Book Review: Light from Other Stars by Erika Swyler (2019)

Friday, May 10th, 2019

“Behind every brilliant woman is her doubly brilliant mother.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for child abuse.)

She knew them by their light, the gentle differences—Amit’s warm, yellowish brown, Evgeni who glowed like a pearl, Louisa who was brighter than all of them. Nedda would know them anywhere; if she lost their shapes, she’d recognize their light.

They would likely die. It was why they were childless, unwed. Freedom of sacrifice. It was a shame that only three people would ever again be in the same room as Evgeni when he sang. Only three people would know that Singh ate with his pinkie out. That Marcanta pulled hairs from her eyebrows when frustrated. Children would know their names, and drive on roads named Sokolov or Papas. Children would know their ship, Chawla, and who she’d hauled. A little girl somewhere would rattle off everything she’d read about them, and with it everything she knew about space and time, about light.

“I got a boat too. It’s not real big, just enough to take a few people out, that’s all.”

“What’d you name it?”

Flux Capacitor.”

Doc Brown’s a better name.”

“Yeah, but boats are women.”

“Everything’s a woman. Cars, boats, houses. Anywhere that’s safe or takes you somewhere better is a woman,” she said.

“So, Chawla is a woman?”

“Obviously.” She opened her eye to find him staring.

Her father’s machine was as much hope and wish as it was metal and glass.

In the present day – her present, our future – Nedda Papas has achieved everything she’s dreamed of. As one quarter of the crew of Chawla, Nedda is humanity’s last best chance. Climate change has wrought havoc on earth: rising sea levels have disappeared entire islands and shrunk continents, hunger fueled by drought is the new normal, and wildfires plague what little land is left. The planet is beyond saving; now flight is the only long-term option.

Sent to colonize another planet in a galaxy far, far away, Nedda will never again set foot on earth. And she’s okay with that – it’s for the greater good, after all, and doesn’t she owe her species at least that much, anyway? But when cost-cutting and politicking threatens Chawla’s success, Nedda must revisit her past in order to salvage our future.

It was 1986 when Nedda’s world imploded: first, with the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster; and again with Theo Pappas’s magnum opus, the Crucible.

Light from Other Stars unfolds in two parallel narratives: aboard the Chawla, and in January/February 1986, when Nedda is eleven years old.

Middle-schooler Nedda lives Easter, Florida, in the shadow of Kennedy Space Center. She and her professor father Theo – newly laid off from NASA after the latest round of budget cuts – are inseparable, whether devising and executing experiments or trying to spot Halley’s Comet shoot across the night sky. Her relationship with mother Betheen is a little frostier, but not necessarily for lack of mutual interests: Beth is a chemist. But her (women’s) work is undervalued, because of course it is. It also doesn’t help that Betheen has been drowning in grief for most of young Nedda’s life. But spoilers!

Theo has suffered from psoriatic arthritis since childhood, and the joint pain and inflammation makes his work difficult (as does the markedly inferior resources at Haverstone College). Ostensibly, this is the impetus behind his crowning achievement, the Crucible, a machine that can slow down, stop, or even reverse time (and thus heal all manner of physical injuries) by manipulating entropy. (Swyler includes a fair amount of background on the science, only a fraction of which I can claim to understand, and I have no idea how sound it is. But I didn’t find these bits boring or excessive, fwiw.)

Theo’s machine is a success, in a manner of speaking, but things go sideways, because of course they do. When Crucible threatens to devour all of Easter (including Nedda’s best friend Denny), it’s up to Nedda and Betheen to save the day.

Judy Resnik, Sally Ride, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, Ed White – Nedda’s heroes have always been astronauts. WWJD – What would Judy do?

As much as I loved Swyler’s previous novel, The Book of Speculation, I think she managed to outdo herself with Light from Other Stars. It is beautiful and magical and excruciating in the best way. I am writing this review weeks after turning the last page, tears coursing down my face anew. (Okay, that makes my ugly crying sound a lot prettier than it is. A spectacle, I am making one.)

A big part of this are the passages on death and dying and the afterlife. I’m an atheist, and don’t generally envy people their religious beliefs … that is, unless it’s the comfort that the grieving can find in stories about heaven (or reincarnation, or what have you). Some days I’d give anything to believe that I’ll be reunited with my deceased love ones, eventually. But I can’t make myself believe in something I don’t, even when it’s convenient, and so I go scavenging for secular comfort wherever I can find it, like a sad, lonely little heathen magpie.

