I thoroughly suggest you first read this short story before you continue.
If you want to create a tearjerker, establish two lovers happy together and then tragically rip them apart. This Rich Larson fully understands in his short science fiction story ‘Carouseling,’ published in Clarkesworld Magazine. But, he also deftly establishes the tragic nature of the story, tipping off his audience ever so subtly that there will be no happy ending. Perhaps it’s the melancholic tone or lack of urgency in the plot to bring them back together, but either way, this story is a gut punch by the end and much of that is thanks to Larson’s solid handling of the narrative.
About two physicists working at the largest lab in the world in Kenya, Ostap and Alyce have a special bond, both professionally and physically, before tragedy strikes and the lab explodes. Everyone believes Alyce to be dead until Ostap feels her presence through her “Slip.”
Much of the plot and pacing is on-par with what you might expect from a short story written around 5,000 words. He starts out with a positive moment before releasing the inciting incident. After that, a sprinkle of negative and positive is thrown around until the climax which is also the resolution. The tragedy, of course, is that Alyce is dead but the subsequent hook is that she’s alive, at least in some form.
This kind of love story is similar to older, paranormal love stories about a spouse or lover who dies and they’re reunited in some form beyond the grave. In this case, Larson throws a science fiction twist to that tried and true story.
The narrative focuses on Ostap being reunited with Alyce rather than desiring to bring her back. Never does Larson establish a motive or urgency to bring Alyce back and I think that’s his gentle tip-off to the reader that bringing Alyce back isn’t even in the cards.
At the same time, he doesn’t have to establish this motive. The audience and Ostap clearly want Alyce back from the dead. By ignoring it in the story, Larson does the audience a favor to a degree.
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What you don’t say in a story is almost as important as what you do say.
On another note, I often find it interesting when authors choose to write in the present tense. Too often this feels wrong and it’s tough to slip into the narrative because it doesn’t feel concrete. To his credit, Larson’s choice to write in present tense helps with the ending, making everything feel more in the now rather than some far-off past.
Though Larson certainly checks off many of the boxes for a well-crafted short story, it felt like it lacked a certain depth and subtext. What exactly is he trying to say in this piece? We know Ostap has a meaningful relationship with Alyce but how does that change him when things are lost or when things don’t come back together like he wanted? It was difficult to find nuggets of meaning or value at the end of the day. For some, this isn’t that big of a deal. If a story is good, then it’s good regardless of a deeper meaning or philosophy. I think that’s misguided. Stories need depth to stand out and to show consequence rather than to be only fun.
Carouseling did what it set out to do – make people cry and be sad about the tragedy of torn apart lovers. That alone makes it a good read and well worth anyone’s time. Though, if you’re looking for a little more depth or meaning, you likely won’t find much.
I personally look forward to reading more from Larson in the future.