Fantasy Writer Rachel Swirsky has published over fifty short stories in venues including The New Haven Review, Tor.com and Clarkesworld Magazine. Her speculative fiction has been nominated for most of the genre’s major awards, including the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award, and in 2010, she won the Nebula Award for her novella “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window.” She holds a master’s degree in fiction from the Iowa Writing Workshop at the University of Iowa. Her second collection, HOW THE WORLD BECAME QUIET: MYTHS OF THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE, came out from Subterranean Press at the end of September.
Ownership: A Romance
An Exploration of Rachel Swirsky’s Eros, Philia, Agape by Grace Williams
I remember realizing a little while back that I had loved the land I grew up on so strongly because I had a sense of ownership over it. In feeling able to claim something as mine, I was free to love it. This was something of a revelation for me, and I felt slightly unnerved by the fact that the things I was most attached to were things I considered as undisputedly mine. Recently, I picked up Rachel Swirsky’s Eros, Philia, Agape, and was surprised to find hidden in its pages a similar discovery. Swirsky writes, “He wasn’t sure he’d ever seen a love like that, a love that did not want to hold its object in its hands and keep and contain it” (Swirsky 34). Reading these words, I was struck by Swirsky’s ability to make a present of her epiphanies, gift-wrapping them in the fabric of her story. Our language is colored with possession: I love my family, my work, my art. Frequently, when talking about things we love, we claim them through language. In Swirsky’s story, her language both possesses the narrative of romance as well as abandoning it.
Swirsky’s story tracks the footsteps of this possession and abandonment. Even though her story is set in a futuristic world with beautiful robots and talking houses, Swirsky’s characters are relatable through their fears and desires. The cast of characters each stepping up in turn to display their role in the progression of the plot: Adrianna a women dealing with the aftermath of family abuse, creating a Human Robot, Lucian, their adoptive child Rose adding to Adrianna’s catalogue of possessions. Ultimately, their love story culminates in Lucian’s struggle for autonomy. The strange landscape of her writing opens up the space to question the operations of our own society.We see that her protagonist Adriana is “famished for the whole gourmet meal of existence” (Swirsky 5). The need to consume the world, to metabolize it and make it part of ourselves is one that is very common in our own society. Swirsky transfers this desire into her futuristic world, and consequently familiarizes her readers with her creation. Her story is a provocative, well-crafted metaphor that challenges our perceptions of relationships between the self and society. By objectifying human forms (Lucian the robot, Rose the child), Swirsky highlights the ways in which identity is constructed from ownership.
Adriana’s lifestyle – the house that takes care of her needs, the construction of a robot lover – is not completely foreign material. We have seen prototypes of this science-fiction realm before. However, it is the haunting presence of her dead father, her loneliness, her neediness, that make Adriana a character who reaches out of this warped world with a familiar face. Swirsky’s words cradle the identities of her characters, proffering them up for the reader’s inspection. We see Adriana observing her married friends and feeling horribly excluded in her third-wheel identity. In describing her separation, Swirsky writes, “She felt reduced to two dimensions, air-brushed, and then digitally grafted onto the form of whoever it was who should have been there” (Swirsky 7). Without a partner Adriana feels incomplete. Possession and in turn possessing gives her an identity. For all that this story is part of the science-fiction genre; it is really a love-story. Or rather several love-stories tied together: Adriana and her robot Lucian, Lucian and his adopted daughter Rose, even Fuoco’s (Adriana’s jealous parrot) enters into the web of relationships. Each one of them is afflicted by love and by the difficulties of claiming another living being. At the center of it all beats the unrelenting heart of possession. The true brilliance of Swirsky’s storytelling is revealed in her ending. When we reach it, we realize that the story could not have ended any other way; that everything beforehand had been leading to this moment, this last period. In order to claim his autonomy Lucian reboots his system. Going off into the desert, he decides to grow himself again from stretch, to claim an identity away from society. Interestingly enough, this transformation is marked by his loss of speech. Through his inability to communicate, he loses the ability to claim ownership. He tells Adriana, “I need to discover the shape of the thoughts that are my own. I need to know what I am” (Swirsky 51). However, Lucian’s desire to evolve completely autonomous from societal influences still necessitates a complete claiming of the self. Which leads us to the heart of the story: Adriana’s own inability to come to terms with her father’s death, with the hidden pain of her past. We realize that Adriana’s desire to own and be owned reflects her inability to
Adriana cannot identify herself beyond the classifications of her past. In reading Swirsky’s Eros, Philia, Agape, I was entranced by how well Swirsky portrays the ways in which relationships define identity. Her story is marked by a series of disconnections between characters. Lucian leaves Adriana and Rose, Fuoco, Adriana’s bird feels replaced by Lucian when he enters the house, and above it all, Adriana’s initial loss of her father. Each of these instances is followed by an acute identity crises, although they manifest in different ways. Rose desperately tries to act like Robot in order to cling onto Lucian’s presence. Adriana orders the production of Lucian after her father’s death, effectively filling his absence. After Lucian leaves, she flees to her sisters house, needing a new setting to compensate for her loss. Fuoco the bird, becomes desolate and unkempt, no longer able to take care of himself when he is no longer Adriana’s sole companion. Identity is revealed to be mercurial and dependent on others, once again leading the reader back to this theory of possession. At the crux of her story, the robot Lucian grapples with identifying love: “He loved those things, and yet they were things. He had owned them. Now they were gone. He had recently come to realize that ownership was a relationship. What did it mean to own a thing? To shape and contain it? He could not possess or be possessed until he knew” (Swirsky 16). Swirsky does not answer these questions. Instead she gives them into the safe keeping of the reader. The story itself suffers from an identity crises because it is without a tangible resolution. She ends the story with the image of Lucian alone in the desert, decompressing his identity in the hopes of becoming something new. He has been manufactured and controlled by a human-centric environment and longs to understand whether or not he can find an identity that is purely robot. She leaves her readers with this last question, is it possible to create an identity from nothing?
Through her work, Rachel Swirsky has captured fragments of our own social and personal dilemmas and transformed them into a fantastic and fantastical narrative. This story is a study in the intricacies of autonomy, of relationships. It leaves us with the uneasy question of whether or not we own our individual identities.