Short stories are a difficult matter to handle: on one side, they might not give the same satisfactory “density” of a book, on the other they afford you a glimpse into a world, a setting you know you would enjoy – but end all too soon.
Every time I read about some fellow blogger reluctance about reading short stories, I understand, but at the same time I see these smaller offerings as a way to sample authors I have not read yet, without committing to a full book.
For this mont of November dedicated to science fiction, I’ve decided to look up some of the short stories offered online by many sites, and see what I could find. It was a somewhat difficult search, because not all stories were to my taste, but what I found made it all quite worthwhile: my heartfelt thanks to all those online magazines that allowed me to sample such an incredible variety of stories.
The Lady Astronaut of Mars, by M.R.Kowal – from Tor.com
In this particular case, I was already familiar with Ms. Kowal’s writing, having read and greatly enjoyed her fantasy series the Glamourists Histories, but this was unknown territory for me: a short story and a science-fiction themed one. I must say beforehand that it was the very best short story I read for my Sci-Fi Month posts, and the one that touched me more deeply, showcasing Ms. Kowal’s deep sensibility and skill as a writer.
Elma used to be an astronaut, the first and more famous woman astronaut: she now lives on Mars, as mankind has found the way to colonize other planets of the Solar System. She pines for the days when she could travel in space, but she’s now sixty-three, well past the age when an astronaut can be sent on missions, and moreover she cares for her husband, suffering from a degenerative illness that will soon take his life.
When she is offered one last mission, one that will imply a one-way journey to establish a sort of beachhead on a newly-discovered Earthlike planet, she is torn between the desire to touch the stars once more and her duty and deep love toward her husband Nathaniel. The way in which she expresses her quandary comes across as more effective because of the starkness of the words, not in spite of it:
I wanted to get off the planet and back into space and not have to watch him die. Not have to watch him lose control of his body piece by piece. (…) And I wanted to stay here and be with him and steal every moment left that he had breath in his body.
Another fascinating side of the story comes from the subtle statements about the role of a woman in what is traditionally considered a man’s job: there are a few remarks about the way Elma’s work was presented, with a slant on appearance and glitz rather than skills and competence.
I was there to show all the lady housewives that they could go to space too. Posing in my flight suit, with my lips painted red, I had smiled at more cameras than my colleagues.
To call this story ‘poignant’ would be a huge understatement: what makes it so much more touching is that M.R. Kowal never resorts to easy drama or saccharine-laden sentiments, but rather shows Elma’s quandary in simple strokes, and yet manages to present the situation in all its difficult sides, ending with a moving, emotion-laden sentence that I’m not ashamed to admit moved me to tears. And that does not happen often…
Follow the link and read this beautiful story, you really owe it to yourselves.