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Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea, Sarah Pinsker, Small Beer Press, 2019, $17, tpb
All Worlds Are Real, Susan Palwick, Fairwood Press, 2019, $17.99, tpb
Meet Me in the Future, Kameron Hurley, Tachyon Publications, 2019, $16.95, tpb
Just as the crime novel at its best can be a practical guide to sociology, probing at our society's structures and the politics of power, so can science fiction and fantasy prove essential philosophy, asking fundamental questions of who, why, and how we are.
Richard Matheson's story of a monstrous child chained away from sight in the basement, "Born of Man and Woman," is, first, a chilling story, but it is also, still more chillingly, about the horrors we as a society in the same breath create and deny, and what will come of it. With its confusion of master and android servant, of which is doing the killing and why, Alfred Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit" probes at colonialism, the nature of identity, privilege, and the wellsprings of evil. Theodore Sturgeon's Some of Your Blood posits central questions of individual and socially reckoned morality.
We tell stories, our voices go out into the room, but all the while we are listening for much more—and in many ways that listening is what it's all about.
There's also the simple fact that, as writers, some of us just don't do well with clothes off the rack. They're too snug here, loose and floppy there, not enough pockets, too many buttons, unbecoming, uncomfortable, unimaginative. What do we do? We find modes of storytelling that fit our aberrant, recondite tastes and selves.
Hardly new notions, but reading the stories under review here, offering as they do quite an inclusive exhibit of what science fiction and fantasy can so uniquely express, brings such notions forcibly to mind.
Sarah Pinsker published two books late last year, the novel A Song for a New Day with Berkley and, from Small Beer Press, her debut collection of stories, Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea. For all the brilliance, dash, and grace of the novel (which spins off, in fact, from a story here, "Our Lady of the Open Road"), for me it's with the story collection that Pinsker's range and reach come fully to the fore. This is extraordinary work.
Twelve of the stories first appeared in such publications as F&SF, Asimov's, and Lightspeed; "The Narwhal" is previously unpublished. Virtually each story begins with a strong footfall.
Andy tattooed his left forearm with Lori's name on a drunken night in his seventeeth year.
I woke at dawn on the holiday, so my grandfather put me to work polishing Mama's army boots.
Father built me a new grandmother when the real one died.
Turn the pages and you're an old-time fiddler on a generation starship, the recipient of a prosthetic arm believing itself to be a rural roadway, two women creating interactive dioramas of classic crime scenes, Lynette signing on to help drive a whale-shaped car cross country toward an unanticipated but very special museum, or Luce dedicated to unlawful live gigs in a doubly devastated nation of perfect, lifeless hologram concerts.
Here's Luce from that last, "Our Lady of the Open Road":
We all shared the same indignation that we were losing everything that made us distinct, that nothing special happened anymore, that the new world replacing the old one wasn't nearly as good, that everyone was hungry and everything was broken and that we'd fix it if we could find the right tools. My job was to give it all a voice.
The first story, "A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide," artfully sets the reader's expectations of the otherness, physicality, and troubling emotions to come. Mangled in a combine, Andy's arm (once tattooed with Lori's name) gets replaced by a robot arm complete with cybernetic head implant. The greater part of three pages is given over to his awakening in hospital to a new, much-diminished world of pain, ache, infection—then to learning anew how to function. That achieved, Andy, who had never wanted much, finds his world direly changed.
Now he wanted to be a road, or his right arm did. It wanted with a fierceness that left him baffled, a wordless yearning that came from inside him and outside him at once. [...] It didn't just want to be a road. It knew it was one. Specifically, a stretch of asphalt two lanes wide, ninety-seven kilometers long, in eastern Colorado.
Soon Andy feels little else but the road in his sleeve. He smells Colorado air as the highway creeps up his arm, past his shoulder, as it paves his heart and flattens his limbs. Eventually he collapses, whereupon physicians discover major swelling around the chip and remove it.
Whether Andy's visions of Colorado derive from the infection or from the chip's innate memories and longing for an earlier life, we never know. Here as often in her stories, Pinsker is writing—fancifully, yes, but forever grounded in the personal, the particular—about inescapable, all but inexpressible losses at the center of our lives.
That sense of loss, and respect for traditions that have the power to temper it, seem central here. In "The Low Hum of Her," immigrants carry their heritage with them in the form of a robotic replica of their dead grandmother. On "Remembery Day," veterans of the final war have their memories restored, the horrible along with the good, before voting to have them again removed. An old-time fiddler on a generation starship in "Wind Will Rove" works to convince the young of the importance of the collective past that has been erased from the ship's memory banks by a renegade among them, while others work at reconstructing from memory what has not yet faded. Like Luce, starship fiddler Rosie of "Wind Will Rove" feels that they are losing everything that made them distinct.
