The key to understanding Rachel Swirsky's short fiction lies at the heart of her story "Heartstrung," a deceptively simple narrative about growing up, parenting, and patriarchy. At first, it seems like just another speculative fiction story inspired by literalizing a metaphor, in this case, "to wear one's heart on one's sleeve." In the world of "Heartstrung," a mother can literally extract her daughter's heart from her body and painstakingly sew it onto her sleeve. All little girls eventually undergo this painful procedure, which forces the circulatory system to channel all excessive emotion into the externalized heart, which tidily removes it from the body. We see that, although Swirsky has literalized an idiom, she has also slyly reversed its meaning: to wear one's heart on one's sleeve means the death of all passion, rebellion, and complaint. Moreover, while fairytale conventions undergird the story, Swirsky consistently bends these, too, to other purposes. For example, as in any classic fairytale, the mother is identified not by name but only by profession: she is always "the seamstress." But this professional title serves chiefly to dehumanize the woman, whose daughter—not yet a victim of the dehumanizing heart procedure—is casually referred to by name as Pamela. Perhaps even more tellingly, the woman does not seem to be a professional seamstress at all, except to the extent that she is implicated in the one-time "sewing" of her daughter, as well as the needle-and-thread maintenance of her own ensleeved heart. "Seamstress," then, is not exactly a profession, but rather what she has become by embracing the social order that the procedure upholds.
The nature of this ritualized child abuse, which initiates girls into womanhood, bears uncomfortable resemblance to practices surrounding genital mutilation ("Remember when Uncle Jake slapped [Beth] across the face at her ceremony and her smile lit up like a light bulb and everyone clapped?" [pp. 91-2]), but the story also evokes Western culture's increasing sexualization of younger and younger girls ("Nine years old is so young to be sewn, but it's done younger and younger these days" [p. 93]), as well as the general perpetuation of cultural norms that shape and limit women's lives ("Little girls learn to emulate their sewn mothers long before the stitches make it easy" [p. 92]). The story is not a simplistic allegory for any of these social issues, but it remains deeply concerned with them. As it turns out, the plot of "Heartstrung" does not develop around the daughter's procedure, but rather a medical complication of her mother's: the seamstress's own heart has become slightly unmoored from her sleeve, a life-threatening condition in more ways than one, as it bleeds profusely and also allows her to feel emotion again.
But within the fairytale is another fairytale. As she bleeds and feels, the seamstress remembers a time when she had consoled her daughter after breaking a favorite teacup. She explained to her daughter that a curious air spirit had been baked into the glass, and up until then was "waiting for someone to let her out" (p. 95). The next day, the daughter naturally destroyed all of the dishes in the house in an effort to free any other such spirits: "So the seamstress had to explain to Pamela how sometimes stories aren't really true outside, they just feel true inside, and the family bought a new set of dinner dishes" (p. 95). I would locate the key to Swirsky's fiction here, in a child's consolatory fairytale invented on the spur of the moment, but which nevertheless proliferates in significance, and even carries with it its own defense of fictions and fiction-making, those stories that feel true inside. Towards the end of "Heartstrung," the ailing seamstress revisits the fate of that trapped air spirit: "[T]he seamstress realizes the end of the air spirit's story. After so long baked in the glass, the little thing could never have flown away. When she tried, she would have discovered that her flight muscles were atrophied, her feathers brittle and broken" (p. 96). Only with the assistance of fiction and fairytale—intimately connected to the faculty of memory in both "Heartstrung" and elsewhere in Swirsky's work—can the seamstress succeed in recognizing her own situation, and, by extension, the situation of her daughter and every woman living in their society.
Swirsky tends to favor the modes of fable and fairytale, literary forms that for centuries have been stigmatized as stories for children, certainly not the stuff of serious literary art, but "Heartstrung" is one of Swirsky's most powerful reminders that inside the stories we tell our children are the stories we're really telling ourselves. While it's true that this story in particular begins grimly and grows even darker, the last line contains a hint of a consolation of our own, and perhaps a way forward—if we're listening.
