How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and Future
by Rachel Swirsky
Review by Benjamin Wald
Subterranean Press Deluxe Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596065505
Date: 30 September 2013
Rachel Swirsky is an author who has made quite a stir in recent years, with stories appearing on multiple award ballets over the last five years. How the World Became Quiet collects nineteen stories, including the award winning "The Woman Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" and "Eros, Philia, Agape".
Swirsky's writing is sophisticated and fascinating, with complex characters, lush prose, and some effective stylistic experimentation. The stories range from fantasy settings, to far-future worlds, to present day stories that occasionally have a magic-realist feel to them. The best stories in this collection are some of the best short fiction in the genre today, full of emotion and imagery. Not all the stories live up to this high standard, but even those that fall short are interesting and well written.
"The Woman Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" is a fascinating story on many levels, certainly one of my favorites in this collection, and one of the best stories I have read in a long time. It begins by evoking a land ruled by woman sorcerers, who practice a kind of poetic sympathetic magic whereby the brain of a crow can provide cunning to a magical automaton. The main character is killed near the beginning of the story, but she is bound by magic so her spirit can be summoned to give advice. Over time, she realizes she has been betrayed, and must choose whether to take revenge on the woman she loves.
All of this would already be enough to make for a fascinating and successful story. However, the genius of this story is that it doesn't end here. The dead sorceress is summoned again and again over the centuries, into time and places that have never heard of the land she lived in. She is forced to come to terms with the impermanence of her way of life, and confronted with the charge that some of her most cherished beliefs may be prejudices. She must decide how much she is willing to change, and how much she will cling to the time and place she once knew.
"Eros, Philia, Agape" takes on one of the oldest tropes of the genre, the woman who falls in love with a robot. However, in a new spin, here the main struggle is not with societal prejudice, but within the robot lover's attempt to understand himself, to see the ways that he has been shaped for human needs and to see what he will become without that. It is by turns touching and tragic, and breathes new life into this time-worn story.
While these were my favorite stories in the collection, there are plenty of other strong stories here. I particularly liked "Monstrous Embrace", a fairy-tale like story with an open-ended, lady-and-the-tiger style ending, and "A Monkey Will Never Be Rid of Its Black Hands", a near-future story of a boy maimed by his family both physically and emotionally, and his slow realization of and healing from the emotional, if not the physical, injuries dealt to him.
Rachel Swirsky's writing is vivid and poetic, and her characters are complex and real. Most of her stories center around the characters, and the revelations and growth of her characters are every bit as central, if not more so, than the plots of the stories.
This collection is a fantastic look at an exciting new writer, one who I am sure will be showing up on award ballets for years to come.