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How the World Became Quiet by Rachel Swersky

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How the World Became Quiet by Rachel Swersky (Subterranean Press, 2013) starts with “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” which won the 2010 Nebula Award for Novella, and was nominated in the Best Novella category for the 2011 Hugo Award and 2011 World Fantasy Award. It offers an opportunity to consider whether the roles society builds for different groups can ever find an objective justification. Except, of course, even the implication that it’s possible to formulate absolute reasons for being “right” is flawed. What may seem self-evidently justifiable to one culture, may seem crude oppression to another. Take slavery and sexism as examples. We could hold up a multitude of reasons for approving the intellectual and artistic achievements of Ancient Greece while turning a blind eye to its exploitation of slaves and the patriarchal treatment of women. Democracy may have been a good idea for the few men entitled to vote. . . So here’s a woman who achieves power and status as a magician in a matriarchy. Ironically, to maintain the population numbers, the leadership has to distinguish between women as leaders and women as brood mares. Just being the right gender does not entitle you to all the privileges the society grants. Our magician is then involuntarily forced to travel through time and encounters the range of cultures that follow. Not all experiences are without conflict, the point being to decide when the social rules that shaped each individual are to be upheld against all challenges and when it’s appropriate to bend or break those rules, e.g. should a woman teach a man or should a man use his power to force a woman to disclose what she knows? The answers given here are beautifully thought-provoking.

“Monstrous Embrace” is a nicely nuanced allegory on the nature of ugliness and its potential power to remove injustices and inequalities. When all are ugly in a kingdom, is the kingdom not immune to invasion — the invaders will fear they will become ugly simply by being on that land. When there’s no such thing as beauty, even the one-eyed hag can seem attractive to men. Such are the questions. But positively embracing ugliness. . . now that’s something likely to take more courage than anyone has. “The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth: A Nautical Tale” is whimsy in a style vaguely reminiscent of Edward Lear as different animals populate the shores and rat pirates, occasionally aided and abetted by a cat, plunder and pillage, and later run plantations bought with their treasure. It’s interesting but goes on too long. “Heartstrung” returns to the allegorical vein with a culture that externalises a woman’s heart — it’s literally carried on her sleeve — so she feels nothing for herself. Indeed, the ritual for acknowledging the arrival of adulthood requires the daughter to accept the father’s slap with a smile. “Marrying the Sun” diverts into fantasy with a mortal woman, whose PhD specialism is the study of the sun, responds favorably to a matchmaker’s suggestion she should marry Helios. The problem with gods is their essential narcissism. They revel in the idea of being the centre of attention. Let’s face it, in more ancient times, they were worshipped. So for Helios to find a lonely woman who lives to study him. Well, it’s a match made in heaven, isn’t it?

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky

If we ignore the political context for “A Monkey Will Never Be Rid of Its Black Hands” and set aside the intriguing sequence of folk sayings, the heart of the story is whether we can accept traumatic injuries and develop sufficient will-power to adjust. It’s so easy to give up and fall into dependency without considering what might have been lost. “The Sea of Trees” is a fascinating and rather beautiful supernatural story set in Japan where, unless someone sleeps close to a suicide’s dead body on the first night following death, the ghost might return to Earth. In a fugue state, an individual cannot break into or out of the cycle without outside help. Sometimes, all it takes is a human touch, a sign someone else genuinely cares what happens to you. “Fields of Gold”* (nominated for the 2011 Nebula Award for Best Novelette and for the 2012 Hugo Awards for Best Novelette) is a delightful story about the afterlife. It’s remarkable how cosmopolitan it is and, given the company, how easy it is to find compatible people to spend eternity with.

“Eros, Philia, Agape” (nominated for 2010 Hugo and 2010 Theodore Sturgeon Awards) is an elegy on the search for love. When a daughter loses the father who slept with her, how does she grieve? Can she find someone else to love? Such questions assume undamaged human emotions. Perhaps if she had a parrot, or a robot with programming to make it attractive, or she adopted a human baby. . . no, that would would just be a recipe for a dysfunctional family. “The Monster’s Million Faces” wonders whether it would be possible to heal the scars left after a young boy is abducted. Obviously nothing can undo the facts, but could a psychologist find an emotional balm to salve the wound and enable a more normal future personality? “Again and Again and Again” ** demonstrates why we should never have children. It’s far better for the species to die out than to have to go through the endless torture of children. “Diving After the Moon” is the metaphor buried within the folk story used to create the means to recreate the same ending. It’s a particularly elegant piece of writing.

“Scenes from a Dystopia” blurs the line between fiction and commentary to ask a very pertinent question. In all social systems, there are winners and losers. So what may appear to be a dystopian society may actually be a technocracy protecting people against the possibility of being seen to fail. Why is a capitalist society which allows massive disparity in the distribution of wealth and opportunity not considered a dystopia when so many lead lives of misery? “The Taste of Promises” is a YA story with an emotional heart an adult can relate to. Although the premise is explicitly sfnal, the reality of sibling relationships where one child is disabled is all too true. “With Singleness of Heart” reminds us that bonding can sometimes only come through unpleasant rituals. “Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind” is a bold statement, “If you’re going to do apocalypse, do it properly!” quoth the raven. “How the World Became Quiet: A Post-Human Creation Myth” repeats the apocalypses, never quite managing to remove all life from Earth. Perhaps the insects and the trees can finally stabilise the situation (if they have a million or so years of peace). “Speech Strata” as a final gesture, words being of no importance in the distant future, suggests individuality might be a passing phase until everyone is subsumed into the dance.

How the World Became Quiet is a collection bristling with ideas and elegant prose. The one or two weaker stories are never less than interesting, and the vast majority are rather beautiful, exploring past, present and future in search of inspiration and enlightenment. It’s one of the best collections so far this year.

* First appeared in Eclipse Four edited by Jonathan Strahan.

** Reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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