Translated from Croatian by Jennifer Zoble
(New York: Feminist Press, 2019)
A confession: I’m a chronic page-flipper. Usually I end up scouting ahead for the end of the chapter because I’m desperate to get it over with. But in Mars, Asja Bakić’s collection of short speculative fiction and English-language debut following her 2009 collection of poetry Može i kaktus, samo neka bode (It Can Be a Cactus, as Long as it Pricks), I wasn’t scoping out the length of each story in the hopes they were almost over. Rather, I didn’t want them to end.
Bakić guides us through an unfamiliar landscape, populated with bitter exiles and amnesiacs, always strange, often dystopian. In one story all writing is declared “the greatest evil to have befallen humankind” and all writers are exiled to Mars. In another, a man on a bus is irresistibly drawn to a woman with the smell of raw meat emanating from her grocery bag. My personal favorite was “The Talus of Madame Liken,” about a murderess who receives a strange and potentially supernatural visitor and begins with these fantastic opening lines:
Lichen: nature’s chaos. A body of algae and mushroom, the symbiosis blanketing the corpse found in the nearby forest.
Each story is a glimpse into a strange and often frightening world, as sudden as the flash of a light whisked past a subway window. Or perhaps a better metaphor would be that this collection is like wandering through a collection of tide pools: each filled with vivid ecosystems of alien life which will continue growing and dying and eating themselves long after observation ceases. Bakić’s stories are unexpected, dreamlike, and yet also unquestionably real.
Though all incredibly short — some less than 10 pages long — the scope of these stories stretches across space and time. In one, a reporter going to a remote colony largely agreed to be a cult discovers that they have the power to manipulate reality; an exiled writer forced to live on Mars discovers a secret manuscript which may hold the secret to an alien codex. Despite being so short, they effortlessly contain these massive concepts in brief, tantalizing flashes that feel wholly complete even as each feels expansive (and interesting) enough to fill the pages of an entire novel.
The speculative elements are initially the most striking feature of this collection, but what really makes it sing are the characters. These pages are populated by writers, loners, and murderers, all as strange as the worlds they inhabit; but where the backdrop is alien, the people that cross in front of it are odd in the most human ways.
From children in a falsely-idyllic summer to a writer who appears to have no memory of writing their own new book, the cast of these stories spans all walks of life. The characters struggle to connect, and to understand the people around them; they struggle to understand their own lives and the place they all occupy in the world. They are obsessive, and sometimes destructive.
Bakić’s tone is versatile from story to story, but is almost always infused with a cheeky darkness which provides the perfect complement to the subjects themselves. The writing has the unglamorous beauty of magical realism, with a chrome sheen of sci-fi; the forthright strangeness of a fable that flirts with the bluntness of something more like noir. Though the language is straightforward, the images it conveys are anything but. All in all, it’s delightfully hard to pin down, like so much else about the collection as a whole.
What had made us human on Earth had quickly disappeared on Mars. I assumed it’d have been the same for anything taken from Mars to Earth. The experience of isolation had changed the substance, as had people’s hostile intentions.
As might be expected from a collection published by Feminist Press, these stories all contain a feminist slant; sex and sexuality are a recurring theme, as well as characters whose agency is stripped away from them. In “Abby,” a woman awakens with amnesia and finds herself living with a man who claims to be her husband. When Abby realizes that she is actually a robot, she kills her “husband” and destroys her charging port, resolving that “no one would push anything into me anymore.”
One thing I enjoyed so much about these stories was the way in which the gender of some narrators felt ambiguous to the point of being irrelevant. Nothing about them was conventional. Bakić’s characters embody the sort of life that is lived, not seen from the outside in. Through a first person perspective, we as readers look out on a strange world through the eyes of the characters, rather than watching them from the outside. We experience their strangeness as if it is our own.
Bakić’s stories are impossible to anticipate — they’re surprising, delighting, and sometimes even frightening. As whimsical as some of the concepts sound, the stories are also tales of violation and murder, laced with a sharp undertone of horror that makes the speculative elements all the more effective. All the best speculative-fiction contains at least a glint of horror. How else can we be expected to look to the future, let alone the past, but with a thrill of mild terror?
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Amelia Fisher is a writer and recent graduate from Fairleigh Dickinson University, currently living in Washington D.C.