‘Specimen’ by Irina Kovalyova

Book Reviews

Specimen coverReviewed by Keith Cadieux

Is there a difference between sci-fi and science fiction? For the sake of argument, let’s say that there is, at least for now. On a very basic and somewhat dismissive level sci-fi is pulpy and adventurous, whereas science fiction is more reserved and based on real scientific facts, methods, discoveries, or practices. For example, Dune would be sci-fi, Never Let Me Go would be science fiction. However, the genre boundaries are rapidly disintegrating and authors are starting to toy around with them. Modern literature is getting harder and harder to cram into easily defined genre categories and those established genres which used to be dismissed as crass or pulp have attained a new relevance. It is into this mixed and mixing literary landscape that Irina Kovalyova releases her debut story collection, Specimen, touted as literary fiction grounded and inspired by hard science and influenced by classic Russian avant-garde and science fiction writers such as Alexander Belyaev (Professor Dowells Head, Ariel), Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita), and Yevgeny Zamyatin (We).

Kovalyova was born in Russia, holds advanced degrees in chemistry, microbiology, and creative writing, and she teaches in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University. She was an intern for NASA, worked as a forensic analyst and now lives in Vancouver. If nothing else, such a background seems to prove that Kovalyova is just the person to write a book of literary fiction inspired by hard and provable scientific facts, along with a fair bit of experimentation with traditional literary form. However, not every story delves into the realm of sci-fi or muted science fiction and while the overall effect of the collection is positive, its execution is uneven.

The lead off story, “Mamochka,” fits much more neatly into the genre of traditional CanLit with barely a nod to science fiction, but it is a lovely story in its own right. Nominated for the 2012 Journey Prize, the story is mostly an inner monologue as Maria, who works as an archivist at the Institute of Physics in Minsk, struggles to write an email to her daughter in Canada. While writing, Maria struggles with the fact that her daughter has married a Chinese man and the couple have given their child a name that Maria struggles to pronounce. Kovalyova’s imagery sustains the story, using a metaphorical motif of celestial bodies to express the range of emotional struggles.

If Kovalyova only dips her toe into genre waters with “Mamochka,” she dives right in with “The Ecstasy of Edgar Alabaster.” This time the genre is classic American gothic, specifically Edgar Allan Poe. The story is essentially a retelling of Poe’s classic story about the effects of mesmerism, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” The main theme of Kovalyova’s version is incest but she manages to express it not only in the plot, characters, and images, but within the form itself, as the story borrows liberally from its influences and then loops back into itself. This story is a definite high point of the collection and warrants multiple readings.

Other stories show even more experimentation with form, though with varying and sometimes less successful results. “Peptide p” appears as a scientific research paper and is an interesting variation on the “found document” trope of genre fiction (think “found footage” as a parallel in film). “Peptide p” is the closest Kovalyova gets to pure sci-fi, though she perhaps throws in too many genre ideas at once. The story is set in a near-future where meat is manufactured through completely artificial means in laboratories. After some initial success, people who have consumed the lab-grown meat die. An entire class of children is put in quarantine after mistakenly being fed hot dogs made with the tainted meat, and all but two of the children die, their survival attributed to the fact that both exhibit signs of ESP and are visited by otherworldy versions of their mothers. The “found document” form is often used to lend some sense of reality to a far-fetched premise, but in this case there are simply too many un/super-natural elements to keep the story together, and the novelty of the framework cannot prop it all up.

“The Big One” is another formal experiment: a story which begins in straightforward fashion until an earthquake and then the narrative is fractured and split into two columns on the page. This sounds more interesting in theory than the practical end result, which comes off as a little gimicky and doesn’t really add much to the story’s narrative or themes.

Another solid entry, though, is “Gonos.” Here, Nikolai Larkov lectures to a first-year science class and struggles with the resistance of students to accept the sexual binary of male and female. He also struggles with other social interactions with his ex-wife, with his boss, and with his son, who has a reputation for being somewhat duplicitous. As the story progresses, his son posts a blog where he explains his struggles living as a man and that he now identifies as a woman. After talking with his ex-wife, it becomes clear that Nikolai is the only one not upset about his son’s revelation. This story features another twist near the end, one that leaves Nikolai reeling, but it is Nikolai’s inner thoughts that drive this narrative. He is misunderstood and often comes off as rude or self-absorbed, but Kovalyova manages to show a complex emotional mind at work, one that is surprisingly accepting and thoughtful.

The collection closes with“The Blood Keeper,” a novella which takes up a full half of the book. It begins with an interesting premise: Viktor Mishkin is the official keeper of Lenin’s mummy. After the death of Kim Il Sung, he is summoned to North Korea to preserve the body of the exalted leader and must leave his daughter Vera behind. After some time, Vera receives a somewhat suspicious letter inviting her to come to North Korea and be with her father. Her initial experiences of the oppressive and dangerous regime of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) are unnerving but the novella soons becomes rather repetitive and predictable when Vera falls in love with Shin and she must try to find a way to carry on their forbidden affair. The pacing is greatly thrown off in the last twenty pages when a new character emerges and explains everything that has actually been happening all the way through the novella, much as a Bond villain sits the hero down and explains every minute detail of his plan.

Though it ends on a low note, enough of Kovalyova’s stories are of high enough quality to make this collection a positive debut. Even now, I’m still pondering and thinking about a few of her best stories; they have a lasting impact and are well worth reading, some of them re-reading. Kovalyova is one to watch.

Anansi | 256 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN #  978-1770898172

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Keith Cadieux

Keith Cadieux is the co-editor of the weird fiction anthology The Shadow Over Portage & Main, published by Enfield & Wizenty and recently shortlisted for a Manitoba Book Award. During the day-job hours, he is the administrative coordinator for the Winnipeg International Writers Festival.