Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Drowned Worlds - Jonathan Strahan (Ed.)

Drowned Worlds is the latest in a series of Strahan-edited anthologies. In this  case, it gathers together a swathe of diverse writers, to discuss what happens to the world after sea levels rise.

There’s a great selection of stories here, with moods ranging from the melancholy to the darkly comic, with stopovers in the mythical. The settings vary as well. Though the theme of changing climates and rising waters is always there in the background, the timing shifts – in some cases, the narrative is at the crest of the disaster, teetering on the brink, wondering how we’ll cope on the downward slope. In others, the great catastrophe that can break civilisation has already been and gone, and the story walks through the aftermath, asking what humanity has become.
As an example of the latter, there’s Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Future is Blue”, with remnants of society cast adrift on an island of rubbish. The garbage itself has been sorted and segregated, and now the people live in the scattered leavings of the previous world, using batteries  for power, and less useful salvage as a building material. But there’s a romantic certainty working through that society, a vision of land, just out of reach, somewhere over the horizon. It’s a society with a dream of permanence, a sense of its own impermanence, and a desire for something more. It’s also something recognisably human – noble, idealistic, corrupt, petty and venal, all at once – a thriving microcosm of humanity living in our own remnants, but no less human.

At the earlier end of the spectrum, there’s  Christopher Rowe’s “Brownsville”, tracking the rise of floodwaters in a world with a Pan-Caribbean rail system. Here the rising waters are a ticking clock, the protagonists looking for a way up and away in their sealed system; again there’s a strength and a sense of genuine humanity here – the two central characters tied together by their affection for each other, as well as by desperate circumstance. There’s a sense of a society already build to handle massive climate change, one which now is itself disintegrating – humanity becoming less of a force in control of nature, and instead, by necessity, a component within it instead.

The other stories have a similar level of diversity, from Kim Stanley Robinson’s exploration of religion, identity and financial colonialism in “Venice Drowned”, as a tour guide helps some tourists pull treasures from Venice’s now submerged churches, to Sean Williams “The New Venusians” – here the discussion is around the environment and change. Venus is pushed into a catastrophic climate event, becoming more earth-like as a result, the mists condensing into seas. This does, of course, lead to the utter destruction of the existing ecosystem. There are meditations here on the right by which humanity meddles with larger systems, and discussions of the consequences – wrapped in a bittersweet tale of growth and the delicate relationship between a teenager and her grandfather.

What they all share is a sense of humanity, a feeling that we are in ways mysterious to us, both greater and more monstrous than we are perhaps prepared to admit. These are stories exploring the way that people are, and the way in which they will adapt and change in any circumstance – all to the backdrop of rising waters, melting ice caps, and the destruction of the current paradigm of human existence. Each author approaches that paradigm shift from a different direction, but humanity is at the core of their work – and the collection as a whole is an intriguing meditation on where we’ll go next – and what we’ll do once we get there.

Is it worth reading? If the theme appeals, if broken worlds and submerged cities tweak something in you, then yes, absolutely. If you want to look at the way humanity could be in a changed or changing world – then again, yes. There’s a lot of fiction on the end of the world out there, but this is a strong collection, with a lot of interesting things to say, and it’ll reward a careful reading.

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