Book Review Roundtable: Amber Sparks's The Unfinished World and Other Stories
The Unfinished World is Amber Sparks’s second book of short fiction. The stories here are an eclectic and lyrical blend of science fiction, fantasy, and history. We decided to each pick a story (or two) from the collection that spoke to us. You’ll find a short comment from each Lava Stepper below.
Two of the stories in Amber Sparks’s most recent collection feature time travel, with very different genres and style elements. “Thirteen Ways of Destroying a Painting” is archetypal—an artist, his muse—and the story is broadly familiar: a tragically doomed love. The enduring symbol of this love is displayed in a museum in the present: a painting that only the time traveller truly understands, evocative of tragedy so unspeakable, it’s never mentioned in the story.
The only way to right this unspoken wrong is through increasingly extreme measures to prevent it from existing. The time traveller is in emotional pain throughout, but the bitterness is clearly not without sweetness, and the humor of some of the scenarios keeps. The inevitable end is sad, but also, I think, happy. My dentist, easily the most thoughtful to ever handle my unnaturally soft teeth, originally wanted to be a sculptor (the significance of this will be clear after you read the story).
The other time-travel story, “The Men and Women Like Him” also features time travel, but with a nearly wholly different style, a classic Phillip K. Dick romp. Still, the action and strangeness is some of the most humanized of any of the stories in this collection: these are characters whose motivations I can understand and root for. Both stories are provocative takes on a common futuristic fantasy; I look forward, in a few years, right now, or possibly a couple years ago to reading Sparks’ time-travel memoir.
In my two favorite stories from Amber Sparks’s The Unfinished World—“The Janitor in Space,” about a lonely janitor attempting to come to terms with past trauma by relegating herself outside the bounds of earth, focused on cleaning up literal messes, and “Birds with Teeth,” a semi-historical re-telling of the rivalry between paleontologists Marsh and Cope in the late 19th century—Sparks uses genre-bending as savvy emotional hacks: in each story calling forth a reality just enough askew to counterbalance and earn a heavy punch of deep, sincere emotion.
In addition to pushing at the boundaries of genre, Sparks’s enviable facility with language enhances every sentence of these works. Although I’m fuzzy on some details of the trauma the Janitor is struggling with in “The Janitor in Space”—and even struggling in a somewhat unproductive way where I’ve been given just enough information to feel like I should be able to establish a coherent picture but can’t quite—I look past this quibble because of just how far these five stunning pages of fiction carry me. Take, for example, “[The Janitor] felt small and bright and diamond-hard, a little star in the firmament.” Really, take a second with that. All that shining, beautiful complexity against the backdrop of a lowly Janitor and the traditionally “unliterary” trappings of sci-fi.
Stripped to its barest bones, “Birds with Teeth” has all the makings of a saccharine melodrama: two friends become ambitious rivals, leading to mutual destruction. But add to that such deft maneuverings as an opening sequence about one challenging the other to a brain-measuring contest that would involve the severing of each man’s head, followed by the impossibly smart and hilarious: “This was a cutthroat business,” and you are left with something a good deal funnier, stranger, and deservedly sad.
“The Unfinished World” is the longest work in Amber Sparks’s recent collection, a novella that imagines the lives of its two main characters, Set and Inge, as they grow up and find their way through the early twentieth century. Like some of the shorter works here, such as “Birds with Teeth,” about a rivalry between nineteenth-century paleontologists, and “For These Humans Who Cannot Fly,” about a man who builds German death houses as a way to deal with the loss of his wife, this longer work draws its inspiration from the historical while also attempting a lyrical re-writing of the past. While this approach succeeds in the short stories, the novella seems at times over-stuffed with historical allusions that never receive a full narrative pay-off.
At first, it’s not clear what the two parallel stories of Set and Inge have in common though the reader may well suspect that these two are fated to meet as adults and fall in love. Unfortunately, this turns out to be the case. While Set and Inge’s journey toward one another is pleasurable to read, the ending feels at once too predictable and somehow not enough. Meanwhile the novella is heavy with references to modernity, including the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the 1913 Armory Show, and the film world of 1920s Hollywood. Set’s brother, Oliver, builds an actual Cabinet of Curiosities replete with old coins, photographs, and jars of children’s teeth. Set’s other brother, Cedric, is an Arctic explorer who makes documentary films about Inuit life reminiscent of “Nanook of the North.” Perhaps the problem is that the love story between Set and Inge does not seem to live up to or intersect with the weighty motifs about modernity the rest of the work takes on. The result is a novella that is its own cabinet of curiosities, filled with many beautiful passages, but ultimately readers may not be quite sure which of its many treasures is the most valuable.
Ah the allures of the dystopian miniature, wherein we are allowed to sentimentally revel in the vestiges of the dilapidated creature comforts we hold so dear while glimpsing a grittier but somehow more authentic future world. Amber Sparks’s “The Men and Woman like Him” begins as many of her stories do with a set of images that combines a dazzling array of places, styles and genres. The story begins with a typically vivid and perplexing opening vignette in which a man named Hugh arrives at the gates of Jerusalem to encounter a battle between Roman Legionaries and “faceless creatures in dark blue skin suits.” At this point a reader of the entire collection of stories may be unsure if they are going to encounter an absurdist bricolage, a re-conceived fable or a lush and violent prose poem. I suppose one should have assumed some combination of all three. In this case, we soon learn that Hugh is a “Cleaner,” a professional time traveler living in a unspecified future point in history when time machines exist and allow unscrupulous time pirates to travel back and attempt to amend various historical catastrophes. While I am not entirely sure of the meaning of the faceless figures in blue suits, we soon discern that Hugh’s task, by now routine, is to ensure Jesus remains on the cross. We soon learn that before the “Scarcity,” Hugh was a chef at a “fairly decent restaurant in midtown.” At the very least this story provides us with a thoughtful explication of how the paradoxes of time travel might be resolved by a future civilization, a problem with time travel that is rarely satisfyingly dealt with in more technically obsessed speculative fiction. In addition, and perhaps more ambitiously, the story imagines the fragments of our current civilization that may endure.