THE UNIVERSE, SUNG IN STARS | Kat Howard.
⇒This short story is gorgeous. While quite brief as works of speculative fiction go, this intricate, carefully balanced narrative accomplishes quite a lot. The piece reminds me of an old-fashioned timepiece–all these miniature gears and levers and unnamable pieces working together to create a function or effect so much greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, Kat Howard’s “The Universe, Sung in Stars” features a similar mechanism: an orrery (which I learned today is what they call one of those old-fashioned mechanical models of the solar system).
Check out this selection from the story’s second paragraph, in which the narrator/protagonist talks about celestial bodies:
I replicate them. I make clockwork universes, astraria and orreries, planets and stars and galaxies made microcosm and set ticking in orbit.
I feel like this character’s role as a builder-of-universes is at least implicitly speaking to what it is to be a writer or artist, to be a creator/emulator of worlds, but I don’t want to go too far down that interpretive path as it will lead me away from the story itself.
The unnamed narrator talks about the structures of the universe–both artificial and natural varieties–in musical terms, both real and figurative. In the narrator’s view (which seems to be that of more of a musician than an engineer, though she seems to hold both roles), all of the universe is stitched together by song, by tones. (If we think about music in literal terms–as a sonic expression of mathematic structures–this thinking is correct.)
So as I was reading this piece, I was enjoying and getting comfortable with the author’s music metaphor, when Carina walks in:
Carina walked into my workshop. She had a universe spinning around her as well–stars blinked in the darkness of her hair–but hers was living.
Which is when the story shifts from figuratively fantastic to full-on sci-fi. In the world of this story, it seems, there are these mini-universes (like, stars and planets and comets and stuff) that people adopt like puppies or fashion accessories and wear/anchor with their bodies. So, people wear universes-in-miniature both as a host for a fledgling cosmic organism and, we infer, as a fashion statement.
Our narrator transitions from her human-made gem-and-metal cosmic models to the real deal, becoming a host for her own pocket universe (which leads to all sorts of incredible language and imagery; this is a very surreal piece, one that positions human characters as gods).
Other than the narrator’s disagreement with Carina regarding the idea of introducing a foreign star into her mini-universe, there is very little conflict in this story.
(B-wha??? say all the Literary fiction writers, fanning themselves with their MFA diplomas to avoid fainting from the incomprehensibility of this fact…)
That’s right, the story is not driven by conflict so much as discovery, the narrative moved forward through its beautiful language and images and the world-building expositional segments that are carefully placed at various points in the narrative. I suppose that’s where the story’s momentum comes from: its gradual world-building, which is compelling even without a high-stakes conflict to propel the action.
To be sure, a longer story requires some sort of big or little crisis to keep the reader invested, but this short piece relies on the reader’s curiosity about this world and pocket-universes spinning within it, a curiosity that is both sustained and rewarded.