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Hex Publishers is an independent publishing house proudly specializing in genre fiction: horror, science fiction, crime, dark fantasy, comics, and any other form that explores the imagination. Founded by writers, Hex values both the author and the reader, with an emphasis on quality, diversity, and voices often overlooked by the mainstream.

The Poppies of Terra #29 - Women! In! Peril!

By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

2024-05-08 09:00:05

We tend to think of a plan B as a fallback option in case our plan A doesn’t materialize, but as Jessie Ren Marshall demonstrates in her powerful debut, Women! In! Peril!, a collection of  twelve memorable, distinctly-flavored short stories, that conception is too limited. A plan B–or, as in the titular story, “Women! In! Peril!”, about a woman who wakes up from cryo-sleep en route to a world intended to assure humanity’s survival, a plan(et) B–represents an opportunity to rethink our values and desires. What if the thing we thought we wanted isn’t worth wanting? 

I want to start by praising Ren Marshall’s command of voice; it’s truly impressive. Many of these stories are told in the first person, and time and again Ren Marshall shifts cadences, speech patterns, vocabulary choices, and the grammar used to connect thoughts, to tell us as much about the narrators and their plights as what is literally being conveyed through the meanings of their words. Here, for instance, is the opening of the aforementioned “Women! In! Peril!”:

“Blurt #1—Awake Session 1. What is it like to wake up in deep space? Eh. Not glamorous. After 4 mos in Sleep State I crawled out bent w/crusty eyes & flat hair. Good thing there are zero mirrors Onship. Fun fact: 90% of us signed a petition to demand mirrors but the scientists knew the journey would ruin our bodies & said no mirrors you’ll be too ugly sorry.”

Now compare this with the opening of “Dogs”:

“Robert opens a bottle of Riesling, sits next to me on the sofa, and says that he is leaving.”

Or the first paragraph of “Billy M”:

“Not that I wanted to think about Billy M, but in Knoxville I stopped for gas and saw his name on the cover of the S_____ Review. I threw the magazine on the passenger seat and drove until a crawl of traffic on I-81 gave me time to read the poems. None were about me.”

From these invitations we can already begin to surmise something about different states of mind and ways of perceiving the world. This application of craft makes each story feel thoughtfully considered and fully conceived. Even when the point of view is third person, as in “Uli,” about a fifteen year old girl who has long practiced the classical piano and now finds herself at a complex crossroads in life, experiences are poetically filtered through identity. After her friend Josh is impressed to learn that Uli’s mom lives in Hawai‘i, we learn that “she wanted him to kiss her then. The chance of it rose and fell like an arpeggio under her fingers.” That last sentence elegantly advances our understanding of Uli on multiple levels. Style, overall, is fluid throughout the collection, perfectly customized to the needs of each tale. This makes the book a joy to read straight through from cover to cover.

That’s not to say that each outing is entirely disparate or untethered from the rest. Girlhood, womanhood, community, and a longing for connection, whether in close romantic relationships or other dynamics, recur throughout. There are more specific patterns at work too, like the figure of a demanding teacher or pushy instructor, for example, as with Jason in “March 6, 2009,” who insists that the narrator confront personal trauma and share it with him by a specific date, or the character of Roman, the ballet instructor in “Late Girl,” whose aphoristic wisdom–“the body never lies”–is radiantly unraveled by unfolding events, or the female piano teacher in “Great Romantics,” who causes Uli to freeze when she tells her, “Forget what you practiced. Just play something true.” Mrs. Fisher, the protagonist of the same-titled story, whose quirky penchant for numerological coincidences belies much heftier life changes, sees love as a “temporary crucible. It came. It tested you. It left.” But even when worldviews such as hers are confirmed, or things go according to plan, haunting questions remain. 

Most of these stories would be considered mainstream literary fiction, but Ren Marshall plays with genre materials on occasion, as in the eponymous piece, or in the quietly subversive and beautifully observed, Black Mirror-esque “Annie 2,” relayed from the perspective of the Asian sexbot “Jill of All.” The question of divine origin is taken up, with a healthy dose of humor, in the witty “My Immaculate Girlfriend,” while “Billy M.” traffics in the possibilities of discarnate existence, or at least psychological conjuration. 

In these fictions, the past is not only often a foreign country, but one whose putative conquest is of questionable value. Ren Marshall integrates flashbacks seamlessly in her narratives, an especially neat trick to pull off in short stories, but memories provide as much insight as they do the risk of entrapment. Consider, for example, this observation from “March 6, 2009”: “For him, the past is contained. It is a lake he can row out on without getting lost. Mine is an ocean that breaks at the continents of family and home, eroding the shore.”

Much has been written in recent times about systemic privilege and its hidden assumptions: in an organic way, Ren Marshall’s fiction explores how such variances may lead to privileged vantage points in the very causeways of our consciousness. This doesn’t always split along gender lines–though it does at times, like in the brusquely ended relationship of “Dogs”–or even apply to same-aged individuals. Daughters, for instance, are often at odds with their mothers. Mrs. Fisher hates her sister Dolly, as well as her “Ma.” In the highly immersive and colorful “Sister Fat,” the lead muses, “Murder would not be impossible. In my imagination, I had performed the act on Mother many times.” The narrator of “The Birds in Trafalgar Square” uses her mother’s munificent inheritance to pursue the things her mom “would have loved,” but shortly thereafter begins stripping at a London club because it’s something she imagines her mom “would have hated.” This situation leads to one of a number of quietly devastating observations about the treatment of women in society: “Stripping was clear and impartial. It told me how much I was worth, and I know she [her mother] wondered about this, too. Her own value was so hard to pin down.” 

In the collection’s poignant closer, “Our Country Daughter,” Ellen understandably frets about the wellbeing of her daughter Maddy, who she gets from her ex-wife Alison every other weekend, when Maddy declares that she’s going to be a country singer. Ellen’s experience, sensitivity, and the depth of her love for Maddy, manage in the final beats to telescope out her awareness and transform the story’s underlying tristesse into a meditative and moving hopefulness, evocative of the film 20th Century Women (2016). When our designs fail, and their contingencies lose their luster, we might finally surrender to the true nature of things. Maybe that was the plan all along.


Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is a Hugo- and Locus-award finalist who has published over fifty stories and one hundred essays, reviews, and interviews in professional markets. These include Analog, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Galaxy's Edge, Nature, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus,, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, Cyber World, Nox Pareidolia, Multiverses: An Anthology of Alternate Realities, and many others. Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg was published in 2016. Alvaro’s debut novel, Equimedian, and his book of interviews, Being Michael Swanwick, are both forthcoming in 2023.

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