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Promise by Christi Nogle

(Flame Tree Press, 2023)

Reviewed by Harry Slater

There are two themes running through Christi Nogle’s collection of dark tales in Promise—time and unity. Time is bent, warped, broken, it curls back on itself, devouring pasts and futures, while people and creatures and robotic lifeforms create wholes from disparate parts, blending into new, often terrifying singularities. This is SF at the edge of the black mirror, delicate and intricate, layered and literary, shocking and confounding.

The first two stories are the most complete of the collection, rising and falling in eerie rhythms designed to unsettle. ‘Cocooning’ is a pandemic tale twisted back into itself. It sees a couple and their dogs quarantined, but we slowly begin to question exactly who is being protected from who, or what. The ending is a gloriously bizarre celebration of freedom and togetherness that upends traditional plague tropes for something altogether stranger.

‘Laurel’s First Chase’ sees a mother and her young daughter stalking prey in a night time forest. But not just one night, a series of nights, playing out in jumps around the linear trajectories of the characters. The girl is cautious, distracted, urged on calmly by a loving mother who already sees the inevitable end of their stalking. It’s a masterful work that manages to make you root for the monsters hiding in the dark, while still recoiling from the full power of their hunger.

‘Finishers’ features another familial unit, this time completing human-like robots in a windowless basement. There are hints of the world outside, half-explanations that allow the reader to fill in the gaps, but the ending comes a little too abruptly and doesn’t quite gel with the rest. ‘A Fully Chameleonic Foil’, ‘Viridian Green’ and ‘What Do You See When You’re Both Asleep’ are interesting little snapshots of imminent technologies, involving dogs and dreams, zoom calls and smart materials, but they lack the emotional heft of some of the other stories.

‘Flexible Off-Time’ riffs on the likes of Total Recall and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, letting a writer take a week off in a handful of seconds. Things inevitably go wrong, and something strange starts bleeding into their retreat. It’s one of the stronger stories in the collection, tinged with weirdness and creeping madness, and it’s mind-boggling resolution will stick with you for a long while.

There’s more time shifting in ‘A Game Like They Play in the Future’, where a young woman falls for a man who has used advanced technology to glimpse back at previous occupants of his apartment. It’s a love story, told without touch, and resonates with modern living in intriguing ways. ‘Guesthouse’ acts almost as its companion piece, with a deceased relative visiting her descendent in the future. Both stories show Nogle’s ability to look at big ideas—love, death, connection, legacy—from intriguing and often revelatory angles. ‘Paper Dragonfly, Paper Mountain’ covers similar ground, mixing the slice-of-life of Raymond Carver with the existential futures of Philip K Dick.

In ‘An Account’, we meet a time traveller and her daughter. Except this isn’t the first time round for the traveller, who tells in snippets of other daughters and other lives, hinting at a multiverse of existences based on different choices. It’s at once bleak and loving, speaking of impossible distances and fantastic possibilities, of the terrible decisions we sometimes have to make.

Horror takes more of a forefront in ‘The Laffun Head’. What at first feels like a sweet tale of technology enabling loved ones to remain after death, descends into a grim, Bosch-esque crawl through the charnel house of an uncaring hell. It’s another fine example of Nogle’s skill, the slowly introduced weirdness oozing out until it soaks everything.

‘Lovey’ and ‘Every City A Small Town’ deal with endings; the inevitable endgame of the gig economy, and the collapse of society. But they handle them in deft, engaging ways that belie their brevity. The last line of ‘Every City…’ is a bleak masterpiece that deserves multiple re-readings.

There’s yet another mother and daughter—another refrain running through the book—in ‘Cubby’. There’s more time travel too, and the story reads almost as a custody battle bouncing through time and space. Like many of the stories here, there’s no simple resolution, just more questions and blank spaces for the reader to ponder.

Things become referential in ‘Fables of the Future’, set against the backdrop of a possible timeline mentioned in ‘An Account’. There’s something Cronenbergian about it, with gloopy pods and strange psychic abilities, but it’s one place where the lack of clarity feels more like a cheap trick than a spell. The blank spaces are a little too blank, the ending a little too empty.

The weakest story in the collection is ‘Substance’, a tale of giant worms and universes within gemstones, growing eyes and lesser workers. It’s the longest piece, but it doesn’t do much with that extra space. There are intriguing ideas about individuality and escaping the norm, but they all fall flat, and it’s something of a relief when you reach the end.

‘The Earthly Garden’ tells the story of a troubled genius and his creation from different perspectives, a sideways glimpse at something magnificent and terrible that never reveals exactly what it’s talking about, and reads all the better for it. ‘The Orbital Bloom’ (with Eileen Gunnell Lee), takes the form of a conversation between an astronaut and her distant mother. It’s gloomy and smart and disgusting in equal measure, and poses countless tiny questions about countless massive things.

‘Watershakers’ is another short entry, about bizarre creatures in a watering trough. ‘Promise’, the titular story, rounds things off with a question about conversations with yourself, when that self is from somewhere else.

Promise is a humming, scratchy, strange bundle of tales, dark and mysterious and always teetering around the edge of your understanding. There are stories that don’t quite land, but when Nogle gets it right, the result is some of the finest SF you’ll read this year.

Review from BSFA Review 23 - Download your copy here.


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