Elements of a Fourth Dimension

In “Everyone Needs a Couch”, Tanker, a bankrupt writer, is commissioned by an amorphous “cross between an octopus and a camel” to write a story about teleportation. The only requirement is that it must be “scientifically possible.” Jumping at the chance to pay rent, Tanker takes the job. Inspired by the sofa his girlfriend was kind enough to cleave in half before leaving for a job off-planet, the billion-dollar teleporting couch industry is born—as is Suzanne Church’s couch teleportation universe.

The universe is then continued in “Waste Management” from Lorna’s perspective, the girlfriend who originally cleaved the couch in half while leaving Tanker, his insensitivity, and his empty bank account. With Lorna’s perspective Church creates an interesting take on mechanical engineering applied to orbital lodging satellites (both biped and multiped excretions must be taken into consideration).

The couch teleportation universe is the dominant motif within Elements. All twenty-one of the stories are very brief; so brief, in fact, that Elements could be labelled a collection of speculative flash fiction. What gives the collection consistency and cohesion are the common elements Church weaves through the stories, supporting the collection’s title.

The classic elements of science fiction are of course present—teleportation and time travel underlie and bond many of the stories that would otherwise seem unconnected. “Everyone Needs a Couch” and “Jelly and the D-Machine” introduce these classic elements of speculative fiction through the teleporting couches and time travelling treehouses, respectively.

Nature’s elements are also present. Water is the literal common element throughout several of the opening stories. It is present in the warm steam between the ice and fire courting lovers of “Courting Ice”; the slushing coolers that preserve the flesh of fallen soldiers for transplantation in “Coolies”; the power of the storm man in “Storm Child”; etc. Even in the teleporting couch universe, water is pointed out as a commodity on Deslot (a planet renowned for the quality of their tequila), in the cowardly invertebrate aliens called Drips and the leading protagonist Dree Waters. Church’s water theme certainly allows the short and sometimes choppy stories to flow.

The subject of the collection’s title, Elements, is present in the chemistry of several images, such as the metal wire coils that run through a stove, teapot, or heater. However, the needle, whether it tattoos or inoculates, is also a running motif, and recalls how the club in “Synch Me, Kiss Me, Drop” is named “Conduct.” The metal stylus, a heated or sharpened filament, is another theme that pierces through and joins the meat of Church’s stories, stitching the different stories of Elements together.

Perhaps one of the best attributes of a collection of speculative fiction—as opposed to a single work of speculation—is that it encourages the reader to speculate on the connections between stories.

CBC literary prize recipient Caroline Adderson recently discussed the difficult relationship between the novel and the short story collection. Disliking the distinction, which she feels isolates and unnecessarily constrains the work, she wrote Ellen in Pieces, “a novel in which you follow a traditional story curve, but each chapter is a standalone short story”. Such a format liberates both the meaning of the short stories individually and collectively as elements of a larger work. Church’s Elements follows this format, as she connects the stories using the same universes, that of the teleporting couch and possibly others, but maintains their independence and imaginative integrity throughout.

Together, with all three uses of “element”, Church creates a thematic work that transcends its individual parts. The running themes and the different interpretations of the title are bookended by the ultimate elements—life and death. The protagonist of “Coolies” survives the grenade that kills his daughter, but his life afterward is plagued by endless guilt. In the last story, “Soul-Hungry”, two dead souls find life in the afterworld through their love—though they continue to eat the souls of the living.

Most if not all of the stories of Elements were published individually before being compiled into a single book. As a collection of work there is contrast and, in comparing some, incompatibility. Still, in a very unlikely way, just as a severed couch could teleport through space missing half its stuffing, Elements is a balanced and fruitful work of speculation.

-Helen Picard


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