Editor’s Choice Award February 2022, 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.

The Final Variant (Part One) by RedDwarf Star

This is a very topical submission, which I think all of us can relate to at this point in the pandemic. It depicts an all too believable future, if certain historical and cultural developments proceed to their logical conclusion.

Before I address a more general issue, I have a few specific observations.

First, the “fat slob” whom Lisa is forced to marry. Is there another way to portray him negatively, without resorting to body-shaming?

Second, the “Medieval Age.” It’s properly called the Middle Ages.

Third, the concept of “Asian Israel” needs to be thought through in more detail. Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jews. It has deep religious, cultural, and political significance.

This grant of land seems more like Native reservations in North America: real estate no one in power wanted, that might include ancestral lands, but if so, excluded the parts that had actual value to the colonizers. Is there another metaphorical name or term that might more accurately apply? Or if the narrative needs to keep this particular term, might Wong reflect on its accuracy or lack thereof?

On a more general level, I’d like to address the use of passive voice. It’s very much in vogue in certain styles of writing, notably technical and scientific. The point is to create an impression of objectivity by removing the subject. Subtract the human element; separate the action from the one who performs it.

The focus of fiction is the human (or equivalent) element. Its native voice is active. Characters act and react and interact. That’s where the story lives, in the lives and thoughts of its characters.

Passive voice in fiction can have a devastating effect. When the author removes the subject, they are, in a way, subverting the purpose of the genre.

In this submission, passive voice serves as a marker for exposition. It could be very effective if the context were clearer: if the author established, for example, a more explicit theme of dehumanization, of actions taken without thought for the people they affected. Nobody actually took responsibility for these things. They were all done at a remove, without consequences for the perpetrators, only for the victims.

One exercise that might be useful here is to rewrite the entire chapter in active voice. Give every verb a subject. Make someone or some entity directly responsible for every action.

See what happens to the narrative then. How does it change? Are these changes effective?

Then go back and ask if one or more of these altered sentences conveyedhe concept more clearly in passive voice. If so, how and why? Do they get the point across more strongly because they stand out—because the rest of the text is written in the active voice?

That’s what passive voice does in fiction. It stands out. It makes a point. It’s a powerful tool, if it’s used sparingly and with skill.

–Judith Tarr


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