Humanist Science Fiction and the Rehabilitation of Book Snobs

We probably all know a book snob. Some of us might even be one, although if you’re reading this blog that’s reasonably unlikely. In my experience, there’s nothing that a book snob loves to hate more than genre fiction. Horror? Exploitative trash of the crudest kind. Thrillers? Airport rubbish that deserves to be remaindered. Romance? Pure drivel; good for nothing but the recycling bin. Westerns? Anachronistic macho bullshit. Fantasy? Nonsensical entertainment for the childish. Chick-lit? Mindless nonsense that should have stayed in the slush pile. Science fiction? Mechanical boys-own-adventure pap.

These are all criticisms that I’ve overheard at my local library, at my favourite bookshop, or that I remember from back in my uni days (although they have been made a little less crude). Statements like this are sad, really, and a little bit pathetic. They both symbolise a kind-of “literary bigotry” and deny those who hold such viewpoints the undeniable and unique pleasures that can be found in genre fiction. So, the question is, how do we convince these people to change their intolerant and blinkered attitudes? Especially in regard to both science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction – my preferred genres, as well as the ones I’m most familiar with, and the reason why we’re all here.

I believe we need to expose these book snobs to good works of genre fiction, works that both expand their understanding of each genre’s potential and make full use of the particular themes, tropes, devices and peculiarities inherent to each. But what a genre fan might consider good isn’t necessarily good for a reluctant reader with a nigh-intractable bias. I’ll use science fiction as my example. Classic works such as Philip K. Dick’s Valis, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, and more contemporary works such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, might all be considered great works of science fiction by both fans and critics, but it’s unlikely that any of them would convert a book snob. They are too dependent on the reader’s knowledge of science fiction’s “rules” and too-often rely on said reader’s established appreciation of the genre and subsequent willingness to engage with works that are arguably “outside” the norm.

This brings us, in a rather roundabout way, to humanist science fiction.

Now, humanist is a somewhat elastic term, especially when we try and apply it to both fiction and science fiction. After all, it is technically “the non-religious philosophy based on liberal human values” (according to my trusty dictionary). Such a prosaic description doesn’t do justice to the beauty that can be found in what I consider to be humanist science fiction, never mind the fact that it sums up a non-religious philosophy rather than a narrative framework or guide. To me, works of humanist science fiction are those that focus on both the inner emotional lives of their characters and on the impact of “the big idea” on these inner emotional lives, rather than on “the big idea” itself. This isn’t to say that “the big idea” – the crux of the genre, the event/invention/technological breakthrough/environmental cataclysm that shapes and propels a science fiction plot – isn’t important to humanist science fiction. However, while it may be necessary to the plot, more often than not it is somewhat pushed to the background, chiefly existing to drive the examination and explication of the characters and their inner and emotional lives, and allowing these themes to occupy the foreground.

Does this all sound a bit complicated? Basically, I consider humanist science fiction to be that which shines a lot on both the beauty and the horror of being human, on the joys and sorrows and the triumphs and tragedies and the excitement and mundanity of being alive.

Take Matt Haig’s The Humans as an example. In this unbelievably moving work, “the big idea” is that Andrew Martin, a professor at Cambridge University, has solved a mathematical equation that will dramatically accelerate humanity’s technological progress. The Vonnadorians – alien beings with an almost hive-mind mentality, who operate according to cold logic and act as intergalactic observers – decide that humanity isn’t ready for this acceleration. Consequently, they send one of their own to “erase” this new knowledge by killing Martin, destroying the physical and digital evidence of his breakthrough, taking his place both literally and figuratively (assuming his physical identity through the use of alien technology and assuming his role as a husband, father and teacher), determining who Martin shared this knowledge with, and killing them as well.

So far, so science fiction.

This is merely the set-up, however, for Haig’s exploration of the “new” Martin’s assumption, acceptance and embrace of humanity. His journey begins with confusion and amusement in the face of such everyday things as our relationships with dogs and the human-centric nature of the news, all beautifully phrased and infused with a good dose of humour. But, as the plot progresses and the “new” Martin learns to love and to loathe and to feel joy and sorrow and to experience pleasure and pain and excitement and boredom, the tone becomes both more serious and more touching, while still maintaining its beautiful phrasing and sense of humour. The effect is startling: in the lessons that the “new” Martin learns, we ourselves are reminded of just how incredible and just how dull being alive really is. We realise that The Humans is a work that celebrates just that: being human, being alive.

Humanist science fiction like The Humans will move anyone, even a book snob. I ask you to try it, to go out and spread the word, to do your best to convert those people whose blinkered view stops them from seeing beauty in certain things.

Or just read some. If nothing else, it’ll make you feel better about yourself, and that’s no small thing.

NB: For furthering reading, I would recommend starting with Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake, Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, Jonathon Lethem’s Girl in Landscape and Steven Amsterdam’s What the Family Needed; while some good works of humanist post-apocalyptic fiction to begin with would be Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Thomas Glavinic’s Night Work, Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth, Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, and Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming.

(Originally published on AurealisXpress, 9/9/2014)

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The Loneliness of the Last One Left

I want to ask what may be a stupid question: Why does post-apocalyptic fiction have such a strong appeal? For some people, this might be because the genre is explicitly concerned with the destruction of the “old world” and the birth of a “new world” that is usually less regulated, urbanised and interdependent, something that science-fiction writer and critic Gary K. Wolfe calls “the fantasy of civilisation reduced to a simpler level, with room left for heroic quests and individual action”. For other people, post-apocalyptic fiction’s appeal may lie in its similarities to the western, as the themes of individualism, survivalism and life on the frontier that are integral to both genres also played a strong part in shaping our post-colonial world. For still others, its appeal may lie in its themes of man versus wild, or in its often-gleeful descriptions of the inventive ways that the world might be destroyed, or in its ability to act as a framework to critically, subversively and/or satirically examine the world around us. For me, part of the genre’s appeal is found in the almost misanthropic frisson that comes from reading about a humbled humanity.

