Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Postapocalypofic Dominates Year's Best SF

The Little Professor
July 27, 2011

Gardner Dozois' Year's Best anthologies have long shown predilections for postapocalyptofic, so it's no shock that there's a fair amount of that on display in the thirty-three stories and novellas collected here. While postapocalyptofic dominates the anthology, the stories also cluster recognizably around a number of themes and modes, ranging from what we might call the disenchantment of exploration to, on a more upbeat note, children after the apocalypse.

Several of the stories reflect on SF itself, either by reflecting on genre conventions or paying homage to other authors. Allen M. Steele's "The Emperor of Mars," for example, features a young man who becomes temporarily insane after he experiences a wrenching personal tragedy while working on Mars; he manages to cure himself by constructing a personal world out of classic SF texts, the ones animated by "romanticism" rather than "realism" (51). 

Steele's story historicizes itself--it's aligned quite thoroughly with the realist mode of Martian storytelling, enabled by advanced probes and telescopes--while also celebrating the pleasures of purely imaginative world-building; in a sense, it's a paean to the transformative power of escapism. Less cheerfully, Peter Watts' "The Things" reworks John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" Like Campbell, Watts puts the absolute terror of total otherness at the center of his story; unlike Campbell, Watts narrates from the POV of the rapidly-multiplying Thing(s), who speaks of the melding of mind and flesh in terms of "communion" (an eerie play on transubstantiation, under the circumstances...), and who is horrified by the realization that human beings cannot shapeshift. From the point of view of the Things, which endlessly transform and replicate themselves, human beings are "things" (70), destined to an appalling state of individuation and, even worse, entropy. By the end of the story, the Christ-allusion hidden in "communion" comes fully to the fore, as the creature finally believes that it has found its new purpose in bringing "savage" mankind to "salvation" (71). (So much for the ending of Campbell's tale.) And yet, the Christ analogies suggest a kind of false comfort, a way of domesticating this creature's otherwise formidably alien subjectivity.

Speaking of encounters with alien others, we have met Star Trek, and it is clearly not us. Seeking out new life and new civilizations turns out to be about resource mining, rather than enlightenment (even when it's not necessarily humans doing the exploring). Encounters frequently enable more destruction, rather than new intellectual and cultural hybrids. Stephen Baxter's "Return to Titan" exemplifies the anthology's skepticism about exploration. Our ne'er-do-well narrator, who has been kidnapped, recounts a voyage to Titan to uncover whether or not there's sentient life. As he and his fellow explorers find bizarre new ice creatures and other intricate lifeforms, the tale's combination of 2001 and Star Trek takes an increasingly dark turn: given a choice between profit and sentience, which will the exploration's sponsor take?

Unlike Star Trek's paean to the link between human emotion and scientific process, here all sentiment gives way to the will to exploit. (The conclusion seems to allude to both 2001 and Star Wars in assigning perhaps the most humanity of all to something that is a computer simulation of a person.) Meanwhile, in an example of an empire in which the Prime Directive is clearly not operational, Naomi Novik's "Seven Years from Home" probes the unpredictable results of the "Canaan movement," which recognizably descends from modern-day environmentalism (373). Ruth, the narrator, has been sent by the rather ominously-named Confederacy to engineer the Melidan colony's entry into their empire; this involves stoking a war between the Melidans and their fellow colonists, the Esperigans. The Melidans have developed the ability to work with nature, shaping and being shaped by it using techniques that Ruth cannot begin to understand, whereas the Esperigans are more recognizably industrialized. In what turns out to be one of this anthology's themes, a collaborative relationship between humankind and nature turns out to be far more potent than a more mechanized model.

Many of the stories fall under the heading of what could be called "pragmatic postapocalyptofic." Rocks fell and everyone died, thanks to some combination of warfare and enviromental collapse (climate change is a regular story element), but the survivors gird their loins and get a move on. Human ingenuity, with a healthy dose of sheer cussedness, doesn't allow the survivors to control their surroundings, but it does enable them to craft some sort of livable mundane experience. Think The Pesthouse as opposed to The Road. Of the pragmatic post-apocalyptofics, Kage Baker's "The Books" shares "The Emperor of Mars"' fascination with the potential of escapism. In this case, some child performers in a carnival, traveling through a grim (but slowly reviving) landscape, find and loot a bunch of old children's books from a decaying library.

