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, Amal El-Mohtar, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.
Not a Mule, But Working Like One by Robyn Hamilton
“Not a Mule, But Working Like One” caught my attention this month because of its spare prose, subdued sense of menace, and cool, unglamorous take on a modern-day fantasy setting. I’ve rarely seen this Max Gladstone-style economic fantasy on the workshop: One that uses the addition of magic to delve into the financial end of social systems. This month, I’d like to spotlight how the use of cumulative details brings both this world—and its argument about work—into full colour, and how showing and telling aren’t diametrically opposed strategies for building a world, but techniques we can pair up to make a story even more effective.
The major strength of “Not a Mule, But Working Like One” is very much the degree of attention being paid to its worldbuilding. While the central conflict—that before one’s magic comes in, one can get stuck, and that many of the company’s systems are designed to get people stuck—doesn’t make it to the page until the end of the first long scene, readers have already been shown, in the details, exactly what’s going on here. When Alice notes Caro’s frizz and a slightly off shade of lipstick, it sets up a strong cue as to what kind of perfection is demanded in this particular working life, and what it costs the people who don’t already have the resources to manage that. Inside a few paragraphs it’s made clear, mostly through details—Caro’s appearance, Mark’s, Alice’s reaction to the receptionist, and the worn-in, comfortable way that Caro and Alice cover for each other—that this is an environment built for the comfort of people with unlimited magic.
The result? When the straight-out statement arrives near the end of the first scene, that magic can be overstrained early on and stuck in one skill rut, that piece of telling—that information just handed to the reader—doesn’t create so much the filing of a new worldbuilding fact, but the shock of sudden recognition; the feeling of a key in a lock. Readers get a confirmation of something already figured out, and the boost from that solved puzzle helps enmesh them in the story.
When we tell readers a fact about our worldbuilding, frequently what we’re giving them is a piece of abstract information; it doesn’t necessarily connect to something real, emotional, or experienced in the story. But by delaying the tell until this point of the piece—still early, but late enough that there’s already a connection built with the character and situation—that told fact can connect to all the ways readers have already seen this fact working itself out in action. Instead of “that’s new,” the reaction can move to: “so that’s what that means”—and move to the real heart of “Not a Mule, But Working Like One”: establishing the implications of why Alice’s company is actively perpetuating the tiny, very real inconveniences she’s encountered just in her fifteen minutes on-site.
It’s a strategy that connects well with this piece’s narrative style: understated, subtextual, with occasional vivid sensory moments of opulence that pops against a sea of procedure and greyness. The moments of clear explanation in “Not a Mule, But Working Like One” bring all the subtle tells front and centre for readers, allowing the story to stay natural-feeling and yet build this increasing atmosphere of unfairness and dread. Likewise, the constant tiny reminders of privilege, tiny pieces of gatekeeping—even as small as the faster Wifi networks being locked or the lab coat fast-track system—grate at readers in the same way they constantly grate at Alice, and make the temptation to use that magic and get stuck she’s told us about multidimensional and real.
Most importantly of all, it helps connect readers to Alice, whose displacement and confusion and desperate, controlled need to not give in to those microaggressions become the centre of the story’s struggle—one that I simultaneously wanted her to win while wincing the whole time at all the joy she’s not having, all the dry toast she’s eating at the metaphorical buffet. The push-pull between Petra’s burnout, Caro’s desperation, and how Alice’s restraint is killing her in a different way is almost unbearable, and it’s a highly effective piece of tension in a quiet story.
The one suggestion I would have for “Not a Mule, Just Working Like One” is that its obliqueness almost overwhelms in the last few scenes. It’s clear Caro is terrified of some kind of smuggling inflating the dollar values on the shipments, and it’s clear that by hiding the label on Alice, she’s trying to pass the blame and implicate Alice to save her own job. But that threat never quite comes clear—which means the stakes never quite come clear—and that blunts the story’s effectiveness emotionally. As a reader, I’m not entirely sure what fate Alice just avoided (firing, criminal charges, or a different kind of getting stuck).
I’d suggest that bringing more to the surface, plot-wise, in the last few scenes of the piece would help crystallize what exactly is at stake, and help guide readers to a stronger emotional reaction when Alice and Petra eventually escape—would help the piece stick its landing.
Best of luck!
–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)