Today’s short story reviews are “Only Calculate the Motion of Heavenly Bodies” by Marcia Richards from Strange Horizons and Jess Zimmerman’s “Love Like Monkeys” from Terraform.
“Only Calculate the Motion of Heavenly Bodies” by Marcia Richards (Strange Horizons, 02/13/17)
Content note: This is a story about suicide and mental illness and abusive “treatments”.
In “Only Calculate the Motion of Heavenly Bodies” by Marcia Richards, the reader is taken into a temple of goddesses and the handmaidens who care for them. Halia, a handmaiden and the reader’s view into this world, cares very much for her goddess, Alana, but not necessarily in a way that is wholly respectful of Alana and her agency.
The goddesses have been going mad, some have successfully killed themselves, and the handmaidens have to be constantly vigilant to prevent any further deaths. They’re not always successful, as the goddesses are quite inventive.
The society in which this is set believes that the goddesses help them win wars, grow crops, all the sorts of things you’d expect goddesses to do. The handmaidens have come to believe that the invaders have caused this madness to come upon the goddesses, for the humours from the burning bodies of the dead can trigger suicides and suicidal ideation/attempts.
Halia and the other handmaidens essentially treat the goddesses as children. It reminded me a lot of how people who live in nursing homes or other sorts of care facilities are treated by the workers: there’s occupational therapy in the form of arts and crafts, group time, and none of the goddesses are able to take care of their basic bodily functions (or have not been allowed to, it is hard to say). When the story is put into this frame, Halia’s actions toward Alana feel less motivated by caring and more by the society’s need for the goddesses—Halia doesn’t recognize that Alana has agency and a right to determine the course—or end—of her life.
This comes to a head one evening when Alana manages to shove a length of cotton down her throat and nearly dies—she survives, but she is brain-damaged and unable to speak afterwards. She’s also significantly more compliant. So the other handmaidens do this to their goddesses, and the new goddesses who come to the temple are also nearly-suffocated. Compliance and docility is the goal—this has echoes of how people with mental illnesses or dementia are often drugged into a stupor—not because this is what they want, but this makes them easier to handle for their caretakers. The handmaidens believe that this care is successful, as the war has abated and the crops are growing.
I found this story to be extraordinarily painful to read. Halia is an unreliable narrator and the text leaves no doubt about her actions. I found the setting intriguing—I would like to know more about how the goddesses are supposed to function and how and why there are new ones being born. I felt that there were echoes of the extremely horrible and unethical “Ashley Treatment” in the way Halia talks about Alana and how she’s so much easier to handle after she is brain-damaged. There seems to be no sorrow for what Alana lost or consideration of what she would want and I find that horrifying.
Ultimately, this is a story about systemic abuse that is rooted in the desire to help people (goddesses) with their problems but which ends up only hurting them.
“Love Like Monkeys” by Jess Zimmerman (Terraform, January 2017)
What I wrote in my notes when I finished Jess Zimmerman’s “Love Like Monkeys”: OKAY THAT WAS DARK AF.
Let me elaborate. The protagonist is a woman named Daphne, who works in a generic open office and has a generic fiancé and she also has a lover—and after musing on what an old fashioned word that is, she continues to use it through the rest of the story. Her lover’s name is Gregory and she is obsessed with him. As the story opens, she is scratching at three bumps that have appeared on her hand.
I really enjoyed the interplay between Daphne and the other women in the story—I think it’s significant that there are no male characters apart from Rob and Gregory, and both of them are essentially off-stage for the entirely of the story.
Daphne’s coworker Gwen is a hypochondriac who can’t bear to hear some words and circulated a list of code names for all her phobias when she was first hired. Daphne’s friend Erin is the voice of reason in the story, reason that Daphne is not willing—or able—to hear. The bits with Erin and Daphne were my favorite, especially this description of Erin: “Erin relished knowing something you didn’t; she liked to do a little TED talk about your shameful ignorance before just filling you in.” I think we all have one of those friends, amirite or amirite?
None of the characterization is particularly deep, but it’s effective. More specific characterization would distract from the main point of the story, as it’s less about Daphne and more about that itchy sense of dissatisfaction that we all have in our lives and how that dissatisfaction often leads us to make decisions against our own self-interest.
Which Daphne absolutely does: she goes to Costa Rica to meet Gregory, even knowing that people have been disappearing there—walking into the ocean and disappearing—and that a strange spiky fungus has been discovered on the ocean floor while the bumps on her hand have spread to other parts of her body and are taking on a distinctly spiky appearance.
I found the end to be a bit anti-climactic; once Erin fills Daphne in on what’s going on in Costa Rica, all the tension leaves the story and it’s just a matter of waiting for it to play out, which it does, in the expected way. I wanted more—but one could also argue that my dissatisfaction with the ending is precisely what Zimmerman intended.