If Sarah Pinsker’s first collection was about how Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea (2019), her second, Lost Places, takes a separate but related tack: all flesh is as the grass. Motifs of impermanence and rewilding occur throughout: memories fade, good intentions get perverted, trees sprout from graves, and parked cars slowly transform into forest. It’s a compelling vision, and one that feels distinctly of the moment, as entire species are forcibly disappeared and mass media juggernauts sling their own libraries into oblivion. But, though things look grim, there is still a desire for art, a need for community, and possibility for new experiences in this world of destruction and decay. For all the apposite fears and bleak predictions encoded in her work, Pinsker is producing some of the most enjoyable science fiction in the English-speaking world.
Of the twelve stories collected in Lost Places, eleven have previously been published, some of them to great acclaim. The opening story, “Two Truths and a Lie,” won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novelette in 2021, and it’s easy to see why. The main character, Stella, is visiting her parents at home when the brother of her childhood friend Marco suddenly dies. We are told that, since Stella left home, Denny had become “one of those people whose possessions swallowed them entirely,” and Pinsker effectively renders the queasy overabundance of a hoarder’s home:
The piles held surprises. Papers layered on papers layered on toys and antiques, then, suddenly, mouse turds or a cat’s hairball or the flattened tendril of some once-green plant or something moldering and indefinable. Denny had apparently smoked, too; every few layers, a full ashtray made an appearance.
The story takes a turn for the weird when Stella and Marco unearth a set of VHS tapes. Stella, by this point established as a frequent and habitual liar, invents a childhood TV programme called The Uncle Bob Show, and is shocked to find that not only does Marco remember it, but there are tapes of Denny appearing on it. The show itself is terrible, a low-budget affair in which a creepy host tells horror stories to children playing around him. But what most unnerves Stella is that Uncle Bob’s ramblings seem less like entertainment and more like predictions of the children’s futures.
One story concerns “a little boy who wanted to go fast,” who eventually gets a motorbike and drives “as fast as he could down the highway … and then he kept driving forever.” Stella recognises a kid in the audience as Dan Heller, who “drove off the interstate the summer after junior year.” As Stella investigates, she finds that Denny may have lived his entire life in defiance of Uncle Bob’s predictions, and things get even weirder when she discovers a tape with herself on it. In this episode, Uncle Bob relays the story of a “cuckoo girl,” a frequent liar who “believed her own stories so completely, she forgot which ones were true and which were false.”
“Two Truths and a Lie” is a classic slipstream story, evoking genuine feeling even as it refuses to explain itself. The melancholy atmosphere and sense of subtle wrongness steadily builds to a delightfully creepy ending, and the story will satisfy anyone who has ever found themselves obsessing over half-remembered dreams of children’s television.
Similarly nostalgic, and similarly feted, is the collection’s penultimate piece, “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather.” Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Short Story in 2022, it is a charming and formally inventive story, telling its tale of occult rituals and otherworldly seductions through the medium of a series of crowdfunded annotations to a traditional English ballad. Like “Two Truths and a Lie,” the story revels in ambiguity: as one character remarks, “we’re never quite sure what kind of story it is.” Pinsker is especially good at evoking the social dynamics of internet forums, particularly in how one poster, Dynamum, keeps suggesting outlandish interpretations and then getting overly defensive when called out. These two stories make a compelling case for Pinsker’s talents; they are both creepy, funny, and an absolute pleasure to read. But Lost Places has more to offer besides these justly acclaimed entries.
For instance, the collection’s shortest piece, “Left the Century to Sit Unmoved,” may also be the most elegant summation of its themes. Again there is a strong emphasis on ambiguity, and the opening line keys us in: “The pond only looks bottomless.” Jumping into this pond, we soon learn, is an important ritual for the residents of a small town nearby, despite or possibly because of the fact that a certain number of those who jump vanish without a trace. One of those vanished is the narrator’s brother, whose car, a Buick Century, is found abandoned near the pond:
We left the Century to sit unmoved. The spare key, the one that didn’t disappear with Nick, lives in a bowl of coins near our front door. It used to be on top, but it gradually drowned in pennies and dimes. I know it’s in there, but there’s no use digging it out. I might have been able to drive the car away at the beginning, but I don’t know where I’d have taken it. Since then, vines have grown over it and punched their way in through the windows. Somebody stole the hubcaps, and the tires have all gone flat and given in to rot. I think there’s a raccoon living in the backseat. It’s not Nick’s anymore, not anybody’s. Just a thing caught up in the slow process of transforming into another thing.
Impermanence, transformation, the submersion of the human and its reclamation by the wilds: these themes run throughout this collection, and reach their apotheosis in this bright, elegiac tale of youthful abandon and universal mystery. It’s a little gem, doing more with its seven pages than many books do with hundreds. That sense of maddening, beautiful possibility is encapsulated in the story’s closing notes: “The sky is impossibly blue, and the water is impossibly black. There have never been any rules.”
