Editor’s Choice Award April 2018, 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.

Defending Omaha – Prologue and Chapter One by Bill Mc

I’m a sucker for old-fashioned military SF, so I was pleased to see this among last month’s submissions. There’s definitely room for it in the genre. Sometimes we want new and edgy, and sometimes we want some good, solid vintage.

I like the classic elements: the post-holocaust landscape, the Midwestern US city that goes down hundreds of levels, the military school on the surface, and the plucky female protagonist (shades of Podkayne and her sister-characters). There’s some cool worldbuilding, notably in the nanothread vest, and a nod to contemporary warfare in the drone force. It’s a good start; a nice taste of what’s to come in the rest of the novel.

I have questions about worldbuilding and about certain details. Some might be answered in later chapters. Others may want some rethinking, or a change of authorial or narrative angle. As always, it’s entirely up to the author whether and when to answer any editorial question. It’s yourstory. These are just things that occurred to me while I read and re-read the excerpt.

First, the epistolary beginning has a degree of charm, and lets us get a sense of the personalities of Serenity and her dad. I did wonder however, how the mail is being transported. Is it physical mail or e-mail? If it’s physical, how do the last couple of letters manage to reach their destinations? If it’s e-mail, that would imply some sort of internet in the city.

It appears there is the technology for that, since Serenity has a “comset embedded into the top of her left hand,” but I’m missing some indications that this technology has been built into the story. Serenity wakes up to an alarm in Chapter 1, but rather than checking the comset first thing to find out what’s going on, she goes out and rounds up the troops, even taking time to not-assess herself in the mirror (I see what you did there). She remembers to check the comset long after she would logically have done so.

Then there are the ancillary questions. If she has a comset, is that a common or ordinary thing? Does everyone have one? Or is it just the First Cadet?

The thing is, if the tech exists and is in regular use, it changes how people interact with each other. Since the advent of the smartphone, everyone is habitually checked in. Adults who aren’t are anomalies—and kids who aren’t are even more so.

It might make sense for the internet to have completely collapsed and for Omaha to have reverted to pre-internet modes of communication, but as long as mail is passing up and down the levels without apparent interruption, and as long as there’s the comset embedded in her hand, there’s an implication that the tech is still there. Particularly since nanotech is clearly very advanced, and drones are in extensive use, this reader wonders why information technology didn’t survive. How does the comset work, then? What’s its regulation use and why isn’t it the first thing she resorts to?

My other big question about this excerpt is the portrayal of Serenity. Female protagonists are not unheard of in classic science fiction—Heinlein was known to make a point of them–and having a female protagonist here is a nice link between the Golden Age and the modern era. But a number of things have changed in how we write and perceive them, and there’s a fine line to walk between the old-fashioned and the contemporary.

If advances in gender roles crashed along with most cities in the US, and society went back to the male dominance of Golden Age science fiction (or “medieval chivalry” as Serenity calls it), then Serenity’s position as First Cadet doesn’t quite parse. The military would be a male domain, and her rising to the top of the cadet rankings would be a notable anomaly. She would be dealing with a whole complex of sexism, misogyny, resentment, and outright harassment.

We get a taste of that in the “old man” cadet who patronizes her by making allusions to feminine frailty. She, being badass, kicks him in the nuts—and from that I deduce that Subbers are much more gender-egalitarian than Toppers. That’s a good bit of detail. (And it ain’t chivalry, believe me. It’s good old sexism.)

At the same time, I wonder how cadets are selected, because if Subbers never make it to the top and she’s exceptional for having done so, and Toppers are all about females-weaker-than-males, how does she make it into the intersection between these two cultural barriers? What factors have allowed her to overcome this double bias?

Subbers aren’t necessarily any more advanced about gender roles than Toppers, either. When her dad tries to reassure her about the obnoxious cadet with “He probably had no idea someone from down under could be so smart, wonderful, and pretty,” he’s begging to have his own nuts kicked through the back of his head. A truly gender-equal society would not base one-third of the value of a female-presenting member on the fact that she’s pretty. It’s just as patronizing as the things the cadet said to her. I can see her grinding her teeth as she reads his letter, and working very hard to remember, “It’s just Daddy. Daddy tries, but he has his moments, too. Do not make a note to kill Daddy.”

She’s going to have more than enough to deal with on the military front, but it’s small details like this that help develop a character and define her arc in the story. If she’s fighting ongoing devaluation of her talents because of her gender on top of wher she comes from, she has an extra level of stress to deal with, and additional complications within the various lines of the plot. It’s not just that she’s a Subber, it’s that she’s a female Subber. Everything is at least twice as hard.

As I said, this is a good start. I’ll be interested to see how it evolves with further thinking-through of the worldbuilding and the characterization.

–Judith Tarr

 

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