Matthew P Buscemi’s Collection of Sci-Fi Short Stories, Transmutations of Fire and Void, Will Make You Laugh, Cry, and Think (a lot!)
Matthew P Buscemi, one of my favorite brand spankin’ new sci-fi authors publishing today, recently (2016) published a collection of his captivating sci-fi short stories, called Transmutations of Fire and Void. In the introduction, Buscemi explains the title as embodying the balance of anger and frustration in some of his stories with the contemplative stillness and serenity that shines through the darkness.
Like the fire and the void,
progress exists only in the thin, liminal zone
between order and chaos,
wonder and devastation.
After finishing the collection, which clocks in at just over 100 pages, I understand why he chose to illuminate that juxtaposition in the title, an element of Buscemi’s writing that immediately drew me in on my first experience reading his novel, Schrodinger’s City.
The collection contains 15 sci-fi short stories, varying in length from brief flash fiction to in-depth stories 10 or so pages long. In this review, I’ll highlight my three favorite stories, each of which are completely different in character, tone, and setting, because I could easily write a glowing review of most (if not all) of the stories, but y’all should really read them for yourselves!
Transmutations of Fire and Void – Xenosociology
“The easiest part is trampling the green petal-sprigs.”
“Xenosociology” made me smile from the first sentence. I always enjoy stories told where humans are the foreign alien creatures because it provides interesting insights into our daily lives that most of us would never consider. In this case, the two alien explorers, the narrator and their comrade Gael are on a mission to recover an artifact from a human abode, which they refer to as “pitted boxes,” in reference to the windows and doors marking the house’s surface. An unusual Buscemi-twist was the cloaking devices the two aliens used to avoid running into the “meatsacks.” Well, it’s not a cloaking device so much as it is a pseudocorporeal modulator that allows the aliens to essentially exist in a shifted dimension (from what I understand), so they can walk around unseen. Pseudocorporeality has its challenges and dangers, from simple things like sticking to the carpet, to the catastrophic consequences of making physical contact with a “meatsack.”
In addition to the insightful commentary about the wasteful lives we lead (leaving our houses empty all day while we work, then leaving our offices empty all night when we’re at home), my favorite moments were when it would “click” and it became apparent what the aliens were talking about, such as the description of ringing a doorbell and the “pink brick-thing,” which was the object of their mission to retrieve.
I won’t ruin the ending because it cracked me up, but it’s definitely one of the cutest and most lighthearted stories in the collection.
Transmutations of Fire and Void – Temple of the Setting Sun
I need to preface this with a little bit of background: Out of all of the stories in this collection, this one hit me the hardest. My baby brother recently shipped out to Afghanistan (artillery for the US Army), and because of the parallels I couldn’t help but notice, I cried. Like, had to put down the book and take-a-breather-cried. It’s been a while since any writing had such an emotional impact on me, and though it was tough, I’m grateful for the experience.
That being said, let’s talk about the story! “The Temple of the Setting Sun” follows a religious initiate’s journey through the color-coded ranks of spiritual ascension, which are violently disrupted when their planet is thrown into a massive global war. Our narrator, a somewhat prideful and very intelligent young scholar who discovered a religious Order that had “chosen to keep its beauty and potency and life and connection to nature at the expense of its own security” and left their family, traveling to a foreign nation to pursue a purer life.
The ascension is visually measured by an initiate’s meditation in front of a pool of water illuminated by light, the color of which reflects the initiate’s path along the road to enlightenment (transitioning from red to orange, etc., all the way to purple, the last true color). We meet our narrator just after they achieve blue in their prismaticum, the ritualistic ceremony described above. Their personal evolution is visible to the reader during their meditations, as they way they perceive the world and its creatures becomes a more delicate, choreographed dance as they near the end of their journey.
Halfway through the story, the elders gather the initiate’s to break the silence of the Temple to share the news that the world has been plunged into war. Despite the Order’s isolation from the outside world, through our narrator we see racism, hatred, and fear grow through the cracks of their peaceful, enlightened façade. The narrator is plagued by an internal war between their search for serenity and ascension, and the horror they feel wondering if they are to blame for the actions of their nation, and the fear that they’ve become an unattached, callous monster for not worrying (as much as they think they should) about the well-being of their old family and friends.
The description of that relatable conflict was jarring enough to enthrall my emotions, but when the narrator imagines their brother pushing the button that drops of a bomb on an enemy nation, something in me cracked, culminating the complete destruction of my composure by the conclusion that stripped me bare. Human nature itself is damnation, and the battle for serenity cannot be won by drawing into oneself, even behind the armor of faith.
Transmutations of Fire and Void – The Blazrath
This very short story was really fun, but left me wanting more (which I guess is a good thing). Told in a style reminiscent of instant messaging between an English major named James and his lover, it takes place on a college campus on a planet called Kepler-186f. The planet is apparently plagued by a monstrous alien species called blazraths that spew caustic bile as a form of attack.
We find out that James had been stalked by one specific blazrath for over a year, and the story opens with him telling his lover about its attempted attack on him in the college cafeteria. This is unusual as blazraths generally don’t venture inside, and this is where it gets really interesting. In a unique commentary on romance, we find out that Julie, a scientist of some sort, recently published a report saying that blazraths “think of the flaying and dicing and devouring as some kind of morbid eternal union,” and this blazrath, in particular, appears to be deeply in love with James.
After making James promise to be careful walking home, the two main characters exchange a loving goodbye, providing a sharp contrast between our version of love, and the blazraths.
I particularly enjoyed this not only because my experience with romance thus far has been along the lines of dating a blazrath, but because the dialogue was peppered with witty banter and very realistically represented how two people who love each other chit chat. Stories consisting of only dialogue are difficult to do well, and I think Buscemi nailed this clever exchange. I only wish it was longer! I want to know what a blazrath looks like.
While reading Brian Evenson’s new science fiction novella The Warren, I continually had to remind myself that I wasn’t reading an already established sci-fi classic. It was that good. I devoured this powerfully chilling novel in about 2 days, and I immediately want to read it again. I know this is probably the most annoying thing I could say, but the last page is so fantastic I have it open in my browser window just to read it over and over throughout the day. The Warren is an intentionally perplexing story following our hero, and one of the only two corporeal characters [Read More]
Final Thoughts on Transmutations of Fire and Void
Very few books, even collections or anthologies, can as masterfully balance heartbreak and lighthearted alien romance like Buscemi’s Transmutations of Fire and Void. Within one book, one three-page story even, Buscemi manages to make you laugh and cry, or gain faith in humanity just to tear it down. Each of these sci-fi short stories could become a novella, but they satisfy the reader just enough that you don’t leave disappointed or unfulfilled. Other stories, like “The Keyhole” (which in some ways reminded me of The Warren by Brian Evenson) or “The Halls of Power” contained so much thought in so little space that I’ve had to reread them multiple times to capture even the smallest piece of their true meaning. It’s always exciting to find an author that’s just getting going on their writing career with so much potential, and I’m really happy that I’ve gotten into Buscemi’s world with so many more sci-fi short stories and novels to come!