Nowhere is this better seen than in what I call Empty World fiction, a sub-genre that (in less politically correct terms) is better known as ‘Last Man on Earth fiction’.

This is because the apocalypse at the heart of Empty World fiction is often biological and/or viral in origin, rather than environmental and/or militaristic – in most cases, the cities and towns of Empty World fiction are recognisably the same as their real-life counterparts, the only difference being the absence of people.

In contrast, most post-apocalyptic fiction shows us the destruction of both civilisation and its markers: cities are flattened, humanity’s monuments and marvels are toppled and razed, untold numbers of people are killed, and the survivors are left to scuttle in the ruins. In most post-apocalyptic fiction, we are shown civilisation’s grave; in Empty World fiction, we are shown civilisation frozen in time and put on display as if it were in a museum.

The difference might seem small, but it has enormous implications. Instead of having to adapt to a radically altered environment (be it a returned wilderness or a ruined city), the typical protagonist of Empty World fiction finds him/herself in a familiar world of office buildings and skyscrapers and sprawling suburbs and white-picket fences. Instead of having to hunt for food or fight for survival, said protagonist is faced with an abundance of canned and packaged food courtesy of our 21st-century way of life, and the only things he/she has to fight are monotony, boredom and loneliness.

Instead of having to make-do with whatever worn or ravaged or weathered or ruined materials are at hand, he/she finds that they are suddenly in a position to acquire whatever they desire, the empty cities acting as smorgasbords of material possessions.

In light of this, it should come as no surprise that most Empty World fiction is psychologically-oriented rather than action-oriented.

For those with a pre-existing interest in the genre, the sight of actor Bruno Lawrence slowly losing his mind thanks to loneliness is one that you will probably never forget (as seen in the 1985 film The Quiet Earth), and is one of the best cinematic portrayals of the types of fertile psychological landscapes that Empty World fiction explores. He staggers through an empty city, playing saxophone badly, oblivious to his surroundings; he shoots pool with himself, acting out two competing personalities; he assembles a crowd of cardboard cut-outs (each a notable 20th-century figure) and proceeds to lecture them hysterically, to the accompaniment of tape-recorded applause and cheering. In short, we see a man, with all the material things in life he could desire, lose his humanity because immaterial aspects of life such as company, companionship, society and routine have suddenly vanished.

Depictions like this are what fuel the frisson of misanthropy that we feel, for what we are seeing is an engagement with the positioning of the material and immaterial aspects of life as binary oppositions, a positioning that is a fundamental part of Western society.

In this way, by emphasising our need for the immaterial over the material, Empty World fiction is criticising both the consumerist nature of our modern world and a line of Western thought that demands adherence to the strictly rational and material: By stranding their protagonists in just such a rational and material world and charting their subsequent psychological disintegration, writers of Empty World fiction are able to show us how lonely and purposeless people can be when they have everything they want except someone to share it with. Again, we see this in the protagonist of The Quiet Earth, who is humbled and broken because he has too much of one aspect (the material) and none of the other (the immaterial).

There are a few problems inherent in basing a narrative around such a figure, however – a detailed depiction of a lone character’s psychological disintegration is presumably difficult for an author to sustain, is definitely somewhat grueling to read, and is necessarily devoid of character-based interaction and conflict.

This last problem is probably the most important, for character-based interaction and conflict are cornerstones of Western literature. So important are they to Western literature that most writers of Empty World fiction eventually fall prey to their pernicious influence: For the most part, the third acts of Empty World narratives inevitably herald the arrival of new characters. More often than not, two new characters will be introduced – a man and a woman – and the establishment of a love-triangle and an exploration of its consequences come to dominate the narrative. What was once introspective, humbling, thoughtful and psychologically “heavy” all too often becomes something trite and predictable, an unfortunate occurrence that I believe shows just how much an author can underestimate a reader’s ability to continually engage with such weighty themes. However, the opposite can also be true – for some authors, a detailed depiction of a lone character’s psychological disintegration seems to give them license to abandon almost every kind of action within the narrative. Texts likes this read more like free-flowing philosophical treatise, their protagonists existing in louche and dissolute worlds where existence seems to consist solely of sitting by a pool or by the ocean, staring into space and lost in thought. Most works of Empty World fiction fall into one of these two categories. This isn’t to say that they aren’t worth reading or watching, only that they are burdened by their very nature as works that “go against the grain”.

However, certain works of Empty World fiction manage to balance a detailed depiction of a lone character’s psychological disintegration with enough action to allow some kind of narrative and character development, all the while avoiding the introduction of other characters. An odd example of this (although it deviates from the rules a little) is Paul Hardy’s Last Man on Earth Club, which tells the story of a “multiverse” in which one particular “version” of Earth monitors all the other “versions”, stepping in and evacuating citizens whenever any one of these “Earths” succumbs to the apocalypse. These multi-versal search-and-rescue missions aren’t always entirely successful, and The Last Man on Earth Club’s narrative is centered on a support group created to help rehabilitate a number of different “Last Man/Woman on Earth” (the only survivors of the destruction of their respective worlds), and is told in both real-time and flashback, the former consisting of the story of the support group and the latter consisting of each survivors story of being the last man/woman on Earth. Hardy manages to have his cake and eat it too, and not only in his successful combination of sole-character action and multi-character action, for his novel is deeply thought-provoking and heavily invested in promoting the importance of the immaterial aspects of life, while the interaction and conflict between characters underlines how integral these themes are, rather than acting as the catalyst for yet another clichéd love triangle.