Yet, while a lack of rules can be empowering, it can also be terrifying. The plot of “Everything is Closed Today” will be familiar to readers of Pinsker’s first novel, A Song for a New Day (2019). In that novel, a large-scale terrorist attack provokes a series of shutdowns across all society, as fear leads to shops, schools, and workplaces shutting their doors with no real indication of when they will open again. This situation, of course, is far more legible to many readers now than it was when “Everything is Closed Today” was first published in 2019. As in A Song for a New Day, Pinsker effectively predicts the tension and emotion of a societal crisis, the scant news processed in shocked, staccato bursts: “A bomb at a baseball matinee in California. The death toll a number she didn’t want to contemplate.” She also foresees the eerie quiet of the early days of lockdown, such as when her main characters “walked home on empty streets that felt far less safe than the usual bustle.” This sense of lawlessness and indifference, the main character left twisting in the wind as her job shuts down and she loses vital pay, further adds to the verisimilitude of this remarkably prescient story.
However. As with A Song for a New Day, there is a sense that the story has aged well and poorly simultaneously. As in that novel, there is no sense of who has committed the attack or with what agenda. To be fair, this is part of the story’s conceit—news and social media are made opaque and inaccessible, even as online shopping and streaming video remain robust: multiple characters remark, “it didn’t make sense … for news to be so hard to find and distraction so easy.” But, taken in tandem with A Song for a New Day, as well as the totally nondescript foreign war in Pinsker’s second novel, We Are Satellites (2021), it’s easy to see Pinsker falling into a common pattern for the US culture industries, wherein war and terrorism appear out of nowhere to harm innocent Americans, and any wider historical context is carefully amputated. Worse, when the story implies that the government is censoring social media and even positions resisting the shutdown as heroic, it’s hard not to hear echoes of the reactionary politics that have emerged during the pandemic. It’s not that Pinsker has written an anti-lockdown screed; it’s simply harder to feel good about this story now than it probably was in 2019.
Other stories disappoint for less thorny reasons. Though her sentence-to-sentence craft remains impeccable, stories like “The Mountains His Crown” and “Science Facts!” feel like they end just as things are getting interesting, with closing images that could sustain entire novels. “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise,” meanwhile, is just a bit tepid. An extended rhapsody on how bloody great New York City is, at times it reads like a more literary version of those Facebook posts about how David Bowie and Leonard Cohen and Lemmy from Motörhead are all jamming out in heaven as we speak.
Though Lost Places suffers from a handful of missteps, however, they are outnumbered by moments when it absolutely soars. Of these, perhaps the finest example is “Remember This for Me.” The protagonist, Bonnie Sweetlove, has made a name for herself as a visionary artist. But, as she struggles to remember the face of her own niece and the narration explicitly tells us that “Words were elusive; they came and went,” it’s easy to read her as suffering from dementia. She isn’t, though. We learn that she has accepted a dementia diagnosis because “nobody would understand the true reason” for her faulty memory. Bonnie, it transpires, has a Muse, and not in the colloquial sense of the term. As the story unfolds, we learn that as a child Bonnie encountered an alien being, which has possessed her and provided her with otherworldly inspirations for her art, acting out of a desire to share “the things [it] used to be, the places it had traveled.” That initial moment of possession is only revealed in fragments, yet it carries a sense of divine weirdness:
She wouldn’t even have said that a second before, and she’d probably lose it again in another second. Not the Muse, just that curious moment when something crumbled and the air changed and she had breathed in and felt its presence inside her, making itself a new home, remaking her from that first moment.
The Muse has given Bonnie inspiration, but at great personal cost. As she states matter-of-factly, “Memories played tricks, and muses took memories.” Bonnie is now totally reliant on her niece and her carer, constantly referring to her notebook and asking the same questions over and over again.
It’s a unique vision of suffering for your art, but Bonnie is insistent that she is the Muse’s partner, not its puppet. As she surveys a grand retrospective exhibition of her work, she reflects that “A conduit without talent or skill or work ethic couldn’t have made this work. It was a collaboration, even if she didn’t know the meaning of every detail.” It’s possible that this is what the Muse wants her to think, of course: we elsewhere see the Muse rewarding Bonnie by “radiating almost-happiness, telling her yes, this is close, this is almost it.” Yet, while the ending is shot through with ambivalence, there is a kind of beauty to it as well:
Remember this for me, it said, and she knew she’d remember until she forgot, until she breathed out her Muse and it found someone new to infect, to inspire, to tell its long story, to tell and be retold in a new medium. Remember this for me, it said, and she promised to remember until she forgot.
Bonnie is not the end of the cycle. She, like all of us, will one day be lost, forgotten, transformed. But she does what she can, while she can. It’s a vision of science fiction that borders on the sublime, and that feeling of grounded yet otherworldly awe is exemplary of Pinsker’s science fiction at its very best. All flesh is as the grass. Pinsker’s trick is in getting us to embrace that.