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Gary K. Wolfe reviews Drowned Worlds


Drowned Worlds, Jonathan Strahan, ed. (So­laris 9781781084519, $14.95, 336pp, tp) July 2016. Cover by Les Edwards.

Nina Allan also provides what could easily be the tagline for Jonathan Strahan’s provocative if depressing new anthology Drowned Worlds: ‘‘The problem is that no one gives much of a shit about the future until it actually happens’’. This observation is from her story ‘‘The Com­mon Tongue, the Present Tense, the Known’’, set in a ruined Cornwall after a series of global catastrophes such as the ‘‘La Palma tsunami’’ have killed millions, inundated a fifth of the world’s land, and redrawn the globe in what the media euphemistically call ‘‘the Remapping.’’ It’s one of the more haunting tales in the book, not simply because of its litany of disasters, but because of its incisive examination of what happens to friendship, family, and love in a radically diminished world. ‘‘If the end of our world has taught us anything it is that love is a luxury’’ is another line pertinent to many of the stories here. That, in turn, suggests something rather unexpected and rewarding about the anthology: its focus on character and family rather than the mechanics of spectacle. Fully half the stories centrally involve families, and a few, such as Kathleen Ann Goonan’s ‘‘Who Do You Love?’’, cover three generations, in this case a Key West family grappling with the dis­appearance of coral reefs. The grandmother’s radical strategy is essentially to become coral herself, somehow genetically altering herself to host and support coral growths, while the grandson’s solution to the problem is no less radical in its own way. Similarly, Lavie Tidhar’s ‘‘Drowned’’ portrays a younger narrator skepti­cal of the tales his father and grandmothers tell of ‘‘a time the Roads had not been abandoned and people went everywhere by private pods, and all food came from giant temples….’’ Ra­chel Swirsky’s ‘‘Destroyed by the Waters’’ is a moving tale of an aging gay couple diving into the ruins of New Orleans while still coming to grips with the son they lost years earlier.

There have, of course, been a number of anthologies focused on future cataclysms, and SF writers have been drawn to global inunda­tions from S. Fowler Wright’s 1928 Deluge to Stephen Baxter’s Flood and Ark just a few years ago. As Strahan notes in his introduction, the prospects are a lot less science fictional than they seemed only a few years ago. The rather narrow focus of the theme inevitably involves some degree of sameness, and indeed the anthology is replete with oddly beautiful submerged landscapes of New Orleans, Key West, Venice, San Francisco, and even Har­vard. But the deluge novel that Strahan singles out as having fascinated him is J.G. Ballard’s weirdly rapturous 1962 novel The Drowned World, which was notably different from the general run of apocalyptic fiction. Ballard wasn’t interested in Awful Warnings, and The Drowned World came as part a series of novels about winds and droughts that grew increas­ingly metaphorical and interior in their focus, and The Drowned World itself was rooted in what Ballard once called the ‘‘archaeopsychic’’ dimension of SF, referring to the ways in which catastrophe could serve as transformative of psychological states. That approach seems to recur more than once in Strahan’s selection of stories, the oldest of which (and the only reprint in the book) is Kim Stanley Robinson’s classic ‘‘Venice Drowned’’, which recaptures some of the elegiac tone of Ballard’s novel.

Strahan’s anthology opens with Paul McAu­ley’s wonderfully titled ‘‘Elves of Antarctica’’, in which climate change refugees have begun to settle into a newly temperate Antarctica, com­plete with reconstituted mammoths, where a number of stones have been discovered marked with mysterious runes that for some evoke the huldufolk of Iceland, while others suspect they may simply be hoaxes derived from a very familiar fantasy movie trilogy. Like most of the stories here, it’s set in a recognizable mid-distant future, but Ken Liu’s ‘‘Dispatches from the Cradle: The Hermit – Forty-Eight Hours in the Sea of Massachusetts’’ takes us all the way to the 27th century, when the solar system is colonized and refugees have established huge floating colonies over their drowned homelands. The central figure is very much a Ballardian character, a famous hermit who has taken up residence in the sea above what was once Harvard University. The setting for Christopher Rowe’s ‘‘Brownsville Station’’ is a vast Gulf of Mexico megalopolis stretching from Cancun to Key West, but in a world in which weather has become so violent that the only safe method of travel is by train. In Char­lie Jane Anders’s ‘‘Because Change Was the Ocean, and We Lived by Her Mercy’’, the new megacity is Fairbanks, but what is most striking about this story is not the architecture of the lost world, but its music: the main characters, the Wrong Headed kids, are inept musicians trying to recreate something of what was lost, not only in the flooding but in a worldwide ‘‘dataclysm’’ that virtually lost all digitally stored music. And perhaps the most original version of a post-apocalyptic megacity here is the Garbagetown of Catherynne Valente’s ‘‘The Future Is Blue’’, a surreal conglomera­tion of waste and junk built on the famous Pa­cific garbage patch; Valente’s young narrator, though, believes it to be ‘‘the most wonderful place anybody has ever lived in the history of the world’’ – possibly the most direct ironic ex­pression of Ballard’s notion of archaeopsychic transformation.

Other forms of irony abound. Nalo Hopkin­son’s ‘‘Inselberg’’ is told in the form of a tour guide speaking to a busload of hapless tourists visiting ‘‘the little nipple of a mountaintop that is all left of my country,’’ but which never­theless hosts some pretty violent and surreal hazards as a result of the ‘‘duppy tide’’ that inundated it. James Morrow’s ‘‘Only Ten More Shopping Days Left Till Ragnarok’’ begins with a disastrous North Pole expedition and evolves into one of his trenchant philosophical fables as the survivors encounter an obscure Inuit nation whose demon-god is largely re­sponsible for promoting all the cynicism in the world, and who may be on the verge of de­stroying the world entirely. There’s also a new-religion theme in Sam J. Miller’s ‘‘Last Gods’’, in which whales come to be worshiped.

Any good theme anthology will include a few counterintuitive stories, and the best examples here are Jeffrey Ford’s ‘‘What Is’’ and Sean Williams’s ‘‘The New Venusians’’. The Ford story is about the most brutal tale in the book, and the most brutal I’ve seen from this eclec­tic writer, depicting not the flooded coastal areas of a climate-changed world, but rather a dust-bowl Oklahoma destroyed by fracking, earthquakes, and drought. The violent schemes by which a few scattered survivors compete for scarce resources nearly takes us into Cormac McCarthy territory. In Williams’s story, a re­bellious teenage girl is sent to her grandfather on Venus, whose discoveries suggest that what is happening on the drowned Earth may once have happened on Venus as well. The sugges­tion, of course, is that we just don’t know how to take care of planets, or don’t have the will to try, and that might be the distressing underlying theme of all the stories here. For all the recur­ring iconic images that populate Drowned Worlds, each story manages to become its own human-scale drama, evoking at its best not only a profound sense of loss, but a sort of cultural and global PTSD that may be getting pretty close to inevitable.

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