More “pure” examples of works of Empty World fiction that manage to balance a detailed depiction of a lone character’s psychological disintegration with enough action to allow some kind of narrative and character development can be found in Thomas Glavinic’s Night Work and the film The Noah (1975). The former concerns a man who awakens one day to find that the city he lives in is suddenly devoid of people, an event that has left no bodies behind or physical evidence of its occurrence; the latter concerns a soldier who washes up on a deserted island after World War III has destroyed the rest of civilisation.

Both works are surprisingly action-oriented, not only in the details of how their protagonists “exist” in the real world (finding food, making shelter, keeping themselves entertained, etc.), but also in how their psychological states impinge upon their physical states (whereby both protagonists sometimes literally embody what they are feeling).

As well, both works explore the connections between the protagonists’ actions and emotions, especially in regard to actions that are only really a part of “the world that was” (marching in a military manner, facing forwards in an elevator, locking doors, hiding objects, insisting on privacy, the list is endless). Both works are also incredibly moving, and are even sometimes quite harrowing in the depiction of the disconnect, mental breakdowns, and psychological disintegrations their protagonists experience.

And, while both works may at times be grueling, they never get lost under the weight of their own ideas or take off on digressive flights of fancy. Instead, while not exactly being “page turners”, they nonetheless hold our interest both narratively and thematically, and successfully and intelligently show us a different way of looking at the world, one that humbles us by highlighting the importance of community, social activity, connectivity, love and companionship.

(Originally published on AurealisXpress, 6/5/2014)

The Australian Renaissance

When it comes to popular Australian apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction, two titanic works stand above the rest: On The Beach and Mad Max. Add to that list Victor Kelleher’s Taronga and John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began series – works that were central to many an Australian teenager’s reading life – and you still have a pretty short list. The SF-inclined reader whose interest lies in our own national fictions might recognise names such as George Turner, Terry Dowling, Lee Harding and Steve Amsterdam (authors who have all delved into the end of the world), but their collective body of work has barely dented the public consciousness. Why is this?

Like the rest of the world, our own culture has been somewhat dominated by that of both the UnitedStates and Great Britain. Historically, these two countries were integral to the birth and solidification of SF as a whole and complete genre; while written SF has slowly become a global phenomenon, throwing up inspiring and visionary authors from the four corners and the seven seas, in the oh-so-popular mediums of television and film, Hollywood and London still reign supreme. Barely a month seems to go by without another cinematic symphony of destruction, war, and the end of the world. Is it any wonder, then, that our visions of the apocalypse have been shaped so thoroughly by those who live on distant shores?d

This is a terrible shame, and not just because most end of the world movies nowadays seem more crash-bang action flicks than cerebral or philosophical think pieces. It’s a shame because there has been a rich body of SF work produced right here in Australia, with a rich vein of apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic work running through it. While the aforementioned SF-inclined reader with an interest in our national tomorrow-when-the-war-beganfictions will no doubt be aware of this (the numerous studies of Australian SF that began emerging in the late-1970s helped give our own particular approach to the genre a kind of ‘critical’ legitimacy), what has seemed to fly well under the radar is the recent surge of new Australian apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction.

This surge isn’t just an Australian phenomenon. The end of the world is back in fashion, the apocalypse is cool again, and its signs and signifiers have become indelible parts of the global consciousness. There are as many reasons for this as there are mosquitoes in summer: global warming, the GFC, the millions of displaced people living as refugees, climate change, 9/11, increasingly repressive governments in both democracies and dictatorships, food shortages and food riots, international terrorism, and so on and so on. This depressing list of recent history that carries an end-of-days vibe could continue ad nauseam.

Fiction has always been used to help us understand and cope with the horrors and wonders that are an inevitable part of life. Now, more than ever, it has become an increasingly important tool in making sense of our frenetic and seemingly calamitous 21st-century world. Here in Australia, our authors are doing just that – confronting the unique challenges that face us in our island-continent. And they’re doing it with both style and increasing frequency.

In the last twenty-odd years, we’ve seen end of the world novels depicting a future Australia dramatically altered by climate change (Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, Andrew Sullivan’s A Sunburnt Country, Andrez Bergen’s Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat), or focussed around the troubled relationship between Indigenous Australians and white Australians (Archie Weller’s Land of the Golden Clouds, Sam Watson’s The Kadaitcha Sung, Peter Docker’s The Waterboys), or centred around gender and sexuality (Sue Isle’s Nightsiders, Kim Westwood’s The Courier’s New Bicycle), or inspired by the particular Australian obsessions with ‘the refugee problem’ and the economy (Andrew McGahan’s Underground, Guy Salvidge’s Yellowcake Springs). In the world of short fiction, small-press publishers such as Twelfth Planet Press and Fablecroft Publishing have blazed a trail, with anthologies such as 2012, Sprawl, After the Rain and Epilogue providing plenty of room for more condensed apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic visions. Hell, we’ve even seen the world get stomped flat by a parade of monsters in Agog!Press’ Daikaiju series.

While not every work mentioned above is great (as such), they are all, nonetheless, interesting. What’s more important is that they are all out there, filled with fascinating perspectives on this great southern land, just waiting to be read. While some have had enough of an impact to garner reviews in the mainstream media, many have remained relatively obscure. This is the biggest shame of all. The more perspectives we have on the potential end of the world, the better we can understand and cope with our fears of it actually happening. What kind of character would we rather see guide us through these scenarios? Another bland American soldier? Another bland English every-man? Or an Australian, whose background we might more easily relate to? And which world would we rather see end? The urban jungle that is New York? The sprawling metropolis of London? Or a city like Melbourne or Sydney, Brisbane or Perth, Adelaide or Darwin – cities that we might call home?

