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 Leah Bobet, Amal El-Mohtar, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.
I was stopped this month by “The Hardened Shell” and its quiet sense of process: the rhythm of sanding, measuring, paint. It’s rare that we see stories about the people our usual stories leave at home—Shire stories—and I’ve always had a personal soft spot for them: for looking at the heroic act of survival in the difficult times SFF fiction often writes about. So this month, I’d like to talk about the intense power and range of the character-focused story: What absolutely powerful work we can do in a piece light on plot and light on action.
Former workshopper Hannah Wolf Bowen pointed out, many years ago, that building conflict into a story doesn’t necessarily mean chronicling the moment something changes itself; that there’s just as much power in the moment a character realizes, finally, that something has changed: those small-yet-monumental moments when someone turns a corner, reaches out, or discovers they’re more than they thought they were all along.
“The Hardened Shell” absolutely embodies that emotional power: Slight and to-the-point, it leads delicately to the point where Shelby and Buzz realizes there’s no magic bullet solution to their lives–and that Buzz needs to–and can–step up to work alongside Shelby to create that solution themselves.
“The Hardened Shell” does an admirable amount of work in just 1.400 words. The world and stakes are sketched out in quick, concrete, evocative details; “The Hardened Shell” does good work with small things. Shelby’s world is largely implied, and to great effect: the temperature readings and sunscreen juxtaposed with falling leaves evoke a whole world baked by global warming, and her simple, active choice to not check the news implies a whole set of horrors that are probably more effective for not being spelled out. The mix of futuristic technology being used in an everyday, casual way and the way Shelby and Buzz scrounge for the basics of living, repurposing materials from dumps and ruins and relying on solar panels, beautifully sets out a future that is not at all evenly distributed.
Those details do double their weight in work when read on the symbolic and thematic level. The central symbol—a new door, repurposed from an old one, which will be good “with a little effort”—is a nice summation of the core of the story itself, and sets up a fantastic visual resonance. The constant attention to water tank leaks and solar panels, sunscreen against the hostile outdoor environment, sets up a fantastic resonance with the crew of the Adiona’s situation in space: metred resources, a dangerous solar flare, an empty void outside. Earth becomes Shelby and Buzz’s spaceship, one facing equal and sympathetic pressures to the Adiona, in just a few details and sentences.
We’ve talked before about archetypes and tropes as shorthands, and how tapping into them can do a great deal of work in a short space. “The Hardened Shell” does great work here, too: Buzz being “not great with the manual stuff” and Shelby being the technical one is a great undermining of a gendered trope–one that makes readers see this isn’t just archetypes–while simultaneously touching the archetype of the slightly dissolute little brother, and thus still feeling familiar and stable to readers.
There’s also work being done on the archetype of what kind of story this is, overall. As a rebuttal to the school of science fiction convinced that space travel will solve Earth’s problems, “The Hardened Shell” is elegant and yet quite kind. “Everything, their home included, had once been abandoned as battered and hopelessly imperfect,” it says, and yet there they are, and they are fixing what they can. What could be an intensely sad story is quietly transfigured into a beautiful sliver of practical, realistic hope.
I’ve mentioned that “The Hardened Shell” is a great example of a character-focused story, and it’s the character work that makes the story effective and not just flat. There’s a consistent arc to Shelby’s emotional life through these 1,400 words–enterprise, frustration, resignation, despair, and then a lift–that feels organic and natural: the cycle of a human person’s feelings. There’s also a deep understanding of emotional labour–of the very difference that showing up and trying and supporting each other makes–that makes that cycle feel meaningful. “The Hardened Shell” matters, in terms of arc, because it’s showing it understands how support matters to people. It’s only because Shelby’s moment of despair is so vivid—set up well by how diligently she’s committed up ’til then to carry on, and how abruptly that desire to make do fails—that the moment when Buzz shows up for her can feel overwhelming with relief, and gratitude, and hope.
The piece is still occasionally a touch too on the nose, and I suspect that’s less a problem of didacticism than one of wanting to use all of one’s worldbuilding work in a story that’s come down to only 1,400 words. Buzz’s comment about towing groceries on his bicycle stood out a touch; on the other hand, the reason Chang’s illness is so catastrophic could perhaps use a touch more fleshing out. It’s a fact dropped in immediately before its effect is supposed to hit readers, and especially in acronym diagnosis, it’s robbed of appropriate impact by that suddenness. A little more build to the what–and why–of Adiona’s catastrophe could really expand that moment to its full potential.
This is a simple piece, plot-wise: Brother shows up for his sister in a time of need. And yet, it’s an immensely powerful reminder that whatever the circumstances, one can pick up, make do, and do our best for each other, facing down uncertain futures, with no hope of a magic-bullet solution.
I very much look forward to seeing it find a home.
–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)