Disability is rarely depicted as an asset in science fiction. On the rare occasions that it is, it's usually fetishized, presented as a gift, a mark of "special-ness", without addressing any of the real world issues disabled people have to deal with. This is perhaps especially glaring in post-apocalyptic fiction, where disability is usually treated as an impossible hurdle, a de facto death sentence. Once civilization breaks down, the dominant narrative tells us, people will fight for resources, and the "strong" will prevail. Dependence on machines or medicine or simply a broader community will put people with disabilities at a disadvantage.
Enter Defying Doomsday, an anthology of fifteen stories edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench. The entire book is devoted to post-apocalyptic stories about characters with physical and/or mental disabilities who not only survive but often thrive after most of humanity has been wiped out. Rather than showing disability as a burden or disadvantage, story after story shows a world where people with disabilities are better prepared and better suited to survive the apocalypse. This relies heavily on the idea that people with disabilities already live in a post-apocalyptic world, and are hence better prepared when human culture crumbles.
To quote Robert Hoge's introduction to the book:
Stairs remain at stubborn right angles. Communications can wash over us, unheard, unseen. Some social interactions elude—a millimeter away, a mile away. Impairment and chronic illness can make negotiating the everyday world that little bit more difficult. [...] so much of our world is a not-made-for-us space that disaster may as well have already struck.
This idea is at the heart of the book—that dealing with a world meant not meant for people with disabilities has made the protagonists in some ways more resilient, less prone to despair, more inventive than their able-bodied counterparts. They understand the value and necessity of collaboration for survival when others are too wrapped up in their own fear to see the benefits of community. Even the stories where disabled characters find out they're uniquely suited for survival because of their disability, like Janet Edwards's "I Will Remember You", where a girl born without a hand is randomly spared by murdering aliens, feel refreshing, because it's so rare to see disabled characters treated as special without fetishization.
The book is incredibly diverse in portraying disability. Each story portrays a different mental and/or physical condition, all of them real things that affect people in our world. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the book is that even if you don't enjoy the stories (though I did), it's a collection firmly grounded in the ways people today navigate disability, rather than being focused on fictionalized conditions. For that reason alone I feel like the book is worth picking up.
However, while I enjoyed the variety Defying Doomsday had to offer in that respect, the types of protagonists and types of apocalypses in the book were more alike than I would have preferred. It's a tall order, perhaps, to want a collection of excellent stories that are also radically different from each other in every way, but for me too many of the stories dealt with teenage protagonists. Perhaps people who enjoy the Young Adult genre more than I do would find that aspect more satisfying, but I was left wishing there were more stories about older characters whose conflicts didn't revolve around finding independence from their parents or learning to navigate adulthood. Or at least, if those subjects were still present, that they'd be presented in something other than a teenage context.
In terms of the apocalypses portrayed, the idea of keeping a disaster generic or unexplained is a standard feature of the genre. There was a plague, or a meteor, or aliens; what usually matters in post-apocalyptic fiction is survival in the now. Even in stories where finding out what happened is part of the plot, the revelation is usually simple—humanity did something terrible, or some unforeseen disaster struck. In the aftermath, the reasons are unimportant. Perhaps it's because of this general disregard for worldbuilding that the stories that sparkled brightest for me in this collection were the ones that complicated the apocalypse. All the stories had compelling characters and good plots, but the best ones, for me, also made the apocalypse fresh and important.
The three stories that did this best were Tansy Rayner Roberts' "Did We Break The End of the World?", John Chu's "Selected Afterimages of the Fading," and Bogi Takács' "Given Sufficient Desperation". In Rayner Roberts' story the protagonist is Jin, a teenage boy who roams an abandoned, suburban area with his friend Aisha. Together they scavenge for rare items which they then exchange for supplies at the impromptu market set up by other teenagers. The plot thickens when Jin and Aisha are joined by Billy, a mysterious graffiti artist who Jin is attracted to but can't fully trust. What sets this story apart, for me, is that along with compelling characters and interesting portrayal of disability (Jin is deaf and uses a combination of lip reading, sign language and hearing aids) it also portrays a world that had sci-fi elements before the apocalypse got to it. Jin and Aisha and Billy were all raised by robots, and the suburban area they inhabit is populated solely by teenagers for that reason. In addition to trying to survive, it's up to the three of them to figure out what happened out there, in the real world, and how they might escape this artificial enclosure.
Chu's story portrays an extremely unusual apocalypse, where instead of meteors or illnesses, things simply begin to slowly fade out of existence. The protagonist, Caleb Chan, is both unusually gifted in slowing down this process, and particularly vulnerable to it due to his muscle dysmorphia, a condition that makes him perceives himself as smaller than he is. Throughout the story Caleb is torn between his own needs and the pressure put on him to help humanity, as well as his feelings for a new friend and his struggles with physical intimacy. In this story the apocalypse is almost a metaphor, a philosophical blight on humanity that affects the protagonist in a unique way.
In Takács' story a Hungarian named Vera works for the aliens everyone assumes destroyed the world, identifying common objects for them so they can ostensibly rebuild the Earth. This is a loaded, difficult job, working for the creatures (in this case geometrical shapes) who burned down the planet, but Vera does it because her dyspraxia makes joining the resistance forces outside difficult. However Vera eventually stumbles on a discovery—that the geometrical shapes aren't the aliens who burned down the Earth, in fact they're defenseless bottom feeders, and they employ humans to explain common objects because they can never tell if an MP3 player or an empty wrapper can be used as a weapon. The apocalypse here is so delightfully layered, with the aliens adopting the voices of famous voice actors and Vera having a host of complicated feelings about helping Earth's supposed new overlords. In a short space Takács manages to pack in not only character development for the protagonist but also an entire plot about the Earth being destroyed, colonized and liberated. Vera's state of mind turns out to be key to forcing the geometrical shapes to leave Earth alone.
Although these were my three favorite stories the collection is full of strong offerings. I particularly enjoyed the fact that most of the book is focused on women. It was refreshing to read such a large collection of stories where female protagonists were the default rather than the exception. I particularly enjoyed Maree Kimberley's "Five Thousand Squares," about a mother who must deliver her children to safety while dealing with crippling pain, K. L. Evangelista's "No Shit," about a post-apocalyptic Australia where two people with autoimmune diseases begin a tentative romance, and Lauren E. Mitchell's "Tea Party," where the survivors of a mental hospital form a community and help each other in the absence of doctors or supplies.
Overall, Defying Doomsday is remarkable in the landscape of SF/F for showing so many possible futures where humanity is wiped out, civilization breaks down and yet people with disabilities are not only the heroes of their own stories but are often key to keeping the few remaining survivors alive. It's a book that's designed to make readers question many of the assumptions baked into the foundations of post-apocalyptic fiction. If I could sum it up in one sentence I'd probably rely on another recent Australian cultural product: if you liked Mad Max: Fury Road and its focus on a disabled woman saving the world in a barren wasteland, this anthology is definitely for you.
Marina Berlin grew up speaking three languages in a coastal city far, far away. She’s an author of short stories who’s currently working on her first fantasy novel. You can follow her exploits on twitter @berlin_marina or read more of her stories and reviews at marinaberlin.org.
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