By Thea Swanson
36 Pages, $10.00
Reviewed by Alice Y. Lu
Thea Swanson’s flash fiction collection MARS, out now by Ravenna Press, takes place on the eponymous planet in the time frame of 3500-3700. Humans have destroyed Earth, but people tell “otherworldly tales of a planet where people knew the feel of wind.” The slim collection is an anthropological look at different types of people living (or perhaps wasting away) on Mars. We zoom in on the subcultures of Music Kids, Star Gazers, and Cooking Women. The children of this new world have names like Dreamer and Hope and Loser, and everybody misses the old Earth.
There is an allegorical quality reminiscent of The Alchemist, in that the stories’ titles, like “Music Kids” and “Puberty Kids,” allude to the anthropological examination of each story’s subcultures, referencing The Wizard of Oz, “grow a pair!”, the humidity of Florida, the American Museum of Natural History, and David Bowie – and asking a disturbing question: what if our current culture is the height of humanity? This is a short length collection — 36 pages. There is more emphasis on how the cultural groups collectively represent some feature of the new humans, as there is little room to zoom in on an individual character and how they might deviate from the certainty of their society.
Swanson’s writing is both humorous and dark. In “Mars Presidents,” familiar politicians “holler about ugly people who can’t look pretty” and explain to the plebeians that “one day, the Presidents will go to Mars, too, but right now, people need leaders who can think clearly, and leaders […take…] a lot of oxygen to think.” In “Music Kids,” children die prematurely but find meaning through music, which “makes time last forever.” On Mars, people are malnourished and weak, but cling to the cultural relics of Earth in order to survive. The most striking story is probably “Puberty Kids,” in which puberty becomes something of an occasion. The entire community celebrates those who reach puberty with cakes that taste like dirt (but are meant to emulate chocolate cake). Survival becomes a thing to celebrate.
There is still a dreamlike quality in the children of the new Mars, although few of them survive to achieve their dreams in adulthood. In “Gun Boys,” gender roles still hold and boys like guns, policemen, and Stormtroopers. “Gun Boys dream,” and it is in these dreams that they live the way they wish they did. They dream of violence. In “Puberty Kids,” the children should have “hiked temperature rainforests, [..] walked up staircases, [..] kicked soccer balls” by the time they reached puberty. Although the human race is deprived in MARS, they do not become empty. Rather, in being aware of emptiness, they become human.
The people of the new human race remember a time when there was more to eat, more to dream, and more to survive on. They carry the burdens of their ancestors, who “drilled into [the Earth] and took stuff out…and then it was too late.” In the aftermath of apocalypse, the people of Mars remember Earth with a sense of loss. MARS is successful because of the human emotions that survive in the new race that thrives on Mars.