A standout for many readers, I suspect, will be the closing novella, "And Then There Were (N-One)," a classic golden-age mystery brought joyfully into the science-fictional world of parallel realities.
I considered declining the invitation. It was too weird, too expensive, too far, too dangerous, too weird. Way too weird. An invitation like that would never come again.
Probably not, since it's to SarahCon, a convention where will assemble Sarah Pinskers from variant realities—some 200 of them. And as though that were not sufficiently chaotic of itself, one Sarah gets murdered by another Sarah, leaving yet a third Sarah (the closest they have to a detective on this secluded island socked in by foul weather) to investigate. The story's a proper mystery, a tour de force, and a wonderful comic piece, not by turns but all at a blow; it's also among the most imaginative pieces of writing I've encountered in years.
A personal favorite is "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind," the tale of two life-long lovers and their secrets, the sort of story I can well imagine readers returning to again and again. Like so many of our own lives, it ends with one, Millie, at the bedside of the other, George, an architect with whom she has shared sixty-plus years.
Then they were alone again, alone except for the noisy machines by the bedside and the ticking clock and the television and the nurses' station outside the door. None of that was hard to tune out.
"We're going to draw again, old man."
She opened the briefcase and pulled out a drawing board, a piece of paper, and a handful of pencils. [...]
All that mattered was his hand pressed in hers: long enough to feel like always, long enough to feel like everything trapped had been set free.
Susan Palwick's previous books include four novels, a previous collection from Tachyon Publications, The Fate of Mice, in 2007, and a volume of poems based on her experience as a volunteer hospital chaplain. She's served time as university professor, as editor of The Little Magazine, and was one of the founders of The New York Review of Science Fiction. All Worlds Are Real brings together twelve stories from F&SF, Asimov's, Lightspeed, Tor.com, and Clarkesworld, along with three new ones.
As one might expect of a writer many years into the work, there's considerable variety here, straight-ahead science fiction, freewheeling fantasy, strains of horror, even one story, a brilliant psychological portrait, with little if any arealist element. Yet for all their freshness and discrete faces, there's a core of cohesiveness.
In an interview with Tangent, Palwick spoke at length of an habitual return to themes of death and mortality, social problems such as feminism, poverty, war, and to spiritual or religious questions, going so far as to remark events in her life that led her to these issues. In another interview for Clarkesworld she's spoken of being "strongly drawn to characters who are misfits, marginalized, or misunderstood."
Here's what you hear when you first knock at a few of the doors:
As it happened, my latest bunch of cucumbers was due to start singing any minute, which meant the last thing I needed was somebody in the house.
I'd just finished putting new eyebolts in the St. Andrew's cross in the Red Room—I hadn't installed the old ones, and they'd turned into pipe cleaners—when the angels came fluttering in, mewling and bumping into things.
Scanning for infrared signatures, the search-and-rescue robot found the young woman at dusk in a pile of smoking rubble outside the city.
The tenth circle of Hell is a gift shop. Andrew, tired and dispirited, wanders among the predictable displays: T-shirts and refrigerator magnets, bottles of fire-and-brimstone hot sauce, racks of postcards and cheap costume jewelry and coffee mugs.
Palwick writes with a fine humor and balance, from the giant space cucumbers unaccountably showing up on Whit's doorstep every five or six weeks, hopping inside and hanging out for a bit before they start singing and turn to gravy, to the soul-in-amber trinket Andrew buys at Hell's gift shop, compelled then to learn more of the man whose soul is trapped there. She writes also with great compassion, as in the wonderfully understated "Weather," about the loss of children and communication with the dead.
In "Windows," Vangie visits her son in prison, where she learns that her daughter's generation starship, on which she won her place by lottery, has lost contact and may well have been destroyed.
Penny, in "Ash," has her home go up in flame while on vacation and returns to find a tree in her backyard, the only thing that grew there before the fire, bringing back as new growth what the fire consumed.
In "Sanctuary," biblical apocalypse has come down the track and, well, it's not quite what anyone expected, more colloidal suspension than final solution: Shake the jar and you never know what you'll get.
As with the Pinsker, pretty much every story is a standout, though personal favorites here have to be "Hodge" and "Recoveries."
The latter sprang from Palwick's wondering what alcoholics and alien abductees, each with its own recovery group, might have in common. The strangeness begins subtly, sensed in the story's second-person narration, begins to swell by page three ("You swallow the lump of lettuce, wondering how long it will stay down"), yet doesn't come fully into focus for nineteen pages, just three before the end. The entire story is cast as a confession of sorts, exactly the sort of tale-of-my-life you'd hear at a recovery meeting.
