I’m always down for a short story collection. There’s a huge amount of skill involved in getting the pacing and the density right in a short story, and I absolutely love how accessible they are. Little bite-sized pieces of art. And the good ones, the really good ones, are full of tiny little pocket dimensions wherein time stands still.
Not so with Palwick’s 2019 short story collection All Worlds Are Real.
The introduction to this collection separates readers into two distinct categories: those who are familiar with Palwick’s work and are thrilled to be reading this collection, and those who don’t yet know her or her work. That’s a complicated assertion to open with, part senseless statement of the obvious and part serious gas-up.
Having never heard of Palwick before I picked up this collection, I was firmly in the second category. And in more than one way this introduction really was my first introduction to Palwick. It set my expectations high, inflated my hopes, and sent me into the first story with eager anticipation. From that standpoint, Jo Walton did a great job in writing her introduction as it really put me in the ideal frame of mind to enjoy what Palwick had to offer.
Unfortunately, her work did not live up to the hype.
From the first page, I can see the truth in Walton’s characterization of Palwick as an “unobtrusive writer who nevertheless is writing stories of great significance and weight”. Her focus in the first story is on a woman whose adult son is in prison, and who struggles with the prison-industrial complex to see him as much as possible – which is rarely. That’s a worthy topic indeed, and we know Palwick agrees because she introduces the story with a “from the author” personal note about a family friend whose son was also in prison and whose heart-rending tale presumably inspired this story.
Each of the stories is similarly preceded by a small personal note from the author, which added little in the way of content or meaning, but were clearly very meaningful to the author. It didn’t take long for me to get the distinct impression that what I was reading was a vanity publication. Of course Palwick is hardly new on the scene, with five previous titles to her name. And All Worlds Are Real was nominated for a Philip K. Dick award, so someone is taking it seriously.
But the farther I read, the more certain I felt that this still was, in essence, a vanity publication.
There’s nothing technically wrong with her writing (other than a few typos), and the prose is simple and accessible. But the stories don’t go anywhere, the narration is tight but somehow still ineffective. I get the distinct impression that these stories would read better if they were longer. Even for short stories they’re quite short, and at the end of the day they’re just not bringing it home for me.
I would call this collection in every way average, with some lovely ideas touched on too briefly to count in this book’s favor but just lovely enough I’ll think of them next time I see Palwick’s name.