Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #79 of 107: “The Unmistakable Smell of Wood Violets” by Angélica Gorodischer

I’ve been getting behind in my reviews of the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction. The discussion group is now on story 81. I don’t want to flame out on this project, now that I’m getting so close to the end. But I’ve also been worrying about publishing too much and not having enough worthy things to say about these stories. Once this project is over I’m not going to commit to reviewing large anthologies story by story. I think reporting on reading stories of quality will be more important than reporting on reading in quantity.

“The Unmistakable Smell of Wood Violets” by Angélica Gorodischer, which was first published in 1985, is a well-written, and quite charming story about a global civilization that has grown up after the fall of our global civilization. For example, the 79 Independent States of North America have only become recently reunited, under an aged bit-part video actor named Jack Jackson-Franklin. The U.S.A. is now a third-world country.

The story setup follows worldwide gossip about a transsexual woman astronaut living in Rosario, a former territory of Argentina, who will fly an ancient preserved spaceship to the edge of the universe.

We are told in this new civilization gun-powder no longer exists but magic does work. That Rosario is so poor that its citizens had to go in together to buy a clock, one of two in the country. The spaceship launched at 5:45am and returned at 6:11am the same day.

The person who is most interested in this news is Her Gracious and Most Illustrious Virgin Majesty Ekaterina V, Empress of Holy Russia. Most of the charm of this story comes from describing the new political orders around the world.

Gorodischer’s prose reminds me of a Bob Dylan song, “Desolation Row” and vaguely remembered hippie novels from the 1960s.

This story is told almost like a fable, a fantasy. I encounter that voice often in translated stories. I wonder if it’s a popular narrative style in South America? Here is the astronaut’s report of what the edge of the universe was like.

For some reason, time dilation worked backward in this story, and the astronaut aged on her 26-minute voyage, rather than the people on Earth. The unnamed astronaut marries and has a son, and when he’s born a green shoot grew out of the ground. I’m not sure what this signifies, other than it’s a sign of renewal in nature.

Angélica Gorodischer gives us another perspective on science fiction. I can see why the VanderMeers liked this story. However, I wonder if it’s not anti-SciFi? It feels like a naturalist or humanist take on the absurdity of the hubris of science fiction.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/27/22

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