Editor’s Choice Review May 2017, 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 Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Restaurant At The End Of The War by Clint Spivey

“The Restaurant at the End of the War” grabbed my attention this month for its thoughtful take on a post-MilSF future—the scattered directions people, supplies, and refugees go after peace is declared—and the way it’s genuinely advancing the conversation that most stories in that subgenre lay out. This month, I’d like to talk about the balance between innovative and classic story elements, and how we take a subgenre conversation down a slightly different road while staying firmly in the subgenre where we started.

“The Restaurant at the End of the War” establishes its innovative bona fides quickly with a low-flying perspective on the standard MilSF intergalactic war. It’s entirely plausible, without needing to explain, how a human and Mewlani would build a bond working in military kitchens—and refreshing for me as a reader to see work that acknowledges and centres those cooks and support workers, and gets that war takes infrastructure: infrastructure that’s still there, and winding down, after hostilities are over, just like a war’s vets, translators, and refugees. There’s a great resonance between a restaurant built on military surplus and how every character in “The Restaurant at the End of the War” is moving from a military life to a civilian one.

I feel it’s also rare to see MilSF portray the sheer, unblinking structural obstacles that racism puts up at every turn. The ways Stain authorities and The Ledge work to prevent Wallroy and Blistren’s business from succeeding feels far more realistic than broken bottles and random slurs, and Stain’s casual corruption presents a real threat, largely because it’s clear nobody’s swooping in to save Sluice, and that the barriers are not about to end.

All this comes back to the sheer quality of the worldbuilding nested unobtrusively in “The Restaurant at the End of the War,” and it adds up to an overall excellent sense of atmosphere. There is a whole universe of backstory implied in how Sustain has turned to Stain, the dirtiness of a neighbourhood where streets were once named Prosperity and Empire, ships are named for non-Western rulers, the krone as the currency of record, and the fact that Wallroy absolutely butchers his Mewlani pronunciation, but tries anyway. Wallroy works wonderfully as a POV character who’s observant but not hyping his observations, or trying to be overclever: his casual ability to differentiate poverty from danger makes his background feel realistic, and the details he relates—the beard just long enough to flout army regs is my favourite example—are legitimately great tells, ones which encapsulate whole relationships with authority and safety in single details.

And yet, for all those notable and newer details, “The Restaurant at the End of the War” is unmistakably a MilSF story. There’s little explanation of the war between humans and Mewlani, which allows readers to fill the standard intergalactic war tropeset in those gaps. Wallroy, even as an army cook, still wraps his world in the structure and regulations of the military: he differentiates less between military and civilian personalities than different kinds of military personalities. I know what kind of story this is, in what conversation: while it’s innovating in certain respects, it’s keeping one foot firmly in topics that as a reader, I’m familiar with, and understand—and letting me see the direction it wants to take MilSF in and appreciate that innovation for what it is.

It’s that balance that keeps—on the other end—elements like the archetypical nature of Meat and Hook from feeling stale: what might come off as overdone in another piece just feels like another weight for the standard trope side of the balance here, and is peculiarly grounding instead.

There are a few skipped beats I’d like to note: The moment where Wallroy and Blistren realize their containers of slange have been impounded—and the potential setup from The Ledge—is so quick as to be almost missable, making me need to back up half a scene later to establish that conflict in my head.

I’d also look again at the ending of the piece. The revelation that the Mewlani group are the red-headed soldier’s translators is a touch on the nose: It’s a very close analogue to the U.S. and Iraq, perhaps too close, and is the one place where the narrative strays into direct allegory.

The author asked for comment on whether “The Restaurant at the End of the War” oversimplifies the complex issue of refugee crises in the wake of war, which is a difficult question to tackle: There are as many ways to tell a refugee story as there are refugees, unfortunately. For what it’s worth, I don’t think this is an irresponsible take. Stain is set up as a morally messy economy, one Wallroy and Blistren are quite clearly buying right into: theirs is a business run on giving former enemies a little taste of home, but only workable because this tourist town is on the route for prisoner repatriation. Wallroy and Blistren are doing a kindness no one else will, but they’re not doing it for free; they’re making sure toys are ready for impulse buying by families who have nothing, and there’s a cold realism to that kind of profiteering, and that kind of deeply mixed action.

If anything, I’d say “The Restaurant at the End of the War” wraps up a little too tidily: The forces of corruption and racism are held off at least for the meantime by plain force, good guys are identified, and everything will, for the meantime, Be All Right. It’s a very military ending, fully in line with the values of armies—evil is defeated by force and hearts-and-minds propaganda—but I’m not sure it fits the story that precedes it.

I think the main strength behind that ending working out is the plain fact that “The Restaurant at the End of the War” isn’t actively selling a solution. It’s presenting a situation, and the relative lack of agenda might let the piece get away with a little wishful thinking. However, I’d suggest that ending is worth the examination given to the worldbuilding on Stain, Wallroy’s past, and the other details of this universe. It’s not bad as it is; it has the potential to be something special.

Overall, this is a thoughtful piece that reads lightly, and punches seriously above its weight, and I look forward to seeing it find a home.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)

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