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Short Fiction Friday: “The Symphony of Ice and Dust” by Julie Novakova

REVIEW SUMMARY: A discussion/review of the longer of the three original works of fiction featured in the October 2013 issue of Clarkesworld. This issue also contains two works of classic reprint short fiction as well as nonfiction articles.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In humanity’s far-distant future an exploratory mission to the planet Sedna reveals the presence of a human visitation some 11,000 years earlier along with an even more surprising discovery.

PROS: Plausible science layered in accessible prose; world-building sans the info-dump; ideas that spark the imagination.
CONS: One abrupt moment that could have been teased out a little further.
BOTTOM LINE: My first experience with the work of Julie Novakova results in a story worth singling out for a solo review.  Novakova presents a plausible view of future space travel and exploration that abandons the standard space adventure tropes (of which I am admittedly a fan) while generating a level of daydream-inducing fiction that will remind some readers of the science fictional stories that made them a fan of the genre in the first place.

It is obvious right from the beginning of Novakova’s story that the humans presented in this short are of the post-human variety. While very obviously human they are of our distant future, augmented in ways that seem less science fictional with the advance of technology yet remain very much in our imaginations at this point in time. The reader is immediately struck by Novakova’s world building. There is none. Or rather the world is already built and the reader is dumped into a fully formed future. This works in large part because Julie Novakova presents a future that combines a great deal of plausible science with imaginative ideas. There are no info-dumps here. “The Symphony of Ice and Dust” is a short story with a generous word-count that manages with its very first revelation to ignite the kind of excitement indicative of a good adventure tale.

Chiarra is the initial protagonist, part of a group of visiting the planet Sedna to explore and ultimately create a musical piece from their experiences. Upon arrival, scans of the ice-covered planet reveal an ancient human craft buried in the ice and something even more ancient below that. When the expedition uncovers the human spacecraft, they are able to recover data and the story focus shifts to that of Theodora and her husband Dimitri who eleven-thousand years earlier were diverted from their return flight to Earth to investigate an unexpected alien discovery on Sedna.

The bulk of “The Symphony of Ice and Dust” is Theodora, or Dora’s, story and it is a compelling story indeed despite the lack of lasers and space battles and diverse alien cultures. The excitement is generated by a story structure that is a sure-fire hit: the discovery of something unexpected. What impressed this reviewer was the reminder that science fiction need not contain a great deal of outlandish, improbable adventure tropes to be filled with page-turning interest. Without meaning to direct criticism to that type of fiction, affectionately or unaffectionately known as “space opera”, it is impressive to read a story that might be more at home in the “hard sf” category that is wholly accessible to all readers while managing to stir dreams of traveling among the stars.

While presenting future humans who are in many ways different to 21st century homo sapiens, Novakova writes highly accessible characters. The reader never feels like he/she is in any way alien from the characters “on screen”. Instead they present in a highly compatible manner while being far advanced from the current state of humanity.

Julie Novakova’s story hits the right emotional notes without ever drifting close to being labeled “saccharine”. Like the recent film Gravity, the consequences and risks of travel into space are very real and are treated as such and the strength of Novakova’s story is that the sense of excitement and adventure are not sacrificed in the process.

“The Symphony of Ice and Dust” can be read here or listened to via audio podcast here.

And be sure to check out the rest of the October 2013 issue of Clarkesworld magazine as there is much more worth partaking of where this came from.

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