Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Microreview [Book]: The Reinvented Heart: Tales of Futuristic Relationships, edited by Cat Rambo and Jennifer Brozek

The Reinvented Heart: Tales of Futuristic Relationships is a collection of short stories by female and non-binary authors, focussed on imagining how relationships might look in the future, and how technology, social change and a wider span of time and difference between people might change those relationships (or not).

The theme for this collection is absolutely spot on, and while I liked, disliked and was indifferent by turns to some of the stories, I nevertheless finished the collection feeling glad that it was a theme being written about. Characters and relationships – in all their complex, messy glory – are by far my favourite thing in reading fiction, and so to have that spotlight focussed on them here, and specifically how they might change as the world, technology and the people in it change, was a gorgeous choice. It’s also a collection where the stories rove widely in their variety, and yet they do all stay extremely true to that uniting theme. And it’s not like we didn’t see stories with glimpses of interesting future tech or distant worlds or all the other good stuff of SF… it just all took a bit of a back seat to seeing how people have changed because of those changing contexts. And, of course, how they’ve stayed the same.

The editors/authors have also done a great job in providing a really interesting variety in what counts as a “relationship”. It’s not all romantic, and the ones that are push at the edges of what counts as romance. Near the beginning, for instance, Seanan McGuire explores the - necessarily and disturbingly intimate - love of a host and an intelligent symbiotic fungus, in what is by far the story that has stuck with me the hardest from the collection. It’s an intensely creepy read, with clearly a lot of her Mira Grant hat on, and one that left me doing a bit of a shudder of horror when I finished it and moved onto the next.

But we also see the relationship of a man and the young spaceship that can talk to him from within his brain; the slowly improving relationship of a woman with herself and her life as she moves asexually through a world obsessed with lust; the fond relationship of a woman and her inherited, genetically reincarnated cat. All are vividly emotional, all are different, but all absolutely centre and showcase a little snippet of feeling for someone or something, and how the changing world might have affected that. 

Conversely, some stories show that those relationships haven't or wouldn't change at all - we see fond partners still loving one another despite hardship and lovers struggling to relate while going through difficult times, and while the nature of the hardships may have changed, the very human feelings at the core of it haven't at all.

The collection also plays around with form, including not just short stories (and one a little longer), but also several poems. “They: A Grammar Lesson” by Jane Yolen is what opens the book, and is a short and lovely statement of purpose. There are several others, scattered through the sections, and they felt like a moment of rest and peace in between more immersive stories, a time to catch your breath and pause, rather than bombing through at the highest possible speed and maybe, by doing that, missing some details. There’s also one story in the format of an interstellar horoscope broadcast, and another in an adapting AI questionnaire for an automated matchmaking service. The stories are told not just in prose, and not just in human voices, but truly trying to look out into the scope of personal interaction that might exist in the future.

If it has any problem, the only one I can really find to talk about is hardly the worst to have. In most short story collections, there will be at least one story I love, several I like, some I dislike, and maybe one I hate. The Reinvented Heart has the last three, but there is no single, standout story that spoke to me, or grabbed me, or has lingered in fondness in my memory. There isn’t one story I’ll look back on in a year and remember, or the one I’m rushing to tell other people to read. There are plenty I enjoyed – if anything, I’d say my average rating of them was probably higher than most collections – but there’s nothing that really sang out and said “yes, me, I am the reason you read this book”. And this does probably mean that, as time passes, this won’t be the book that really sticks with me from 2022.

But I’m not sure that matters. My predominant feeling as I read the stories here was of fleeting glimpses of moments in longer relationships, little windows into bigger stories, that I saw flit past and then fade away. The experience was a very pleasant one, and the joy was to some extent in the transitory nature of the experience. I don’t need to remember them in intricate detail, but I know I’ll remember having read them fondly.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for genuine breadth and depth of relationships on show

Penalties: -1 for putting by far the creepiest story right at the start and so nearly stopping me reading it entirely because I’m a wuss

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws

Reference: The Reinvented Heart: Tales of Futuristic Relationships, Cat Rambo and Jennifer Brozek (ed.), [CAEZIK SF & Fantasy, 2022]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea