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Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

‘Saga’s Children’ by EJ Swift – 2013 BSFA Award Short Story Club

with 7 comments

‘Saga’s Children’ was originally published in The Lowest Heaven, edited by Anne C Perry and Jared Shurin (Jurassic London, 2013)

You will have heard of our mother, the astronaut Saga Wärmedal. She is famous, and she is infamous. Her face, instantly recognizable, appears against lists of extraordinary feats, firsts and lasts and onlys. There are the pronounced cheekbones, the long jaw, that pale hair cropped close to the head. In formal portraits she looks enigmatic, but in images caught unaware – perhaps at some function, talking to the Administrator of the CSSA or the Moon Colony Premier; in situations, in fact, where we might imagine she would feel out of place – she is animated, smiling. In those pictures, it is possible to glimpse the feted adventurer who traversed the asteroid belt without navigational aid.

So that is Saga. Speaking – collectively – are her three children, carelessly conceived and then left behind as she followed the path of her career across the solar system. The story narrates an unexpected but ambiguous end to their estrangement which is abruptly curtailed by Saga’s death.

‘Saga’s Children’ is a short, attractive story but one which I found gave me very little purchase as a reader. So I outsourced my critical faculties to Niall Harrison who suggested that rather beginning at the beginning, I start at the end. The children close their story with a mantra: “They are looking for something. They are prepared to spend a lifetime looking.” The context is a metaphor, a description of Russian women searched for their purged ancestors (“With every winter, a new layer of ice crystals hardens over the tundra, fusing and compacting upon what lies below, sealing the mass graves forever”) that stands in for the children’s own search for their mother, a Saga beyond the image. It is a longing they have previously projected onto their fathers – “we imagine, he lived out his life awaiting Saga’s return. He waited a long time.”; “his father moved to Mars, we imagine, to search for Saga. He searched a long time.” – when again they are really talking about themselves.

This does suggest two routes into the story. Is Saga a satisfying locus for this longing? And is the affect of this longing sufficient to satisfy the reader?

The first question might seem trivial or even pointless. After all, does the object of longing really matter when it is the affect that is important? And if it does, surely longing for a mother is deep and universal feeling? But I think it is worth considering since the story is built around Saga. (At first I was going to say around her abscence but then I started to think of her more as a black hole, distorting the psychic space-time around her.) The contradiction, of course, is that the whole point of the story is that Saga is not only unknown but unknowable. Our narrators the children can never get beyond the image and so neither can we. But Saga is too much of an image for me, too much of a placeholder for the rest of the story to define itself against. I do not get a sense of the real woman underneath, only her traits. All other lives are ultimately unknowable but that doesn’t mean they are unintelligble.

That brings us to the second question (which, if anything, is even more subjective) since because Saga’s traits are exceptional she moves from being merely a cipher into something approaching a saint. The whole story is couched in a mythic tone: the scale of the stage, the size of the deeds, the ineffability of the universe. This tone is well-pitched but it is still slightly overdone for my taste. A personal tragedy is not a small thing but perhaps it is not so large either. So that final sentence probably is the barometer of the story. For me, the futile, eternal longing it evokes is too grand.

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Written by Martin

7 February 2014 at 12:16

7 Responses

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  1. I’m surprised you suggest Saga achieves a saintly quality: I’d imagine many readers feeling a bit challenged by her apparent attitude to her children, their longing seems nearly matched by her disinterest. And actually, I think the key longing isn’t a longing for a mother per se, it’s a longing for a reason for a mother’s actions — and whether one is sympathetic to Saga’s actions or not, I think that’s a longing that the story does work to make a reader share, because of what it withholds. The obvious (to me, anyway?) explanation to project onto Saga is that she is herself driven by a need to find reason, to understand — but I think that is a projection. In fact I think a big strength of the story is that it itself does not seem inherently sympathetic to or critical of Saga: maybe I missed a phrase of subconscious judgement, but I think it’s left up to the reader.

    An obvious point of comparison for me is Gradisil — though obviously that novel has a much bigger canvas to work on, I’m not sure we can ultimately come to any definitive understanding of Gradisil, any more than we can of Saga.

