…And Other Disasters, Malka Older (Mason Jar Press 978-0996103787, $17.95, 201pp, tp) November 2019.
Although it’s a slim book, the nine stories and three poems that feature in Malka Older’s debut collection …And Other Disasters showcase an eclectic and vivid imagination. This includes a future history detailing the break-up of the United States of America (cleverly split into seven individual sections across the collection to mimic the dissolution of the country); military SF featuring a battalion of midwives heading off to fight opposing colonists on an alien world; and a brilliant story about an empathetic AI pressured into defending its existence before a hostile Congress.
One of the strongest pieces is “Tear Tracks”, which see two humans travel across the stars to meet face-to-face with a species the media have (rather crudely) dubbed the Cyclopes. What begins as a straight-forward first contact tale becomes this layered, potent discussion about suffering, with an ending that’s not violent or shocking, but still packs an emotional wallop. Very much of the moment, “The Divided” is a slice of magical realism where impossible walls – possibly engineered from pure hatred and xenophobia – spring up suddenly on the US/Mexican and Canadian borders, shutting the States off from the rest of the world. The story is set on the Mexican side of the border where our protagonist sells flowers to those wanting to leave remembrances to those who have been lost. Like all good satire, “The Divided” cuts deep when revealing the truth: “Analysts predicted war and anarchy, said that inside the crops would be failing and people would be starving and squabbling. That was hard to grasp though, all that money and power rotting away so quickly.” My favourite piece though is “The E-Mail Heiress”, the only story in the collection with no genre content. When Wei is asked to assist three people who are requesting access to the email account of their dead housemate, she realises that her company, CyberServices, has no policy to deal with this situation. It’s the mid-’90s and these sorts of email protocols have yet to be developed. While that might sound a little dull, “The E-Mail Heiress” is a profoundly humane piece of writing that perfectly captures how a compassionate mindset and small tweaks in policy can positively affect another person’s life.
While there’s a variety in the types of tales that feature in …And Other Disasters, what ties most of Older’s stories together is the empathy she instills in her characters, whether they be human, alien, or AI.
Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at email@example.com.
This review and more like it in the February 2020 issue of Locus.
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