Life in the Future: Plants, Children, and More in Sim Kern’s Real Sugar is Hard to Find
Real Sugar Is Hard To Find. Sim Kern. Android Press, August 1.
I read the first story in Sim Kern’s Real Sugar Is Hard to Find, and had to put the book down and walk away. Not because it wasn’t good—on the contrary, it was breathtaking. But it was the week that the U.S. Supreme Court’s draft decision to revoke Roe v. Wade had been leaked, and the world of the story, where “reproductive criminals” were jailed and forced to carry pregnancies to term, was too immediate and horrifying for me to take. When I came back, I found that many of stories hinged on the stories of the moment: transgender children’s rights, abortion, climate change, protests, and more. I didn’t put the book down again, but throughout, it echoed my deepest and most central concerns about the ability of society and the planet to continue supporting life.
The book contains eleven stories, all of which are science fiction or fantasy, and all of which concern human relationships with each other, nonhuman living creatures, and the earth. The titular story, “Real Sugar Is Hard to Find,” is a curious blend of threat and redemption. An initially wholesome quest to make a cake with real ingredients—a quest reminiscent of World War II rationing-era stories—ends up with carjacking and drained bank accounts, but the cake still gets made. This blend of tones is typical of the stories. Few are wholly dystopian or utopian, but involve people trying their best—and sometimes succeeding—to make better worlds possible, even in the midst of horrible circumstances.
Long after I finished the book, that first story, “The Propagator,” stayed on my mind. The narrator illegally grows plants, which in this near future are all owned by a corporation and only temporarily leased to people with enough money to afford them. That notion was chilling enough to make me want to go pet the leaves of my tiny balcony garden. But then the narrator sees the prison block where reproductive criminals are housed, and is herself forced to carry a doomed pregnancy to term, traumatizing her when her son is unable to survive outside the womb. Kern makes clear the costs of outlawing abortion, even to people who want to have kids. They go further as well, inventing a Texas in which even discussing abortion or the possibility of acting as if the pregnancy is not fully wanted and viable is grounds for criminal charges. The narrator begins supplying an underground network with herbal abortifacients in honor of her son, whose life was short and painful.
Children, and the burden and hope they represent, are central to Kern’s project. Most of the narrators are parents, or thinking of becoming parents, and that adds a very particular lens. The dystopian qualities of the world become something to fight for the sake of current and future children; the utopian possibilities are embraced in the hopes of a better life for those children.
Throughout the book, Kern implicitly but forcibly rejects the idea that queerness and parenting are incompatible or unusual. Queer characters abound, but far from scorning the heteronormative reproductive futurism that Lee Edelman identified in No Future, they find joy and motivation in the presence of children. That perspective is sorely underrepresented in both queer fiction and science fiction, which is particularly striking given speculative fiction’s orientation toward the future.
At their best, Kern’s stories make a case for a world changed by our current crises, but one that emerges on the other side changed for the better. In the book’s final story (and one of its best), “The Lost Roads”, highways and streets across America are demolished as a climate change mitigation project. Asphalt is pulled up, replaced with green pathways of recycled plastic, and re-seeded with native plant life. A decade later, maglev trains in grass-covered tunnels transport people far distances, while daily life is conducted amid flourishing native flora and fauna. Cars are a relic of the past. It is a beautiful vision of another way of life, one that made me hopeful for meaningful and impactful change in my lifetime.
Not every story has a clear vision or message, however. “The Listener”, about someone who can hear trees speaking, was fine but mostly left me slightly confused about the intended message. It’s bad to cut down trees, I think? Presumably something more profound was intended, but it missed me. There are a few stories that end on more of a whimper than a bang, as well—“Tadpoles” tells the story of a character trying to save some tadpoles, and feels more like an anecdote to tell a friend rather than a fully-formed short story. Some of the moments that Kern seems to find moving, such as seeing dead tadpoles, might indeed be moving in real life, but left me unemotional in fiction.
Nonetheless, the hit rate of the book is very high—I loved the vast majority of the stories, and found them refreshing, with cleverly and compassionately created worlds and characters. The topicality of the stories can make them hard to read, as I mentioned with the first one, but if you make it through to the end, you may find yourself re-energized to fight for the better world that Sim Kern seems to be able to see right around the corner. Far from the terrors of far-space battles or green aliens, the threats of Kern’s stories are viscerally near: near enough that the utopian dreams feel just as real and grounded as the nightmares.
Misha Grifka Wander is a Midwestern artist and writer currently pursuing a PhD at Ohio State University. Their major research fields are video game studies, comics studies, and speculative fiction studies, using a ecocritical and queer lens. Their work focuses on queer experience, speculative futures, and the environment, themes they explore through comics, poetry, criticism, game design, and prose. Misha lives in Columbus with their partner and two very soft cats. You can find them on Twitter.
This review was commissioned by internal pitch; the review author is an ARB editor. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by C. A. Hines. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.