You may well have already noticed Rachel Swirsky’s name. If her fiction hasn’t caught your eye — and she’s published several interesting stories already this year, with three months still to go — then her posts at Alas, A Blog or the Aqueduct Press blog may have done. It was one of the latter that snagged me, and then I backtracked to discover, with pleasure, the same passion and directness in the former. Which is what I’m going to talk about here.
In an interview, Swirsky suggested she writes short stories because they are “close to poems. They can have a certain impressionism which approximates thought or sensation — bursts of energy instead of sustained documentation.” I can see that: a story such as “Heartstrung” (Interzone 210), a fantasy in which a mother has to literally sew her daughter’s heart onto the girl’s sleeve, is all about sensation, a short sharp punch of anger and sadness at how that society (and, of course, our own) constrains and pacifies women. But “Heartstrung” actually seems to me the least successful of Swirsky’s stories that I’ve read, precisely because of its brevity. To make its point in such a short space, the story has to be quite crudely manipulative, in a way that invites a “yes, but …” reaction as much as the visceral one that (I assume) was intended.
In contrast, a story like “The Debt of the Innocent”, from Glorifying Terrorism, takes the time to ground its awfulness, and as a result has a more lasting effect. Jamie Wrede, the protagonist, is a nurse who, in a resource-scarce future, is given the responsibility of removing the babies of poor parents from life support in favour of those from more prosperous families. Jamie is persuaded to take an action that might allow her to become a Rosa Parks for the times. “Frightening but familiar”, she is told, “the best [case] to swing public opinion”; the former statement is a reasonable paraphrase of Glorifying Terrorism‘s mission, but Swirsky’s case is more memorable than most in the book. The structure of “The Debt of the Innocent” highlights one of Swirsky’s apparent interests, which is telling stories that might not otherwise get told. Another writer’s version of the same tale could very easily have focused on Jamie, and left the stories of the families affected implicit; Swirsky makes them explicit. Interspersed with Jamie’s story we get the stories of the families of the babies she’s killed. Many of them, individually, pack as much punch as “Heartstrung” — indeed, most of them are more convincing than Jamie’s characterisation — but they also operate as part of a larger and more satisfying whole.
The interest in the marginal is even more obvious in “Scene From a Dystopia” (Subterranean 4; pdf; story starts on page 5), which manages to pack much more than “Heartstrung” into much less space, and which could also be titled If On A Winter’s Night A Handmaid:
You’ve read this book before. It’s one of the classics from the Cold War era, always worth rereading when you’ve got a little time on your hands — long plane rides, your annual winter flu, the two rainy weeks between autumn and winter when you find your mood drifting toward insular and melancholic. You feel comforted when you read the famous opening lines: “If these accounts have fallen into your hands, then you have been identified as a potential recruit for the rebellion. Take heed, for the Eyes are everywhere and you may already be in peril.” On page four, when Stanley relates his discovery of an ancient book from before the Technocracy, you enjoy the familiar tinge of mystery.
The story was published as part of the John Scalzi-edited “SF cliche issue” of Subterranean, and fulfills that remit completely and slyly: we really have read this book before, or as good as, despite the fact that it doesn’t exist, because the shape of a dystopian story is so familiar. The cliche is therefore the background of the story, a piece of assumed knowledge. When Stanley sees a beautiful girl sitting in a gymnasium, we know he will fall in love, and we know that will lead him into conflict with the state, because that’s what happens in We, in 1984, in other stories. So Swirsky doesn’t waste any time telling us what we already know, and when Stanley’s said his noble piece — “a woman is not a piece of data” — and strides on, the narrator gently stops us from following:
Ordinarily, you would follow him. Instead, allow me to waylay you here.
In the overall plot of the novel, this moment is unimportant. The entire scene occupies only two pages, from 50-52. But take a moment to explore this scene with me, to examine the story that lies not on the page, but inhabits the margins.
Now that Stanley is gone, let us venture where he never treads: into the gymnasium with Natalie.
“Scene From a Dystopia” is fanfic for a story that doesn’t exist. Moreover it’s an argument for fanfic as critique, as a particularly elegant act of criticism — or put another way, an argument for a marginal artistic form (in terms of the cultural value generally accorded to it, if not in sheer numbers), even as the surface of the story is an argument on behalf of marginal characters. By its ending, which challenges the reader’s sympathies as much as, if not more than, that of “The Debt of the Innocent”, “Scene From a Dystopia” provokes some important thoughts about the choices and assumptions made by both readers and writers as they go about their business, the most important of which is probably, simply, notice. Elsewhere, Gene wondered why a character in a story was transexual, then got called on it, and wondered why he wondered. “Scene From a Dystopia”, I think, is among other things a reminder that it’s natural to wonder. If “straight white male” is the default, then anything else indicates that a choice has been made — or at least, it implies that a more conscious choice has been made than the one made by Stanley’s author. Even if the motive behind that choice is, perfectly validly, “why not?”, the choice is there.
