The last shuttles to the space colonies are long gone. Wars, famine and plagues rage across the dying Earth. Fleeing the deadly sun, humans migrate farther and farther north. Follow the stories of five very different survivors as they cling to what is left of life in a future North.
Margrét Helgadóttir’s The Stars Seem So Far Away is a slim little volume, that packs quite a punch. A collection of interlinked short stories, this book tells the tales of five survivors of the Earth’s collapse. Humanity has slowly but surely exhausted the Earth’s resources and global warming has caused much of the world to become uninhabitable. Humanity has retreated to the North, though I assume that there will also be people who have gone to the opposite pole, but our focus is on the North. This isn’t surprising since Helgadóttir is of Scandinavian descent and in fact isn’t a native English speaker, hailing from Norway and currently residing in Denmark.
Writers like Helgadóttir always make me a little jealous. As a non-native speaker myself, I envy the way they manage to express themselves in a language that is not their mother tongue. Helgadóttir’s writing is evocative without being flowery and renders her world in a beautiful clarity. Her use of language is wonderful, adding simple phrases or names from the various cultures that have been amalgamated in the North, without making it seem forced. She also refrains from adding too many “made-up” words to denote the future setting, instead adapting existing words to a new meaning. For example, she refers to the guard animals that are Bjørg’s companions as isbo’s, a name that — once we learn that they are lab-raised, and perhaps genetically modified, polar bears — can be recognised as a derivation of the Norwegian word for polar bear isbjørn.
While this is a collection of interlinked short stories there are clear threads discernible in them. There are the storylines dealing with the refugees Aida, Zaki, and Nora, who each in their own way have to survive displaced in the North. They show a diversity of experiences even within a single family and I found each of their voices compelling. The experience of the original inhabitants of the North who find their territories overrun with refugees and thus their traditional way of life changed for good is represented in Simik’s story line. The last thread is that of Bjørg, whose nature remains mysterious, but whose mission in life is protecting the seed vault first protected by her father and whose mission parameters have become garbled in transmission. All these characters feature separately and together in different combinations and it is in these meetings that the story gains its power.
While all of the main characters are fascinating, my favourites were Aida and Bjørg. Aida’s journey from protected and cherished daughter to a young woman willing and able to take care of herself without losing her faith and trust in humanity was wonderful. The hurt and reconciliation between Aida and Zaki in the latter parts of the book was quite touching. Bjørg’s learning to admit feelings and love, plus rediscovering her connection to humanity instead of her bear constructs, after having survived on her lonely island alone for so long, is echoed in Nora’s having to relearning to live in society and trust other human beings. Bjørg’s spiky character combined with the mystery surrounding her nature served as one of the most compelling elements of The Stars Seem So Far Away.
The Stars Seem So Far Away is a remarkable debut. Helgadøttir proves she is a very talented writer; telling a tale of humanity in extremis, but ending it on a note of restoration and hope. If you enjoy post-apocalyptic science fiction then you should definitely check out The Stars Seem So Far Away.
This book was provided for review by the author.