This week, we have two stories of time machines and space stations, but mostly of people who clean up messes. Amber Sparks’s second collection of short stories, The Unfinished World, published on Monday by Liveright, is a vivid and imaginative blend of sci-fi and fantasy, magical realism and surrealism. Her stories resist being contained in one box, instead overflowing the box and getting all over the floor. And in today’s two stories from the collection, she takes us to space, through time, and to places even more unexpected.
“Janitor in Space” (read it at American Short Fiction) is about exactly what it sounds like: a janitor in space. The protagonist is a woman employed to clean up after the astronauts on a space station, and Sparks’s imagination shines in the descriptions of the particular cleaning challenges in zero gravity:
The astronauts are good but unclean, thinks the space janitor. Like the astronaut who left liquid salt floating in little globs all over the kitchen today. Like the lady astronauts who leave bloody tampons unsecured and spill bits of powder into the air. Like the male astronauts who leave their dirty underwear drifting around their cabin modules, their worn-through tube socks smelling of cheese and old syrup. And the dead skin flakes—so many flakes she wonders how any skin could be left to wrap all that muscle and bone.
Sparks is fantastic about pointing out the things we don’t usually pay attention to, things like the ubiquity of dead skin flakes, things like janitors. This particular janitor is a quiet woman with a dark past who avoids interaction with the astronauts. She hasn’t come to space for adventure; she’s come to space to escape humans, to be left alone. The story is short, but dense and powerful, less an exploration of outer space than of loneliness, pain, and a strange kind of peace and healing:
She feels happiest near the deep green shadows pooled in the corners of the station, listening to the low hum against the endless silence of the stars. This feels safer than God. It feels honest. It feels removed from any human notion of heaven.
Another story from the collection, “The Men and Women Like Him” (read it at Guernica), is about a different sort of janitor. The invention of time machines has presented its own set of unique difficulties: namely, keeping well-meaning “time pirates” from interfering in the past and creating potentially apocalyptic time paradoxes. The job of the Cleaners is to go back in time and make sure history happens as it should:
It’s a difficult, unrewarding job, with shitty pay and benefits. Sure, you get to See the Centuries!—like the brochure says. That’s what hooked him. But all you see are the horrors of history. And all you do is stop people from stopping them.
The protagonist, Hugh, has made sure that Jesus dies on the cross, Hitler survives till his eventual suicide, the young princes are quietly murdered in the Tower, the pox blankets arrive to the natives. And it’s not only the big historical events that can’t be corrected. Something as small as going back a couple days to save your infant daughter is also barred. It’s the brilliant reversal of the old, clichéd question, “what would you do if you had a time machine?” It makes the unchangeability of the past even more cruel with its dangling carrot of possibility, the potential to save loved ones, save yourself, save the world, but at the risk of ending it:
Sometimes he wonders if it would really be so bad, letting people flood into history like a tidal wave and sweep away the worst of it. Sure, the paradoxes would destroy us, but so what? Did a world that let happen the Holocaust and Hiroshima and the Trail of Tears and Stalin and Genghis Khan and Pol Pot deserve to be spared?
That’s the haunting question that lies under Sparks’s story, made all the more haunting because it applies to us today, even without time machines. Because although the Cleaners live in a world where they allow atrocities to happen, they’re in effect allowing them for the second time. The first time they’re allowed, the first time they’re not stopped, is as they happen in the present, and the people who allow them are us.
In an interview with American Short Fiction, Sparks says she’s always been “interested in the marginalia, in the periphery of the stories we tell.” This is readily apparent in Unfinished World. Sparks writes a story set on a space station, but instead of focusing on the intrepid astronauts, she tells the story of the janitor. She creates a time machine, which begs for heroics and grand adventures, but Sparks is more interested in the people who have to clean up after the heroics, who have to put history back to rights and preserve the past’s tragedies. Sparks’s stories take us in unexpected directions, often playing with familiar ideas and tropes and bending them in new ways. She shows us the things in the margins, the story under the story, and, at least in these two stories, the people we take for granted, but who are cleaning up after us all the time.