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.
“In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” caught my attention this month with its clean rendering of an average dystopian day, done in quick lines—and how it manages to complicate and stretch its world off the page though the use of small details. It’s a simple, tidy, tonal piece, but one which might well trip itself up on its own worldbuilding. So this month, I’d like to talk about message stories, flash stories, and how working with assumption makes them both work and falter.
“In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” isn’t aiming for subtle, and doesn’t reach it: it’s pretty clearly an indictment of current American policy and attitudes, an if-this-goes-on. It makes several smart choices at the outset, the biggest of which is to keep it short. As has come up in prior Editor’s Choice months, there’s a tricky readability balance to walk with fiction that’s directly built to criticize an attitude or policy. Under 1500 words is a good length for this kind of message piece: long enough to make an impact, but short enough to not overstay its welcome.
Leaning into the dense worldbuilding that word limit necessitates is the second smart choice. The grim near-future of “In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” is on from the second line: flickering lightbulbs, fake IDs, and hostility, and all of it packed into sentences that also advance the plot. The story snaps to life so fast because Stacey’s aggrieved nastiness carries worldbuilding information and creates the conflict—will she or won’t she let them access medical care?—while fairly clean, direct sentences move the story perpetually forward.
But what really made this piece work for me is the sense, scattered like breadcrumbs all the way through, of systems that are flickering and breaking; of Stacey’s stress and frustration and ungenerosity being fed constantly by living in that wreckage. This is a future where epidemics are common, the infrastructure doesn’t work, and soda’s a luxury, and Stacey is surviving by clinging to the rules. The constant sense of precarity, of things about to shatter, complicates Stacey’s own character just enough, away from what the Strange Horizons submission guidelines used to call a Bad Man Gets Punished story. Instead, we’re seeing the tip of an iceberg of systems, and it deepens the questions at the heart of the piece.
I also appreciate that “In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” isn’t prescribing a grand solution to the problems it poses. It merely lays out the problems. This isn’t a conversion narrative—Stacey is basically back to her usual attitudes by the end of the piece—and it doesn’t feel as if it’s staring through the fourth wall, demanding a certain action of readers. It merely portrays, and lets readers draw their own conclusions.
All that combines to make “In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” deeply effective, but the major place I hesitate is at the ploy of two women kissing to somehow gain Stacey’s sympathy. Even if the implication at the end of the piece is true—that they are coyotes and know about Donna, and were targeting her with that knowledge—the society that’s been constructed here is one that’s institutionally homophobic to the point of state-sanctioned exile (and off-the-books murder). I’m not sure how this would be a safe ploy for the two women: they’re more likely to be arrested, beaten to death, or both than to walk out of the hospital safely with medical care.
In that one plot point, there’s an odd assumption of how bigotry impacts people: that it’s abstract, or somehow a game overlaid on top of a “regular” set of social rules. That there’s nobody else in this room to create consequences, or enforce that social norm. That there’s a hierarchy of difference: minority attributes that will somehow, even in an oppressive state, be looked at as the Nice Ones Which Get You Pity. That, at the end of the day people will play fair and engage tolerance instead of exiling—the stated penalty—or murdering these characters in cold blood.
That unrealism shows again in having the characters be Mexican, but in Florida, but still potentially coyotes illegally crossing a border that’s got mud and pine needles nearby. It’s not geographically possible or probable. It’s the kind of detail that, if even looked at strongly, falls apart completely.
What makes other parts of “In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” work is what sabotages it here: shorthanding to symbols that the author can be sure readers already have in their heads in order to build information quickly, without expending wordcount or story space. While that works well with the flickering power grid, the assumption that an immigration wall means the Mexican border and a fence completely undermines what might actually happen here. The assumption that it is at all safe for a lesbian couple to out themselves so extravagantly in a state where, the story itself says, people are beaten to death or exiled for homosexuality does the same sabotage.
I recognize this could be a small point, and it’s one that’s supposed to illuminate the targeting and profiling the women have done in advance. But the problem here is that the effects of our assumptions don’t just live on the page. We’re in speculative fiction; realism about our worlds and technologies is optional. But realism about the experiences and obstacles people face is crucial, because those people are our readers, and the shorthands and archetypes we put on a page have a real effect on their real lives. There are elements of craft that when we shorthand, we can do harm.
I think these are issues that can be addressed without too much work: a little research on a more plausible country of origin for Pedro and his mother, a more plausible route or tell that they might have crossed a border recently. A little thought put into what that hinge, that profiling sign might be. With work and some thought about how it might be read in the context of readers’ day-to-day lives, “In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” will quite plausibly hit all the notes it aimed to—and stop hitting ones it didn’t.
Best of luck!
–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)