“The Closest Thing to Animals,” by Sofia Samatar

“The Closest Thing To Animals,” by Sofia Samatar.

I’ve been meaning to read something by Samatar for a while (I enjoyed her “Selkie Stories Are For Losers,” which made the Hugo shortlist), and Fireside Fiction is a magazine I want to read more of. There’s a list of “Favorite African SF&F This Year” that I liked ( https://wtalabi.wordpress.com/2015/11/28/my-favorite-african-science-fiction-and-fantasy-sff-short-fiction-of-2015/ ), and this is one of the stories from that list I nabbed for reading.

Read the story:

The Closest Thing to Animals

6 thoughts on ““The Closest Thing to Animals,” by Sofia Samatar”

  1. I think the best way I can describe this one is ‘disturbingly human’. The science fiction side of things is real and felt and present, but underneath all of that the characters are still very real

  2. I’d even go a little bit farther, saying this story seems much, much more about the people than anything SF-nal.

    SF provides the tumultuous backdrop, with new sources of upheaval and forcing strange distributions of society, and a new disease everybody’s afraid of. But the meat of the story is all about the protagonist and her relationships, and the way she finally sees what’s going on from a different point of view.

    I’m actually a little at a loss to talk about the significance or the role of the SF elements to begin with. I remember the "artificial night," and a few details, but they don’t seem to play much in the story – I can’t point to anything SF-nal that stands out to me, either in substance or in theme.

    The one thing I come back to is the line about how the current world "makes everybody desperate to be an artist," and maybe the title of the piece, about "people being the closest things to animals." Having a little trouble connecting that to the bulk of the story, though. Any thoughts?

  3. A very, very complicated story. I wanted to call it "magic realist" but that’s not right, it’s not remotely realist. What it’s got in common is that it’s using unrealist elements, that don’t add up to a story themselves, in telling a human story. You can’t really deduce a coherent science fictional world from "The Closest Thing to Animals" — it’s suggested that something happened to all nonhuman animals back in the narrator’s youth, but what exactly was it? It’s hard to tell and not making much sense, no more than the "lanugo" disease makes sense.

    1. Interesting that that was your reaction. "Very, very complicated" isn’t how I’d describe it – the arc in the forefront seems to me powerful, but very straightforward. She starts out feeling that she’s always abandoned by people who go on and "become big" without her, and she ends understanding that she was always part of that distancing, that she hasn’t been abandoned — that her fear of abandonment has been a lot of what causes her to created distance and break things up.

      –but if it’s just that — I’m not seeing what any of the SF elements are giving us. It would work just fine as a present-day story, no problems. So… I feel like I’m missing something critical here. You sound like you might be seeing some of what I missed, though…

    2. (Why do you say the "lanugo" disease makes no sense? I don’t recall much in the way of details about out. The precise nature of the disease hadn’t seemed very important to me during the story.)

    3. If the only three themes blended in this story were a) friendship, b) art, and c) the loss of nature, I wouldn’t call it extremely complicated, but then there’s also all the stuff about Somalia. At first I thought the tent was located in Somalia, but maybe not, it’s sort of a postcolonial nowhere. It’s a space where you go after Minnesota and after memories of a Somalia you never knew. The more I think about it, the experience of growing up as a Somali in the US is the key to it; like another recent Samatar story, "Request for an Extension on the Clarity" which is also about belonging nowhere, a Somali-American astronaut living alone for years in orbit and happier there than either the US or Somalia. In this one, at least, the narrator has her friends Hodan and Nadia, other Somali-Americans (the ones who didn’t stay her friends were white it seems). But still a very alienated story. Nothing exists, fake food, Somalia no longer exists.

      No animals: in "Request" the narrator has cats instead of human friends — thinks they’re better. In this one, "I realized that people, with their warm weight, their softness, and their smell, are the closest thing we have to animals now." Here’s the visit to Nadia: "It was the kind of room where you would expect to find a cat. The only cat, however, was Nadia herself." And at the end, the narrator curls around Hodan’s feet, catlike.

      So this story is all a web of symbolism suggesting the postcolonial life in America, a complicated web, including a symbolic disease which for some reason Nadia describes like so: "[Everything’s fake] except me. I’m real, you know, a real animal, and now also a real plant. And the doctors are pretty sure that Plant-Me is saving Animal-Me. I’m going to put a giant picture of me on the cover. It’ll be like, ‘All of lost Nature concentrated in one young woman!’". I don’t really understand all of it; what is the connection of artificality and loss of nature to her foreign alienation? Someone who shares Samatar’s experiences no doubt would understand more.

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