Editor’s Choice Award December 2020, Science Fiction

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.

Mindblades Chapter 1 by Andrew Wang

The first thing that drew me to this chapter was the title. It’s got definite science-fictional resonance, and promises a story that’s both edgy and high-tech. Some of the concepts introduced here are very cool as well, especially Dust (which I’d like to see more of, as I’m sure there will be in subsequent chapters) and the Crystal.

The chapter needs some work, and some rethinking of its structure and choice of scenes. I have some questions about the worldbuilding, too.

First, the structure. The chapter begins with some scene-setting and some rather lovely description, then moves into a series of conversations with people Raedan meets. These conversations serve to convey exposition and backstory, and show Raeden interacting with persons who may or may not reappear later on in the novel. The fight at the end features a fair amount of verbal byplay as well as a sample of Raedan’s athletic and fighting skills.

The opening dialogue introduces Raedan and tells us who he is and some of his background. There’s not much actual story there; it’s mostly setup and exposition. I found myself wishing for something more active and concrete. Say the guy is watching a recording of Raedan’s latest game, and we get to see what he does more directly, and maybe the guy recognizes him and then there’s some back and forth about who he is and why he’s here. In the draft, there’s a fairly high ratio of exposition to action and experience. Shifting that balance might help make the opening more vivid and engaging.

Raedan’s interaction with the Chinese woman has more oomph and more overall cool factor. For one thing, it’s got Dust, and we learn some things about it and also about Raedan and the world he lives in.

The encounter with Denise however shares some of the same issues as the first conversation. It’s clear there are strong undercurrents, and Denise is very uncomfortable and seems to be hiding secrets. But Raedan either misses or disregards the signals she’s sending. He doesn’t ask her what’s going on, or seem curious about her reactions.

This may be an aspect of his character, that he’s oblivious or clueless. If so I think the narrative needs to convey more sense that it’s intentional. As it is, the emotional temperature is rather low, and that damping down of feeling carries through to the fight.

There’s a tendency in the fight scene to downplay both the feelings and the stakes. The action moves almost slowly. The fight comes across as low-key in spite of the subject matter. It needs more tension, more suspense, and overall, more oomph.

I’d suggest some rethinking and re-framing of the chapter, starting with the reasons why Raedan has come home, and why he goes to his old apartment. “The tenant left” is a start, but why go to that particular place? He ends up somewhere else anyway after the fight, without seeming terribly upset about being driven away. What compelling reason does he have to go to the old neighborhood? What does he want to accomplish there? Is he hoping to meet someone? To resolve old issues? To revisit his childhood, and if so, why?

I found myself wondering about his political status since he’s the son of a woman executed by the Crystal. Does that affect his own status at all? He seems to be in a position of great trust, with a great deal of privilege. How does that connect with what happened to his mother? Does he have any emotional issues with it, any past trauma? If not, has he been “cured” in some way, or has he found his own way through it? Is his flat affect a side effect of whatever he’s had to do, or had done to him, in order to deal with his past? If so, a quick line or allusion might help clarify that aspect of his character.

That leads to me to ask further questions about the worldbuilding. Is there a plot-connected reason why the date and time are so specific? A lot of space opera just sort of generally alludes to being in the future—a thousand years, ten thousand, or however long it happens to be. The worldbuilding itself carries the weight of time, as we’re shown the extent of human expansion into space, and given relevant details of its history.

Since this is specific down to the year, we have a clear sense of how much time has passed between now and this future. But we also may have questions about the way the future universe has evolved. How does it happen that people are still speaking English? Is that just on this planet or is it more universal? What language are Raedan and the guy on the ship speaking?

As I read, I wondered what happened to the internet. The Singularity didn’t happen? Or did the Crystal shut off human access to any kind of universal cybercommunications? How to people communicate at long distance in this universe? How does space travel work? What about communications between worlds?

Most of these questions are probably answered in later chapters, but I did wonder, specifically in this chapter, why Raedan doesn’t know what’s happened to the old neighborhood. Wouldn’t he check it out before he goes there, to make sure the transport route is still the same and to see what amenities still exist around the apartment? If he were checking it out in 2020 he’d do a web search and some online mapping. How does it work in the 37th century?

Ultimately I think the chapter could begin a couple of scenes later than it does. The arrival has some very nice description but the story takes a while to get going. If it’s clear why he goes to his old apartment, and if he has a strong and specific reason for doing so—maybe finding out something about his mother, or looking for something she left him, or…?—then the story would start with his arrival there. There’s still room to talk about this being a sort of Earth-alike, maybe in the landscape or a particular tree or flower or the color of the sky, and maybe the apartment, or the lobby, or the wall outside, has a mural that depicts the planet from space. He might talk about his career when he meets Denise, or give us a flashback to the game, or get a communication that shows us who he is and what he’s on (presumably) vacation from. Or is he on leave and this is a specific quest or mission related to his past?

The rule of thumb for opening chapters is that in general they should start as close to the end of the story as possible while still leaving room for the story to unfold. Characters’ actions and interactions should have purpose and well-established motivation. Later on it may be possible to slow down and ramble a bit, but at the beginning, before the characters have won the reader’s trust, it’s a good idea to keep the story moving in a clear and focused way. Then the reader is eager to keep reading, and the story pulls them forward all the way to the end.

–Judith Tarr

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