January 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, 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 Charles Coleman Finlay, Jeanne Cavelos, Leah Bobet, and Liz Bourke. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

“Ice Giant” by Peter Chen

“Ice Giant” caught my attention this month for its spare, taut pace, surprising but effective ending, and the way its narrative voice and use of detail make it feel like a non-standard, innovative setting for a space opera.  This month, I’d like to look at how that use of information summons up one of the most ephemeral — and most important — tools in our toolbox: authorial confidence.

There’s a lot in “Ice Giant” that really works: Especially how well information — technical or otherwise — is folded into the narrative in a way that keeps the plot moving forward.  We learn about the jet, Uranus’s atmosphere, iridiscium, Corporate, Colony, and a whole world without the story breaking stride; each piece of information is introduced when it’s important to the plot and in a way that feels organic.

While worldbuilding elements like a planetary corporation, mining colonies, and harsh atmospheres are all pretty standard for space opera, it’s how “Ice Giant” deploys — and juxtaposes — them that makes that seamless, fresh, organic feel arise out of those tropes.  For one, floating cities, dirigible, and surveying jets don’t normally go together when we think about the tech level of a potential story, but the nonchalance with which Jake and Adam treat them makes those pieces fit.  Jake’s more concerned about the financial impact of the Assurance’s claim than explaining why a dirigible belongs on Uranus or doesn’t, or expositing the backstory of how dirigibles got there — and that makes the dirigible just a part of the landscape, something to be believed in and worked with.

Secondly, note the stronger effect of having a dirigible introduced with a worry about claims, or how de-icing spray works recited in a singsong tone by a boy who’s mostly interested in showing his father how ready he is to go out and fly. Each new piece of information is tied to a narrative or emotional concern on Jake or Adam’s part.  The readers will get the information, but the core of each sentence isn’t delivering information — it’s setting up a conflict, showing a character’s emotional state, or showing readers what’s at stake if Jake and Adam don’t succeed.  That creates a layering effect in “Ice Giant” where each sentence is doing much more than one or two jobs — and that lets it be a spare, tense, clean story while still bringing the impact of three sentences’ worth to readers in one sentence’s space.

What “Ice Giant” is making work here, and working with well, is the nebulous — and crucial — element of authorial confidence: Building a world below the surface and winding it through other craft elements so that the effect is Of course this is how this world works, because I’m the author and I believe in it.  Science fiction and fantasy are always going to need us to do a little bit of explicit worldbuilding, just because the field of what’s possible is so large, but the effect of using our worldbuilding facts to do things, rather than setting, overexplaining or justifying them, can be incredible.

Like with any piece, there are a few places where “Ice Giant” can improve.  It was initially difficult for me to get a solid grasp on what Adam, Jake, and Elaine’s relationships were to each other, even though Adam refers to Jake as his father in the first paragraph.  It’s important to note that character relationships are something we demonstrate in small gestures as well as defining with labels, and even if Jake is tagged as Adam’s father, the way Adam refers to him, and the way both spend the rest of the story interacting in ways that don’t seem to reflect a parental relationship or a significant age gap means that as a reader, I don’t believe in that relationship.  To me, Jake and Adam read more like brothers or colleagues that parent and child, and it might be worth adjusting both of their behavior so that the emotions and habits of parenthood are visible there — or changing the relationship label so it reflects what’s on the page.

Elaine, as well, as is notably flatter as a character than Jake or Adam.  While it’ll be finer work to get her personality on the page, as she’s only physically in one scene, in a story with three functional characters that weakness will be noticeable.  It’s worth spending some time on the scene she’s in — and on the references to her from Jake and Adam — to find the right details or memories that’ll make her feel fully realized and three-dimensional, even while being in the story just glancingly.

Point of view was also a small issue for me.  The question of whose point of view “Ice Giant” is told in slid a few times throughout reading: Is the reader riding in Adam’s head, or in Jake’s?  This is a very different story depending on whether it’s Adam’s story or Jake’s.  As it stands, there are jumps between them that might not be strictly necessary, and are at this point distracting and a little confusing.  I’d suggest smoothing out the point of view, using a change only when plot-relevant, and making sure that Jake and Adam’s thoughts feel and sound differently, so the difference in point of view is a real, tangible difference.  Again, this is fine work, but it’s the kind of work that has a huge effect on the general feeling of realism in a story.

All in all, “Ice Giant” tells a story that’s gritty, but not despairing, and keeps it at just the right size to make an impact without shorting readers or overstaying its welcome.  It’s a story that almost carries itself on its confidence, and on its careful momentum.  A few smoothings and tweaks on the prose level, and it should be ready to find a good home.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet
Author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (October 2015)

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