We aren’t the first people to live through an apocalypse. They litter our history books. The histories of colonized peoples often read like a series of apocalypses—a litany of massive disruptions where the political and social order that had hitherto governed life broke down, where survivors were left to adapt and rebuild, one eye forever looking back, the other eye warily aimed at the future. Colonialism was apocalypse-as-foreign-policy and capitalism is apocalypse-as-business-model. And whereas colonization has never ended, especially in the case of indigenous peoples across the world, life is fundamentally postapocalyptic.
Postapocalyptic fiction might not accurately reflect the exterior landscape of the world but it does an excellent job of mirroring our interior landscape—helping us feel our way through what is happening “out there.” Anya Ow’s Cradle and Grave is unabashedly postapocalyptic. The novella’s scenery is riddled with detritus: “The skeletons of abandoned cranes towered behind them, cages of great ribs over the ranks of shipping containers.” It doesn’t show us the actual apocalypse—the action remains rooted in the aftermath, in the world that survives. But the focus of the narrative is an unwavering arrow, pointed backward at the apocalyptic moment when everything began. This is the journey that the book takes us on—back to the source of it all.
The protagonist of Cradle and Grave is Lien, an asexual, aromantic shopkeeper who makes most of her living as a scout for scavenging missions into the Scab. As you can probably guess, the Scab is a dangerous place. It houses the City, the epicenter of the Change. The Change is the apocalyptic event—and its reverberations have not subsided. Like a river, the Rinse flows out from the City, and near the Rinse, the Change is hot. Just going near it can cause your body to warp and morph, a process that doesn’t stop till you die—and maybe not even then. Lien is hired by Yusuf, a centaur-like bodyguard, and Servertu, a mysterious figure with a tantalizing offer. Lien’s body is afflicted with the Changing and, in desperate need of life-saving surgery, she agrees to lead Yusuf and Servertu through the Scab. Their journey takes them through territories populated by groups of other mutates (of varying degrees of peoplehood)—from the tribal, technologically sophisticated psychons to the mindless ghulkins and the terrifying giant crows. At the end of the journey, the City waits—quietly lurking, its intent alien and unknowable. The telling of the trio’s journey through the Scab and to the City is masterful and tautly paced. An action-packed, tension-filled quest that builds up to a pitch-perfect climax.
The Change is born of the scientific experiments of an alliance of six cities (or countries). The rest of the world is rendered semi-irrelevant. After the Change, these six zones are called the Scab, the Bakgut Plains, Selangor, Subterra, Delha, and Nanhai. Now, it isn’t clear exactly what the current-day analogies of these places are, but Selangor is an actual place in Malaysia—which situates this narrative firmly in Southeast Asia. This is fabulous. It might be strange to cheer the location of the apocalypse, but apocalyptic fiction based in and told by voices from the Global South allows for the genre to represent the existential threats to people from outside the traditional New York-London disaster axis.
But just because the apocalypse emerges in the Global South, it doesn’t mean the Global North is rendered innocent. By the time of the Change, the world is already in the grip of the Last Summer, a period of extreme climate change where international wars are waged over the remaining reservoirs of clean water. As the protagonists follow the trail into the City, they find the birth of the Change in a research lab of a company named Fusionopolis. In a bid to “calculate a world out of the end of civilisation,” they had attempted to create an organic artificial intelligence. Ow hints at their technological overreach being driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of the “balance” that underpins reality: “Here was where duality had given way to a third Other.” The reality of the world of Cradle and Grave is a form of cosmic dualism and the Change is a disruption to that metaphysical logic. While the current political discourse around scientific hubris and traditional wisdom can teeter into problematic territory, the book doesn’t get into too much detail and we’re left with as many questions as answers to what actually happened in the Fusionopolis lab on that fateful day.
This remains the only minor quibble I have with the book. While the climax is narratively fulfilling, for a story that points us so precisely at the apocalypse’s inception, when we get there, we learn too little about it. I’m not sure how closely Ow wants us to look at her ideas of cosmic duality. Is she taking us on a journey to this specific philosophical idea? Or is it a shorthand for scientific shortsightedness and disregard for non-western ways of thinking? Ow is clearly trying to make a point—she writes how the medical procedure that is able to stop the creeping body transformations caused by the Change is based on acupuncture, rather than modern surgery. But while it’s not clear to me what her point precisely is, what is obvious is that the characters in the books, all caught up in the hard scrabble of life, have no time for academic theorizing—definitely not metaphysics, not even history. It is the rich who have that privilege. For everyone else, life is reduced to a question of survival.
Apocalypses don’t imply the end of progress—or rather, they highlight how progress might not be a meaningful concept at all. The world of Cradle and Grave is one where names are always exchanged with pronouns but discrimination based on body modifications is normal. Gender and political binaries are seen as hopelessly antiquated but the class system is thriving. In Cradle and Grave, the apocalypse is about Change—not just political and social change but also physical change. It affects geography, it affects human bodies. Change has become—or maybe it always was but is now finally acknowledged—as the fundamental truth of reality. To the people of the Scab, there is no God—when they curse, they invoke the Changer.
For Ow, the warping of human bodies becomes the perfect vehicle for lavish descriptions of biohorror:
Something burst out and lunged through the space she’d been in. It was wet and fleshy, worm-like, with once-human vestigial hands and legs along its flanks, toes and fingers melting together. It swung around, hissing through a long mouth that rolled open along its flank like a zipper. Reddish slime dripped off its extremities as it turned this way and that, tasting the air.
Ow revels in the thrilling grossness of the genre but it doesn’t feel indulgent for a second. The human body has always been one of the sites of the apocalypse. In Cradle and Grave, this is just writ large. (The influence of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag books is worth noting!)
My favourite aspect of this book is how it understands that the aftermath of an apocalypse is just the inward breath before the next one. There is always another apocalypse—and we must strive to stop it. This might seem like a recipe for nihilism, but Ow’s characters are better than that. They are clear-eyed enough to acknowledge that there is no utopia to return to but they still go on. As one character puts it: “Sometimes a reprieve is all the time we need.” Time we need for what? The book doesn’t answer but as far as questions go, that’s a pretty good one.