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How the World Became Quiet
Rachel Swirsky
Subterranean Press, 340 pages

How the World Became Quiet
Rachel Swirsky
Rachel Swirsky is a speculative fiction and fantasy writer, poet, and editor living in California. She was the founding editor of the PodCastle podcast and served as editor from 2008 to 2010. She is vice president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America

Rachel Swirsky Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Steven H Silver

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Many of the stories in Rachel Swirsky's collection How the World Became Quiet deal with the common theme of what, exactly, it means to be an human. Despite the common theme, these stories display Swirsky's versatility of style, from the story of a human who marries a Greek god to the tale of two brothers on Mars, one of whom has been uploaded into a computer.

The stories of ancient gods often relate the manner in which the gods would assume a more mortal form (whether it be human, ovine, or cygnine) in order to seduce a human. "Marrying the Sun" looks at the reasons why a human might fall in love with a deity and why the deity might reciprocate. Not content with only telling the story of a courtship, Swirsky also examines the difficulties endemic to such a relationship even when it is supported by both sides. By setting the story in the modern day, the mortal can be portrayed as a scientist studying the Sun, providing a reason for the narcissistic Helios to pay attention to her.

"The Sea of Trees" refers to a forest where Japanese goes to commit suicide when life becomes too much for them. For Nao, it is a place to rob the dead of any items they brought with them before committing their final act. Nao is unphased by the ghosts who died, but she is unsure of what to make of Melan, a young American girl who is in the forest to search for the ghost of her Japanese father, eventually deciding Melon is just another source of income. Eventually, Nao's interactions with Melon lead her to understand more of her own draw to the forest of the dead.

"Eros, Philia, Agape" examines the different types of lives through the lens of a failing relationship. Adriana is a wealthy heiress who has fallen in love with Lucian, a robot whom her father has given her. While Lucian returns her love, the two adopted a daughter, Rose. The story examines all three of the characters and their love for each other, especially as Lucian begins to question Adriana's love for him, wondering if she loved him the way a person loved a possession rather than as a person loved an individual, at the same time wondering which form of love he felt for Adriana. The story does an excellent job of differentiating the different types of love the Greeks identified and which English tends to subsume under a single term.

"The Monster's Million Faces" focuses on a young man who is in therapy trying to come to terms with the days when, as a young boy, he was abducted and molested. The therapy sessions allow him to confront a variety of potential abductors as he tries to come to terms with his past, whether through violence or talking. Eventually, he learns what the right question to ask is when he eventually comes face to face with his virtual kidnapper.

"Again & Again & Again" is a light multi-generational epic about rebellious generations trying to distance themselves from the staid ways of their parents. Beginning with Lionel Caldwell in 1900, the story follows his offspring into the 60s, 80s, and beyond as each generation takes advantage of societal change and biotechnological advancements until Xia achieves the ultimate rebellion against her mother.

"Scene from a Dystopia" explores, briefly, the stories of characters who are used as window dressing in fiction rather than given back stories which are fleshed out. Swirsky presents the nameless, faceless characters in the context of the story in which they appear and then backs up, first to give their stories in their work of fiction, then to imagine what would happen in an alternative to that fiction, eventually pointing out how meaningless the characters's lives are to the main character and perhaps to the author who created them.

"The Taste of Promises" is the story of two brothers, Tiro and Eo, trying to find a normal life on Mars. Eo has been lifted, his consciousness uploaded into a computer network, the only way for him to survive. Tiro is trying to find a way to have Eo downloaded into a physical body so he can live life normally. When the two boys encounter a lifted girl, Naghmeh, their perceptions of normal and what it means for Eo to be lifted or downloaded begin to change as they discover his actual potential apart from their preconceptions.

"With Singleness of Heart" is a disturbing short story of a soldier participating in a rape in order to bond with his brothers-in-arms. The fact that his victim is an android, although one designed to feel, only makes his own detachment from the crime he is committing more inhumane.

"Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind" is a wistful post-apocalyptic tale. Rather than concern herself with the way humans are able to survive following a cataclysmic asteroid collision, Swirsky explores finalities…the last human alive, the last invention, the human race slowly winding downs its dominance on the planet which will be here long after our race has vanished.

"How the World Became Quiet: A Post Human Creation Myth" tells the story of a war between Humans and trees. The trees impose a peace which requires the Humans to form hybrids with a variety of animals. Although these new creatures live in peace for quite some time, they eventually allow their martial Human nature show through, resulting in a series of extinctions for the specific subcategories of human hybrids which have been formed. Even as the world moves inexorably towards a planet free from fauna, Humanity demonstrates its tenaciousness.

The final story in How the World Became Quite is perhaps the least accessible as Swirsky presents a strange, very alien, race in "Speech Strata." Her creatures, which float in the air have replaced their bodies with silver skins and form speech through the creation of physical objects. Yet for all their advancement, they have difficulty identifying and relating to each other, even when they feel a tie between themselves.

The other stories similarly demonstrate Swirsky's flexibility, dealing with other themes and tropes common to science fiction, making How the World Became Quiet a wonderful introduction to this author's work.

Copyright © 2013 Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is a seven-time Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer and the editor of the anthologies Wondrous Beginnings, Magical Beginnings, and Horrible Beginnings. He is the publisher of ISFiC Press. In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is heavily involved in convention running and publishes the fanzine Argentus.


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