Editor’s Choice Award July 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.

Team MARU by Lyri Ahnam

I really like the premise of this story. The protagonist is strong, with a clearly defined voice. And of course I love Maru.

The opening tries for fast pacing and taut tension, and mostly succeeds. By the time Starling kills the snake, the pacing has slowed down and the exposition has ramped up. The trek from the lab to the base camp has a tendency to focus on nonessential details, with a fair amount of repetition: Maru’s claws on Starling’s skin, Starling’s genetically engineered status, her prolonged deafness after the blast.

Her passage through the camp is remarkably easy, as is her escape in the General’s plane. There don’t appear to be any people in the camp except for the Eyes, who don’t catch on at all to the fact that she’s not one of their superior officers. She escapes with ease. There’s no pursuit, and she waits a considerable while to disconnect the black box and dump the stolen com. Then it’s off to the next mission, cat in tow.

I have a number of suggestions for revisions. While the prose could be tightened quite a bit to meet the goal of 5000 words (and actually come in a fair bit under), I think the emphasis for now should be on the structure of the story.

First, I would recommend moving a good chunk of the exposition from the second half, and especially the final third, to the earlier part of the story. Tighten, pare, and streamline these passages, and weave them into Starling’s escape from the lab and her trek to the base camp. Give us quick, concise references to Starling’s past and especially her relationship with General Dikson, to Gem’s past and her mission at the lab, and make it clearer why she’s killed herself. A line here and there in the action sequence at the beginning, then further clarification as Starling makes her escape and processes (or doesn’t) her grief.

By the time she gets to the base camp, the reader should have a pretty good sense of who she is, who Gem was, and what their mission is. I’d like to be clearer on how their arcs connect, too. Are they allies? Are they working for the same forces? Are their goals the same? Some of that is in the draft, but I think it needs more.

During her trek Starling deals with obstacles and evades pursuit, but once she’s in the base camp, that mostly disappears. Her passage through the camp and her escape should be messier and more complicated. There’s room for that once the esposition and backstory are streamlined and moved to earlier scenes.

I think too that she might have a stronger sense of purpose, more of a defined mission. Instead of more or less randomly coming across the camp, she might be looking for something like it—the pursuit has to come from somewhere. It almost might be less of a coincidence that Dikson shows up. Could she be looking for the source of the surveillance, and have reason to suspect that it’s someone she knows from her own past?

Her escape could have more sense of purpose, too. Would she have a goal, a place to be? In the draft, she’s just running, evading pursuit. She could be aiming in a particular direction, or thinking about where to go next. In short—more overall sense of mission, and more purpose in what she does.

The same, I think, applies to Maru. Starling says she’s not a cat person, but Gem entrusted the cat to her. It’s an act of love and tribute to honor Gem’s last wishes. But since she is in the story, and since every element of a short story ought to earn its keep, could Maru play a greater part in the development of the plot?

It doesn’t have to be a whole new plot-thing. But Maru is remarkably docile for a cat, and stays remarkably close to Starling, who is not her human. Can that be turned to advantage in some way? If she’s genetically engineered, is there some useful thing she can do to help Starling accomplish her mission? Can she alert Starling to threats, serve as ears while her own are damaged, help her find the base camp? Might her hunting skills come in handy in the camp, or for that matter, could her cuteness be weaponized to distract camp personnel from Starling’s campaign of sabotage?

Not to mention that she has actual weapons in the form of claws. She uses them freely on Starling. Could they be aimed at others as well?

The title of the story after all is “Team Maru.” Maybe think about how to weave that concept more strongly into the plot, and make Maru a fully contributing member of the team. Even if Starling wants to stow her out of the way in the camp, she could escape and do something helpful, possibly something that Gem taught her to do, or that she was programmed to do by whoever grew her in the vat. There’s a lot a cat can do to turn military order into chaos.

Best of luck, and happy revising!

— Judith Tarr

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