How the World Became Quiet collects "Heartstrung" along with the majority of Rachel Swirsky's previously published short stories, many of which have deservingly earned award nominations and appeared in multiple "Year's Best" collections. There are a few mediocrities intermingled with the masterpieces, but I won't dwell on them for too long. For example, I question the reprinting here of "The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth: A Nautical Tail," an affected pastiche of a swashbuckler featuring anthropomorphic rats, runcible spoons, hamsters in tri-corner hats, and, in place of a mermaid, a seductive "merrat." The humor becomes far too twee to stomach for the full duration of the adventure, although a similar tone and brand of humor succeeds far better in a story like "Marrying the Sun," a chronicle of a failed romance of literally Olympian proportions; the affair springs up between a solar scientist and a Greco-Roman sun god, and we learn, for example, that "[t]he wedding went well until the bride caught fire" (p. 99). Unfortunately, the stories appearing for the first time in this collection—"With Singleness of Heart" and "Speech Strata"—disappoint as well, at least in comparison to the best stories on offer here. The experience of reading "Speech Strata" resembles viewing a piece of fleetingly enchanting but ultimately forgettable surrealist animation; lyrical in style and cyclical in theme, the story makes a fitting end for this collection about the past, present, and future, but it doesn't seem as carefully crafted as many of the earlier stories.
And what, we might ask, is that expansive subtitle really gesturing at, Myths of the Past, Present, and Future? The table of contents organizes the stories into distinct temporal divisions—The Past, The Present, The Future, and The End—but this system of classification should probably be understood as tongue-in-cheek or otherwise deliberately self-subverting. For example, "A Monkey Will Never Be Rid of Its Black Hands" is set in the future, but filed under "The Present," perhaps because its social and political commentary takes obvious aim at the contemporary moment. Like "Heartstrung," this superb story takes on timeless questions about language and the implications of the reality of metaphorical language, this time by way of the main characters' obsession with cryptic proverbs. Also like "Heartstrung," however, "Monkey" explores language in tandem with a serious concern for social and political issues, here disability, America's addiction to Middle Eastern wars, and all of the traumas each carries with it.
"Fields of Gold" is another story ostensibly representing the present, but this lighter fantasy of the afterlife remains absorbed with the past and the future that awaits us all, and on the surface then seems to be about anything but the present. Later on, we find a story like "Again and Again and Again" categorized under "The Future," but the narrative cheekily opens in the year 1900. We must also ask whether we should understand the word "future" in that intriguing phrase "myths of the future" in the subjective or objective sense. That is, are they myths generated in the present that imagine some distant future in a mythic fashion? Or are these the future's own myths, myths that will come to exist someday in that distant future? The short answer seems to be both, as the stories in How the World Became Quiet are typically not myths of either the past, the present, or the future alone, but more often myths of all three at once. For Swirsky, we come to understand, the past, the present, and the future remain bound by this more important unifying category of myth, which also helps to account for her frequent blending of the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and other forms of speculative fiction.
Consider, for instance, "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window," Swirsky's most decorated piece of fiction, and also the collection's opener. Reading it we enter a world with all the trappings of high fantasy, including wicked dwarves and imperious sorceresses. By page four or five, however, we will notice that not only has a suspiciously science fictional army of automatons crept in, but also references to what seems a kind of magical IVF and, later, an engineered plague evocative of modern biological weapons. As the plot progresses, the viewpoint character finds herself resurrected into succeeding ages via a sort of Rip Van Winkle device (except that she always remains conscious and dead). This citizen of a high fantasy matriarchy finds her values and her worldview threatened by the kind of panoramic visions of social change that we more strongly associate with science fiction than fantasy. And yet the story returns again and again to concepts of metaphoric magic that would seem equally alien in a science fictional setting: "Magic is a little bit alive. Sometimes it prefers poetic truths to literal ones" (p. 27). Here and elsewhere, we see Swirsky searching for truths wherever and however she can find them.
If "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" encompasses many genres within itself, the remainder of the collection continues to testify to Swirsky's restless roving throughout the genres of speculative fiction. The title story, "How the World Became Quiet: A Post-Human Creation Myth," combines fable and post-apocalyptic, far-future science fiction, but even the opening story had contained its own vision of the end of time: so much for that distinct fourth category in the table of contents labelled "The End." Another of the collection's high points, "Diving After the Moon," evokes the whimsical science fables of Italo Calvino, perhaps even specifically "The Distance of the Moon." The story is an enchanting, metafictive meditation on the relationship between the dreams of fables and the dreams of science, and forces us to ask, by the end, the maddening question of who's dreaming whom. On the other hand, a story like "The Monster's Million Faces" could be classified as fairly straightforward science fiction, with its examination of the potential of a memory grafting technique to heal trauma. "The Taste of Promises" is more of a hybrid, part ghost story, part Western, and part Golden Age SF about the colonization of Mars.
