Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

Beyond The Ether by Penelope Lee

“Beyond the Ether” caught my eye this month—and it was a hard choice between strong pieces!—with the wonderfully communicated, ambivalent, permeating emotion it packs into only a thousand words. This is a piece with an impact, and one of the rare workshop stories where the core relationship is a friendship—one that’s messy, complex, and full of hurt. So this month, I’d like to talk about symbolism and implication, and how they generate emotion.

One of the strategies that makes “Beyond the Ether” work for me is that it’s, on the prose level, a fairly straightforward read. The narrative voice is clear and conversational, with a simple structure and clean prose, and no tangents for explaining worldbuilding to distract from the unfolding situation. The story is a clear and easy read. The power that drives it is generated in the story’s symbols, and how the information on the page can be put together by readers to draw conclusions about what’s happening off the page—which is one of the most viable strategies for making very short fiction work. Flash fiction might be overall considered an art of implication: with so little space to work with, each sentence has to imply at least as much as it says in order to get a whole story on the page.

And “Beyond the Ether” starts that work immediately. It’s clear throughout the story that the tree stands in for more than one aspect of the situation: the protagonist, her friend, her friendship, the idea of freedom, of what’s outside. It establishes a solid visual anchor for readers before sliding into the story of this broken friendship and how it fits into the pieces of an obviously broken world, and does so in a way that’s vivid, vibrant, deep, and tactile. The idea of a tree leaning through a fence, straining its leaves outward—described in not just colour but twisted alteration, shelter and shade—is strongly kinetic, as is “I’ve got so many dreams. You used to put them into little marbles and ground them down to sand.” They’re metaphors that go directly to the hands, and embody the protagonist’s situation in a way that dodges cliché and spotlights, for readers, what clues we’re supposed to look for about how the world of the story and the Center work.

The worldbuilding in “Beyond the Ether” is interestingly done, for a story told so straightforwardly: true to an oppressive environment, the protagonist never outright expresses an opinion on the awfulness of Center life. She talks around it, leaves little facts like breadcrumbs, and we fill in the blanks as readers, characterizing her situation through the comparisons she makes or what’s left unsaid. There’s a dystopian world of horrors outside the walls of this situation, but it’s only looked at sideways, treated as part of the regular fabric of the protagonist’s world, and the way the hints add up is compelling—and still vague enough to let readers’ imaginations run.

The same technique is at work in talking about the story’s core: a mutiny and a messy, broken friendship. “Beyond the Ether” never actually says outright why the relationship between the protagonist and her friend happened in the first place, why it went bad, why it’s over—which is a core piece of information for emotionally engaging with the story. But the story gives readers that information incredibly clearly in the subtext, in little pieces. The entire contrast between why the protagonist chose Jack and a heterosexual romantic relationship and following the rules, keeping her head down, and escaping that way over the intense intimacy with her former friend, mutiny, and flight is implied by the collision between:

“It keeps us safe but it also can kill us. You used to say that a lot.”

—and—

“But I was hungry for you to give me that special treatment, to call me over from across the rec room to the little circle of cadets you’d created.”

—and—

“Jack says ideas don’t mean much if they never come to fruition and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. He helped me pass my flight exam. So he and I could be co-pilots”—that Jack’s brand of affection helped her be more and bigger to keep them together, instead of the friend’s steps to keep the protagonist small to keep them together; a concrete friendship instead of the idea of one. That’s an incredibly complex, difficult, and real set of dynamics rendered in the space of three lines, capped off by “If you were less stupid, you’d get out of here with me.”

That’s ultimately what I loved about this piece: how it manages to tackle the difference between love that elevates and love that crushes, in so little space, without the feeling of density: just by dropping the right puzzle pieces and the right clues to hold in one’s hand.

The author’s notes asked about the ending, and whether it feels complete enough, and I’m uncertain it does. While there’s a sense of completion there, I’m not sure the ending as it’s currently written brings the emotional arc to a close, or opens it up for a new implied, off-the-page direction. I think some of that problem’s in the sentence level: By the time we reach “Forget me”, we’re textually far from the idea that it’s what she’s hoping for—just in terms of literal page-distance—and so the sentence reads closer to a stand-alone imperative. It muddies the tone a touch with a despair and self-destruction that hadn’t been in evidence before, and that might be a source for any confusion generated by the ending.

However, the other potential problem is that I’m not sure just the act of forgetting would bring this relationship to a close, or bring the protagonist in line with a new direction. The problem, to be quite literal, is still open-ended. It doesn’t feel like an ending to me, because it hasn’t ended.

If I have a suggestion for a more satisfying ending, it might be to approach that problem from the thematic level. “Beyond the Ether” isn’t a plot-driven piece: it’s a study of a relationship, and the study of a resolution—a decision already made, if made conflicted and in grief and maybe not with 100% resolution. What moves within it, the driving narrative force, is the protagonist’s progress from grief to something different; something more. I’d suggest that getting a stronger sense of where she is going emotionally and crafting an ending line that points to that goal would be a good starting point for finding the right closing lines for “Beyond the Ether”. Which door she is opening, or which door she’s closing—but on the level of the emotional decision, rather than her choice to go into space with Jack.

It’s a small but significant piece of work, and I think that’ll really bring “Beyond the Ether” into focus—and take it from affecting to outright powerful.

Best of luck!

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

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