Popular culture tends to ignore short stories. I’m not sure why—in the age of e-readers, audiobooks, airport paperbacks, and people reading books on their phone, you’d think a condensed narrative form would catch on. Regardless, Helen Phillips’s Some Possible Solutions is packed with more worlds, ideas, characters, and stunning feats of storytelling than any novel I’ve read this year.
Set in a variety of near-future dystopias, each story explores a different “what if?” question. What if you could discover the exact date of your death? Would you want to? “There are those who wish to know, and there are those who don’t wish to know,” Phillips writes. In the opening story “The Knowers,” Ellie wants to know, but her husband Tem doesn’t. When Ellie finds out, she must bear the burden of the when—but not the how—of her impending death:
Isn’t it macabre to know that we’ve lived the date of our death many times, passing by it each year as the calendar turns? And doesn’t it perhaps deflate that horror just a bit to take the mystery out of it, to actually know, to not have every date bear the heavy possibility of someday being the date of one’s death?
I do not know the answer to this question.
April 17, 2043. The knowledge heightened my life. The knowledge burdened my life. I regretted knowing. I was grateful to know.
The other seventeen stories share the poignancy and surrealism of the first. In one story, it’s possible to see through people’s skin. In others, there are twin-sister strippers, alien hermaphrodites, and a life-size humanoid sex toy. In “The Doppelgängers” a new mother finds exact copies of herself around town in a spine-chilling portrait of new motherhood, of how easy it is to lose oneself during those sleepless first months. Thus Phillips holds a mirror up to society, pushing us to think critically about the idiosyncrasies of modern life.
Phillips wrote the collection over a period of ten years: through her marriage, the births of her children, and the loss of a family member. While her writing doesn’t feel autobiographical (and how could it, given these stories), it’s clear Phillips has firsthand knowledge of these experiences on an emotional level, grounding even her most far-flung and surreal ideas in a relatable, human reality.
The collection closes with “Contamination Generation,” set in a steel-and-concrete world where only the wealthy have access to nature. When a poor family spies on their rich neighbors through a hole in the wall—just to get a glimpse of their grass—and receive a white seed as a gift for their five-year-old daughter, will she see it as a sign of hope or a reminder of her limitations? “Being happy, that’s how you thank your parents. That’s all you have to do.”
Like Margaret Atwood and Lorrie Moore, Phillips has a knack for combining the strange, the speculative, and the mundane into an unpredictable array of stories. Like our best thinkers and futurists, she has the audacity to extrapolate the perhaps-possible, to explore potential answers to some of our deepest, unspoken questions.
FICTION – SHORT STORIES, SPECULATIVE
Some Possible Solutions by Helen Phillips
Published May 31, 2016
Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Fiction Writers Review, The Rupture, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.