Sooner Or Later Everything Falls Into The Sea
by Sarah Pinsker
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Sarah Pinsker began publishing stories in 2012. Her first collection, Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea, includes thirteen stories dating from 2013, with one previously unpublished. One was a Nebula winner, five others were Nebula finalists, two of those also Hugo finalists. I personally nominated two others that did not make the final ballots. None are presented in the chronologically published order, and while that is normally the way I prefer to read an author's work, I went with a different order this time. Since I had already read several over the years while contemplating what to nominate for a Hugo, I began with ones I had not read yet (with one exception). I won't mention every story, but will highlight my favorites. While the subject matter varies, there are recurring themes: memory, longing, regret, occasionally despair. Music is also prominent in several stories. Many are multi-layered, with the focus alternating between plot elements throughout, or else proving to be about something different than your first assumption.
The earliest story, although the eighth in this book, is the Nebula finalist and Sturgeon Award winner, "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind." It is a deeply moving story of a couple in their twilight years, with Millie's reflections on their earlier life and what might have caused George to change his outlook on his architecture career following a government contract. The SF element is important, but also subtly placed, and could have been removed without altering the outcome much. As strong as most of the later stories are, at this time I'd rate this as my second favorite in the collection. Everyone's taste in fiction differs, and mine has changed over the years. Stories I loved and nominated for a Hugo weren't necessarily popular enough to make the final ballot. Two that fit that category are 2015's "Remembery Day" and 2016's "Talking With Dead People." The former is set in a future where wars have been abolished. Every year there is a celebration for all of the veterans of the final war, in every country around the world. On that day, and that day only, The Veil is lifted, the veterans regaining their memories of the war. Each year they vote on whether to continue the tradition or eliminate it, so that they can remember those experiences every day. So far, the majority have always voted to go back under the Veil. "Talking With Dead People" concerns two college roommates who create a unique business. Eliza is rich and self-obsessed, Gwen is poorer and introverted. They both share a fascination with "murder houses," and their business idea combined their talents. Gwen built models of houses from famous unsolved crimes, Eliza worked with science students on an AI interface that would include all known details of the crimes. The most elaborate models were sold to museums, cheaper knock-offs to individuals. One even leads to new speculations that help to solve the crime. Gwen came up with the business name "The House of Whacks" (as in 'Lizzie Borden took an ax...'), but decided to work only as a contractor rather than business partner, since she did not have money to invest. That proved to be a wise decision, since she walked away when Eliza surprised her with a model she did not authorize, one which brings back memories of a personal trauma.
The exception to reading previously unread stories first was for the Nebula winner, "Our Lady of the Open Road." I would have sworn I had read it, but didn't recall any of it. I either confused it with another story or blanked it from my memory, which seems unlikely. It's about a traveling band in a future world where live concerts are almost obsolete, with StageHolo and StageHoloLive streaming to most homes and businesses. What's a struggling band to do when their tour van and home away from home is stolen? Sarah is a musician herself, with several albums released on independent labels, and her love of music and performing is quite evident in many of the stories. That includes the title story, set in a future post-apocalyptic world where the affluent live permanently on ships, with a few lucky (or unlucky?) entertainers able to score ship-side gigs. One of them, formerly a semi-successful singer, puts up with the condescending passengers for a while, then decides to launch one of the lifeboats and take her chances ashore. She washes up on the beach, near dead, and is taken in by a another woman who spends her days scavenging the beaches for trash she can use or sell. It's not clear how long they stay together, but several sections interspersed throughout indicate the singer eventually makes it back to a ship.
The previously unpublished story is "The Narwhal." If you miss the clues on the first two pages you might think it's just about an excrutiating cross-country drive with an infuriating woman, taking her late mother's vehicle back home. She recruited her co-driver through OddJobz, but won't tolerate any unnecessary stops or side-trips for touristy things. But then they just happen to break down close to a weird museum, where they learn a secret about her mother. The last story is the longest, the novella "And Then There Were (N-One)," a finalist for both Hugo and Nebula. It takes an Agatha Christie motif and gives it an SF spin. If you've ever wondered about the premise that everyone has a double somewhere in the world, have you ever considered you have multiple doppelgangers in other universes? This story brings together over 200 Sarah Pinskers from the multi-verses to a convention at a resort hotel on an isolated island off the coast of Nova Scotia. Then one of them dies, and raging storms prevent police or medical personnel from reaching the island. "Our" Sarah is in the story somewhere, but only briefly mentioned as winner of a Nebula award, which could possibly be the murder weapon, if it is murder. The viewpoint character is another Sarah, an insurance investigator in her world, who is the closest to a detective at the hotel. Even when everyone else tries to convince her the death was accidental, she persists in her investigation. Over and above all that, it explores how each of us goes through life with multiple chances to make different decisions at every step. Will they always be the right ones, or can we improve our chances by looking at things from another perspective? Another notion is that we should always treasure what we have, since tragedy can strike at any moment.
If I had been the editor I would have closed the collection with my favorite, "Wind Will Rove," a novelette that was also a Hugo and Nebula finalist. Set on a generational starship, several generations into its journey, with only a handful of original passengers still alive. Ten years into the journey came the Great Blackout, when a disaffected person took advantage of a back door into the data-bases, deleting what he considered unnecessary information. Nothing that would affect major systems, just books and other entertainments. He felt all of those things belonged to former times on Earth and would only tie them to the past rather than forging new histories for their new life. Others longed for those memories, and attempted to recreate as many history and fiction books as possible, along with plays, filmed media, and music. The title refers to a folk song that had a long tradition, supposedly first recorded in 1974, but apparently it's fictional. Many of the passengers were musicians, with the focus here on a group that call themselves the OldTime. They meet once a week to play the standards, record new variations, and compile databases that preserve the history of many folk songs. The viewpoint character is around fifty years old. She was born on the ship, but her grandmother was an original crew member, and one of her closest friends had been another original, one of her grandmother's friends. In addition to playing at the OldTime gatherings, Rosie also teaches history, and it's there her ideas of preserving the past are challenged. It has been said those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but is it possible that knowledge of history is what actually leads to the repetition? The argument is that what happened on Earth is not important anymore, all that should matter is ship operations and preparing for future landfall, even if the current crew are not alive by that time. Rosie's attempt to counter that argument leads to ruminations about the history of music, of how the title song had evolved and been altered by various musicians over the years, including by herself and her daughter. There are times when either argument seems valid, but I'd ultimately side with the preservationists, since if we don't know where we've been, how will we be able to figure out where we're going?
The handful of stories I haven't mentioned are still worth reading, and I give a strong recommendation for the collection. I got the paperback, but might also get it for Kindle one of these days, since the print is almost too small for my weakening eyesight. I do need a new prescription, but the advantage to the Kindle is you can increase the font size for individual comfort. There are several other stories from this period that probably should be here too, including her current Nebula finalist, but it's possible reprint rights for them were unavailable, or there was a limit on page count. I feel certain it won't be long before Sarah has enough to fill another collection, and I'm sure I'll buy it.
Sarah Pinsker's Official Website
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