Like Steele, Baker celebrates the reader's active transformation of stories, so that "the stories got into our games and our dreams and the way we thought about the world" (117). Fiction prompts readers to reinvent their own, ugly realities, and perhaps make something better of them along the way. The mildest of the post-apocalypses is Eleanor Arnason's "Mammoths of the Great Plains," in which a young woman's Lakota grandmother narrates how her own grandmother was instrumental in bringing back the then-extinct mammoths. Arnason combines oral storytelling and dream visions with scientific possibilities, suggesting how Native American culture and the biological sciences might interpenetrate each other, not stand as irreconcilable opposites. Steven Popkes' "Jackie's Boy," involving elephants instead of mammoths and set in a bleak world of abusive adults and cannibal children, also addresses the problem of ethical science: what were the implications of developing elephant intelligence? And how would a sentient elephant make sense of its relationship to humans? Jackie's final quasi-pastoral retreat with her "boy," Michael, and a surviving elephant herd, suggests that the future of human-animal relations lies in mutual collaboration, rather than ownership or dominance. Jim Hawkins' "Chimbwi" deconstructs the mystique of white imperial power: in this story, Europeans desperately flee their "ravaged" (584) nations, while the protagonist, a refugee academic named Jason, is plucked from a hard labor camp and brought to the most technologically-advanced country in the world--Zambia.

Much of the story revises a convention of the imperial adventure tale, in which the white explorer successfully completes some sort of test and thus finds himself welcomed to (or even taking over) the indigenous tribe; here, while there is indeed a grueling traditional test involved, the outcome is not quite what Jason expects. Speaking of imperial power, David Moles' "Seven Cities of Gold" retells Heart of Darkness with an opium-addicted female Marlow, sent to--assassinate? reprogram? what?--an ex-nun named Clara Dos Orsos, who appears to be the head of a deadly religious cult (or so Nakada, our protagonist, is told). In this story's evocation of the Biblical apocalypse, the real "horror" lies in the "day of judgment" to come, when everyone must face their responsibility for the "blood of the children of Espirito Santo" (450).

The most traditional apocalypse, however, features in Chris Beckett's "The Peacock Cloak." Fabbro (faber?) makes a universe, sends down three male and three female versions of himself to inhabit it, and, by the end of the narrative, brings it to an end. One of those men made in his image, Tawus, intends to destroy Fabbro before Tawus can destroy him. In their encounter, Tawus acts out the rabbinical tradition of the God on trial, demanding that Fabbro admit that he has no "right" to complain about their actions (400); as the two quarrel (really, as Tawus attempts to quarrel with Fabbro), they work through the possibility that, perhaps, the fall might be necessary--even if Fabbro hoped that "it would somehow take a different path" (404). (Between the God on trial, the conspicuously-absent Christ figure, and Fabbro's reabsorption of everyone in the universe, the story seems much more in line with Jewish theology than Christian.)

As my account of some of the postapocalyptofics suggests, the sheer potentiality of children is another dominant theme. Carrie Vaughn's postapocalyptic "Amaryllis" thus revisits an old chestnut of an SF plot, the world in which reproduction is strictly rationed, to think about the multiple meanings of motherhood. The protagonist, a fishing ship's captain born illegally and taken away from her mother immediately, feels no yen to reproduce herself; young Nina, though, craves a child. The plot moves toward what feminist philosophers call "an ethics of care," celebrating the act of nurturing as a symbolic form of mothering. A much funnier take on an old saw is Rachel Swirsky's "Again and Again and Again," which revisits that age-old problem: just what do you do with teenagers, anyway? And Hannu Rajaniemi's "Elegy for a Young Elk" and Aliette de Bodard's "The Shipmaker" both ring changes on the traditional link between birth and artistic inspiration. In Rajaniemi's tale, a poet regains access to language on a quest for his son, who has gone far beyond the human; by the end itself, poetic creation becomes a means of reshaping the world for the child he must lose. "The Shipmaker" approaches the analogy from the point of view of a lesbian who, in this culture, will never have children to maintain the "ancestral altars," and so after death "would be spurned, forgotten--gone as if they had never been" (566). The protagonist, Dac Kien, yearns to build a magnificent ship that will provide its own sort of futurity, but comes instead to meditate on the power of failure. Both stories make loss central to aesthetic and, indeed, emotional experience.

Zombies are everywhere these days, so it's no surprise that variants crop up more than once. Ian R. MacLeod's darkly comic "Re-Crossing the Styx" combines the newest in undead technology (the wealthy can afford to have themselves reanimated) with vampirism (the "corpses" live off of youthful assistants). The result is zombie fiction crossed with noir, complete with a femme fatale who seduces a hunky young tour guide into the perfect crime of assassinating her husband (think Double Indemnity).

Cory Doctorow melds zombies with merchandising in "Chicken Little," in which a young ad exec tries to market something--anything--to a dead man kept alive (so to speak) in a vat. The result offers a twist on consumerism as a form of political engagement. Last but not least (as in, it's the last story), Robert Reed's vaguely postapocalyptic "Dead Man's Gun" mixes amateur detectives with a future version of the undead, a backup (dubbed a "ghost" by his surviving friends), who regularly calls our protagonist to check up on how the investigation is going. The solution to the crime opens up entirely different questions about the possibility of immortality, even in a world where is theoretically possible to upload oneself to an electronic matrix. Even more than the postapocalyptic, the terror of mortality may be the anthology's real ruling theme...

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