Terran Chronicles: Review The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories by Nina Allan
The Art of Space Travel. Nina Allan. Titan Books, 7 September, 2021.
The pieces in Nina Allan’s The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories have a novelistic density. This isn’t surprising, given the author’s propensity for longer narratives. “My relationship with short fiction has never been easy,” she admits in the volume’s introduction. “From the beginning, and now increasingly, my stories feel discontented with their restricted word counts. They push and stretch at their bounds, splitting off on tangents, demanding more space.”
As a result, the uncanny journeys Allan dramatizes feel at times oddly truncated. In “Amethyst”, which opens the collection, Jane recalls her friendship with Angela, whose fascination with aliens and the rock band Amethyst serve as escapes from her father’s abuse. One night, the friends make a pilgrimage to Silas Street, the part of their hometown made famous by the Amethyst hit, “Moon Landing on Silas Street.” After losing track of Angela, Jane finds her in an abandoned garage, unresponsive and “unlike herself, not quite real.” Has Jane witnessed a foiled alien abduction or a crack in Angela’s façade of normalcy? We never learn for sure, even when the friends see each other again as adults: “I sensed the desert of years between us, the unbridgeable vastness of things that could not be said,” Jane muses. Angela survives by never directly acknowledging her abuse, while Jane struggles with her own guilt for not doing more to help her friend.
Melodie’s personal and intellectual journey feels similarly unresolved in “Microcosmos.” In this fusion of coming-of-age narrative and climate fiction, Melodie is introduced to the wonders of an invisible world by Ballantine, a family friend, when she looks at water through Ballantine’s microscope. The viewfinder reveals a paramecium “propelling itself along with the spidery, whip-like tentacles that grew along the margins of its body. There were shadowy shapes inside it, coils and wisps of blue and red that could have been veins or some kind of rudimentary internal organs.” No sooner has Melodie experienced this revelation than her family is back on the road, returning from their fraught visit. Nevertheless, the story works because the central conflict is one of perspective rather than circumstance. As the family navigates a stark, degraded landscape, the significance of Melodie’s experience is evoked more through image than event: “She wondered if Ballantine were still standing there in the doorway, looking out on the bramble and nettles that had once been the lake. She wondered what moved in its depths, what invisible monsters.”
The deeper one gets into this collection, the more one appreciates Allan on her own terms rather than those of what she calls “mimetic fiction” in her introduction. The individual’s story is always rooted in a larger context, whether psychological, cultural, or historical, and Allan’s richly imagined narratives compel readers to appreciate her characters’ complexity beyond the resolution of a particular plot.
The reader begins to share in Melodie’s revelation as characters and themes reemerge. Fear merges with obsession in “A Thread of Truth”, in which the narrator overcomes his fear of spiders by making them his life’s work. Allan’s descriptive powers invite horror and fascination when the narrator encounters a specimen while working as a property appraiser in college:
I saw the forelegs first: tentative, questing, almost tasting the air. In the next instant the rest of it followed, hauling itself out of the cavern in the wall like a rat exiting a drainpipe. It was huge and ovate, quivering with a life force that seemed almost alien. Its legs could have spanned a man’s hand, and to my horrified eyes its body seemed as big as my thumb. I did not know its name, indeed I was unaware that a spider so large was to be found in the British Isles. For a single confused moment I wondered if I was in fact seeing it at all, or whether, in my state of terror, I had somehow set it loose from one of my nightmares.
Instead of looking away, Allan’s narrator, our window into the story, looks even harder at the source of his fear. The fear is still there, but so is the seed of something else—if not resilience then a kind of wonder.
Allan’s characters traverse time as well as space as her themes coalesce into warnings about the state of our planet and, perhaps, some reasons for hope. In “Flying in the Face of God”, Rachel prepares to leave everything behind—including her earthly body—in order to participate in a one-way mission to space. Allan deftly balances suggestive details of the mission and its toll on Rachel, with a broader consideration of the ethics of space travel, a dangerous gamble in the present with questionable benefits for the future. Allan tackles a similar theme in her title story, narrated by Emily, head of housekeeping at the Edison Star Heathrow hotel, which is hosting members of a mission to Mars. Through Emily, Allan slyly deconstructs the mythology of the astronaut, while setting up some poignant plot twists as we learn about Allan’s earthbound protagonist. In the more starkly dystopian “Neptune’s Trident”, Caitlin and her partner Steph navigate the decline of civilization as we know it, augured by a mysterious plague supplanting human life with another, alien form of existence, an extinction that could also be seen as an evolution.
The art referenced in Allan’s title could refer to the technology of space exploration, but it could just as well refer to narratives by her antecedents, packed as this collection is with references to Ray Bradbury, Chris Marker, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Allan does more, however, than tip her hat to these influences, assessing the human cost of their pioneering tropes. Our capacity for looking to the stars is as much a symptom of planetary neglect as it is of human intelligence, and Allan never fails to remind us of this. Her novelistic, genre-spanning approach reminds us that the story goes on, whether or not we’re actually there to see it.
Pedro Ponce (he/him) is the author of The Devil and the Dairy Princess, which won the 2020 Don Belton Fiction Prize and was published in 2021 by Indiana University Press. He teaches writing and literary theory at St. Lawrence University. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.
This review was commissioned in June 2021 from an emailed pitch; the title was listed on ARB’s call for reviews. The review was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander; the author and editors had no previous relationship. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Titan Books.