Patterns of Orbit
by Chloe N. Clark
Baobab Press, 2023
Reviewed by Lori Barrett
“You can paint a beautiful picture using negative space, but you can’t use it to understand something. Not really,” the narrator says in the story “Static” in Chloe N Clark’s collection Patterns of Orbit.
Negative space surrounds many of the characters in these stories. They search for lost family, face monsters or ghosts, and dream surrounded by vast and mysterious places: water, outer space, dark skies and forests, all stretching out of frame. As in visual art, the focus on the space around the characters and action highlights their isolation. They pine for lovers and family members who left home to explore outer space, to research the depths of the ocean, or search the forest, and never returned. They’re not without hope or light. Often they find themselves like many of us who have faced loss, looking over the horizon or for signs of communication from beyond.
Mira, in “A Sense of Taste,” is mourning her husband Dev, who went to outer space and didn’t make it home safely. Her grief is massive, “a hole in my body that went all the way down through the universe.” A colleague of her husband tries to pull her back to her old life, as a botanist specializing in perceptions of taste in modified foods, with a stone fruit from a planet called Goldilocks. She agrees and samples the fruit. It fills her with memories, the fruit’s and her own, a welcome addition to the hole.
Mira, like many of the characters in these stories, doesn’t find closure or easy answers. But they see things anew. And sometimes in the midst of their mysteries and wonder, they make wry observations.
Andra, another widow, in “The Ocean Is Not Empty,” misses her husband Joe after he disappears at the bottom of the sea with most of his submarine crew. Andra and Joe meet at a gallery looking at photos of shadows. He approaches her and observes, “It’s like looking into an absence.” Both see a sense of loss in the photos. But Andra’s not sure about Joe, whether he’s her type. She sees him as someone who “belonged in a commercial for orange juice or yogurt.” Yet, they fall in love. On their seaside honeymoon Joe tells her how the bottom of the ocean is full of sunken artifacts and the detritus of human existence. Andra compares it to an aunt’s attic.
She’s an expert in space. As her grief wanes over the years she watches her own colleagues go off to explore Goldilocks, the same planet where Dev in “A Sense of Taste” gets his fruit. It’s another mission that ends badly, leaving survivors on the ground looking up at the sky for answers or a sign of hope.
In “Who Walks Beside You,” Cameron meets his friend Mark for drinks. He’s a little shaken after sensing what might be a ghost following him. But he sees Mark with a brightness. “He always had a beer in his hand, Cameron pictured him casually gripping a bottle while in the delivery room of his first child or playing a round of squash.”
I’m not usually a science fiction reader. I find the story can get bogged down by world-building heavy with descriptions of technology and definitions. Clark places readers in unusual and dramatic places with brevity and precision. She allows the negative spaces around the characters to help define what’s happening, so it’s easy to get lost in her uncanny worlds.
One of the longer stories, “Out in the Dark,” takes place in a small pod and at a larger space station where it docks. The gleaming surfaces, the control panels, the dark, and the silence are palpable. I could picture Olivia’s pod without being told the names of any buttons or devices. When the story opens, she’s been alone in the pod for seven months. To pass time she counts buttons, hums, or even holds her breath, surrounded by deep space. The dark presses in: “punctuated by distant stars and planets—lights were turning on and off somewhere out there—but it seemed an immoveable and impenetrable darkness.” When her pod returns to the station she discovers her crew has encountered a deadly virus. Her understanding of the virus unfolds with suspense and surprising twists.
Similarly, in “The Waves Hear Every Promise You Make,” Lake Superior shines in the first paragraph. Kara, a scientist who studies marine ecosystems, drives out of a tunnel and the lake appears. She can’t see the end of it. It’s light and shimmer dim quickly, however. She’s there because locals have reported the water “churning with things that should not have filled it.” The waves are larger, faster and louder, bringing forth species of plants, fish and birds that haven’t been seen in decades. Even as she attempts to solve the mystery of the water, Kara looks up at the sky, where her son is on a mission, as often as she looks down at the lake. Both views fill her with questions.
In “Even the Veins of Leaves” and “Static,” forests become menacing spaces, spanning across the horizon, chilling the air, and making navigation—physical and mental—difficult. “Static” features ominous shadows (perhaps connected to “The Ocean Is Not Empty,” where Joe thought he saw a shadow at the bottom of the sea). Chetna visits a research station to try and find her brother Akhil, or at least to figure out what happened to him. After a daylong drive through the woods she notices the trees, who are competing for most compelling characters in the story, are “different from the ones I’d come to love on my daily runs. Not only their height but also their stillness. These were trees that never bowed with the wind.” As children Akhil and Chetna played in the woods, communicating with walkie talkies, which provide the static of the story’s title. And a possible barrier to the psychic communication she hopes will reconnect her to her brother.
Though grief feels like a recurring presence as these stories orbit the stars, the sea, dreams, and trees, there are moments of moving connection. Friends reconnect after years apart. Families make annual visits with deceased loved ones in the City of the Dead in “A Place You Know.” The computer/narrator hopes in “There Is the World Within This Window,” that when loved ones dream of one another they say: “I dreamed, last night, that you were somewhere near.” Clark’s characters look for sparks of light in the night sky or on distant waves and find an abundance of life.