Caitlin Horrocks’s second collection, Life Among the Terranauts, is compiled of humorous and tenacious stories that serve as a reminder that the flyover states are rife with folklore and intrigue. The sense of place matches the sense of wonder, a perfect amalgamation of geography and plot. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s masterpiece collection, American Salvage, given the subject matter and elegant craft, though Horrocks proves to be a bit brighter, the Midwestern grit filtered (for the most part) through a sunnier lens.
Life Among the Terranauts begins with three lengthy stories: “The Sleep,” “Norwegian for Troll,” and “Sun City.” If the order of a story collection is comparable to curating an album or mixtape, Horrocks here has front-loaded several of the greatest hits. The opener, “The Sleep,” was included in Best American Short Stories, and for good reason. Centered on the residents of the tiny Midwestern community of Bounty who embrace winter hibernation, “The Sleep” feels particularly appropriate for the age of social isolation. On its own, the premise is fun and timely, but it’s Horrocks’s patient pacing and willingness to see the town through years and years of change that gives the story its superb shape and ending.
“The Sleep” is also one of several in Life Among the Terranauts that showcases Horrocks as an undeniable master of the first-person plural. Whereas often this point of view can seem conceptual or essayistic, the author on multiple occasions deftly balances the lyrical panoramic energy of the multivocal narrator with individual characterization in such a way that these selections stand out.
In several stories, Horrocks provides darker tonal range, transitioning from speculative to realist narratives that reveal a more acute violence. Take “The Teacher,” for example, in which Trisha, a fourth-grade teacher in Michigan, reflects back on a former student, now grown up, who murders a stranger by throwing a brick off an I-75 overpass. It’s a haunting opening image—one the author renders in grim detail—but ultimately, it’s Trisha’s memories of the boy’s past behavior toward her that raises a bleak epiphany.
“On the Oregon Trail” is perhaps the outlier. Based on the original Oregon Trail computer game, it’s a quirky first-person account of a family’s journey westward that holds true to the game’s emphasis on decision-making, but also imagines the characters in real-life conditions. For those familiar with the series, it’s a funny story filled with Easter eggs. Yet, it doesn’t quite blend with the collection’s wider scope.
If Horrocks reveals any minor writerly tics, it is the tendency to draw awareness to the artifice of fiction. It’s an effective trick in isolation, but when compounded over several stories becomes a bit predictable, like a shooter’s favorite spot on the court. “23 Months” begins, “I met this guy at a party, is what happened. But that seems like a lousy way to start a story.” By the end, Horrocks expertly carries this meta-awareness full circle, but also saps its magic for the stories that follow. A later story, “Chance Me,” concludes, “It could even be a love story, if you looked at it from a certain angle.”
The title story concludes the collection on another satisfying speculative note. Following six researchers being paid a million dollars to live for two years in an artificial environment, “Life Among the Terranauts” introduces the crew on the verge of collapse. As they agree to opt out of the increasingly unsustainable terrarium without a payday, Igor, the one holdout whose access code they need to exit, forces all of them to remain and fight for survival. “We’d been chosen for fortitude, for pigheaded faith, as much as for skill. There was in all of us a streak of what ran so strongly through Igor. We had upset the equilibrium of our own lives on Old Earth, and we needed NovaTerra to put things right.”
Again, the protagonist often speaks for the group to provide some larger philosophical and moral queries, but it never feels forced, and the characters in the closer are perhaps the most memorable. Explorers trapped together might be a contemporary trope of climate fiction, but Horrocks has a fresh take, one that ties the whole collection together.
It’s tragic that short story collections are so often seen as an afterthought to the novel in terms of marketability and sales. While the novel demonstrates a cohesive project over a number of years, story collections often represent a lengthier chronology of artistic evolution and experimentation. The fourteen stories that make up Life Among the Terranauts not only reinforce Horrocks’s status as a maestro of short fiction, but also offer range in prose and style that feels, in some ways, riskier and more intimate. There’s much to be cherished in this shared space.
Life Among The Terranauts
By Caitlin Horrocks
Little Brown and Company
Published January 12, 2021
Aram Mrjoian is a visiting assistant professor in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University, an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, an associate fiction editor at Guernica, and a 2022 Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellow. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Electric Literature, West Branch, Boulevard, Gulf Coast online, The Rumpus, The Millions, Longreads, and many other publications. Find his work at arammrjoian.com