I find it in all sorts of places (but mostly books, to no one’s surprise): Aaron Freeman’s essay, “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.” The passages in The Subtle Knife where Lyra and Will lead the ghosts out of the world of the dead. The entire science-based religion created by Lauren Olamina in Octavia Butler’s Parables duology. Add to that Theo Pappas’s ideas about thoughts, memories, and electrical impulses; heat and light; gas and carbon and star parts. (Carl Sagan’s quote about starstuff! I knew I was forgetting something!) There’s some truly breathtaking stuff in here. This is a wonderfully godless book; a wonderful book for the godless. I’ll hold it close to my heart and cherish it, always.

(I want desperately to include some excerpts here, but spoilers!)

Light from Other Stars is also fiercely feminist, even if the ferocity sometimes comes in a whisper instead of a shout. It’s a story about fathers and daughters and fathers and sons … but also, especially, about mothers and daughters and mothers and sons. Nedda’s relationship with Theo is as magnificent as it is tenuous, but her bond with Betheen is all the more wonderful for its complexity, for the way it grows and strengthens and changes – and holds fast even across the vast chasm of space. Nedda’s evolving perception of her mother as she discovers what Betheen is capable of is a revelation. I wonder if they ever perfected that champagne cake together?

Last but not least, it’s a joy to watch as these two narratives come together, often in unexpected ways (Amadeus, I’m looking at you).

Swyler’s writing is exquisite and will pummel you right in the feels. I really hope Netflix picks this one up for a screenplay or miniseries. I need to see what time made liquid looks like, stat.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Mini-Review: The Mermaid Girl: A Story, Erika Swyler (2016)

Friday, May 27th, 2016

A short prequel story to The Book of Speculation.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ebook for review through NetGalley.)

The problem with stealing the magician’s assistant from a carnival was that you were always waiting for her to disappear. […]

The problem with marrying the mermaid girl from the carnival was knowing that one day she’d swim away.

— 3.5 stars —

Simon and his younger sister Enola were just kids when their mother drowned. A former circus performer – a mermaid, in fact – Paulina bid her children farewell one day, walked the steps from their crumbling, 1700s colonial house down to the beach, and continued right on into the Atlantic Ocean.

Years later, Simon – now a librarian at Napawset library – comes into possession of a mysterious ledger dating back to the 1700s. His grandmother’s name, written all the way in the back, sets him on a journey through his family’s past – seemingly set on a collision course with Enola’s future. Simon makes a sinister discovery: all of the women in his matrilineal line die. They die young, but not before having a daughter; they die of drowning, even though all are mermaids; and they die of apparent suicides, even where no clear history of mental illness exists. Most shockingly of all, they all perish in the same way on the same day: July 24th.

The story begins in late June, and Enola has just announced that she’s returning home after a six-year absence.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Book of Speculation: A Novel, Erika Swyler (2015)

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

“Even Pandora’s Box had hope.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Churchwarry laughs, and I begin to understand some of his delight in passing books on. There’s a certain serendipity, a little light that’s settled in my sternum.

How could I have known that goodbye meant goodbye?

Simon Watson comes from a long and storied line of performers: travelers, carnies, circus folks. Divers and breath-holders (half-mermaid women!) as well as fortune tellers and tarot card readers (psychics and witches!). Like his predecessors, Simon is a master of reinvention. Rather than taking up the family business, as did his younger sister Enola – who bailed on him and joined the circus the moment she turned 18 – Simon has chosen a more practical vocation: he’s a librarian at the Napawset library. And unlike his distant, nomadic relatives, Simon seems rooted to a single spot: the crumbling, 1700s colonial house that he and Enola called home.

After Simon’s mother Paulina committed suicide – one day, she bid him and Enola farewell, walked into the ocean, and never came out; a mermaid who drowns? how does such a thing even work? – father Daniel became nearly comatose in his grief. It was Simon who looked after Enola; Simon who bandaged her cuts; Simon who taught her how to how to dive and swim and hold her breathe for ten minutes straight, just like his mom the mermaid showed him. And when Daniel finally dropped dead of a heart attack, it was Simon who worked several jobs at a time to put food on the table.

(More below the fold…)