Sunday, June 26, 2016

Review of Drowned Worlds ed. by Jonathan Strahan

In the introduction to his 2016 anthology Drowned Worlds: Tales from the Anthropocene and Beyond (Solaris), editor Jonathan Strahan paints a dire picture for humanity: climate swings are becoming more extreme; environmental degradation is inching ever forward; and many natural systems that sustain life are threatening to collapse. Human existence as we know it appears in jeopardy—a dire picture, indeed.  When looking at the current state of science fiction, however, one could barely tell.  Environmental concern appears in pockets and niches, but with the sustained popularity of space opera, the techno-fantasies of hard sf, the pure escapism of most genre-blending, and the increased quantity of retro-pulp, the question looms: would the stories that Strahan selected for the anthology rise above to match the seriousness of his outlay, or simply be an overbilled gateway to more genre fluff...

Opening the anthology—and the first dog to mark the fire hydrant labelled “drowned Earth tableaux,” Paul McAuley’s “Elves of Antarctica” takes readers to the southernmost continent after ocean waters have forced the world’s population to the poles.  While telling of an ordinary Joe’s hobby tracking mysterious stones that turn up in the Antarctic ice melt, the focus remains laying down hard sf imagery in straight-forward, didactic fashion.  Next dog up at the tableaux fire hydrant is a reprint story (the only in the anthology): Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Venice Drowned.”  First published in 1981, the scene portrayed is a Venice nearly entirely buried underwater (of course) and a boatman who earns money piloting tourists to dive sites.  Minor drama occurs, but overall the scene is more important than the story.  Having a nice narrative voice but little else, “Inselberg” by Nalo Hopkinson is the next hound in line, this time about a tour operator and the group he takes to sea viewing underwater architecture (of course).  There is some fantasy/magic realism/exaggeration to spice things up, but it remains a tough piece to take with any seriousness.

A little retro sf and a little Theodore Sturgeon, “Who Do You Love?” by Kathleen Ann Goonan provides a refreshing break from the details of a flooded Earth.  Ultimately a story about our closest relatives, the drastic potential for global warming is channeled through one family (even as they have the names of Greek gods and goddesses). Moving on to a nicely developed love story, a love story exacerbated by the exigiences brought on by rising ocean waters (of course), “Brownsville Station” by Christopher Rowe likewise bucks the tableaux trend to tell of a train conductor on the Key West to Cancun line, and an unexpected stop that leads to life-changing events.  “Dispatches from the Cradle: The Hermit – Forty-Eight Hours in the Sea of Massachusetts” by Ken Liu is as convoluted as its title.  Not the most coherent tale, Liu patches together Thoreau, an inhabited solar system, a Singaporean tourist, and other items to talk about humanity in such broad strokes as to lack teeth. 
Instead of flight to the solar system, Charlie Jane Anders turns the Great Decimation (civilization's end at the hand of mass flooding, of course) into futuro-hippy-ness.  Not enemy, the ocean is friend.  Feeling a very millenial story, it’s largely self-assuming: there is little of substance—a touch of soap opera, some personal issues that are relayed in more YA terms than adult, and then the words cease—pop, like a bubble.  Where Anders' story is a bit tweenish, Nina Allan's is mature.  The first work of significance in Drowned Worlds, “The Common Tongue, the Present Tense, the Known" tells of a woman trying to come to terms with the current state of the world (a world where ocean waters are a few meters higher than today, of course).  Where Anders fails to produce subtle human drama, Allan does so via a story addressing one of the underlying issues to environmental decline, namely the nomenclature/symbolism we attach to things in everyday life, and the meaning inherent to it.  She does this through the softly revealed history of the woman’s past, all the while issues of her present take their toll.

Jeffrey Ford is one of this generation's top writers.  But "What Is," for as true as it is at heart, is not an example why.  Telling of the 21st century Oklahoma Dust Bowl in the wake of global warming, America's heartland has been converted into a dry wasteland, and very few survive.  When the Air Force makes a supply drop—the last, they claim—to a remote area, the handful of residents who live nearby are forced to decide how to divvy up the parcel—or not.  Western cum post-ap, it is the most unique story in the anthology for setting, but is developed in such indelicate fashion as to make one believe Ford fired it off in a couple nights just to fulfill the commission.  The character introduction, in particular, is forced to the point of being painful, leaving the remainder viscerally real in meaning, but not a good example of how to write a short story.  Another great writer producing mediocre material for this anthology is Rachel Swirsky.  Destroyed by the Waters,” aside from the less-than-imaginative title, tells of a couple who return to the place in New Orleans where their son perished—a New Orleans buried underwater (of course).  Inconsistent prose-wise and maudlin in its ending, it’s not bad, but Swirsky has written better, for sure.

