, August 2021, August 2021

“Aptitude” by Cooper Shrivastava

“The Future Library” by Peng Shepherd

“L’Espirit de L’Escalier” by Catherynne M. Valente

Reviewed by Michelle Ristuccia

In “Aptitude” by Cooper Shrivastava, Alena shoulders her way into a practical exam on creating universes, but unlike the other candidates, Alena has a bone to pick with those responsible for the slow death of her own universe. Bitterness motivates her, and her top skill seems to be sabotage, not creation, a skill set that reflects her own painful origins. But while Alena begins the story as someone obsessed with justice for the wrongs committed against her, she ends the narrative as someone whose definition of self is no longer bound by her enemies’ terms of engagement. As characters create and destroy universes during the exam, Shrivastava’s evocative imagery marries theoretical physics with poetry and philosophy, all in a way that enhances character and plot. Such a level of thoughtful detail makes “Aptitude” even better on a second read.

Peng Shepherd’s eco-horror tale, “The Future Library,” hits close to home, utilizing the real Future Library as inspiration for the near-future death of humanity. When arboriculturalist Ingrid Hagen discovers a precious, preternatural secret about the trees in the Future Library, she is not only ignored, but actively silenced for fear that the trees’ new abilities will wreck the project’s profits. As Ingrid rots in jail and the Earth rots everywhere, humanity’s search for a quick, easy fix denies the obvious answers that have always been at our fingertips. The consumerist nature of humanity’s endless curiosity knows no bounds in Shepard’s narrative, but the nature of Ingrid’s character postulates that individuals can value life over the products it can manufacture, and that they can make a difference. Shepherd’s use of Ingrid’s first person perspective controls information to the reader with a familiar yet efficient structure. Ending with a rhetorical question may be a bit much for some readers, but the overall ending is impactful, tying up a love story between Ingrid and her wife, and of an arborist and her forest. Ingrid’s direct appeal to the reader adds much-needed hope to an otherwise depressing narrative set in a worst-case what-if scenario. To double the eco-horror of this piece, read about the real Forest of the Future and note all the real names used in Shepherd’s setup.

In “L’Espirit de L’Escalier” by Catherynne M. Valente, a modern day Orpheus attempts to cope with the inconveniences of Eurydice’s walking-dead body after successfully retrieving her from Hades. Valente’s nuanced approach questions the depth of the couple’s love and the many-faceted nature of love itself, knocking Orpheus down a peg from uncomplicated hero to a person with person-like blind spots and conflicting needs. Eurydice’s character, from Orpheus’s perspective, is overshadowed by the body-horror of her rotting flesh and the extra care needed to keep her in the world of the living, yet she is arguably the star of the show, with a more subtly portrayed depth of her own. The title’s French idiom denotes Valente’s skillful examination of the couple’s past through contrast with their present, and is doubly referenced by Orpheus watching Eurydice ascend the stairs. What this couple leaves unsaid is just as inescapable as Eurydice’s death. Especially interesting are the references to Hades’ instructions for Orpheus to not look back in the original myth. Valente’s imagery is squeamishly imaginative, inviting readers to see themselves in Orpheus’ or Eurydice’s shoes. Horror suffuses “L’Espirit de L’Escalier” not only through its imagery, but through the inevitable quality of the couple’s choices, unless one of them decides to change who they are on a fundamental level.

Michelle Ristuccia enjoys slowing down time in the middle of the night to read and review speculative fiction, because sleeping offspring are the best inspiration and motivation. You can find out more about her other writing projects and geeky obsessions by visiting her Facebook page.