There was a lot I liked about this story — the central idea of lexical engineering, wherein words once written down must become true, meaning a trained lexical engineer can make a plane fly simply by using the right words — but a lot that also didn’t quite work for me. There were abrupt shifts in focus from one character to another, and also inexplicable shifts in tense. In the end, I was left with a feeling that it was a great idea that could have been better.
Some stories only work because of their fascinating concepts, and that is the case for this particular story. “Refugee; or, a Nine-Item Representative Inventory of a Better World” is told by an old woman who runs a sort of mystical shelter for those who are on the run. Some brand of magic, never fully explained, brings people across time to her door and the doors of her people. The strangers can rest for a brief time and recover their strength before they return to their world.
As I said above, it’s a fascinating concept, and the story is couched in an inventive format that reveals it piece by piece. There’s a sense of history and a large world behind it, in the one-off comments made by the narrator and the hints of her lost love. Moreover, it’s clearly tied to our world somehow; the narrator mentions a Starbucks early on.
Without the novelty of that central idea, however, this story is a lot less engaging. There’s not really a plot here; ostensibly, it’s the appearance of the boy Corbie and the narrator’s interactions with him until he leaves, but these are covered only in brief sketches. We have the narrator’s presumably tragic love story with Kiran, but this too does not truly create any forward momentum. I’m left wishing for a full story featuring this old woman and the refugees she aids, something that introduces a conflict and grows toward a resolution.