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, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.
As a physicist turned writer, I found this story about a physicist turned writer (and serial killer) irresistible. But it has much more to offer than that. Many, many stories have been written in which death appears as a character. That means any new story using this conceit needs to offer some fresh perspective or element. “Dialogue with Death” offers several fresh elements that draw me in. First, death is not some omniscient, immortal being. Instead, death is specifically one person’s death, in this case, Lane’s. This death came into being at a certain point in Lane’s life and will probably cease to exist when Lane does. Second, death is able to design Lane’s death using Lane’s particular interests and fears. And since Lane is obsessed with physics and philosophy and meaning, his death is unique.
Many stories have also been written about serial killers. But here, also, the story has something fresh to offer. Lane’s failed search for the meaning of life in physics led him to find a purpose in life by killing. He doesn’t really care who he kills or how; it’s just something he does once a year to provide meaning for himself.
The story also has some vivid description, as in the second paragraph.
I do think the story could be strengthened in several ways. The story mainly serves to reveal its underlying idea: that death has created a uniquely horrifying fate for Lane. Lane is on the verge of death at the start of the story, and various visions and flashbacks interrupt his dialogue with death. This type of structure is different than a traditional structure in which the protagonist is struggling to achieve a goal. Lane doesn’t seem to be struggling to achieve anything; he seems like death’s victim, powerless over his thoughts or fate. In such a structure, it’s important to limit those visions and flashbacks to the minimum number necessary to set up the ending. I think several of these aren’t necessary to set up the ending and could be cut. For example, Keegan seems to have no effect on Lane’s fate. She seems to come into Lane’s life and exit his life rather randomly. Whenever events feel random, not part of a causal chain, they seem manipulated by the author. So that’s how Keegan felt. I understand that she represents Lane’s chance to change, but then neither Lane nor death thinks he would have changed, and her presence in his life has nothing to do with his final fate, so her scenes aren’t pulling their weight in the story. I think with a story like this, the shorter you can make it, the more power the end will carry.
The story also seems wordy at times, so more length could be cut by eliminating that. For example, the last six paragraphs of the fourth scene (starting “That these same theories . . .”) seem to be belaboring some ideas that the story has previously established quite well. I think you could cut the length of that section by 50% at least. Similarly, in the eighth scene, there’s a section of five paragraphs beginning “Lane shook his head and rolled his shoulders” that I think could be cut by about 70%. I found my interest in the story declining the longer I read, because the story seemed to bounce back and forth between flashbacks and conversations with death too much, and some scenes didn’t seem to contribute a lot.
I’d love to see some of the most intriguing aspects of the idea developed more. I’m fascinated by the fact that death came to awareness because of Lane’s murders. It seems that people who don’t commit horrible acts have no personal “death” who decides their fate but simply pass into eternal peace. If that’s the case, what does it take to create a death? Most people are guilty of some bad act. Does this only happen with murder? Does this mean there is some moral force controlling the afterlife? I think Lane would wonder about this.
I was constantly thrown off by the omniscient point of view. We spend time in Lane’s head (“His mind wandered,” “Lane could see an image”), time outside of Lane looking at him and commenting on him (“his lips curling into something between a sneer and a smile,” “Lane was 35,” “It gave Professor Lane’s life meaning”), and time outside of both Lane and death (“death’s face darkened, momentarily became almost skeletal”). In an omniscient POV, you can do all of these things, but moving between them needs to be done gradually and smoothly, so the reader is not jarred and distracted. Instead of gradually transitioning from inside Lane to outside Lane to inside the omniscient narrator’s perspective, the POV often seemed to jump from one to the other, leaving me confused and disoriented.
Finally, while I like the idea of Lane being relegated to a physics-related eternal limbo, there are two things about his fate that don’t make sense to me. First, looking at the science, when someone (say Lane) is traveling near or at the speed of light, time slows down for Lane only relative to the observations of someone else (say death). Lane, traveling at c, would experience time as moving forward normally. It would be only death, watching Lane, who would see Lane seemingly moving infinitely slowly. So Lane would not be trapped in a moment as the story describes. At least, that’s the way I see it.
The second part of his fate that doesn’t make sense to me is why death chose it. I understand using physics and a unified field theory against Lane, which is a nice idea, but why is a numb limbo the worst fate for Lane? I would think being in horrible pain for eternity would be worse. If Lane hated boredom and sameness, then a numb limbo would be an appropriate punishment. But that doesn’t seem to be Lane’s issue. If you could tie his death to making his life meaningless, that would seem a more appropriate fate.
I really enjoy the underpinnings of physics and philosophy, and the fresh elements you’ve brought to the story. I hope my comments are helpful.
–Jeannie Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey