Thursday, June 4, 2015

Review of The Stars Seem So Far Away by Margret Helgadottir

I am far from the most knowledgeable person on the subject, but in my web wandering and scattered reading it has certainly come to my attention that post-apocalyptic YA fiction is ‘a thing’ (or at least recently was ‘a thing’).  A sub-genre niche publishers and authors have rushed to capitalize on, the number of titles in the sphere has risen sharply.  But as with all such rushes, one must pick and choose carefully; quality requires weeding from quantity.

Margret Helgadottir The Stars Seem So Far Away (2015, Fox Spirit Books) is post-apocalyptic YA fiction.  Part of the third-wave of such texts, it wears its taxonomy on its sleeve.   But the devil is in the details. 

The Stars Seem So Far Away is ostensibly a collection.  But it quickly becomes apparent that the stories function more like point-of-view chapters, creating a cycle that rolls toward an all-inclusive conclusion.  A handful of teens anchoring this overarching story, Aida, Bjorn, Simik, Nora, Zaki, and a couple of others start at different points in a Europe torn apart by catastrophe and plague, but eventually wind up together in the same plight.  Foregoing the sensationalist details that many other post-ap YA novels seem to focus on (looking at you, Bacigalupi), Helgadottir keeps the spotlight on the young people, their interrelationships and emotional stances, and their reactions to the events they experience traversing the scarred landscape, trying to stay alive and find a better life.

Helgadottir not a native speaker of English, she nevertheless proves adept with the language.  While more could have been done to singularize the details, the simple approach keeps the novel at a YA level.  The following excerpt strikes at much of the tone of the novelection (novel+collection):

“He had a word engraved on his back too: “Annaassiniarneq”. It meant rescue. She wondered if others had seen it. Other girls. The thought made her grimace. Simik was watching the yard and the grass tufts bending in the wind. He turned to look at her, his eyes intense.” (“Frostburst Heart”)

But whether or not the book is too simple (most of the individual stories have been told before and use the above types of method to convey emotion) is up to the individual, particularly YA reader who has an entirely different set of standards than me.
But if there is anything I can be confident about being unsure of in The Stars Seem So Far Away, it’s the message.  The novelection seems to say: Earth has been so messed up we need to abandon it.  Such a premise can make for sf good story—but story only.  When attempting to make the message relevant (something YA fiction should be more sensitive to, I believe), the impossibility of the science fiction elements comes back to bite; in reality we can’t leave the Earth behind.  We don’t have the tabula rasa option Nora, Aida, and the others do, and therefore steps must be taken on Earth to prevent the mess from happening.  Point blank: the chances of environmental/social collapse are tremendously higher in the near future than the ‘escape’ solution Helgadottir comes to at the novel’s conclusion.  Therefore, a message leading to the mitigation of environmental/social collapse would make the book significantly more relevant than the (relatively) fairy tale ending that actually closes matters.

In the end, The Stars Seem So Far Away falls between quality and quantity.  Helgadottir’s style and handling of character interaction keep the book firmly upright in the YA arena; it compares positively to much of what little YA I’ve read these past few years.  All the while, however, its underlying message and relative unoriginality try to topple it, to prevent it from being more than it could have been.  But I am far from (unfortunately) the book’s target audience, and would therefore say it’s probably best for the YA reader to read the book and make up their own mind how it speaks to them.  

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