REVIEW: “Elemental Love” by Rachel Swirsky

Review of Rachel Swirsky’s, “Elemental Love”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“Elemental Love” is a story about the poetry, and romance, of science. If you feel a sense of wonder when you hear that ‘we are all made of stars,‘ this is the story for you.

An unnamed narrator details the remarkable nature of the elements contained inside their lover’s body. Under their watch, each component is revealed as a marvel with links to the wider world, remarkable properties, and a deep soulful poetry at the heart of their function:

One percent: Phosphorus.

Named the light-bearer for the morning star, for Venus glowing on its nightly rounds. It dwells in the membranes of your cells; it nurtures them; it mends them. Love’s namesake keeps you whole.

It is an unbearably romantic declaration. What a shame biology lessons were never like this in my day.

The narrator unfurls this list of elements in response to their lover’s query: ‘You asked: Why I would love you.’ And this is where the more traditional science fiction element of the story kicks in. It is revealed that the narrator is something other than human, and considers their own body less full of wonder. ‘There are no miracles in me,’ they announce towards the end of the story.

However, it is clear from the reported speech of their lover that not everyone agrees. The narrator’s miracles are the kind of engineered marvel that many a sci-fi fan can appreciate. The story ties up with a little bitter-sweetness, as the narrator casts doubt on the value of their own astonishing nature. Yet the reader is able to see that this romance is more equal than the narrator perceives, and leaves this story with the satisfying image of two beings tangled together in awe. Biology meets engineering, and both prove as fascinating as the other.

As in her Hugo nominated story of love and loss, “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love“, Swirsky shows a deft touch for rhythm and feeling in “Elemental Love”. The flow of this story, the placement of line breaks, and the restraint of what Swirsky chooses to include about each element, all build to help this story move at a perfect pace; slow, rippling, and subtle. Let yourself be seduced by Swirsky’s way with words – you’ll never look at your own body the same way again.

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