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And Lately, The Sun cover

Over twenty different authors contributed to And Lately, The Sun, first published late in 2020 by Calyx Create Group in Australia. On the whole, they created an extremely thought-provoking, entertaining, and cleverly arranged short story collection. The short stories, while ranging widely in style and topic, follow a clearly defined purpose of imagining alternate futures. The volume’s concept was to look at global climate problems from myriad directions, focusing on the different types of relationships that humans have with resources, the landscape, other living beings, robotic elements, and their fellow humans.

There are many points to appreciate about the cooperative aspect of these stories: how different expressions of gender and sexual identity are validated, with characters using pronouns such as "zir"; how women are more often than not shown in roles of leadership, with their voices being sought for guidance and wisdom; how characters in extreme situations take action together instead of passing the blame. A few darker scenarios do find their way in, but this is important since otherwise the picture would be too skewed. In general, however, And Lately, The Sun focuses on presenting potential solutions to the problems of the future, and the overall attitude is one of can-do optimism.

Many of these stories draw on real science to explain their systems, which occasionally causes the pacing to falter. For instance, the first story, "Roots," uses a pattern that many of the other stories replicate: there is an actual scene with characters speaking and interacting, followed by a big dump of exposition disguised as an excerpt from a book written by a plant biologist (pp. 15-16). While these stories require more setup than usual, another of their number, “Light from the Darkness,” shows that exposition can be handled a bit more skillfully. It opens with three brief clippings from newspapers setting up the problem of an unknown fungus (p. 266). Then the reader is immediately dropped into the action, following main character Katy as she is antagonized by an angry crowd on her way to her lab to experiment on the fungus (p. 268). “Light from the Darkness” is also a good illustration of one of the recurring themes in the collection: often, scientific innovation that seems like a brilliant solution turns out to have an unexpected dark side. A bemused reporter verbalizes this by saying, “To put that in human terms, we’ve effectively been experimenting on this fungus over generations of its life to make it scream louder to power our lights” (p. 300). This story is the first one in the volume that sparkles with humor while also presenting a grim consequence. There is an open ending with no clear resolution, as Katy realizes she has to set another change in motion to fix what she’s already done.

“In the Storm, a Fire” follows the adventure of a contraceptive-and-medicine-smuggling operation in a fascist future America. Chani, a runner, has her med-drop go horribly wrong. A church is burned, a religious fanatic sends out his gang to beat her down, and deeds of daring ensue. At one point, Chani demands of her mentor, “How are we supposed to live in this world?” to which the older woman responds, “Witness, comprehend, inhabit” (p. 414). Chani is not satisfied, but for now that is all the answer she gets. In contrast to Chani’s violent struggle, the settlers in “Fondelac” are largely peaceful. Living far away from major cities has protected them from wider society, but as the story opens, they are going through a serious water shortage. As in many of these stories, a woman, Alva, is in charge and consulted as the leader. Alva decides what to do based not on personal vendettas or idiosyncratic moral code, but on her assessment of what is required for the survival of the community as a whole. She says: “I know it’s their fault, but we have to figure out a solution ourselves. And we can” (p. 428).

Another theme running through these stories is a do-it-yourself homesteading lifestyle coexisting with the infrastructure of networks and digital information sharing. In “Fondelac” and elsewhere, people write articles about tools they invent to survive and then share them with other communities. Though separated geographically, these small settlement groups have still found ways to share, pushing back forever against “corporation greed and government neglect” (p. 448). Midway through the collection, the reader has come to expect a positive resolution to the situation, and “Fondelac” delivers a quiet victory.

