Margrét Helgadóttir’s The Stars Seem So Far Away (2015)

image7It starts off as little more than a vignette. Nora on the high seas turns stone killer when she needs to in order to survive.

Then it becomes a cycle of short stories. The world has warmed up. The ice has mostly gone. Humans and other animals (and plants) have died off in massive numbers. Cities built to house the enormous refugee populations in the former arctic regions now stand empty, more or less. Plague has taken its toll. Food is hard to come by, and so is trust.

Simik, leading a mission to destroy an old mine, is guided by the ghost of an arctic fox, though he cannot let his men know he is following a creature that probably does not actually exist.

Orphaned Aida in a nearly deserted city cares for the dying man who looked after her.

Orphaned Bjørg, with the aid of genetically engineered polar bears, protects the seed vault concealed on a remote island; things change when Simik shows up.

Zaki – Aida’s brother who deserted his family without explanation – runs into a not-exactly-Ballardian former astronaut turned hermit.

And then, as these characters converge, it becomes more clearly a novel.

All of the characters are haunted by loss, as is the post-climate change, post-mass-extinction, post-plague world through which they move. Both land and sea are more or less empty, desolate. The last genetically engineered killer whale is just a dissolving mass of corruption in a filthy tank.

If the world-building does not entirely make sense, there is already more than enough deadeningly literal, rigorously extrapolated climate-change fiction out there. Helgadóttir seems much more interested in grieving for the world that, frankly, we have already lost; and in trying to re-enchant what remains so that it will be cherished and sustained.

This is why slightly unusual the structure works so well. The characters – and the novel – move from profound disconnection to reconnection. To friendship and community and to hope.

And to a rather YA-ish conclusion in which the stars suddenly do not any longer seem quite so very far away for the youthful cast (although for a curmudgeon like me, the mild sense of dissatisfaction with this was redeemed by the final lines, which sweetly award the final moment of hopeful connection to the oldsters).

***

Thanks to Margrét for sending me a copy after I wrote about the African Monsters collection she co-edited.

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