OUT OF THE RUINS edited by Preston Grassmann
Titan Books, p/b, £8.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
One of the reasons why people write Science Fiction is to provide the ‘dire warning’, the suggestion that this is what will happen if we continue on our present course. Many of these predict the destruction of civilization. The type of holocaust often depends on the concerns of the decade in which it was written. In the 1960s and 70s, when the threat of nuclear war was at its peak, the idea of the nuclear winter was prevalent. Now, the end of the world is more likely to be a climactic catastrophe and, as recent events have shown, a new disease, either natural or man-made.
The human race has shown itself to be very resilient. Whatever the disaster, there are likely to be survivors. The stories in Out of the Ruins are a look at the outcomes of some of the possible collapses of civilization. In some cases, the cause of the collapse is unspecified. Others point the finger at some aspects of our present trajectories. Some of the stories suggest a hopeful outcome, others a continuing threat or a total degeneration. With the limited word count of a short story, the emphasis is needfully focused on the characters and their struggles. Not all the pieces are original to this volume. There is a range of approaches, and it is good to see that the contents are bracketed by poems. The first, ‘The Hour’ by Clive Barker, sums up the tone of the rest of the book.
In the aftermath of a high-tech civilization, there will be artefacts remaining which will have value in certain quarters. ‘The Green Caravanserai’ by Lavie Tidhar is a vignette, a meeting between two boys, one a scavenger, the other a member of the caravanserai that buys up the finds. In ‘A Storm In Kingstown’ by Nina Allan, the level of civilization has reverted to a mediaeval level but finds from pre-catastrophe suggest that in some places, there is a chance of rebuilding what has been lost. The isolated town in ‘Watching God’ by China Míeville has traces of old techs, such as photographs, but the people are not interested in rebuilding. Instead, they observe the ships that pass by out at sea and become concerned when they stop seeing them.
Plagues of various kinds are sometimes cited for the situation. In ‘Maeda: The Body Optic’ by Rumi Kaneko, the virus only attacks people with a Y chromosome and gradually turns all men into machines. In ‘Inventory’ by Carmen Maria Machado, the narrator recounts all her sexual encounters as she travels across America ahead of a virus that kills everyone. In both these stories, the plague is ongoing, but in ‘Reminded’ by Ramsey Campbell, the plague has wiped memories, and a couple, Val and Phil, are trying to remember their past enough to go back to their own jobs, which in this case is teaching others to drive – once they have remembered how to drive themselves.
Occasionally, there is complete destruction. In ‘As Good As New’ by Charlie Jane Anders, Marisol is a lucky survivor in that she dived into her employer’s panic room when the explosions started. When she finally emerges, she finds a bottle with a genie that will grant her three wishes. She chooses very carefully.
Whatever causes the destruction can give rise to something the survivors need to protect themselves against. Walls are useful. In The Age Of Fish, Post-Flowers’ by Anna Tambour, the walls keep out creatures called orm, but in ‘Exurbia’ by Kaaron Warren, the walls raise the city above the poisonous gases more than four kilometres below. The reader learns about it at Florian falls, thrown over it by the husband of his dead lover.
Not all ruins have to be physical. The personality, the psyche or mental stability is equally prone to ruination. ‘Dwindling’ by Ron Drummond contains elements of this approach. ‘The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, Of Cities’ by Samuel R. Delaney proposes the idea of the cultural fugue as the destroyer of worlds.
The stories in this volume have been chosen for their variety and, in some cases, for the ways of seeing ruins differently from the expected. There is SF and fantasy, utopia and dystopia and a touch of the surreal. Not all the stories appear to fulfil the brief but are worth reading anyway. Any single reader won’t like everything, but they should find enough to engage.