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How the World Became Quiet 

by Rachel Swirsky

Subterranean Press


304pp/$40.00/November 2013

How the World Became Quiet

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Rachel Swirsky has collected several stories in the book How the World Became Quiet, including a three Hugo nominees, a Nebula nominee, and a Nebula Winning novella.  The stories range from the fantastic past to the science fictional future, demonstrating Swirsky's versatility as an author as she juggles rats, robots, and humans to explore the universe.

The collection begins with Swirsky’s Nebula Award winning novella “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window.”  The story opens with Naeva, the titular narrator, being killed, but having her essence trapped so that her queen can still consult her.  Swirsky develops a complex magic system that allows Queen Rayneh to consult with Naeva and an even more complex society for the Land of Flowered Hills.  However, cultures don’t last forever, even if semi-disembodied souls do,  and Swirsky shows glimpses of several of those cultures as they summon Naeva for consultation, as well as Naeva’s own reactions to the changing culture, especially when her matriarchal society begins to give way to more androcentric or even gender equal cultures. Naeva eventually winds up being summoned by Misa, a scholar and magician and spends quite a bit of time in the human world which is so different from her own.  Although the two form a relationship, it is fraught with the different cultures into which each woman was born as well as by the simple fact that Misa is a human born into that world while Naeva is a “Sleepless One” brought into that world by Misa.

A foreign princess arriving in a kingdom and marrying the local prince is a common enough theme in many fairy tales and fantasy stories, but Swirsky turns the trope on its head in “Monstrous Embrace,” in which an outside force brings its own jealousy and knowledge of the princess’s past to paint a picture which is much less cheerful than the “happily ever after” one would normally expect to come after the prince marries the exotic princess.

Swirsky takes an interesting take on pirate stories with “The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth: A Nautical Tail,” a story of vicious pirates who are out for whatever booty they can get, with a good measure of bloodthirstiness thrown in.  What sets Swirsky’s pirates apart is the fact that they are rats.  The story would not have been out of place in Brian Jacques’s Redwall series and provide excellent swashbuckling charm.

“Heartstrung” is a sort of coming of age story told from the point of view of the young girl’s mother, who is guiding her daughter through the process.  Swirsky focuses on the ritualization of the coming of age process. In this case, a look at the empathy that one acquires with age by having the young woman’s heart literally sewn onto her sleeve.  At the same time, the weakness of empathy is demonstrated by the mother’s own reaction to her daughter leaving behind childish things.

“A Monkey Will Never Be Rid of Its Black Hands” is the story of a bitter, somewhat misogynistic man whose uncle and father chopped off his hand as a cruel punishment for what they perceived as cowardice.  The story examines, albeit obliquely, the ideas of forgiveness and redemption as Momodo comes to terms with his life, the way people perceive him, and the few relationships he has.  While Momodo does not come across as a sympathetic character, despite the cruelties inflicted upon him, he also is not one to be reviled despite his personal failings.

Following Dennis’s death, he finds himself in Heaven where he meets not only all the people who were important in his life, but also several famous people.  In “Fields of Gold,” he learns about rumors concerning his death, a possible murder by his wife, as well as reacquaints himself with his long lost cousin, for whom he has long had a crush, not always unrequited.  His exposure to all of these people and the rumors allows Dennis to reevaluate his own life and the role he played in the lives of those with whom he interacted with, a strange sort of posthumous It’s a Wonderful Life.

“Diving After the Moon” is a strange mix of science fiction and fable as it follows the first expedition to the moon by Qinghai, long after the fall of America and China.  Sopa Norbu yearned for the moon from a young age and now that he has reached it, the Moon may turn into his grave as global tensions meant that his team may not be able to leave the Moon.  The story looks at a legend his mother used to tell him about a group of monkey trying to reach the Moon’s reflection in a well, which in turn becomes an impossible attempt to rescue the stranded taikonauts, or possibly simply be an hallucination.

Many of the other stories in How the World Became Quiet offer a variety of discussions on the meaning of being human, comparing humans to gods, robots, strange hybrid creatures, or aliens completely unlike humanity.  Taken together, they provide their own discussion, much as science fiction generally has done over the years, and not coming to any one conclusion, but allowing the reader to consider Swirsky's interpretations of the human condition.

The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window Hugo NomineeNebula Winner The Monster's Million Faces
Monstrous Embrace Again and Again and Again
The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth: A Nautical Tail Diving After the Moon
Heartstrung Scene from a Dystopia
Marring the Sun The Taste of Promises
A Monkey Will Never Be Rid of Its Black Hands With Singleness of Heart
The Sea of Trees Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind
Fields of Gold Hugo NomineeNebula Nominee How the World Became Quiet: A Post-Human Creation Myth
Eros, Philia, Agape Hugo Nominee Speech Strata

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