They loved it, they hated it: Feedback on my story from Binah’s Sukkos Supplement, “From the Furthest Reaches of the Heavens”

I have emerged from the semi-hibernation of Sukkos (if you can call a holiday that involved cooking 10 fancy meals – many with with guests – hibernation) and am looking forward to a week chock full of work. I’ve got a personal essay to write for one of the sites I frequent, another to revise for a literary journal, and spent most of today editing. That’s on top of some work I want to do on one of my ongoing projects. And did I mention I still have to market the two books I recently self-published?

Earth on 1967-11-09, as seen from Apollo 4.

But I’d like to take a moment to look back on the story I published in Binah Magazine’s Vistas story supplement, “From the Furthest Reaches of the Heavens.”

SUMMARY

In case you haven’t read the story (and I’m assuming many of my blog readers haven’t), I’ll summarize it:

Three colonists on a spacecraft traveling towards an earth-like planet, Zenoby, wake prematurely from stasis. They wonder why only the three of them awoke from among the hundreds of colonists in hibernation.

(I’m leaving out some details here in order to avoid spoilers.)

Once they realize why they have awakened, the three must decide whether they should continue on to Zenoby, or if they should instead turn the ship around and head back home to earth.

THE HATERS…

So, I’ve gotten quite a lot of feedback on my story. Online, someone told me they thought my story was just like “Interstellar,” but not as good. Someone else mentioned that they skipped the story because they have no patience to read science fiction (and the beginning of the story is more laden with scientific detail than some of the softer sci-fi I’ve written in the past). But even people who liked the story (I’ll get to the best bits about that later in a sec) sometimes felt that the story “didn’t end.”

THE LOVERS…

On the other hand, most of the people who liked the story REALLY LIKED THE STORY. A somewhat distant male relative phoned my 95 year old grandmother to rave about the story (which is particularly funny – and flattering – because Binah Magazine is a women’s mag, kinda like Better Homes and Gardens crossed with a little Parents Magazine and Ladies Home Journal with a bunch of Torah thoughts thrown in). A few people sent me fan mail via email or FB, and others walked up to me in social settings to tell me how much they liked it. Best of all: G-d willing, a Jewish high school in Brooklyn will be using it in class. (On a slight tangent, a DC-area day school will be using Libi Astaire mysteries with their 8th graders this year. I love this trend of bringing contemporary Jewish lit into classrooms!)

All those people thought the end of the story made perfect sense and resolved all necessary questions.

M.I.C.E. – THE TYPE OF STORY YOU TELL DETERMINES IT PROPER STRUCTURE

When I asked follow-up questions of the lovers and the haters of the story, I realized something profound: how readers perceived the ending of the story (and whether they felt it had an ending at all) depended on what they felt the main point of the story was.

It came down to some insights that I have to credit to Orson Scott Card. I’ve blogged before about the utility of his plot/structure typology called M.I.C.E. In short: what kind of plot you have determines where the story should begin and end. Stories generally fall into four categories: Milieu, Idea, Character, Event.

If you understood the central problem of “From the Furthest Reaches of the Heavens,” to be the three characters’ distance from earth and whether they’d be able to return (making this an “Milieu” story, in Card’s typology), you’d expect the story to end when they actually make it home.

Except they don’t make it home to earth. At least, not in the version of the story printed in the magazine. Because as I understood it, this was a “Character” story. The central problem of my story – in my eyes – was what choices the characters would make and how they would align themselves within the social landscape. Thus, I concluded the story with the resolution made by the main character, in which he chooses “sides” in the conflict.

(Plus I preceded the story with a quote from Devarim/Deuteronomy 30:3-5, which pretty much indicates the lost colonists will successfully return home. Thus, I didn’t even think this would be a major question. I’m not sure that all readers paid attention to the quote.)

I can’t really say that the “anti” crowd is wrong, by the way. The meaning of the story is constructed as much by the reader as by the author. The whole thing reminded me of a discussion I had with a fellow user of Goodreads a few months back (I use the term “discussion” loosely here – the reviewer was uncommonly badly behaved and insulted everyone who disagreed with them). They’d written a review of “The Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick that I strongly disagreed with. I felt they’d missed the point of the story – that Dick didn’t endorse the main character’s behavior, just invited readers to reflect upon it – but perhaps I was too hasty to “right” the “misinterpretation” of the reviewer. Maybe the point of a story is more malleable than we’re trained to believe. Maybe we can both be right.

Anyone have a story they’ve written or read which made little sense or all the sense in the world depending on how you understood the main idea? Or have you read “From the Furthest Reaches of the Heavens?” I’d love to read your comment!

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4 thoughts on “They loved it, they hated it: Feedback on my story from Binah’s Sukkos Supplement, “From the Furthest Reaches of the Heavens”

  1. Your story was wonderful! You took verses that people normally (I suspect) are gloss over, without much thought, and interpreted them in a creative, sensible and Torah-true manner. Think of how the Jewish people possibly could find themselves “in the furthest reaches of the heavens.” What did that phrase mean 500 or 3000 years ago? By bringing space travel for the masses into the realm of probability, you provided a fascinating way for this passage from the Torah to be fulfilled.

    Science fiction brings hitherto unimaginable scenarios and feats into the realm of probability, and can be an effective vehicle for setting up scenarios that involve characters’ difficult choices. You pulled it off in a very entertaining and innovative way.

    I don’t understand those who recoil at the sight of science fiction, or make condescending “feh” sounds when they hear of it. “I read that and I think ‘this can’t be happening,'” remarked an intellectually snobby boy when I was a teenager (who didn’t seem to lose his hypercritical nature on growing up and getting frum). That’s the point! Right now, it can’t happen. So what? We imagine a world in which it can, and then we run with the possibilities.

    Keep up the great writing!

    Nathaniel Wyckoff http://www.peterzadventures.com

    >

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    • Thanks so much. You really pinpointed one of my favorite things about sci-fi: “Science fiction brings hitherto unimaginable scenarios and feats into the realm of probability, and can be an effective vehicle for setting up scenarios that involve characters’ difficult choices.”

      Like

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