Claire Light's new collection Slightly Behind And To The Left (Aqueduct Press), you'll find yourself drawn into dark, surreal worlds that will leave you feeling shaken for days afterward. In a good way.
A collection of ultrashort "drabbles" and four short stories - two of them linked - Slightly Behind And To The Left is the kind of book where planets are made of cats - but crimes against humanity are still as recognizable as the Moon. Light's prose moves effortlessly between hard science observations and absurdist flights of fantasy. In the story "Pinball Effect," for example, a boy who has been abducted by aliens is deposited on a planet without gravity called F&***rk. We learn that a special law enforcement group, "the black suited inertiates," is tasked with chasing down stray bubbles of atmosphere that are escaping, as well as restoring order if any kind of forceful movement sets off a chain reaction of objects in chaos. The story veers between accurate descriptions of how bodies behave outside a strong gravitational field, and impossible images of buildings and furniture and aliens jostling against each other, sometimes spinning off into space without warning.
Light's scenarios go beyond weird worldbuilding, however. The protagonist in "Pinball Effect," for example, has lived for so long among amorphous aliens that he yearns for any kind of solid touch. He discovers that one of the denizens of F&***rk shares his exact mass. Though she's covered in spines and communicates only via scents, he forms an intense emotion bond with this creature whose body mass balances his perfectly. Unfortunately their relationship is forbidden, and winds up becoming a matter for the inertiates to handle in their brutal, pragmatic way.
"Pinball Effect," like all of the stories in this volume, is focused on what a lonely human might be willing to endure for even a brief experience of intimacy. The protagonist in "Pinball Effect" lets his alien companion pierce his entire body with needles in order to feel the warmth of her body. And in the more realistic stories "Pigs In Space" and "Vacation," relationships between human women and men are no less alien.
In "Vacation," Light takes the familiar trope of "what if all the men on Earth disappeared" and does something shocking and unexpected with it. When women wake up one day to discover that all the adult men on Earth have vanished, our protagonist's world slides slowly into one of widely-accepted sexual predation and pederasty. It's classic, old-school patriarchy turned on its head, as the sexually-hungry women adjust their libidos to focus on the pre-teen boys who are their only companions now. Yearning to reproduce, or perhaps just to feel a sexual connection, our protagonist decides to force herself on a lone boy she meets in an alley. What follows is one of the most chilling depictions of a rapist's psychology I've ever read.
The slightly more satirical "Pigs In Space" will hook you with a thought experiment about how genetic engineering would supply long-range space vessels with energy and food (the answer: insect-like colonies of pigs). But the real meat of the story is the relationship between the ship's two humans, a man and a woman whose relationship is founded on cruelty masquerading as playfulness. Like all of Light's stories, "Pigs In Space" forces you to ask whether humans are really any better than any other meatsack with a spark of life - or indeed, whether their company is better than listening to the sound of your own breathing for years in deep space.
Throughout Slightly Behind And To The Left, especially in the elliptical, poetic final story, "Abducted By Aliens!" you'll find yourself struggling to remember why you ever wanted to make a human connection. But as I said earlier, this is a good thing. Light's prose is sly and amusing, full of the dark whimsy required to alienate you utterly and make you enjoy it.
You can purchase Slightly Behind And To The Left via Aqueduct Press