This Week in Short Fiction



Tomorrow night, we denizens of planet Earth will gather with friends and family, or with complete strangers at a bar somewhere, or with a mob of people in an over-crowded and freezing square, or we will stay home alone, taking a bubble bath and with a bottle of wine (or two), and enjoy our solitude because we’re so over 2016, and we will all say goodbye to a year that has unanimously been ranked by mankind as a touch worse than the year in which that meteorite wiped out the dinosaurs. So, to mark this momentous occasion, we have two stories this week that look at the past and the future and, in keeping with the general mood, will make you laugh to keep from crying.

The first, Kelly Ramsey’s “First Citizen of Mars,” up at Catapult, follows a woman who has been isolated on Mars as part of an experiment by her boyfriend, Elon Musk, who is almost definitely a fictionalized version of the Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX fame. The woman, Kelly (which, if you recall, is also the author’s name), must keep a journal of her thoughts while on Mars or else Elon will restrict her food. The product is a beautiful jumble of musings on obscure scientific experiments, memories of the natural world on Earth, and reminiscences of the peaceful moments in her past alongside the fraught ones. Running beneath the deep interiority of Kelly’s journal is a worry about love and life—about finding love or not, and about all the “should’s” in life.

I enjoy a luxuriant lack of responsibility on Mars. I spend whole hours remembering a little red squirrel climbing a tree, or swimming across a clear lake cradled by pines, or Nick in a hat making breakfast on a rented camp stove in the shadow of the Andes. Nothing so green as the Andes exists anywhere. But if you quit your job, my mother said, how will you—

You’ve heard of the smelly T-shirt experiment, I said. I will find. Someone. To love. Me.

Did you, I said, love me, Elon?

Because you’re the subject of this experiment, we can’t discuss our personal relationship, Elon said. It’s not appropriate.

Kelly Ramsey’s prose builds and bends to the lyric at the right moments, lending brief vignettes a gravitas of mythology, and then she will jab to the left with a concise sentence or two about something trivial, like wishing she could FaceTime from Mars with Hilton Als, effectively undercutting the heaviness and injecting an absurdist humor into the story. “First Citizen of Mars” is a reflection on the struggles and beauties of living on Earth and with other humans, and the juxtaposition of Martian science experiments with the mundanity of human relationships makes us wonder how space colonies can be possible when we can’t even understand our own hearts and minds.

Our second story this week also comes from Catapult, from an installment of its column The Magpie titled “In Which the Magpie Delivers the (Fake) News from the Meeting of the Electoral College.” In this iteration, the anonymous author imagines a world in which the recent Electoral College vote went differently, in which the electors “changed their votes to someone better.”

Once the votes were changed to someone better, a big wind came up and blew that whole other family and the cabinet-that-never-was to a rocky island somewhere far away where they had to learn to survive by their wits and their physical abilities. The island situation was not televised.

The piece is funny, wishful, and hyperbolic, with all the people of Earth realizing that global warming is real and coming together to try to mediate the damage we’ve done to the planet, and with all the “grotesquely wealthy people” finally recognizing that they don’t have to be quite so greedy and thus releasing some of their chokehold on the financial system. Which would be great, of course, but the absurd earnestness with which the story is written highlights the improbability of such large-scale change, regardless of who is president. While the story certainly has a satirical edge, at the core of it is a heartfelt fear for our planet and the people on it, and a message that we will just have to go on, live our daily lives, love each other, and try to do the next best thing, this year and in all the years after.

They hated one another sometimes, sure, but in the way you hate your siblings sometimes, annoyingly aware that you share DNA forever and always have. Astronomy became a popular pastime, in part because it suggested that, if our vantage points and the stars were reversed, we might see ourselves from way out in space not being assholes. We liked that, because we were tired at the end of the day and we weren’t sure if we had gotten anything right.


Logo art by Max Winter.

Claire Burgess’s short fiction has appeared in Third Coast, Hunger Mountain, and PANK online, among others. Her stories have received special mentions in the Pushcart Prize and Best American anthologies, but haven’t actually made it into one yet. She’s a graduate of the Vanderbilt University MFA program, where she co-founded Nashville Review. She lives in Pittsburgh by way of the deep South and says things on Twitter @Clairabou_. More from this author →