Right now, apocalypses hit a little too close to home. It doesn’t matter that I remind myself the word means an unveiling or revealing of what was hidden. When I go grocery shopping and experience the illusion of limitless abundance, I don’t particularly want to be disabused of that, to be reminded how quickly it would all disappear if a strand or two of the capitalist weave that holds it together came undone. But I suppose it’s the work of real writers to force us to think about exactly those sorts of things and to imagine what true apocalypses would reveal. This is what Erica L. Satifka’s first collection of short fiction delivers: several glimpses not so much of how society might end but rather of how it might be transformed—and of what things might look like when it is.
The stories in How to Get to Apocalypse and Other Disasters play with that older definition of apocalypse as an unveiling or revealing. They run the gamut from surrealist pieces that are almost prose poetry (“States of Emergency,” “Bucket List Found in the Locker of Maddie Price, Age 14”) to fantasy (“A Child of the Revolution”) to science fiction complete with generational starship (“A Slow, Constant Path”). These stories originally appeared in places like Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Apex Magazine. Satifka, whose debut novel Stay Crazy won the 2017 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and whose follow-up, Busted Synapses, was reviewed here last year, has established herself as a significant voice in what might be considered the post-Philip K. Dick apocalyptic wasteland of cyberpunk.
Satifka’s work is most successful when it takes the tropes of science fiction utopias—virtual reality, alien uplift, technological progress—and shows how their realization would in fact impact society for the worst, largely by exacerbating current economic disparities. Her apocalypses are terrifying in that they’re not so much a sharp break with what has gone before as they are the logical playing-out of trends we already see around us. For instance, in her story “Days Like These,” it becomes possible to escape poverty by uploading one’s consciousness to a virtual reality universe. But of course, you still only get what you pay for, and every server eventually gets outdated.
First contact is another potential SF apocalypse that Satifka turns on its head. In “The Big So-So,” aliens have made contact and, for reasons inscrutable, encouraged humanity to become addicted to a bliss-inducing drug. Instead of weapons or technological wonders, society gets broken by a planet-wide high and a subsequent withdrawal. Whereas some writers with a nifty idea like this would try to tell as large a story as possible, Satifka keeps the focus on her characters living out their lives in the wake of this planetary disaster. Sylvia wants to move on, while her roommate Dorcas is desperate to do whatever it takes to synthesize the alien drug and get humanity’s buzz back. Their bitter, petty rivalries play out in the same sort of dead-end town that Satifka’s novels were set in, and like the novels the story leaves the characters (and readers) without resolution or able to make sense of what has happened to their world.
Another theme that runs through Satifka’s work is bodily autonomy. There’s a growing sense of claustrophobia in “Days Like These,” as the narrator realizes he’s signed his physical body over for a cheap imitation reality. It’s one thing, Satifka seems to be saying, to have to live in a poorly maintained apartment because you can’t afford anything better; but is this a difference in kind or simply degree to losing one’s entire body to a corporate-controlled reality? She plays with similar ideas of bodies and wealth in the short piece “Human Resources,” exploring what happens when the poor can sell pieces of their bodies so the super-rich can augment their own. How much is a single finger worth when you just need your car repaired so you can get to work? This theme reaches its most powerful and disturbing expression in “Thirty-Six Interrogatories Propounded by the Human-Powered Plasma Bomb in the Moments Before Her Imminent Detonation,” in which the last survivor of Earth finds her body hijacked as a sentient weapon:
- When you lifted my body into the belly of the great gray ship, did you know I was sentient?
- Did you know that I felt pain?
- Were you aware that my species is a vain one, and that such alterations as you placed upon my body were abhorrent to me? (p. 163)
The story I found most chilling in this collection was “Where You Lead I Will Follow: An Oral History of the Denver Incident.” Told as a series of interviews, it’s the history of an augmented reality game (think Pokémon Go) that gives users very specific but seemingly random instructions: stand here, open this door, press this button. The directions seem harmless for the individual but, as the game grows in popularity and proliferates to all areas of society, including military bases, it ultimately results in first the arming and then the redirection toward a civilian target of a nuclear warhead. Satifka does an expert job of leading the reader down a disjointed road of individual actions that lead to a particularly horrendous disaster. Besides a clever piece, the story is a particularly damning bit of social commentary: it’s believable that gamifying behavior would make people collectively do damaging things and then effectively deny any individual culpability; but isn’t that the definition of our modern industrial society and the effect it’s having on us and our planet?
Other standout pieces include the opening “States of Emergency” montage, a brief visit to the fifty states with a weird and haunting anecdote for each, reminiscent of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast:
From this point on, nobody will die in Vermont, but they continue aging. (p. 21)
“Can You Tell Me How to Get to Apocalypse?,” meanwhile, explores a future where humanity can no longer produce children and the most popular show on television is a macabre re-embodiment of Sesame Street in which the puppets and animatronics are the preserved corpses of kids, reanimated for each episode. Satifka also offers a follow-up of LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” with “After We Walked Away,” an exploration of how quickly and brutally idealism might tarnish in a world of abject poverty.
A few stories don’t come together quite as strongly as the ideas that drive them. In “Goddess of the Highway,” for instance, Satifka’s protagonist is an idiot truck-driver in a world where most of society has been made into idiots. This is the outcome of another apocalypse, in which levels of intelligence in the United States are made to mirror levels of wealth. Harp, the truck-driver, falls in with Spike, a renegade aristocrat trying to undo what was done, but apart from setting up a compelling world and ushering the characters through it, the story doesn’t progress. Similarly, in “A Slow, Constant Path,” the wonderful setting of a generational starship staffed by super-intelligent cats doesn’t get beyond a servant revolt (apocalyptic on the scale of the ship) that wraps up far too quickly. Both of these stories had legs to go much farther.
In all of Satifka’s writing, though, what’s so effective—and bleak—is how believable her apocalypses are. Abject poverty, despair: in Satifka’s futures, technology only compounds inequity and ennui. No one in her stories is particularly happy, unless it’s a manufactured state of consciousness from drugs or the mental influence of mutants, as in “Child of the Revolution.” Even the aliens that abduct the narrator in “Thirty-Six Interrogatories” seem depressingly familiar in their facelessness and casual manipulation. Any humor is the humor of tragedy. Reading this collection straight through may leave you with an ache that doesn’t come from a sense of wonder or joy. These stories’ bleak believability, along with Satifka’s sharp focus on the day-to-day experiences of her characters and a refusal to write tidy arcs in which the characters “figure things out” or “solve their problems,” may be exactly the point: that’s the situation, she seems to be saying, that we find ourselves in right now.