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Patterns of Orbit coverThe first thing one notices about the tales in Chloe N. Clark’s short story collection Patterns of Orbit is that they are haunted by absence. Absent characters, certainly, but also something else. There is probably a fancy word for the feeling of being haunted by something missing that you can’t describe. True to the volume’s title, these stories do seem to orbit around a missing center, sometimes to their credit and sometimes not. The first seven pieces are science fiction, mainly flash, meaning they strike quickly and set an emotional mood or tone rather than develop a plot or characters. These melancholy flashes effectively create a sense of lyrical contemplation. Indeed, Patterns of Orbit flirts with poetry, circling its themes of melancholy and loss while playing with language.

For instance, in “Even the Night Sky Can Learn to Be a Fist,” an unnamed narrator expresses their increasing anxiety: “I imagined being crushed under the weight of everything the world contained. Some days I couldn’t take deep breaths; they sunk into my lungs so deep that I couldn’t pull them up” (p. 14). In the flash stories, voice is everything, and style is prominent. The reader does not know what these characters look like. The events could be summarized in a sentence or two. This is very inward writing, intimate in the sense that the flash scenarios are almost exclusively dealing with difficult emotions. As one reads Clark’s flash, a coherent and established style emerges. The flashes are not about demonstrating a cool science fiction set-piece or flexing a trick plot. They are doing something else.

In “A Sense of Taste,” a scientist is growing fruit that doesn’t require light, but the emotional center of the piece is the loss of the main character’s partner and her unresolved grief (pp. 9-10). In “The Waves Hear Every Promise You Make,” a mother is left on earth while her son goes on a deep space mission. Due to the delay in communication, she has no idea if he is alive or not. The complex mixture of the mother’s emotions is handled delicately. And the ending offers no answers, only unsettling questions. In many of these stories, the tension often revolves around characters missing that which cannot be recovered.

This motif, of missing something unrecoverable, is repeated again in another story at the end of the collection, “The Ocean Is Not Empty.” It is one of the more robust stories here, yet it bares its plot in the opening sentence: “There was a crack at the bottom of the sea. The man I loved saw it, right before he was swallowed by it” (p. 151). The story is not about action, then, but recollection, a revival of a vanished past. It is also a love story told in retrospect: two explorers fall in love, one obsessed with space, the other with the ocean floor. The narrator can do little more than observe as her husband descends with the submarine. The narrator recalls, “I’d lived to hear the horrors of them screaming as they lost their lives for our curiosity” (p. 157). Of course he dies during the mission. Of course it’s tragic; these are not happy stories. They all have a touch of cosmic horror. Here, Something Bad is dwelling in a rift under the sea. Despite her loss, the widow continues on with her own work, pulling images from space. Human curiosity continues, no matter the cost to life or love.

If the first third of the book, and its closing reprise, focuses on grief, loss, and isolation through various science fiction tropes, then its middle section is the fantasy interlude. With “This Skin You Call Your Own,” the reader is thrown into a completely new paradigm where magic, witches, and ghosts exist. But it is also, I suspect, filler to hit a word count. Where the science fiction stories are largely successful, stories like “This Skin You Call Your Own” are less so, and wearily familiar: there is a witch with a bad reputation who preys on men (p. 34). Also in this section, in the story “Wearing the Body,” there is a young male character who can see and interact with dead people (p. 67). I, too, watched The Sixth Sense.

In “Even the Veins of Leaves,” teens go missing in a forest, and there’s a village that’s not supposed to be there. I recalled the eerie atmosphere of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. At a certain point, I was not entirely sure if what I was reading was supposed to be horror, or fantasy, or a muddled mixture. While “Even the Veins of Leaves” perhaps tries to evoke something closer to horror, the story still felt procedural and predetermined, in the movie’s wake. The fantasy section switches between flash and more traditional pieces, yet none give the same emotional texture as the collection’s earlier stories. By the middle of the volume, I was puzzled, disappointed, and a little bored. On my own, I would have stopped reading—and missed two incredible SF stories buried at the end of the book.

