Editor’s Choice Award June 2022, 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.

Polish Resistant by Robyn Hamilton

“Polish Resistant” caught my eye this month by focusing on a small and hugely practical corner of spacebound futures: what we wear, and how the physical changes low gravity puts into bodies would affect that. It’s a neat, focused story that integrates a lot of big ideas well. However, it’s somewhat underplaying its closing act, and this month I’d like to talk about how what we let make an impact spotlights what matters in stories.

The real star in “Polish Resistant” is how it handles its idea work. This is a deeply focused—I won’t say small, but focused—story: it runs everything through the question of how fashion works in space, what those costs are, and why it happens. Textile production is an aspect of science fiction that doesn’t often get deep attention; the obvious thought that “Polish Resistant” puts into those practicalities is an effective hook.

The story’s also skillful in growing that hook into a sustainable picture of its world. Even though the immediate setting of “Polish Resistant” is a pretty small space—Talia’s workshop and other parts of Magda’s textile operation—it finds a lot of ways to grow that setting off the page, just through the ideas built into Fay’s dyeing job. We never leave the shop, but we see Earth’s environmental regulations, interplanetary disease concerns, the expense of spaceflight, low-gravity effects on human bodies, a ruthless social media-based economy, and automated labour all have measurable impacts on the action of the story.

It’s the impacts that deserve the attention here. What makes those background details feel round and real—moreso than just mentioning that these things happen—is the fact that they have consequences. Each one of those ideas about how the world of “Polish Resistant” works intersects with each other, produces secondary effects, and changes the choices people make in the story itself.

Talia’s not just stuck in a demanding piecework system for no reason; it’s because of the cost of spaceflight. She’s not working with recyclable castoffs and richer planets’ dirty work for effect (although it’s a tidy evocation of the ways Western used clothes are dumped on other countries here and now); it’s because of the environmental regulations.  Even though they’re happening off-camera, so to speak, those aspects of this world affect how people move within the space of the story.

“Polish Resistant” also manages to integrate its characterization in the same accreting, detail-oriented way. Fay’s flair for social performance—every kind of social performance—immediately makes it plain why Talia dislikes her. The little ways Fay deflects discussion of the ways she’s exploiting Magda, Talia, and Rich, the ways she constantly repaints herself as a benefactor, are extremely telling—and they’re very effective characterization, especially when they’re set up against the more blunt, obvious ways Magda’s exploiting her staff and gets increasingly competitive through the visit.

We learn who Talia is almost as a reflection of these two characters: all the ways they are and she’s not. It’s interesting that Talia does custom: quietly meeting everyday personal needs versus the prestige and performance of Fay’s design career. It’s interesting that she thinks of her client as “the tall boy”—a design problem—but that not knowing how to make him happy with the work is destroying her schedule. “The tall boy’s jumpsuit” turns into a kind of chorus, seaming through the entire story.

The author’s notes are worried that Talia’s problem is too small to be interesting, but I think its smallness—and persistence—up against the grand gestures Magda and Fay make is exactly what makes it interesting. She’s stuck on just getting things done for known human people, and doing them well. It underlines her very real commitment to the people wearing her clothes.

I think the gap to still be filled in “Polish Resistant” happens, however, when that comparison falls away: between when Fay buys out Talia’s contract and her decision to open a shop of her own. It’s been made plain throughout the piece that Talia’s not interested in what Fay’s offering, so there’s no realistic source of interest or conflict there; I’d have been shocked if she did act the ways Fay—and Magda—expect. But to me, as a reader, it feels like there’s a missing piece between the closure of what they think she wants to do and what she actually wants to do, and that ending comes as a surprise; one where I’m not sure it’s telegraphed enough to be satisfying. And I think it’s because of this emphasis on outside forces, obligations, and who Talia’s not that we haven’t gotten any real picture of who Talia is.

The emphasis Talia puts on comparing herself to Fay throughout “Polish Resistant” spotlights a different part of the story: if Talia’s a failed version of Fay or as someone doing a different thing well. She hasn’t been finishing things on time, true—and it’s implied this was a problem in the past—but we don’t get a sense of why that’s something that’s plagued her through her career, in the same way we get a sense of why Fay took her job to Magda’s shop. Yes, Talia’s been persistently putting off the end of that jumpsuit all story long, but there’s no information as to the conditions that made this true, and what we see on the page doesn’t help us. Talia actively pushes away her deadline problems; the major emotion around them is trying not to think about them. Every interruption and distraction she faces on the page is about Fay, and Fay’s visit is temporary. Finishing should be no problem, once she’s gone.

However, the question of finishing things on time rushes to the centre of the story at the end: Magda raises it at the end as the major, real barrier to Talia having her own shop. And it turns out readers haven’t had the chance to get that same insight into Talia’s prior shops, her failures, her process. The ending as written feels less like a door satisfyingly closing than one that we didn’t know was a door in the first place.

So I’d suggest thinking about ways to construct Talia’s deadline problems more substantially—with the same attention the garment work process got in “Polish Resistant”. Build a more tangible question around that personal character arc, and readers can feel the satisfaction of it being resolved.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

Leave a Reply