Which brings me to the story I thought I was going to spend most of my time talking about, “Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind” (Subterranean Online, Summer 2007), New Wave-y title and all. It has the best of the three stories I’ve mentioned above. It has the impressionistic, image- and sensation-driven feel of “Heartstrung” (and a lot of scene breaks; if Nick Mamatas really does think that scene breaks are always giant gongs, he’d probably be deafened by this story), the skillful interweaving of narratives that distinguishes “The Debt of the Innocent”, and the direct, telling-it-plain voice of “Scene From a Dystopia”. It’s something of a relief, in fact, to encounter a new writer who uses an omniscient voice that isn’t drenched in Kelly Link-style knowingness. “Dispersed …” is the short story equivalent of hyperlink cinema. It’s how the end of the world would look if you were God.
Wealthy northerners watch the event through cameras on surviving satellites. Milliseconds after impact, their screens go black as the asteroid’s collision displaces earth and rock in a hundred mile radius. Radioactive waste illegally buried in poverty-stricken Puerto Natales flies into the air, joining the plume of dirt that whirls into the chaotic weather systems caused by impact. Soil sewn with radioactive dust distributes across the globe in a storm that blocks the sun for three months.
(It could contain The Road as a sidebar.)
The last humans are an Aboriginal Australian girl, and a Nepalese man. We also see the inventor of “the last major art movement”, a Swedish woman who finds a way to create three-dimensional holograms of memories, and the perpetrator of “the last act of malice”, a man who releases the genetically modified organisms he’s been working on when it becomes clear that his government has abandoned him.
When Scalzi linked to the story, one of the less enamoured commentators (a minority), described it as “heavily didactically left-wing”. A couple of others challenged this assessment, though no debate ever really developed. I think there’s something in the characterisation: the choices Swirsky makes in the course of her story are at every stage choices to focus on people who are, in the here and now, disenfranchised, or choices to highlight the hypocrisy of those in power. When the wealthiest nations come up with their survival plan, we are told that “as for those who won’t be included […] global leaders mumble about regrettable losses then do what they have always done: sacrifice the good of the many for the good of themselves.” Is this cynical? Or just clear-sighted? Certainly the description of those who leave the safety of the north to travel south to stand, and die, with “their impoverished brothers and sisters” as “the last heroes” seems sincere. Note that I don’t intend this description as pejorative, though depending on your personal politics you might take it as such. But the story put me in mind of something Abigail said when reviewing Hal Duncan’s Book of All Hours, about the book being a manifesto. Swirsky’s story isn’t as fierce as Duncan’s, but it has something of the same steel, the same confidence to say “this is how I see it. Take it or leave it.”
And it would be a shame to leave it. “Dispersed …” isn’t as lyrical as its title might lead you to expect, but it’s certainly very atmospheric, full of images of brutal clarity — a child pulling a rib from a rotted skeleton, for instance — and brief, deft sketches. One of these concerns the last music made by mankind. It’s not much, and music is hard to write about at the best of times, but it’s enough to feel the pulse:
The last man is tone deaf and the light-eyed child doesn’t like to song because it reminds her that her voice is piping and high when it should be resonant and bass, so the last music mankind makes is subtle and strange. It’s the last man grunting in answer to the raven’s sporadic caws; it’s the light-eyed child splashing in the river to the beat of her heart; it’s the last man’s fingers drumming on his son’s hollow belly.
It’s moments like this that make “Dispersed …” the most distinctively Swirskyian story I’ve read so far. If I have a reservation about her work in general, it’s that it seems to be most successful when it has a clear template to follow. I’m going to indulge myself, and quote a John Clute line I’ve always liked about Steph Swainston’s first novel The Year of Our War, that it’s “a coughing of the throat of a storyteller being born in difficult but enthralling times”. It sums up how I feel about these stories, that they’re steps on the way to something more completely owned; what they say, and what might be said next, have the feel of things that need to be said. What will be said next, it looks like, is a story in Electric Velocipede 13, “How the World Became Quiet: a Post-Human Creation Myth”. A fluke of publishing order, no doubt, but it seems that after writing about the end, Rachel Swirsky is going to tackle a beginning.