Saturday, July 22, 2023

Book Review: Promise by Christi Nogle

Promise is an upcoming collection of twenty-one stories written by Christi Nogle, a writer of science fiction, of which some are already published in periodicals and a few are originals. The publisher was gracious enough to provide me with an advance copy of the book through Netgalley for my honest feedback. I am not a sci-fi enthusiast, though occasionally I read a story or two, the last one being a collection of stories that plot the evolution of robots in fiction. While popular science books mark out the latest in science for me, science fiction helps me comprehend the extent of the impact of science in our personal lives and on human society as a whole. I approach science fiction with this perspective in mind, with the story and literature being an added bonus.

I took more time to read the two hundred pages of Promise than most of the books of the same length, and for the first time, I made notes while reading a book. There are two reasons for this, the first being the relevance of the stories of Christi Nogle to the era of rapidly advancing technological advances that we presently live in. The second reason is their complexity, though they appear deceptively simple when read for the first time. I had to re-read a few stories after reading the climax of them, and I had to revisit some of them again after reading another story to understand the features tying them together.

The stories of Promise don't possess the intricate world-building or earth-shattering stakes that we normally associate with typical science fiction. Most of the stories concern the private lives of common protagonists impacted by a new technology or gadget. To assess the large-scale repercussions for the world, the reader has to do an exercise in scaling them. This is one reason I call them deceptively simple. The stories also do a great job of tying up the psychology and pasts of their characters to the technology depicted in them, thereby making them more relatable and urgent to the reader.

The themes depicted in Promise are all over the place. Each story is unique if we consider the aspect that it chooses to highlight in terms of intention, theme, or plot structure. Reading them as a single collection bestows an experience that is highly taxing for imagination and intellect, while at the same time, the variety and anticipation of where the writer heads next make it difficult to put it down. So Promise was successful in putting the reader in me in a state of flux, deciding whether to put it down and visit it later or to forge ahead to explore the treasures lying ahead.

Most of the stories in the book are told in first-person narratives. Christi Nogle uses this very effectively by withholding vital information on the setting of the story and the nature of its characters until a later stage. Readers make mental pictures based on the ramblings of the narrator, and at a later stage, the writer pulls the rug out of their legs. It sometimes takes the entire story for the reader to fully comprehend the action, and sometimes even then doubts persist. It is difficult to appreciate Promise if the reader likes his plot points tied firmly by the end. Several stories end in an ambiguous manner, and the onus is on the reader to tie them up.

I would like to briefly summarise a few stories that I liked more than others. Cocooning, the opening story, is a body horror in which living beings get the power to share their personalities by imbibing each other. It gives interesting perspectives on individual identity in an advanced universe. The sharing of memories, dreams, minds, and bodies is often repeated in the stories in this collection. Most of the stories play with the concept of identity. Finishers is a story about a mother-son duo with a contract to do the finishing work on robots.

Flexible Off-Time is the story of a man who joins a retreat with subjective time to write a book on his father and gets trapped in it. An Account is an existential comedy about alternative timelines. Laffun Head is an interesting story about a communication device that connects with another world. Substance is a story that is truly epic and grand in its proportions, though it gets nasty at times. Viridian Quality and A Fully Chameleonic Foil are two short black comedies. Promise, the title story, closes the collection with an impressive plot that describes how even painstakingly created technology gets used to satisfy carnal desires.

Promise is an amazing collection of short stories that needs an adventurous reader to unlock its full potential. The stories, with their first-person narratives, ambiguous endings, and personal settings, may seem simple while reading, but a deeper look reveals several hidden layers.

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