Monday, April 8, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Sarah Pinsker

Today is the birthday of the exceptional writer Sarah Pinsker, who has just had her debut collection, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea published by Small Beer Press, and who is also on the Hugo and Nebula ballots for her very good story "The Court Magician". Here's a selection of my reviews of her short fiction:

Locus, May 2016

I also liked Sarah Pinsker’s “The Mountains His Crown” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 3/17) for its central idea: an Emperor becomes obsessed with his daughters’ notion that his land looks a bit like him, and decides to force the farmers to plant crops to reinforce that resemblance. The plot – about a farmer woman who tries to find a way to change his mind – perhaps doesn’t quite live up to the main idea, though it’s OK, and the characters are strong.

Locus, July 2016

In the June Asimov's I also liked I also liked Sarah Pinsker’s “Clearance”, which uses the device of a woman leafing through the Clearance items at a tourist shop to reveal that there are alternate worlds that sometimes intersect. There is also a teenaged daughter that the protagonist is trying to please. This is clever, low key, funny without being silly, with a nice underplayed SFnal notion driving a believable human story.

Locus, April 2017

The March-April Asimov’s has an effective story in response to (or in dialogue with) Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. This is Sarah Pinsker’s “The Ones Who Know Where They Are Going”, and it is told from the point of view of the abused child … who gets a chance to escape. The moral logic is powerfully resolved – a more wrenching choice than those who walk away make is presented.

Locus, May 2017

Another mystery story, this one Science Fiction, is the best piece in Uncanny’s latest issue (and also the longest story they have yet published). This is Sarah Pinsker’s “And Then There Were (N – One)”. This is set at a convention of Sarah Pinskers from alternate worlds, held on an isolated island (natch – see title!) off the Canadian coast in one particular alternate world. The narrator is a Sarah who ended up an insurance investigator – others are musicians, scientists (one of the Sarahs invented the process of traveling to alternate worlds), dog trainers, hotel managers, etc. (Even, yes, a Nebula winning SF writer.) Our Sarah (that is, the narrator, not the author!) is roped into investigating the death of one of the Sarahs, due to her insurance investigation chops. The criminal herself can be deduced from first principles (as with many mystery stories), but that’s not the key here. The story is well and warmly told, with dollops of real humor (the convention, and its panels, is certainly familiar in style to any SF con-goer), and the central issues, concerning identity, identity’s ties to circumstance, and choices, are absorbing and effectively examined.

Locus, December 2017

Those are good, but even better at the September-October Asimov's are two stories with some similar themes that open and close the issue. Sarah Pinsker’s “Wind Will Rove” is a story about the folk process, and memory, and the occasional importance of forgetting, set on a generation ship. Rosie is a middle-aged teacher on the ship, and a pretty good fiddle player. A malicious virus wiped most of the ship’s memory not too long into the journey, and Rosie and her fellows work on restoring what’s been lost by remembering everything they can, including folk tunes. But some of her students resent being taught history – another form of remembering – why should they re-create Earth on the ship, or even the new planet (that they will never see)? Even Rosie’s daughter has doubts. But purposeful forgetting – or malicious erasing – hardly seems right either. These questions are considered in the light of Rosie thinking about a particular folk tune, “Windy Grove”, a favorite of her grandmother’s, and how it changed over time – and might still change. Thoughtful and quite moving.

Locus, February 2018

The January Lightspeed is full of fable-like pieces ... The piece I really liked was Sarah Pinsker’s “The Court Magician”. This tells of the career of a young boy selected to learn magic. So he does, over time, mastering sleight-of-hand, always wanting more, until he is finally offered real magic. Which must be in service of the Regent of his land, and which comes at a cost – a terrible cost to himself, and, he eventually realizes, possibly to other as well. It is in a way another variant on “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (a story Pinsker riffed on even more explicitly last year with “The Ones Who Know Where They Are Going”).

Locus, April 2018

And from March 1 at Beneath Ceaseless Skies Sarah Pinsker’s “Do As I Do, Sing As I Sing” is pretty solid work as well, set on a world where “cropsingers” are required to sing to the crops, to encourage them to grow properly. The narrator is to become the newest cropsinger for her community – a difficult and lonely job. Her brother rebels, and leaves, only to return with what he hopes are mechanical approaches to the problem. The story is at once a fine look at its main characters, and a worthwhile and not insistent meditation on both the difficulty of crude efforts to replace traditionally effective methods (such as this story’s cropsinging), and on the somewhat paradoxical resistance to changes that really might improve peoples’ lives, if disruptively.

Locus, March 2019

Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea is Sarah Pinsker’s first collection, which surprised me – she has done so much outstanding work in the seven years since her first appearance. The original story here is a curious one – “The Narwhal”, set in a world pretty much like ours, except for the apparent presence of superheroes. Lynette is a young woman trying to make her way in the gig economy, and she’s hired to help a woman drive a whale-shaped car across the country. The trip is frustrating, and strange, and eventually they land at a Midwestern town at which some disaster apparently occurred some time in the past – which of course turns out to involve the woman who has hired Lynette, and her strange car. This is solid and interesting work, though not quite Pinsker at her very best. The book, to be sure, includes some of Pinsker’s very best work, and even the only good stories are good enough to place this as a must-have first collection.

1 comment:

  1. Since this is a birthday review, I will throw in a comment, as I was there at Sarah's birth, welcoming her into the world. She had bright red hair and was a great observer of what was around her. As a reviewer you mention the things that emerged in her childhood: the humor, the looking at things from many perspectives, the love of music.