The publication last year of Suzanne Church’s Elements, her first collection of short stories, brought a measure of attention to a writer whose work had appeared mainly in Canadian small-press and semi-professional anthologies and magazines. Church, a Kitchener-based writer who attended the Clarion South workshop in 2005, is perhaps best known for “The Needle’s Eye,” a story from the Chilling Tales anthology that won the Aurora for Best Short Story in 2012, and “Synch Me, Kiss Me, Drop,” which appeared in Clarkesworld.
Elements represents the bulk of Church’s output to date. It contains twenty-one stories, seven of which appear in print here for the first time. (Three early stories are omitted, and three more recent works have not been included.)
Church is primarily a science fiction and horror writer, though there are a couple of fantasy pieces here as well. Her science fiction tends toward the crunchy and techy; her horror is equal parts bloody and despondent. Not that these modes are entirely separate: Her science fiction can have a bloody edge to it as well. “Coolies,” which opens the collection, is the story of field medics who must patch up the living with the parts of the dead; “The Needle’s Eye” deals with a weaponized virus the vaccine for which costs you sight in one eye (neither story, it must be said, is for anyone who is squicked out about eyeballs).
Many of Church’s characters come from the ranks of the downtrodden and disadvantaged — addicts, ne’er-do-wells, bullied children, soldiers under fire — and it’s reflected in the register of her prose and her characters’ turns of phrase. Take a person from the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder in desperate straits and with few resources, and you’ve probably found a protagonist from a Suzanne Church story. She may not always murder her darlings — sometimes they’re already dead (see “Hell’s Deadline” or “Soul-Hungry”) — but she does make them suffer. It should come as no surprise that family agonies such as the loss of a child or separation from a loved one are a recurring theme.
Along the way she reveals a keen gaze on class and privilege. In the previously unpublished “Mod Me Down,” New Yorkers are transformed into animals as a way of surviving the oncoming ice age: In the lottery, Lucas draws rat and Mary draws cockroach; the elites naturally are transformed into something better than vermin.
By contrast, Church is less effective when portraying characters in positions of authority. “The Flower Gathering” (also previously unpublished) is an ambitious, contrarian take on a common trope of feminist science fiction: the off-world colony populated entirely by women. In Church’s hands it becomes the story of a mother’s grief when her son — a Fourth, a male child conceived as future breeding stock to ensure the colony’s genetic health — is killed. I don’t think it’s meant as a direct response to Russ’s “When It Changed” or, say, Griffith’s Ammonite; it’s in a different register. Her prime ministerial protagonist fails to convince in her role, as does the political dynamic of the colony. Church’s marginalized protagonists are much better drawn.
There is comedy in Elements as well: three stories set in a universe where interstellar travel is undertaken via a couch (“Everyone Needs a Couch,” “Waste Management” and “Fuzzy Green Monster Number Two”), as well as “March of the Forgotten,” a story about sentient items in a mall lost-and-found, told from the point of view of a coffee mug. These are not stories that aspire to satire — they lack that edge — but they’re amusing, a low comedy of the sort we used to see a lot more of in the field.
That Church can do both comedy and horror is less surprising than it sounds, because they have more in common than would be apparent at first glance. Her stories, regardless of genre, have a visceral aesthetic with little room for pretence. The SF comedy mines have been under-exploited of late — it’s so hard to do comedy right — and I’d be quite happy if Church were to continue to work this vein.
Elements is a wide-ranging debut collection from an atypical writer with a distinct and interesting voice.