(Originally published on AurealisXpress, 6/5/2014)

Where’s the Literary Love for Our Kaiju Friends?

Today, I want to talk about monsters. Not just any old monsters – such a discussion could range from Dr. Frankenstein’s creation and its innumerable literary and filmic progeny to the three different versions of The Thing (1951’s The Thing from Another World, 1982’s The Thing and 2011’s The Thing); from the dragons and serpents of humanity’s myths to the creepie-crawlies of drive-in cinema; from the playful and comic Gremlins (1984) to the serious and sombre original Godzilla (1954); from the cheesy stop-motion beasties of Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981) to the CGI horrors of Cloverfield (2008) and Pacific Rim (2013). I want to talk about giant monsters. My question is this: where’s the literary love for this much-maligned genre? In our postmodern world – a world where high and low art are constantly mixing and interacting, and shifting boundaries cultural appropriation are parts of everyday life – revisiting much-maligned genres and lending them an air of artistic integrity has proven to be a boon for a lot of storytellers.

Now, a small caveat is necessary here: serious doesn’t need to mean ponderous, boring, dull, humourless, monotonous, or any of the hundreds of negative words that can be used to dismiss works of art that make us think. By serious, I mean serious in intent and execution; the original Godzilla may have been little more than a man in a suit, yet the film itself conjures up a palpable sense of dread that eluded most of its B-grade creature-feature contemporaries.

To provide just a few examples: Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the Batman Begins series (2005-2012), Perry Moore’s Hero, and Steven Amsterdam’s What the Family Needed all use the superhero genre as a springboard for texts that take a serious look at issues of power, masculinity, control, violence, family, relationships, and free-will. Furthermore, if we look at Jonathon Lethem’s Girl in Landscape, Outland (1981), The Proposition (2005), and William S. Burroughs The Place of Dead Roads, we might see nothing more than a disparate set of texts, yet they are all westerns at their core, and are all of a serious nature. Even post-apocalyptic fiction, which is so often criticised as containing nothing more than survivalist fantasies and uber-masculinist behaviours, can act as the bedrock for po-faced and genuinely moving works of art – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, The Noah (1975), Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, and Hugh Howey’s Wool series.

Do you notice anything missing from this list? If your answer was ‘giant monsters’ then you’ve obviously been paying attention to the point of this article.

But hang on, I can almost hear you say, wasn’t Godzilla just mentioned as an example of how giant monsters can be used seriously? Well, dear reader, you got me there – in the world of cinema, a significant number of filmmakers have approached the genre with thoughts above and beyond merely crafting vacuous exploitation pictures.

In fact, the films that helped defined the genre were themselves often serious at heart. The depth of human feeling invested in the titular King Kong (1933), the unmistakable nuclear parable that is the original Godzilla, the melancholy sense of loss that permeates Rodan (1956); these are weighty narrative attributes that both touch us emotionally and engage our intellects. And while it is true that the vast majority of texts that they inspired were indeed vacuous exploitation pictures bereft of heart, substance and any subtext worth mentioning, some recent films have bucked this trend – Cloverfield was unmistakably drenched in allusions to 9/11; Monsters (2010) was explicitly concerned with immigration, dispossession, and asylum-seeking; while The Host (2006) managed to successfully (and humorously) blend issues of pollution, environmental degradation and imperial exploitation with a moving story of a dysfunctional family that pulls together in the face of adversity.

It is when we look to the written word that we find slim pickings.

This is surprising, as giant monsters seem a perfect fit for our uncertain times – the variety of metaphors that they can embody dovetail neatly with the shifting artistic boundaries and fluid cultural borders that are a part of contemporary life. In other words, giant monsters can mean whatever we want them to mean, as seen in the fact that they can act as stand-ins for nuclear war, 9/11, climate change, pollution and immigration. But whatever it is that we want them to mean, it is highly likely that it is something that has the potential to overwhelm us, to awe us, to dwarf us and make us feel helpless and small. After all, the only feature that giant monsters have in common is their size. In light of this, the vast potential and rich stew of metaphors to be found underlining giant monsters would suggest a well-spring of inspiration for genre-inclined authors.

But no.

In true obsessive-fan style, I spent untold hours researching, borrowing, buying and reading fiction centred around giant monsters. The results were frustrating; the overwhelming majority of what I read delighted in the crash-bang-bash of urban destruction and favoured it over any emotional weight, while commonplace literary attributes such as narrative plausability and convincing characterisation were dumbed down to the nth degree. Thankfully, it wasn’t all bad news – some authors printed in the Daikaiju short-story series took their subject matter seriously, creating convincing worlds and narratives that were truly moving, while longer works such as Mark Jacobson’s Gojiro: A Novel and James K. Morrow’s Shambling Towards Hiroshima engaged in playful and unique postmodern games. However, the limited scope of the short stories left me wanting more, and while the games played by Jacobson and Morrow were undeniably impressive, the playful nature of their narratives somewhat drained away the sense of awe that I enjoy in my giant monsters. To explain: Jacobson’s novel is narrated in the first-person by none other than a Godzilla stand-in, who sets out on a quest to find his world’s version of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb; Marrow’s novel (set towards the end of the Second World War) tells the story of the American government’s attempt to create a giant monster which can be used as a weapon against Japan, and is told from the perspective of an actor employed to don a rubber-suit and impersonate said monster in a live-theatre piece of propaganda. As could be expected from such brief summaries, much fun is had by all.

I didn’t find a single novel that took giant monsters seriously, nothing that can compare to the likes of Godzilla, Rodan, Cloverfield or Monsters.

