Young People Read Old SFF

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies

Brooke Bolander

Despite a comparatively short career thus far, Brooke Bolander has racked up an impressive number of award nominations: two Nebulas, two Hugos, a Sturgeon, a Locus, a World Fantasy, and a BSFA. Bolander is a natural choice for this project. But which story to chose? I settled on "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies"; it was nominated for a Hugo, Locus, and World Fantasy Award. Surely such an oft-nominated piece will please my Old Folks?

"Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies" can be found here.

Despite the bullet points, this (very short) story reads almost like a poem. The plot is almost nonexistent (murdering rapist picks the wrong female and lives to regret it), but the style is what makes it work. I have mixed feelings about it, though. It's a revenge fantasy, but that's only true because the protagonist has fantastical powers and abilities. Is she supposed to be speaking for all the other anonymous victims left unclaimed in the morgue? I can't tell.

I like this. Short and savoury.

I don't recognise the un-named narrator. A phoenix? A goddess? It doesn't matter. And besides, it's right: we are told up front that victims don't have names. The wings and the egg tell us what kind of being is telling the story. And the teller uses things we know about stories and storytelling so that other things don't have to be said.

Just one clumsy sentence at the end that I had to read three times:

My sisters and I will sing it—all at once, all together, a sound like a righteous scream from all the forgotten, talked–over throats in Eternity’s halls—and it will be the last story in all of Creation before the lights finally blink out and the shutters go *bang*.

"...forgotten, talked-over throats..." Hmm.

But I like it that all together the unnamed victims get the last word. Balances the creation and ties it off nicely.

(That's two good stories for voice in a row.)

I have read and reread this one several times – I lost count. It’s that strong.

A concentrated dose of revenge fantasy, radical feminism, and political theory wrapped up in something resembling a story, which will not, I feel reasonably sure, be left in a ditch.

The rage-filled writing brings the thing to life and to live in my head in a way that nothing has since Tiptree’s “The Women Men Don’t See” (and that is very high praise). It won’t change my life the way the Tiptree did, it’s 40 years too late for that, but my admiration is natheless unbounded.

I’m not sure that there are any actual characters in this piece, but what it has in their place, not exactly stereotypes, not exactly archetypes, is exactly what it needed.

It is a story that needed to be told, and I am glad someone has told it.

_Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies_ is a somewhat disjointed revenge story from the point of view of a deific being (I get the impression of Erinyes or angels of vengeance, given the wings) that had been (presumably) raped and (definitely) murdered while playing at mortality, by one of the plethora of “nice young men of means” that we’ve seen endlessly committing atrocities in the real-world news. It’s disjointed because the main character claims not to want to dwell on or discuss the murderer (though he’s still spoken of a lot) and speaks of her anger about the victims never being named (though she, too, is never named) but bounces back and forth, telling pieces of the story in a sort of fitful way.

As a story, it is not much. Being is murdered, being is reborn, being comes and seeks deific revenge with her sisters and will scream this story until the end of time. It’s got a lot of emotion in it, emotions that are very familar, again, for anyone having seen all those same real-life stories.

I guess I can sort of see this as a kind of literary primal scream against all the examples of the women abused and murdered and rendered just background to the prosecution of the Nice Young Men. It’s a strong statement, but at least to someone with my background and experience, it’s sort of preaching to the choir; I’ve heard this anger, in a very real-world context, many times.

Addendum: In tone, this rather reminded me somehow of Corwin hunting down the murderer of Lorraine in _The Guns of Avalon_. Something about the phrasing called that sequence to mind.

Superb short story. Angry, angry, raging angry, sad, powerful and powerless, disquieting and comforting.

The basic disjunction --- reclaiming a silenced voice, giving agency when that has been taken away, a fantasy of appropriate revenge.

The voice --- contemporary, vernacular; a fierce incisive clarity.

It's a mood piece --- constructed so that what is most vivid is the reality, violence against women, endemic, here, now. The narrator's inability to protect herself, in stark unstated contrast to her post-existential agency, is unexplained, and necessary for the piece to work. It is a chasm between the actual deaths of women --- ragefully illuminated, in vivid detail and occasional bullet point --- and the science fiction of the retribution, a retribution whose catharsis is provisional. There is little comfort in the narrators continued existence, and even less in the tornado of justice and infinite agony; 'No honey, it isn't OK'.

The vignette screams the question of how to speak of lives reduced to nothing but their status as victim. Its disquieting potency rests on its inability to answer this --- and not just for actual women, in this world.

In the gaps between the fantastic and the quotidian, we read: Fiction isn't the answer, the absence of violence is. (A different kind of review would point out how it speaks to Swirsky's dinosaur, struggling with the question in that title.)

I read Brooke Bolander's tale with interest, trying to recall which mythical species her protagonist might represent. As far as I can tell, the nameless character is a harpy, as are her sisters. One remark she makes seems to reference the Gorgons as well (in explaining her choice to take a mortal, quasi-human form, she mentions among its benefits that "hardly anyone ever tries to cut your head off out of some moronic heroic obligation to the gods." In any case, our harpy/Gorgon/what-have-you decides to play at being human, and tragedy results.

The concept of creatures from ancient myth as existing somehow outside of time and space is nothing new to readers of speculativefiction. Nor is the idea that they might, from time to time, opt to inhabit the modern mortal world clothed in human (or nearly human) flesh and be subject to the constraints thereof. For a pop-culture example from my own generation (remember, "old" people here), one might look to the film and later musical_Xanadu_, in which one of the Muses takes human form in modern times.

Personally, I am fascinated by such tales, be they cheesy like Xanadu, or edgy and a bit dark like this tale. As an example of "new" SF, I found it engaging and thought-provoking. Bolander's evocative imagery doesn't hurt, either. The mental picture of five harpies in a 1967 Mercury Cougar rolling down the open road, wings and talons not *quite* entirely invisible if one knows precisely where to look, is difficult to dislodge, and I'm strangely okay with this.

Read the story and tell me you aren't, too.

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