Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time

Short Story by Catherynne M. Valente
Text and audio at Clarkesworld, read by Kate Baker.

Greek, Aztec, Norse, Japanese, Christian, Apache, and Pacific Northwest Native American mythology are mashed together with quantum physics and molecular biology to form exceedingly poetic bits of science-fictional creation myth. I'll put an excerpt after my rating, because there is no way I can get the feel of these segments across.

They are amusing and funny, inspire deep thoughts, seem to be creating a mythology connecting various old religions to our scientific understanding of our own creation. They throw big words around so much that you almost get the feeling Valente doesn't know what she is doing with them, but on closer inspection, I can't find a single word that doesn't make a deeper poetic/scientific kind of sense.

Unfortunately, like real mythology, they only make a partial kind of sense, drag on far too long, and make it hard for me to finish a story I know I want to get to the end of. And mythology buffs may have trouble with all the slightly non-popular science allusions.

Fortunately for the story, these admittedly delightful mythological segments are tied back together towards the end (in a brilliant way), and are interspersed around a real, very moving, story. Most importantly, they add to this story, rather than merely break it up. It is the story of both how the unnamed SF writer (presumably Valente) views her work, and the world. And also a story of her childhood and her first marriage, divorce, and ultimately, her birth as a writer and who she is today. Take the old "open a vein and bleed" advice about writing to an entirely weirder place.

While it is definitely overlong and probably overdense, the story has an amusing beginning that transitions into a sad/tragic story, that transitions again into an examination of who the narrator really is and how all the events of her life made her who she is today. And that doesn't even summarize it. The ending is more deep and emotional than I'd ever expected. And, as always, I'm amazed by Kate Baker's ability to evoke the sadder feelings and bring additional tears to the eye that a lesser reader wouldn't have been able to reach.

4.5 human hearts out of 5 will one day be fed to the entropy of the universe and/or an Aztec god.

And now, your excerpt:
She gave birth to Quetzalcoatl who was a plume of electrical discharge and Xolotl, who was the evening star called Apoptosis. Her children, the moon and stars, were threatened by impending oxy-photosynthesis, and resolved to kill their mother. When they fell upon her, Coatlicue's body erupted in the fires of glycolysis, which they called Huitzilopochtli. The fiery god tore the moon apart from her mother, throwing her iron-depleted head into the sky and her body into a deep gorge in a mountain, where it lies dismembered forever in hydrothermal vents, swarmed with extremophiles.

Thus began the late heavy bombardment period, when the heavens crumbled to pieces and rained down in a shower of exogenesis.

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