Where are they? Are they even out there? Forget creating more works that feature grim superheroes, harrowing end-of-days landscapes, and richly evocative tributes to the western; our writers should be portraying giant monsters as they are meant to be, damn it. Who wouldn’t love a novel that intelligently shows giant monsters as fearsome, terrifying, world-shaking beasts, thoroughly explores the what-ifs of their being, and empathically examines the psychological toll that they might have upon us?

If I don’t find one soon, I might just have to write one myself.

(Originally published on AurealisXpress19/2/2014)

Rising Water

I adjust the radio again.

“Hello, are you there?”

“Hello, are you there?”

“Hello?”

I haven’t heard from base since the storm. The water is still rising. We’ve relocated to the top of the tower. The whole tower is swaying. I’m not sure how much longer we can hold out.

I try one more time.

“Hello?”

Nothing.

I check the emergency beacon again. It seems to be working, but what do I know? I’m really just a glorified maintenance man.

***

Anne is still asleep, but it’s her shift and fair’s fair. I shake her awake, gently — we’ve been down here long enough to know each other well.

She pushes me away.

“Just another hour,” she says, her voice thick.

“Okay, but that’s it.”

She’s asleep only moments later. I reset the shift-alarm.

***

I’m worried about her, so to distract myself I try the radio again. There’s still no answer. I give up, look around the room. There’s no point in going outside — the lights died during the storm, and suns-up is hours away.

I collapse into a chair by the window, looking out at the endless water below.

***

The beep of an alarm wakes me. I’m on my feet almost instantly, panicked, wondering what’s gone wrong this time.

But it’s just the shift-alarm.

Anne switches it off and smiles at me. I collapse back into my chair.

“Good morning, sleepy head.”

I groan, but still return her smile. She’s been sick since the storm: un-focussed, lethargic, disconnected. This is the first time in more than 48-hours that she’s shown any spark.

I’m happy to see her back on her feet, although she still looks a bit run-down.

“How are you feeling?” I ask.

She smiles again. “Much better. But you should get some more rest — you’ve been pushing it pretty hard.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yep. I’ve got it from here.”

She helps me to my to bunk.

***

Anne is shaking me. The shift-alarm isn’t sounding. Something must be up if she’s waking me early.

“What’s wrong?” I ask, stifling a yawn.

“I made contact!” She laughs brightly, girlishly, just for a second, her most endearing habit. I’m really happy to see her back on her feet.

“Come on, have a listen,” she says.

I crawl out of my bunk and follow her, barely surprised that she succeeded where I failed. She’s the real brains, her head crammed with technical knowledge. But she’s not as adaptable as me. I guess that’s why we’re a good team.

The contact she made is disappointing.

“Outpost 11, this is Base.”

The voice is distorted, thin, almost lost in static. I don’t recognise it.

“Outpost 11, this is Base,” it asks again.

“It’s a loop,” Anne explains. “But at least it’s something.”

We listen for hours, sitting together in silence, waiting. At some point, the loop starts to fade out. And then it’s gone.

Anne yawns. She’s looking a bit green again.

“Get some sleep,” I say. “I’ll be okay.”

***

Another storm just hit us. Like last time, it’s the middle of the night. This one doesn’t feel as bad, though — thank Christ.

I stagger across the room, trying to keep my feet, the tower swaying madly. Anne is deeply asleep. I pull the webbing across her, clipping it down. My movements don’t wake her. Neither does the deafening rain, the howling wind, the mad sway.

I crawl into my bunk and clip down my own webbing.

***

Much later, a distorted voice reaches me over the noise of the storm.

“Outpost 11, this is Base,” it says. “Are you there?”

I look around, unclipping my webbing instinctively. Anne is stirring.

“I’ll get it,” I say.

Her eyes are wide open, sharp, bright.

“I’ll help,” she says.

“Outpost 11, are you there?”

We hurry to the radio, staggering, moving with the sway of the tower. I pick up the mic and headset; she starts trying to clean the signal.

“Base, this is Outpost 11.”

“Cockatoo, is that you?”

It’s Salim. Salim! I smile. “Bet your arse it is,” I say.

“Cockie!” he says. “Now look, the storm will be getting worse soon, but evac’s on the way — ETA three hours, forty-five…”

The signal suddenly drops out. Anne collapses at almost the same exact time. I drag her to her bunk, strap her in, return to the radio.

***

The storm’s building. The tower is swaying so hard that it feels like it might crack. I haven’t re-established contact with Base. All we can do is wait.

At some point, the evac-raft arrives, attaching itself to the gangway encircling the tower with the shriek of metal on metal.

But the storm’s still building.

***

The water’s now lapping at the door, but the storm has finally stopped. We have to go. Anne looks at me, her eyes glazed. I pick her up bodily.

“I can do this,” she says, struggling free.

I reluctantly let her go.

We make our way outside. Both suns are only just rising; it’s beautiful. The evac-raft is close. I hurry ahead, open it up.

The tower buckles.

The far-end of the gangway collapses into the water. The force throws me into the raft, onto my belly. I look back. It must have knocked Anne off her feet: she’s clutching her head, sprawled on her stomach. The water steadily draws closer as our section of the gangway starts collapsing as well.

I scuttle out, ending up in the water.

I grab Anne’s hand and pull her towards me. She’s twitching. I hold her with one hand, grab the raft with the other.

And that’s when I see her properly.

There’s a deep gash in her forehead. But instead of blood or bone, there’s circuitry, wiring, metal plating, blinking diodes. Something in there sparks as water rushes in. Some smoke wafts out.

“I’m sorry,” she says, her words slurred. “They told me I’d never break, that you’d never have to know.”

Her eyes close.

(Originally published in AntipodeanSF #228, July 2017)

 

Unexpected Mail

The unopened letter sat on the kitchen table. Josh picked it up. No return address, no postmark, no stamp. He decided to open it later — he’d had a long day. All he wanted was a drink.

