13 July 2016

Drowned Worlds

Image from http://www.jonathanstrahan.com.au/
Drowned Worlds
Anthology, compiled by Jonathan Strahan
Solaris, 14 July 2016
PB, 336pp
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley

Reminding us that science fiction should confront the big ideas and issues (as well as doing lots of other stuff, obviously) this new anthology from Jonathan Strahan explores climate change, in particular, rising sea levels and the loss of land under water. Strahan notes in his introduction that the city where he lives, Perth, is slated for abandonment in a few decades due to the stresses of climate change.

With this in mind he presents 15 stories meditating on the process, impacts and potential outcomes. This is not a book about heroic scientists finding solutions: it's about what happens next (in some cases, for very long values of "next"). The stories are uniformly excellent: like scenarios drafted by a crack team of futurologists, they help to make real the threat that we are under. Predictions of so many degree warming or so many metres sea level rise, of x hundred million displaced people or y square kilometres land gone, are much harder to understand than these dramatisations of the human impact.

That said, these aren't worth stories by any means and they are not without a degree of solace - whether it's the weird beauty of flooded Boston, tribute paid in Antarctica to what has been lost, or the possibilities of science to change us in order to preserve something of the old world.

This is strong and serious stuff, but they are great stories and as ever Strahan's themed anthologies are an excellent way to sample works by all those super authors you may not have tried yet! It's invidious to pick favourites, but the stories I enjoyed most were Brownsville Station by Christopher Rowe and Who Do You Love? by Kathleen Ann Goonan.

In Brownsville Station, set in a linear, cylindrical city hundreds of miles long somewhere on the Florida coast. We meet a Senior Engineer and a Junior (train) Conductor. Both are caught up in a sudden disaster which brings their settled lives to a juddering halt. Is the city in the far future, post inundation, and the catastrophe just the last stage in mankind's fall? Or is it a different reality experiencing its first calamity? "I don't think it was fast - I think there were signs" says one character - which could stand for everything in this book. As in our world, the protagonists find that the rulebooks and procedures don't cover the scenario they're facing. But there is still hope, in a story which reminded me of EM Forster's The Machine Stops. 

Who Do You Love? is a strange, haunting story, of generations living on the Florida Keys as they are submerged and destroyed by ever more violent storms. Aphrodite and her (husband? lover?) Emile have a plan to preserve the dying coral communities, but Emile can't face what it means for them. As in other stories in this book, something is saved but utterly transformed at the same time.
Full fathom five thy mother lies;
Of her bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were her eyes;
Nothing of her that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange...
The others also range widely across the world and explore many different situations. In Elves of Antarctica (Paul McAuley) Mike is employed as a helicopter pilot working on the burgeoning Antarctic eco-projects. The story describes his encounters with enigmatic monuments, carved in a mysterious script. What do they mean? What's special about their locations? In placing these markers across the Antarctic wilderness, McAuley catches perfectly the tension between the desire to restore what has been lost to the rising floodwaters and the promise of creating something new on an ever changing planet - a dilemma that Mike has to confront himself.

In Dispatches from the Cradle: The Hermit – Forty-Eight Hours in the Sea of Massachusetts (Ken Liu) Asa, a wealthy former trader, has retired, Thoreau style, to a little cabin but it's not in the woods: there are no woods any more: she's living in a spherical refuge craft afloat over old Boston (so not that far from Walden Pond). Here she's bothered by crass tourists coming to dive the beauties of drowned Harvard - and they are beauties: rare corals which transmute the poisons left behind by industry into vibrant colours, shoals of fish slitting through abandoned libraries. The question is posed: can good, beauty, life survive and come out of this apocalypse?

Venice Drowned (Kim Stanley Robinson) follows two days in the life of Carlo, a boatman making a living despite everything by ferrying tourists - Japanese tourists - around the ruins of Venice. Again we see beauty from destruction and marvel at the human spirit that keeps trying in the face of ruin and destruction. Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived by Her Mercy (Charlie Jane Anders) is the story of Pris, who runs away to join the Wrong Headed commune.  This is in many respects a familiar story of a well intentioned West Coast alternative community and the tensions and conflicts under the idyllic surface.

The Common Tongue, the Present Tense, the Known (Nina Allan) is a mysterious story. Why was the narrator sent away to live with "the Severins in Strasbourg", with only faint memories of her parents - but an obsession with her uncle, living in his abandoned cottage, and why is she so upset at the mess it was in? There's a hint that the story of her and her friend being in Helston to observe fish is just a cover - for what? Against all that the ravaged of climate change seem almost secondary. Allan's name caught my eye as I'm currently reading her book The Race which is itself set in a poisened and ruined world (though less of a drowned one). What Is (Jeffrey Ford) moves away from the watery margins to the hot, dusty inland of Oklahoma where a small community survives among the second dustbowl. Here a tragedy is played out that, in miniature, echoes the ruin of the world as a whole. This story is one of only a couple  that describe the parched inner lands rather than the drowned coasts

In Destroyed by the Waters (Rachel Swirsky) Zack and Derek are mourning the loss of their son Noah in one of the catastrophes of the 21st century and decide to revisit flooded New Orleans, where they took their honeymoon decades before. The story personalises the grief of climate change, focussing on a very specific loss but also on the love that may help us to survive and continue. The New Venusians (Sean Williams) is a story of a time far in the future, when rebellious young Natasha is teleported to her eccentric uncle's laboratory / shed floating high above Venus. She is meant to learn a lesson, and she does, but it's more about change, responsibility and the future than about not being rude to island diasporas.

Inselberg (Nalo Hopkinson) is a bizarre and chilling story in which a tourguide in future Nigeria, accompanying a load of visitors to see a Mr Fish, takes them to a very dark place indeed.  Only Ten More Shopping Days Left Till Ragnarök (James Morrow) is a bizarre story of how the feedback loop promoting cynicism about climate change might be broken with the help of a narwhal, copious amounts of peat lager and a mystical chant. In Last Gods (Sam J. Miller) a girl with no arms serves as shaman in a primitive community, post apocalypse. Why were her arms removed? Do the "Gods" who are seen at play have real power or do the taboos they represent simply protect humanity from further foolishness? We never really learn.

Drowned (Lavie Tidhar) is a lyrical, almost fairytale account of coming to a Land, in contested alternate versions, speculations and contradictions. A young girl is killed in a rock pool: or kills herself, and releases something that may in time evolve and grow. The Future is Blue (Catherynne M. Valente) is a sad and haunting story of a girl who lives on a floating mat of rubbish. Subject to unending abuse she has apparently saved her community yet only gets blame. Perhaps this is the global warming prophet's role in microcosm...

I'd strongly recommend reading this book, as a warning, as an example of FS doing just what it should - and as a cracking example of storytelling.


  1. Thank you for this. One thing; Inselberg is set in an unnamed Caribbean island, not in Nigeria.

  2. Thanks for pointing this out Nalo. My mistake! I wonder why I thought that.

    (Oddly the next book I've read does refer to Nigeria... but I hadn't started that when I wrote the review)