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Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Friday Challenge: Judgment Day

The votes are in. We had a remarkable 337 individual voters cast a total of 350 votes to select the winner of the 11/3/17 Friday Challenge, which was to write a short story about the most [intrusive | obnoxious | unpleasant] common household item you could imagine to be equipped with Internet connectivity and blessed with a glimmer of artificial intelligence. The winner—by a margin of one vote, which came in in the last minutes before the poll closed—and yes, we’ve verified that this vote was not found in a ballot box in the trunk of an election judge’s car in a parking lot in Duluth—is “The Han ‘Nasty,” by Chris J. Naron.

And now, as promised, here are our critiques of the stories that were on the ballot. Taking them in reverse order (and providing links, so you can re-read them if you like):

» “When the Pillows Have Eyes,” by J. Verostka

Honestly, I’m surprised that this one didn’t score much better in the reader poll. Had this one come in simply as a submission to SHOWCASE, I very likely would have accepted it for publication. The idea of living in a condo that is so completely wired that you have no privacy, where everyone knows everyone else’s business in the most intimate detail, and where your neighbors are positively eager to smother you with compassion, strikes me as far more nightmarish than most of the run-of-the-mill panopticon -slash- Big Brother dystopian stories we typically see. Who knew that too much comfort could be far more frightening than jackboots? I hope to see more stories from Ms Verostka.

» “Un Poêle Français,” by Mimosa Longfellow

There is a story behind why we put this story on the ballot. It’s a cute and clever idea, and an interesting take on “regionalizing” software, but told in prose with a lot of rough edges. Ms Longfellow needs to work on developing her narrative abilities and get better control of her writing style—but here’s the one thing we knew that you didn’t. The author of this story is eleven years old.

Ms Longfellow submitted a story for the previous Friday Challenge (“What if the dead really do care about what happens to the flowers on their graves?”) that the judges for that one all rejected—until they learned her age, and then they all wanted to change their votes or give her some kind of special award. As she herself said, though, it’s much better to lose trying your best than to win undeservedly, and she wanted her story to be judged on its merits as a story, not based on the identity of the author.

A brilliant and very promising young lady. I expect to see great things from her in about a decade.

» “Sofia’s Weekend,” by Lucrezia Ferri

At the other end of the age scale we have this story, told by an experienced marketing and non-fiction copywriter (wait, aren’t those terms mutually exclusive?) who’s finally worked up the nerve to try her hand at fiction. Again, it’s a clever idea, but told in prose with a lot of rough edges. If this one had come in as a regular submission I’d have sent it back with the comment that it needed at least one more rewrite, to bring some of the implicit ideas to the fore—for example, that this toilet is not merely analyzing its user’s, er, output, but that it’s also a scale that reports her weight to her clinic every time she sits on it—and probably another rewrite after that, to smooth and polish the prose. Still, for a first short story, it’s a good effort. It’s about something. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The narrator is an engaging character, who is confronted by an unpleasant problem, and who then takes action to solve that problem. In the end, she is a slightly different person than she was when the story began. These are all good things to see in a short story. It’s astonishing how often we receive submissions that are missing one—or even all—of these elements. I expect to see Ms Ferri continue to improve as a writer.

» “iGene,” by Chris Bailey Pearce

I really expected this one to do much better in the reader poll. It’s a fully developed story, well told, about a device that combines all the irksome qualities of my wife’s Fitbit with all the fears that surface every time my doctor starts talking about getting me fitted-out with an insulin pump and a constant glucose monitor. (Yeah, like I’m going to trust my life to two devices that need batteries and communicate with each other by Bluetooth.)

Perhaps I’m personally too close to this story. H. L. Gold, the founding editor of Galaxy, was profoundly agoraphobic as a result of his experiences in combat in World War II, hence his weakness for “underground city” and “domed city” stories. Perhaps with this story, Ms Pearce has uncovered my weakness.

» “A Toothsome Tale,” by James Westbrooks

We don’t really have a lot to say about this one. It’s a good story, well told, with engaging characters and a well-developed plot arc. If this one had come in as a regular submission I’d probably have sent it back with a request-for-rewrite, as it would benefit from a bit more polishing and tightening, but we expect to see some rough edges in Friday Challenge submissions. As I keep saying: we’re more interested in your imagination than your level of polish. You can learn to microedit anywhere. (And if you haven’t already read it, the first appendix in Stephen King’s On Writing is a good place to start.) What we try to do here is kickstart your powers of ideation.

That said: this is a good, solid, charming story. Perhaps not ground-breaking—in the actions of the p.o.v. character’s wife I see just a slight extension of the behavior I see today in people who can’t seem to answer a simple question anymore without consulting their cell phones—but it’s an entertaining and enjoyable read.

Mr. Westbrooks now has a win (for “Flowers for Momma”) and a place to his credit. We expect to see more and better stories from him in the future. 

» “The Han ‘Nasty,” by Chris J. Naron

Finally, we come to our winner. What can we say about this one? It’s a wonderful, glorious mashup that starts in a totally mundane setting and in the space of a mere 1,250 words takes you all the way into a post-Apocalyptic future where the “grey goo” catastrophe of nanotech gone berserk has been narrowly averted. (Although I suppose “brown goo” would be more accurate.) It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s a wild ride, and it hits that note that almost always gets me: when I get to the end of a story and find myself thinking both “I never thought of that!” and “I didn’t see that coming!”

Therefore, congratulations to Chris J. Naron, on winning the 11/3/17 Friday Challenge!

And now, on to the next challenge, which is already in progress...

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