows and the hints left in how they’re chosen and discussed.

It’s a highly effectual way to give readers that feeling of discovery—one which will be familiar to anyone who’s worked in game design and ever written a tutorial. Setting up the guessing-game of “Which movie?” primes readers’ brains to the fact that yes, this is a puzzle—and there’s something else to guess at, so it’s important to be looking. It provides the crucial element of a puzzle—a clue—upfront, leading with “The aliens came to escape their own problems” and telling readers, right in the first sentence, what this story is about and what to look for. That narrative Rosetta Stone is reinforced by the later clue, right on the page, that the aliens are metaphors: it’s a chance to shift one’s reading if the puzzle has left a reader behind.

In short, we’re shown what kind of story this is so we can find our way to the emotional payoff, and it’s a highly effectual emotional payoff, largely because of the way the puzzles interact to bolster the thematic level of the story. We’ve talked in previous months about tapping into the preexisting wiring that symbols and ideas have for our readership, and how effective hijacking or remixing an existing set of readerly assumptions can be. “A Brief History of Alien Invasions” works something its readers are guaranteed to recognize: The idea of science fiction as escapist—the place people go to get away from their problems—drifting inevitably back to social problems and anxieties in the way both the genre and the protagonist have.

It’s an almost inadvertent, brilliant little effect: A protagonist who’s telling us a wild story to try to escape the fear of diagnosis that’s plaguing them, but can’t help but get dragged back to those thoughts again and again and again. Who inevitably finds them self back in the story about that phone call.

The result is rawly emotional: Because the fear seeps up from between the cracks left for it in “A Brief History of Alien Invasions” the piece feels absolutely unpolished and visceral and real, and even more so because readers get to find it ourselves.

So there’s a great deal of smart, effectual structure work here, but it’s not quite connecting with readers so far. Why not? I’d diagnose two major issues: One with the story, and one with potential reader expectations.

No matter what we do as writers, the factor we definitely can’t control is our readers and the ideas they bring to the table. I will say that one of the pitfalls of a workshop environment is that we as writers, conscious of reading to evaluate or fix a story—and bluntly, sometimes a little too conscious of the perceived social hierarchy of a workshop—can frequently be much too quick to chalk an effect up to ignorance or incompetence, rather than digging in to find what a colleague is trying to achieve and help them achieve it better. I will quite frankly state that I found some of the existing critiques on this piece—the ones that contributed to the author’s note and its upsettingly defeated tone—to be quite dismissive, and dismissal is not very conducive to helping either the author or the critiquer learn more craft. We’re not here to dismiss each other. We’re here to learn, and while “A Brief History of Alien Invasions” is a great example of structural work, its author’s note and some of its existing reviews are a great example of why condescending to our colleagues is not just useless, but damaging and small. I’d ask everyone to take that example to heart, and remember what we’re here for: learning and community.

While that’s not a controllable issue, it does one useful thing: Points out where readers are straying off the proverbial garden path, and where a writer might put a fence or a helpful signpost to keep them going forward.

For my part, I’d suggest that there are definitely places “A Brief History of Alien Invasions” could be tightened to make it more narratively effective and separate the clues from their settings. While I know it’s one of the things I always say, this kind of story is probably most effective when it’s lean: get in, do the work, and get back out, leaving enough setting and mood work to keep the story feeling rounded out, but not enough words to send readers down false trails or confuse them as to what the focus of the story is. Even at 1,000 words, there’s narrative drift here, especially near the end of the piece before resolving for a frankly killer last line.

I’d suggest a pass through the piece for focus, thinking of the trope-puzzle material through the lens of the plot itself. Which pieces of the trope conversation contribute to the plot clues? Which of them are pieces of the puzzle? See what the rough percentage is—plot clues to fluff—and adjust that a little in the direction of the plot clues. A tighter focus will help readers pick up and keep the trail.

As well, the metaphors in “A Brief History of Alien Invasions” do complicate at a certain point—once we hit the superheroes, I’m not sure where the connections go anymore. I’d suggest keeping an eye out for complication and/or drift between the layers of the story, and minimizing it as necessary. This might be a multi-draft operation: finding a balance between information and subtlety.

Either way, there’s something profoundly moving and structurally intelligent at the heart of “A Brief History of Alien Invasions”, and while it’s still a few drafts away from finished, it’s worth pursuing.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet
Author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (October 2015)

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