…and Other Disasters
by Malka Older
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted November 18, 2019
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…and Other Disasters is the first story collection from Malka Older, author of the Centenal Cycle trilogy, which was a finalist for this year's Hugo Award as Best Series. This collection consists of eight stories and three poems, along with what I would classify as an essay. None are longer than short story length, with a couple that might be considered flash, or micro-fiction. Do not let word count fool you though. They are all filled with intriguing ideas and subtle emotions, which will linger long after reading. I don't want to say too much about them, just give a brief overview that will hopefully intrigue you enough to buy the book. For those averse to using Amazon, it can be ordered directly from Mason Jar Press, for which this site will not receive a commission. I don't care where you buy it, I just think you should.
I had previously read two of the stories, including the first, "The Black Box." It's in an anthology I've been reading over the past couple of weeks, and which will likely be my next review. The story is referenced in the cover art. What is euphemistically called a Black Box is a neural implant known as a Lifebrarian. It's function is to automatically record a person's experiences so they can be recalled at will. There is a downside though, as there is to almost any new technology. What happens if you never upgrade? "Rupture" is about an émigré to an alien planet who returns to Earth for education and research. She becomes involved with another student who loves to travel to various disaster areas, including a lava eruption in the South Pacific. As frightened as she is about the imminent destruction of Earth, his enthusiasm with the danger leads her to believe it will not be her only Earth visit. "The Divided" is perhaps the post topical of the stories. People south of the US border are convinced The Wall will never be completed, or at least hope and pray that it is not. They wake one morning to be confronted with a Wall that apparently grew itself from the landscape overnight, even trapping some people inside of it.
The other story I had read was 2015's "Tear Tracks," available online at tor.com. It involves a diplomatic mission to an alien world, in which it is discovered that linguistics is not the only barrier to communication. Cultural and emotional differences might also play a part. If not for the author's blog I would have assumed "Candidate Y" was written before her Centenal novels, perhaps the first idea that led to the Policy 1st Party. Instead it was for a 2018 podcast. I'll mention "The Email Heiress" out of order. It's the only one set in the past, when AOL and Compuserve were at the top of the heap of the internet world. A coder for a small start-up is influential in forming policy for cases in which family, friends, or co-workers might need to access a deceased person's inbox.
The two remaining stories are not only the longest, they are also the best. "Perpetuation of the Species" is set on a transport ship headed to an alien colony world. Cena joins a group of women who are surrogate mothers or midwives, or both, and another faction trains in military tactics and martial arts. There are already two human settlements on the destined planet, locked in a civil war. The new expedition needs to be prepared to fight as soon as they land. "Saint Path" concerns a revolutionary new AI consciousness, one designed to employ empathy. It may just be that Path exhibits more empathy toward other humans than the humans tasked with conducting its Turing Test. Interspersed between each story is a seven part essay entitled "The End of the Incarnation," in which Older speculates on what might happen, both the good and bad, if the United States was fractured by seceding states. She echoed this idea in another essay (not in this book), "Why I'm Pro-Secession For Anyone Who Wants It". It's the core idea, self-determination and self-government, that gave birth to her speculated Micro-Democracies in the Centenal Cycle.
As with any good fiction, Older's characters imbue the stories with emotional resonance that give the ideas more weight. Each ends on a note you might not expect, but they aren't surprising twists, everything is logical and organic to the characters and the theme. All of the disasters depicted are man-made, but no matter how bleak the scenario, there is also a glimmer of hope that through cooperation, and emotional empathy, any and all disasters can be averted, or at least diminished in severity. Malka envisions a world in which diversity, empathy, and compassion are strengths. A world in which the individual is as important as any political or ethnic group, but also where any and all groups are encouraged to govern themselves. I want to live in that world, which is more hopeful than the one I'm in now.
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