Excerpt Critique #1: The Runabout By Kristine Rusch

A Preface:

Before reading this critique of this excerpt, there are a few things you ought to know:

  1. I am by no means associated with either Rusch or Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. They have not paid me or contacted me to do this. This is done all on my own time and initiative.
  2. I by no means intend to gain monetary profit from this critique – it is done for the fun of looking at a story and offering my two cents on it.
  3. By no means am I to be considered an expert outside of what I know thanks to reading, writing, and my in-progress English degree. All critiques are based on my subjective experience with the material and what worked and didn’t work for me as a reader. My criticisms should not be taken as holy scripture from a divine authority on storytelling but as comments meant to be generally constructive and helpful.
  4. The story critiqued is a free excerpt from the recent issue of Asimov’s (May/June 2017). As of writing this, the excerpt is posted on the magazine’s website, which is where I read it. I will let you, the reader, search this for yourself as the excerpt a link would lead to will change with the current issue previewed on the website.

From here on, most of this, if not all, applies to future critiques. There may be exceptions, particularly with the first point and thereby second points, but those will be for those particular (and possibly paid for) critiques – not that I expect any down the road.

The form of most critiques is as follows. I summarize the story (without spoiling all of the major plot points) to show what I got out of it, and then I follow this summary with my critique.

Now with that out of the way, to the critique!

“A Matter of Time and Space”

The issue of time in “The Runabout”

“The Runabout” takes place in a distant future where humanity has built fleets of ships that can travel long distances through the folding of space and time. The protagonist is the leader of a company/group who specialize in reconnaissance and recovery in a place called the “Boneyard” – a graveyard in space where derelict ships from past and the present are kept until they are needed again or are left when they have served their use. To perform these recoveries, the protagonist organizes “dive” teams to do spacewalks in these hazardous regions akin to deep sea diving to bring up wrecks. However, unlike sea divers these divers are under a different form of pressure. These ships that fold space and time have a side effect, and a pretty nasty one at that. Their specialized engines, being unstable, tend to cause anomalies in time if they malfunction or are left in operation years after being abandoned (its mentioned that they can be deactivated, but in the boneyard most of them are not). This results in the possibility that the “present” for the protagonists could be their far future, or their distant past, with the main fleet of the faction they aid existing to the same degree as Schrodinger’s cat – it could exist, have yet to exist, or no longer exist. Likewise, certain ships can remain in “folded space” for weeks while the “outside universe” experiences centuries or millennia of change. Not everyone can work with these engines and come out unscathed. Those who do have a specialized gene that permits them to not experience the same hazardous and often fatal side effects of the time anomalies. Throw in the usual “protagonist and friends helping small faction versus antagonist space Empire” spin in the background and you have the story’s general setting (Just going to say it now, I’m really burned out on the whole “Evil Empire because they’re not any other form of government and thereby inherently corrupt” trope – not that Rusch goes to these lengths in describing her space empire. She keeps these politics to the minimum, with the protagonists’ attitude toward political affairs being “we’re helping this group of people against that group because they protect us from that group in particular.”).

With that whole chunk of background information aside, I can now summarize the excerpt’s plot and where its heading. The protagonist and friends are doing a dive when they come across a strange folding-engine signature. The engines make this ringing noise that is described as choir-like when several them are ringing together. This one makes an even stranger ring, which draws the crew to be concerned about who could be present as its very nature is unusual in the Boneyard, which is already an usual place. There are many dangers that another folding-engine brings to the table, and if this issue is not addressed, the protagonist and crew may be stuck in this Boneyard or, if they choose to fold-travel out of it, may find themselves victims to a time anomaly or worse. With life and death on the line, and time definitely of the essence, the protagonist and her crew must find out who and what this ship they aren’t seeing is, what is it doing there, and how can they leave the Boneyard unscathed and without casualties.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, the protagonist has a personal tragedy that gives her a working knowledge from first-hand experience of what disaster these folding engines, if they malfunction. This is mentioned in here and there in references to a flashback.

The concepts Rusch brings to the table are fantastic. Even though they should be obvious to a science fiction reader or anyone with a knowledge of faster-than-light travel methods, I, as a fellow writer, was left jealous with her ability to weave it in a manner that was not too exhausting and makes the technological concepts she presents pretty interesting.

She also writes in a way that’s similar to what Jeff Vandermeer calls a “minimalist/stark” writing style (Vandermeer 62-63). Given that this narrative is in the medium of short stories, she is tight with her word economy, leaving much of the aesthetic details to the reader’s imagination. This is also done to give her room to introduce the background and setting of her world in an almost line by line manner. No time is wasted in building this setting. At every opportunity the pacing gives her, she inserts another detail about her world. The whole flashback segment takes advantage of the opportunity to put in more exposition without being exhausting. This exchange for aesthetic detail in the character’s present for detail about the background setting does its job well in keeping the reader engaged as they learn more about the reality explored by the narrative of Rusch’s protagonist.