The cover image of this book is from NASA. The book is styled with a science fiction design aesthetic. Perhaps not coincidentally, then, its main problem is the juxtaposition of what feels like two separate collections. While the SF stories establish a level of believability, creating an emotional tone and a seriousness of intent, the fantasy stories replace that with familiar cliches of apparitions, missing girls, haunted forests, witches, and so on. The fantasy section takes something away from the intense melancholy of missing your loved one from outer space to communing with their dreary ghost. It presents a bumpy transition from lyrical space-grief to a pastiche of fantasy tropes.

Thankfully, the final third of the collection returns to space and SF. “Static,” one of the highlights of the whole book, is well worth reading online as a standalone piece. A sister and brother, Chetna and Akhil, who were very close friends throughout their lives, are parted when he goes suspiciously missing. Chetna therefore sets out on a journey to find her brother. Though this is another missing person story, the plot here is more developed, taking more time to immerse the reader in its world, as flash fiction cannot always do. However, with “Static” Clark proves she can write this type of more traditional narrative well. The vivid language merges with an intriguing storyline that is grounded in believable emotion: “I wanted to have enough stories of my parents that I could understand them completely,” we read in a moment that encapsulates the qualities of much of Clark’s writing, “could tell myself some piece of them every night so that I might never forget them” (p. 122). Chetna desires, as many of Clark’s characters do, both to understand the lost family member, and to recover the missing one. In this case, flashbacks give the reader information about Chetna’s relationships with her family, information which becomes relevant in a satisfying way later on in the plot (p. 125). I found this effective and a bit of an emotional gut punch. “Static” is the author at her best.

The other high point of the book, “Jumpers,” is also buried at the end. In the story, Lex, one of its titular jumpers and the main character, leaps out of her spaceship to catch free-floating escape pods and reel them in. Almost like a coast guard search and rescue team, but for space. Lex is both trying to save the survivors in the pods and protect the main ship from damage. Yet she seems to be lacking emotional connection to the crew around her, and it’s revealed in a flashback that, the one time she missed a jump, a person trapped in the pod died (p. 143). There is a satisfying trajectory as the reader jumps out with Lex, and enough detail to sell the idea and to make one wonder about other jumpers in other situations. But there is a serious problem with the text itself: there are a number of typos littered throughout the manuscript. Some are so bad that they took me completely out of the scene. For example, on page 145: “’I think it’s a plan, t’” Prentiss said.” Having to pause and untangle that error before continuing on works against everything the author is trying to do. The characters’ feelings come to matter less if it is harder to immerse yourself in them. The communication of the story is interrupted.

Nevertheless, “Jumpers” was one of my favorite stories in the collection. Familiar Clark motifs abound in it: a female protagonist who is missing something, a lone figure hurtling through space, a grim and unresolved ending. When Clark is firing on all these cylinders, she is a writer more than worth recommending. But darn it, Patterns of Orbit is doing a great writer a disservice: that cover and the design of the book suggest it is science fiction, but maybe half of it is—and the tone shift from SF to fantasy is abrupt and unsignaled. Many of the stories in the middle section feel like filler, or like they belong in a different collection.

Mixing flash fiction with longer plot-based stories like this is also jarring. The flash pieces emphasize mood and moment, and they showcase the poetry of Clark’s language. But the different styles of story in this collection are operating within different frameworks, and the arrangement of them doesn’t add up to something greater. This could have been an incredible collection of tightly focused science fiction stories. Instead, the final product is extremely uneven, hiding what it should showcase and sending mixed signals about what readers should expect—from both the collection, and from Clark herself.

Nicole E. Beck's writing has appeared twice in print, as a long poem from dancing girl press and as a multi-genre chapbook from Red Bird Chapbooks. She studies art history with an eye towards more interdisciplinary work. Her most recent chapbook can be found here.
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