Author: Nina Allan
Title: The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories
Other: Short story collection
I am partial to collections of short stories. I very much like the format, which for me works as a beginning of a conversation between the writer and the reader. A story comes into being as an idea: it may be not fully thought through, unpolished and raw, but it’s scintillating enough that cannot be left alone; it needs to be shown to the world and elicit a reaction. I read short stories to be intellectually challenged, however minutely or extensively. There are always some good or even great stories in collections and anthologies, but sadly, the opposite is also true: rarely a collection of disparate stories can hold up an exceptionally high quality level throughout. That said, it’s the gems I hunt for among the sand, and I’m always happy to find new favorites.
I confess I requested Nina Allan’s collection on a whim; I have never read anything by her and decided short stories are a good place to start. And indeed, The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories is as varied a collection as one could wish for. The stories, arranged chronologically, span about two decades and showcase both the continuity and evolution of thought, as well as a development of skill.
As usual, I’ll present a short review and rating for each of the stories, and give an overall summary at the end.
It shows moments of uneasy brilliance in creating an uncanny, uncomfortable mood in the most mundane of situations. But as a whole it just doesn’t work; it loses both the momentum and the emotional weight somewhere along the way and dies a quiet, undignified death before its end.
Another story about a mystery that turns out to be thoroughly mundane and uninteresting; the past or present of the characters failed to kindle my curiosity. In the end, the only engaging thing is the pigeons. Utterly forgettable, unfortunately. More of a beginning of a novel or a novella than a complete short story.
A Thread of Truth 9/10
A delightful gothic tale involving spiders, arachnophobia, Kafka, and body horror, all in a quaint old English town. One of the best stories in the collection, and one of very few that actually has a well executed ending.
Flying in the Face of God 3/10
The title is the best element of this story. Another take on Kafkian transformation, and despite the creative form mixing pseudo documentary with the narrative the content – focusing on the very physical aspects of sacrifice of astronauts who decide to travel among the stars – is derivative and dull.
A dystopian short story depicting the results of climate change, centered around the minuscule elements of one’s life viewed through the lens of a child’s perspective. Atmospheric, dealing in innuendos, but somehow leaving a taste of something unfinished.
Fairy Skulls 6/10
A fun little story about ‘alternate histories’ and what to do when fairies turn out to be something more akin to nasty pests than the flowery butterfly creatures pop culture led us to believe in. Meant to be ironic, ultimately misses the mark; the motivation of the protagonist is ultimately too weak to justify her actions, and leaves the reader (at least this reader) somewhat disgruntled with the greedy colonial attitude on display.
The Science of Chance 9/10
The second best story of the collection, a journey down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and “wanting to believe.” Details pointing to an alternative history are peppered here and there, but ultimately play second fiddle to the mystery of a lonely child.
A really good story which starts out as one thing and turns into something else. A meditation on the fate of a refugee waiting in the state of unbearable suspension for the decision from the dehumanizing institutions. A chance encounter with a homeless person leads not only to reassessment of the protagonist’s situation but also involves certain time travel tropes, promising a larger, untold tale.
The Art of Space Travel 6/10
The titular story would’ve been better if not for another shot ending. Tender, compassionate, and once again focused on human relationships, would have been so much more without the last few paragraphs.
Neptune’s Trident 5/10
Initially quite interesting, with body horror elements and alien invasion. But quickly it reveals itself to be another one of the stories that seem like the beginning of something larger: it’s meandering, slow-paced, and without any leading thought, but worse than that – it has no solid ending. It’s like Allan just can’t help themself and ruin whatever she’d built with a few additional paragraphs that rob the story of meaning.
Four Abstracts 3/10
I was happy with A Thread of Truth; this story, returning to the characters and chronicling their lives in a somewhat obsessive-compulsive way, actually feels like diminishing A Thread of Truth’s impact. The narrator is incredibly bitchy, and the concept of believing/disbelieving something unbelievable had been tackled much better in The Science of Chance. Once again, it seems that Allan just can’t leave a good story alone.
The Common Tongue, The Present Tense, The Known 6/10
Another continuation, this time of Microcosmos. Despite some scientific flaws (sharks are coming nearer shores because their usual hunting grounds are emptying) it’s an engaging story about the dissolution of the world as we know it due to climate change. Kind of preachy and uneven, but interesting overall.
The Gift of Angels 7.5/10
A bit corny, and overflowing with words (I know, weird, that’s what stories are built with, so how can there be excess, but believe me, that’s what it is) but a really good little story of lifelong bereavement, curiosity, and being marked by loss. It’s another continuation – not so much of a story as of certain threads from The Art of Space Travel – it’s in effect a diary of the man whose mother left him to go to Mars. I really like Allan’s style here, subdued and self-aware, and still quite poetic.
A Princess of Mars 8.5/10
A very good story about a non-existent movie, Russian cinema, and the complexity of creating and receiving art. It reads less like a story and more like an essay, or interview, an expression on opinion, and it’s wonderfully open-ended, which is for me a proof of Allan’s growing skill.
All in all, I quite enjoyed this collection. It started out unpromising, but improved – and watching the process of the author’s growth was a pleasure in itself. It ends on a good note, too, leaving a better aftertaste ;). There’s something unusual about Allan’s style, her prose can be luminous and evocative, and meditative. There’s also a lot of repetition of themes and topics, and this collection offers an insight into her obsessions: bodily transformation, the workings of memory, the impact of loss.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.