It’s an interesting slog that needs an injection of action.

However, this line-by-line exploration of the setting does have a downside, and one that in a vague sense undoes the whole effort of making the story itself a somewhat tedious read. Line-by-line explorations are one of many means to present a complex science fiction setting and the nuances it brings to a narrative. Like any other tool in a writer’s toolbox there is not a right way and a wrong way to use it, but an efficient and inefficient way to use it. The way it is implemented here leans over the boundary toward inefficient. However, this is not entirely Rusch’s fault, as much of the blame has to go to the format of a short story. From personal experience and many, many failed attempts, I can say for sure that bigger, complex universes are difficult to encapsulate in the five to fifteen thousand word limit average that most short stories are written in. Or, to put it better, you can’t replicate an ocean on a one-to-one scale inside a fishbowl. When writing a short story, a writer needs to keep in mind the primary focus of the story (characters, narrative, tone, or setting) and cut accordingly. I’m not saying Rusch hasn’t cut accordingly, and I can’t – I wasn’t looking over her or the Asimov’s editor shoulder when they polished the draft. What I can say, however, is that something certainly felt off when I was reading it. It was certainly a something having to do with the pacing itself.

The story spends another portion of its time focusing on character interactions that center around the minutiae of their diving operation. Nothing much happens between those interactions other than more line-by-line world-building. This results in a slow build up in tension, and it is this slow build up of the stakes and the occasional digression into some minor interaction or comment about the world that tempted me on several occasions to skim or to take a break from reading. I didn’t ask myself, “What does this have to do with the narrative?” as it was all interwoven rather well. Yet I did ask from time to time, “Could the story do without this?” In other words, it gets slow and heavy in places.

Many readers of Asimov’s may possibly enjoy this slow burn of a build up and take an interest in a gradual, articulate crafting of a fictional setting. I, on the other hand, want more stuff to happen in those 16,000+ words. It’s great that this certain class of vessel can hold a small city of people – it definitely rounds out the world by cluing the reader in on the scale of construction when it comes to the ships – but is something going to happen yet? I know I’m sounding a bit impatient, but interesting characters and settings aren’t the only things I look for in a science fiction short story. I’m also looking for an interesting narrative with a sequence of events that are entertaining. I understand that what’s being established in this narrative is a mystery story with life-or-death stakes, and that the ocean of details are meant to immerse the reader in this world, but it really becomes a grind to read after the first three thousand words.

The detail issue isn’t present from the middle and to the end of the excerpt. Since I was not hooked completely by the time I reached the middle, the rest of the story felt like an interesting slog of a read – which has to be one of the strangest experiences I have ever had. I was somewhat invested in what was going on, but I stopped caring about most of the dialogue. My thoughts were, at the time, “This investigation is great and all, and I really want to know how they make it out of this, but can they please shut up and get on with it?” I knew well enough that the ending would be left out, but my point still stands. I struggled to be hooked from the beginning, and maybe that’s more of an issue on my end.

While there is plenty to be experienced in this story, I as a reader found it too slow in the pacing department to be engaging. I’d gladly compare it to one of Andrzej Sapkowski’s short stories about the Witcher, Geralt of Rivia. His fantasy world is immense and what makes it comparable besides the scale is its inclusion of science fiction elements. [The following spoilers are in italics] The origins of the Witcher’s world comes from the “Conjunction of Spheres,” which deposited creatures such as vampires, werewolves, sylvans, water nymphs, and humans into a world of Elves. Many readers have interpreted this to be either a crossing of galaxies or dimensions. The Conjuction also introduced magic into the world of the Witcher. [Spoilers end here] In Sapkowski’s short stories, there is a sense of intrigue, involvement, and urgency between the reader and the characters. There is something always happening, and its fun, fascinating, and interesting. I may be comparing apples to oranges here, but I felt that “The Runabout” lacked that level of excitement and engagement. There’s always a sense that our protagonist is surrounded by impending threats, but little to nothing happens besides chatter, investigation, and an occasional anomaly.

I could go on with comparisons, but I’m sure I’ve  made my point. This story is fantastic, and it keeps the concepts it includes fresh, but it’s slow. For many readers, this may be fine and make for a wonderful, relaxing read. Yet for others like me, it’s an interesting slog that needs an injection of action besides a passive flashback, references to past incidents, and a sense of potential danger that lies dormant throughout the narrative.

Works Cited

Asimov’s Science Ficiton Magazine – http://www.asimovs.com

Vandermeer, Jeff. Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Abrams Image, 2013.

Thoughts or questions? Leave a comment!

 

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