A is for Alien by Caitlín R. Kiernan

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: A is for Alien

Author: Caitlín R. Kiernan

Type of Book: Science fiction, short story collection, erotica

Why Did I Read This Book: Because CRK is one of my favorite writers of all time, full stop.

Availability: Published by Subterranean Press in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Caitlín R. Kiernan is a writer whom I have a hard time assigning to any specific genre, though she is a writer whose work generally has some form of slipstream in it, slipstream as defined by Bruce Sterling when he said, “…this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.” Kiernan’s prose always makes me feel strange and everything I have read from her is undeniably dark even when good prevails because there is still so much more bad out there waiting.

This collection is mostly science fiction and I am notably not a fan of the sci-fi genre, but I read this anyway because Kiernan wrote it. I’m glad I read it because only two of the stories were not to my tastes. Much “hard” science fiction eludes me for the same reason I never found A Clockwork Orange to my liking – I get too distracted by the verbiage, which is often beyond my ken, and the story gets away from me. So I am at a loss to determine if any work of hard science fiction is good or not, though I am not someone who condemns a genre just because I do not like it. Two of the stories in this collection said little to me, so I was tempted to skip reviewing it, but the point of this review site is for me to review literally everything I read that does not end up on I Read Odd Books. So no chickening out.

This collection contains eight stories, some hard science fiction, some science fiction combined with erotica, some transhumanist analyses, and plenty of dystopia to last even the most jaded of readers for a long time. I admit that I prefer CRK when she is writing works that tilt more in the vein of horror – Alabaster and Daughter of Hounds are both in my list of Top 25 Books of All Time. But her essential themes remain even when her genre differs, and that is what matters I think.

“Riding the White Bull” is a perfect example of how my own knowledge set makes science fiction such a hard slog. Take this sentence: “…I’m only a very small speck of meat and white EMU suit streaking north and east across the ebony skies above Mael Duin, the Echion Linea, Cilix, the southwesten terminus of the Rhasamanthys Linea.” That the name Europa came up before these references helped, as I do know enough to know that Europa is a moon of either Jupiter or Uranus (Jupiter, as it turns out), but having to stop and Google to understand these names made me lose the thread of the story. A seasoned sci-fi reader would likely not have had these issues but I was too bogged down in discovering the meaning of terminology that frankly does not interest me much – yeah, it may make me sound ignorant to admit it, but that which is beyond Earth largely does not interest me, therefore works that use outer space as a setting do not appeal to me. Kiernan’s other works boast intense use of specific, scientific terminology, but for some reason, the pursuit of understanding paleontological references appeals to me in a way that astronomical definitions do not. So aside from admitting my own ignorance of many terms, I have little to say about this story.

“Faces in Revolving Souls,” however, was far more my speed, involving ideas I can readily understand from the beginning. The female protagonist, Sylvia, lives in a world where transhumanism is still a struggling idea but one in which technology has permitted people to surgically modify themselves into other creatures. Sylvia has made a hard choice about herself that did not end up as she hoped and finds herself existing in a between sort of world, where she is neither one nor the other and faces discrimination on both sides of the fence. Her identity will always remain fractured. I have an insatiable curiosity about transhumanism, of redefining what it means to be human, and have explored similar ideas in my own fiction. This is very much an incident of me “getting it” off the bat because of relevancy of interests. This story is well-told, thought provoking, and ultimately heartbreaking because it makes clear parallels to how the “other” is still treated today, ensuring that the reader cannot miss the fact that for every small gain of acceptance any person who deviates from the social and religious norm may receive, there will be plenty of other battles waiting.

“Zero Summer” walked a fine line with me. Lots of hard science fiction with a setting in space, but at the same time, it was a bit more accessible for me. An android with human consciousness has to make a decision about a space mission, a moral decision that shows both her humanity but will also ultimately strip her of all visual clues of what made her human. It’s a good story but not one that hit my “love” meter.

“The Pearl Diver” left me feeling conflicted. I was engrossed with the tale of a woman living in an age where everything we do is monitored at all times, from employers watching our personal e-mail to constant surveillance of our front doors. Farasha, the protagonist, is hanging on by her psychic fingernails – doing her best not to smile at work, watching cartoons at night in her lonely apartment because her therapist thinks it will help her, eating joyless meals to keep her body going while her mind dies a little each day. Then comes the e-mail that if she reads can completely rip the carpet out from underneath her in both destructive and reconstructive ways. I prefer concrete endings to stories – though the realist in me understands some stories have no endings – and I rebelled against the ending. Perhaps it is the lack of sci-fi grounding in me, but I genuinely have no idea what happened to Farasha. The ending almost ruined the story for me, which is problematic because the rest of the story is quite good and Farasha clearly experiences some sort of salvation that I just don’t get.

