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.
I’m somewhat late to the plate thanks to the dog’s broken leg and subsequent surgery (he will recover), with apologies, but here I am at last. I chose this piece because of the author’s note. I could see the enthusiasm and the air of sheer fun, and I went into the story expecting a light adventure.
I did get that, so that part of the mission for me was accomplished. As I read with my crit-hat on, I found myself falling into worldbuilding mode, as I do when I’m helping my writing students develop their worlds and characters.
Usually I start asking questions. The author doesn’t have to answer all or even most of them—just the ones that help the most with the underpinnings of the story. Some will get a firm, “No! That’s not where I’m going at all!” Others will give rise to their own questions, and maybe the world will expand and the story follow suit. And still others may get the classic editorial “Oh crap yes, you’re right, I have to fix that.”
With that in mind, here are some questions to ponder while the revision proceeds.
In your introductory note you say, “And why not make the claim jumpers Mer people! I don’t see many Mer people in Sci Fi. And make the captain female!” All of which is fun stuff, but my question is, is it new or radical to have [a] a female captain or [b] a female mer-person? Aren’t merfolk more commonly seen as female, i.e. mermaids?
Is there anything else you can do to make this species and this captain different? Do they have to be binary? Is there a reason why male would be default and female unusual enough to be worth noting? Or why species need to come in two genders? Not one? Or three? Or however many? Or no gender at all?
Quite far along in the story, you reveal that Captain Phillium is an octopus. It might help to know this at the start—the reader can get a clearer picture of him. I happen to love octopuses, and there are things about them that might add some depth and extra flavor to your portrayal of this character.
One of the things about the species is that it is highly intelligent but also extremely short-lived. As soon as an octopus mates, if it’s male, it’s either eaten or it dies soon after mating. If it’s female, it may eat its mate, and it will die shortly after its eggs hatch.
This means that a retro human-style marriage with a wife at home is kind of unlikely. Unless he’s out in space having a last hurrah before he dies, and she’s home incubating the eggs, starving slowly and expecting to die soon. Or they’ve married in order to reproduce, but the actual act will happen after this voyage—and he’s fully expecting to go home, have sex, and become his wife’s dinner. He may be plotting all sorts of ways to make the babies but still escape alive (but he’ll die within months anyway because once that part of his life is done, so is he).
Or, is marriage for this species something different? What would it be? A business contract? A political alliance? Why would octopuses need marriage?
Bear in mind too that female octopuses are often much larger than the males. Would it make more sense for the captain to be female, since males are so much smaller and more vulnerable? Or have males gone into space as part of a culture-wide campaign to avoid being eaten by the females back home? Have the females accepted this? Or are they the big corporate bosses? (I have more questions about those below.)
Much the same would apply to your arachnids. Big, dominant females who eat their husbands. Is your whole spacefaring culture about males having what fun and freedom they can before their inevitable death? You do have various mammalian types, but in subordinate roles; the primary roles are generally held by octopoids and arachnids—for whom gender and reproduction are very different than they are for other species.
Now think about what this does to your story about claim jumpers led by a female captain. If merpeople relate to one another more or less as humans do, though perhaps with a tendency toward matriarchy (does their leader need to be a king? Why not a queen?), consider how deep the differences are with a species for which the war between the sexes is real, inevitable, and deadly.
For the mer captain, maybe this is just business. For Captain Phillium, a female adversary must, according to everything he knows, be out to kill and eat him. How will that affect the intensity of their reactions to each other? Will he see a deadly threat when all she intends is a bit of petty larceny?
Meanwhile, what about the species Phillium is ordered to elevate? Why primates? Why not octopoids or arachnids? Wouldn’t he gravitate more toward his own kind? Are there solid business reasons for corporate to prefer primates over other species?
Or is there another motive here? Phillium is about to raise up a species that is near-immortal by octopoid standards, and for which reproduction is not a death sentence. And, what’s more, the male tends to be larger than the female. Is this a strike back at the tyranny of octopoid biology? A campaign of subversion against the females? A long-running political game played by his superiors, which Phillium might begin to see as he carries out his orders?
After all, the process of seeding planets is a really, really long game. Octopoids individually are extremely short-lived. Who is really in charge? What species began the whole process? Is it still extant? Would Phillium be aware of it? If so, how would he feel about it? If not, would that ignorance be intentional on the part of the big bosses? Do they have ulterior motives that might come into play here, with two different species moving in to raise up two different sets of not yet sentient life forms?
What if both applications were accepted? Is there a reason why that’s not allowed? As it is, one species is aquatic and the other is not. If multiple species can get along on starships, why not on planets? Wouldn’t corporate see this as a way to double up on their investment?
These are just some of the questions I found myself asking as I read. What you do with them is entirely up to you. It really is a fun universe, with some very interesting characters and cultures. There’s lots of scope for further stories, too.