On Missing Things: Review of E. Saxey’s Lost in the Archives
Lost in the Archive: Speculative Stories. E. Saxey. Lethe Press, May 15, 2022.
Everything important goes missing in E. Saxey’s Lost in the Archives.
The speculative collection tells unsettling tales that span the 16th century to eerie futures. The collection has no strong genre allegiances, with some pieces that feel more like fantasy or science-fiction, and others more like alternate history. Its throughlines are primarily thematic, with a shared interest in the quiet misfortunes of lost (or hidden) things and disconnection.
Ranging from just a few pages to novelette-length, each story dwells on the human consequences of some strange possibility. What if a priest in the 1500s could have charmed people to only speak the truth? If there were pods that allowed the rich to sleep without aging, how differently would the world feel to someone sleeping and someone on the outside? In a world with talking animals, how would it feel for a human to lifebond with a bird of prey? Saxey’s answers are in turn droll, melancholy, and playful, often trapping characters in quandaries both mystical and ethical, then denying them closure.
After the table of contents, a reading guide clusters story titles by themes: near-future pessimism, fantastical optimism, historical oddities, unhelpful universities, troubled dreams, coastal waters, and adventures with animals. If you follow the guide to skip through chapters in pursuit of a theme, the collection invokes the feeling of wandering through a cavernous library, happening upon hidden artifacts from histories — real, unreal, and yet to happen.
The collection as a whole seems ultimately interested in lost things. Its characters lose ghosts, memories, desires, dreams, time, potential futures, and each other.
Those lost things are often absent, literally, from the narrative. As the protagonist muses in “The Librarian’s Dilemma, “In a traditional library books got lost, not just in a prosaic sense (like lost keys) but in a profound way (like lost souls).” Likewise, Lost in the Archives also often leaves a story-shaped hole around what’s gone missing.
“No Children” follows contractors deconstructing a house in search of an unnamed object, eventually revealed to be a selkie skin; “Since You Ask Me for a Tale” draws two people through the horrifying realization that no one their age seems to experience ghost stories — as if ghosts have disappeared. The characters speak in insinuations and bitten-off phrases, leaving readers to piece together the emotional reveals that are often too disquieting to voice.
It’s a flash fiction sensibility that stretches even into the collection’s longer pieces. (Anyone who’s ever read a speculative flash fiction collection in the vein of Baffling Magazine and thought, “I wish that were just a bit longer, but not too much so” will appreciate this collection.)
Saxey’s brusque, understated prose suits their approach well. Some stories may lean a bit too far towards implication if you’re a reader who prefers clear-cut revelations. But if you like basking in uncertainty and implication, this approach summons a feeling of low-velocity horror and some nice little thrills of realization.
The character work also benefits from a similar emotive sparseness, leading to wry and oddly wistful lines of dialogue like, “Well, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just the end of… some stuff.” Saxey’s dialogue has a good rhythm, often dropping into banter that’s light on description and reads like a stage play. It’s also sometimes a fun puzzle. No one ever seems to say the entirety of what they mean, and you’re left to interpret.
Regardless of the stories’ eras — historic, present-day, near-future, inexplicable hybrids — magical technologies weave their way into Saxey’s worlds. A perennial graduate student impersonates test-takers with face-changing technology; a librarian digitizes censored books with tools at once prosaic and borderline mystical; a 19th-century Uranian, fleeing Britain after Oscar Wilde’s arrest, astrally projects across information networks through far-off planets in search of the literal Uranus.
Though the readers’ guide doesn’t name “information networks” as a core theme, several of the collection’s most vibrant and interesting pieces deal with questions of knowledge and data: its creation, destruction, and dissemination. As a book on archives, it’s also unsurprisingly fascinated with intertextuality. The collection flits between Celtic myth and modern fandom, references Lord of the Rings and Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate Trilogy in one breath, then spins into journal entries penned by fictionalized versions of a historical figure in the 16th century Catholic counter-reformation.
There’s a mix of queer characters — largely queer men — throughout. Their queerness never feels like a focal point: while their settled identities influence their relationships and their perspectives, this is not a collection interested in making broader statements about queer experience. They’re generally a bit busy grappling with forces beyond their control. And the queer relationships in these collections are just as fraught and disaster-prone as the straight ones.
Certain stories — especially some of the shortest pieces — don’t quite mesh with the rest of the collection. “Sunslick” dips into thick brogue to describe a corporate disaster on a futuristic sun factory that harvests light, a darker take on solarpunk imaginings. And “Anxiety” depicts Sigmund Freud’s frenetic dreams, parodying his own symbolic psychosexual theories with appearances from the three Fates. Though the dream themes resurface in “Raising the Sea Drowned” — a novelette in which “dream job” becomes quite literal and apocalyptic thanks to start-up shenanigans — “Anxiety” doesn’t pair as well with the rest.
Particular standouts for me were “The Librarian’s Dilemma,” “Missing Episodes,” and “Raising the Sea Drowned” — all on the longer side, compared to the others, these stories have enough breathing room to show off Saxey’s character work, ramp up ambiguity and ethical dilemmas, and stick readers in the uncomfortable in-betweens to sweat for a bit. Even with the added meat, though, these stories manage to maintain that core sense of unease and uncertainty. And it’s in that in-between place that this collection thrives.
Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Midwestern United States. After staring at the news all day, they like to unwind by reading queer sci-fi, horror, and romance — ideally all at once. Their book reviews and author interviews have featured in their local public media member station, city magazine, and alt weekly. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch after ARB listed Lost in the Archives as “available for review”. The review was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Chad A. Hines. The review author and editors had no previous acquaintance. A review copy was provided directly by the author of the work being reviewed.
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