Reviews, SFF

Review: “The Stars Seem So Far Away” by Margrét Helgadóttir

starsFox Spirit Books, 2015.

This review first appeared a little over six months ago in Strange Horizons.


The Stars Seem So Far Away is a narrative of northern futures. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic warming world, where the ice caps have melted and plague has turned the population into starving refugees. Those who can flee north, to the scattered Arctic islands, where they live close lives of deprivation and increasing infection. Also of isolation – from each other, and from the other living things that once shared the planet. All other animal species are extinct, apart from odd individual animals grown in labs, generally for the wealthy. Similarly plant life is severely limited: “Only a few kinds of vegetables, fruit, berries and spices existed now, grown in artificial soil and dried or tinned for mass distribution around the world” (26). And as Nora thinks, “No land was green anymore” (109). This naturally has ecological and social consequences, although these are not always as fully explored as they might be (see later comments).

One technology lost for lack of fuel, but in the early stages of revival, is that associated with space exploration. The stars might seem out of reach, but human colonies remain amidst the stars and the possibility of exploration, of leaving the Earth for a better life, is woven throughout the text.

Helgadóttir presents this world in a series of interconnected short stories. There’s a small core cast of characters who interact in different groups at different times, and their stories slowly converge near the end of the book. It’s an interesting structure, and one I enjoyed, but it’s double-edged.

Weaving a narrative through what are essentially fragments allows the author to order the stories to emphasise, for instance, theme or imagery. The last page of “Lost Bond” tells of the disappearance of a ghost fox, while the next story, “Aida”, begins with the titular character believing she’s seen her dead parents. This can give a sense of connection over initially disparate stories, a sort of tying-together, but it also means that readers have to cope with gaps between the stories. This isn’t an atypical strategy for any author – readers don’t want to see the boring bits, say Aida washing up after each meal – but sometimes the gaps can feel too large. This happens when crucial choices, fundamental character moments, happen off-screen. There was an instance of this in The Stars Seem So Far Away that did stick out. Bjørg initially refuses to go into space with her lover Simik; she is afraid of what will happen to the isbos, her pet polar bears (she believes they’ll be shot without her, and she may be right). In the end it’s Simik who decides to stay, but when the two of them pop up again in a later story, they’re preparing to go into space. I can understand Helgadóttir not wanting to show the decision-making process twice, but it’s still jarring. A lot of Bjørg’s story is concerned with those bears – she raises them from cubs, and they’re one of the closest emotional bonds she has. Yet that bond becomes disposable almost between stories, and for a collection themed so much about connection, about staving off disconnection, this is a discordant note.

I’ve seen that the prose of this book has been praised by other reviewers. The back cover alone describes it as “kinetic” and “beautifully written”. I’m not sure that I’m in total agreement. The Stars Seem So Far Away is certainly competently written, no complaints there. I found the language quite plain, though: sparse and strong, often quite muscular. There can be a beauty in that, but I’m afraid I didn’t much see it. Consider the following, from page 17 (the point at which I flipped to the back cover to reread the praise of prose):

One massive door revealed a dark tunnel. The mine. They couldn’t see the end of it. It probably went deep into the mountain. The other doors were either locked or opened to empty rooms. The whole place seemed abandoned. Simik frowned. How odd. In one of the rooms they found an instrument panel. Hurrying, they stuck some of the explosives under it and scattered several more around the place, but mostly around the door to the mine.

Prose is subjective, of course, but I would have liked, overall, to see more description. This is a different time – a different world, almost. That difference should be sensory, but here the emotional connection to setting seemed to be reserved more for the descriptions of space, for the environment of yearning. (Roar’s passion for space is one of the strongest emotional beats of the book.)

Possibly less subjective is an assessment of the world-building. Too often in speculative fiction I see world-building used as an end in itself, not as a vehicle for story. Too often I find myself closing a book in irritation because it’s been overstuffed by this mania for detail. So you’ll understand my surprise when for once my main complaint is the opposite: there’s too little world-building here.

Granted, The Stars Seem So Far Away is a short book. One cannot reasonably expect 160 pages to be an encyclopaedia. But, as an old professor of mine once said, “Brevity is next to Godliness, but clarity never faileth.” The world-building here succeeds in brevity, but fails in clarity. My reading experience is constantly undermined by questions – and not of the “what’s going to happen next?” variety.

Let me give what I found to be the most glaring example. Another of the primary themes of the text is migration – the movement to refugia, the escape to a cooler world, away from the heat and thirst of the continental temperate and tropical regions. Fuel is essentially unavailable, so most movement is by sailboat. Most of the refugia are islands. People tend to live on coastlines. And they’re on the verge of starvation, all of them – so where, where, where is any mention of fishing? Or algal collection, or synthesis of edible phytoplankton? Nowhere, that’s where.

Nora and Aida try to sail to Greenland with their dog, Tarik. They’re short on food, which is exclusively tinned vegetables (grown in artificial soil, if you recall), mostly served, it seems, in the form of broth or soup. And no-one thinks to run a line over the side? They stop, in one of the stories, at “The Women’s Island”, where the three inhabitants keep fat and happy by slaughtering the sailors that land there. Fair enough, I was expecting cannibalism eventually – but are there no shellfish on the beaches? Are there no fish? I can understand finding fishing a tiresome endeavour, but isn’t it better than butchery?

