Editor’s Choice Award August 2019, 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.

Brought Near To Beast by Gregor Hartmann

My interest was piqued by “Brought Near to Beast” this month because of its smooth take on a set of classic centre-of-genre tropes—near-alien overclasses, dinosaurs, a researcher protagonist—one which brings a seeping political consciousness into play. However, the connections between those ideas felt, to this reader, frequently a little jerky; they didn’t always add up. So this month, I’d like to talk about continuity—how the elements of our stories connect—and what we communicate with the absences in our narratives.

“Brought Near to Beast” is a fun read: reasonably light and quick, well-focused, and with enough sense of a wider world and wider issues to feel substantial. Its clear, tidy prose foregrounds the story well, and sparks here and there with a few bright, vivid metaphors—I liked “short sullen grass” especially. The question of Suu’s real motives builds a legitimately frightening threat to combat and a sense of the overall stakes involved, and alongside Peng’s slow realization of what he might be enabling, it’s compelling enough to drive the piece.

What I’d suggest for “Brought Near to Beast”, though, is largely about connections: giving some stronger thought to how the various ideas in this story interact with and feed one another—or where they don’t.

The major issue I had with the piece was the rather short half-life of its ideas: a motivation—like the potential culling of Sapiens on the horizon—appears to drive the action of one particular scene, but after that? It near-disappears into another motivation, and isn’t picked back up. Even with Peng’s me-first attitude, there isn’t a flicker of that consideration in play when the assassination attempt goes down, and those disconnections dent the realism of Peng’s psychology and the world in general.

Likewise, the question of Peng’s relationship with the mammoths doesn’t surface between the first page and the last, and by then, it feels rather tangential. What readers have been told is important here, told is the driving issue for Peng and Bataar, has moved sufficiently by the last paragraphs that I’m unsure the ending—while basically heartwarming—still actually addresses the problem the story has set. Peng’s final choice—to stay with Bataar and build a better rapport with the herd—feels abrupt and, given how strongly his ambitions for a different, networked life have been built up just paragraphs before, somewhat counterintuitive.

That sense of disconnect shows up in the characterization as well. Peng’s ineffectual tendencies and little jealousies don’t always mesh with his claimed ambitions: he wants to cozy up to a ChoRen for professional advancement, but all he knows about his networking targets seems to come from TV shows and propaganda—and he’s ignoring a lot of the social cues Suu and the other ChoRen are throwing his way instead of using them. It’s pretty plain he’s not going to achieve his goal, even if he takes credit for saving Suu; Suu uses people as props. He has not conducted himself like someone who would care enough to issue Peng the kind of reward he’s fishing for.

In short, what I’m noticing here are absences: missing reactions, missing connections, and missing facts which, through the holes they leave, reshape the narrative in ways I’m not sure are precisely intended.

What we put on the page or imply conveys information to readers, but our absences convey information too. Readers infer deliberation out of what’s not happened, not mentioned, and how it juxtaposes with what was and has. Here, those collisions are conveying that Peng is a bad scientist, without potentially meaning to say that thing; they’re conveying that he’s somewhat sociopathic, given the casualness with which he takes learning that Bataar’s a murderer (I mean, doesn’t everyone who kills someone think they deserved it on some level?) and his absolute lack of regard for every other Sap in the world. Peng is missing his society—family, friends, associates, people to care about who aren’t Bataar—but readers fill in that he would have one, and by disregarding it, by throwing it under the bus, Peng’s simply an incredibly ethically and emotionally broken person, insecure and a bit of a fool.

There are a few strategies for finding what conclusions the absences in our narratives are feeding—for making sure the signal we’re conveying is as clean as possible. This is one of the places where critiques are possibly one’s first line of defense; there’s not much substitute for seeing how a character’s reading to other sets of eyes. But to help ensure the blanks we leave are pointing the ways we want them, it’s worthwhile to read a drafted piece with attention to just one character arc: make notes on everything that’s said about that person and deliberately reconstruct the footprint they’re leaving.

From the other side, if we can establish a cohesive idea of what each character wants and how each line they speak, silence they extend, or action they take links back to that core idea, we can clear the noise or contradiction out of that character’s expression.

This is careful and somewhat grinding work, but it’s worthwhile to make sure we’re communicating signal, not noise. That importance struck me while wondering why Suu and the other ChoRen’s dialogue is so choppy. The overclock explanation comes a bit late, and from a linguistic standpoint—dependent on how the SophX implants are supposed to work—either he’s going to think in complete sentences anyway, or in a more abstract form that wouldn’t necessitate dropping particles in his audible speech. Particle drop is a syntactic translation question or a marker of linguistic play, not one of resource management.

The impression I was left with was that Suu’s speech patterns have ended up quite close to the stereotype of an Asian person speaking broken English, in a story where Chinese sociopolitical concepts are centred, where the characters are Asian and Mongolian—and the protagonist is insecure, social-climbing, bootlicking, and jealous.

A picture is eventually painted. A conclusion’s being led to by those narrative facts.

We’ve talked a lot in previous months about making sure your choices are choices, not accidents, and that’s a reference that’s going to be inevitably read as an authorial choice on how to depict others. Just as Peng’s shortcuts are communicating—and it’s up to us as writers to know what’s being communicated—the characterization choices in “Brought Near to Beast” are too, and I’d suggest they’re worth reexamining.

Best of luck with the piece!

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

 

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