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.
LO, I TEACH YOU THE UNDERMAN! by Patrick Gardner
“Lo, I Teach You the Underman!” caught my attention this month with its spare narrative style and immediate slow tension, and kept it by taking an intriguing dip into a pretty frequently-referenced text. However, as with any story working on two levels, I’d like to spend some time on whether each one works—and the seams between them. So this month, I’d like to talk about referencing, how we read referencing works, and what it means to effectively incorporate well-used texts into original fiction.
There are, at base, two ways we reference other texts in our fiction: references meant to be recognized, and references just meant to be felt by readers without being explicit about it—what we’d normally call an influence or inspiration. They produce some very different reading experiences: When a reference is meant to be recognized—think a fairytale retelling—readers aren’t just reading the original story, but constantly and reflexively comparing the story they’re reading to the reference text to see how it matches, and where it departs. The work’s judged not just on how it works as a story, but how it compares to the original story—and what’s being said by the author by how the stories do and don’t match. Those differences are spaces for authors to make comment on the original story and its assumptions, and readers expect those comments there, as well as expecting a certain resonance.
“Lo, I Teach You the Underman!” references, quite explicitly, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: the twist on one of its most famous lines is right in the title, and it follows up with another solid clue in Rajiv’s poetic opening line. Put together, after one paragraph I know to go in reading in that comparative way, looking for where the divergences tell me part of the story—with the substitution of “underman” for “superman” being a solid clue that this is going to give me important information about the piece.
As a story that’s working on reference, “Lo, I Teach You the Underman!” delivers. It’s taking the idea in the very next line—”Man is something that shall be overcome”—and applying it, quite literally, to the question of AI and self-driving cars, Rajiv’s downward trajectory is a solid opposite mirror to the trajectory of the original, and the ending works with Zarathustra‘s concept of amor fati (the recurring “what else could he do?”). There’s a resonance created by that updating of familiar tropes that’s satisfying, if you’ve read the original. The question is: How does “Lo, I Teach You the Underman!” work as a piece of original fiction?
For a reader who hasn’t read Zarathustra, or isn’t dipping into those layers, “Lo, I Teach You the Underman!” might feel somewhat to-the-numbers. There’s a clear and compelling conflict set up—Rajiv has no other source of support except Anaya, and the dead bodies endanger them both—and the prose is clear, readable, and engaging (I especially liked the comparison to a deep-sea diver, and the strong visuals when Rajiv tails Anaya). But absent the original-text references, issues crop up: Rajiv’s fatalism feels as if he’s ducking his own agency, and the fear he starts the story with—being hunted, arrested, shot, or deported (oddly, never sent to prison?)—doesn’t change, from beginning to end. He starts with a dead body, no money, and worried about the cops, and that is exactly where he ends.
The core conflict of “Lo, I Teach You the Underman!” is clarified—we learn the why—but it never evolves or resolves. No, Rajiv doesn’t win, but he doesn’t even lose: The same situation continues to play out, and the same consequences are feared, potentially gathering on the horizon. That’s a very Nietzschean outcome, but absent that thematic resonance, it doesn’t make for effective fiction. The ending beat—the landing, the new piece of information—is that Anaya is the killer, and if that’s the only new piece of information, it feels like a twist ending, and not a solid resolution.
The question I’m left with is what’s different—what’s changed, what important event has occurred—between the beginning of the piece and the end? In short, what is the story?
That’s a serious question for a piece of fiction to elicit, and given the source material, it might be one that “Lo, I Teach You the Underman!” just has to live with. But what I’d suggest, in further drafts, is looking at “Lo, I Teach You the Underman!” for balance between its two channels of information: the thematic, referential, Zarathustra-reading channel and the channel that’s taking this as an original, stand-alone story. It works as one; how might you make it work as the other, and then balance those two readings so neither of them dominate?
It’s a careful balancing trick to make a work compelling on both levels, but it’s possible by looking at both potential readings and going back to the elements of craft: narrative motion, conflict-and-resolution, the internal logic of both the character and the world. As just this story, about Rajiv and his car, what changes might make this satisfying, compelling, or produce a sense of forward motion and significance? Once those are established, how do they dovetail with the Zarathustra references?
I’m thinking this is going to be an iterative process, but modern fiction with a Nietzschean aesthetic is an ambitious goal, and I think it’s worth taking the time to work it out to its fullest potential.
Best of luck with the piece!
–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)