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.
“Eerie Appendages” caught my eye this month with its uncanny, shadowy science fiction narrative, a whip-smart set of thematic ideas, and a careful deliberation in its clues and word choices. It’s a piece alluding to about four subgenres in SFF, but integrating them all into a cohesive—and unsettling—whole that uses every inch of its material. So this month, I’d like to discuss another way to think about thematics, and what unifying our elements of craft through them can do for our work.
If “Eerie Appendages” has a major shining strength, it’s efficiency and a thorough commitment to its core question. Each of its elements does something to further at least two story goals; everything works together, without a moment wasted. And everything runs through the mental lens of the question it’s exploring: the Uncanny Valley, what precisely is wrong on this planet, what feels wrong, what we’re told is wrong but feels right, and the whole idea of false consciousness.
That commitment begins immediately: “Eerie Appendages” derives a lot of its narrative tension from establishing and exchanging threats, and it wastes no time in setting up the disjuncts that power that sense of dread. The first line—that Harwen “feels he must want for nothing”—immediately bounces off the grotesque implications of being “mostly” free from parasites, setting up that core question of something is wrong here, and building it through individual elements that each approach a compromised reality: mind-controlling aliens, pheromones, trans-dimensional space travel, an unacknowledged queer relationship, colonialism, dissociation, and the gap between the professional and personal.
Even though that’s a quite disparate collection of elements to put in one story—never mind one this short—that question of false consciousness refracts ruthlessly through each one of them and ties them together into a Mieville-esque colonial Age of Sail narrative that’s smart, creepy, and narratively riveting.
What’s doing the heavy work here is the thematic level. Themes!
There can be a tendency when we’re first building our storycraft to think about theme as an allegory or a message, but it can be more constructive to think of it as how these things are each like the other—and then arrange those elements of story so they’re all catching the same proverbial light and sending it in the directions we want readers to look.
“Eerie Appendages” is flat-out great at this job. Thematic implications lurk under the surface constantly—but are confident enough to not make themselves too explicit, trusting readers to put them together ourselves, as every piece of thematic information is also doing plot or atmospheric work.
The true bodies’ composition as mounds of flesh that don’t move or sense, only consume and discard from the same holes, is both a huge foundation for the grotesque atmosphere and visible as a comment. The way those bodies play off readers’ sense of the Uncanny Valley—while reversing that perspective to show Harwen feeling that same disgust for human bodies—is a looping resonance that’s bluntly brilliant work. It generates buckets of tension and conflict without ever having to explain a thing.
“Eerie Appendages” is also making absolutely the most of its pseudo-historical trappings. Harwen’s period costume, the “feverish air of a foreign land” on-planet, live animals imported from faraway colonies immediately evoke a genre of colonial literature that’s inherently fairly brutal and bodily—a genre of bought and sold bodies, flogged bodies, rigid hierarchies—and bring all that brutality into play for readers without saying a word. It’s a very interesting subgenre in which to set a piece that plays with the Uncanny Valley like this; a story about false selves eating real ones and whose bodies are identifiable-with—whose bodies are real. Both are obsessed with bodies in a way that feeds each other, nourishes each other, and makes the material richer by bringing in whole other frames of reference, smashing them together, and going look, these are the same.
Harwen’s dismissive colonialist attitudes toward the planet’s Indigenous people fits into the Age of Sail ambiance perfectly, and is well-counterbalanced by Viltrand’s more functional, cooperative relationship with them—Harwen’s natives versus Viltrand’s locals. There’s a puzzle piece in this too: how Harwen’s inability to identify with them robs him of the social narrative he’d need to withstand the trauma of having his sense of self shaken.
Harwen’s obviously a complex character, even though we’re seeing him filtered through the lens of a possession—one that has him declaring “He is a simple man” in ways that are, every single one, proved a lie afterward. Harwen and Viltrand’s half-obscured romance puts the lie to him being just a husband and father; his increasing inability to master the situation and ultimate salvation through interreliance on his crew complicates the ideas in captain. His moment of startling compassion before the water drags his consciousness under gives me a glimpse of how he got his captaincy, his love triangle, and his liminal identity: a blink of the true person before he’s snuffed out.
These are all fascinating ideas to cluster around the core of a planet where you can be parasitized into self-destruction by who you identify with. They are all visible puzzle pieces readers can put together when reading into how “Eerie Appendages” thinks one’s instincts can be co-opted by systems not in your best interests. And they all worked well for me, because all these elements move in the same direction: from a false, grotesque simplicity to a more honest complexity. None of them fight the others, merely inform each other. Those themes—that question of identifying, false consciousness, and risk—becomes a steady organizing principle through which a half-dozen ideas can be compared and explored, and “Eerie Appendages” grown from the rote horror of losing control to something textured, deliberate, emotional, existential, and ultimately really very tragic.
The author’s notes mentioned clarity as a challenge; while I find myself having to reframe my idea of where objective reality sits as I start “Eerie Appendages” and move through to Viltrand’s explanations, it’s not creating confusion. There are enough clues—Nicolas’s very human name versus that alien body, his protestations of simplicity—that I’m comfortable riding that wave, knowing the disjuncts have been pointed out to me as something to follow. And I’m personally all right with the physics of the Linear Sea being weird in a story about unstable realities; the point of the solid clouds on the first page is the crushing on the last one, so I don’t personally need to understand the mechanics behind them.
There aren’t a great many suggestions or notes in this critique, but on the whole, I think this is fabulously done: smart, subtle, horrifying, wildly imaginative, and absolutely making the most of itself. And I think it stands a strong chance of finding an excellent home.
Thanks for the read, and best of luck!
–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)