The Drone Outside by Kristine Ong Muslim. Eibonvale, hb (£12), pb (£6), 50pp. ISBN 978-1-897125-54-5. Website: www.eibonvalepress.co.uk.
Reviewed by Stephen Theaker
In 2017 Kristine Ong Muslim won a British Fantasy Award as the co-editor with Nalo Hopkinson of the anthology People of Colour Destroy Science Fiction. This chapbook, published later that year, and the first in a proposed line from the publisher, collects nine of her own very short stories – the longest lasts ten pages, the shortest just two. Together they seem to set out a future history that is rather less optimistic than those we often see in science fiction.
This is a world where the Siberian permafrost melted, releasing anthrax into the population and burning methane into the air (“Anno Domini”), accelerating global warming beyond hope. It begins during a heatwave in 2182 or so, with the world “in its initial wave of overhaul”, and a group on a desperate mission to unplug “the machine” that had connected everyone’s lives (“Kilroy Was Here”). It ends in 2269, 70 years after the death of the last polar bear, with an artificial intelligence searching in vain for signs of human life (“Boltzmann Brain”).
These are stories of people so desperate that they’ll time travel back to Live Aid even though the process kills them after three minutes (“Anno Domini”). Some try to survive in bunkers (“The Neighbors”), others lose their minds to night terrors (“The Early Signs of Blight”), or must go days without turning on the lights (“The Longest Night”), and at one point everyone in the world wakes up covered in black mould (“Eventide”). The stories are so short that the reader is often quite a long way through before getting a handle on what is happening. But because they are so short, it’s not a problem to re-read them again with that in mind, much like you would a poem.
The text block of the book is printed at a five degree angle, which at first seems like an error, but is revealed as deliberate when you realise that the page numbers are unaffected. This has two effects: it physically imbues the stories with a sense of strangeness; and it makes the reader tilt their head and get a stiff neck. Not an entirely successful experiment, but don’t let that stop you reading a very good book. If you’ve enjoyed the little science fiction books in the Penguin Modern series, you’ll probably like this too. It’s serious in intent and very well written. Four stars.