Editor’s Choice Reviews October 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.

The Advantage Is Decadent And Depraved by Bobby Harrell

I had fun with “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved”: it’s stuffed full of personality, quickly builds the kind of universe that spills off the page, and puts forward a sharp critique of planetary SF institutions that feels organic without ever stopping the sense of adventure. It does, however, not always keep its pacing steady, and so this month I’d like to talk about ways to efficiently pack that information in without slowing the pace of an adventure story down.

“The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved” leads with some great sensory metaphors—”Old air scrubber fluid, weeks-old body odor and that frying bacon smell of cramped humans floating in a beer can” gives readers an immediate sense of the tongue-in-cheek voice of “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved”, shows us the core of Eileen through her own personal metaphor set, and tells us what kind of wonder space travel is in this universe: in a word, it’s not. This is a space future built on work and parts that break down, a messed-up pragmatic space future, and a character who’s easily as broken-down, pragmatic, and messed-up. That’s a lot of work and scene-setting to pack into a few tidy lines, and on top of that, they’re fun.

The worldbuilding, overall, in “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved” really works for me. There’s a great balance being struck between getting in all the technical and biological details that give a science fictional future verisimilitude and not letting them stall out, drown, or overshadow the narrative. The amount of detail about this world that Eileen works in while moving the plot forward gives it a real texture: a future that’s not just unevenly distributed, but actively innovating, quietly diverse, and on the move.

Those details do great work at also being thematic: phrases like “that industrial glue smell people mistake for new” are great little tells for what’s really up with the Advantage, and where this story is going to go. And the little spotlight on Lantham’s bourbon as he tells Eileen that her drug use makes her untrustworthy is a funny, sarcastic, and really effective tell.

The one exception is the section marked by a note regarding a better backstory, or less of one. I’d agree that less is more; the information dump in that section stands out as clumsier than the rest of the work in the piece, and I’m not sure laying recent history out in its entirety sends the story forward. There are good insights in that section, but they’re drowned in the exposition.

There’s more of a mixed gift in Eileen’s narrative voice. While it’s a real core strength, I wonder if there’s some advantage to be gained here by trimming it back somewhat. She lays on the Hunter S. Thompson/Spider Jerusalem gonzo journalist schtick rather thick, both in narrative voice and her dialogue, and as workshop alumnus Rae Carson says, if everything goes up to eleven, eleven is really five. It’s contrasts—in voice, in style, in intensity—that stand out to readers in prose, and I’d suggest trying out a draft that builds in some contrasting levels in Eileen’s voice. Trim out some of the fourth-wall-breaking direct address and some of the jokes that don’t quite land (I’d mention the horn one specifically), and build in some quiet parts, some more transparent narrative, and watch the quirks, character, sardonic asides, and keen observation stand out that much more in comparison.

I’d also suggest some light trims on the sentence level. There are places—notably when Eileen’s going to and attending the meet-and-greet, getting drugs from the doctor in the med bay, explaining the Simulation Chamber, and the hallucination—where she’s functionally saying the same things twice or explaining unnecessarily to the readers, but not in ways that build out character, voice, or atmosphere. There’s a palpable drag in those sequences, and the same level of implication that “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved” uses when talking about worldbuilding and technical specs will work when talking about people and relationships, too.

That drag echoes on the more structural level of “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved”: there’s potential for much stronger pacing in the middle of the piece. While the first few scenes of the piece are strong, directed, and goal-oriented, once Eileen goes on her personal tour of the Advantage, the pacing becomes episodic; each discovery or encounter doesn’t quite lead logically or string together with the next to build anything bigger. While the fakeout with the doctor leads somewhere, the interaction with Delta, the Simulation Room, and Eileen’s time with the jet never quite pay off in any fashion, and they’re all basically cancelled, in terms of consequences, by the pirates. Lantham mentions them, but it’s obvious he was going to have it out for Eileen anyway; they’re not quite carrying their weight in the overall piece.

Ultimately, they’re distractions from what Eileen’s suit and Rabbit were already doing—and while it’s easy to believe that this was part of her plan all along, to play a trick on Lantham and the Fleet, it’s a little harder to believe because the readers don’t get enough subtextual clues to that plan to see it click together in hindsight. Playing a trick on characters fits perfectly with her personality, but when the trick’s also on the readers, by omission or otherwise, it feels less organic and less satisfying. I’d suggest building in a trail for Eileen’s plan: one that’s slight and constant enough that it connects when she announces it, and builds reader satisfaction, instead of chipping away at it.

With the exception of a somewhat light landing on the ending—that much story deserves a little more weight in the last beat—”The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved” is doing some fabulous work for an early draft. I’d love to see what it accomplishes after revisions, and best of luck with the piece!

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

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