Editor’s Choice Award August 2019, 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.

Center Of The Universe 2.0, Chapter One, Part One by Noel Gonzales

I have a particular fondness for hard science fiction with a spice of wry or gonzo humor. This section of a chapter is on its way to ticking those boxes. And yes, I appreciate the author’s revised note. It’s amusing to envision our protagonist as “a big blue hand with an eyeball in his palm.”

I also approve of the efforts to pare the prose. Not every novel needs or should have that; sometimes, in some works and genres, more is actually more. What’s important is clarity, to make sure the reader understands what’s going on. Too much or little information can be equally confusing. On one hand there’s not enough information; on the other, there’s so much that it’s hard to tell what’s relevant and what’s not.

Here I think the prose could be even leaner and clearer. There’s one rhetorical device that works if used extremely sparingly, but it’s easy to tip over the top. That’s the repetition of a word or phrase in connected but slightly different contexts:

He could see the same numbers. “Good.” 

Good. As long as the supercomputers aboard The Lab were happy in crunching the parameters for the Muenghen Drive on the capsule. Good. As long as they were happy with the Muenghen Field the drive generated. And good as long as, when the field was activated, his capsule didn’t become a blossom of plasma as the previous two tests.

The repetition of “good” is effective the first two or three times, but after that it gets a little heavy. Cutting it back and varying the phrasing would get the point across and still keep the force of the word.

In this passage I also note an issue with grammar and syntax, the rather confusing final clause. It would probably be clearer with the insertion of “in” after “as”—“as in the previous two tests.”

There is a tendency throughout toward run-on sentences:

It would be an honor to be memorialized as a hero of the Empire who sacrificed his life but Plinge saw the merits to surviving an actual, successful launch.

There’s a lot going on here. Breaking it up would give each concept its own space, and make the whole easier to understand. And here again, there’s a bit of a syntax bobble: “saw the merits in” would be more correct.

He crossed his arms and watched the columns of numbers scroll and waited for them to settle on a specific locus.

This sentence might work better if divided into two or three, just to take a breath in between actions.

I note by the way that the sentence implies that he’s shaped like an Earth-type human, with arms to cross—a nice bit of description that’s directly relevant to the context.

Another aspect of clarity is organization of actions and ideas. A paragraph like this one

After a few seconds, he opened an eye to look around. He’d braced himself, prepared for anything, everything but not nothing. Not a thing. Well, he was alive. There was that. The knowledge allowed him to relax and breathe. Not a fucking thing. All the systems on all the monitors showed green. He checked the field integrity. The field was gone. Collapsed? He toggled off his mic. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!,” then toggled it back on. “Control, any idea what happened?”

packs a lot in, with another example of words and phrases repeated over and over. The progression is chronological, which helps, but there’s so much going on that it’s hard to keep up. One simple solution would be to break each separate action and reaction into its own paragraph. That way it’s easier to follow, and there’s time to take it all in before moving on to the next action.

I’d like to point to the use of dialogue, or more often monologue, as well. Not just expletives but the repeated use of “Wha’?” as a form of transition. I think I see what it’s trying to do: add a living voice to what might otherwise be straight narrative, and set a breezy, humorous tone. I do wonder if it’s just a little too breezy; if it sends the signals it’s meant to send. There’s almost a sense of mid-twentieth-century movie or tv dialogue about it, which distracts from the science-fictional setting and slackens the tension of the plot. There may be other ways to move the story forward and convey the characters’ reactions, which are a better fit for the genre and the story.

And finally, point of grammatical order: it’s is a contraction for “It is.” The possessive of it is “Its.” It’s one of those lovely little quirks of the English language.

I think this novel has quite a bit of potential. The opening sets us up for headlong action and stranger than strange new world and universes. A little further paring of the prose and a little more attention to grammar, syntax, and style will make the story come through more strongly and clearly, and give the characters even more room to shine.

–Judith Tarr

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