Editor’s Choice Award September 2018, 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.

 

Nine Gold Dots by C.K. Attner

Post-apocalyptic futures are not new terrain—and neither are quests to find the one scientist who can save them—but what struck me about “Nine Gold Dots” this month is how it demonstrates what’s at the core of a post-apocalyptic story: nuanced character work and worldbuilding that argues for better—or different—societies. However, the ending to this absorbing alternate future feels abrupt—cut short and overly light compared to the rest of the piece. So this month, I’d like to discuss the structural components that go into an effective ending, and how they’re rooted in the rest of a story.

A lot of thought has obviously gone into “Nine Gold Dots” and its sense of place: it’s founded on dense, layered worldbuilding and practical thought about what would work day-to-day in this scenario (the induction plate! Solar panels! Bikes! All so textural, and deeply logical). I would like to especially note that I really appreciated seeing a future that’s Salish and Chinese—one overall reflective of the actual current demographics of British Columbia—and the effort that went into setting the space’s emotional tone. Even with what’s at stake, and Edmonton’s repressed panic, there’s a softness to this particular end of the world that I found deeply welcoming as a reader: a core value that everyone involved here cares about the well-being of others first and foremost. It’s the gentleness of Station Eleven, but rooted in a much less white, high-culture, reified world, and that fundamental decency made this story a deeply satisfying place to spend mental time.

The characterization work also carries the narrative well, which is important for a piece centred around only three characters. I especially love Phoenicia’s grumpy, down-to-earth, thoroughly knowledgable practicality. She reads like someone very loving who has nonetheless had to grow up much too fast, and I developed an immense soft spot for her almost instantly. Even Lindy’s abrupt consent to the download has an emotional logic: she misses her old world and her old life, and wants one last grasp at it.

Where “Nine Gold Dots” wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders for me, yet, was in terms of pacing. The author’s notes do say this is on the whole done, but I’d like to suggest a little more structural refinement to address that issue.

“Nine Gold Dots” starts as a slow and cautious read for a few reasons: the density of the worldbuilding presents somewhat of an obstacle for reader immersion in the first several hundred words—readers need to situate themselves in this world, and there’s a learning curve to do early—and that’s exacerbated by the amount of invented language/jargon in this piece. Readers are spending the early pages trying to understand how the invented terms fit, but at the same time, trying to build a setting foundation on which to situate those concepts.

As it stands in the current draft, the effect of having that crunch of worldbuilding details packed into the first pages—when we’re also meeting characters, establishing conflict, and doing all the other work a story needs to do to explain what it is and why it’s relevant—is that “Nine Gold Dots” feels overall top-heavy, with its ending somewhat summarily abrupt. It’s less, I think, that the ending on its own terms is abrupt; but when balanced against the sheer amount of page space the early scenes take up—because they have the worldbuilding!—the comparison creates the effect of an ending unfinished, or just not quite enough. This robs the ending of impact, and leaves the reading experience feeling somewhat incomplete, or less satisfying than it could be.

There are a few strategies I’d like to suggest to rebalance this effect, ones that can be used separately or together.

The first: Reconsidering the necessity of each piece of jargon, or worldbuilding detail. I don’t personally think pruning alone will rebalance “Nine Gold Dots” without losing some of the richness of the world—which is already great!—but a quick pruning pass might be a good starting point. Which of the worldbuilding details pay off in some way, later? Which don’t lead anywhere? Snipping out dead ends or jargon that isn’t pulling its weight leaves one with overall less information to accommodate in a different way.

The second: Diffusing the worldbuilding detail through more narrative space to take the weight and density off the early scenes, and support it more broadly through the story. As a guide for this kind of work, consider pacing—and the density of detail—in a way that’s cyclical, like breath. Every piece of new, unfamiliar information—for example, that Edmonton is researching a viroid but also wants to link with the Thinker on his Kingston-class ship’s orlop deck—takes a little attentional oxygen out of the reader. And for every little bit of cognitive breath we take out, we have to give some space to fill those readerly lungs. That can mean couching it in more context or clearer context; it can mean some space between new concepts; it can mean a little time in familiar concepts to help clear those metaphorical lungs. But either way, finding methods to put air in our work is a great tool to have in the box to keep readers immersed even in information-dense settings.

The third: Adding a little more page weight to the ending. Ultimately, if the denouement feels a bit abrupt or slight, a small underline on the ending—and what readers are to take from it as the resolution that should satisfy them—can help balance from the other end. I can think of one particular starting point for this: There’s a line not entirely clearly drawn between the idea that teaching Edmonton to interface with the Thinker might take months, and that Lindy has months—maximum—to live. When those two ideas are connected, “Nine Gold Dots” says something profound about what we do with the time left to us, and a little more underlining on that point—just a one-sentence callback—could help boost the impact of the ending.

Ultimately, stabilizing pacing and structure can take a little experimentation: testing, taking words out, putting them back in, and checking to see if the story overall wobbles now or not. But with a little more work on moving the spotlight from the world, in the beginning, to a smoother pace that’s spread out throughout the whole piece, “Nine Gold Dots” can really click, I think, into a moving and humane piece.

Best of luck!

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

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