Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

When The Oracle Speaks by Albert Chu

“When the Oracle Speaks” caught my attention this month with its lush worldbuilding and complex espionage game—a future always at one’s fingertips, that’s being refused, in a lavish and dangerous political setting. It’s also the second Editor’s Choice piece by this author in two months, one that shares some of the same issues, and that coincidence opens up an opportunity. So this month, I’d like to discuss what we do when we find a pattern not just in a story, but across our work as a whole.

The major strength in “When the Oracle Speaks” is how it handles information: establishing its space and stakes from the very first line. The central question that drives “When the Oracle Speaks” is placed right there—Iuno’s ability to predict the future—and the kind of story is put right on the page by how readers are told it. The distinct oral-storyteller’s rhythm to its prose combines with its list of players (palanquin-bearers, dressing-girls) to establish where we are: folkloric, hierarchical, lush, and playing by aesthetic courtly rules. It doesn’t matter that we’re in an interplanetary future; readers can intuit some of the rules of that future society, and that’s enough to get our bearings in what to expect from this piece. It’s smooth, seamless work, and builds a world that’s easy to slip into without hanging on details.

There are also some great descriptive details in here, grounding the sense of place: Iuno’s steps pressing rainwater out of his sandals with a squelch, the ugliness of his big laugh. When attention’s in place, “When the Oracle Speaks” is full of great, lively descriptive writing and good use of subtext: Ahpa’s conversational gamesmanship showing he’s not quite as secure in his position as he wants to project. That episode’s functional as a gateway conflict—something for him to solve that brings Ahpa and Iuno together, and brings them into the bigger picture of succession and war.

It’s once Ahpa starts out to investigate the warehouse that the smoothness of “When the Oracle Speaks” starts to fray, and the relationship between characters and choices and plot starts to come apart. After building up the danger of his brothers’ communal politicking, Ahpa’s decision to go investigate the warehouse himself hits as hasty and reckless; the narrative has just told readers the situation is extremely dangerous, and Ahpa’s decision to go alone can’t be seen by readers in any light other than that one. The signal being sent isn’t that he’s brave, but that he’s making bad decisions. That impression gets reinforced quickly: it’s a very badly planned spying expedition. Ahpa doesn’t get the keycode or memorize the look of the place—or bring backup. If it’s a trap, he’s walking into slaughter.

Likewise, there’s been no signal that Iuno is anything less than content with not being asked to use his powers, so the sudden sarcasm is surprising—and justified backwards in the next paragraph, instead of planned ahead.

The discovery of the Samandiran hover-bomber is all a little too serendipitous. If Ahpa’s spies are looking for threats to do with the conflict he’s in—the one against his brothers—why would they have flagged this particular incident, and if he’s not sure he can trust them, why go alone? If the King is keeping an enemy aircraft in the warehouse to stage a false flag operation—why would there not be a better security system on the space, or guards? Since when does Ahpa just have military capacity studies for Samandir in his back pocket—but also can’t plan a warehouse raid? And why is Ahpa wounded at Iuno’s concealing the truth of the matter when he’s spent the whole story actively socially signaling—to both readers and Iuno himself—that he doesn’t want that foreknowledge? In the next scene, he’s right back to aggressively refusing it, and the moment is extinguished.

The pattern’s plain: When what happens in an action sequence is set up against what “When the Oracle Speaks” says is happening here more broadly, the logic just falls apart. There are too many aspects of both these plans that rely on people being willfully incompetent—and getting away with it—or fudging in background facts to justify the action.

As I said, last month’s Editor’s Choice came from the same workshopper—and some of the underlying issues in both pieces are the same: plot developments built on convenience and aesthetics instead of a solid foundation of who these people are, what they want, and why they’ve done things. When the action turns on, the rest of the story-logic blinks out, and the story runs aground.

When we recognize a pattern emerging across our work—and as we study our craft, that’s going to happen to all of us—there are a few ways to step back and think about it.

One of those is to ask why that might be occurring. Is there something in our reading or experience we’ve skipped over, a skill we can put attention into to hone? Or is there something about the story we want that makes the missing thing repeatedly come second, not feel like a priority? Is there something about the physical process of how we put a story together—how long our writing sessions are, for example—that produces this situation? What turns up on the page when we write is an effect; thinking about the cause of it can help us choose a strategy that fits and solve the right problem.

Another is to ask where in the piece the pattern shows up—and where it doesn’t. Sometimes, issues come out because we’re strongly focusing on something else in a very specific kind of scene or part of a story. Thinking about what our brains are doing in different parts of a piece can lead to better answers.

I’d also suggest asking if there are simple things one can do in revision—in the second draft, or the third—to counterbalance the tendency, and just make them a regular part of the process. Sometimes our instincts are going to be where they are in drafting, and that is what it is. If we can acknowledge that and adjust later, we’re growing a deliberate process—an important part of being a writer.

There’s lots of room to move within all these questions—to experiment, interrogate the process, and push it forward. I’d suggest “When the Oracle Speaks” needs to do some thinking and reconstruction—and that every tool developed to do it will be helpful for more than just this story.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

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