    (More later, perhaps.)

    Niall

    7 February 2014 at 13:11

  2. I don’t mean to suggest her behaviour is saintly (any more than the behaviour of actual saints was). Rather that she has something of the status and stature of a saint: a secular icon with one foot in this world and one in the next. Her death (her suicide?) seems an inevitable enactment of this. This links to what you are saying, the story isn’t inherently sympathetic to or critical of Saga, instead it treats her as other.

    I agree that the longing of the children is the same as the longing of the mother, one for meaning. But I think Saga’s implicit longing expressed through her actions is more interesting than the children’s explicit longing expressed through their words (and, most explicitly, their mantra).

    I hadn’t thought of Gradisil but then I can’t remember much about that novel. (Embarassingly, all I can remember is a meta issue: the purists’ complaint about the air hose.) Would be interested to hear more.

    Martin

    7 February 2014 at 14:15

  3. Gradisil is told in three parts. One is narrated by Gradisil’s mother, one is narrated by her husband, one is narrated by her son. Gradisil herself is only really a direct presence in the middle part (the first part is about establishing the events that shape her, the third part about her shaping influence), but even there she is at a remove — it’s not a straightforward chronicle of Gradisil’s exploits, it’s a long rambling exegesis of her actions and how her husband feels about them.

    So in both cases you have an active, famous, historically important woman seen almost entirely through her effects on people around her. In both cases some of the woman’s actions make her seem callous or simply strange, and we perhaps can’t get a grasp on her as a person. I freely admit I am a sucker for that sort of gap, as long as the surrounding material feels real, and here I think it does.

    There’s an element of critique of SF narratives here — classically, Gradisil and Saga would be protagonists, they are Campbellian hero-figures. But I think that’s more deliberate in Roberts than Swift, not least because of the difference in title — one directing us to the woman herself (who we cannot access), the other to her children (who are testifying). I think Swift is more interested in the emotional impact that sort of figure would have, how they might disrupt the lives around them.

    There are plenty of differences between story and novel, obviously. We don’t know Gradisil completely, but we do know a lot more about her than we do about Saga. Gradisil is more interested in biased narratives, “Saga’s Children” in absent narratives. Gradisil is also unambiguously utilitarian about potential offspring; at one point she gets pregnant (the only time she is pregnant by her husband, possibly, he certainly believes their other two children are the result of affairs), but is revealed to have done so deliberately so that she can sacrifice the foetus (deliberately induce miscarriage by staying in zero-gravity) as part of a military/tactical stratagem (because her opponents assume she will have to return to Earth).

    Niall

    7 February 2014 at 17:01

  4. […] short short fiction (‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ is 3,000, a thousand less than ‘Saga’s Children). But surely if it is so central to our genre, we need to collectively get a lot better at it? […]

  5. I didn’t see Saga’s last flight as necessarily causing her death – but perhaps I was more influenced by the actions of Eunice in Blue Remembered Earth. Again, we have a pioneer who prioritised her career over her close family relationships – but in BRE it was for the benefit of “The Family” as much as it was an opportunity to get out onto the edge of everything. Has Saga just set a new challenge for humanity?

    Coming back to the story’s end: is it better to seek than to find? Maybe Saga will yet return, but if she does, she probably still wouldn’t provide the children with the validation they seek.

    Duncan Lawie (@lawiedc)

    17 February 2014 at 19:14

  6. Maybe Saga will yet return, but if she does, she probably still wouldn’t provide the children with the validation they seek.

    You are undoubtedly right on the second point but I just can’t see her return. Beyond the quasi-religious reaidng I suggest, Saga just doesn’t seem the sort to look backwards. The only time she does, by inviting her children to watch her exit, she finds the decision totally alien: “What are you doing here?” (I’ll be honest, I don’t know what Swift’s intent behind this scene is, if there was a specific meaning behind these words – mental illness? Blackmail? It is frustrating but I also think it fits.)

    Martin

    19 February 2014 at 13:58

  7. […] ‘Saga’s Children’ by EJ Swift […]

    Spun | Everything Is Nice

    30 April 2014 at 10:44


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