Editor’s Choice Award April 2021, 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 Healixir Trans-Galactic Lounge by Michelle Tang

The “man walks into a bar” setup deepens in grim, gorgeous, necessary ways when an escalating genocidal standoff back home forces diasporic Vi’hun care workers into a set of hard choices—and eventually a hard-won freedom. “The Healixir Trans-Galactic Lounge” caught my eye this month by ably and guttingly creating a universe steeped in sacrifice and care and tackling the questions of who deserves to receive them, who’s forced to provide them, what it means to choose, solidarity, and self-worth. This month, I’d like to talk about how we balance the technicals of story to talk about urgent, painful, impactful material in ways that are both honest and effective as narrative.

The brilliance of “The Healixir Trans-Galactic Lounge” is how much history, current conflict, and systemic struggle is folded into its universe in a way that honours those experiences, but stays deeply accessible to readers who are outside them—while completely functioning as a science fantasy story.

It’s quite clear what this piece is pointing at in its rich universe stuffed with service industry jobs: medical care that’s dressed up like a bar, hostessing, massage therapists, the choice between freedom and a family, other people’s borrowed words and body language, and a workplace that’s constantly configuring to look like someone else’s paradise, never Minta’s. Farmer Zonne’s exploitative biological controls, endless wars, and repeatedly reanimated soldiers carry shades of WWII Japanese comfort women and colonialist regimes in a way that’s recognizable enough to not need explanation—so I can just feel their impact as a reader.

However, “The Healixir Trans-Galactic Lounge” packs those questions into its fundamental worldbuilding without ever sabotaging its own ability to be a cohesive, internally consistent, affecting fictional world. The point where a lot of stories handling the question of harm can crack a little is when real-world facts and motives overwhelm the fabric of the story itself; there’s unfortunately a significant balancing act required, craft-wise, when we draw on serious—and live—topics like the dynamics of oppression and hope. Succeeding at that balance—where a piece works as a fictional story and works as an expression on real-world dynamics—is a difficult and huge achievement.

There are two major choices the author has made here that let “The Healixir Trans-Galactic Lounge” shine this way: first, by making all the pressures and choices Minta and her co-workers face absolutely structural—but pressures its characters consider. Bits of worldbuilding like the Vi’hun’s precarious position as healers whose vital work can’t ostensibly be turned on each other and care work exhaustion built into the yellow flash on Jaela’s skin cover the simple analogies structurally, and then there’s the question of what Minta does about them. They’re part of the fabric of Minta’s world (showing, not telling) but Minta consistently thinks about them, considers how they impact her choices now and later, discusses them with Jaela—telling, not showing. There’s a balance of techniques here, and they’re working together to develop the situation in a way that’s organic and complete.

The second choice is simpler technically but much more profound: the way the story itself isn’t using Minta as a tool to make a point. It centres, instead, her complex wants, pains, and desires as she moves through a situation and shows readers her own—and Jaela and Katia’s—agency, impacts, and desires. By letting its characters be complicated and whole, “The Healixir Trans-Galactic Lounge” fights back structurally against flattening and objectification—and makes its point in the resonance between how it’s chosen to tell the story and what the story’s about: “How many of us had died trying to save people who had used us as tools?”

As this is a middle draft, I’ve got (appropriately!) mostly small suggestions for how to strengthen the piece; the structural work’s definitely already done.

There are some little points of technical friction that could be addressed. I’d suggest attention to some early exposition—I think there’s probably a more subtle or organic way to unfold the starting rules of how Vi’hun healing works than Blippo the regular—and a little more ease into the transition between Minta’s decision to resist and the aftermath of Katia’s attempt on the farm, which as it stands feels somewhat abrupt. The emotional tone changes very rapidly, and as a reader I felt a bit of whiplash.

I’d also suggest that, given how the symbolism of “The Healixir Trans-Galactic Lounge” works, there could be a little more thought around how the Sun Yams needing iron-based blood to germinate works on the symbolic level. It’s the least accessible idea in the piece for me: what does it say that the Vi’hun, who are healers, can only eat via others’ pain, conflict, and suffering? There’s something potentially complex in there that could perhaps use another beat.

Finally, my biggest suggestion would be to consider a new title for this piece—and it’s purely a question of being deliberate on the question of genre telegraphing. Titles are the first space where we, as writers, have the ability to help guide readers’ expectations about what to look for in our stories. Before they even read the first sentences, we’re telling our readers which parts of what they’re about to read are important, should be focused on, should be remembered.

The title as it stands evokes a certain space of the genre (for me, and I’d recommend that the author absolutely get second opinions on this, too): a subgenre of 1970s and 1980s space opera that’s light, a little goofy, and more concerned with adventure than depth. I’d suggest putting some thought into which aspect of this piece is the most important—what the author wants readers considering as important when they come into the read—and what kind of title could work to get them on the right track. In short: which title really shows who this story is.

But: “The Healixir Trans-Galactic Lounge” is a thoroughly beautiful piece: handling complex griefs and hopes that have no easy answers with an emotional honesty and sheer guts that shine through every line. With a few technical revisions and some polish, I’m fully confident it’ll have no trouble finding an audience and a home.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

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