The Real Absurd: Six Months, Three Days, Five Others by Charlie Jane Anders

Six Months, Three Days, Five Others is a collection of short fiction from Charlie Jane Anders, whose first sf novel All the Birds in the Sky recently won the 2017 Nebula Award. The six stories contained in this slim, charming volume were all originally published on Tor.com from 2010 to 2016, including the titular Hugo Award winning piece “Six Months, Three Days.”

The “five others” referred to in the title are “The Fermi Paradox is Our Business Model,” “As Good As New,” “Interstate,” “The Cartography of Sudden Death,” and “Clover.” All six stories share a certain ethos—a surreal approach to the mundane is one way of describing it—though little else connects them in specific, ranging as they do over various generic domains.

The shape and heft of this fine pocket-sized volume were the first things I noted about it. While I don’t often comment on the physical attributes of texts—after all, most hardbacks are interchangeable with other hardbacks—in this case it’s worth a mention. Six Months, Three Days, Five Others is compact and pleasant, surfaced smooth without a dustjacket and just about the size of my hand. The cover art by Yuko Shimizu is whimsical and evocative, much like the stories contained within.

“The Fermi Paradox is Our Business Model,” oldest of these collected works, introduces the volume and sets the tone: humorous but thought-provoking and strange. Our alien protagonist has a complicated relationship with his paramour and business partner; the result of that tension is that the pair accidentally reveal the current state of life in the universe to the surviving humans they encounter on an Earth they expected to be desolate. The idea of capitalism spread out across the universe—exploitative, driven, and inescapable—is the dark joke of “Fermi Paradox,” as it has both allowed a small section of humanity to survive their nuclear apocalypse but also resulted in the destruction of untold seed-civilizations through time and space. Anders focuses more on the mundanity of the inter-alien romantic drama and their hapless revelation to humanity than the cosmic questions, here, and that’s an odd delight.

In a similar vein, “As Good As New” takes on two tropes—the apocalypse and the three-wish genie—but the narrative focuses more on theater, stories, and relationships. The focal point, after all, is the rapport between the genie theater critic and the sole survivor of the apocalypse, an early-career playwright. Without the protagonist’s attention to building narrative, to pauses, to the gaps and pitfalls in stories about genies, the world would likely keep ending over and over again. Instead, she gets to write a fresh play and set the end-of-the-world clock back once more. For a tale with such big ideas, the end of the world and magic wishes, it maintains a small and slightly ironic scope, an attention to the individual person rather than the world.

“Interstate,” too, takes a grandiose science fictional idea and sets it mostly offscreen to explore instead how the patriarch’s combination of debt and mad-science body replacement affects the lives and feelings of his children, grandchildren, et cetera. Instead of a story of his genius we get a slightly-sideways look at a family where things happen like paid child actors, trying to find out the man’s secrets, sneaking into the reunion. The absurd and the regular mix in heights of slightly disorienting simplicity and humor. It’s both unsettling and charming at the same time. Anders’s concern with the relation between the protagonist and the father, particularly surrounding the father’s disapproval of the protagonist’s participation in a project that led to war atrocities, is handled with deft and almost invisible attention among the rest of the weirdness of the reunion.

As for the story that’s most open-ended and grand in theory but does the least, we have “The Cartography of Sudden Death.” The imagery is stunning: obelisks, thousands of retainers for thousands of lords for a grand unnamed Emperor, and so on. There are brutal regimes and wild murders and the tripping through time on the edges of sudden death that our protagonist becomes party to—but ultimately, she settles in a different time to do different work, and we won’t learn the outcome of all of this relentless messing with history. The implications are a bit nihilistic, but also somehow freeing. While the cosmos shifts, there’s still individual life, and that’s a different sort of thing than historical life: small but infinite.

I’ve discussed “Six Months, Three Days” before—but coming back to it with a fresh read was worth it. Being at a different place in my own life than I was when I first encountered this story does tilt the axis of my reading a bit, also: there’s something devastating about the conceit of the piece and how it maps onto reality. One person enters the relationship sure it will be the best thing in their life but also sure it will end badly from the first moment; the other enters knowing it ending badly is one option, a likely option even, but willing to do it for the happiness it’ll bring and the growth too. There’s no need for clairvoyance to make that a nastily real combination. She’s right, of course: the path is changeable, if a person works at it. But he’s not willing to do that work—instead, he just lets his life as he perceives it must happen, happen. The fantastical conceit of the piece allows Anders to make the point with evocative force.

Ending on “Clover,” after that, is more lighthearted. While it takes place in the world of All the Birds in the Sky, it’s readable on its own—a domestic piece about cats, struggling relationships, and luck. It, too, has an awareness of huge events occurring outside or around the story (magic!) but a mundane and often-absurd focus on the individual lives of these two men and their lucky cat. It’s the gentlest of the bunch and cleanses the palate after the trauma of “Six Months, Three Days.” Plus, it’s got cute queer domestic life that isn’t without problems, and I’m all for that.

All of these stories—from the most comedic to the least—share a certain irreverence and surrealism, an acceptance of the fact that life is utterly fucking strange whether you’re an alien on a business venture or a human girl who’s stuck as a cat. While the titular story is the most emotionally raw, it also has its moments of genuine and absurd humor. Anders has a unique and engaging approach to dealing with this uncomfortable reality, often by rendering it simultaneously outlandish and believable in the same moment.

It’s a delightful effect that makes for a varied but coherent reading experience in this tiny, pleasant volume—a pleasure to read as a text and to hold as an art object. I’d recommend it for anyone who appreciates the work of Charlie Jane Anders, but certainly for unfamiliar readers too as a solid starting-off point.

Six Months, Three Days, Five Others is available now from Tor Books.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone TellingClarkesworldApex, and Ideomancer.

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