“Jules?” he called.

No answer. No wife.

He thought that odd, but then remembered that he’d left his phone at home. Josh found it beside their bed, an unread text message from Jules waiting for him.

“Mum’s sick again,” it said. “Had to take her to the hospital. Hopefully be back tonight. Sorry.”

He sighed. Her family was eating up her time. Again. Josh didn’t bother replying, and grabbed a beer from the fridge.

***

Much later, Josh heard Jules’ car pull into the driveway. He went to meet her.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

They hugged. His stubble scratched her cheek; her long, wild hair ended up in his mouth.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just mum being mum. You know how it is.”

Josh didn’t bother commenting on her mum’s legendary hypochondria. They headed inside. Josh busied himself in the kitchen making her a cup of tea.

“What’s been happening?” Jules asked.

“You know, the usual.”

“How was work?”

“Don’t ask. You?”

“The same.”

Josh sat her tea on the table.

“I missed you,” he said.

“Me too, baby, me too.”

The unopened letter sat near them, forgotten.

***

The next morning, Josh slept in. Jules eventually brought him a cup of coffee. And then she poked and prodded him — her version of the carrot and the stick.

“Thanks, sweetie,” he said, his voice croaky.

“No sweat. But you’d better move it, otherwise you’ll be late.”

He groaned. Jules left him to get dressed. When he joined her at the kitchen table, she passed him the letter she’d been reading — it was from a company called Out of this World Adventures.

“What do you reckon?” Jules asked.

Josh scanned it.

“Dear Mr Hazlem,” it said, “we are pleased to announce that you and your wife have won a seat in our inaugural mystery cruise, guaranteed to deliver sights unseen by human eyes. Please follow the link provided to claim your tickets.”

Josh squinted at Jules through half-asleep eyes.

“It’s probably a scam,” he said, tossing it aside. “Besides, there’s no way I can take time off at the moment.”

***

The next day, another unmarked letter arrived. Josh found it — opened — sitting on the kitchen table beside Jules’ open laptop. He checked out the website she’d been visiting. It belonged to Out of this World Adventures, and described in vague detail the adventure and excitement their trip would provide.

He found Jules outside, arguing with someone on the phone. From the tone of her voice and the way she ran her hand through her long hair in frustration, he guessed she was arguing with her sister.

Jules waved, and returned her attention to her call. Josh went back inside. When she joined him, he told her in no uncertain terms that there was no way he could take time off.

“But I need this, especially with everything that’s been going on.”

“I’m sorry, Jules. I just can’t.”

Josh slept on the couch that night.

***

Another unmarked letter arrived the next day. Once again, Josh found it sitting on the kitchen table near Jules’ open laptop. She typed away, oblivious to him. He slammed the laptop shut, almost squashing her fingers.

“I thought we talked about this,” he said.

“But…”

“Sorry, Jules. Right now there’s no way I can take time off. Believe me, I want this as much as you do, but it’s just impossible.”

The argument stretched on and on, and Josh eventually talked her around. After that, they settled on the couch to watch some television. Josh offered to make her a cup of tea, but Jules insisted on doing it herself.

“You want a beer?” she called from the kitchen.

“I’d love one.”

She took a long time fetching their drinks.

***

Josh woke up foggy-headed and groggy, feeling like he’d taken a sleeping pill. He remembered arguing with Jules, but didn’t remember going to bed. He shuffled into the kitchen and made a coffee.

No Jules. Nowhere. Gone.

He flopped onto the couch and flicked on the television. Breaking news interrupted the usual Saturday morning cartoons. Josh almost dropped his cup.

“We are not alone,” the reporter said. “Last night, all over the world, aliens appeared, only to disappear just as quickly.”

The reporter’s words were accompanied by footage of some immense thing dropping out of the sky. The image was grainy, obviously captured by a low-resolution camera.

Josh changed the channel numerous times. They were all the same, more or less. On some channels the thing appeared above a city, on some above a rural wilderness. On one channel, he saw pyramids in the distance, on another a frozen lake, on another a fecund jungle.

“Not only have we been visited,” one reporter said, “but it seems that some people were expecting this.”

This reporter’s words played over footage of a crowd gathered beneath one of the things. In the background, Josh saw an immense bridge, a bridge he recognised — a bridge he drove across every weekday.

As he watched, the thing touched down. A hatch opened. The crowd surged aboard. Only a few people turned and looked back.

Josh thought he recognised one of them — a woman with wild, long hair. It was hard to be sure. And then the thing disappeared back into the sky.

Josh kept watching.

(Originally published in AntipodeanSF #219, October 2016)

No Birdsong

I wake suddenly, sweat pouring off me and soaking the mattress. My eyes shoot open and see nothing but the dark of the middle of the night. I reach across the bed. The other half lies empty.

The alarm clock ticks away on the bedside table and I count the seconds as they pass. Outside the window, the wind blows hard.

The door opens slowly, hinges creaking loud in the quiet. Something stands there: a silhouette, the hallway light framing it from behind. It’s somehow familiar… It runs one hand through its long curly hair. Although I can’t see its face, I know that it’s watching me. Wide eyed I watch back as it walks towards me.

The door slams shut behind it.

I wait, and hear no footsteps on the thick carpet. The mattress shifts under me as something settles on the bed. A hand reaches out, stroking my head.

“It’s okay,” a voice says. “It’s just me.”

“B’Detta?” I ask.

She laughs and shrugs off her dressing gown. She drops it to the floor and lies down beside me. My hands find hers.

“Hey, give me some room here,” she says, somehow shoving me along and hugging herself around me at the same time.

I smile in the dark.

“Love you,” I whisper.

She hugs me tighter. Outside the window, the wind blows harder.