“In View of Nothing” is a slipstream, erotica tale. A woman who cannot recall her past fails on an assassination mission and is being sheltered and tormented by a very pale woman with prosthetic limbs that are a misery to read about. In fact, as I am typing this, I am struck by the skin misery in this collection – the number of infected ports into the body, skin rubbed raw by artificial limbs, bodies rejecting grafts and leaving unsightly, permanent messes. All that infection and soreness roiling under and up to the the surface of human and non-human skin. It’s not necessarily a theme but it is definitely an undercurrent in these stories. The coldness in this story, the dampness, the absolute lack of any comfort, including sex, was alienating to the extreme. You pray for a warm blanket in this story and it never comes.

“Ode to Katan Amano” is another slipstream erotica piece. Another android, one of Kiernan’s non-humans who is more human than robotic, develops an obsession with a doll. I am unsure if the protagonist sees the connection between herself and the doll, both things to be loved and looked upon but not wholly privy to the range of emotion available to people. The protagonist’s girlfriend/owner – I am unsure what noun to use for her – insists that she never saw the protagonist as something less than human, as a slave, but the protagonist’s obsession with the passive, beautiful doll, also humanoid and created by humans, gives some clue as to how the android really feels about the situation. She is a possession, a doll with feelings, and she knows it and knows she cannot really transcend it.

“A Season of Broken Dolls” was my favorite story in this collection. This story is a transhumanist look at the human desire to be a part of something more than yourself by ceasing to exist as yourself, and how hard it can be for those who do not have that urge to understand. A journalist who covers a transhumanist artist tries to track down her girlfriend who left to become a part of a human art exhibit. She meets a man who has been following the show across the country because his granddaughter is a part of the show, barely human any more, a human chandelier. It is a struggle in this story, to understand the urges that force people to become something other than human, or perhaps something more than human. I both do and do not understand the reasons why someone would want to become a flesh, bone and sinew chandelier, why someone would want to cease to exist as a human in order to redefine human existence. While transhumanism interests me deeply, I always look at it from the perspective of someone who watches from the outside as someone else submerges into an all absorbing otherness. For me this story was as close to perfect as any piece of literature can be.

“Bradbury Weather” is another piece that had too much outer space for me to really appreciate it. I had no idea what Xanthe Terra might be, nor did I know what Lunae Planum was. Acidialia. Tharsis Tholus. And this is why I do not like this sort of science fiction. It is not the fault of the writer – it is me, wanting to know what each word means, how it relates to the story, and I get lost, sidetracked. My need to understand the setting got in the way of truly appreciating the obsessive relationship in the story, another woman chasing a lover who chooses to be a part of something greater than herself, something both destructive yet, to the right mind, transcendent.

A is for Alien makes it clear from the title what you should expect, though it is tempting to be literal and think the title refers simply to a collection of Kiernan’s science fiction. These stories are about cold worlds, obsessive love, obsessions that outsiders simply will not understand, being the other, chasing the other, and never once feeling comfortable in your skin or in your world. This book is about alienation. I definitely think you should read this collection and feel the uneasiness and discomfort in these short stories.

2 thoughts on “A is for Alien by Caitlín R. Kiernan

  1. sorry, aside from her work on Sandman, I just don’t feel it with her writing. Maybe it’s just me, and I’m the only one who just does not like her writing (and searching book reviews online do make me beleive I must be the only one), but it just doesn’t click, I don’t know really how to explain it, but it sort of grates I guess.

    1. I don’t think anyone has to apologize for disliking an author’s works. And I don’t think you are the only one. Kiernan is one of my favorite writers but lots of people who really like specific genres find her hard to love. Her evolution from a writer of fiction for the gothically lost with a nod to Lovecraft into the sort of writing she does now, more transhumanist and futuristic (and a bleak future at that), has caused even some of her more ardent fans to think, “This book was not for me.”

      When I don’t grok what Kiernan is trying to convey in a story, it is generally because at times her characters are very… distant and given to obsessions that I can’t understand. Since I do love her fiction, the je nais se quoi that you describe, an inability to explain why you do not like her work, cuts both ways because sometimes I have had a hard time explaining why I love her books. It’s little things. Like her character Dancy Flammarion, a young albino girl forced to battle the worst evil, simply wishing she could have a can of soup. That is what makes me love Kiernan – her ability to make it clear that the mundane is always bumping up against the brutal, the horrific and the fantastic even if we are unprepared and even if we are tired and just want to rest and be taken care of.

      But you’re not the only one who feels this way. And nothing wrong with that. The list of writers I simply don’t care for is shocking.

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