The Stars Seem So Far Away by Margrét Helgadóttir

The last in this season of indie highlights, The Stars Seem So Far Away is published by Fox Spirit Books, a small press primarily focused on fantasy and horror works.

The Stars Seem So Far Away

Nora stood on deck waiting for the other ship to come closer. The sails flapped over her head, eager to let the wind take hold. The air was thick with ocean mist. She held her ship steady, never letting the other craft out of her sight.

An old wooden sailing ship, heavy in the sea, it glided towards her, majestic and elegant despite the high waves. The wind strained the massive sails to their limits. People ran to and fro on the deck, adjusting them. She counted five. All men. Shivering, she huddled deeper into her fur coat.

They had not fired at her yet, but she could see the weapons hanging from their shoulders and backs.

Climate change has rendered most of Earth uninhabitable; in the high Arctic, what remains of humanity clings by a thread, struggling to survive around a few coastal cities. Originally a series of short stories, The Stars Seem So Far Away follows the fate of around half a dozen of the survivors. Nora manages alone aboard her ship, sailing between ports, primarily concerned with day-to-day survival and the business of fending off pirates. Simik is of Inuit heritage, determined to reclaim his people’s ancestral lands. Aida and Zaki are young orphans, their town devastated by plague. Bjørg defends a seed vault, raising cloned polar bear-like creatures and wondering how she’ll know when humanity is ready to receive the treasure she guards.

The various chapters which make up the narrative seem quite disconnected at first, but I enjoyed the way that they came together over the course of the book. Characters who start off in quite different places end up with their stories entwined as their paths cross, and everyone is looking to the stars, where earlier space programs have established successful human colonies.

This book has some unusual structural issues. The worldbuilding is interesting, but presented with only the barest bones of an explanation. No animal life survives and only “artificial” plants are cultivated, but there’s no explanation of how such a complete ecological catastrophe might have come to pass. Likewise, the characters dream of going into space, but society is on the edge of collapse, starvation is common, and there’s little sign of the technology that would be required to take them there. It’s almost like a doctrine of magical realism applied to dystopian sci-fi: you just have to accept that this is how things are. There are currents of magic, too, particularly in the form of a ghostly fox spirit that appears in the early pages; I was disappointed that it was only a brief cameo.

And yet, there’s a lot here that I liked. I enjoyed the vision of a transformed Arctic landscape — slightly thawed but still cold enough to be severely inhospitable. The towns of the high north, abandoned and dilapidated, give rise to an interesting twist on the usual dystopian aesthetic, and there’s added interest in the form of sailing ships, criss-crossing the ocean between Nuuk and Svalbard. I loved the resilience of the characters, all of whom have in some way been forced to adapt to solitude and independence, making it feel all the stronger when they choose to help one another. There’s friendship here, and love, grief and hope, all set against the harsh and unyielding backdrop of a dying Earth.

The Stars Seem So Far Away is available from Amazon.

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