"Hodge," appearing here for the first time, I've now read three times.
Nellene calls the dog Hodge-Podge because he looks like an assemblage of broken-down parts, something cobbled together from a scrapyard. His head's too big for his body and he only has three legs and there are weird blotches on him where he has no fur, just scaly skin. He looks old, not that Nellene's a great judge of dog ages, or of anything at all right now: she can't think clearly when she's off her meds, and when she's on them, her head aches and gravity's three times what it should be.
When the dog comes to her and follows her home, Nellene begs her parents to allow her to keep him. Like herself, he is "broken, motley, revolting to everyone around," shedding "fur and stench all over the house, the combination of his breath and his gas putrid and stultifying." But not only can Hodge walk through the shadows that strike terror into her, clutch at her and block her way, Hodge can also keep them at bay, keep them from closing in on her, save her.
Meet Me in the Future contains sixteen stories in which the reader meets mercenaries who jump into bodies of the newly dead, organic spaceships gone to decay, bodies outfitted as weapons to spread disease and genetic damage, a crippled paraplegic running serum on a suicide mission to a distant settlement struck by the plague our hero barely survived, and much—sometimes dazzling, sometimes dizzying—more. Prior publication includes Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the author's fan-specific Patreon site. Hurley has also published eight novels, the earlier collection Apocalypse Nyx, and a book of nonfiction, The Geek Feminist Revolution.
A lot of bodies here, as it turns out. And a lot of worlds where the lights are turned low. Wars, self-immolation, tears in the fabric, false history, unheld centers.
Bodies are only beautiful when they aren't yours.
I don't remember the first time I was abandoned and forgotten.
The heroes left the man dying on the field, one of the thousands they pitched overboard from their silvery ships at the end of each battle with Yousra's people.
Hurley's stories hit the ground running. In a paragraph, often in a few sentences, she builds a world and drops us convincingly into it, however alien. She is, as she remarks in the introduction, by nature a novelist, far more comfortable in large open spaces, and virtually every one of these stories might easily become novels; two in fact, "Warped Passages" and "The Light Brigade" have subsequently shape-shifted to such.
In "Red Secretary," those who bring war, those who fought on either side in the great battles that break out every three hundred years, must be destroyed to herald peacetime. The story opens on a group of soldiers gone rogue, barricaded against their designated fate, and the negotiator sent in to deal.
In "The Fisherman and the Pig," Nev, the body jumper from the opening story, sits at the end of a charred pier, "casting his line again and again into the murky water in the hopes of catching a corpse." He saves a small pig from eating fish laced with toxins like those he encountered long ago on the battlefield when he wore different bodies, then, poisoned himself, goes looking for the necromancer who can tell him more about the poison. Finally he and Pig walk off together toward the sunrise.
Many stories echo if not quite meet the emotional intensity of "When We Fall," the tale of a young alien woman who, among all those around her with gills, webbed toes, jutting ears, tails or extra limbs, has never seen anyone who looks like her, and who falls in love with the AI avatar of one of the organic spaceships, "a war machine that is better suited to living than dying." Aisha can't remember back to the first time she was abandoned, forgotten, left behind.
I remember being hungry. I remember a tall woman with dark hair pulling me close and saying, "Stay here, Aisha." She gave me a length of sugarcane and a mango.[...] The people I saw as I sat out there, day after day...I couldn't imagine that none of these people wanted me.
Meanwhile, other stories such as "The Corpse Archives" tend to combine in a single closed space Hurley's preoccupations with war, history, horror, transformations, the body as implicit world.
The bodies you speak of, those that existed before the world was silenced and unmade, the bodies of my first memory, are those that danced naked on the hard, black earth around the fires our keepers allowed us.
Anish knows her people's body-recorded history, that the burn-scarred face of Senna tells them all how the sky burned and rivers ran red when the keepers came.
Senna went mad before the keepers finished writing on her. She screamed and cried and begged to be taken to the pens, to live out her life among the other partially perfected texts that the keepers could not bear to throw away.
Anish knows, too, that she is "the most hideous of these texts," smooth, incomplete, ugly, untouched—unwritten.
Three remarkable and remarkably different writers. Forty-four stories on the prowl among science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, the weird. Stories carrying on Sturgeon's admonition to ask the next question...and the next, and the next. Writers with strong voices and highly individual takes on the vessels they choose and how they go about getting their worlds inside. Perhaps, together, also a fair representation of what our field is—whatever we choose to call it—in the first two decades of the twenty-first century?
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Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide