A Review of Promise

Paul Kincaid on a collection of short stories by Christi Nogle

The pounding like someone knocking on the door of my cell, it doesn’t end.

— Christi Nogle, ‘Promise’
Cover art by Flame Tree Studio

Quoting the last line of the last story in Promise (Flame Tree Press, 2023) by Christi Nogle does not, cannot, count as a spoiler because, as that hanging sentence informs us: it does not end. The stories gathered here may promise much, but resolution is not part of the deal.

And that, I think, is the point. Christi Nogle’s stories conduct us insistently towards the precipice, but it is up to us to step over the edge. And as you are being ushered gently towards the drop you are saying to yourself, wait, do I want to dwell on this part of Nogle’s imagination, I’m not going there, I’m…

Science fiction asks us, repeatedly, what it means to be human. It is one of the great questions of the genre, it is what aliens and robots and intelligent computers are there to represent. And there are aliens and robots and intelligent computers in these stories, lots of them. But if Nogle is asking what it is to be human, I’m not sure she likes the answer, or perhaps I’m not sure we would like her answer.

Her stories are full of characters in the moment of transition: aliens becoming human, humans becoming alien. But invariably they are disconnected, disembodied, disturbed and disturbing. It would probably be wrong to label this collection as horror, too simplistic, avoiding something of the weird beauty of the stories. But at the same time they are stories designed to discomfort, to unsettle our notions about who we are and what we might become. They are stories of change, and change is always uneasy.

They are also stories that avoid looking the horrific in the eye. We do not confront the disturbance directly, the unpleasantness is not painted in lovingly garish colours. Indeed, things appear quite ordinary. As we look into a mirror, a favourite device in several of these tales, there is nothing nasty to see there until you become aware of some unexplained movement glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. And that’s generally where it stays, it doesn’t need to come centre stage, it doesn’t need to draw attention to itself. It is only later, often indeed after the story has drawn to a close, that you look back and wonder what exactly have I just read? And then: oh…? And again: ohhhh!

A writer, working on the complex biography of her father, buys time in a simulation. Here, away from distraction, she will have 30 days to complete her book, while in the real world outside a matter of a mere hour or so will pass. But after 30 days the simulation does not end. She begins to revise her text (60 days), and expand it (100 days), and add in her own experiences of growing up with her father (300 days), until the book has grown to thousands of pages. And somewhere, outside this plain room, there are creatures trying to attract her attention, trying to get her to hear them.

Such isolation, closed off against a world where mystery awaits, recurs throughout the collection. There is the underground workshop where a mother and her daughter give robots a human appearance for their rich overlords on the surface above. There is the spaceship on its way to Pluto whose crew become infected with some spore from the beginning of time. And there is the bored suburban couple with their two dogs who find themselves transported to an oddly featureless room where all their needs are catered for. As the husband frets about their imprisonment, the wife finds herself changing inexplicably, eventually absorbing into her body first the two dogs and then her husband.

That transformation, weird and inexplicable as it might be, is the motif that runs through most of these stories. Two women happen upon the body of a camper out in the wilderness, and then reveal themselves to be something other than fully human. A girl meets with her mother, only to learn that the mother has been granted the ability to travel back in time and change her life, something that she has done countless times. The girl must come to terms with the fact that she wasn’t in previous iterations of her mother’s life, and won’t be in future iterations, at least until she is granted the same time travel boon. Another mother and her daughter travel back in time from an oddly idyllic future to meet the girl’s father, only for the meeting to go strangely wrong.

Transformation is something that seems to happen all the time, but it is never easy, never reliable. Generally, Nogle’s characters have little or no control over what they were, and even less over what they become. Even the appearance of control – alien earthworms transforming themselves into something almost human – is not always reliable.

In a rather dark satire on Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri, a smart home assistant takes on first the voice and then the appearance of the protagonist’s recently dead wife, and steadily comes to consume his life. Another dead woman finds that she can travel forward in time to meet one of her descendants, only to learn that she is of no interest to that descendant unless she can travel further into the future and then return with news of new technology.

This collection of 22 stories, all bar four coming from the last two or three years, introduces us to characters who don’t quite know themselves. Perhaps they never can, because they are always on the point of discovering that they are something other than what we expect, or else are on the point of turning into something other than what they expect. It is a view of life that is unreliable and uncomfortable, because life is always changing, life is always just beyond our ability to manage and to grasp. And these are stories about that inability. One character talks of seeing the world from a child’s viewpoint, ‘Pure feeling, unshaped by experience’. And that feels uncannily like what Nogle is doing again and again in these stories. Neither we the readers nor the characters themselves have the experience to fully grasp what is happening here, and so we get sensations and feelings rather than explanations and descriptions. Understanding comes later, often when we have turned the last page and look back on what we have read. That is when the chill comes. ∎

Paul Kincaid is a Clareson Award–winning critic and frequent Interzone contributor. He has published What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest, Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood: A Critical Companion, and two books in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series: Iain M. Banks (winner of the 2017 BSFA Non-Fiction Award) and Brian W. Aldiss.

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