Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

The Earthlight Bright Before Her, Part One by Albert Chu

I was caught, this month, by the stark world of “The Earthlight Bright Before Her”: a society trying to grow in a half-constructed, best-fit escape hatch of a lunar station that’s doing double duty as a metaphor for both personal and communal grief space. It’s a resonant concept with a lot of moving parts that are already working well—and a fair bit of opportunity to improve its structure and underpinning logic. So this month, I’d like to touch a little bit on what structure does with readerly attention, and talk about what we do with our hard science elements and how that makes all the difference to how they’re read.

The space of “The Earthlight Bright Before Her” is, with very little description, quite beautiful: Shihua’s unnamed lunar station—a home she was evacuated to as a child—is stark, lightly drawn, and haunting in its austerity because of those choices. It’s very much a setting of the mind, and that’s made clear very early as Shihua, mourning, is concerned people know emotion won’t overrule her performance. It’s the visible gaps between her years-long, driven crisis-management performances and her visible inner turmoil that drive “The Earthlight Bright Before Her”, until and as she reconciles them: a rather compassionate collision between what was once a reasonable trauma response and the space where it’s outlived its healthiness.

That’s a theme that’s encapsulated on all levels of craft, especially in the prose: the evocativeness of the language when she thinks of Earth, or actually lets herself go (I especially liked “It was a pin, and she wriggled on its end; it was an ocean, and she drowned in it.”) just emphasizes the harsh austerity of her everyday narration. Shihua is clearly not a reliable narrator: emotionally austere, compulsive, and occasionally a little propagandistic, defaulting to the party line over nuances or niceties. It’s a great way to signal state of mind, and the degree of self-repression Shihua’s working under.

The balance of paragraphs show me right away how to read that connection between space and feeling. The author’s notes ask about whether the hard science elements slow the pace, and I’m personally not a reader who’s going to linger over technical details as long as they don’t keep me from a good story, but from the first line, those details are being balanced by emotional content: “date fourteen” spurs a bit of confusion for me, but it immediately pales before the loss of a parent and the encroaching lunar darkness—an obvious, apt, and effective metaphor for grief (reversed quite visibly when Yiye is born, and paid off in the Earthlight). That first paragraph’s juxtaposition of detachment and intense emotion—astrophysics as emotion, engineering as revenge against mortality—tells me clearly that “The Earthlight Bright Before Her” isn’t going to be a story that treats its technical details like a test—and that’s what I need to connect with it as a reader. I’ve been told why they actually matter, and that’s enough.

From that point, the piece has set an expectation with me for how I should read it, and when I read those technical details on a metaphoric level, everything works: What consumes power produces heat, and the heat must be vented somewhere—it’s also an apt metaphor for emotional consequences. The “patches of unnatural smoothness breaking up the rocky, pockmarked surroundings” read perfectly as a description of Shihua’s affect, artificiality amongst a more natural roughness. Under that reading, the quest to build a literal wall of radiators—an emotional barrier sometime described as “a blade”—takes on more resonance for me as a metaphoric solution, rather than a practical one.

I think this tendency is what’s also currently creating the story’s major downsides, however: several occasions when the practical logic gets subsumed in the metaphoric, to the point where it breaks. It’s when these practical collisions arise that I find myself having logic questions about “The Earthlight Bright Before Her.” There are all sorts of motivations—societal, interpersonal, chronological—that don’t always line up, and the attention to technical detail highlights them considerably.

On the surface level, “The Earthlight Bright Before Her” can occasionally get too obvious with its pragmatic-metaphoric connection. Notably, Shihua’s “Didn’t he see the danger in grief?” felt rather on the nose, and the ways Shihua paints Yiye as not just her hope for the future, but the station’s hope can edge into Heinleinian special-child territory. Realistically, there’s no reason a protagonist’s child would be naturally better at things; most of us have our strengths and weaknesses.

This tendency also crops up in the question of the station’s blank white décor, Shihua’s wildly emotional reaction to Yiye’s blue paint, and the timing of their move toward art and comfort. It doesn’t strike me as realistic that, once they knew they’d be there for lifetimes, the inhabitants wouldn’t devote some time and energy to creature comforts—especially if they’re raising children. It works as an extended metaphor for Shihua’s personal emotional austerity and restraint—and the forcible reopening of those emotional channels—but when that metaphor meets the practicalities of other human beings living in a community, not beholden to Shihua’s emotional growth, it falls apart.

Going deeper, there’s a question of how long it took Shihua to perfect her heat radiator design, and whether it was feasibly done in the days between her mother’s death and her pitch. It does sound like a reasonably complex engineering problem, and even working non-stop, tired is stupid; she’s clearly lying about being at her best.

Likewise, while I don’t need to know which nation deployed a genetic weapon against a cast of East and South Asian people, I wondered about the practicality of that: almost every society in the world now has diverse ancestries and bloodlines, and genetics are a deeply variable and idiosyncratic situation. This seems like a plan that would be fraught with unwelcome surprises for the people who launched it, and the black-and-white character of it—alongside calling them the enemy—feels slightly cartoonish.

The discussion around children had me likewise wondering about logistics: How long had they been there, if Shihua was a child when they fled and is of a reasonable reproductive age now? Had no one become a parent in all that time, and what do the differences in radiation do to people’s reproductive capacity? Is there a reason they aren’t doing this the old-fashioned way (people do have sex, after all, in all sorts of circumstances)? Is there a reason Minjae is so puzzled by the idea? He’d surely remember children being around, or a childhood of his own.

It’s for this reason that ultimately the final door into the conflict—Yiyi and her friends ultimately just being teenagers, and Shihua’s rigidness about their refusal to take on her driven crisis response—felt somewhat manufactured to me. Her grieving and repression, to borrow a metaphor, are being written here as the unnatural smoothness, without reference to the rocky, pockmarked surroundings that will still exist in her unprocessed emotional life. Yes, she’s trapped in fight/flight, but crisis is not flat; it’s the flat space people carve out because the rocks are breaking their proverbial ankles. The rocks are there, and as a reader, I cannot feel them in this scene. Her now-sincere lack of understanding isn’t supported by the person we’ve been told she was in the first half: a climate crisis child who dreams in cracking glaciers and would understand Yiye’s despair, an unwilling expatriate, a devoted parent who also went to every length to honour her mother’s death. This is the piece of the story that to me feels the most out of sync with the rest, and the place where I’d suggest the most attention.

There is another way into this question, I think, which I also want to highlight. Part of why I think I’m fixing on those logistics is because “The Earthlight Bright Before Her” doesn’t, as of yet, contain a cohesive full-story arc. It’s building up a series of incidents—which is a thing lunar SF has done and can do!—linked mostly by the development of Shihua’s grief against her changing world (the metaphoric subsuming the practical). But there isn’t a viable external structure linking all these occurrences together; if you asked me what this story was about in two sentences, I could only describe a moving target. The more it reads to me as a series of vignettes in the life of the station, the more I focus on the logic of those incidents. I think there’s a viable solution here in smoothing out some of the overarching structure—building more throughlines from beginning to end—that would stabilize readers’ focus away from the details of each incident.

Longer pieces require more undercarriage work, because we’re holding more in our heads when we write them; it can be a big task. I want to reinforce that there are some very important true things being said here, about the mismatch between trauma response and objective moving realities, about getting stuck, about the time in your life when what you need grows larger and what you can do stronger. This piece feels honest, and it feels important. I think with some considerable work (sorry, it’s structural, it’s going to be heavy lifting) it can cohere, reorganize, get its logic in order, and bring that light through.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

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