A bitter-sweet tale focused on the conflicting demands of conjugal love and of passionate vocation. Love is not only an emotion but also a set of life choices together. To be faithful to love is to be faithful to those choices, not always to be faithful to our image of love.
Mary Robinette Kowal manages to convey a lot of emotional complexity in such a short space. Elma, an aging astronaut, in fact the first lady astronaut on Mars, lives in a human settlement on Mars with her elderly husband, pining to get back into space. Miraculously, she is offered a new mission, her last chance to live her passion.
Elma longs to accept, as she has no ties, except her husband, as they chose to have no children. Unfortunately her husband is sick and getting progressively helpless, dying slowly. She does not want to leave him.
It’s a hard thing to look at something you want and to know that the right choice is to turn it down.
These are the cold equations of life, wherever you may live. But where is the sense of wonder? For Elma it was in the voyage out, in space. The wonder of being on another planet is diminished by having to live in a dome on Mars:
The natural night sky on Mars is spectacular, because the atmosphere is so thin. But where humans live, under the dome, all you can see are the lights of the town reflecting against the dark curve.
Wonder is relative, and even migrating to another planet may come to seem a limiting experience, instead of a limit-experience.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the mission. “He knows it’s the only way I’ll get back into space.” Garrett Biggs frowned like I’d said the sky was green, instead of the pale Martian amber. “You’re in space.” “I’m on Mars. It’s still a planet.”
I found this a quite enjoyable story, but the more I think about it the richer it seems. It is about how we may devote ourselves to an absolute, despite the sometimes disappointing nitty gritty details of its effectuation. Elma gets to be an astronaut, but she is selected also as a pretty smiling face to advertise the mission. She is selected decades later for the new mission for both practical and PR reasons. Her love too is absolute, despite being mired in difficult materiality. The contradictions between the ideal and its realisations are well handled.
This story explores the impossible reconciliation of these contradictions and conflicting desires. The end provides us with a lop-sided synthesis, half motivated by the rest of the story, half tacked on.