Editor’s Choice Review July 2017, Science Fiction

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.

The Calico Project – Chapter 1 by Christine Berman

I like the depth and detail of the worldbuilding in this chapter. There’s been a lot of thought put into the setting and the background, and the cast of characters is already large, with lots of complex connections.

As I read, I kept coming back to two things that I think would help the story work better.

Pacing

Noss does a lot of running from place to place on deadlines. First to find the missing professor before the shuttle takes off, then to make it to her anniversary celebration, and finally to escape from the murderous intruder. All of these actions are constructed on a framework of urgency, but the accumulation of details slows it down.

Science fiction loves its exposition, and a well-built world invites a fair bit of it. The writer’s job is to keep the story moving while the world unfolds within it. But story movement and the characters’ physical movement are not necessarily the same thing.

Noss runs around while the story takes place elsewhere. In the beginning, there are two things happening: the cheerful ruse to get her home in time for her anniversary celebration, and the discovery that her research has finally produced results. Both, logistically, take more than fifteen minutes to play out, and she’s external to both. Her partner is the one who concocts the ruse, and the Professor on the ground and Malia on the space station tell her what she’s been doing and how it’s succeeded.

What if all of this activity were rolled up into a tighter scene, in which Noss gives the reader a view of Earth and her purpose there, discovers for herself that her project is a success, all while rushing to get everything locked in before her apparent deadline—and then learns that the deadline is Alam’s idea? This would speed up the pacing and put Noss in the middle of the story-action. And then we’d get the laughing reversal of, “Oh! Alam’s pulled one on me.”

I thought for a while that Alam was the shuttle pilot, but he appears to be doing his thing elsewhere–it’s a bit confusing. Could he be the pilot? Would that work in terms of who he is and what he does for the station?

Once on the station, having rushed to get there, Noss slows down. There’s no urgency really. She focuses on work without thinking of Alam at all, then when she’s reminded, she informs Malia (and the reader) that he’s out on a flight, so there’s plenty of time to get some work done.

What this does is show the reader that what’s presented as urgent is actually not. The tension ramps up, then when we get to the payoff, it turns out there isn’t any. It’s a trick to make sure Noss gets home in time, but once she does, she doesn’t need to be there for hours.

The same thing happens in the final sequence. The potential is tremendous: an intruder on the station impersonating Alam, a handful of characters with speaking roles killed, Noss apparently next in line. But when the intruder reaches her, all he does is tell her to run. The stakes weren’t high after all. She’s not in actual danger. She runs away and locks herself up safely in her quarters.

Narrative pacing has its ups and downs, its fast gallops and its breathing spaces, but in this chapter, the deadlines pile one on top of the other. It’s possible they can end in a pause, as Noss takes stock of all that’s happened, but the action up to that point should move along briskly. It escalates from “must find Professor and make the shuttle” to “intruder on station, innocents killed.”

Keeping up the pace means tightening the timeline not only in the opening sequence but in the middle one, when Noss arrives at the station. If she gets there, expects to meet Alam, but runs into the intruder instead, there’s no slackening of tension. The expository bits can be sketched in as they’re needed, but quickly, to keep from impeding the movement of the story.

Speed is the key here, and it needs tight plotting, which includes tight writing. A lot of description, a lot of adjectives, slows the pace and weakens the suspense. The time for those would be in the quiet zones, the intervals of slower movement in between the action scenes. This first chapter is very much an action scene.

The second thing I would think about is Character Motivation. This includes emotional arcs and characters’ actions and interactions. On the most basic, word-by-word level, there are some odd physiological descriptions that might bear rethinking: Noss’s heart thrashes, her stomach flutters, her chest compresses, every muscle locks and freezes. This seems intended to convey high emotion, but as a reader I kept stopping to try to figure out how these things are physiologically possible, or in the case of the chest compressions, to disentangle the image from the medical term.

Images can be vivid and unusual, but their meaning should be clear, and their emotional affect should match the overall level of the scene. The same applies to characters’ words and actions. When Noss forgets about Alam after she arrives on the station, on the one hand it’s clear she’s married to her work, which is solid characterization, but on the other, she’s here at this particular point because it’s their anniversary. That would logically stay on top of her thought processes even if she does have time to get to work before the party. If she then gets lost in her work, that makes more sense–and Malia could remind her, “Hey! It’s almost time for your date!”

The intruder’s arrival is shocking, and the deaths of her neighbors should hit Noss hard. So should the fact that he’s impersonating Alam. I think she would deduce that something has happened to Alam, and rather than running to her quarters and hiding, would try to get as much information as she can, as fast as she can, about whether he’s still out on patrol and whether he’s safe. Then she would use that data to either find him if he’s missing, or alert him if he’s away from the station.

I would also wonder why, having killed several inhabitants including a child, the intruder lets Noss go. Why doesn’t he kill her, too? Even if that will be explained later, here I think she would wonder about it, and be emotionally affected by it. Might she be grieved and/or angry about the child, guilty that she’s still alive, and frantic about Alam? What other emotions might tangle themselves up in her, and what might they motivate her to do? Would she try to protect the station? What about her work? Would she want to make sure that’s safe, either before or right after she’s checked on Alam?

There’s a good story here, with good bones. I would read on to find out if Alam is all right, and if the station is undergoing a larger attack, and what Noss does about it and how it all comes out.

–Judith Tarr

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