Adele Wearing (ed.), The Girl at the End of the World: Book II. Fox Spirit Books, 2014. Pp. 434. ISBN 978-1-909348-58-8. £9.50.Reviewed by Don Riggs
Since the emphasis is on the Girl at the end of the world, there is always a strong female protagonist, often having to make up for male dysfunctionality either leading up to the world’s ending or characterizing males’ behavior in the post-societal times. Following certain trends in contemporary fantasy and science fiction, there is some male-bashing, as in Bruce Lee Bond’s “Girls’ Day Out,” in which a twenty-one year old woman must defend herself from males with a disease that manifests itself through tumorous growths. The story begins with her having chained a young man without the growths and pistol-whipping him and threatening to cut off his penis in exchange for information about the men he’s traveling with. There is a certain amount of the pornography of violence here, but the reader is assured that the protagonist needs to do this to maintain her own safety.
The first story, “The Weed Wife” by C. Allegra Hawksmoor, has a much more elevated tone, with long sentences filled by extensive details describing vegetation and drought, punctured occasionally by an abrupt incomplete sentence: “Like living icicles” (11). “The plague” (13). This rhythm, consisting of a profusion of descriptive detail with an occasional abrupt terseness, can be a bit irritating until one realizes that the alternation mirrors what is happening in the projected world: a cataclysm brought about by the awakening of a balrog-like entity called The Weaver King has left the land waste, and the titular Weed Wife is trekking purposefully across this devastated landscape to restart the processes of growth and life, and to encourage the occasional surviving person to return to living a meaningful, productive life.
The male-bashing is given a surprising turn in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “The Girls from Humaji,” in which Magda, one of the women captured by a tribe of wandering barbarians with a male leadership, is unflinchingly described thus: “[s]he hurt from where they had beaten and kicked her, her skin a mottled patchwork of bruises, fresh red and older black overlaying the yellow marks of the first. She hurt from where they had burned her: arms, thighs, and the soles of her feet” (45). Not to give any spoilers, Magda will turn out to have a secret weapon that she will bring to bear, one with both symbolic and functional power. In a somewhat parallel situation, Anne Michaud’s “I Was Here” has the female narrator captured by a group of dominant males, but instead of building up a sense of solidarity with her fellow female captives, she is regarded by them with suspicion, and when they finally are able to turn the tables on the men and kill them, she is caged. She observes the rule of the Amazons with clear objectivity, revealing that they are no different than their former oppressors. She escapes to walk alone.
In Dylan Fox’s “Hope Street,” a postapocalyptic London is inhabited by rough gangs, including the protagonist, a teenaged woman named Duke. When we first meet her, she pulls the dead body of her friend Ivy from the ubiquitous water, and we know that she will spend the rest of the story reconciling herself to her friend’s death, and getting retribution for it, insofar as she can. However, early on in the story, it is said of her, “No matter how many windows she smashed, how many times she stabbed, how high she reached , they would never notice her. But what else could she do with this rage? How else could she stop the world treating her like scum?” (250). This illuminates the punk aspect of Duke’s personality; later, as she is confronting one of the kingpins of the postapocalyptic London, she reflects that “nature always wins. That humans are part of nature and the only sensible thing to do was work with it, not against it”—without reflecting this consciously: “She didn’t even think any of those thoughts, although they were all there in her mind, unarticulated like the water the fish of her thoughts swam in” (270).
In addition, there are some good science fiction stories in the collection. “The Sharks of Market Street” by Michael Ezell has created a post-global warming San Francisco where the level of the ocean has risen halfway or more up the skyscrapers, creating a new job niche for those who can swim into the underwater within the corporate office buildings to make off with special treasures to sell. The problem is the giant sharks and killer whales that have also moved in to feast on any slow or unwary humans trying this. Ezell creates a believable scenario with its own strictly observed physical and biological parameters, within the context of which there are some hair-raising brushes with the predators of the deep.
“Under the Green Witch” by Colin Sinclair turns a theater class into a question for us all, people alive before the cataclysm: “What’s my motivation?…Because they didn’t live it, they needed to ask: what is my motivation? Why am I doing this and not that? What are my needs and wants?” (143). Tying in with a mid-twentieth century science-fiction motif, the titular Green Witch presides over all of the actions in the story, and inserts a subtle twist in the questions the motivational speaker raises.
Kara Lee’s “Were Stars to Burn” is possibly the most conventional science fiction story of the lot, with the fast pacing and jaunty narration of James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon’s 1986 “The Only Neat Thing to Do.” Kudos to Lee for this passage: “Kay cursed, then hauled out her survival pack and levered the hatch open. She kept her helmet on, knowing that cosmological dice usually rolled up inhospitable planets” (405). This detail jives well with Gary Westfahl’s 2012 The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 because odds are that any planet a human crashlands on is likely to have an atmosphere more likely to kill a human than not. What ensues is a rather touching interaction between Kay and the two sole holographic replicant survivors of Kay’s planet’s destructions, with an unexpected but also quite touching end. Finally, the last story of the collection, Cheryl Morgan’s “The Dragon’s Maw,” is by far the most cosmic of the stories, and, without giving any spoilers, provides a truly upbeat ending for this entire procession of grindingly gritty postapocalyptic scenarios.
The variety of styles and approaches means that certain selections will appeal to some readers’ tastes and not others—I found certain stories a bit more tedious to work my way through than others, and I found myself getting gripped by the excitement of, for example, Rita’s encounter with a shark in Michael Ezell’s “The Sharks of Market Street,” but for any readers who can’t get enough postapocalyptic ruin, survivalism, and similar adaptive human strategies for a world where the rules have all been changed, this is the ideal anthology.