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 Flight Of The Ladies’ Helium Society by Robyn Hamilton
“The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” caught my eye this month with a nod to Victorian adventure fiction, wide worldbuilding, and However, it’s not yet hitting its full potential, and can read, at times, more like the outline than the story itself. So this month, I’d like to talk about worldbuilding details: how, where, and why we use them—and how that changes how our stories read.
“The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” has all the set pieces necessary for an interesting, wild adventure: dirigible-flying scientists questing for helium in an implied energy crisis, Victorian-style scientific societies, sabotage. It’s efficient with its opening paragraphs: they immediately evoke subgenre and atmosphere—that Waterman and Bentson’s expedition isn’t precisely being celebrated—and introduces a problem inside one scene: the rivalry between them, and gender equity in their field.
However, the way it uses detail and information doesn’t strongly address those questions—the ones the story itself has given readers as being important.
It’s very worthwhile, for this piece, to think about the details that get glossed over. “The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” isn’t quite being deliberate yet with where it’s specific about action, and how much—and what that tells readers about which parts of the story matter.
Sometimes those specificities aren’t, in my mind, serving the story as well as they could. For example, some of the in-subgenre metaphors (Mrs. Bart being “more ballast than dirigible” particularly) are a little too on the nose. There’s an opportunity there to widen out Waterman’s world a bit, and pull in other things she cares about, other ways she thinks.
At other points, action is being glossed over in a way that makes Waterman’s world feel less real, or misses opportunities to ground and pace it. In the first scene, “the ship’s captain shouted into a bullhorn from the bridge”—but what did they shout? The supplies of helium are “in the US desert”, but which desert, and where and when is Waterman from that she refers to “the US”, and what would a more specific term add to the story in terms of telling readers that information on the sly? Is there a particular sort of place “men wouldn’t think to look”, and if not, what does that kind of rigid thinking around gender say about Waterman, and how can that be developed? Is Waterman’s antisocial tendency and professional sabotage normal for her society, and what does it say about her, and how do others react? Who are these teenage crew, and what are they like, and what are the implications of an expensive airship crewed by teenagers? If it doesn’t matter who finds the helium, and this is a crisis, why’s Waterman sabotaging Bentson? In the long-term, it’s awfully self-destructive—and ends up potentially marooning them all.
On the other hand, where details are deployed isn’t always the most effective. The crew’s elevator system for crates doesn’t exactly speak to the core challenge of the story: the quest for helium, and the two scientists’ rivalry. The same problems start to appear with the itemizing of Waterman’s experimental days and where to drill. It’s worth asking: Is it the best use of page space? How do these details get back to the bigger question?
Thinking about how “The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” can do more with details affects not just the worldbuilding and characters, but the pacing of the story. How could the information dump in the second scene be combined with Mrs. Bart’s glossed-over speech in the first to tighten the story up and make everything feel more organic?
In short: Especially when we’re building speculative settings, ones that move us in where and when, details matter.
What I’d really like to call attention to is that how those missing details and present details interact—what’s not there that you’d think might be, and what is there that doesn’t answer the core question—is part of this equation of what matters.
Everything we tell readers about our worlds is also an act of setting expectations: together, those details build the lens that tells readers, invisibly, about the viewpoints this story takes. If all the details are in logistics, but none in character and motivations, “The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” is saying—without having to say it explicitly—that logistics are important, but motivations aren’t. When it says the problem is this world’s energy crisis, and solving it, but all the details go to Waterman proving herself better than Bentson, the message is that the second thing is really what this story’s about, and the first was only window dressing. When it makes the major reveal that Alex is a woman in disguise, it says that your gender is more important than your actions—and reinforces that message with both Waterman and Bentson being more than a little selfish and awful.
What these instances all bring to a head for “The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” is making what it says it’s about actually what it shows us it’s about—or vice versa. In short, making the details it uses—when, how, and where—actually match what its proverbial mouth is saying so readers don’t expect one thing, and leave disappointed.
So my suggestion would be to go back to first principles and think about what “The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” is about: what in this story is important, and what readers should take from it. And then to deliberately arrange the details and attention it pays to those topics to make it plain—not through what the story says, but what it does—that those ideas are the centre of the story.
Working with details in this deliberate way will let this story do more: Deepen its setting into a fully-realized world, round out its characters into more than a gender difference, and clarify what their conflict’s about. The bones are there: with careful work and diligence, this has the potential to be much more.
Thanks for the read, and best of luck!
— Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)