I love a light piece of science fiction, and “Penelope Waits” delivers in spades, from the opening monologue about Penelope and her suitors, through to the most optimistic take on alien abduction I’ve seen in prose.
The main character, Cindy, has a sharp mind, a mediocre job, and a cheating boyfriend. Her cynical narration has just enough bite, without succumbing to jaded apathy. In fact, this is a remarkably hopeful, sweet story. When Ralph reports that he’s been abducted by aliens, she assumes he’s spent the week with another girl. When she discovers the truth, her love of literature (and the textbook from the course she’s taking, having gone back to school to better herself) help her recognize the opportunity to strike off on her own adventure.
Though this is a humorous story, the references to classical literature – The Odyssey is obviously featured, but Dante’s Inferno comes up as well – are well-integrated and really contribute to the story. A sincere belief in the importance of literature flows through the story and gives weight to both the narrator and the narrative. I love that Cindy is defined by her insight into literature, curiosity, and compassion, and not by acts of ninja-level acrobatics, sex-appeal, or daring. She’s a remarkably realistic and sympathetic heroine.
The ending brings a sense of freedom, of possibility and expansiveness that surprised me. I think this is a story I’ll be revisiting in the future, when I’m feeling hopeless and need to rest in a better, brighter version of the world. This is a story that not only made me smile, it left me feeling genuinely hopeful, which is no small feat.