Some Possible Solutions

Helen Phillips

Pushkin, £9.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

HELEN Phillips, the New York-based author whose Kafkaesque novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat was published by Pushkin earlier this year, is drawn to science fiction, fantasy, dystopias, imagery from fairy tales – anything, in fact, which will generate moods of strangeness and uncertainty. Central to this collection of her short stories is the sense that the ground could shift beneath the reader’s feet at any moment and become scarily unfamiliar.

The opening story, The Knowers, asks what it would be like to be able to key your social security number into a publicly-available machine and find out the date of your death. What kind of life would you live after that, and what issues would it raise in your relationships with your loved ones?

Like many authors before her, she uses the opportunities afforded by speculative fiction to articulate emotional states that generally go unspoken. A mother herself, she explores the fear of losing one’s identity that can come with motherhood. The central character of The Doppelgangers, instead of being consoled and reassured by other mothers, finds them a terrifying sign that she’s losing her individuality and being subsumed into an identikit mass. Phillips goes further in The Children, literally casting the narrator’s offspring as aliens.

The theme of gender surfaces in a variety of forms. In The Joined, a newly-discovered planet is found to be populated by the counterparts of people from Earth, with whom they can merge and become the hermaphroditic form humans were always intended to be. Those who have gone through the process report that it marks an end to loneliness and dissatisfaction, but what about those people on Earth who feel they’ve already found their life partners? What are they to do?

The environment is clearly a concern for Phillips, too, and in two separate stories she has her protagonists leave climate-controlled cities to encounter the wild outdoors for the first time. The divides aren’t just between the country and the city: in the final story, Contamination Generation, neighbourhoods are split by an economic apartheid. In none of these stories do we learn how these situations came about, but Phillips loads them with unexplained details hinting at great social shifts going on outside the frame of the story. We never find out why, for instance, the over-18s in The Beekeeper wear a uniform of hoods and trousers, what the narrator’s gender is or why it would lead people to assume that he/she is asexual, but all these details point to a clearly thought-out world of which we are only seeing a fragment.

Some stories, sensibly buried in the middle of the book so that it both starts and ends on a high, are more experimental and oblique, and leave little impression of themselves behind. But with the stories mentioned above, plus next-generation sex dolls, the horror of having X-ray eyes, and the neat device of having a lifetime’s worth of bad decisions manifest themselves as stains on a dress, the hit-rate here is impressively high.