Editor’s Choice Award August 2023, Short Stories

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.

I Object by Kate Orman

“I Object” caught my attention this month with its 1930s pulp-style interstellar royal court, a gorgeously breath-held tone, and some thorough thematic thoughts on objectification and agency. It’s also an incredibly good example of how to crystallize a very big story through one particular lens. In these monthly critiques we talk a lot about sensory prose, but this month I want to drill down a bit and look at how we think about which sense we’re basing our science fictional experiences in—and how being deliberate about that can cohere our stories.

“I Object” is, for such a quiet, dreamlike story, very full: an interplanetary cruise gone wrong, a household preparing for its asteroid tomb, a dying teenaged princess and her devoted quasi-sentient robot bodyguard/chaperone—all told from the robot’s perspective. In comparatively few words, it’s creating a fascinating mix of classic space opera pulps, a near-Egyptian burial ritual, and a 1920s country house picnic disaster, punctuated with almost distant, dreamlike murders through the back halls. There’s a lot going on here, and all very smoothly—so well-integrated none of it sticks out or obstructs me. Its air of strange and breath-held waiting is absolute; its grief-laced sexual politics are ugly in a way that rings emotionally true. Its ending is dark and beautiful and says a lot about liberation and limited ambition.

And a lot of this is done through one of the biggest—and least obtrusive—strengths in “I Object”: its prose. There’s solid, inventive work being done on the sentence level to support every other priority the story has—and all that work is mostly grounded in the sense of touch.

Touch is very thematic in “I Object”, and it’s perpetually central. From the first scene, the story’s description of its major speculative element, a quantum travel mechanism, is beautifully textural: “broken glass and pink champagne” in the rugs juxtapose sharpness with softness with bubbliness in the mouth in a way that tells you this was supposed to be soft and ebullient, but it’s gone wrong. “Stuck in the narrow passageway like sauce in the neck of a bottle” stays with that concept of consumption and pleasure being turned inside out, and adds tension, pressure, dehumanization to the situation. Later, “poached in radiation” lands the food metaphor, what’s consuming whom. Outside the bubble, rougher words like “fibers” pull against smooth ones (“sliding”): it’s both extending our idea of touch to how to think about this speculative element and setting up an experience in very few words.

It’s centred around a particular situation, but as readers, we’ve been clued in: look for texture, look for touch, look for things described in those terms to have meaning. Even if we’re not aware of that message consciously, readers pick up on consistencies in a story very quickly; we’re pattern-matching creatures by habit. So now that we’ve been primed, what does “I Object” do with it?

The first way “I Object” uses that idea of touch as a tool is to build in plain weirdness and make it feel comprehensible: the ways quantum travel is described as almost contradictory (“silver oil” against “black water”, the stars peering in instead of peering out at them) are a great strategy for hinting that this experience is uncanny, and should feel uncanny. All this is said without saying it directly on the page; it’s an experience built for readers as the plot and characters move forward.

It’s also showing up in characterizing Zain without having to deliberately or directly state his emotional life, and emotional changes. Part of what makes this story work is Zain’s very matter-of-fact, direct, reportage-style narration. He uses a lot of short, deceptively plain sentences and initially rarely adds much emotional subjectivity: he talks about anxiety as his timepiece swinging rather than a feeling, just before a quite violent intervention. He is not in touch with things, at his base state. It’s a detachment that allows this strategy of working in touch to stand out more clearly, and then one that—as it changes, and he starts thinking in terms of joy, of anxiety, of fear—lets readers walk along with that developing emotional journey without having to be told it’s developing.

The grounding in touch extends into the worldbuilding, thematics, and relationships. The palace as a bubble strung above earth is a physical image: delicate, precious, ornamental, ultimately fragile and ephemeral, tied absolutely but at a distance. It’s an image that absolutely supports the transient quality of this relationship, of the princess’s self-image (I found it really telling that she calls him “silly bauble” affectionately, after critically describing her own social function as basically that), of the household now that the princess is dying. When the princess complains of it as an artificial womb for the womb she is—a barrier—the images are lining up together and reinforcing each other, making the story feel more whole. That lack of contact makes her complaint feel exceedingly real.

In short, that one element—routing most of the important ideas in this story through their tactility—is how “I Object” pulls them all together and makes the story feel whole, and does it almost invisibly. It’s a great, quiet strategy to use to make a world feel emotionally honest, relevant, real, and immediate, and it’s something we can do as writers without too much extra effort: just with extra focus.

That said, in terms of suggestions to improve this draft: I think it’s publishable as is. The only thing I would actually suggest changing in “I Object” is the title. It does highlight what’s at the centre of the piece, but without that context—as the first thing readers encounter—it’s a bit stiff and unbending, a bit too reflective of “I, Robot” to really communicate the depth of what’s going on here. It stands a chance of miscueing readers as to what kind of story they’re about to get, and I think something with a little more texture (ironically! or not!) might serve the story better.

If the author does opt to change the title, however, it may be worthwhile to concretize the ending just a hair more. I understand what it’s saying, about the value of lives, about worth, about souls going through the door to heaven—but a lot of that reading is informed by the title as it is. Taking that clue away does change the mix of what I as a reader am looking for, and so I’d also suggest finding a way to incorporate it into a new title, work it back in somewhere early on, or compensate by clarifying a touch at the end.

But it’s a wonderful, deep, deliberate, balanced, gorgeously disturbing, epiphantic story, and I’m looking forward to seeing it in print.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

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