***

I wake again, at the sound of metal grinding on metal, and reach across the bed. The other half lies empty. I sit up and pull B’detta’s gown from the floor, wrap it around myself, walk to the window. I twitch the curtain aside, knuckling sleep from my eyes.

On the street below, a delivery van has backed into a parked car, crushing its bonnet. An alarm starts, echoing off the apartment buildings lining the block. I let the curtain fall back and leave the room.

I find a note on the kitchen bench.

“Hey, hope you have a good day. Sorry I had to run so early, late for work again. Love you…” it says.

I start the coffee machine and read the note a second and third time, and I drop it clumsily as the machine starts bubbling and shaking. Coffee spills over, water runs everywhere, drenching the note. I reach for it and it falls apart at my touch.

“Shit…”

I get the machine under control and draw a cup, walk out to the balcony and sit on the concrete rail. I start to sweat straightaway. On the street below, the delivery van still sits backed into the parked car. The alarm stops, and the silence is so sudden that for a moment it deafens me. I shake my head, trying to clear it. I sip my coffee, swear when it burns my tongue, drop it over the edge as I try and set it down. I swear again. The cup lands on the roof of a truck and shatters. Coffee sprays everywhere. I watch as some of it slowly pools and runs into the gutter.

***

Turning back inside, I start the coffee machine again, sit at the kitchen table, stand back up, pour a glass of water, sit back down, drink the glass of water, stand back up again, fiddle with the radio. Bursts of static drown out the fleeting snatches of song, and I turn the dial a last time and give up. The coffee machine belches and steam billows. I stop it just in time, draw a fresh cup, sit at the kitchen table and drink it slowly.

The clock on the wall ticks away. I tap my feet and drum my fingers and draw another cup of coffee. I stand at the window as I drink it. The clear blue sky stretches on, the wind howls. I drain my cup and walk back to the bedroom.

I leave the curtains closed and dress quickly, simply: blue jeans and a T-shirt. Finding my mobile under the bed, I dial B’detta’s number. It rings and rings. I chew my fingernails and hang up without leaving a message.

Putting my mobile in my pocket, I walk to the window and open the curtains. I look down at the street. The delivery van still sits backed into the parked car.

I try to say something and nothing comes out.

I close the curtains and take out my mobile and dial B’detta’s number again. Once more, it just rings and rings, and I can see it clearly – sitting snug in her handbag in an empty room somewhere.

I write a quick message.

“Pretty twitchy, having a shark day, going for a walk, gotta keep moving, I wanna see if I can wear it out. I’ve got my phone with me, catch you tonight?”

I look around the room. I pick up my bag and walk away.

***

As I step out the front door of my building, the wind stops like it’s been turned off at the switch. The sun is a blinding orb, burning high in the sky. The delivery van is still backed into the parked car; some coffee from my shattered cup stains the footpath.

The hiss of dead air grows louder as I walk toward the van. Fragments of song fight through the white noise, and then disappear just as fast. I reach in through the open window and shut the radio off.

“Hello?” I yell, looking around.

My voice rolls down the street and slowly fades away. No answer comes. I yell again.

I take an MP3 player and a pair of headphones from my bag. I put the headphones on and choose some music at random. I walk, and take the first left I come to and look at the empty street ahead. A building next to me forms a long grey wall. A dank laneway cuts across the footpath where the wall ends. Weatherboards fill both sides of the road, stretching as far as I can see, all the way to the horizon.

I squint and take my sunglasses from my pocket and slip them on. The sun still burns hot at me.

My shadow cuts lines hard and sharp into the concrete beneath me. My step catches up to the beat in my ears and I start walking faster. The overhanging branches don’t move, lifeless and parched in the dry air. I pull a leaf from one; it crumbles to dust in my hand.

I drop the dust to the ground and brush my palm on the seat of my pants. A breeze blows past me, cool and quick. And then the heat returns.

***

I come to a halt and remove my headphones. A low hum, faint and muffled, carries through the still air. I look left and then right. I scratch my head, look left again and see something shining in the distance.

A half dozen CDs hang from a lemon tree in someone’s front yard. A sickly sweet smell wafts from the rotten fruit that litters the ground around it. I drop my bag, take out a water bottle, turn away from the tree. I drink slowly.

The smell eventually makes me gag, and I spit the last of the water into the gutter.

I wipe my mouth with my sleeve and put the empty bottle away. Putting my headphones back on, I take off in a different direction. New music sets a new speed; my pace picks up.

The sun beats down. Sweat stings my eyes and blurs the road ahead. I walk until the heat becomes too much, stop at a corner, lean against a fence.

I take my headphones off and put them in my bag. I take my phone out and try B’detta’s number. It rings and rings, over and over. I hang up, put my phone away, take the empty bottle from my bag and try to drain the last few drops.

***

I look at the house I’ve stopped in front of. A “Beware of the Dog” sign hangs from the fence, a garden tap pokes above the long grass, weeds cover the path to the door, dusty furniture fills the veranda. I look at the tap again and my mouth starts to water.

“Here, boy, good dog,” I say softly.

A dead car sits in the driveway, tyres sagging on their rims. Rust flakes from it, covering the cracked, dirty concrete. Reluctantly at first, the gate opens with a harsh, scraping sound. Every muscle tense, I walk through.

“Come on, boy. Come out and play.”

Nothing happens. I crouch by the tap, turn it to full bore and cup my hands under it. Water the colour of red desert earth splutters out, thick and dirty, before it runs dry. I stare at it a moment before turning it off. I turn it back on; it shudders in my hand. Nothing else comes out and nothing else happens.

“What the…”

No birds answer my call, no dogs bark. I look around at the shut-up houses lining the road, and try to say something. Nothing comes out.

