Editor’s Choice Award June 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.

Titaness by Billy Forshaw

I was struck by the sense of distant quiet in “Titaness” this month: a lonely image of a woman wandering across far terrain, and a conclusion that’s grief-struck, ominous, but gentle. However, the author’s notes mention a sense of something missing—and for me as a reader, in a story about relationship, that was relationship between these characters and the details of their world. So this month, I’d like to talk about integrating science fictional worldbuilding into the stories we tell.

“Titaness” starts strong: an instant situation (a woman is outside), the implication that situation is ongoing, the implication of which kind of character would see this as a problem and tension within Maria’s home. However, it immediately moves into exposition about Titan and class: a briefing on what everything is supposed to mean that sinks the interest generated by that question in technical information.

It’s four paragraphs before anything more is mentioned about that character in a situation with a problem—Maria seeing a woman outside again and something about that is wrong—and by then, the tension and interest that problem creates has already been diffused and undermined.

This is the core issue I found personally with “Titaness”. Every time there’s mention of a speculative worldbuilding element—the Skins, the idea of charmed material, Equalizers—the story immediately diverts into a technical explanation purely in service of getting readers up to speed, and breaks the thread of what it’s explicitly told us to care about in the first lines: Maria, the isolation of Titan, the woman outside. And many of those speculative worldbuilding elements aren’t helping specifically to tell the story of Maria, her marriage, the woman outside.

It might be helpful to think about this as delivering structural mixed messages: “Titaness” has told readers a certain thing is important, that it’s the thread and core of the story—but keeps dropping it in service of a whole other thing. And then it becomes hard to tell what’s actually important here.

“Titaness”, by the end, feels as if it’s trying to encompass the background worldbuilding information of a classic hard SF story—noting every bell and whistle along the way—as well as the close human-centred, emotive perspective of Bradbury, and instead of building a structure that can hold both, or funnel both through the same channels, it’s switching between the two structures—and losing readers as it does, because those structures are working at cross-purposes. They don’t complement each other well. This is what the Gap symbolizes is a less effective tool than letting the Gap be a symbol and building the kind of structure that primes readers to look for symbolism when you’re speaking in the language of an emotive Bradburyan perspective; once they had been in love is less interesting than getting to see Maria reach for him, and Julien fall short.

I think it can be easier to consider how structure works in action-packed, fast-paced stories, but a structure of action, consequence, and attentional flow is part of every story we write; it’s just a question of how we keep attention flowing, and how that structure is dressed.

Since the author’s notes mention explicitly wanting to capture that Bradburyan feeling, I’d suggest it’s worthwhile to go back to Bradbury and study what he’s doing and how he maintains a character’s internality, voice, and tone when conveying worldbuilding information. Facts like how long it rains on Venus in “All Summer in a Day” are filtered through what they mean to the story’s protagonists—their impressions and relationships with those facts. There’s a lot of hard science fictional information passed on to the reader, but it’s not directly. That information does two things: inform about the world and introduce readers to the character.

So—all that being said!—I’d suggest tackling the structural issue in “Titaness” by putting the facts about Titan, the Gap, and more into relationship with their people, instead of letting them just interrupt those relationships.

What does any of this mean to Maria, even as a fairly reserved, opaque character who’s been, it seems, helping that woman all along and didn’t just hear anything? What does the fact that she’s telling Julien this as if it’s abstract mean about her relationship with him, and what she’s trying to elicit from him? There’s a possibility to go deeper into those dynamics by filtering through her perspective more strongly; what she leaves out and when.

I’d suggest taking this approach in small ways and large: How can “her husband, Julien” read more interestingly when Maria knows Julien’s her husband, and doesn’t have to highlight that fact because it’s apparent they’re in a relationship from how they interact? What more interesting information about Julien would she notice, and can take its place?

Ultimately, that’s the question I’d put forth: What would “Titaness” look, read, and feel like if the facts about Titan were being conveyed through the lens of what they meant to Maria—what she already knows, what she feels, and what she’s interested in?

I think with the structures more integrated—a hard science fiction story about relationships and told through them, not at war with them—any issues the author’s still feeling will come clearer, and get this closer to a final draft.

Best of luck!

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

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