Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

Safety Net by Bryan Andrews

“Safety Net” caught my eye this month with its observant but not cynical portrait of a cashless company-town in a post-ecological-disaster world and the difference between indirect and concrete aid. It’s an interesting—and deliberate—update of classic hard-boiled tropes which just underlines how relevant those tropes are to us right here and now. However, in sticking a little too close to the tropes it’s, I think, underselling its own conclusion. So this month, I’d like to discuss where tropes help us—and their limits.

The most obvious strength in “Safety Net” is how every element of craft is working together to underpin its themes. Hardboileds are absolutely, completely about precarity, class, and a certain idea of how integrity stands or falters in the face of everything else. And “Safety Net” pulls that question into play from every direction, explicitly and implicitly.

Precarity is everywhere in this story, and it’s been built in a way that doesn’t feel overexposited or underintegrated. The worldbuilding sets the tone with zeppelins, greenhouses, lack of real wood hinting at an ecological catastrophe in progress quietly in the background. There’s also a great dose of people working with their environment: the multiplicity of transit modes is both a great way to show class disparity in a multicultural, ecologically ravaged context, but also, it’s just pretty fun.

On the next layer, how people interact with this environment and each other underscores that tension. There’s a lot of playfulness in things like the casual death of gendered dress codes, but underneath it lurks a visible scarcity of human connection and trust—between Greg and his son or bodyguard, between the businesspeople on the zeppelin, between the father and his robot-tended baby. Horace’s almost gleeful reactions to having expense accounts make him a part of this system, even as he tries to resist it, in a very believable way.

And that’s what cements the precarity of this world: the ways people try to resist their it. Behind the roiling, oppressive atmosphere of labour unrest and harsh policing, everyone in this piece is covertly trying to help someone else: Greg’s management business, Crayg’s unsatisfying advocacy work, Horace’s quasi-detective career. They all mean well, and they all come up hard against their own limits in this system, and that pulls the tropes of hardboileds and noir through absolutely.

The prose is fairly clean and transparent, although there’s a distinct habit around comma splices, which can really throw a lot of readers. I’d suggest putting some attention into that not out of a prescriptive idea about grammar, but because there are a lot of ways punctuation can slow, speed up, mediate, or move the rhythm of a sentence, and sticking so closely to one (and one that frequently hides the meaning of the sentence) takes tools out of our hands as writers.

But there are some great descriptive moments here. “Face like an arrowhead” is a unique, concise description, and Crayg being defined by a beard he’s yet to grow into says a great thing about his relationship to adulthood and what he’s striving for without having to explicitly say it. But there are also a few instances where the thought hasn’t entirely made it onto the page. What “Safety Net” means that Ross “made four right turns in a row” is interpretable, but it takes a minute. I think it’s possible to slightly build out some of those moments and phrases that are only sketched in at present to make this a smoother read.

The main thing I’d suggest as a focus for the next draft, however, is that the ending of “Safety Net” strikes a little lightly. Despite the little bit of a crush he’s nursing, Horace exposes Greg’s corruption to Crayg and resolves that he’s going to take a beating for outing Greg as being behind the crackdown. But as a reader, I’m left a little unsatisfied: how does this ending resolve, comment on, or extend the questions “Safety Net” has been asking about precarity, change, how people mash up against systems?

This is where, I think, the modern story has run into the historical tropes and lost a little: the idea of a detective figure who ghosts through others’ lives, setting things right and then moving on, is pretty foundational to the genre. But when it’s ported into this context, things change. It takes on a certain tone when Horace is the precarious-living, poverty-struck expert on how people really live in Cable—stuck in his situation, cheerfully resigned to everything staying the same—and the people who experience change and resolution are the hyper-rich plutocrats. The loneliness of a person with a code, when it’s set against the labour protests, the stacked game, and the reasonable doubt that a rich son is actually going to entirely ruin his rich parent or their platform—tips into something like futility.

It’s a moment to perhaps step back and ask: What is this story saying in the now, outside the references, and what do I want it to say?

I think there are ways to create that modern narrative satisfaction—to write a workable end for this story—while still sticking to the mission of inverting, updating, and commenting on hardboiled and noir tropes. It might require stepping back from what the genre does and thinking first about what “Safety Net” does, and what it’s supposed to communicate to readers, and then tying that idea back to how its genre talks.

But I think this piece is well on its way, and with some thought, some polishing on the sentence level, and a few more rounds of revision, should be ready to send out into the world.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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


Leave a Reply