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.
Matryoshka City, Part One by Albert Chu
“Matryoshka City” isn’t the most polished piece on the workshop this month—it says it’s a middle draft, and it is. But it’s this month’s Editor’s Choice is because it’s the most uncanny and atmospheric: a journey through a shimmering, ephemeral city with limits more psychological, mirrored on opposite sides of a massive wall. It’s got tangible shades of China Mieville and an eerie political allegory that ultimately has something to say about social forgetting, denial, and hope. However, it’s not yet making its worlds distinct, deep, and different—and so this month I’d like to talk about seeing our worlds through the lens of social intelligence.
“Matryoshka City” begins with a small juxtaposition: a murdered man’s sister cheering. It’s enough to create a solid hook: the kind of disjunct in readerly expectations that makes me curious about what and why. And it does a sensible thing in paying off that curiosity quickly and transforming it into a bigger question—interplanetary repair work—instead of stringing it out.
There’s consistently nice visual and metaphor work through the piece—one of its strongest points. A perfectly rectangular patch of garden sky, a highway as an “overgrown centipede”, a parade slow “like syrup through a straw”—and a final paragraph that feels like a breath of fresh air.
The worldbuilding’s another major strength: done in broad strokes, sketched in, but tangible enough that when Gose crosses to the capitalist version of Ronemat, the differences are visible as not just another neighbourhood, but another society. “Matryoshka City” does a lot of worldbuilding by gesturing at concepts: the combination of an Automation Guild, but not union, and Guild Day, but not Labour, instantly generates a sense of genre and era. Subways coexist with café politics and oppressive power plays. I may not know the precise place and time, but I have the sense of them and what’s important in them: fine and rigid definitions of class, human rights, and allowable injustices.
But where I run into problems with “Matryoshka City”—and the place I’d suggest focusing deeply in the next draft—is questions of plot, worldbuilding, and character logic. Occasionally the logic’s been skimped on a bit in ways that stick out—and it’s consistently in ways that tackle how people respond psychologically and emotionally to their circumstances.
How would Victoire infer that a foreign-looking stranger is here about her brother, and why go with him to a secluded location without telling anyone when she’s just lost that brother to a murder? Why would Gose’s presence be enough to blunt the Anomaly? Did he genuinely expect that offering Victoire a murder theory—without evidence—would be enough to have her believe him, against her entire society and upbringing? And later on, when he evaluates a whole society based on never having heard the names of the dead spoken in the subway construction clashes—it’s hard for me as a reader to forget that he’s been in town an entire week. Of course he hasn’t; he’s new here, and alone. He’d barely know, in a normal city, where to get a sandwich.
Gose himself frequently breaks the story-logic in ways that I’m not sure contribute, although setting up the arc for his eventual personal growth. He’s an agent of the covert, interstellar Fond—a distant organization whose mission is quite fuzzy and doesn’t involve communication or backup, but leaves him with superhuman abilities and technology. Those abilities fall into and out of the story as they’re needed, conveniently, not setting up or paying off anything he can or can’t do.
This underdeveloped side of “Matryoshka City” gets deeper in terms of how the Anomalies are vulnerable: to explanation and simple logic tricks. It’s completely functional as a way for a magic element in a story to work, but as the last few years have proven, it’s absolutely the opposite of how people work: more often clinging harder to tightly-held beliefs instead of dropping them when faced with a contradiction.
What readers always bring to stories—every time, no exceptions—is what we know about people: ourselves and others. It’s the most fundamental place where, as speculative fiction writers, we can build a bit of trust with our readers—the kind of trust that gets people to go “okay, unicorns, spaceships? I’ll go with it.” And while it’s a moving target—different societies and people have different beliefs on how people work—writers have an ability to guide that, a little, with what we say and when.
Readers tend to notice what we, as writers, ask them to notice: the ideas we spend more time on, especially early in a story, are the ones they’ll flag as important, and keep looking for. “Matryoshka City” opens with loss, murder, trust, and a complex political class system, and has a barrier protected by nothing more than a social consensus, hiding a political allegory about the city’s past. It says things about who’s the arbiter of social forgetting; that there is a right way and a wrong way to have a society and a relationship with one’s social past. Its major payoff, as a story, is Gose changing his mind on some of those questions.
Every single one of these ideas is fundamentally a matter of how people relate to others in their society. Readers are being asked to think socially and politically to read this piece, and so the terms of success or failure for the story are going to be how well it thinks socially and politically too. In short: “Matryoshka City” quite deliberately puts readers’ eyes on the question of how human beings relate to each other, their societies, and their political systems—which means this is the part of the world it’s created that has to feel the most real, sound, and thought-through of everything in the piece.
So I’d like to suggest spending serious time on that question: every interpersonal interaction, every viewpoint—including our narrator’s. (The Fond is a society; it’s not neutral. He will have a subjectivity, opinions, and blind spots, and they will impact what he does here.) How are these interactions driven by or inflected by the version of Ronemat this person lives in? How are they driven by that person’s position and history there? What works in some versions of this city; what doesn’t work in others? What, in short, is actually different? And ultimately—how does that make Gose’s understanding of who he’s really supposed to talk with important, and life-changing?
It’s a repair for a worldbuilding that isn’t quite hanging together, but I’d like to suggest that thinking more deeply about Ronemat’s social mechanics—in all versions of the city—is also an opportunity. “Matryoshka City” shows the same place run under some very different political systems, and yet in this draft, no one in any of those versions acts or relates to each other differently. Different places, built differently, run differently produce different ways of thinking about other people, and being with them. There’s a chance to produce a delicious sense of familiarity and alienation by making Ronemat’s versions just different enough. Right now visiting them is a comparison in political theory; with thought, work, and deeper engagement, it could be a ride.
I think there’s lots of promise in this piece: it’s got atmosphere, it’s got ideas, it has a sense of a much wider, stranger world than any of its individual characters can imagine, and it’s got some very cogent things to say about where power lives, how we handle it, and how we relate to each other. But to live up to that promise, I’d suggest “Matryoshka City” needs to roll up its sleeves and think through the implications of everything it says about Ronemat and its people, in every era. The theory is there; I’d love to see this story when it’s gotten into how that theory touches people’s lives and hearts.
Thanks for the read, and best of luck!
— Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)