Perhaps the most striking story in the collection, Sam Miller’s “Last Gods” tells of an unidentifiable world wherein civilization has collapsed, and a strange sea with dark, roaming gods terrorizes a population of ragged but subservient humans.  The middle section a touch rudimentary, Miller reveals the story’s value in the final paragraphs, and it’s powerful.  But is it a view to embrace?  Don’t know, but it is grounded, and challenging.  Ostensibly set in his Twinmaker universe, “The New Venusians” by Sean Williams tells the classic story of rebellious teenage girl sent to live with a mad scientist grandfather in the atmosphere of Venus.  (There are humans living on Venus because Earth is flooded, of course).  An even madder scientist has loosed experiments in the planet’s atmosphere, putting the population in jeopardy, and yes, the day needs saving.  A simple story, but perhaps forgivable given it’s intended to be YA.

A spot of satire to change the anthology’s mood, James Morrow’s “Only Ten More Shopping Days Left Till Ragnarök” is Drowned World’s most direct attack on the potential causes of the anthropocene.  Highlighting the cynicism many politicians and commercial interests direct toward information regarding climate change and environmental degradation, Morrow tells the darkly comical tale of a couple on an Arctic expedition and the unexpected scenario they find themselves involved in with the natives.  Capable of being whittled down to a much sharper point, not sure how much time Morrow spent refining the story.  A spot of storytelling inended to highlight the importance and meaning of the act itself, Lavie Tidhar’s “Drowned” tells of a family sitting around a fire telling tales.  A second spot of satire to close the anthology, Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Future is Blue” opens on the line: “My name is Tetley Abednego and I am the most hated girl in Garbagetown.”  Tetley a have-not among haves, she spends her days in subservience to a collapsed civilization (due to rising ocean waters, of course) still ruled by the misguided.  For the over-the-top dystopian mood, the story is reminiscent of Valente’s earlier short “Fade to White,” but lacks its relative complexity.

In the end, Drowned Worlds is not a failure, rather something of a disappointment.  It’s certainly not all genre fluff, but neither is it something to be taken with seriousness in every story.  Few live up to the uber-serious environment billing in the introduction.  Strahan writes each story “is part of asking the question of how we move forward from here…”, but I struggle to see “here.  To my knowledge, none of the stories are set in the present or even near-present/future.  All are set after an environmental collapse.  They take a drowned Earth for granted.  Only perhaps Nina Allan, James Morrow, Sam Miller, Jeffrey Ford and Catherynne Valente’s stories come close to offering solutions or try to identify the causes of what has brought about contemporary environmental concern.  Charlie Jane Anders, Sean Williams, Christopher Rowe, Lavie Tidhar, and others have either written on subjects that do add some degree of variety to the anthology, yet do little to address the threat of environmental catastrophe, or worse yet, are just hermetic science fantasy.  In short, significantly more could have been done to address Strahan’s call to arms.  For my money, books like Kim Stanley Robinsons’ Science in the Capital series (Green Earth) look at rising ocean waters and changing climate with greater pertinence.

And did I mention the novel’s theme—so narrow, the drowned Earth scene getting old, tired, fast, of course.  Story after story after story after story with high ocean waters…

All original to the anthology (save the K.S. Robinson story), the following are the fifteen stories selected for Drowned Worlds:

Elves of Antarctica, Paul McAuley
Dispatches from the Cradle: The Hermit – Forty-Eight Hours in the Sea of Massachusetts, Ken Liu
Venice Drowned, Kim Stanley Robinson
Brownsville Station, Christopher Rowe
Who Do You Love?, Kathleen Ann Goonan
Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived by Her Mercy, Charlie Jane Anders
The Common Tongue, the Present Tense, the Known, Nina Allan
What is, Jeffrey Ford
Destroyed by the Waters, Rachel Swirsky
The New Venusians, Sean Williams
Inselberg, Nalo Hopkinson
Only Ten More Shopping Days Left Till Ragnarök, James Morrow
Last Gods, Sam J. Miller
Drowned, Lavie Tidhar
The Future is Blue, Catherynne M. Valente

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