So here we are.
I've finally finished reading through each and every one of the shortlisted entries for the Peoples' Choice honor in the First Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards. Contrary to what some people may think, it's been more of a chore than anything else. These entries, no matter what Fully Booked would have us think, are still not in their final form... and I can assure you that they're far from perfect.
Taking into account that people will be voting on these entries this Saturday, I figured that it might be best to look over them anyway. I wanted to see what was good and bad about each one and see how it would apply to both my style of writing and my approach at critiquing. I wanted to write down what I wanted to see in a good story, and perhaps make sure that I applied the same lessons to my future works. That, and I wanted to make sure I was voting for the best one, too.
Before I proceed with my comments, I would just like to note that I have a particular approach when performing critiques. My viewpoint is that any short story will have some good aspects and some bad aspects -- the good aspects being those redeemable parts of the story that can be used for other works, and the bad aspects being those flaws or failures that need to be corrected or taken into account. Sometimes one side overcomes the other, giving us what we think are "good" and "bad" pieces, respectively, but the two aspects always exist in each work. With each review below, I ask myself what I think is good and bad about each short story, and tie that in to the opinion as to whether or not I like the final result.
The following entries are reviewed in the same order in which I read them. For the sake of some of the more traditional readers, I have also refrained from mentioning any "spoiler"-type details that may intrude upon their literary experience:
The Great Philippine Space Mission - I give this work points for the title alone; That was the reason why I read it first.
With that said, I feel that "The Great Philippine Space Mission" is a magical realist story in the guise of science fiction: It starts off technical and realistic (not to mention frank), but it eventually mutates into a strange combination of the two genres. As I read it, I couldn't seem to shake the feeling that it was supposed to be a completely logical story despite the fact that absolutely unexplainable events were occurring. Considering that gossip is a central theme to the piece, the two of them resemble each other in that regard: They both use information that might not really be information in the first place. They both feed us stuff and expect us to take it as it is. It's a good parallel.
The main problem I have with the story, however, lies with the social context. It's not likely to reach many international readers because it depends on details that are only familiar in a Philippine-based perception. (And despite the author's well-crafted setup, I have a hard time believing that more people gossip about Kris Aquino than they do about Tom Cruise.) Apart from this, the author has problems with grammar and verb-tense consistency in quite a few areas, and I feel that the ending is too wide open in order to work properly. (This goes in line with the work's focus, yes, but I believe that it could have been done better. At the moment, it gives me the impression that the author simply ran out of ideas for resolution.)
All in all, I think it's a good attempt at an experimental work... but it doesn't quite strike a chord with me. It's okay, I think. It's "okay", it's not quite "good", and I don't think it's certainly "great".
A Strange Map of Time - This, I feel, is definitely a strange one. It's polished, but it's not quite polished to the level of perfection. It belongs firmly in the realm of the fantastic, but whether it can be classified as fantasy or science fiction or some relatively unknown genre is really up in the air.
To be frank, I like the story. It starts off vague and confusing, but then irons itself out in the course of the tale - which is probably what it intended to do in the first place, in order to mirror the main character's journeys. It'll probably take the average person a couple of reads to understand everything completely, but in the end, everything fits together somewhat neatly. Everything eventually makes a kind of sense, as long as one has the patience to figure it out.
My primary concern with the piece is that the various stages of the main character's journey don't seem to be treated equally; Some areas get more screen time than others, and I find it difficult to see why. I believe that the story also needs to work on its setting and background descriptions a little bit, especially in the first parts of the work; The only indication I found that the main character was moving around in a future Philippines, for example, lay in an off-hand mention of hoverjeepneys in the sky.
It's a nice work, though - one of those things that you wish you had the patience and planning to put together yourself. It got me thinking, at least.
A Song for Vargas - I remember quite a few scenes from the screen version of The Last Unicorn, one of them involving both fine wine and the power of memory. I get the feeling that this author happens to be familiar with the movie as well.
