"The Starry Night" by Barry N. Malzberg and Jack Dann
"The Starry Night" by Barry N. Malzberg and Jack Dann is this week’s SCI FICTION Original. This complex story of art and the end of the world takes place in three different time frames, and is as marvelous and meditative as the painting that inspired it.
In the past, Vincent Van Gogh struggles with mental illness as he paints "Starry Night," one of his strangest and most haunting paintings, over and over again, unable to get away from the image of the unraveling firmament. In the present, Rachel, a little girl suffering from epilepsy, copies Van Gogh’s painting, and notices things that nobody else does. In the future, a Jesuit priest inhabiting a terminal space probe watches from too-close distance as the stars explode and die. These exploding stars are the link between the three of them.
"Starry Night" is one of my favorite paintings; I am relieved to say that this story does it justice. Like the painting, the essence of this tale is somewhat difficult to describe, and just as open to interpretation. For me, it was a tale of a singular spectacle—exploding stars, unraveling skies, the end of the universe—passed back in time, from a witness to an artist, through means less crude than a traditional time machine that allows actual time travel. Instead, there’s a meeting of minds ravaged by illness and loneliness, centered around this single image. Their interpretations of the image lend a richness of imagery and meaning to the story, and each of the three point of view characters possesses a unique voice, sensibilities, and understanding of the world.
This is not an easy story, but with each rereading something new opens up, a new meaning, a new possibility. The fractured manner of telling serves the story well, even though it takes a bit of effort on the reader’s part. This story is well worth the effort, and it will stay with this reader for a long time.