Editor’s Choice Review March 2018, 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.

Entwined by Marion Engelke

“Entwined” caught my eye this month by presenting a science fiction a few friends and I have been wanting for ages: far-future stories where motherhood—parenting, caregiving—matters. And it kept me with clean prose and an immediate set of conflicts: a parent torn between her two families, inevitably leaving one of them behind. That said, those conflicts aren’t always fully developed and realized in “Entwined”. So this month, I’d like to talk about worldbuilding from the implications and centering your worldbuilding around a point of view.

Especially when writing genres that have such strong tropesets, it can be easy to get caught up in which experiences count as a valid story: space battles, colonizing and decolonizing, exploration. However, the work of doing science fiction—and science fiction is a thing we do—is asking, and then answering, what if? It’s the art of implication: if so, then this, and then that would mean. And that extends to seeing how the universes we’d set up would impact our day-to-day, human activities: relationships, parenting, grief.

“Entwined” does this very well: taking the long-haul spaceflight future that we’ve seen in so many iterations and melding in the practicalities of living, loving, and parenting over distance in a way that isn’t just the stereotypical astronaut sobbing over their baby and then moving right on to the vast frontier (I’m looking at you, Interstellar). Elizaveta’s double grief is not always believable—I’m not sure how she wouldn’t have thought of her daughters for two whole years?—but it’s an interesting, nuanced problem. What does that trope of exploring alien cultures and being years away from home do to your relationships, really?

“Entwined” backs up that question with clear prose and some interesting work with imagery: Elizaveta and her milky Assam from a bottle, like a baby suckling milk; her acclimatization back to spaceflight paralleling her acclimatization back to a whole emotional life.

The characterization isn’t always quite even: Sawyer, most notably, at first vacillates a bit between treating Elizaveta’s second family quite seriously, like a friend of the (first) family; like a boss concerned only with job performance; and sometimes with teasing flippancy that feels at odds with both—and then she’s excited and amused over Xia and Sajid’s engagement, without any thought, somehow, of how this news is going to land on an Elizaveta facing the consequences of leaving a whole other life. Her reactions make her feel not quite complete as a character: I’d love to see more thought given to how Sawyer processes this information, her opinion on it, and how that informs her other actions throughout the piece.

The world is built out in small interesting ways—although I’d love, as a reader, to see those better embedded in Elizaveta’s point of view. Details like the explanation of Earth-Kea trade are mostly relevant to readers insofar as they affects Elizaveta’s trajectory through the story, and I’d suggest thinking about ways to introduce this information that send it through that lens, just like the long hair and the squeeze-bottle tea, built for zero gravity—illustrations of the gap between Elizaveta’s lives in space and planetside, and her alienation from that space/Caterin/etc. life. Tech is only so much as how people use it, and understanding how a science-fictional piece of tech or worldbuilding is relevant to the characters—and presenting it through that relevance—grounds readers in the world and builds a more unified experience.

Through that lens, I’m a little skeptical of the Entwined implant—it’s a narrative device, I know, and it’s the kind of narrative device that people would go for heedless of the consequences. However, creating an implant that lets you share emotions, but requires you to pull back every time you see a negative one—to only be there for your partner for the easy bits, and disappear on the hard or unattractive ones—is not a neutral statement. That says a lot about what people value in a relationship, about the strength of their relationships in the first place and their idea about how relationships work, and, therefore, how their relationships are going to go.

Other reviewers have mentioned that Ysoki’s motives don’t entirely seem to be examined in “Entwined”, but I’d argue that there’s not much ambiguity about whether the implant itself is exactly a good thing. And as a reader, I’d love to see a little more thought on that introduced, subtly.

The other place where I think “Entwined” could take on some polish is where Elizaveta fails to examine her own assumptions and motives. As the author’s notes guessed, the ending does feel abrupt, and somewhat out of place, and that issue ties into, I think, Elizaveta’s relationship with self-awareness.

Elizaveta and Caterin are in a deeply painful place, individually and together. This relationship was probably already in trouble, given Elizaveta’s inability to understand why her actions are hurting Caterin, and instead of talking—or modifying those actions to stop hurting Caterin so much—just disengages more and more. The comment about being the sensible adult Caterin always wants her to be leads me to believe this is clearly not her first piece of impulsivity, her first irresponsibility, the first time she’s left Caterin holding the bag. There are hints Elizaveta’s not exactly an emotionally mature person (besides, well, going adventuring while her partner single-parents impromptu for two years and ignoring Caterin’s explicit boundary of not wanting to see her—that’s stalking, you know) and this fight’s gone down between them before. And yet, even though that seems more core to the piece than the gaps between Keari and Earth cultures, Elizaveta ascribes the problems in her relationship to distance or Caterin’s conservatism—to a simple binary choice of engaging or not engaging—and never quite seems to look at herself.

I would personally love to see an ending that didn’t reduce repairing the conflict between them—or even beginning to repair it—to one person relenting and letting the other back through the metaphorical gate, to engagement versus disengagement. I would love to see an ending that treats a complex issue complexly, versus falling back on the put-upon spouse, the one who’s eaten all the pain through all this, eating yet more pain and letting the spouse who dealt that pain back in. I’d like to see a real grapple with this concept, one that treats it deeply. There are implications aplenty in “Entwined”; I’d love to see a version of this piece where they’re brought to life.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck.

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

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