Whether set in terrestrial oceans or on far-off space stations, Cat Rambo’s masterfully told stories explore themes of gender, despair, tragedy, and the triumph of both human and non-human alike. Cats talk, fur wraps itself around you, aliens overstay their welcome, and superheroes deal with everyday problems. Rambo has been published in Asimov’s, Weird Tales, and Tor.com among many others. She was an editor for Fantasy Magazine, has written numerous nonfiction articles and interviews, and has volunteered time with Broad Universe and Clarion West. She has been shortlisted for the Endeavour Award, the Million Writers Award, the Locus Awards, and most recently a World Fantasy Award.
Before reading Near+Far, I had only heard Cat Rambo’s work in audio form as there have been numerous Escape Pod episodes featuring her stories. In fact, if after reading this review you are still wondering whether this collection is to your taste, I highly recommend listening to these stories. The ones from this collection available from Escape Pod are in chronological order: Kalakkak’s Cousins, The Mermaids Singing, Each to Each, Angry Rose’s Lament, and A Querulous Flute of Bone. They’re not just a good taste of Rambo’s writing, they’re also great stories and well worth your time. These were the stories I already knew, but in Near+Far I discovered a collection filled with wonderful stories and even if there were a few that didn’t work so well for me, the majority of them were a treat.
The introduction and story notes added by the author after each entry added real value to the collection, explaining something of a story’s origin and history. I found the looks behind the scenes these notes gave and the ideas and themes the author departed from fascinating. I appreciated that the notes were appended to the stories instead of printed as an introduction to them, leaving the reader to discover the stories and their themes on her own, instead of trying to identify the author’s intent while reading. Returning themes touched upon by Rambo are themes of gender, identity, love, the need for emotional and physical connection, marital problems, and issues of addiction. These are all sensitive subjects and Rambo gives them due care in handling them.
For some reason I enjoyed the stories included in the Far section of the collection more than those of the Near, though I liked most of those as well. I can’t quite put my finger on why this is, though it might just be that the combination of life in space and on alien worlds and the often intimate, personal tales of the protagonists struck a chord. What I also really enjoyed about the Far stories is that many of them seemed to be set in the same universe. This is most clear in the case of the TwiceFar stories – Kallakak’s Cousins and Amid the Words of War – as they are both set on the TwiceFar space station, though Angry Rose’s Lament, Seeking Nothing, and Timesnip are also connected to this universe. It gave a sense of cohesion and continuity, albeit not a linear one. I decided to do a quick look at my favourites and what grabbed me about each story. The first three are from the Near section of the collection the other three from the Far.
Memories of Moments, Bright As Falling Stars
A look at a bleak future where two street kids, in an effort to better their situation, steal thrown out memory from a bio-medical company. Because in this future humanity can increase their memory and their brain’s computing ability by adding external memory in a form resembling tattoos. This illicit act has some unforeseen repercussions and some dreadful consequences. I really enjoyed this vision of the future, not for its bleakness, but for the fact that despite everything there is still kindness in humanity, personified by Ajah, and people still love with all their hearts. Grizz and Jonny are typical street kids, but their bond and their desire to build a live together is timeless. It’s a setting I’d love to be able to revisit in a different story.
Not Waving, But Drowning
Every marriage knows some rough spots, though not all of them are as rough as the one describes in this story. However, the fear of losing your partner to something or someone new, that their new interest hobby or professional choices will drive a wedge between you and create a rift that can’t be bridged is, I think, universal to all relationships at some point. To love is to compromise and in this story Jamie has to compromise beyond her ability to cope and thus the cracks become a fracture. However, I also felt sympathy for Emilio, unhappy to be a ‘kept’ man and unable to find a job, he chooses the one job that will accept him, even if that will probably mean the loss of his marriage. In this case, the SFnal elements to the story – the PsyKorps and the shunt enabling telepathy – are almost incidental to this analysis of the break-down of a relationship.
Legends of the Gone
The story of a slow apocalypse, of the gradual disappearance of man leaves more mystery than it provides answers. If you know life is futile and humanity sure to disappear, how and why would people endure? That is the question this story poses. It also reconnects to the theme of humanity’s need for connection, emotional and physical, whether that is with fellow human beings or, in the case of the narrator’s neighbour, robotic cats. I loved this story of hope and endurance and besides… robotic cats, what more can you need?!
Angry Rose’s Lament
A story dealing with addiction, but also a need to belong and have a sense of security, Angry Rose’s Lament is a story with a deep emotional impact. The juxtaposition between Rose’s inability to believe that Luke would willingly let himself be subsumed into the larger personality of the Solin and Paul’s desire for just such a merging, creates an interesting tension to Paul’s interactions with both the Solin and with Rose. Even after reading and listening to this story several times I’m still unsure whether this tale has a happy or unhappy ending.
Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain
I loved this story from the concept of a planet filled with porcelain people, to the lists interwoven into the narrative, to its unexpected ending. It’s a bittersweet tale that focuses once again on love and the need for connection, with an added side of betrayal. The world-building in this story is exquisite, there’s unique flora and fauna, the porcelain people themselves, the way they eat and how they have to adjust to those who eat carbon-based foods, and the way they make love, all of it is amazingly thought through and evocative.
Bus Ride to Mars
How could I not love a tribute to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? What I really liked about this linked series of vignettes is that we get a decent cross section of a future which clearly has its basis in our today, but has elements taken to their extremes, sometimes disturbingly so and sometimes in a humorous way. I liked Djuna’s voice, she’s a conduit for these observations, and though they are coloured by her perceptions, she remains a mystery. Why is she going to Mars? Why did she have to leave her home? It’s these unanswered questions as much as the quirky slices of bus-life that fill this story that make the story so intriguing.
Near+Far is a gorgeous collection, which shows off the scope of Cat Rambo’s writing and most definitely showcases her deft touch telling tales about what makes us human: emotion, love, and a need to be connected to others. I really enjoyed reading all these stories together and I think it’s an excellent way to become acquainted with Rambo’s work. If you enjoy SF short stories with a sensitive side, this is the collection for you.
This collection was provided for review by the author.