Editor’s Choice Review August 2017, 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 Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Climbing The Motherman — Part 1/2 by Henry Szabranski

I was drawn to “Climbing the Motherman” by its intense, immense sense of scale: a wild, weird, airborne world full of razorbugs, peaks, arteries—and yet one that didn’t feel out of readers’ grasp. This month, I’d like to talk about juxtaposition, what readers expect to see, and how we can play off that to create worldbuilding that stays familiar even when it’s strange.

“Climbing the Motherman” leads with its strengths: haunting imagery, a mythic cadence to its prose, and a gorgeously immense sense of scale. From the very first paragraphs, there’s a juxtaposition of large and small: the distant bodies of the Maiden, Hunchback, and the Motherman itself contrasted with Percher’s small, nimble, delicate body; the giants as, themselves, small components of a huge and unknown world sheathed in mist. There are multiple layers of awe at play in this piece’s worldbuilding, and all of them channeled well through Percher’s fascination with the giants—and his familiarity with the Motherman grounding readers in his own “usual”.

We’ve talked in previous months about how tension can be a tool to spark and maintain reader engagement, and there are a few sources of productive tension in “Climbing the Motherman”. The most notable one is the Motherman himself, and the tension between the idea of body and the idea of world. There’s enough in the geography of the Motherman for readers to recognize as a person, but the tribe’s use of cavities as homes and arteries as tunnels, the geography of a mountain in the form of a man, create a fascinating sense of body as topography, as landmark. It’s a dissonance that fascinates, partially because it’s not explained to readers, but worked in as an organic part of Percher’s universe.

That tension and juxtaposition resonate into the prose level. “Climbing the Motherman” has a strong, evocative sense of word choice that summons instant imagery but never quite in the way readers might expect: “the graves of cook fires” and “leaning forward so that it crouched upon its knuckles and its ridged spine notched the sky” were particular favourites of mine. There’s solid threading of Percher’s own worldview in the choice of metaphors, as well: describing a sky as “flesh-pink” tells readers about the components of his world. It’s not the expected metaphor, but it’s one that’s easily understandable to readers, and the just-strange-enoughness makes it work well enough to not stop readers cold, but still evoke a sense of elsewhere.

There’s also a juxtaposition in terms of Percher’s status as a slightly unreliable narrator, especially when it comes to his attitude toward Skink. I’m impressed by the pervasive and subtle indications “Climbing the Motherman” throws out that there’s less difference than Percher might think between the ways he uses Skink as a prop for his self-image and Broc’s more overt statement that her name’s whatever he pleases. The growth of his attraction to her, once she’s the only woman left, is downright disturbing when mirrored with Broc’s flip over into calling her “Little Ma”. It’s quite apparent that Percher has no idea who he is, or who he’s dealing with—and continually misses that Skink is the only character who reliably knows what she’s doing here. He’s not half as good as he thinks or wants to be, and that complicates the piece interestingly.

However, I’d call some attention to how Skink’s portrayal ultimately ends up: With Skink’s main motivating desire being to walk—as if she’s nothing more, ultimately, than her injury, not a person with wants or needs outside it—and how fulfilling that desire, taking her power, leads to crashing the entire Motherman. Yes, it works out, but there’s a quite damaging trope in there: that all someone with a disability wants is to not have that disability. I’d take a second look at that sequence, and consider carefully how it would read to readers living their own lives with disability.

I’d also take a careful look at Broc and how he’s characterized. He’s written with a different dialogue cadence than Percher or Skink, one that’s stereotypically less educated, and as he’s the undisputable antagonist here—one who’s taken down largely because he’s obstinate and almost unbelievably stupid—I’d suggest giving some attention as to whose real-life dialogue pattern he’s using, and whether that’s going to perpetuate any particularly unkind stereotypes. While a lot of “Climbing the Motherman” uses shorthands as a positive, to build bridges with readers, it’s crucial that our particular choices of shorthands be ones that are examined, and, well, chosen.

Aside from those questions of characterization, “Climbing the Motherman” does a lot very well, on several levels—and uses the same tricks of juxtaposition to craft a world and relationships that feel rich and nuanced while throwing readers down a fast-moving, action-packed plot. It’s an interesting piece, and with a little careful thought, one that can definitely be great.

Best of luck with it!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)

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