“Ok George,” read the message posted on the writers’ critique site. “I’m still waiting for your analysis of my story ‘The Rockets Go Boom!’ but here are my comments about your piece.
“Given that prologues are never a good idea it would be superfluous to say that yours is too long. What an info dump! Try to reveal the setting and alien psychology through action rather than dialogue and exposition. Show, don’t tell!
“Now, to the meat of the thing. I found your alien protagonist to be rather… androgynous. Sure, he’s married and all but your descriptions of his ‘luscious indigo eyes veined with silver’ and ‘hair infused with the light of the sun’ leave a definite impression, if you know what I mean. And why the knock on religion? Contrasting the enlightened, science-worshipping husband with the raving religious fanatic wife is a little over the top, don’t you think? I know that kind of thing is all the rage in SJW land but couldn’t you try to be a little more original? Not new, not sophisticated.
“So here’s what I read. Reasonable, science-minded protagonist of ambiguous orientation (therefore probably oppressed) is backed into a corner by his greedy old corporate masters and harangued by his shrieking religious harpy wife who he probably married for cover. Poor thing! The inevitable result: his noble work is prostituted, his misused invention accidentally erases gravity and the sacred environment is destroyed by marauding capitalism. Everybody’s fault but his. Same old ‘traditional society sucks’ message. Ho hum. Now go read ‘Rockets!’”
George made some red marks and notes on the hard copy of his story. He moved on to the next entry on the critique site.
“Hello George, this is Stephanie. I read your story this morning while I was waiting for Po-Po at the groomer. It was really good! I just have a few suggestions, you know, a couple of little tweaks and maybe a question or two.
“I think the part at the beginning might be a little longer and more detailed than it needs to be. I can’t imagine what ‘magnetic resonance coupling’ or ‘vestigial survival imperatives’ could mean but if they’re important you could show how. You know, show, don’t tell.
“I have to get a little bit critical because speculative fiction is the literature of ideas so we should talk about ideas, right? Right!
“Your blonde haired, blue eyed male protagonist is kind of a throwback and, frankly, a little offensive. We have moved past ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane,’ haven’t we? And just because it’s set on another planet doesn’t mean the parallels with a certain 20th century dictatorship aren’t obvious. The only thing worse than the macho Aryan scientist is that wife! You must’ve really strained your brain to turn a mousey religious ignoramus into the evenhanded voice of reason! Maybe while she’s so busy being intelligent and logical she could take a minute or two to throw off the stifling patriarchy; then she could be a believable character but your idea that everything would be swell if Herr Science just obeyed little Miss Superstition and her sky daddy? Puhleez! Give me a break!!
“A really great story! Keep up the good work. Did you get a chance to read my story, ‘The Hard Kisses of My Soft Rage?’ It’s all about…”
George made a few more notes then snapped the cap onto the red pen. “With Our Own Hands” was his gazillionth story and his first foray into the world of online writer’s groups. It was destined to be his gazillionth rejection. Now that he’d retired from teaching he had lots of time to write stories and send them out to dead ends. Maybe enough was enough already.
“Hi Poppy!” chirped his fifteen-year-old granddaughter Amanda as she walked through the dining room on her way to the kitchen. She often stopped by on her way home from school. “Is that your story? I read that yesterday.”
“Lucky you,” said George.
“I told you to stay off ‘Crit for Crit,’ didn’t I?” said Amanda, picking up the story.
“You sure did,” admitted George. “All right, Asimov, what’s your analysis?”
“I like the part at the beginning where you explain how the engineers at this company use ‘thought pens’ to draw diagrams with their minds and how that ability developed because of their peculiar culture and psychology. But some of them use them to play practical jokes or read other people’s minds just because they’re nosy jerks,” she said.
“You like that, huh?”
“Yeah. People would really do that, wouldn’t they? And then, the way the scientist discovers the relationship between energy and gravity with the alien scientific method and figures out how to use one to control the other. I don’t think it would work that way but it’s cool in the story.”
“That’s what counts,” said George. “Anything else?”
“I felt sorry for his wife.”
“Oh?” said George. “How come?”
“Well,” said Amanda, “everybody thought she wanted to control him or boss him around but she didn’t. She just wanted to warn him. I mean, she didn’t even mind if he disagreed with her, just as long as he listened and understood what she said. She knew she could be wrong but she could be right, too. He listened to everybody but her.”
“Let that be a lesson!” said George.
“And at the end,” continued Amanda, “when he knows the world will fly apart in a few seconds and it’s his fault the only thing he wishes is that he could tell his wife he loves her and he’s sorry. But he can’t. It’s too late. It… it made me cry. A little.”
Yeah, me too thought George.
“And it was all because of pride, right?” she went on. “I mean, the scientist let himself be overcome by the power of his idea and the influence of people with agendas instead of keeping it all in perspective. He forgot to be a person. Until it was too late.”
“So what would you say to Mr. Rocket and Ms. Soft Rage?” asked George, nodding at the screen.
Amanda scrolled through the two critiques. Then, in a surprisingly convincing imitation of William Powell in Life With Father she said, “I’d tell ‘em… bah!”
That caught George off guard and started one of those unstoppable fits of laughter. “Your mom is making you watch old movies again, is she?” he said.
“She calls it cultural research,” said Amanda. “Last night it was Dracula. The book was better.”
“Speaking of which, you were working on a vampire story, weren’t you?” said George. “When are you gonna let me read it?”
“Like, never!” said Amanda. “It’s stupid!”
“Are your vampires pretty? Do they sparkle?”
“Ew!” protested Amanda. “My vampires are horrible! They can read minds so they each pick a victim and torture them with their own worst fears until they go insane before they bite them. Sometimes they don’t even want their blood because they like scaring people so much they forget they need it, so one guy figures out that maybe he can starve his vampire if he can be brave enough to stay afraid… It’s a lame idea… Hang on.” Her purple phone was playing an Ed Sheeran song.
“Hi Mom. I’m at Nana’s house yappin’ with Poppy. Okay.”
She handed the story back to her grandfather. “Gotta go. See ya, Pops. Bye, Nan!” she called toward the kitchen.
“Is Amanda here?” called George’s wife Jean from the kitchen.
“You just missed her,” said George, returning to his story. Maybe the prologue was a bit much at that. Obviously he needed to clarify some things about his characters. After all, Mr. Rocket and Ms. Soft Rage both had solid resumes. A number of their stories appeared in some of his target venues. They must know a thing or two. Maybe he should tear it down to the foundations and start over. Maybe he should put it aside for a while, like all the experts recommended.
Maybe he should act his age and find another hobby.
In any case he owed replies to his two critics. He found their stories to be virtually indistinguishable from any number of others. I’m probably reading young work with old eyes, he thought to himself, but now that they’ve reviewed mine anything negative could just look like sour grapes. Hell, it could even be sour grapes. What to do?
“What did Amanda have to say?” asked Jean, coming from the kitchen to sit beside him.
“Oh, this and that,” said George. “We talked about vampires and how they play on your fears as they suck the life out of you and how people should listen to each other. You know, stuff like that.”
“She is one smart kid,” said Jean.
“Yeah, she is,” agreed George, scanning the critiques as he spoke. “Hey, honey? How do you spell bah?”