How the World Became Quiet: Wish I’d discovered Swirsky sooner

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsHow the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and FutureHow the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and Future by Rachel Swirsky

I don’t read a lot of short stories, so it isn’t surprising that Rachel Swirsky wasn’t on my radar. Stories and novellas are what she is best known for. Subterranean Press has gathered 18 of her works into this collection, How the World Became Quiet.

Swirsky also writes poetry, which explains both her precise use of prose and her mastery of tone. This collection ranges from masterworks to pieces that are, in my opinion, interesting experiments. The book is broken into four sections; Past, Present, Future and The End, and the stories follow that, generally speaking; fantastical stories that could be set in Earth’s past or exist as folktales; stories set roughly speaking in the present day; tales, both science fiction and fantastical set in Earth’s future, and stories that discuss event during or after human extinction.

The Past:

The book opens with Swirsky’s Nebula-winning “The Woman Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window.” Lady Naeva is a sorceress to the Queen. She is killed in an ambush, but her essence is captured by a spell, and she can be revived to live again in the body of another, usually someone recently killed. Over the decades and then centuries, various people use the spell and resurrect her. Through these brief encounters, Naeva witnesses the fall of her matriarchal society, a period of wars and ultimately awakens in a university setting nearly a thousand years beyond her own time. This time, Naeva does not inhabit a body of flesh, dead or otherwise, but a kind of poppet or scarecrow. Naeva befriends the woman scholar who awakens her, but ultimately her strong beliefs, specifically that her people’s magic cannot be shared with men, put her at odds with the scholar and the society. Faced with a killer plague, the University Council does not care to honor the beliefs of a thousand-year-dead sorceress, and they betray Naeva. The ending has a beautiful mystical quality. Naeva is a bigot, willing to let people die to support her ignorance, but she is a compelling one. Her description of magic in her time, not as a recipe or a system but as poetry, enhances this powerful work of imagination.

“Monstrous Embrace” uses a unique point of view voice to re-tell what sounds, at first, like a simple fairy tale. Tomorrow, the prince will marry the beautiful young woman he met riding in the woods, a falcon on her shoulder. As he sleeps, a voice describing itself as ugliness whispers to him the truth of the woman’s situation, and her scheme to marry him, murder him and take his kingdom. The narrator speaks of physical ugliness, but also spiritual ugliness. It says it was in the city the would-be-queen came from, because while the people who lived there were beautiful beyond imagining, their deeds were ugly. Will the handsome prince see past the beautiful face to the twisted heart inside? Will he willingly reach out a hand to ugliness instead? Swirsky keeps us wondering, using simple fairy-tale language to burnish this dark little tale.

Speaking of tales, “The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth; a Nautical Tail,” is a delightful romp that follows the adventures of a rat pirate and his rapidly-dwindling crew. In spite of all odds, Captain Wentworth achieves a happy ending, and I hope that’s not a spoiler.

The Present:

“Heartstung” is a sad and frightening horror story that turns the expression “wearing your heart on your sleeve” inside out. We meet a seamstress and her nine year old daughter, as they are making a change to the daughter that prepares her for adulthood. The women in this culture are like Stepford Wives, only they aren’t robots, or brainwashed. The change to them is more visceral and terrifying. Rachel adds a layer of horror to the awfulness of this tale by commenting that, while this change was usually done when a girl reached twelve or thirteen, daughters are clamoring to have it done sooner so they can be “grown-up.” The idea is scary and highly political, but it is the very domesticity of the mutilation that makes this a dark gem of horror. I will never look at a sweater set in the same light.

“Marrying the Sun” begins as a comedy of manners, but there is more going on here than just the fact that Bridget, a scientist, calls off her wedding when Helios, Greek god of the sun and her fiancé, burns off her wedding dress just as they reach the altar. Bridget is understandably upset, the more so when she discovers that the hotel will not refund the money for the ballroom or the bridal suite. Her matchmaker, Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, tries to comfort her by explaining why mortal-deity marriages almost never work. Meanwhile, Helios, with his best man Apollo, tries to drown his sorrows in the bar. We discover that Bridget came to his attention because she was studying sunspots. Apollo accuses Helios of liking mortal women so he can have all the power in the relationship. Helios denies this, but not very convincingly. Suddenly, though, the story takes a different turn when Helios, in the midst of seducing a woman he picked up in the hotel bar, is reminded of the death of his son Phaeton. Later, when Bridget comes up to retrieve her clothes, the two of them share an authentic moment of connection. No, they will never be together, but for a brief period these two very different people understand and perhaps even comfort each other.

