According to an introductory note, the goal of Aqueduct Press's Conversation Pieces series is to continue the "grand conversation of feminist SF," and Rachel Swirsky's Through the Drowsy Dark fits in perfectly. Most of the ten stories and nine poems in Swirsky's collection, her first, involve female characters as the primary agents: Swirsky's women make choices or sometimes spend their stories trying to figure out whether they have any choices at all. Some of these women are living in dystopian societies, or in societies that appear to be utopias for everyone but them, certainly a common theme of the overall "grand conversation," while others are individuals trying to find their places in the world without reference to larger political issues.
Other Swirsky stories I've read, such as "A Memory of Wind," "Eros, Philia, Agape," and "Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind," put her on my list of favorite writers of short speculative fiction before I turned the first page of this collection, and while none of those three is reprinted in Through the Drowsy Dark, the stories that do appear here only cemented her place on my favorites list. Which isn't to say these pieces have much obviously in common with those three: many of them are more idea-driven and more explicitly political, and not all of them have speculative elements.
Two of the most political stories, "Heartstrung" and "Debt of the Innocent," (both of which appear to have been published originally in 2007) are also the two strongest pieces in the collection. In "Heartstrung," every young woman undergoes a surgical procedure that removes her heart and reattaches it to her sleeve, leaving her unable to experience emotions or sensations, such as a father's slap across her face. It is only while the narrator is carrying out the procedure on her own daughter that she realizes she wants to be able to feel, even if the price of feeling is pricking her own heart and letting it bleed out.
"Debt of the Innocent" uses a future setting to deal with even touchier themes: whether it is acceptable to take the life of, or "displace," a baby, usually the child of poor parents, in order to conserve energy for the society at large, which is dealing with an energy crisis. In the story, this is a regular practice at hospitals, which can no longer afford to power the incubators needed to keep every baby alive. Nurse Jamie Wrede, the narrator, is recruited by the Brotherhood of Man, a pro-life group, to disconnect the babies of better-off parents from their life-support machines just as she does in the hospital-mandated displacements of poor infants. Jamie asks big questions—about whether the Brotherhood of Man is a terrorist group, and about whether babies are innocent or, "from the moment of conception, those babies benefited from their place in the country's hierarchy" (p. 105) just like everyone else—which are made more powerful by the alternation between Jamie's narrative and those of several mothers whose babies she kills.
Not all of Swirsky's narrators know their own minds well enough to make the forceful choices that the women in "Heartstrung" and "Debt of the Innocent" make. In "Mirror Images," a woman stares into mirrors in different locations that reflect different facets of her life—her ex-husband's house, a friend's place—looking for herself. In "Of Passage," a lesbian woman sleeps with a man the night before her partner's funeral in an effort to run away from her own thoughts and memories. These pieces are vignettes, rather than full beginning-middle-end stories, but they show crucial and truthful moments of confusion in their narrators' lives.
leaves for college,
my wife sits down/in the breakfast nook.
'I'm done being a woman,'
she says. 'I'm going to try/being a house' (p. 42)
It makes an effective sister piece to "Heartstrung." In both, women watch their children come of age and realize they have their own decisions to make, their own second comings of age to experience.
Both "Oracle" and the story "Detours on the Way to Nothing" deal with the ways their characters imagine themselves. The woman in "Oracle" stands on the sidewalk holding out her hands to passersby for money; she tells one woman who donates that she is an oracle, "sent by the Gods and the CIA/to rescue the earth from darkness's army." (p. 66) The donor can only thank the woman and wish that her story were true. The narrator of "Detours on the Way to Nothing" reshapes herself to match others' fantasies—in this case, a man's fantasies of a woman with feathers—as part of her own quest for nothingness.
Other poems are less closely tied to the book's major themes. Neither "Remembering the World," about the death of a king who lived when the world was still thought to be flat, nor "The Dream Vacation" seemed to do much to advance the conversation of the rest of the collection, and neither piece stuck with me for long after I put down the book. But both are effective as breaks between some of the collection's heavier pieces.
If I came away from the book with any disappointment, it's that most of the stories (with the exception of "The Debt of the Innocent" and "No Longer You," the final piece, co-written with Katherine Sparrow) lack the verisimilitude and evocative worldbuilding of some of Swirsky's other pieces, particularly "A Memory of Wind." But that's less a criticism of the stories themselves than a reflection of my own expectations after reading some of Swirsky's other work, where the worldbuilding (in "Memory") and the slow humanization of the characters (in "Eros, Philia, Agape") were the characteristics that most stuck with me. In fact, Swirsky's range as a writer, from carefully realized fantasy stories to thought-driven short pieces and poems that embrace several political and feminist perspectives, is one of the most impressive things about Through the Drowsy Dark.