Editor’s Choice Award May 2020, 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 Ambassador  by William Das

The Ambassador” caught my eye this month by offering a quieter, more nuanced take on the political divide dystopian: a close-in look at the impacts of a wider science-fictional future. While its worldbuilding illustrates and extrapolates a highly partisan American future, it doesn’t quite hang together yet when examined up close. So this month, I’d like to discuss the balance between internal science-fictional cohesion and allegory, and making a piece of fiction work as both.

“The Ambassador” quickly sets out a rich world that feels nonetheless personal, and takes pains to establish the individual strains Adam and Sandra are living under (though Liam is much less carefully drawn, and I think a few more details about his own motivations early on would balance out that sense of wobble in his character). The prose works very well here; it’s clean, engaging, and accessible, and drew me in with a sprinkling of solid details. It’s also capable of rising into the poetic to underscore an emotional or significant moment—the image of two ships slowly ripping each other apart is a powerful one, and keeping that metaphoric language in reserve so it could highlight the thematic climax of the piece was a smart, effective choice. There is no mistaking what the most important sentence of this story is.

There’s a lot of work being done in inference and implication, and the brand names, the ad content, the filtering of how the same news stories are reported by differently aligned outlets are all feeding back into the central thematic concern: political symbolism overtaking the personal, partisanship as identity, and a world organized around taking sides. The worldbuilding supports the theme and plot very well: no detail is wasted. “The Ambassador” is clear about what it’s addressing through allegory, stays on point, and doesn’t flatten its characters overmuch while doing it. This still feels like a story in and of itself.

It’s when I view the world of “The Ambassador” exclusively as a constructed science-fictional society—not as allegory—that it wrinkles and decoheres.

The major worldbuilding bobbles in “The Ambassador” for me starts around the question of loss of membership. While the parallel to health insurance networks and credit scores is visible, Sandra’s out-of-network dilemma doesn’t quite fit the worldbuilding already established here. Patriot Network Services—like Justice Network later on—seems to be a closed, binary-thinking ecology. I’m left wondering why they would even offer the counter-aligned options, but still warn people about consequences when they chose to use it instead of just applying them, gotcha!-style.

Systems are designed by people for a purpose, and the uneven application of consequences here leaves me unsure what behaviours the networks are trying to produce or reinforce, what emphasis they put on actual ideological purity, and how they deal with perceived traitors.

There’s also a significant gap between what people say in “The Ambassador” and what the actual organization of this world tells us. It’s ostensibly an entrenched cultural war, polarized enough to have separate towns and economies after riots forty years ago, but is somehow still one nation, with one president, and the people who hate those policies are leaving peaceably under that person?

That contradiction between rhetoric and action extends to characterization. Everyone in “The Ambassador”, barring Liam, is significantly more flexible than they let on, or than their society seems to want them to be. Sandra has a lot of grey areas and exceptions in her politics; she talks the talk, but she bought those Nike shoes. The staff at Betty’s Garden Centre seem reluctant, even as they turn Adam down, and ultimately they take that cash.

The disconnects reach down to the town names. Friedan and Schlafly are clear references to me and they communicate in terms of allegory, but they’re a little dated politically for what they’re representing here—would people whose schism was forty years ago, ostensibly in our present, have chosen those as their symbols? Why?

The result for me is an oddly soft dystopia: one where the strings are quite visible and you get enough warnings to not have to really worry; where people had riots, tore apart families and societies, and live apart, but somehow now are reserved enough to apply all kinds of moral brakes. Where there’s an entire other system for working around the rules and the consequences are never quite brutal, just expensive and embarrassing.

While it takes enough brutality out of the situation to make “The Ambassador” feel like safer, warmer reading, once the allegory is stripped away, it also makes this world feel like it could be more strongly thought through.

So what I’d suggest for polishing “The Ambassador” up is looking at everything in it with that streak of literalism: if this was saying nothing at all about the present day and was just this other world, these people’s conflicts and choices, would each element of the story make sense and flow into the next? Would a world with these rules and habits function as a world? This can be tricky adjustment, making one set of actions work on two different levels, the literal and the allegorical. But it’s the kind of work that makes a politically allegorical story feel not just like advertising, but like story: satisfying, heartfelt, thoughtful.

My second major suggestion would be to provide a little more support through the middle of “The Ambassador” for the subthread with Adam’s father. It’s supposed to be the closing image—the closing choice—of “The Ambassador”: Adam makes a choice about reaching out. However, I’m not feeling that decision is supported by the rest of the piece: I don’t see, in this draft, why the altercation between Liam and Sandra is enough to make him choose against his father—what it has to do with his father and that strained relationship. I’m fairly certain this thought is lurking in the subtext right now: I think there’s room to strengthen the impact of that ending, though, by making the connections a little clearer, and Adam’s thoughts about his father more consistently present.

Best of luck!

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

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