"A Song for Vargas" strikes me as more of character study than a story; Not much of a plot occurs, and whatever background detail I get has more to do with events surrounding the main character's history than anything else. With that said, it's an interesting narrative rife with extensive descriptions. I particularly like the characterization of the summer wind, as well as the author's concession that a man's personality is also reflected in the view that other people take of him.
The problem I have with description, however, is that I don't like encountering too much of it in my readings. There's an oft-repeated saying that goes "show, don't tell", and I feel that whatever time spent visualizing the characters and their surroundings would be better used to advance the plot a little further. In fact, despite the richness of the background and the situation, I finished the story with a lot of questions that were never satisfactorily answered: Why is Vargas perpetually haunted by his ghosts? Does he ever find what he is seeking? What eventually happens to the island? That's not exactly the kind of closure I like to see.
Still, my quibbles could just be more of a personal opinion than a proper literary critique. If you hold more faith in description than you do in plotting, then you'll probably be fine with this story. Unfortunately, I don't... and as a result, I'm not.
Stella for Star - The idea for this story is hardly a revolutionary concept. I feel that it's been done before, although no specific examples come to mind at the moment.
Some strange voice inside my head tells me that this piece could potentially be a good one. "Stella for Star" takes a perfectly ordinary plotline and throws in a few elements that aren't quite mundane. (I'm impressed with the involvement of a contemporary gay couple, an aspect that leads to some fairly good possibilities.) These elements fit together better than expected (I particularly like the tabloid headlines), and the resulting story is entertaining enough for a quick read. To be frank, I find this to be the fastest read among all the pieces so far.
If "Stella for Star" fails in anything, however, I think it's in the pacing. I think that the work makes a significant attempt to build suspense, but that the sections read alternatively too slow and too fast. One moment we're breathlessly overseeing the interaction between Dorian and Stella, and the next, we're needlessly listening to Paco complain about his career. I feel that the character of Sophie, in particular, is wasted - she walks in for a single scene near the climax, and then we never see her again. If there's anything that I think the story needs, it's some lengthening; That way, all the folds and creases of the pacing can be smoothed out.
Basically, I'm getting the impression that this piece needs a bit of work. It's interesting, and I think it's right up my alley, but it needs some spit-and-polish before I can say that it came out right.
Atha - The author of this work and I apparently share a certain quality: We both like writing really, really long sentences.
"Atha" feels like science fiction, but it's a "dreamy" sort of science fiction - it reminds me of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil", for some reason. It's a post-apocalyptic setting where the sense of post-apocalypsis isn't too overbearing, and that's pretty rare. For that matter, while it does hover around the idea of man repeating his past sins, I believe that it also concentrates on the alternative viewpoint: That man can't help but do it, for reasons only he can understand. I find that a fresh take on an old approach.
Despite its high points, however, I think that the story actually needs some work on its setting. I spent most of the story assuming that Conrad and the main character were the only humans around; The sudden appearance of other people in the ending seems to undermine the story. For that matter, I fail to see how gunpowder-based cannons could possibly still exist there, especially when their weights and trajectories in the story feel a little too unrealistic. Some elements such as these just feel weird... or perhaps these were meant to have a slight unrealistic feel in the first place? I'm not sure in this case.
With all that said, the story feels good to me. It's a good take, although you'll have to consider things a bit in order to understand it. While I think it needs tweaking, I also think that it's quality work. It's certainly good enough to get me reflecting on it.
Monstrous Cycle - Ever gone through a short story and exclaimed "THAT'S IT?" at the ending? It can be a good or a bad indication - either the story captured your attention to the degree that you didn't expect the sudden ending, or the story didn't get enough of your interest in the first place. Whatever the case, an abrupt ending isn't a very good sign.
I like the idea behind "Monstrous Cycle". The notion of a supernatural being entering the world of show business opens up a huge can of worms: What movies would he/she make? What product endorsements would come knocking at their door? How would they compromise their usual supernatural habits? The story takes this unlikely situation into account and touches on each of those. In a sense, it makes the concept believable - I was entirely willing to accept the possibility of a winged freak of nature doing shampoo commercials, the way the work presented it.
