Sunday 1 October 2017

Review: Starlings

Starlings Starlings by Jo Walton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

By the author's own admission, several of the "short stories" in this book are not actually stories. They're exercises in mode, or jokes, or the attempts of someone who knows how novels work but not how short stories work to write a short story.

This doesn't sound promising, but Jo Walton is such a good writer that she mostly gets away with it in any case. In fact, some of the stories have been published in prestigious publications like Strange Horizons and Subterranean. Unfairly, I occasionally thought, "I wish I had the kind of standing in the SFF community that meant I could get published in those publications by writing a story that isn't a story," but that's not the only thing that's going on. Walton is a deep thinker, a close observer, and a master of language, and all these things shine through, even when her "story" is only an exploration of a clever idea with no real beginning, middle, or (especially) end.

"Three Twilight Tales," for example, the first piece, explores a small town that has remarkable magic, but the magic is a means to look at the people and their relationships. "Jane Austen to Cassandra" takes the idea that Jane Austen's letters to her friend and correspondent Cassandra go astray and reach Cassandra's original namesake, the prophetess who nobody believed. And are answered. "Unreliable Witness" is from the POV of an elderly woman with dementia who may or may not have encountered aliens. "On the Wall" is, as the author says, the beginning of a novel, a very different version of Snow White, from the perspective of the mirror, but because we know the original story we don't need the rest. This kind of implied narrative is something I'm interested in, taking advantage of the familiar tales to create resonance and tell a minimal story where the reader fills in what's missing.

"The Panda Coin" is SF, following a coin through a number of hands in a somewhat dystopic space station. "Remember the Allosaur" is a joke, but a beautifully written one. "Sleeper" I think I've read before somewhere (probably, since it was published there, or in one of their collections); it's about a Russian sleeper agent in late-20th-century Britain whose consciousness is simulated by a researcher in a dystopian future. Like most of the others, it doesn't have an ending so much as imply a continuation.

"Relentlessly Mundane" is a consideration of the question "what do the kids do after they come back from the portal fantasy world and grow up?" It's an idea that's been tackled at greater length since by Seanan McGuire, but this is a good treatment.

"Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction" is a series of vignettes and pseudo-documents that build up a picture of an American dystopia (there's a bit of a theme going with the SF in this volume), in the old alternate-history-where-the-Nazis-won-WWII genre. Not as original an idea as some of the others, but well done.

"Joyful and Triumphant" is a meditation on the idea that each planet gets an Incarnation, in the "character explains as if to n00bs" mode. It's not a mode I think much of, and this is, for me, one of the weaker stories, though it's an interesting idea. Later in the volume, "What Would Sam Spade Do?" posits a world with multiple clones of Jesus, who have become a kind of ethnicity, and "What Joseph Felt" explores St Joseph's feelings around the Incarnation. "Out of It" is based on the Faust legend, so Christian mythology (if I can use the term) gets thoroughly inspected.

"Turnover" is a what-if-the-later-generations-in-the-generation-ship-don't-want-to-go-to-the-new-planet story. As it happens, I read a very similar story by Ursula Le Guin almost immediately afterwards ("Paradises Lost"), and comparing anyone else's story to a Le Guin is usually unfair to the other writer, but this one stands up reasonably well. The sense of place is well handled, in particular, and though it's another story with an "ending" that's more of an implication of future events to come, so is Le Guin's.

I won't mention all of the stories, just a couple more. "A Burden Shared" is set in a world where people can (through handwaved technology) shoulder one another's pain, featuring the mother of a woman with a chronic illness as the main character. As someone who lives with a person with a chronic illness, it rang true to me, and the theme of how caregivers (especially mothers) can neglect their own needs is an important one.

The other story, which is actually a play, is "Three Shouts on a Hill," an odd mishmash of Irish legend with bits and pieces from other times and places that's as much a meta-meditation on story as it is anything else.

Overall, then, this collection is proof that, if you're a good enough writer, you can write a successful piece of short fiction in a lot of different ways. Not all of the pieces are excellent or weighty, or even original, but those that are lift the average considerably.

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