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'Tender' Stories Are A Feast Of Ideas

Sofia Samatar's duology of novels, 2013's A Stranger in Olondria and last year's The Winged Histories, took place in a mythic land of Olondria — a place where words are equal to religion, politics, and magic in the power they hold over people. It's one of the most dreamlike and far-flung settings in contemporary fantasy, and it's netted Samatar a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, and the John W. Campbell Award. But in Tender, Samatar's debut collection of short stories, she doesn't stray so far afield. Instead, the majority of the book's twenty sumptuous tales takes place here on Earth — although not always the Earth we might recognize.

Tender is structured as two halves: The first ten stories are grouped under the banner "Tender Bodies," the final ten under "Tender Landscapes." It's not an arbitrary division. The book kicks off with "Selkie Stories Are for Losers," a story first published in 2013 that remains one of Samatar's best loved pieces. And for good reason: Riffing on the profusion of fantasy stories in recent years that feature selkies — the were-seals of Irish and Scottish legend — "Selkie Stories" brings a winking self-awareness of the genre into an eerily poignant coming-of-age drama set in modern-day America.

"Ogres of East Africa" stretches the canvas much further, chronicling a Kenyan assistant on a safari whose job is to catalog the mythical beings being hunted. Samatar loves her monsters, and "Ogres" serves as both an exercise in creature-creation and a wry commentary on imperialism. Her political chops are even sharper on "How to Get Back to the Forest," set in an insidiously utopian, mandatory training camp where teenagers are conditioned for life in the ultra-institutional near-future. From story to story, Samatar masterfully switches from plush, ornate prose to lean, crisp dialogue laced with acidic humor. "Every Child at Camp!" is the slogan at the heart of "Forest," and it rings with chilling satire of classic science fiction as well as the punch of contemporary young-adult fiction.

"How to Get Back to the Forest," with its jarring mix of human cruelty and natural beauty, also serves as a subtle segue from "Tender Bodies" to "Tender Landscapes." In "Meet Me in Iram," a meditation on the lost desert city mentioned in the Qur'an and One Thousand and One Nights — as well as H. P. Lovecraft's work — morphs into an intimate rumination on ancestry and the power of names. It also veers into autobiography; many of the facts of the narrator's life line up with the author's own, including her African heritage and her time spent at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

That same dynamic between personal truth, literary history, and imaginative reflection — a kind of speculative memoir — drives "Cities of Emerald, Deserts of Gold." "My mother was born in North Dakota, my father in Somalia; both fled those vast and empty landscapes," the narrator says, again drawing a parallel with Samatar's own life. (Her father, Said Sheikh Samatar, was a noted Somali-American author and scholar.) The Wizard of Oz and Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities provide fuel for her poetic reverie on migration, restlessness, and the mundane magic of everyday life. Those themes resurface in "The Red Thread," the book's final installment, a post-apocalyptic story that ponders the purity of a possible tomorrow, ravaged by economic collapse, where the dissolution of political borders has altered our ideas of national identity and immigration.

Tender's longest story is also a science fiction tale set in the future — and like "The Red Thread," it toys with the ambiguity between dystopia and utopia. Told from the perspective of a child named Agar Black Hat, who lives in an extraterrestrial colony after cataclysmic climate change and a universal draft have forced a sect of religious pacifists from Earth, the story is a feast of ideas. It's reminiscent of vintage Ursula K. Le Guin in its combination of social science and hard sci-fi, even as it probes the nature of belonging and belief.

The book's beating heart, though, is its title story. "Tender" starts out with a clever play on words — "tender" is used as a noun, as in, one who tends — and employs some tricky unreliable narration and splintered points-of-view. But Samatar's virtuoso flourishes of form serve a higher purpose: They couch a quietly devastating account of a woman who gave up her life as a career woman and mother to become a cyborg, one who, alone, tends to a radioactive waste facility which she may never leave. While Samatar slowly unspools her character's reasons for leaving her former life — delivering a primer on the haunting philosophies and damaged psyches of the scientists who gave us nuclear power along the way — "Tender" redefines the emotional power and literary heft that speculative fiction can convey. As does Tender as a whole.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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