The World to Come, edited by Patrick West and Om Prakash Dwivedi, Spineless Wonders 2014
Books in which stories are selected thematically always pique interest—we read with the hope of learning something about that theme, and we judge them not only on the pleasure the stories bring, but also on how effectively they bring us insight into that theme.
In The World to Come, the theme was the phrase which stands as the collections title. In their preface, the editors note that “the present is never no-where: it is always in a place. Where one is impacts when one is. Very deliberately, this collection harvests the voices of writers from all over the world, in fictional reflection on what the world to come looks like from where they are writing, in place and in time”.
One result of this is that the collection contains stories in a variety of genres, from purely literary to science fiction. There is, however, a common pessimistic and depressive tone that runs through most of the stories. Few of the writers present an optimistic future or, when they do, it is the optimism of surviving environmental catastrophe, a theme which holds many of the selected writers in thrall.
For many of the writers, the future conceived as the world to come is barren of humanity, full of despair. Out of several post-apocalyptic stories, John Shulman’s Progress stands out in its inability to present humanity in anything but the worst possible light. A small group of people in the Kalahari Desert have decided, without apparent evidence, that they are the sole human survivors, that it is their task to start humanity over again. But they cannot overcome their past morals, prejudices and training. They spend some time being self-congratulatory at surviving, some at wondering if there are enough of them (five) for their Adam and Eve hopes to be realistic, and a lot of time deciding who among their group is a suitable partner for procreation. One, a Navy Seal, gets drunk and rapes Stephanie, and it all continues falling apart even though there is at least one sign that they are not the last humans: Martin has captured a monkey with a water jug. At the end of the story, only one of the group remains. But…
N!amce squatted on his haunches and watched Stephanie from a nearby outcrop. She was an attractive female, pale and soft. She would die soon. The vultures, hyenas and insects would make quick work of her corpse. As the last human passed into history, the San Bushman did not reflect further. He had another monkey to find to lead him to water.
This story is fascinating for its presentation of ageism, racism and blatant human stupidity, but it also leaves much unsaid that may have led us to find the story more compelling, more revealing of humanity and ourselves as readers. The mere fact that N!amce survives is not enough. Instead I was left with the sense that too much had been left out, most importantly, any sense of humanity beyond a petty concern with who was going to fuck whom.
Stand out stories which are complete within themselves are Tham Chui-Joe’s The breaking of the glass, Tim Richards’ The outer territories, and Sébastien Doubinsky’s The future is wow.
All three of these stories fit into the category of science fiction in a fairly straightforward way. Tham’s story, set in the far future, when people live inside fully enclosed cities (not unlike Diaspar in Arthur Clarke’s The City and the Stars), is a story about a time travelling writer who appears and disappears and whose novels, published in the past, are influencing his future university friend who is studying them. This is a complex, understated story that withstood many readings without revealing all of itself
Tim Richards, on the other hand, gives us a story in which Australia has at least one colony in space which is harshly ruled by the leaders back home. (Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress came to mind here.) There is some lovely, unsubtle humour in this story. Kyle Hampson volunteers to teach Australian Studies at Paul Hogan High on Gorolya in Irwin, the capital of Kidman Provence. Hampson teaches two lessons, in the second of which he introduces the idea of Gorolyan studies because he wanted to learn about the colony and its culture.. Charged with state terrorism, Hampson is taken away, tortured and summarily executed. Fifty-three years later there is a large crowd in Assange Avenue where the first president of the Gorolyan Republic is to make a speech recognising the importance of Hampson’s two class contribution to the creation of the republic. Unfortunately the new president does not remember his name properly, and the town of Irwin is now to be known as Hampton, in his honour.
Doubinsky’s story, in contrast, is a straightforward story of conquest. They, the colonisers, are off to investigate a village, and discover that the planet’s native people have wiped it out, killing everyone: “The Beastmen had taken their kids back, destroying and killing everything in the process”, despite having been “offered” everything—medicine, progress, education. The story ends with the central character determined to “show the bastards. He would show them that democracy and freedom weren’t just empty words.”
Not all of the stories are set in the future. In Jeannette Delamoir’s story 1913: The world to come is made of love, a psychic reflects on the questions she is asked. They are, she says, all about love, but she doesn’t tell anyone what she actually sees, the forthcoming war, death and destruction: “explosions, shrapnel, barbed wire, grotesque technologies delivering pain and fear and dismemberment.” Despite this, she believes “the future is an ocean of love” because “When we die […] The only thing that remains is love: the essential core, the driving force”.
Where other stories in this collection try to create a sense of loss coupled with bewilderment, Delamoir’s story holds it close to us by presenting us with our very human desire to be loved, even if the future contains little but horror against which we must hold our hope and belief in love.
Other, equally powerful stories are John Fulton’s Caretakers, in which a young woman faces some unexpected complications as her father is dying, and Gamil yanaay walaybaa: No going home by Marcus Waters, which tells the tale of one aboriginal man’s journey through several lives, the last of which occurs in the present.
Many other stories attempt the same level of complexity—Fix, by Leone Ross, Ben Brooker’s Awake, to mention two—but they don’t possess the same depth, partly because don’t seem to have been adequately developed, and fail to provide the reader with sufficient context. In Fix, a somewhat confusing story about the world wide web coming alive, this is shown when the author writes “nobody needs condoms any more. Everybody knows: you fuck, you die.” In Awake the issue is sleep: if you sleep, you die. As a reader, I want to know why these things are the case, and being told by a first person narrator that no one knows why just doesn’t seem enough. These stories, along with several others, aim to describe and elucidate a mood, a direction which we hope never will be.
One last aspect of the collection which I would like to mention is about the book itself rather than the stories, and that is the design. Book design is more than the cover of a book, it is the layout of the page, the selection of typeface, margins, and so on. When it comes to designing a page, readability is the all important factor. It is, I admit, a difficult area of book design, but it is one which publishers (and editors, when given the opportunity) need to focus upon.
In The World to Come the chosen type face and layout form solid blocks, providing a density on the page which is difficult to read. The publishers would do well to consider this area more thoroughly and demand more adequate work: good overall book design that creates beautiful pages improves the readability and hence the saleability of their product.
Overall, despite this, The World to Come is a solid collection with a few outstanding stories, and a few less so. As such, it is worth buying for those stories which bear many readings as well as those stories which are so full of despair that they push us to seek different versions of the world.
– B. J. Muirhead
B.J. Muirhead is a writer and photographer living in rural Queensland. He has published online and in print journals, and was included in an anthology of Queensland poetry (1986). He has published art criticism and was photographic reviewer for the Courier-Mail newspaper in the 1980s. His writing and recent exhibitions, Primary Evidence (2011) andFlesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its relation to the inevitability of age and death. He can be found at http://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com.
The World to Come is available from http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/products-page/anthologies-3/the_world_to_come/#more-4073