Editor’s Choice Award December 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 Algorithm In The Skies Above Chiloe by Rodrigo Culagovski

I really enjoyed the worldbuilding and information-handling in “The Algorithm in the Skies Above Chiloé”: an alive, breathing, faintly William Gibson-esque future written with a great sense of cadence and a handful of interesting ideas around urban life and linguistic hacking. However, it doesn’t always handle all its information and ideas organically—and the ones it’s doing well with highlight the places it isn’t. So this month, I’d like to discuss information integration in worlds where we need readers to learn a lot quickly.

There’s a lot of smart craft choices being made to lay out the information-rich world of future Chiloé without stalling the story to a halt—and the opening is the biggest one. Opening with the opposing ends of the unfinished bridge works excellently to three purposes: establishing a strong opening image, establishing an early sense of conflict—why isn’t the bridge finished?—and setting up a core thematic symbol for the action at the heart of the story. Connected by fragile but strong ties, one side thriving with practical, diverse human and marine life, and the other the largest city still standing on Earth, patrolled by quasi-fascist armed guards.

By later on, it’s visible how that disconnected, restranding bridge can be a metaphor for Mila and Alex’s tenuous family connection, the Algorithm versus the Heuristic, humanity facing off against machines it made.

Why that’s important: What we open with can give readers an instant framework for what to look for in the story. It’s a subtle way of flagging what’s important in the piece, and it’s a tool for helping readers navigate a setting with a lot of information well.

The market at the base of the bridge is also just a great image: it’s rich and fascinating, the kind of place that springs off the page and eases readers into the story in a way that’s really productive for a science fiction thriller. If you think of the action of a story as breathing—moments of high action that punctuate moments of rest—we join “The Algorithm in the Skies Above Chiloé” on one of the exhales, easing readers into this world when it’s less chaotic. It’s a quick way to get readers established and caught up in this world, and an appropriately slow introduction to Mila’s pretended slower lifestyle as someone ostensibly without network integration—a characterization bonus. When things kick into high gear after Mila’s detained, we have something to compare that rush of action to, making it feel sharper and more visceral.

It’s also a good choice to open with exploring a small place, before Mila gets up to exploring a larger one. As a reader, the bridge market was interesting, so I’m more willing to follow her exploration of Chiloé and more scene-setting on the other side of the bridge, having had a positive experience with that the first time.

There’s also a great handling of worldbuilding just through Mila’s opinions and watching others interact with it. Comments like the moving sidewalks “couldn’t possibly be safe” make the description more than just background dressing; they establish Mila’s opinions and personality and instantly relate the built infrastructure to everyday human living, making it concrete and real.

The metaphor of human neurology (portals “sphincter”, the kinesthetics of the sidewalks feel “wrong”) does the same: Chiloé’s infrastructure is relevant because it’s not just a backdrop, it’s a body—one that grows unevenly and has a number of parts working together, and one which people find ways to use outside the rules. Watching people like Tenche adapt that technology to their lives, rather than adapting their lives to the technology reinforces the organic feel of future Chiloé—and its realism.

But one of the smartest things “The Algorithm in the Skies Above Chiloé” does to manage information is how it establishes conflict alongside all the things it tells us about this world. Immediately giving readers the clues that Mila is up to something suspicious—in how she tries to make the border guards think she’s not, in the samples she’s collecting, in her eating everything with sugars, the reveal that yes, she does have a net and is well-off—establishes there’s a question here (What is Mila really doing here? Why has she lied about the net?). The way those questions are paced out in clues moves the conflict forward even if, on the surface, all she’s doing is taking a tourist day and acting a little shifty. That sense of narrative motion, that we as readers are learning something more even if she’s just wandering, is enough to create conflict and stakes.

Once that explodes in Mila’s anime-like fight scene—and then immediately deflates because, whoops, wrong place (which is funny!)—there’s been enough buildup that it’s satisfying, and I’m already invested as a reader.

It’s a very smart way to overall handle an information-heavy setting, which is why, I think, it’s so notable in the places that aren’t quite working yet.

There are two aspects of the information-handling in “The Algorithm in the Skies Above Chiloé” that I think could be improved, and the small one is tightening up the dialogue. There are some conversations—with the border guard, with Carmen, with Alex—where the pace lags, and readers might not need all the small talk, but just a taste of it until Mila gets to the point of whatever that conversation is.

But the main thing I’d look at: a more subtle way to get the Algorithm backstory and current threat in than a hostage-scene video and an exposition-heavy argument. Compared to the way all the other information in “The Algorithm in the Skies Above Chiloté” is handled, this one’s a bit clumsy and unmoored from the rest of the worldbuilding.

The practicalities of the scenario are a little unintentionally funny: Where did Mila get time to carry in a documentary about the new genetically-based algorithm, and what would have happened if he’d woken up sooner—or later? Does she have to rewind the video and they sit in tight-lipped silence until it plays again, and she can restart her speech? It’s a solution where dramatics outweighs practicality in a story where that hasn’t happened to date. More importantly, it’s the place in this story where people stop talking like people and start talking and acting like conspiracy theories, and I’d be very interested to see how this would play out if Mila and Alex were—super-genetics or not—still talking and acting like people, in the same ways moving sidewalks didn’t make Chiloé a city without food hawkers. If this story, at this point, didn’t start working against everything it’s established about how people interface with technology and ideas.

So the main question I’d have for this piece: Are there ways, like with Chiloé, it’s possible to work some of that information in more organically—set it up to be paid off at the climax with Alex and make that conversation between Alex and Mila less performative? The same toolset that worked with the bodily nature of the city will work here: inference, people’s reactions to the facts, hints that build, opinions. Clues that finally add up to something in the climax are more effective, ultimately, than sudden reveals.

Obviously I don’t have the end of the piece—this is only the first 7,500 words—but it’s a fascinating world and a promising story, and I’d love to see how it turns out.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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


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