“People with disability already live in a post-apocalyptic world.” – Robert Hoge
This crowd-funded anthology of post-apocalyptic fiction showcases the theme of disabled or chronically-ill protagonists. Edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench, the collection features many Aussie female writers (though not exclusively) and names likely both familiar and new to speculative fiction readers. With all of its diversity in characters, apocalyptic setting, and featured disability/illness, Defying Doomday is remarkably consistent in tone and quality. Out of fifteen stories there is only one that failed for me, and that is completely due to personal taste. (I am done with giving stories in the second person a chance beyond two pages).
The stories seem appropriate for adults and young adults alike and flow together in an easily readable fashion. This easy flow is true both in the lineup made by the editors and the classic narrative structure and approachable prose of individual stories. The aforementioned use of second person tense is the most ‘experimental’ aspect in the collection. The purpose and strength of these stories lie in their entertaining plots and characters, and their focus on disability/illness.
That thematic focus is handled a bit differently from story to story. Not surprisingly the disabilities and chronic illness are neither treated as token or cliché. However, the authors universally do a great job at not dominating their stories with the condition they’ve chosen to include. The disability/illness is always a factor to the plot or characters: sometimes the driving or governing force behind events, sometimes subtly in the background. But never does the theme become moralizing.
The publishing blurb for Defying Doomsday states that the anthology “prov[es] it’s not always the ‘fittest’ who survive — it’s the most tenacious, stubborn, enduring and innovative characters who have the best chance of adapting when everything is lost.” This statement certainly holds true for many of the stories, such as many of which whose crisis centers around trying to obtain important medications in a world where civilization and technology are gone or in decline. Yet, others instead maintain the natural selection metaphor: within the new post-apocalyptic environment certain biological traits now are hugely advantageous, where they were not before. A ‘disability’ has turned into an asset. Characteristics that previously mattered are now meaningless, or even detrimental.
Whichever of these choices made by the author — conveying a condition that can be overcome despite greater adversity, or one that now gives benefit — what struck me is that all of the stories are exceptionally optimistic in terms of human relationships. This is not unreasonable at all, but it is uncharacteristic of a genre that so often delights in making the point that the greatest danger in any apocalyptic setting will be the cruelty of humans against one another, not the agent of civilization’s collapse itself. These are stories of survivors banding together, of supporting one another by combining strengths to reduce weaknesses. Not all end happily of course, but they do often show moments of compassion and love. Perhaps this comes from the unique perspective of someone who lives with disability or chronic illness. As the quote at the start of this implies, they already live with enough problems, why fabricate more for power and control? They are just still trying to survive daily life. Has much changed? For me this was the most fascinating aspect to these stories, one that made me stop and think about the deeper issues underlying these tales that also entertained.
There are a handful of stories that I particularly loved in the collection. The opening “And the Rest of Us Wait” by Corinne Duyvis perfectly sets the tone for the rest to come. Set within the world of her novel On the Edge of Gone, this story features a teen girl and her refugee family in a shelter as a comet is set to destroy Earth. Amid fearful uncertainty for the future and the burden of medical conditions that could prevent being chosen for rescue, an all-girl teen band forms to exist in the therapy of music and camaraderie.
“Something in the Rain” by Seanan McGuire may be my favorite in the collection. She is the one author whose name was immediately familiar to me, but I don’t always connect with her work. This was just brilliant, poignant; both conveying a sense of justice and heartbreak. An autistic (and schizophrenic) girl has learned to survive on her own through careful organization and self control in a world where precipitation kills. One day she comes across another girl from her school, a popular individual who bullied and mocked her, but who now needs her help. This story could have easily turned sermonizing, trite, and unbalanced. McGuire handles it masterfully, movingly.
“In the Sky with Diamonds” by Elinor Caiman Sands and “Giant” by Thoraiya Dyer are stories notable in that their setting is off-Earth. Both do a great job employing a stronger science fiction element than what is typical for the post-apocalyptic. “Spider-Silk, Strong as Steel” by Samantha Rich is a plot that could border on horror for those with arachnophobia, but which cleverly shows how disability can allow some to serve vital roles that ‘normal’ folk cannot easily fulfill. “Given Sufficient Desperation” by Bogi Takács features a protagonist with dyspraxia, making her useful, and enslaved, to aliens who have conquered Earth. Touching, yet with dry humor, this story had the perfect amount of oddity for me, plus great speculation on communication with aliens.
Fittingly, the collection ends with “I Will Remember You” by Janet Edwards, a story that does seem a bit manufactured in its setup (aliens marking humans with expiration dates on the hand, and a character who is missing a hand). Nonetheless, Edwards writes beautiful emotive prose and instills the story with some nice complexity, a microcosm of the collection as a whole that conveys both despair and hope.
And the Rest of Us Wait by Corinne Duyvis
To Take Into the Air My Quiet Breath by Stephanie Gunn
Something in the Rain by Seanan McGuire
Did We Break the End of the World? by Tansy Rayner Roberts
In the Sky with Diamonds by Elinor Caiman Sands
Two Somebodies Go Hunting by Rivqa Rafael
Given Sufficient Desperation by Bogi Takács
Selected Afterimages of the Fading by John Chu
Five Thousand Squares by Maree Kimberley
Portobello Blind by Octavia Cade
Tea Party by Lauren E Mitchell
Giant by Thoraiya Dyer
Spider-Silk, Strong as Steel by Samantha Rich
No Shit by K Evangelista
I Will Remember You by Janet Edwards