The Waiting Stars. They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass was first published in the January 2013 edition of Asimov's. Johnson has published five novels to date, with a sixth, Love is the Drug, expected later this year. I haven't read any of her work though. Judging from this story, maybe I should.
They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass takes us to a post-apocalyptic US. It is unclear what happened but a race of technologically superior aliens set about changing the face of the Earth. The remaining population lives in poverty, often lacking food and medical supplies. When Libby's sister Triss finds herself with child, she is desperate. The community is on the brink of starvation and there is no doctor or midwife who can help with the birth. Triss feels her only option is to find someone who can safely do an abortion, something the aliens refuse to allow. A dangerous trip for Libby and Triss is about to start.
This story is one of those pieces that doesn't really fit into a novelette. You constantly wish the author would explore the setting further. The way the apocalypse comes about remains unclear, the motivation of the aliens is completely unknown, the description of the way these people survive on the remains of a former civilization just scratches the surface of their ordeal. In short, there is more than enough material here for a longer work and that may frustrate some readers.
Johnson chooses to focus on the story of the two sisters. She aims for an emotionally powerful piece and in that respect the story definitely succeeds. Desperation is tangible and fear of the aliens influences every decision. On top of the extraordinary situation they are in, Triss and Libby also have to deal with the regular disapproval and rejection women opting for an abortion have to face. Johnson doesn't stress this point too much but it is clearly present throughout the story.
Triss has chosen not to attach herself to one particular man and with her decision not to keep the baby, she is forced to tiptoe around her own community to avoid offending anyone. A community that would support her if she has a baby they can't feed, would drop her like a hot potato if she decides not to have it. Johnson puts it in a science fiction setting but it is a problem many women face in places where abortion is illegal or controversial. She does add a twist to this story to make the sisters' position less clear cut. The aliens essentially use the carrot and the stick tactics. They are not above using retaliatory strikes if someone ignores their rules. If Triss is caught, her community will suffer. On the other hand they do offer help to the expecting mother. Johnson does raise a bit of doubt about whether or not Triss' options are limited to an abortion or see her child die young. Just a little bit mind you. With their motivations so carefully hidden but the destruction they cause plainly visible, it is not a very tempting alternative.
How much the reader will enjoy this story depends on whether or not you can deal with the number of questions the author leaves you with. They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass is, in a way, very open-ended and the setting is only minimally developed. Personally, I can't shake the feeling that there is a much longer piece hiding in this story, that would potentially be more rewarding. That being said, it is a beautifully crafted story. Johnson seems to have chosen very consciously what to reveal to the reader to keep us focused on the main characters' story. It's an approach she has executed very well. On the whole, I think I would have preferred a bit more detail though.
Title: They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass
Author: Alaya Dawn Johnson
First published: 2013