Having read Erica L. Satifka’s rural cyberpunk novella Busted Synapses last year and chatted to her about it a little bit on this blog, I thought I knew what kinds of stories to expect going into How to Get to Apocalypse i.e. stories about working class people doing their best to navigate the grim technological realities of the near future in whatever ways they can. And while it does have that signature Satifka flair that I know and enjoy, she also managed to surprise me on more than one occasion, both in form and content.
The opening story, ‘States of Emergency’, throws you in at the deep end, whisking you across a post-apocalyptic nightmare world USA in a series of hallucinogenic vignettes, of false Roman gods hacking people to death on Florida boulevards, corrupt pastors being devoured by sin-eating machines and tiny Delawareans enslaved by authoritarian credit card companies. What I particularly enjoyed about this story was the note at the end of the book explaining the inspiration came from an old shower curtain embossed with recognisable cultural elements of all the US states and “you could read a narrative about political polarisation into this story if you want, but to paraphrase a well-known tweet, it’s really just about a fucking shower curtain”.
The book really hits its stride with the next story though. ‘Human Resources’ depicts a future ridden with income inequality, where the rich are able to purchase body parts from increasingly desperate working class citizens, to enhance their own bodies at the expense of everyone else, even for the most trivial of purposes. A lot of Satifka’s stories focus on income inequality and invasive and demeaning ways the wealthy will find to manipulate and own the personhood of working class bodies. There’s a similar theme in the story ‘Automatic’, where the protagonist rents his optic nerve to vacationers from Ganymede. It’s a theme that riffs on some of the earliest (and best) cyberpunk stories, like ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ by William Gibson, a story about a data courier who has a chip implanted in his head which enables him to physically transport encrypted data too valuable to risk transferring across a computer network. It puts me in mind of something Bruce Sterling once said about how in cyberpunk technology is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside of us, but next to us. Under our skin, often inside our minds. And while we may not be at the point of renting out our optic nerves to rich aliens or selling fingers to one percenters so they can be better at playing piano, I can’t help but think about the invasive corporate psychology behind social media, deployed to keep us perpetually doom-scrolling so that corporations can keep selling us advertisements.
Other stories examine social topics like the opioid crisis, told via the means of an invading alien species addicting the human population to ‘pleasure juice’ in ‘The Big So-So’; the co-opting and redirecting of revolutionary movements by the system into harmless outlets that pose no threat to the system in ‘Child of the Revolution’. One prominent theme in numerous stories is the oppressive function of technology in capitalist societies; how technology freeing us from work should be liberating, but how the logic of capitalism means it results in unemployment and poverty. This was most apparent in the story ‘Loving Grace’, where automation has resulted in a society where human labour is no longer necessary, but an employment draft is enacted whereby people’s consciousnesses are uploaded into automated drones because capitalism cannot conceive of a society where workers are liberated from labour. Incidentally the title and concepts in this story are derived from Richard Brautigan’s poem and the Adam Curtis documentary series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, both of which grapple with how computers have failed to liberate humanity. I recommend them both, they’re excellent read and watches, respectively.
The story I found the most engaging on an intellectual level was ‘After We Walked Away’, Satifka’s response to Ursula Le Guin’s short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’. My interpretation of Le Guin’s original story was not that the ones who walk away do so literally, and simply to do nothing, but that the story is constructed as a metaphor for building a new system entirely, not simply working within the confines of the exploitative system established in the city of Omelas. It’s why I think N. K. Jemesin’s response story ‘The Ones Who Stay and Fight’ is so frustrating, because it fundamentally misunderstands the point Le Guin was making and is just a mushy, liberal we can reform the system if we stay and work within it take. Satifka’s ‘After We Walked Away’ tells the story of two unnamed characters who refuse to be complicit in the abuse that Omelas relies on and so come to live in ‘our’ world, and find it to be even more repellent than Omelas, full of orders of magnitude more suffering and without even the ‘justification’ of a beneficial purpose. I liked that. It’s dark and uncompromising in its depiction and condemnation of our world and it doesn’t fall into the trap that Jemesin (and so many others) fall into of viewing Omelas as a puzzle to be solved, rather than as a leaping off point to talk about complex, uncomfortable ideas.
There are a lot more stories in this collection and I could probably write reviews about every one of them individually. What I love about Erica Satifka’s fiction though is that she writes bleak, cynical stories about messy people with messy lives living in messy societies – people that aren’t simply stand-ins for the reader. Her characters are not paragons of moral virtue and you’ll find no didactic lessons being taught here. She doesn’t provide answers or give signposted directions about how to make things better. What she does do is shine a spotlight on authoritarianism, income inequality and the balance of power in capitalist societies. She asks us to think about how we would navigate the worlds she presents, and the answers aren’t always easy.
How to Get to Apocalypse and Other Disasters is published by Fairwood Press and is out now. Def check out Fairwood’s other books on their website. Did you enjoy this review? Find it useful? Follow the blog and never miss a post!