Swirsky's haunting lists of last things, "Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind" also fits comfortably into the familiar genre of post-apocalyptic fiction of the tableau variety, but stories like "Monstrous Embrace" are less easily classifiable as belonging to one genre or even a combination of genres. The story takes the form of a medievalizing fantasy narrated by an entity claiming to be the (a?) personification of ugliness. Yet from the story's opening line—"I am ugliness in body and bone, breath and heartbeat" (p. 61)—we wonder about the ontological status of our narrator. Could "I am ugliness" simply be a rhetorical device used by an individual who considers herself superlatively ugly? Or is the entire monologue nothing but a nightmare in the mind of its addressee, a haunting resurfacing of his anxiety about the physical deformity in his past, or even the ugliness of his own possibly baseless suspicions of his beloved? I want to describe the second half of the story as kind of Dunsanian fairy fable, but with a twist, and part of which involves an incisive critique of the circulation of erotic capital that we would never find in Dunsany.
Swirsky's fiction excels whether it is supernatural, high fantastic, science fictional, or some blend of each, but another straightforward example of science fiction, "Eros, Philia, Agape," stands out as one of the best stories in the collection. As the title suggests, the story meditates on different subspecies of love, and almost miraculously manages to stake out multiple new perspectives on the old subject of an amorous relationship developing between a human and an artificial being. The three types of love enumerated in the story's title surely prove insufficient to explain the nature of the love driving any of the many relationships in the story: that between a woman and her robotic lover; between a child and her robotic "father"; between the woman and her daughter in the absence of their robot; but also between persons and non-persons, pets and objects. Although the robot lover grows disgusted with the concept of ownership, Swirsky emphasizes that he is more disgusted at his own ownership of other things rather than—as we might expect—his being owned as an artificial man, just as one might be repelled by one's own need to consume other organisms, rather than a fear of being eaten.
I count "Eros, Philia, Agape" among the finest examinations of robot psychology since Asimov, and, as always, Swirsky impresses even on the level of small details, as we see in her observation of the main character's irrational pang of worry after the robot leaves her: "As the car engine initialized, Adriana felt a glimmer of fear. What if this machine betrayed them, too? But its uninspired intelligence only switched on the left turn signal and started down the boulevard" (p. 190). Like "Heartstrung," this story also contains an example of a favorite recurrent device, the fable within the fable: "As a child, Adriana had owned a book that told the fable of an emperor who owned a bird which he fed rich foods from his table, and entertained with luxuries from his court. But a pet bird needed different things than an emperor. It wanted seed and millet, not grand feasts. It enjoyed mirrors and little brass bells, not lacquer boxes and poetry scrolls. Gorged on human banquets, the little bird sickened and died" (p. 195). It would be a misreading of the sophisticated function of this inset narrative to draw a direct parallel between the bird and the robot; rather, we must read the framing science fiction story simultaneously as a gloss on the fable, and the fable as a gloss on the science fiction story.
So, why compose new fairytales? Why does the future need new myths? In How the World Became Quiet, fables, fairytales, and folktales mix with science fiction and slipstream to their mutual enrichment. Literary forms from our past illuminate our future, and speculation about the future mediates our use of these oldest forms of narrative. Of course, didacticism is one of the major risks of writing in the fabulist mode as Swirsky so often does. For example, Swirsky's ghost story and more, "The Sea of Trees," perfectly realizes its eerie setting in Japan's notorious "suicide forest," but perhaps verges too far into apologue territory by the end, hammering home its anti-suicide consolations a little too unselfconsciously. The extremely short story "Again and Again and Again" similarly accomplishes very little save affirming a familiar point about generational rebellion, arguing that, the more things change, the more they will stay the same. For the most part, however, Swirsky's modern fairytales and fables remain politically engaged without becoming preachy, and philosophically engaging without becoming pretentious. Indeed, Swirsky has written an essay on "The Political Nature of Narrative"—published in Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles, edited by L. Timmel Duchamp (2010)—in which she argues that narrative is "inevitably inflected with politics", and that writers must therefore decide conscientiously how to turn that inevitability to the good. Above all, Swirsky strikes me as a writer perpetually in search of a new fairytale, but a fairytale that matters. And the stories collected in How the World Became Quiet are more than sufficient evidence that she's already found more than a few.
T. S. Miller is currently completing his Ph.D. in medieval literature at the University of Notre Dame. Of course, an interest in science fiction and fantasy has been the "secret vice" of many a medievalist before him, and his articles have appeared or are forthcoming in genre journals like Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.