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Strange Labour coverThe world we know is scattered with monuments whose nature and purpose are unknown, perhaps unknowable, constructed by people whose motives we can guess at but cannot really explain. For Britishers like me, the examples that come to mind are Silbury Hill, the largest artificial mound in Europe, which is itself part of the ceremonial landscape around Stonehenge, constructed over hundreds of years from around 3,500 BCE to c. 1,500 BCE.  Every so often, new “explanations” arise for these phenomena: astronomical calendar, “ritual” centre, political consolidations of an elite (or a confident collective) telling the universe “we are here.” Among these explanations (some of which, of course, might have been true at different times) are puzzled examinations of how Neolithic cultures managed to plan and administer such massive projects. How and why did individual stone age farmers find themselves hauling rocks over Salisbury Plain only for succeeding generations to rearrange and realign them? What did they think they were doing and, more interestingly, what did other cultures, observing this activity at work, think was happening?

Robert G. Penner, a Canadian living in the USA, might have such examples in mind, or might be drawing upon other, more local cultures. But similar mysteries lie at the heart of this intriguing new approach to the post-apocalyptic anxiety which gnaws away in many classic science fiction texts such as Eric Pangorn’s Davy (1965) or John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (1955). In this near future, the majority of humanity has simply walked away from mundane existence to engage upon constructing a number of incomprehensible, labyrinthine earthworks. Is the cause of this a virus or a visitation? The calm, orderly exodus has left behind those who, from examples we meet or hear about (a homeless man, another with burns from some drug-related incident, several characters with frequent seizures, a woman with Down’s syndrome and many with what seem to be mental-health issues), are in some way what is now dubbed “neuro-atypical.”

Miranda is one of those who did not join the builders. Scavenging food, clothes, and medication in abandoned stores and fighting off packs of feral dogs, she is travelling across the USA to find her parents’ home.  She spends some time with a small community of elderly people with dementia, cared for by Esther. When Esther commits suicide, Miranda teams up with another wanderer named Dave, who is heading for Chicago to find a legendary chemist at the University, who can make up any drug you might want: “That’s the Holy Grail now, isn’t it? The new alchemy, someone who can make drugs out of the leftovers.” Dave’s theories of what happened, and why, form a running commentary throughout the novel. On their travels, they meet a community of aesthetes/intellectuals, and visit “Big Echo,” a religious community. Ultimately, the novel’s elegiac, almost hallucinatory ending offers no conclusions except (and I could be very much reading my own interests back into the story here) another echo of one of those Neolithic “activities” for which we already have so many interpretations.

This is a story for which there are several possible readings. One is that the remnants are the inadequates, the losers, left behind in a kind of secular version of the Rapture. Also “left behind” are the institutionalized and hospitalised, people in jail, and the sociopaths such as Smacksburg, whom Miranda and Dave meet early on as one of a gang robbing the "digger" convoys,  and whose presence haunts Miranda long after they move on from his group. There are feral children (who may or may not join the mass of diggers at puberty), and dark hints at chaos in cities. In contrast, the Toledo Citizens Co-operative, “curating important civilizational values,” simply offers a very gentrified, cosy-catastrophe kind of post-apocalypse.  And even here, one character says of another, “he’s damaged goods. He’s filled with corruption, like all the others around here … That’s why the virus or whatever couldn’t get them, they were already broken things, diseased.”

“We were saved because we’re damaged goods,” says Miranda to a member of another community. But, she goes on to say, “for that matter, we don’t even know if it’s us that’s saved and them that’s damned, or the other way around.”

Somehow, although Miranda comes across areas where communities of “diggers” have been wiped out through blizzards, starvation, and disease, there is some kind of industrial backup going on, shipments of food and fuel which the “survivors” have learned how to raid, stopping convoys and unloading supplies while the unspeaking diggers look on, waiting until they have finished and then continuing on their way. What they construct are hieroglyphs on the landscape, as much so as the concrete bridges, like “arched spines of long-dead monsters,” which Dave imagines archaeological digs of the future laying bare. His dream of excavating an archaeological site, layer upon layer of human history—“random, curving gouges that went on and on, down, down, as deep as we could dig”—is as close as we get to the activity in which the human race is now, in his world, engaged.

Penner allows his characters their speculations. They all have their illusory goals—Dave’s pharmaceutical “Holy Grail,” Miranda’s parental home—but they dissipate like Ish’s dreams of passing on civilization through his children in George R. Stewart’s novel of the USA post-apocalypse, Earth Abides (1949). And so there are a number of ways of reading this story. Another is hinted at by Adrian of the Toledo Citizens Co-op, who says of the nearby refinery: “I personally think they have it close to its previous capacity, I used to count the trucks and in one twenty-four hour period last August a little over 500 trucks rolled out of there. At 200 barrels a truck, that’s at least 100,000 barrels. It was their busiest day ever, but still, they do keep plugging away.” Is this inexplicable routine ant-like herd behaviour, or planned activity? Are we (and this is a very different reading from the “losers” or “inadequate” reading) looking at the industrial USA seen from the outside by people unsuited for it?

Strange Labour may be an active engagement with the motifs of authors like Stewart, Pangborn, and Wyndham, even J. G. Ballard and films like Mad Max (1979). Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) is referenced early in the novel, and Penner shares some of Wyndham’s reluctance to offer a concrete explanation for the event that kicks off his story. This novel’s strength and readability, though, lie in the way Penner shows humanity searching for explanations. From Dave’s “folklore” creation of the variant stories of the “Dog Killing Goat Boy” told in each community he visits, to his “lying, cowardly bastards who wrote history books”; from Miranda’s memories of family life to the sculptor Eli, carving every square inch of wall, floor, and ceiling into a maze of grooves reminiscent of the earthworks carved upon the landscape, Penner suggests that the deep and lasting anxiety at the heart of the “post-apocalypse” is that we might not even comprehend the Apocalypse when it comes along.

Andy Sawyer is a retired librarian, researcher, critic, and reviewer of SF. From 1993-2018 he was librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool Library, where he also taught courses on SF, and was reviews editor of Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction. He was guest curator of the British Library Exhibition “Out of This World: Science Fiction but Not as You Know It” (May 20–Sep 25 2011), and an advisor to the “Into the Unknown” exhibition at the Barbican Centre London (June3 –Sept 1 2017). He was the 2008 recipient of the Science Fiction Research Association’s Clareson Award for services to science fiction. He is currently researching science fiction of the 1950s, the life and work of Jane Webb Loudon, and how to play “Science Fiction–Double Feature” on the ukulele.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star , however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on).
a ghostly airship / sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it / now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable
Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
Tuesday: Genre Fiction: The Roaring Years by Peter Nicholls 
Wednesday: HellSans by Ever Dundas 
Thursday: Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052-2072 by M. E. O'Brien and Eman Abdelhadi 
Friday: House of the Dragon Season One 
Issue 23 Jan 2023
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Welcome, fellow walkers of the jianghu.
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Issue 28 Nov 2022
By: RiverFlow
Translated by: Emily Jin
Issue 21 Nov 2022
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