Editor’s Choice Award November 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.

Harvest by Hannah Hulbert

“Harvest” got my attention this month with its hushed, pervasive atmosphere and the ease with which it made a long story feel quick and engaging. So this month, I’d like to talk about how our deployment of science-fictional worldbuilding affects engagement and suspension of disbelief, and how it’s not about facts, but context—both when writing worlds and the people who live in them.

“Harvest” does good work at the quick establishment of a world and relationships early on. Lines like “everyone knew how Forto felt about complaints” imply a history and routine, and the use of implication and subtext between Forto and Dejori sets considerable atmosphere—as does the image of a woman gathering moisture from aluminum harps in the dense fog.

The author’s note asked about quantity of worldbuilding in a first attempt at science fiction, and the best way I can sum that up as a reader is that I’m not sure how the harps work to harvest moisture, but I’m not sure I need to. The image strikes a balance between technical and otherworldly that “Harvest” handles well overall. As with the details of Colony 264’s cold weather and late twilight, the story tells us how people live in this environment, instead of stating orbital or temperature details. The clear advantage to this worldbuilding approach is that when introducing science-fictional information, what “Harvest” actually describes is not just a planetary fact (“it is cold here”) but how people live in relationship to that fact, both collectively and individually. Forto’s forgetfulness about just how cold the cold is tells me about the confines of his life—sedentary, predictable, routinized, and privileged-in-decline—and his respirator when Amiko lacks one speaks volumes about the society that they’ve built here.

It’s that layering of information that makes the worldbuilding in “Harvest” work well for me. People are in interaction with technology that outstrips our own, and even if I don’t understand the technology or that technology isn’t engineering-accurate, I can see clearly the social, economic, and individual relationships they’ve formed with and because of it. The ripples of these stones in people’s lives are easy to observe, and because of that, my suspension of disbelief is in good standing.

Where it doesn’t work for me is in certain questions of why. Why is water scarce enough to farm, if the valley is perpetually full of fog, and walking outside means getting soaked? Why build Amiko’s shack of iron, when there’s moisture in the air, and it’ll rust? If the plexiglass windows are designed to withstand earthquakes, why isn’t the rest of the plant similarly engineered? Why is Dejori’s promotion worth murdering for—why not just go somewhere else? And most importantly, why does Forto decide he’s in love with Amiko? He mostly conceptualizes her in terms of his dead wife, like an idea of a woman to fill a hole rather than a person in her own right, with affection between them.

One suggestion, to that end, is considering the timeline. The entire piece takes place over about eight days—which means eight days from meeting to marriage proposal for Forto and Amiko, and that’s a bit of a rush for anybody. Time pressure doesn’t appear to be a factor in any other aspect of the story, and a lengthened timeline—one that doesn’t necessarily need to appear on the page—would give a little more credence to the idea of them establishing a routine, Amiko’s coming out of her shell, and Dejori’s fears of being pushed out, and would set a bit more reasonable context for Agrablaj’s somewhat inappropriate prodding. As it stands, everyone appears to be jumping the gun.

But that question does speak to the core sticking point I have with “Harvest” as a reader: that it’s a story about a relationship that hasn’t yet sunk the care it took with extraplanetary worldbuilding into that central relationship. The story itself seems to be a machine to get two characters together—a set of circumstances that ends in kissing—but even Amiko seems ambivalent about the outcome, as she’s quite correct that they know nothing about each other. It’s a positive, for me, that Forto’s instinct is not to increase Amiko’s dependency—to offer more charity, or provide for her—but to help her build on her own skills so she can better support herself. He’s not abusive or controlling. But the very fact that Forto worries his technical help will mean Amiko not coming back to the plant says there’s no real relationship happening here.

So I’m left unsure why these two people, of all people, make a happy ending when they’re together. Forto is lonely and Amiko’s, well, around, but that has nothing to do with Amiko as a distinct, unique human being. Amiko is poor where she was once rich, and Forto is rich, but that has nothing to do with Forto as a distinct, unique human being. And while the genetic hierarchy of Colony 264 makes for interesting background flavouring, I’m not sure it alone is enough to act as motivation for both attempted murder and an eight-days-in marriage proposal. People aren’t, in my experience, Kinds of People; Amiko’s genetic diversity and her just being handy aren’t enough to move two hearts. People are themselves, and people need reasons.

What I’d suggest for the next draft of “Harvest” is to transfer the care taken with the setting to Forto and Amiko as people, individually and in relationship. Who are these two people, and why—aside from motivations like loneliness or three square meals a day, the motivations any warm body can fill—does the story feel it should be satisfying, at the end of 9,000 words, that they end up together? What problem does this hasty marriage resolve?

With a more nuanced answer to that question, I think “Harvest” will come out a much better-balanced piece.

Best of luck!

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

 

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