Editor’s Choice Award August 2023, Science Fiction

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.

Maskot: The Novel by David Schwartz, Chapter 1

This chapter works for me as the opening of a novel. The way the protagonist is introduced sets up expectations: we’re going to get John’s life history, starting from his childhood. We find out who he is, where he comes from, and what kind of world he lives in. By the end, we know why he’s been chosen and what he will be trained for—and we’re ready to discover how it plays out.

It’s done deftly, with plenty of detail, but no slackening of the pace. There’s plenty of exposition, but it’s all relevant to that point in the narrative. We’re told what we need to know in order to understand what’s going on.

Over and over again, when I’m editing or critiquing mss., I’ll ask, “Do we need to know this right here and now? Are we getting just the right amount of exposition, or has the story run into a speed bump?” The answer here is, Yes, we do, and yes we are, and the story is moving along as it should. It’s well done.

This has the feel of good old-fashioned alien-invasion science fiction. Andre Norton could have written something very like this, or Heinlein when he wrote for younger readers. It’s retro in a good way, for the most part.

The protagonist is still very young and his character is just starting to take shape, but he tells his story capably. The aliens are nicely weird, and they don’t read as humans-in-costume. Their language of light and gesture is very cool; I’ll look forward to seeing more of that as the story unfolds.

I have a couple of questions about the worldbuilding. One is quite small, just a quibble really, but it’s one of the things that dates the narrative as mid-twentieth-century. The world Oriental is not much in use any longer. It’s been replaced by less Western-colonial-centric terms, notably Asian.

The viewpoint the word implies, the assumption it seems to be based on, is white European. And yet in this world, would humans retain assumptions about race and skin-color discrimination? Would John know or care what an “Oriental” is? His Khin says he “looks like a Seminole,” which implies that he’s probably not white-presenting, either, despite his white-presenting name. (And if his mom is going for simple, what about Juan or Ali or Chen?)

It would seem logical that by this time, the only distinction is human versus alien. Humans come in a range of shapes, sizes, and skin tones, but what they would really notice is that they’re not Khin. For that matter, why would a Khin care what a human looks like? Is there an aesthetic element to the Game, a rule that the human game piece has to look a certain way in order to play a particular role?

I’d like to know, too, whether the rigid gender roles are part of the Khin’s Game, and whether they become less rigid over the course of the novel. Even if it’s the Game, wouldn’t there be nods to female fighters in human history—Viking shieldmaidens, Amazons, the Agojie of Dahomey?

Another question I had as I read had to do with the Khin’s language. It’s unusual in slave societies for the slaveholders to speak the language of the enslaved people. It’s much more common for slaves to be forced to speak the slaveholders’ language.

Humans of course aren’t physically capable of speaking by means of light and color, but would they be expected to understand a rudimentary form of it? Basic vocabulary, names and ranks, and of course commands? Gestures and sign language might be useful as well. Not to mention, the humans might have a secret language, a means of communicating that’s not shared with or made known to the Khin.

I like that this chapter makes me ask questions like this. There’s plenty of room for a novel here, lots of scope in the world and the characters. I’ll be interested to see where it goes, and how it develops.

— Judith Tarr

Leave a Reply