The Cosmic and the Ordinary in “When the Sky Fell On Splendor”

What do we want from an alien encounter story? If The Three Body Problem and “Arrival” are any indication, we’re looking for a mirror to hold over the planet––we want to explore what we as a species would do in the face of uncertainty and crisis. We want to inspect a civilization with different starting conditions: run the experiment again, and see if anything changes. But, in the interest of full disclosure, these are high-stakes, hard sci-fi expectations. And they have no place in the pages of When the Sky Fell on Splendor.

The primary thing that separates Emily Henry’s novel from these stories is scale. A more traditional take on the alien concept is planetary and cataclysmic. When the Sky Fell on Splendor is intimate, and unshakably focused on the inner lives of its human ensemble. That’s not say to it lacks the deliciously vast cosmic gaze; the one that keeps us coming back for Doctor Who and PBS’s astronomy programming. It just folds it into quiet, ordinary lives, as per Emily Henry’s perennial fabulist gift: with the subtle aid of the supernatural, she writes small towns that feel infinite.

In The Love that Split the World, she vests a sleepy, dew-kissed Kentucky suburb with the makings of the universe. In A Million Junes, magic pours into Five Fingers, Michigan, a “thin” place between the Earth and the heavens, where the wondrous and inexplicable seep through.

Splendor, Ohio––though not as fondly regarded by its residents as the other two––is a welcome addition to Henry’s brilliant collection of little infinities, and the ways in which it stands out mark an intriguing new direction with regards to her crafting of settings. Splendor, with its derelict steel mill, crumbling old houses, and lone, job-market-dominating Walmart, is a slightly grimmer place than woodsy, romantic Five Fingers, but Henry still finds the space for heavy fog and moonlit fields, which she writes with careful precision, knowing at every touch just how precious they are. She manages to summon up a rousing batch of nostalgia for a town that her characters ceremoniously flip off every time they drive past its limits, but it’s possible here on different terms: it isn’t inherent to the place, and it isn’t a factor of chance.

All the value that Splendor holds is shared among people, either living or in memory, and though character is the indisputable heart of all of Henry’s YA novels, it feels particularly vital in When the Sky Fell on Splendor, both because the supernatural element here has a much slower build, and because the book grasps at a theme that has much more to do with the inherent un-magic of the small town everyone is trying to escape from than it does with the roving lights on the horizon.

When books try their hand at confronting the senselessness of real life, it often feels like a coy slap on the wrist as punishment for expecting narrative coherence (this is a thinly-veiled jab at Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). When the Sky Fell on Splendor, though, manages this quite well, as a work fixated on how cruel and unjust freak accidents, chance, and ultimately, circumstance, can be, as opposed to serving it to the reader as an act of subversion. It also mercifully refrains from papering over our main character’s craven past with the chance at meaning the mysterious happenings suggest; in fact, it cleverly poses them as a false lure, one that exposes the foibles of a few side characters, as they grasp at this chance to be extraordinary and it does not wholly provide.

In terms of genre, Henry nails the delicate fantasy-contemporary balancing act, tweaking the novel’s internal logic to accommodate the powerful forces of unknown origin, but not so much that it cheapens her characters’ lives by offering them up as sacrificial heroes. It is in this that she tells the bittersweet truth that lies deep in every genre reader’s mind: we want the call to adventure to change everything––but it might not.

How do we exist after that, knowing that the universe keeps wonders, and yet its illogic takes parents and futures and hopes all the same? When the Sky Fell on Splendor has an answer. It’s trite on paper, but in execution, it holds real gravity and it’s offered without a shred of irony in sight.

Human connection is really the key to surviving until the last page, and why shouldn’t it be––the book is centered by the strong ties of an electric young ensemble, and their conflict makes the ‘found family’ label feel truly earned, even though they’re already established friends by page one. This relationship, in other words, has a well-defined arc, and a legitimate, profound source of strife. All of this is brewing in the story from the beginning: we see it in unspoken words, forbidden topics of conversation, shared grief. This early scaffolding is what allows the central tenet of this work––that other people make life worth living, even if it is not ostensibly of cosmic note––ring so true. You feel it in every line of dialogue. You feel it in every inch of a mundane yet inestimably valuable place. You feel it in the way every small life becomes infinity.

“Violet City” An Empty Attempt at A Story of First Contact

When an alien invasion takes root in New York City, Pen Simmons, Violet City‘s teenage lead, remarks that it’s “like a big budget space movie has come to life over our heads.” She uses this point of reference often, as the novel progresses and its plot unfolds. Dead bodies roll down the pavement like stunt doubles, the destroyed city looks like a post-apocalyptic film set, and when she first encounters one of the aliens, beginning a tenuous alliance that later turns into something more, the whoosh of air rushing from the airlock of a spacesuit first enters her ear as something she’d only heard before in sci-fi movies.

It seems a trivial detail, but in terms of what it reveals about Violet City‘s execution as a work of science fiction, it’s critical. Page Morgan, ultimately, relies on the reader’s knowledge of pop culture as a crutch in building both the landscape of post-invasion Manhattan and the internal logic of the world of the Volkranians, her species of coldly logical, ruthless invaders. Rather than a deliberate entry into the genre, it feels like a collection of details assimilated from like sources––the vague trope that people panic in disaster informs every glance we get of post-invasion New York City, while the Volkranians are aliens of the wholly expected Vulcan variety: formal-speaking, human-faced, and only a hair’s breadth away at all times from offering up an explanation eerily similar to “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

This isn’t to say that alien invasion concepts have to be wildly original in order to be valid––rather that in Violet City‘s quest for broad appeal and familiarity, it neglects the opportunity to introduce something new. Even the execution of the book’s central hook, the budding romance between Pen and one of the invaders, whom she nicknames Rowan, is expected, snagging on conflicts even a casual viewer of sci-fi could predict at a glance.

The book also suffers from a severe dearth of proper scaffolding with regards to character: though it’s perfectly readable and its pacing moves at a fast clip, there’s something off at the heart of its planning, and it doesn’t reveal itself until the final act, where Pen takes several almost existential risks, and they all ring hollow because there’s nothing the story equipped her with that she lacked in the beginning. Though character work like this takes the back seat to the action of most stories, its skillful implementation is essential: a protagonist must substantially change, and the obstacles they face must be the catalyst for their doing so.

In one of the most important early scenes, however, Violet City has Pen jump to defend the life of an alien she doesn’t even know––and succeed. From there, though it’s clear the author wants to write a character whose morals and worldview change after getting close to the enemy, the approach has nowhere to go. Because the book opens by showing the reader that Pen is willing to act to protect one of the aliens, and can work up courage in the face of mortal peril, it renders all of the objections Pen has to doing the same later on entirely obsolete. Nothing’s at stake in the event that Pen fails. And the threat that she will is virtually nonexistent.

From here, it doesn’t matter when either of the major characters’ lives are in danger. It doesn’t matter when Pen gets the chance to abandon her shaky alliance and doesn’t take it. It doesn’t matter when ships crash or shots are fired or action tears through the pages. The story, in its construction, wants for everything a narrative needs to breathe.

When movies destroy landmarks and level city blocks, they do it because it’s a shortcut: when cities that loom large in popular imaginations turn to rubble on-screen, it evokes at least an echo of what a story would otherwise have to do to awaken that feeling. In some regard, it must work––after all, screenplays keep using it. But a shortcut is no substitute for real groundwork. I may have seen plenty of what happens in Violet City in a movie before, but that doesn’t mean it cuts closer to me once it transpires here. In fact, that might be the very reason it doesn’t.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy.

Photos by Andre Benz and Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash.