Editor’s Choice Award January 2023, 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.

Spidersick In San Francisco, 2049 by Chuck Saul

“Spidersick in San Francisco, 2049” caught me this month with its fast-moving prose: kinetic, descriptive, and anxious. It’s a story that’s already got a lot of life in it, but stylistic elements and worldbuilding that are currently overwhelming the rest. So this month, I’d like to talk about how we immerse ourselves in a complex future world while delivering information in a way readers can digest.

“Spidersick in San Francisco, 2049” serves up an immediate and vivid opening: establishing Atti’s postapocalyptic neighbourhood, her paranoia, and the surveillance she’s living with in one paragraph. The stakes come in quick, but my questions start when it comes time for them—and Atti herself—to be developed.

Atti’s San Francisco has a lot of detail tucked in: the orange glow of forest fires alluded to, but not explicitly mentioned; drones policing unhoused people; coping mechanisms that are wonderfully grounded in the body; a normalized social breakdown so serious Will’s honest smile takes Atti aback. It’s a rich world, one that’s clearly thought about class disparity and how different risk and enforcement look to different people.

However, there’s also a lot of detail that never pays off—what spidersick actually is (and how little the world knows about it versus how little Atti knows), whose drones these are, any of the why of Atti’s situation—and in all the detail, things get lost. Between the spiders and the renamed everything, it takes a great deal of page space to realize that what’s happening here is a nanotech-fueled, nightmare-tinged extended lockdown seen from a child’s perspective, and that the core question we’re asking here is about isolation and trust.

It’s not that “Spidersick” isn’t communicating questions of isolation versus trust. It’s that there’s so many other new concepts going in that those immediate definitions draw so much of readers’ attention that there’s little space left for what the story’s actually about.

There are a few ways to tackle this question: trimming down or reorganizing that concept work, solidifying general pacing and clarity, or restructuring the story overall.

Trimming down the concept/worldbuilding work is the most direct approach. There are a lot of ways word choice is building this storyworld, but there are also places where the terminology or word choice isn’t quite serving the story right now—and it’s a question of balancing out what you get from each idea with the attention budget it costs. Every new term is something readers have to solve, get used to, and metabolize: if only for a few lines. When they don’t add enough—like, for example, “kalladamn,” which just seems to be a fancy way to say “damn”?—it’s extra processing for not enough substance, especially when it’s coming on the heels of a wonner and The Link, two more new concepts in the same line.

Solidifying the general clarity, as a tactic, works to free up more attention from other spaces. If we think about the opening of a story as an attention budgeting question, where points that get allocated to conspicuous style are coming out of establishing person, place, situation, we can look at sentence pacing, word choice, and other decisions through the approach of balancing those budgets. I’d suggest that in the early paragraphs, both style and situation budgets are a little overloaded right now—and simplifying sentences where the ornamentation or style isn’t actively adding something is a solid strategy.

There are a few early places where sentences could be tighter: “just as Atti was readying to continue the search for food,” for example, or “the familiar wetness of sweat under her mask and wherever else her loose clothing touched her skin.” There’s already a lot of ornamentation in this story’s word choice, and that takes resources for readers to take in—especially early in “Spidersick,” when we’re still orienting ourselves to the world.

Likewise, there are spots where the scene-to-scene pacing of “Spidersick” could be tighter—where the ways it’s paced now use attention, but aren’t quite spending it on something that takes the story forward. For example, between the first and second scenes Atti runs from Will—but he catches up to her pretty much immediately. It’s a cliffhanger of tension that doesn’t pay off in any real form in terms of different plot, different character relations—just different backdrops—and just resets our need, as readers, to ground ourselves in the action. Moments like this can be neatly combined or sliced out without actually losing anything that pushes the story forward. Stronger overall pacing helps by highlighting which questions and ideas are actually important here, and making sure readers aren’t misapprehending what’s going on, or expecting something entirely different.

I think a lot of the next draft’s worth of work here will be about managing the style: making it work for the plot and themes of this story instead of draining all the attention. But after that, I think the primary suggestion I’d make for the draft after that would be to focus more on the plot.

Sometimes getting our style work right also shows what the style’s been obscuring, and when the elaborate worldbuilding terms are stripped down? Most of the action of this piece is Atti running, stopping to think, and running again. Random threats occur; she reacts; she gathers herself for the next one, until Will offers her a home and she takes it. We don’t get to know them too well; we don’t see Will as anything but slightly clueless but good, and Atti as much but suspicious and desperate. Who are they as people within this world, and why?

This is a rich, if dark future. There’s a lot to explore in it, if we can keep our thematic questions, our story, and the wholeness of our characters intact in the face of that world.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

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