Norilsk is a real place. Located above the Arctic Circle in the deepest reaches of Siberia, it is the northernmost city on Earth with at least 100,000 residents. The average temperature is below freezing for nine months out of the year, and the city is snowbound for upwards of 250 days annually. It is not a place where human beings should exist. Historically, it has served two purposes: as a center for the extraction of plentiful mineral deposits, and as the de facto center of Stalin’s gulag system of forced labor. It is one of the coldest, one of the most polluted, and one of the most dangerous communities on Earth. And it is difficult to know exactly what goes on in Norilsk today; since 2001, the city has been mysteriously closed to all non-Russians.
Mara Dabrishus’s “Mechanika,” technically a work of dystopian fantasy, could just as easily be classified as urban fantasy given the pervasive way the city itself looms over the entire narrative. Snow piles up at the base of candy-colored tenements. Buses full of exhausted workers belch diesel fumes as they lurch pointlessly from one razor-wire encased checkpoint to another. The polar twilight looms over all, broken only by the hollow glow of the ubiquitous ultraviolet lamps which are the only visible evidence of the authorities’ interest in keeping the citizens alive, so that they may continue to work in the mines.
The title of the story refers to a particular location within Norilsk, but it might just as easily refer to the city itself, or even to its citizens. The entire edifice is a single, soulless machine. The only virtue recognized is efficiency; Dabrishus is careful to show how even those characters who have not been completely broken by the system have been colored by the all-consuming emphasis on maximum return for minimum energy.
Most pervasive of all is the cold, “seep[ing] into the bones” of the community’s haggard occupants, numbing them to their fate and to one another. In scene after scene, we find characters fleeing emotional awareness, seeking refuge in alcohol or harder drugs, or simply closing themselves off mentally. This same numbness characterizes the ambiguous authorities of the story—this is not the cartoonishly evil government of Panem, but rather, an unfeeling bureaucracy dedicated exclusively to the maintenance of a machine. Dabrishus places us in the same position as her characters, dispensing information about the state in meager spoonfulls—there are ambiguous references to an “old era” and “new era”, to labor strikes and nationalist rebellions. Of particular interest is Dabrishus’s choice to transplant the Stalin-era NKVD into an environment marked by modern technology such as flash drives and cell phones—as a result, the totalitarianism she creates isn’t linked to a particular era, but timeless, and the reader is left unmoored, with no historical context to anchor to. We share the protagonists’ sense of disorientation, of isolation.
Dabrishus’s most daring decision of all is to infect her protagonist, Zoya, with some of this same numbness. In a genre marked by wildfire heroines who can’t be controlled or tamed—by, to be frank, a hundred carbon copies of Katniss Everdeen—Zoya is something very different. Zoya has spent her entire life in the cold, both in literal and figurative terms, and has been particularly shaped by her interactions with an emotionally absent mother who has been shattered by the system. Zoya has never in her life laid eyes on a growing tree. There is still a spark within her, but we catch only fragmentary glimpses of it—in tiny gestures of kindness to people who have nothing left to offer her. More often, we see her huddle away from that which might make her vulnerable, from commitment to a cause or to a person. Her rebellions are, for the most part, rebellions of inaction, of refusal to engage or to comply. Her primary instinct, shared with those around her, is to escape from pain. Ultimately, the “war” in this story is within Zoya—the instinct to flee versus the decision to engage. The way this struggle marks her character puts her head and shoulders above most dystopian heroines in terms of psychological complexity.
I’ve already remarked on Dabrishus’s ability to craft a haunting big-picture environment, but her single greatest gift as a writer lies in what she does when she pulls the camera in tight. There is mastery in the tiny details here. The neglected carpet of a tenement hallway, worn through almost to the poured concrete beneath. The way a knife blade, warmed in candlelight, casts flickering penumbras against the walls of an underground chamber. The way a bloody microchip clings to the discolored linoleum of a sink. The single cracked tooth in a sailor’s mouth. Dabrishus strings beautiful sentences together with as much skill as any bestselling author you’d care to name.
“Mechanika” has not been foregrounded in any of the preliminary reviews of A Thousand Words for War. I don’t know why. It's arguably the best story in the anthology. After reading the proofs, I went out and immediately researched Dabrishus’s background. It turns out that she specializes in YA equestrian fiction, and that her work in that genre has been exceedingly well-reviewed. So: if you’re into horses at all, for heaven’s sake, go here and start buying things. For my own part, I’m looking forward to Dabrishus taking on additional projects outside of that genre; she is, very clearly, an author who can write about anything.