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.
“The Only Beautiful Thing” caught my attention this month with how its cloistered, gossipy corporate world contrasts the rich, subversive lives of the least important people living in and around it: a pair of human corporate decorations hired to pad out local staffing requirements. This far-future slice-of-life veers into active—if understated—liberation when a space privateer hatches a desperate plan to blackmail their CEO, and the AAPs see their chance. However, as the action ramps up, “The Only Beautiful Thing” falters somewhat into a slightly-too-pat ending. So this month, I’d like to take a closer look at the idea that what we set up has to pay off; or, what goes up has to in some way come down.
The slice-of-life far-future world of “The Only Beautiful Thing” is its first and most obvious star. From the muffled, regulated rooms of ChippedTM to the hinted-at complex colonial politics of Takamaha, Samir and Dash’s universe is wide, varied, and delightfully rich: filled with rules and how people ignore or break them, motivations and counter-motivations, relationships just out of focus, terrific natural beauty, and some ultimately pretty wholesome desires in the midst of a very exploitative framework. The way the organic—salt-stained stone pillars, a bedroom herb garden, good coffee, makeup with natural smells—is splashed against the artificiality of ChippedTM’s perfectly positioned beautiful people sets up a set of opposed ideas, but it’s the ways they keep being riffed, complicated, and there’s always more that keeps this world from feeling small or reductive. There are always about five parallel things happening, and none of it feels binary or laced with trauma reaction: Takama and its interlaced workforces are all vibrant and alive.
It’s a generous complexity that’s rooted directly in Samir and Dash themselves. “The Only Beautiful Thing” sets up an opposition immediately—beautiful and stupid—and telegraphs that whatever happens here, Samir is about to be underestimated. It’s a good way to immediately establish tension: there’s a really specific readerly pleasure in seeing how something plays out, even if we know that it’s going to, and “The Only Beautiful Thing” taps into that instantly and well.
But that dichotomy also lets the story characterize Samir quickly, calling readers’ attention to where he’s pragmatic, sarcastic, sharp, and adaptable—by putting forward the lie that he can’t be as a lie, and using the space that marks out to show Samir’s complexity. It’s a technique “The Only Beautiful Thing” uses in a few places, notably with the food-coloured skin trope: setting it up, setting up the pushback against that idea, and undermining both to make Samir real.
Guiding readers’ attention this way is a solid technique for prompting readers to pay closer attention to the finer points of a character and invest in him as a person, not a kind of person. It’s also, incidentally, a great structural technique to use in a story about being seen past the surface: one that flows with what “The Only Beautiful Thing” is talking about.
And it works well. When we find out Samir has a horrifically sad backstory—orphaned, unskilled, exploitable—in the third scene he’s already so firmly established as smart, funny, idiosyncratic, boundaried, adaptable, coffee-loving, big-brotherly, a bit of a drama queen, still and always a work in progress—a person!—that he doesn’t slide into a stereotype. He just gets more visible in context.
A lot of thematic work’s being done here, in the ways Samir and Dash keep taking the structures of oppression and casually undermining them—sometimes, funnily enough, in ways that literally nobody notices or cares about, even when those tiny interventions take down ChippedTM. Instead of throwing themselves into one rigid ideal or the other, Samir and Dash use a handful of little tricks to navigate the distance between them. Faced with becoming objectified for or by either cause, they stay human—and grab what they wanted all along.
If I have a major criticism, it’s that the balance between slice-of-life/buildup and the action—both what Samir and Dash do, and what the privateer does to bring down ChippedTM—still feels like a work in progress. The actual logic around the explosion—what happens, what Samir and Dash did, the aftermath—is a little bit underexplicated for my eyes. It’s hard for me to piece together the particular flavour of double-cross they’ve managed with Dash’s unmonitored watch: notifying security, but also…? Especially when contrasted with the loving attention given to Samir’s everyday life, that underexplanation makes the scenes where everything actually goes down feel rushed and scant. I’m missing the how of the money moving, the messages sent, and the impact Samir had on the privateer’s plot, so I can’t really appreciate what happened.
There are a few ways to repair this: either a little more time spent on those events, or a few more solid hints dropped, or a stronger setup so that the light, allusive payoff feels like it’s paying something off that I already, as a reader know. But I’m flagging the issue for whichever road the author wants to take.
I’d also think about where the ending lands. There’s such a rich fabric of events and motivations here that landing the title on a pat, tidy, almost sitcom-like punchline, and that feels a bit too light and unsatisfying. This is also, as I said early on, a question of payoff for me. Very little in “The Only Beautiful Thing” has been surface-level, or about appearances and shorthands; there’s no reason that Samir and Dash’s happy ending should be either, when everything about their complex, crappy working situation was nuanced, textured, and layered.
I’d love to see a way to land “The Only Beautiful Thing” that also takes that nuanced, textured, layered approach. The outcome of actions isn’t neat and tidy; I’d love to see this in all the richness that everything else in this story—and world—has displayed.
As a final note: The author’s asked if there are any concerns critiquers see on how the sign language is used. I’m not an expert in sign, but I do have a linguistics background, and there were some features here that really stood out and showed an underlying logic to the language. The visible case markers in the lowercased possessive markers tied together nicely with functionally casting the pronoun as a single word with a gendered affix; it feels like a unified logic. And the depiction of fingerspelling proper nouns also communicated beautifully and grounded “The Only Beautiful Thing” in how sign speakers use language.
I also loved how much more expressive Samir and Dash are in sign—another true-feeling thing!—and how strongly that’s contrasted thematically with their jobs of not moving a muscle. Putting the signed dialogue in allcaps just emphasizes that feeling—of huge, gossipy, warm personalities stretching out. It’s a great choice.
Beyond that, there’s an opportunity here to think about a few basic cross-checks when we’re concerned about showing people fully and well in our work.
Are Dash and Samir’s shared vocabularies largely consistent? Do they have similar enough collections of words, and—in Samir’s case especially—different enough to reflect who they are as people and Samir’s limited sign vocabulary?
Is the syntax Dash and Samir use accurate to one of the currently used sign languages? This is an invented sign vocabulary, and invented language does give us a lot of room to play, but English-speaking readers take a lot of information out of syntax: the word order of a non-English language. It’s worth checking if the syntax is consistent, and making sure it’s not echoing any of the particularly derogatory ways propaganda’s depicted the ways non-English speakers speak.
On the whole, though, I think there’s a lot of joy and potential in this piece—and with a bit more balancing, it’s likely ready for print.
Thanks for the read, and best of luck!
— Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)