This Time, While We’re Awake by Heather Fowler
May 2013, Aqueous Books
*Reviewed by guest reader Jennifer Vosters
Heather Fowler’s 2013 collection is a tour de force of futurism with just enough familiarity to be chillingly compelling. It quite frankly exemplifies the best of dystopian fiction, a hip throwback to the classic spine-tingling genre popularized by giants like Bradbury. Though much dystopian literature has (in my humble opinion) lost its edgy creativity by becoming too mainstream, Fowler’s brand of sci-fi is pushing boundaries rather than daisies, making for an exciting and intelligent read.
If there were a singular theme to this collection, it could be the delicate and dangerous relationship between humans and their technology, toeing the age-old but increasingly pertinent line of how much is too much. Juggling child-silencing devices and love drugs, practice babies and memory erasers, Fowler’s characters are forever caught between improvement and impairment. But there’s also a distinctive feminist flavor in her descriptions of a future still plagued by – or imperfectly dealing with – questions of domestic violence, motherhood, infidelity, sexuality, gender, and exploitation. So perhaps This Time, While We’re Awake is concerned less with the tension between man and machine and more about the conflict between would and should: If we would go to any lengths to be the species we feel we ought to be, are we really willing – should we be willing – to make the sacrifices necessary to get there?
It’s difficult to summarize a series of shorts, but if you need to be tantalized let’s just say you’ll find a host of colorful characters like a sweet-talking transgendered sales rep who’s bested by a farmer, giant female jailers in charge of correcting male delinquents, mysterious creatures who demand blood sacrifice from humans, and a lovesick druggy desperate for her next hit of independence. But there’s also an elderly couple taking stock of their dwindling future, a doctor caught between defending his morals and protecting his past, and a writer unable to move on from the muse that abandoned her: people who might live down our street in twenty years. Hovering on the brink of our times – probably anywhere between ten and one hundred years into the future – her stories might horrify us if we didn’t catch a startling glimpse of ourselves under the surface. For it is through her well-crafted characters that Fowler pulls her audience into the future Earth, half-alien and half-homelike, while painting an achingly honest portrait of the human psyche. These are real people dealing with real problems that we ourselves face, but amplified to astonishing heights in a world with a dark side.
The variety among her sixteen pieces keeps the collection excitingly unpredictable, but the audience remains grounded through cohesion of tone, style, and mood. Fowler is dark without being bitter, and within her sobering messages are twists of humor to keep us buoyed against the heavier questions that can leave us feeling a bit uneasy. So if you are (like I am) an infrequent customer of the short story genre, I’d recommend careful pacing with this heavy-hitter; reading too many in a row can be a little draining, and with writing this good you won’t want to soften the punch. This Time, While We’re Awake will delight readers who like a good think and are mature enough for weighty, controversial themes and some explicit content.
Please note that I will be hosting a book blog tour for Heather Fowler in late May to celebrate the June release of her novel Beautiful Ape Girl Baby. If you are interested in Heather stopping at your blog, please let me know in the comments!
*Jennifer Vosters is a Milwaukee native and member of the Saint Mary’s College Class of 2016, graduating with an English major and minors in Theatre and Italian. She was cast in the 2016 Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival, performing in Pericles and The Tempest as part of the Young Company. She is currently reading The Rover by Aphra Behn, An Actor Prepares by Konstantin Stanislavski, and Ulysses – at least parts of it (whew!) – by her beloved James Joyce.