Selfies Reviews: Part 1

So I took about a week off of the website there to catch up some grading that was breathing down my neck. I'm pleased to report that it's been mostly wrangled for now, which is doing wonders for my stress levels. In the interim, I also started putting together a few extra site changes. This means that at the moment, most of the pages on the site are "under construction" again. That's okay. I like what the new pages are going to bring to the table, but completing those updates is below teaching, writing, editing, submitting, and blogging on the career-related priority list.

Meanwhile, as you know, I've been really excited about having a book in my hot little hands that has my hot little story in it. What really makes it exciting, though, is that the collection is good. I'm sharing space here with some really excellent writers and some really excellent stories, and over my next few blog posts I want to take some time to recognize their stories and the work they're doing with some quick, easy, (mostly) spoiler-free reviews.

"Selfies from the End of the World" is a collection of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic tales as told by the people who lived them. The conceit of stories written by their characters and provided by their writers is one that comes from Mad Scientist Journal itself, and is one of the many things that keeps this collection fresh for me. It's not treated as a gimmick, either, as the characters get serious bios alongside their writers at the ends of the stories, and are even given top billing. These bios are a treat to read, and provide a few of the most interesting narrative tricks in the collection.

I was skeptical at first of the untitled poem by Shivangi Narain that opens the collection, mostly because I was an idiot and didn't read through the enjambment of the first line before I rolled my eyes: "Your generation would probably livetweet the apocalypse," it says. "Oh, boy," I said. "One of these." You know the ones, with that air of condescension toward innovation, the non-critical dismissal of the social lives of so-called millennials. I'm glad I read through, though. The poem thoroughly subverts the condescension of its opening line while establishing a tone of both irreverence and tragedy, infused with deep empathy, that pays off again and again through the stories that follow.

"Elegy for a Mountain" by Brandon Nolta follows, a story set on what we can take to be a far-future Earth dealing with the death of the sun. My early skepticism for the initial premise, that in the face of this destruction, an apocalypse cult or religion known as The Order of the Mountain (I'm predisposed to hating apocalypse cults, mind you) has come to prominence in the efforts to ensure the survival of the species and to salvage something -- anything -- of the Earth that was, was again proved to be unfounded. The Order could have been schmaltzy, it's members distant and un-relatable, its religious vocabulary uninviting, and yet the story moves -- the action driven always by the ticking clock -- the characters remain familiar and sympathetic, and the emotional resonance of the conclusion, at once terrified, elegaic, and joyous, is satisfyingly complex.

Before even reading "Sounds of Silence" by Nicole Tanquary, the story's presence, as well as that of the art by Errow Collins that follows, reveals something important about this collection: if you'll allow me the arbitrary endpoint, three of the first four works in the collection were created by women. A quick look at the contents suggests that the gender split among contributors is near 50/50, which is just awesome. The story itself uses the end of the world to stand in for the apocalyptic feelings that accompany the end of a young relationship. Dylan and Katherine are ending, though neither is willing to acknowledge that the rot in their relationship settled in a long time ago. They could persist -- hell, like any young people who think they're in love, they want to persist -- but Dylan can't help fleeing, and Katherine can't bring herself to chase after him. This would all work on its own, but the world-building around this breakdown shows the way individual problems are always set against the larger social backdrop. As the rich leave a rotting planet to the doomed poor, we see that escape itself is a privilege, and understand our two protagonists better for the decisions they make not only in response to their personal breakdown, but also to the global one.

The collection's first piece of art, by Errow Collins, focuses on a young woman in a gas mask emerging from the hatch of an underground bunker or silo to the backdrop of a an otherwise lush world of flowing fields that is burning. In the background, more hatches are open to more billowing smoke. My first thought was, naturally, to Hugh Howey's Dust, but a closer inspection of the image does not show people trapped by the horrors above, trying only to escape their captivity underground. No, these people are setting the fires. But why? Why destroy the world you're trapped beneath? That mystery is this piece's allure.

Last up for today is "Winter in My Bones" by Sylvia Heike. In this short, sweet tale, Winter has come (I shouldn't have done that, and I apologize). Earth is entering a deep freeze, maybe an Ice Age, which future historians call the Great Winter, and Frank Hope, an older gentleman living only with his dog Sammy, sees no reason to fight it. If anybody needs to survive, he reasons, it should be somebody younger. And, maybe, it should be Sammy, too. Frank's acceptance of death is refreshing, and his relationship with Sammy heartwarming, but the mystery of the Great Winter itself is only deepened by the unexpected image of the story's final line, as well as the narrative Easter Egg hidden in the character bio that follows.

Sylvia Heike can also be found on twitter at @sylviaheike.

Interested? Want to read more? You can pick up a copy of Selfies from the End of the World at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and check in over the next week or so for more reviews from the collection, including a very special guest blog by the amazing and inimitable Laura Davy herself!