Song of a Dying Earth: Review of The Necessity of Stars by E. Catherine Tobler
The Necessity of Stars. By E. Catherine Tobler. Neon Hemlock Press, July 20, 2021.
E. Catherine Tobler’s The Necessity of Stars is a short first contact narrative where aliens seek sanctuary on an Earth that is no longer cared for. It is an Earth like our own, with protagonists growing older as the dystopias of climate change become more immediate, dwelling in the surviving remnants of a past age. The novella begins in 2143 and is set in an outlandish garden known as Irislands, a lush oasis where Breonne Hemmerli, a sixty-three-year-old United Nations representative navigates a path as treacherous as memory.
In unsteady first-person, Breonne narrates the ecological crisis that has beset this world; here, corporations and institutions have hastened climate change and all the natural calamities that accompany it: disastrous weather, flooding, extinction of plants and animals, unemployment, resource scarcity. From afar, as Breonne tells us, the Earth looks like a planet on its deathbed, and all that was once necessary, like diplomats and nations, have lost their purpose.
Breonne is an unreliable narrator. Unlike most stories with an unreliable narrator, the form of the novella is not that of a collage or a puzzle falling into place over the course of the telling and it doesn’t rely on the reader choosing between many possible interpretations. Instead, Breonne’s forgetting echoes that of the crisis; her gradual loss of memory only amplifies the past that the planet has lost. The interiority that shapes Breonne (and the novella) is like a song, meandering and lyrical, brought into focus through the refrain that is circular in its tale of beginnings and ends. “When I don’t remember my name, I will remember this,” she repeats.
At the heart of the garden of Irislands is Tura, the alien, come seeking refuge on a planet long rumoured to be dead. First contact narratives are usually shaped by the encounter with the unknown, some focusing on the nature of the alien (are they inexplicably hostile, like in Ender’s Game, or do they warp our sense of reality, such as in the Three Body Problem?) and others on the nature of the aftermath (such as assimilation in LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle or Butler’s Xenogenesis series). The alien in The Necessity of Stars does not easily fit these categories, shifting form and function as the story progresses. Additionally, the novella is a first contact story told in the retrospective mode, half-remembered, repressed by the protagonist’s doubt, and it twists and turns in much the same way—providing direction towards a particular form before Breonne forgets or refuses it. As such, The Necessity of Stars feels like a more narrative and character-driven meditation on the first contact story and its varied representations.
The alien itself, as much as the narrative, constantly morphs, sometimes taking the form of a tree or a fox, sometimes a shadow or space itself, sometimes a memory of a lover or a friend. Tura can mimic and imitate all kinds of life forms, from the humanoid to the animal—most commonly, the many-branched, rooted, and networked tree that shadows the garden. At some points, Tura’s shifting threatens Breonne’s reality and selfhood, like in first contact narratives such as Lem’s Solaris, or VanderMeer’s Annihilation series. Breonne is consumed by Tura; Breonne is Tura. Elsewhere, Tura’s skin is like stars in space, and then Breonne sees herself as another singular star. In yet another twist, it is suggested that the aliens are a man-made creation, like Franenstein’s monster and the many variations on that theme.
Similarly, Breonne, as the narrator of a first contact narrative, is aware of the trappings of the (sub)genre. She wonders if the language of diplomacy and negotiation can navigate truth to make it a reasonable story; she considers her own insignificance and even her own arrogance in wanting to be the first human touched by Tura, making the ownership of such a claim the point of the story; she even feels wisps of desire and wonders whether first contact stories are also love stories. Most important is the relevance of a first contact story on a world that is dying, even presumed dead: does the alien represent rescue, a scapegoat, or a hastened disaster? What happens when the alien is the only hope in such a scenario, when the impossible becomes a necessity?
In reading the novella, I was most struck not by its lyricism and careful prose, but by the many oppositions that are woven through it. The first, so blatant in the title, is this aforementioned distinction between the necessary and the impossible, made more earnest through Breonne’s own suspicion that she is perceived as an old woman long past her usefulness. Through these poetic juxtapositions the novella questions the chronological and easily accessible nature of memory. Is memory fiction or is memory madness? Does memory serve the human mind or should we adopt the alien concept of memory as armour? Does memory provide clarity or is memory located in the sensory and the material?
Memory as a concept is often central to ecological science fiction (even virtual memory as in Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide, or shared memories as in Marge Piercy’s Woman at the Edge of Time) and can help navigate questions of deliberate neglect to the planet as well as a loss of the future. Sometimes, as in the Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s famous Cemetery of Forgotten Books trilogy, such a framework can make the individual the storehouse of memory, made to account for it or bequeath it to the next generation. Tobler avoids this individualistic sense of remembering. Instead, Breonne’s memory is depicted as work, where both Delphine—a climate scientist and Breonne’s friend—and Tura participate in keeping Breonne’s memory, sharing and rendering it for her. The novella also depicts memory as a collectively shared resource. For example, at the end of the novella, Tura shares her memories with Breonne, and takes away Breonne’s burden of remembering.
Whether alien or human, wondrously new or mundanely old, Tobler shows how memory can be regenerative rather than nostalgic. As such, memory represents some hope in a plausible and bleak dystopia. In Breonne’s world, where animals have gone extinct and cities have flooded, the memory at the heart of the narrative is both a loss and a gift.
The Necessity of Stars can challenge its readers: the structure is circular, the focus on memory can tend towards the myopic, the narrative voice can seem confused. But, over the novella’s short span, the alien garden and the characters surprised me by casting a wide net over first contact stories and rendering them meaningful for a dying Earth. More than anything else, I kept reading for the beauty of its reflective and self-aware prose, which felt like a song I couldn’t stop humming. And so, I continued the circular song, an alien ecosystem taking over a dead garden, an old woman becoming a necessary star.
Shinjini Dey works as a freelance editor and writer. Find her at @shinjini_dey.
This review was commissioned by editor Casella Brookins in June 2020 from a hard pitch; the author and editor are acquainted through previous ARB work. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Neon Hemlock Press.