What does space travel look like from a human perspective? Not: marvel at the technological achievements of humanity, but: what are the day-to-day, boots-on-the-zero-gravity lives of people in space? What new problems arise, and how much of the same old complaints about how bad the coffee at work is will follow us beyond the asteroid belt?
It should be said before liftoff: I’m friends with Chloe N. Clark. We work together at the journal Cotton Xenomorph, where she is co-EIC and I am a fiction reader. While we’re doing disclaimers, I should admit to being a somewhat limited sci-fi reader. There’s a barrier of entry for my brain, having been burned before by works of thin allegory or narratives lost in the weeds of jargon. But when something sucks me in, I’m in, like a dust mite next to a black hole. What did it for me with Patterns of Orbit is that the characters in this book care what coffee in space tastes like.
“The coffee tastes different up here. I used to drink it with cream, sugar. Now I like it black. It tastes like it belongs in space, without gravity, without anything weighing it down,” (25)
one narrator says, and these minute details follow the characters throughout the stories, even as the impossible is happening around them. There’s a description of blueberry pie that made me super crave a blueberry pie, a craving I’ve only had once in my life.
Space travel is coming for humanity, regardless of how any of us feel about it. It’s often imagined full of promise—scientific discovery, a post-scarcity utopia like Star Trek, a panacea to all the planet-destroying we’ve been doing to Earth. But even if people go to Mars, it’s still people out there. Watching these characters tangle with banal problems like coffee, life-altering problems like being separated from a loved one, or fight-or-flight problems like “is this alien going to kill me”—it all adds up to a world that feels like our own, even if the setting is frequently out of it.
That said, these characters do not lose their sense of wonder at space. They are very concerned with doing their space-jobs well, but they’re also pondering big questions. Still, they never feel so futuristic that you, the reader, couldn’t imagine potentially sitting down to share a blueberry pie a la mode at a diner with them when they get back to Earth. One way Clark does this is extremely specific, tactile details literally and metaphorically grounding the characters: lovers who always twist little ringlets in each other’s hair when they kiss, astronauts who hum tunes to themselves during routine circumnavigations, aching memories of the aromas of meals past.
Aching memories abound, too, because one thing this book does not forget is the horrors of space. “Out In The Dark” in particular had me yelling noooo at my e-reader screen, as did “Jumpers.” There’s Earth-bound horror here, too, like in “Even The Veins of Leaves,” a macabre and mythical tale starring a park ranger who deserves a raise. The way these stories shift effortlessly between sci-fi, horror, fairy tale, flash, and longer pieces really makes a delightful collage. Many of the stories take on a lyric quality, dropping the reader into a lost love memory like “Supernova” after plucking us out of the haunted Mars colony that is “Red As The Night Sky Burning.” “Accidental Girls” is one of the better stories I’ve ever read about growing up and old friendships, and saying it’s about those two things is a little like marketing Barbarian as “Justin Long’s New Movie.” Speaking of movies, those 12 pages could be one, preferably directed by Jordan Peele and somehow featuring Samara Weaving, please.
Whichever genre Clark’s playing in, though, Patterns of Orbit does something I really love in a story collection: it reads like all the stories could be interconnected without explicitly saying they are. The world is consistent, the characters are people who could be swapping these stories with each other at a bar (or, more likely, a support group meeting). For as expansive as the scope of the universe is, these stories still occupy “a space that feels narrow, confined, even when we are no longer held by gravity.” (41) It’s a space this admittedly limited sci-fi reader wants to be in, orbiting or grounded.
Chris Corlew (he/him) is a writer and musician living in Chicago. His work has appeared in Cotton Xenomorph, Vagabond City, Cracked, and Mental Floss. With Bob Sykora, he co-hosts The Line Break, a podcast about poetry. With Brendan Johnson, he is one-half of B and The Shipwrecked Sailor, a writing and music collaboration. He can be found blogging at shipwreckedsailor.substack.com or on Twitter @thecorlew.