The problem, however, lies in the "setting-story" distinction. To me, "Monstrous Cycle" doesn't tell a story as much as it presents a setting, and as interesting as the setting might be, it ultimately doesn't mean anything when it gives no substance to the events of the story. We read that something happens, and then something happens, and then something else happens, but we never see why. I feel that the result doesn't transcend anything, really. It tells me of the events that occur in the story, yet somehow doesn't make me feel as though the experience was worthwhile. It caused me to ask what the point of the entire exercise was, and that's definitely not a good sign.
Right now, I'd rank this the worst of the eight shortlisted entries. Yes, it's got some definite redeeming values, and yes, it's certainly better than a number of other pieces I've read. But I think its greatest problem lies in the fact that it needs more of a story to go along with its development, and it's a really big problem in that regard.
The God Equation - It's got shades of Dan Brown, and images of divine beings doing God's work on earth, a story idea that's been approached and used many, many times in the past.
I find the style of this story to be excellent. It reads in a far more coherent manner than any of the other seven shortlisted entries, practically to the point where it can be read aloud to a group of eager listeners. The dialogue is done well (albeit long and overbearing), and the exotic references subtly noted. There are even a couple of extremely creative touches: the systematic nature of celestial operations (which works a little like international relations), the manifestation of divine agents into human form, and the strange involvement of ice cream in the narration. It has virtually all the elements of a good piece of fiction.
Yet, for all its advantages, I don't like the short story. "The God Equation" may have the style and panaché to carry things through, but it seems to concentrate too much on the nature of its own subject matter to make for a good tale. Whole pages are spent detailing technical details that have little or nothing to do with the plot itself, and after ten pages of this or so, I was skipping over all the mentions of prime numbers, of Mandelbrot, and of Leonhard Euler. The characters feel anything but "human" to me; While they are supposed to be celestial beings, I was unable to feel the slightest empathy for what was them, or for what was going on. I got the impression that the story was both preachy and distant, and those are a couple of qualities that it really shouldn't have.
Don't get me wrong... "The God Equation" has style, rhythm, and class. I just think that it needs to get its head out of the clouds and become a lot more appealing to the average reader. What significance does a "God Equation" have, after all, if no one cares about it?
The Omega Project - I've worked with cockroaches from a literary standpoint before, although this treatment is quite new to me.
"The Omega Project" has good style and narration - not perfect, but good enough to make for a fast and entertaining read. It has good flow as well, in that it is able to alternate between two different points of view while keeping the story running. This interplay allows the story to slowly unfold, although most of the revelations appear in the first half of the piece itself. I particularly like the closing paragraphs, in that they provide excellent closure; It's been a while since I've read a satisfactory ending to a story.
For a science-fiction-centered piece, however, the "science" needs a lot more development. The story left me clueless as to how the setting came about or how the ending came to pass; There are a lot of logical disconnections in the course of the tale. There are a number of areas that seem far more developed than others, but these areas always seem to receive little more than a partial mention in the story. I constantly had the impression that something was left out of the telling, and I believe that, if there's one major flaw in this work, it's the fact that it fails to emphasize details that really should be emphasized.
In hindsight, however, that's perfectly attuned to the reality of a cockroach: Always there but hardly ever raised to anyone's attention. At least until we squish it, of course.
That's it, ladies and gentlemen. That's how my comments go after a single read through each and every one of the eight shortlisted entries.
You may fully agree with some of my writings as featured above. You may vehemently disagree with them, or you may violently object to my opinion and immediately start plotting to kill me. I suppose that that's fine. We're each entitled to our own opinions, after all.
If you have any points to raise that require my attention, however, feel free to leave a comment below. I'm open to discussion regarding any or all of these stories, much more so if we can trade ideas about the whole review thing. The more people join in, after all, the more subjective our collective opinions can get.