Word Puppets is a collection of Mary Robinette Kowal’s short fictions. Fans of her GLAMOURISTS series will find not a single one in its pages, and many of these tales are science fiction, with several stories set on Mars. Patrick Rothfuss provides a humorous introduction, and tells us that these nineteen works are in chronological order. This gives the reader a chance to see Kowal’s development as a story-teller.
I am not going to review all nineteen. I will discuss the stories I liked best or found most interesting, with one exception; there is one story that was not successful for me.
Kowal has created a story universe in which the people of Earth colonized other planets in our solar system starting in the 1950s. The explosion of space exploration slowed technological advances in other areas, particularly computers, and the computers in the stories still run on punchcards. The punchcards are plot elements, and also function symbolically. Three stories from that universe are included in Word Puppets. In “We Interrupt This Broadcast,” a dying scientist, Fidel Dobes, is working on a formula for space travel. He has discovered something else as well, an asteroid headed straight for earth. In his world, there is a nascent cold war developing, and Dobes struggles with a moral quandary. Kowal captures the tropes of ‘50s science fiction (Dobes has a lovely female assistant, Mira) and then stands those tropes on their heads at the end, but it is the moral weight of Dobes’s decision that makes this story stand out.
“Rockets Red,” original to this volume, is set on a colonized Mars in 1972. Mars is celebrating its twentieth anniversary of settlement, and Aaron has gotten the contract to provide a spectacular fireworks display for the gala. His mother is helping, and Aaron is a bit shocked to realize how frail she has become. When an accident jumbles the punchcards needed to direct the fireworks extravaganza, Aaron succumbs to despair, but his mother’s solution reminds him of the real magic of fireworks: the sense of community they can inspire. Full disclosure; I, along with many others, read a beta version of this story online and provided comments.
“The Lady Astronaut of Mars” is one of my favorites in the collection. Elma was one of the first women astronauts, and the first to go to Mars. She was an advertising icon for the colony, but now, in her sixties, she still wants to go into space. She is healthy enough, but her husband, the love of her life, is ill, and she wants to be by his side until the end. The story explores a woman’s choices of career or family and takes an honest look at the dynamics of a couple when one is chronically ill. It deals honestly with both aging and ageism. Elma has a vivid and realistic voice, and the use of The Wizard of Oz as a background theme adds richness.
“The White Phoenix Feather: A Tale of Cuisine and Ninjas” and “American Changeling” were two other favorites. “The White Phoenix Feather” is, in a weird, other-planetary way, a comedy of manners, with a narrator who, along with her partner, provides “extreme eating” experiences for wealthy clients. “Ninjas” appears in the title, and that’s a clue. The perfectly-timed shifts between action and, well, cuisine, never miss a beat, making this story laugh-out-loud funny, and the twist at the end is the acknowledgement of how a perfect server can make a meal.
“American Changeling” is just that. Kim has two Faerie parents, but she was born here. Two things made an otherwise conventional battle-between-Faerie-courts-story fresh; use of the Maryhill, Washington full-scale model of Stonehenge, and the concept of the alliance formed between the Unseelie Court and the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. There is plenty of action, and Kim learns a lot. She is a changed person in more than one way by the end of the tale.
Like “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” “Waiting for Rain,” a story about viticulture, wine-snobbery and climate change, has at its heart marriage, partnership and trust. The plot twists of “Body Language” were no surprise, but this story is about puppetry, and Kowal’s love and expertise for this skill elevated the story for me. I liked the conceit of an AI as a “reverse puppet.”
Set in an island culture similar to pre-colonial Hawaii, “At the Edge of Dying” features a pair of husband-and-wife sorcerers protecting their kingdom against an invading army. The magical system is one I’ve never seen before. We want the use of magic to have consequences; here you’ve got your consequences, hands down.
The very short “Evil Robot Monkey” addresses The Other, isolation and the power of a connection, even if it’s momentary.
People who adore Sherlock Holmes pastiches will like “The Shocking Affair of the Dutch Steamship Friesland.” While not one of my favorites, it captured the tone of a Holmes-like mystery, and should please fans of that type of story.
“Salt of the Earth” has an interesting world-building premise; Terrans have colonized an exo-planet that has very little salt, and salt has become a precious commodity. This story was unsuccessful for me, though. The villain is written in a heavy-handed manner, and the denouement relies on a little boy with autism. He has to engage in pretty sophisticated reasoning for someone who is seven or eight (I think?), and the story edges right up to the point of making him a magical “autistic savant,” when that isn’t needed; the protagonist could certainly figure out what happened on her own. It’s well-written, with salt collection details that lightly echo water-collection in Dune, but fell short for me.
The first two or three early stories in the book interested me more as starting points; we see Kowal’s style, and her key themes, developing. This is a pleasant collection of works from a good writer. Even if not a single empire-waist dress is in sight, Word Puppets provides enjoyment.