I love the title of this piece, and the concept is lovely. I like the protagonist, too, and her relationship with the AI which has clearly achieved sentience (or a reasonable facsimile thereof).
But of course I have questions. Editors always have questions. It’s a flaw in our character.
The main question I keep coming back to is the difference between the pacing of a novel and that of a short story. Every word in a novel has to count, just as in a shorter work, but a novel allows more space: more digressions, more characters and subplots, a more leisurely progression of events from opening to conclusion. A short story on the other hand needs to be compact and tightly focused. Fewer characters (though many more can be left to implication), far fewer scenes and events, and a fairly narrow range of ideas. A story will generally try to hone in on a single idea, and the structure and pacing of the story revolves around that idea.
In “The Sea Above,” the idea is clear: a world in ecological collapse, in which humanity has been forced to take to the sea, and a character who dreams of trees. This has the resonance of a poem, and at under 6000 words, aims at the focus of a short story.
The pacing however is closer to that of a novel. Vale begins with a reflection on her dream of green things, segues into elements of worldbuilding—where she is, how she happens to be unable to leave her own room–which allows the introduction of Xavier. There is more worldbuilding as she gets ready to go out, we meet the AI which has more or less named itself Hans, then Xavier and Vale, conversing on various topics, make their way through an essentially unpopulated space to the morning work meeting.
The pacing is leisurely. Conversation repeats itself as Vale tells Xavier what Hans has said to her, or explains why she’s saying a particular thing to Hans. We follow the characters step by step, until they arrive in a populated space, where we’re told everyone is in some form of turmoil. Vale and Xavier speculate as to the cause of that turmoil, then tell each other how they’re going to learn what it’s really about.
At this point, Hans speaks to Vale, and Xavier makes it clear he’s been spoken to as well; then there’s a public announcement. They’ve been summoned to a briefing, which is described in detail, point for point, with commentary on various personalities including Silva, with whom Vale is not friends. There has been an earthquake, and buildings have collapsed.
This both is and is not a crisis. Vale is part of one of the teams sent out to survey the damage, but the tone is calm and there’s no sense of urgency. At the end of the scene, Vale pauses to drink in the scenery, and to explain to Hans what she’s doing and why. And then the story jumps ahead several weeks during which Vale tells us she’s had panic attacks, but the tone remains low-key.
In this new section, after weeks of doing the same thing day after day, with more collapses and ongoing crises, Vale and Xavier discuss her idea of scanning an area of cliffs for signs of further collapse. They agree it’s a good idea. Turns out command agrees, too. They take a novice diver with them, as they did in the previous scene, and there’s discussion of turning the expedition into a hunt for food.
Suddenly they encounter a school of fish. The novice wanders off into the school, just as predators attack. With the help of Hans, Vale and Xavier barely escape, to find themselves trapped in a cave. Vale panics, Hans talks her through it, she finds a way out—and finds her dream: land, and green.
The end is lovely, and circles nicely back around to the beginning. What’s in between tends to work in triads: actions, interactions, and worldbuilding details are presented in threes. For example, Hans will speak to Vale, Vale will tell Xavier what it said, then Xavier will say he’s heard the same thing. Likewise, a thing will happen, Vale and Xavier will speculate as to why, then we’ll be told what happened and why. In the final scene, Hans tells Vale what’s going on, Vale repeats the data with her own emotional overlay, then Hans tries to soothe and calm her.
The pacing, with its triple loops and its use of dialogue and speech as exposition, as well as the time-frame of weeks and the downplaying of the extent of the crisis, feels more novel-like than short-story-like. I love details of worldbuilding, and love the sense of there being a fully realized world beneath the framework of the story, but when the story is short, I look for a clear line from beginning to end: the sense that the story is aiming at a single, distinct point.
What seems to be happening here is a focus on precise details of worldbuilding and character development, but those details tend to wander away from the point, which is that the earthquakes and collapses must be related in some way to the reemergence of land. The land that Vale finds has been above water for some time, long enough to grow trees—which means the immediate crisis in the underwater city is actually of considerable duration. I find myself looking for a clearer sense of a precipitating event, some more distinct and focused line of storytelling that takes us from Vale’s dream to its fulfillment.
I also feel as if the plotting could be more focused and streamlined. For example, both dives involve the same mix of people (and an AI): Vale, Xavier, a novice, and Hans. What if those dives were combined? Do they both need to exist, or can they take place in a single scene that establishes the job the characters are doing, runs them into the fish and the squid, and ends up in the open air? That way, the story is tighter and the point comes through more clearly, with plenty of worldbuilding, action, and personal stakes.
The story can move along more quickly in general. At the beginning, do Vale and Xavier need to take so long to get to the central gathering point? Can this scene be much shorter while conveying the same essential information? When they arrive at the briefing, might this be condensed and focused so that we get a clearer sense of how the earthquakes are increasing in number and the city is in real danger? Can Vale’s dive be shown to be more crucial, with higher stakes? It can begin as routine–or as routine as scanning for actual and potential disaster can be (and is anyone thinking about how to fix things?)–but then it can, and in story terms should, evolve into anything but.
While we’re talking about condensing and tightening, is Silva an essential character? When he was introduced, I thought he would play a role in the story, serve as an antagonist, or as a catalyst for an event that drives the story forward. I would expect that, for example, he would do something to drive the divers toward the squid, or be the wandering character who gets lost, but in searching for him, Vale and company find the cave and the land.
That’s the difference between a novel and a short story, right there. Every character in a short piece has to earn his keep. If he’s introduced, he has a role to play. In a novel he might be a peripheral annoyance, an ongoing irritant, but at this length, with the number of words devoted to him, the expectation is that he’ll be a driver of the story in some significant way.
I like this story a great deal, and find the setting memorable and compelling. If the plotting can clarify and focus itself, and the repetitions of details and actions be pared down, I think it will be really strong, powerful and moving.