The most ambitious story in the collection is “The Monkey Will Never Be Rid of his Black Hands.” The magic in this story is powerful and subtle, and the context is terrifying. Momodu emigrated, with his father and uncle, from Sierra Leone. When he refuses to enlist in the US army in a new war against Syria and Lebanon, his uncle Fomba cuts off both of Momodu’s hands. This act of retribution sets off a wave of copycat attacks, and soon Momodu is the poster-boy for a group of men called The Handless. Many of the other victims have prosthetics, but Momodu’s phantom-limb pain is so strong he can’t tolerate them. The story is told in the first person. Momodu explains Uncle Fomba’s background; he was conscripted as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, and tells us, “Amputation has been a terrorist tactic in Africa since the Belgians required their officers to provide one human hand for every bullet they shot.”

Momodu’s father dies and his uncle is starving himself to death in prison, but Momodu and the other Handless are political symbols, pity-celebrities included on talk shows and opinion shows, which is how Momodu meets Barry, another Handless. The story follows Momodu’s relationships with Minna, his attendant, who he met at a bar, and Barry. Momodu’s voice, a combination of bitterness, cynicism and self-pity, is vivid and specific, laced with proverbs, some genuine old-country, some made up by Momodu sarcastically. (The title is one of those proverbs.) Momodu’s very helplessness gives him incredible power, but it isn’t until he finally visits Fomba at the prison that he realizes he has not only been mutilated by his uncle but cursed as well. As he says, near the end of the story, “Do not suppose redemption comes all at once. Revelation does, but not redemption.” Still, at the end of the story Momodu is trying to reach out, even without hands.

This story is perfectly paced, honest, and emotionally compelling. If it fell short, slightly, for me, it was just because I did think Momodu’s reach for redemption was a pretty big one and came a bit too quickly, and that is more of an individual reader’s reaction than a comment on the quality of the story.

“The Sea of Trees” is a tale about a forest in Japan where people go to commit suicide. Two young women, both haunted, meet there. They try to evade the various Japanese ghosts, which are as frightening as something in a cult Japanese movie. Ultimately, each woman must face up to loss and forgiveness, and learn to forgive herself. Once again the strong voice of a first person narrator, Nao, gives the story much of its power.

“Fields of Gold” is an interesting take on the afterlife, when Dennis, who fell into a diabetic coma and died, comes to a series of realizations about his wife and his life, and finally a resolution that allows him to leave the party, complete with confetti and noisemakers, that he first finds himself in after he dies.

The Future:

In“Eros, Philia, Agape,” a story that was nominated for several awards, we watch a marriage dissolve. This seems like a strange choice for a science fiction story until we realize that the husband, Lucien, is an android. Swirsky juggles a lot of concepts here: on one level, simply the story of a couple growing apart; questions about intelligence and artificial intelligence; what constitutes humanity; ownership versus love, and what becomes of children when the parents go their separate ways. Of course, Lucien and Adriana are not the biological parents of their daughter Rose, she is adopted, but the impact on her is not diminished. This is a story that I appreciated intellectually but was not moved by, and I’m still not sure exactly why. It might be that there are too many issues for a novelette. At times the piece lost focus; Adriana’s intimacy issues actually stem from abuse by her father, but Lucien reads them as issues of ownership. The pet bird, Fuoco, is meant to symbolize several things, but became a complete distraction for me. I also wasn’t sure whose story this was. Is this about Lucien exercising free will? About Adriana, failing at another relationship, or Rose, grappling with the abandonment of a parent? The story did not thrill me, but Swirsky’s failed experiments are still more interesting than 90% of what’s out there.

“The Monster’s Thousand Faces” takes a blunt look at the results of child sexual abuse as a man uses a new form of therapy to try to confront the man who abducted and raped him. The subject matter is daring and Swirsky doesn’t flinch but the story seems like a traditional science fiction story to me, as does “The Taste of Promises,” a suspenseful story of two boys on Mars. “Promises” includes domed settlements and raiders, and a special group of people called “lifted children.” It follows all the SF conventions and it is the characterizations that make the story come to life.