It would be one thing if there were an explanation, or a nod to an explanation, of why the seas are so empty (or even simple acknowledgement that they are). There’s the odd mention of rare fish farms (often reserved for the rich, I think) but no mention of the two thirds of the planet that’s covered in water and why it’s just so barren. This isn’t a missing detail: this is a giant gaping hole in the middle of the text, with no acknowledgement that the hole’s even there. I’m struggling to think of an apocalyptic series of events that destroys all land and marine life, bar humans. It’s one thing losing, say, elephants to massive climate change. It’s quite another to lose plankton, or algae.

This absolute dismissal of the entire marine ecosystem is just bizarre. I don’t understand it – perhaps we are meant to infer, by the absence of any reference to the contrary, that the sea is sterile. Okay. My inner biologist is revolting but let’s take it as a matter of faith: there’s nothing living in the oceans. It would be a beautiful contradiction – that the birthplace of life on Earth is utterly barren, but the stars are full of future. That would emphasise Helgadóttir’s sense of migration, of movement and process – but I wonder if I’m assigning meaning that was never intended.

The question of flesh of any kind is a thorny one. Meat I can understand: it’s energy intensive to produce – especially in comparison to plants – so I don’t expect the characters to be eating it. And indeed, I can only recall one (non-cannibal) reference, where Bjørg is left “a plate of bread and dried meat” (133). But Bjørg is also the caretaker of a group of polar bears. A polar bear is an obligate carnivore – so where are they getting their food? Bjørg lives in a seed vault. And alright, the bears are genetically engineered. They might be vegetarian. But the text hints not – they seem, at times, on the verge of stalking human prey. They’ve certainly killed humans before: Bjørg’s primary responsibility is to keep the vault safe and unplundered, and any incursion onto the island is met with deadly force, both from her and her bears. Yet the text also states that she burns the resulting bodies (“the corpses she’d had to burn” 122). There’s a food store for the bears, but never any mention as to what these large, apex predators are actually eating. If there were any indication of marine life, I could buy them prowling the shore for fish and walrus – but there isn’t. The bears just seem to magically exist.

To be fair, there is an undercurrent of magic and myth to the text. And it’s when Helgadóttir focuses on this that the text is strongest, in my opinion. Possibly the strongest image is that of the ghost fox, who acts as a guide for Simik in “Lost Bonds”. The story opens in flashback with Simik as a young boy, being instructed by an elder on the spiritual bonds between humans and animals. “They said that men needed the animals to lead them in the right direction and protect them against dangers …. They also said that wise men, the healers, needed the animals and their spirits to guide them into other worlds, in their quest for truth” (12). These bonds are now lost with the extinction of nearly every non-human species. “All I know is that when the animals disappeared, not only were men left alone and unprotected, but the wise men could no longer help people” (12). Simik’s connection with the spirit fox is one of renewal, of rebirth, and the growing sense of possibility isn’t checked by his discovery of the corporeal fox, dead and abandoned in a cage. Contrary to the elder’s belief, the potential for connection remains in Simik – and in such a disconnected, fragmentary world, this potential is a crucially important thing. It’s a genuinely moving moment, one mirrored later by Simik and Bjørg as they view the skeletal remains of a whale, once trapped in a too-small pool at a long-abandoned aquarium. (Although it’s a moment that’s later undermined when Simik chooses to forgo the bond he could have formed with the bears in favour of the totally animal-less journeying of the space shuttle: how much does Simik value the return of this very rare bond when he’s happy to toss it away, potentially forever?)

This magic seeps into the text, although not always convincingly. There are places it genuinely works – Simik and the ghost fox, for one – and places where it seems like the easy hook: flashy and insubstantial. Genetic laboratories grow what the conservation movement today would call iconic species: polar bears, a whale. Sexy species, to go alongside the more usual occasional dog and human being. One can see why Helgadóttir’s referencing these creations: they’re magic moments in the text, little explosions of diversity and enchantment. Yet I found myself wondering: if they can construct a killer whale, why can’t they make some carrots? Or a batch of plankton to chuck in the ocean, make at least an attempt to re-establish an ecosystem – even if only an exploitable one. (No wonder efforts to repopulate the ocean with whales failed – what were they supposed to eat?)

But the stars are just so far away, and next to that the practicalities of building a world (for the inhabitants, for the author) just don’t seem that attractive. Unless, like me, you’re leaden-minded.

This is an ocean world. There’s wonder in that, too.

Except there isn’t, not here. And the book ends with the bulk of the main characters planning to head out into space, despite the fact that they’re all not much more than children. Because there’s still a space programme running, with people running it – and they’ve been working for it and up to it for a long time. So there’s got to be people in the surrounding community who have been training in relevant scientific disciplines for years… but the astronaut places go to a handful of kids who do well in a crash course, because… well, because they’re our protagonists. It’s the magic again, the miracle moment – and again, I can see why Helgadóttir is doing it. It’s metaphor, the youth of humanity migrating onwards, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense and it borders on the cheap.

Look, there’s a lot to like here. I admire the imagination behind this book: the ideas are interesting, the attraction for outer space and exploration profound. I genuinely liked the structure, and most of the characters. But I can’t help feeling that, despite Helgadóttir’s unquestionable achievements, The Stars Seem So Far Away would have been measurably improved by additional material and another draft.