As you might recall back in March I talked about what it means to review writing and why it’s so important. As part of that, I shared that in April I would be the impartial judge in a writing competition for the Empty Pages Writing Club. Everyone submitted up to 30 pages of anonymous text to be read, critiqued, and ranked with their peers.
I read these stories and ranked them according to Plot/Conflict, Setting, Character, Symbolism/Theme, Point of View, and Writing Style. Each category was worth up to 5 points meaning a story could earn up to 30 points total. Stories have been read, reviewed, and ranked– and now it’s time to talk about the stories!
For my other Empty Pages short story reviews, check out:
Title: Recyc Length: 27 pages Genre: Science Fiction
The winning story only won by the skin of its teeth, honestly. Recyc was the second story I read and I read it four times to ensure that I wasn’t cheating any of the others. In the end, I think it was the protagonist who pushed me over the edge. Kira’s character is strongly established early on, she is smart, and she is unreliable– a collection of many of my favorite things. Obviously, part of this judging will always include personal bias. While each author in the Empty Pages Writing Club has their strengths and weaknesses, I think they are all really well balanced! It made my decision really challenging, but I think Recyc stands at the top.
Kira is one of four scientists in a research station on Research Planet M97-4t. With high mineral and metallic core content, this is an ideal planet to learn more about and see if its raw materials can be mined. There’s almost no water on the planet, so every drop of liquid is precious. Thanks to Delores, the research station AI system, all liquids are recycled through the Recyc system and life is sustainable in this research station. However, this morning Kira woke up with some strange symptoms: high heart rate, headache, hallucinations. Not only that, but Delores is acting up and she can’t get a hold of her peers. Something isn’t right on M97-4t, and Kira is going to find out what that means.
What starts out as a space drama quickly turned into a mystery. While I didn’t get hooked as quickly as I did with 103PB-1930-35-1117: Just A Drive in the Country, once a mystery was identified, I was certainly just as hooked. There is a ton of external conflict as we discover things are not as they seem to Kira. We are concerned about the Recyc system dehydrating the scientists, the lack of responses from Kira’s peers, and the overall dangers the planet provides. Internal conflict is ripe as well since Kira is almost immediately identified as an unreliable narrator. Her hallucinations and stray memories provide both a plot point we want to solve (is she sick? Did something happen to her mind?) and also makes the reader question her story telling. Completely gripping.
The setting is critical in science fiction. Everything is new to the reader and we need to be able to visualize what is going on. Recyc has plenty of realistic description to help with the visualization. Also, the planet is a bit of an antagonist due to it being highly dangerous to humans. This comes across clearly in the description. The setting also did a lot of help define our characters, the passage of time, and the overall mood of the piece.
However, I was sometimes bored or overwhelmed with the description. It was highly detailed and occasionally forced. But it was consistent in style and appearance throughout the whole story, which I appreciate.
Kira, our protagonist, is a well-developed character. Kira had quirks, emotions, concerns, and she developed throughout the story. Sometimes, she felt a bit more machine than human as she held on to little details and hallucinated. Also, her quirks were inconsistently used. In the beginning, we see them a lot but they taper off as the story progresses. These made small details relevant later, but I don’t think it was worth it for the overuse in the beginning.
I also love that we really only have 5 total characters. The limited number of characters allows us to really get to know them in the 27 pages. But the author didn’t provide consistent details for all of them. This makes sense, but I wanted to know more about Delores, Ajax, and Luca in particular.
Point of View: 5/5
Just like with Madness of the Midnight I was really in love with the point of view the author used. Kira is an unreliable narrator and she knows it. It was fascinating being in her head and watching her try to figure out the situations she was put into. Knowing she couldn’t trust herself, Kira’s logic was flawed but consistent. It was engaging to see her use logic and memory to try and solve problems. Her personality was consistent, too, which is challenging when you have an unreliable narrator.
Symbolism was lacking overall. And when it did exist, the symbols were hitting us over the head a bit.
Writing Style: 4/5
Even before the mystery was introduced, I was hooked on this story. When focuses tend to shift (in this case from space drama to space mystery) I often lose engagement. Not in this case. Being engaged throughout is important to me, and I appreciate how flawless the transition was for the reader. The elements listed above were well balanced, also, which helped contribute to my overall enjoyment. When the description or details got to be too much for me, I found myself skimming. This disrupted the pacing for me, but not enough that I felt annoyed or distracted. The reading level for this story was the highest of all four submitted stories (Flesch-Kincaid 6.7). While that lead to my personal enjoyment, I did warn the author that Hemmingway won a Pulitzer with a 4, so it might be worth it to look at that in the future.
Overall Score: 22/30
As the winning story, Recyc did not disappoint. It had adventure, mystery, a well-crafted setting, and an appropriately sized cast of characters. I enjoyed sitting down and reading this story start to finish. I was engaged throughout and wanted to read everything in one sitting. That said, the overt symbolism and detailed descriptions frustrated me sometimes as a reader. I also felt like we could have learned more about our cast of characters without lengthening the story much more. That would have been nice to see.
All four stories were so close to each other in the end, for which I am glad. While each author had something they absolutely rocked I appreciate how different those strengths are. This gave me a lot to consider and balance. Stay tuned for a future post about my lessons learned in this experience!
What Do You Think?
- Do you enjoy stories with unreliable narrators, why or why not?
- When reading science fiction, do you classify AI as a character or not?
- Have you ever found yourself skimming text when reading? Why?