“Again and Again and Again” is a darkly comic look at teenage rebellion across several generations and into the future. “Scene from a Dystopia” is meta-fiction, beginning with the sentence, “You’ve read this book before.” Swirksy chooses a scene from the Cold War era novel “you are reading,” and drills down, imagining what could have happened to the characters observed in that brief moment: how it could have gone, but how it would most likely have gone, given human nature.

For me, the sweetest and saddest story in the book is “Diving After the Moon.” When he was a boy, Norbu’s mother Jamyang told him the story of a family of monkeys who saw the moon’s reflection in a well. They all joined hands and climbed into the well in a chain, determined to save the moon. As an adult, Norbu becomes a taikonaut and is part of an expedition to the moon; one made with hand-me-down American space equipment and funded by Australia. When equipment failure and political upheaval strand the expedition on the moon, both Jamyang and Norbu return to the folktale in an attempt to survive. Is it science fiction, magical realism, or fantasy? The story is beautiful. The end is harsh, politically astute, and sad.

“I feel worse and so I hit her a second time.” “With Singleness of Heart” is practically a prose poem about a devastating topic, rape. It is told from the point of view of a rapist. He is not, in any way, redeemed or excused in this story, nor is he a monster. There is not one word more than necessary in this story. It will leave you angry. It means to.

The End:

The last three stories take place after the age of humanity. “Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind” tells the story of a “city-sized” asteroid that strikes earth and the aftermath. Swirsky creates a quiet and strangely tender moment when the last two humans on earth die. “The last man and woman on earth” is an old-fashioned SF trope and Swirsky plays with it here; these two people, who die within a few hours of each other, will never meet, being continents apart. We see each of them, and also find out what happened in the months before the object hit, and the years after. Swirsky compares the death of the final two humans to Newton and Leibnitz or Darwin and Wallace; “… simply the final pair to march hand in hand into an unexplored realm.”

“How the World Became Quiet; a Post-Human Creation Myth” follows the saga of the wars of post-humans with trees, the truce they both come to, and the subsequent wars between the crab-men and seal-men, hyena-men and eagle-men, and so on. This is a strange, fanciful and surprisingly light tale.

“Strata of Speech” is another piece that showcases Swirsky’s virtuosity with words, as we follow Spin and Hesitant, two being who live beyond the clouds. They communicate in three-dimensional symbols; for example, Spin speaks “a diamond and a peacock feather” to show her lover how beautiful she thinks he is. Hesitant is still capable of misconstruing these objects, these words. Spin struggles to find another way to interact, and the story broadens beyond the two of them to others in their race. The story is quite lovely although I’m not sure I completely understood Spin or her people.

Swirsky maintains command of language even when the mechanics of the story are not perfect. She writes about imperialism, sexism and social injustice, and she doesn’t soft-soap anything. A couple of these stories are hard to read for just that reason, but they are worth the effort. The good thing about coming to Swirsky so late is that with this collection I got to read a lot of her beautiful work all at once.

Publication date: September 30, 2013. After a powerful sorceress is murdered, she’s summoned over the centuries to witness devastating changes to the land where she was born. A woman who lives by scavenging corpses in the Japanese suicide forest is haunted by her dead lover. A man searches for the memory that will overwrite his childhood abuse. Helios is left at the altar. The world is made quiet by a series of apocalypses. From the riveting emotion and politics of ‘The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window’ (Nebula winner) to the melancholy family saga of ‘Eros, Philia, Agape’ (Hugo and Theodore Sturgeon finalist), Rachel Swirsky’s critically acclaimed stories have quickly made her one of the field’s rising stars. Her work is, by turns, clever and engaging, unflinching and quietly devastating–often in the space of the same story. How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and Future collects the body of Swirsky’s short fiction to date for the first time. While these stories envision pasts, presents, and futures that never existed, they offer revealing examinations of humanity that readers will find undeniably true.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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5 comments

  1. Great review, Marion. I loved this collection. My review is somewhere in the posting queue at Tor.com right now.

  2. I’ve got to find this. Everytime I come across a Swirsky short story I know I’m in for a treat.

  3. My copy just arrived this week, and I’m looking forward to reading it — more so after reading this excellent review. Thanks, Marion.

  4. Ashley Graber /

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