Editor’s Choice Award June 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.

A Prototype Of Yourself by Albert Chu

“A Prototype of Yourself” caught my attention this month with its beautiful, understated intimacy around a sometimes-delicate topic: recovering from a suicide attempt. It’s a gorgeous character study of a young man, a shattered situation glimpsed in the rearview, and what our interactions with technology can really embody—good or bad—when we ourselves are organic, complex, and not machines. It does a lot of things very well, so this month, I’d like to talk about how it balances internal and external narratives in a very emotionally-driven piece. This is going to be an Editor’s Choice about what was done excellently.

Careful, compassionate characterization is the core of “A Prototype of Yourself”: the awkward relationship between Jason and the thinkbot, Jason’s mother’s flinching attempts to help, and his distant, absent friends. All those interactions show up on the page with a certain emotional honesty; it’s a story about changing dynamics, and it’s built out of dynamics, which creates a wonderful sensible symmetry.

I really appreciate how this piece handles Jason’s internal life without a whisper of stereotype. Jason is raw, truthful even in his discomfort, exhausted by his own distress—and keenly aware of the emotional performance expected of him. How much he does and simultaneously doesn’t want to be told what to do. The narrative voice itself isn’t trying to spin or moralize any of those reactions into good, bad, neutral; Jason is permitted to just be where and how he is, and readers permitted to glean little hints from others’ actions about how he and his situation are healing together.

Inference is doing great work to manage that information. There’s a lot to be seen in the small details of how his mother’s behaving, how his first and then second therapist handle the thinkbot prescription—and the widening gaps between how people act and how Jason fears they’ll act. It adds to the nuance that Jason is misparsing things because of his distress, but not entirely; in the gaps, we can see the impact his first therapist taking consent issues to his mother and not Jason himself has on his sense of personal helplessness; the fact that his mother meets him with “expectation” and his father absent barring disappointment impacting his idea that he should be fixed; that whatever the family therapist sees when discontinuing sessions with his mother, it’s part of the reason for his secretive shame. It’s a portrayal that thinks about inside factors and out and communicates those important truths quietly.

Jason’s mother, herself, is a wonderfully written character: communicated only in little bits and the contrast between who she is now and who she used to be. She’s a disaster, but one who—just by the way she’s shown to readers—is always portrayed as also doing the work to get better: sober in every sense of the word. She’s not always succeeding; the dynamic between them feels like a knife-edge. But her evolving attempts make her feel human, and understandable: again, not a stereotype.

There’s also a lot of deliberate atmosphere going into “A Prototype of Yourself” from its first lines: the small choice of starting the first line with “In the end” and starting things fresh. It’s a great, subtle way to inject Jason’s weariness into the situation from the first moments of the piece, and also tell readers which way we’re going.

This also helps ground “A Prototype of Yourself”, as its conflicts are largely emotional and internal. Its sense of the outside world is both lightly balanced and rather beautiful, even if Jason’s not in a place to see that beauty at times—and the ways landscapes act as handy visual metaphors for his emotional state do real thematic and structural work. Jason’s spaces subtly but tangibly mirror his state of mind: the uncomfortable rock like an island when he feels isolated, the distance between him and the hills in the first scene as he metaphorically sights a better place and takes his first steps toward it, and how they’re smeared into nothingness at the end of that scene, as his mother’s distance wipes out that little flare of hope. A city hall lawn watered artificially green despite a statewide drought when things are supposed to be all right now, and yet.

This does a lot of work at the story’s climax, when his emotional experience—being drunk, losing memory—is rendered as if it’s landscape. The two have been tied together by the previous metaphors, and now they can do powerful work the other way around.

There’s also a very strong positive effect to naming specific plants and specific experiences: chapparal, manzanita, pho beef browning in the bowl. One of the major ways we cue readers that our work has depth and realism is specificity—not a person, but this person; not someday, but Tuesday. The more we establish that sharpness of detail, the more the emotions and situations we write about benefit from it: they take on a sheen of realism too, and become emotionally meaningful for our readers—which is important in a speculative story about emotional states.

I also think this is handling its speculative information reasonably well. Jason’s ignoring the thinkbot pamphlets is a bit of an obvious device—a reason to explain it to readers—but it mostly works for me in this case, because it adds to his already-established ambivalence about all this. Again, the dynamics and characterization are carrying some of the more mechanical necessities.

All this would make a solid piece. It’s the last scene that elevates “A Prototype of Yourself” into something, I think, truly beautiful. The last scene of this piece—the last line—uses everything it’s said about bodies, about transactional relationships, about life, about landscapes and emotion, and tie it together into sheer poetry.

This is my favourite kind of science fiction: the kind that doesn’t stop at imagining technologies, but how our relationships and societies would shape around or in spite of them in a living, breathing world. And the kind that does that work compassionately, without trying to fold human life into a mechanistic framework. It’s a beautiful piece, and I think there’s definitely a home for it out there.

I have no notes to offer except that this is, I think, ready to publish.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

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