And then, with “Egg Tooth,” the tone takes a different turn. Few of these stories are in the first person, but “Egg Tooth” is an exception. In this world, tech companies are structured like old mining towns were in America, with their own grocery stores and credit system. “Egg Tooth” calls its version “accommodation neighborhoods” (p. 476). The main character is a tech desk jockey riding out a 9-to-5 cubicle job, and living in one of these company neighborhoods. Though he doesn’t admit to it directly, he seems to be feeling trapped in a meaningless existence. The death of his mother appears to have affected his mental health to the point of severe depression. His solution is to hire an “experience specialist” to euthanize him (p. 486). Though outwardly this character has enough food, a place to live, and a stable job, he is utterly isolated and seems to lack any connection with others. Paradoxically, the characters in other stories who are fighting for daily survival must learn how to rely on each other, and are portrayed as engaged and happier. The narrator of “Egg Tooth” has no one he relies on. In fact, he seems to have no one at all. He only expensses emotion in occasional bouts of manic laughter.

The order of these stories is quite thoughtful. “The Egg Garden” is a foil to its predecessor “Egg Tooth” in tone and theme. Here, a mother-and-son team work in harmony. The style is that of a fable, in which the mother can lay eggs to regenerate the whole world. Unlike the other stories, it makes no attempt to explain anything scientifically, and instead reads like a retelling of a creation myth. After so many stories layered with careful scientific details, the shift in prose is jarring. In this way, “The Egg Garden” sticks out, but without accomplishing much for the collection, or really making for any kind of interesting, plausible scenario. There is another thoughtful, but more successful, pairing of stories with “The Forgetting” and “The Continuity.” Both depict a master-apprentice relationship, and in both cases the old master is male and the apprentice is female. In “The Forgetting” there is a lot of detailed worldbuilding to establish a guild system on a city-ship named Toka, including a social hierarchy that is expressed literally by one’s level on the boat. The main character, a female journey-level carpenter, early on tells us, “The value of life in this world is only as much as the value of one’s skill” (p. 580). Within the guilds, there is cooperation, but each tradesmen’s guild vies for resources and good jobs from the higher levels. Due to her skill, the carpenter is commissioned to carve a giant casket for one of the terminally ill Founders of Toka. Meanwhile, “The Continuity” shows yet another version of a city grappling with death and ritual. In this case, a stationary city has risen out of the ruins of its predecessor, which was sunk by a massive tidal wave. The inhabitants believe the wave will come again. While the old master searches for answers in the past, his apprentice Alektra studies nature and the living environment around them for clues on how to avoid the same fate (p. 603).

The fate doled out to characters in “I Take Credit For Saving The World” slightly echoes “Egg Tooth.” It is told in first person by a character who is struggling to find meaning and motivation in real life. Set in a future England, the story’s characters of lower-income class cannot afford to travel by car, train, or plane (p. 821). This creates a market for virtual experiences. So the main character escapes into a virtual world that runs on credit and gives out reward experiences in a simulation of reality. The credit only works for things in the virtual game world, and some employers have switched to a hybrid pay model where their employees are paid half in currency and half in game credit (p. 830). The narrator’s best friend, Ariel, argues with them over their dependence on virtual reality, but the story ends with the virtual side apparently winning out, as the main character declares, “I never stopped wanting a house for me and Ariel, but under the current system that’s always going to be out of reach” (p. 841). This story is very timely and cuts right to the ever-amazing paradox of societies that can create and sustain incredible technology, yet can’t be bothered to construct decent affordable housing.

Some of the stories in And Lately, The Sun handle their exposition dumps more skillfully than others. But the details are really what make these worlds. All these writers have got the memo that the details must shine more than anything to create their illusion. Whether they are casually describing furniture made of mushroom leather or augmented contacts that deliver advertising directly to one’s eyes, the contributors to this collection have visualized their new worlds deeply and created convincing and fascinating portraits of what a new lifestyle in a survivable future might be like.

Nicole E. Beck's writing has appeared twice in print, as a long poem from dancing girl press and as a multi-genre chapbook from Red Bird Chapbooks. She studies art history with an eye towards more interdisciplinary work. Her most recent chapbook can be found here.
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