I walk to the front door. The wood is dry and hot; paint slowly peels away and falls to the ground. I knock, hard. No one answers and I knock again. Still no one answers.

The doorknob burns my palm, too hot to hold. I back away, and notice a gate by the side of the house. It hangs half open. I walk through, entering a shadowy alleyway. I peer in the windows I pass; heavy black curtains block any view inside. The alleyway stretches on and on.

***

In the backyard, rubble and rubbish fill the concrete garden. Dust covers everything, and another dead car sits under a tree in the far corner, burnt metal shining bright in the sun. I look away, eyes watering.

“Anyone home?” I yell, knocking hard on the back door, knuckles red and raw.

The sound of fist on wood is all I hear, fading away around me. The doorknob comes off in my hand. I push the door, it holds fast. I knock a last time, harder again, and leave a streak of blood behind.

I swear and look around. The burnished brass of another garden tap pokes from a pile of broken bicycles. A steady drip falls from it. I start to heave the pieces of bicycle aside, digging deeper. I work on, scraping through to the wet earth. Slime and muck cover my hands.

I turn the tap greedily.

Water pours out, cold and clean. I crouch, holding my head under the stream. I shiver as it runs down the back of my neck, turn and let it flow over my face.

I stand, saturated, hair plastered flat, T-shirt sticking to my body. I shake like a wet dog and crouch again. I cup my hands and drink and drink. I take the empty bottle from my bag and fill it to overflowing.

Couches crowd the back of the house, cushions torn and faded, springs jutting. A cracked engine block sits on an overstuffed armchair; I start to rock it back and forth, slowly at first and then faster and faster. It falls to the ground and lands hard on the concrete, splitting in two. I lower myself into the seat, put my feet up on an empty milk crate, take my mobile from my pocket, dial B’detta’s number again.

It rings and rings. I hang up. The seat sags under me.

***

The familiar smell of coffee burning in its pot wakes me from my sleep. I open my eyes; the sun is falling to the horizon. Nothing moves, no wind stirs. I force myself to my feet, hoist my bag to my back, and follow my nose.

The street stretches on, the footpath empty once again. Shadows gnarled and bent reach out, the skeleton fingers of trees baking in the heat. The burnt coffee smell grows stronger, leading me down a side street. Grim, abandoned factories tower over everything. I crunch through broken glass, wiping fresh sweat from my eyes.

The smell leads me to a faded terrace house sandwiched between two empty warehouses. The gate collapses as I push on it; I wade through the overgrown grass filling the front yard, the steps to the front door sink under my weight.

I knock. No one comes. I knock again and rattle the doorknob. The door sticks in the warped jamb. I ram it with my shoulder and it opens a little. I squeeze through the tiny gap, peer into the dark hallway, see an orange flicker in the kitchen beyond. The smell of smoke replaces the smell of burnt coffee. I hear something crackling, the sound of people walking on dry wood. A fire alarm starts and I hurry outside. I sit on the step and smoke lazily drifts past me.

I wait for the sirens. Nothing happens. I stand and walk away.

***

I walk on, and then turn a corner and stop dead. Nothing moves. Every window is closed, curtains drawn, sealed tight. I drop my bag and pull out my water bottle. I drink it dry. The wind suddenly picks up, and I shut my eyes against it.

Dust blows into me, at first only a little, and then more and more again. Coarse and fine, it gets past my collar and into my shirt. I open my eyes and in the air I see more dust and dry sand and the dirty mist of broken brick, swept up by the wind, taken from the half-built house all the grit once called home. I squint and reach out a groping hand and find an open gate. I walk through and tread a careful path into a ruined building.

The front door and the corridor behind it have survived whatever turned the rest of the building into slag and junk. I shelter there and peer outside through a cracked glass pane. Running my hands through my hair, I fill the air with dust. I catch my reflection in the glass, all smudged and fuzzy and wrong.

Dust still clings to my hair, turning it salt and pepper grey. Turning it old man grey.

I peer out again, as the wind blows a gale down the empty street. It picks up more dust and more sand and more mist of broken brick, and as it starts to change direction it whips it into strange figures and shapes. I look harder, and see faces I know, gestures I recognize: a wave, a smile, a shrugged shoulder and a raised eyebrow. I look again, and see B’Detta in the dirty air.

I hurry outside. The wind dies away and there’s nothing but dust and sand and mist, littering the street and choking the gutter.

***

I keep walking. At some point I stumble on a crack in the footpath, steady myself, look around, struggling to make things out. I take off my sunglasses and realise that twilight has happened. No street lights shine down, there’s no peak hour traffic. I walk faster, start to run, take lefts and rights at random, looking for a familiar landmark. I move to the middle of road.

I keep running.

The street comes to an end and I find myself back on my block. The delivery van still sits backed into the parked car, bathed in moonlight. I take my mobile from my pocket – its screen shows me nothing, its battery dead. Fumbling to put it away, I drop it to the ground instead. I keep walking.

The front door of my building is wide open; I slam it behind me and the glass shatters in its frame. As usual, the lobby is dark – I hold tight to the stair rail, feeling my way to my floor. The front door of my apartment is wide open, no light spills out, I can’t hear anything.

I hurry inside and lock the door behind me.

I flick the light switch and the globe flares and burns out. Feeling my way into the kitchen, I open the refrigerator. The smell of mould and off milk rises from within; I shut it quickly, feel my way into the lounge room, try the light switch. The globe there flares and burns out as well, and I curse my luck.

I sit on the couch, pick up the home phone, and dial B’Detta’s number. It rings and rings, over and over. I stand up and feel my way to the bedroom. I undress and get into bed and close my eyes. Outside the window, the wind begins to blow.

(Originally published in Breath and Shadow, July 2011)