On Patterns of Orbit: Stories by Chloe N. Clark: A Review by Gina Thayer

Patterns of Orbit: Stories by Chloe N. Clark is a meditation on what it is to exist within the vastness of the universe. Through stories that draw from science fiction, horror, fairy tale, and folklore, Clark probes the emptiness of space, the secrets hidden in dense forests, and the pressing darkness of the deepest lakes and oceans. 

There are ghosts here, to be sure. Ephemeral creatures that haunt our footsteps and cloud our waking truths. Clark’s characters confront phantoms and fated promises and fallible bodies. The expansiveness of the cosmos is countered by the closeness of a laboratory, a sick bay, a pod, a bed.

Through it all, Clark’s prose captures a poetic sensibility and frank lyricism that offers buoyancy and lightness amidst the dark. She unpacks the aching, wild terrains of grief, distance, memory, and connection, weaving shadows out of negative space, doppelgängers out of dreams, and supernovas out of flesh and blood. 

Structurally, Patterns of Orbit intersperses short stories, flash fiction, and pieces that dance at the borders of prose poetry. Just as Clark surpasses genre conventions, gesturing at and then subverting tropes, so too do the rigid constructs of word count and arrangement fall away. The result is a flowing, propulsive collection, where stories swell and recede like waves, bearing the reader forward on unseen tides.

The short story, “A Sense of Taste” begins, “I think I fell in love with my husband because of an apricot.” Mira is a botanist-turned-food-scientist. After her husband Mark is killed in a routine spacecraft landing, Mira starts helping Mark’s former colleague engineer the perfect peach, grown with neither light nor heat. But there is something strange about this new peach, something in its flavor profile, its weight, the way it conjures memory on the tongue. “It ached to grow.” Such tastes can be intoxicating, but as Mira learns, they may not always sate one’s hunger.

In “The Waves Hear Every Promise You Make,” Lake Superior is changing. Extinct aquatic life forms return. Strange and violent waves crash against the shore. Human bones are found tossed up on beaches. “The lake was churning with things that should not have filled it,” Clark writes. Kara, a limnologist studying freshwater ecosystems, comes to observe Superior, where she used to vacation with her son Dev. As the lake grows ever more restless, Kara contemplates its transformation and thinks of Dev, who is now the geologist on a scientific mission to a distant planet. In the absence of answers, Kara asks herself, “What would it be like to step into the waters of somewhere beyond the stars?” 

“Jumpers,” presents as one of the most distinctly sci-fi stories in the collection. First-person narrator Lex is a pod-jumper, responsible for leaping through space to restrain rogue or abandoned pods that float too close to their ship. The job is dangerous and precise, part intuition and part luck, “... a little like blowing bubbles off the Eiffel Tower and then parachuting after them in hope you could catch one before it burst.” Lex is the best of the trade. They have only missed a single jump in their entire career. But when Lex catches a pod whose survivors are host to an unknown, plantlike creature, the crew’s safety is threatened, and Lex is forced to confront their past failures in an effort to survive.

If Clark’s short stories capture the imagination, her flash firmly captures the heart. “Even the Night Sky Can Learn to Be a Fist” plays with desperation and futility, of being reduced to an easy diagnosis, no matter how complex or undefinable the ache: “The doctors told me to try something for my anxiety. The only thing I’m anxious about is my health and the state of the world, I said. And they smiled politely and typed notes into my chart.”

In “Buoyancy,” an unnamed narrator on a space station receives news of their wife’s death back on Earth. They note, “There’s not enough weight out here for my arms to feel so heavy.”

“Long in the Tooth” presents an ominous a fairy tale, a warning sign: “The lesson is obvious. There will always be wolves in the woods.” The narrator uncloaks life’s myriad dangers, and questions what we give up to make ourselves safe.

With all its consideration of memory, history, and tentative futures, time is a constant presence in Patterns of Orbit. Over a third of the stories are in present tense, and many include flashes forward or backward, muddling what it means to be in the present, to be centered in a singular moment in time. Though much of the collection takes place in the near future, immediacy pervades. The future may be decades, or only moments away.

Spanning all of six paragraphs, the aptly titled “Simultaneity” begins, “[Angeline] thinks often of her father. He goes to space and comes back and does not go again.” By the end of the first paragraph, Angeline is already speaking at her father’s funeral. In the second and third paragraphs, Angeline is a child, is a teenager, is herself going into space. Clark leaps with elegance and almost invisible ease through these transitions, sketching life as the synchronous total of all moments, existence as a pattern of instants, each filled with the perpetual pulse of loss, the resonance of inner worlds, and the richness of possibility. 

Though Patterns of Orbit is not technically a linked collection, the pieces exist in unity, a shared dialogue on a changing world. One has the impression that unrelated characters might, in some universe, pass each other on the street or in a spacecraft. That, looking up at the stars, an individual from one story might observe the winking lights of a space station where another narrative is taking place. 

“It was a game about edges,” Clark writes in the short story, “Static.” So too is Patterns of Orbit a collection about edges, cycles, limits. The places where time shifts between then and now, where close becomes far, and far grows far enough to feel close again. It is about patterns in people and stars and the way life spools out toward an infinite horizon. It is about natural worlds that push against their own boundaries, and the restless crackling of yearning and desire.

There is hope here. There are secrets held close and chances taken. There is comfort and loss and people doing what they can in the face of challenges both routine and existential. Patterns of Orbit creates a constellation all its own. It is an image, a myth, a means of navigation. It is “...a small human kindness, lighting [our] way in the dark.”

Gina Thayer’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in HADHalf-LightParhelion Literary Magazine, and Flash Flood. She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently working on a collection of strange and speculative stories. After several years in the Pacific Northwest, Gina now lives in Minneapolis with her partner and cat.