Hugo Reading Progress

2024 Hugo Awards Progress
30 / 57 items read/watched (52.63%)
3375 / 7751 pages read (43.54%)
495 / 1360 minutes watched (36.40%)

15 April 2024

Apocalypse Still by Leah Nicole Whitcomb

Apocalypse Still: Stories by Leah Nicole Whitcomb

Apocalypse Still is a thin collection of short stories (141 pages according to my Kindle), mostly kinds of fantasy or sf set in our present day or the near future—like it'll be our world, but there are vampire or zombies or something, or someone is part-alien or has superpowers. A lot of the times, this is clearly meant to be read in a metaphorical register, like a person denying the existence of zombie plague even when they have it and are spreading it themselves is meant to be a metaphor for COVID. This is author Leah Nicole Whitcomb's debut book; I won it for free from LibraryThing's EarlyReviewers program in exchange for an honest review.

Collection published: 2024
Contents originally published: 2023-24
Acquired: March 2024
Read: April 2024

In her influences at the end, Leah Nicole Whitcomb names one sff author (Octavia Butler) but three ones that we more associate with "literary" fiction, and this tracks with how the book itself feels: one-quarter sff, three-quarters literature. There's a bit from an essay by China Miéville that I think about a lot, possibly too much, where he discusses how metaphors and literalism work in science fiction, and the difference between how sff writers approach it and how non-sff writers approach it: 
When 'mainstream' writers dip their toes into the fantastic, they often do so with the anxiety of seriousness, keen to stress that their inventions are really 'about' other, meaningful things....
     By contrast, those firmly within the fantastic tradition know that the unreal will always be read metaphorically – what is the human mind but an engine to metaphorize and process metaphors intended and found? – but that there is also pleasure in its literalism. In Swift, for example, Gulliver's journey to Brobdingnag... clearly casts a remorseless light on Swift's own society; it also, however, features a sword fight with a giant wasp, a passage the enjoyment of which depends on the specific uncanny/estranging impact of literalizing the impossible: simply, it is a great, weird idea. Weirdness is good to think with, and is also its own end.
Elsewhere in the same essay, Miéville talks about how one of the pleasures of sff is its "technique of rationalized (rather than free-for-all) alienation from the everyday." Whitcomb's work feels to me like it approaches its "weird ideas" as metaphors and not as literal things. There's a lot of stuff here clearly meant to reflect back onto the society in which we live... but we don't get much of that other pleasure of sff, the "uncanny/estranging impact of literalizing the impossible." For me, it's experiencing both of those registers at once that makes the genre so enjoyable, but there's not much "rationalized alienation" here. Too many of the stories end with their impossible occurrence; it's the reveal or the twist or the sting. But this means that the story doesn't get to explore the impossible thing, to pursue its implications and its consequences, and it's doing that—giving the reader a world structured around an impossible idea—which allows a science fiction or fantasy story to make its unreal thing seem real. Without that, it's only metaphor.

With a couple exceptions (more on them later), I wouldn't say any of these are bad stories, but for the most part, they aren't what I want from and enjoy in my science fiction and fantasy. The title story, "Apocalypse Still," is the zombie one I mentioned earlier, and it's fine. "Superhuman" is another that ends with what makes the story interesting, instead of beginning with it. "Antenna" has a character discovering her secret, weird heritage, but again ends with her making the interesting decision about it. I did like a lot about "Race Play," which feels like a dark take on Kindred, about a black woman and white man who fall in love in 2015 but realize they are reincarnations of a slave and slave owner, but it has a totally unnecessary second part.

The two I didn't like were "Entangled," which is a sort of plotless revenge story, and "The Town of Los Valles," which is about a black family who gets kicked out of an Airbnb, but gets invited to a friendlier community, and there's no plot or conflict after that point, it's just twenty pages of them having a nice vacation! I kept waiting for a reveal that never happened.

These stories all do the one thing Miéville identifies—they are metaphors for racism and homophobia and misogyny in our world—but they don't do the other, they don't make you imagine other worlds. They're not badly written for the most part, but they feel like they come from outside the genre rather than within it.

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