The Necessity of Stars by E. Catherine Tobler
I continued my Neon Hemlock novella-reading binge with E. Catherine Tobler’s The Necessity of Stars, published in 2021. I always approach a Tobler story preparing to be bowled over by strange and stunning language, and this story did not disappoint. I was surprised to be reading a story that slots more comfortably into the “science fiction” category than “fantasy,” because this is about first contact.
Bréone Hemmerli is a highly placed United Nations official, in a world increasingly submerged by rising oceans or devoured by desertification, since for decades the world governments took no action to curb global warming. Extinctions happen weekly; human migration is nearly constant as land becomes unlivable, and yet, oddly, certain small areas of land flourish, or show no changes at all, and one of these is Bréone’s garden at her house in Irislands, in France.
Bréone has lived at Irislands for more than thirty years, divorced her husband, raised her children, and continually sparred with Secretary-General Sugden, a man known for his self-centeredness and his dismissal of women (among other things). Now 63 years old, Bréone feels obsolete, although she is still in her job. To her chagrin and concern, not only is her body starting to stiffen up, but so is her mind, especially when it comes to finding the right word. Tobler expertly portrays aphasia. Bréone’s decline (if decline it is) suddenly takes a terrifying turn when she thinks she is hallucinating something in the beautiful, untouched Irislands garden… when the shadows of the trees suddenly stop behaving like shadows.
Something in Bréone’s garden may hold a chance of survival for earth, and humanity… it if really exists, and if Bréone can remember it.
The story is non-linear, sharing Bréone’s sense of confusion with the reader. This is hard to pull off, and Tobler does it. It is also refreshing to read a story from an older woman’s point of view; Bréone and her friend and ally Delphine, two older women, are nearly constantly frustrated, both by how they are treated and by the changes in their bodies and minds. Contrasting with the concrete descriptions of lost words and creaky joints are the strange, fantastical descriptions of the entity in the garden, all exquisitely laced together in one short, startling story.
I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention a particular element that is part of the plot; the devolution of the post-Brexit United Kingdom to an authoritarian regime called The Kingdom” is vividly depicted with very few words. I had to include that.
Over all, I recommend this one for the beauty of the language and the inclusion of tough old women.