Thursday, July 29, 2021

Aftermath #2 (2020)

Aftermath, ed. Jan Bee Landman. Issue 2 (2020). Online at

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

In addition to articles, essays and opinion on the subjects of climate change and environmental degradation, Aftermath publishes the results of an annual short story contest titled “The End of Our World.” The second installment contains the three winners of the 2020 contest (who shared $1400 in prize money), plus seven honorable mentions. The overarching theme of these stories, as one might expect from what is effectively an activism site, is pessimistic environmental fiction—ranging from desperate realism to post-apocalyptic terror. You’ll find no solarpunk or eco-topia stories in this volume. Additionally the stories tend toward the literary rather than genre aesthetic, meaning there is a lot of grim introspection, unreliable or unsympathetic narration, hopelessness is much more likely than derring-do action, and happy endings would be considered downright gauche (which is not to say that many of the endings of this type of story are not powerful and even satisfying). One recalls the argument that “Climate Fiction” is not science fiction, and—much as I like to disagree with almost any statement in the form “X is not SF”—from the point of view of genre aesthetic, this collection indicates there is some truth to it.

The winner of the $1000 first prize, “The Last Funeral” by Leslie Vedder, is a beautifully written, very private, post-apocalyptic, day-in-the-life drama. This story has the unusual conceit of an ostensibly dystopian underground settlement, with unforgiving religious theocracy and collective self-loathing to the point of sometimes suicidal penitence, morphing over the course of the story into—what the protagonist at least accepts as—a somewhat more utopian or at least ethically responsible society. (It’s not quite the brainwashing arc of a 1984, but it feels a bit uncomfortable nonetheless.) There are also staples of post-apocalyptic cliché, like the predatory “Rovers” in the wilderness, but the setting itself is well-fleshed out, three-dimensional and convincing.

A nearer-future tale, Bridget Pitt’s “The Rhinos’ Child” was awarded the second prize of $300. This is a very literary breed of post-disaster fiction, with little hope or heroism or adventure, but a mix of desperation and fatalism tempered by human empathy and redemption. Sono is the disheartened last custodian of the long-closed National Museum of Natural History in a flooded New York, and Draino is a small child who has taken refuge in the building and adopted a family of fiberglass rhinos in the African Mammals department. Against his initial instincts, Sono shares his supplies and the last dredges of his strength and survival instinct with the boy. Again this is more of a human drama than it is a science-fictional adventure, and the action could be set in any human-made or natural disaster zone; perhaps the reader is meant to be more horrified that it takes place in North America, but for most of us (and the characters) it really changes nothing.

In “Swallow Lake” by Jenny Robson, the winner of the third prize of $100, we meet Tumi, a young Botswanan girl living with her grandmother, on the eve of her scheduled relocation to a safer climate in Siberia. The Africa of this story has suffered a double catastrophe: collapsing land due to predatory mining, and flooding due to rising sea levels—the one cancelling out the other to a frankly unfeasible degree, so that the rest of the world has been saved from rising waters by Africa’s “sacrifice.” Almost entirely didactic in structure and tone, this story’s characters tell one another, tell us, and tell the well-meaning European officers who bring supplies and technology and evacuation flights, the history of their world, only 30 years in our future. To its credit, the ending of this story is as positive as it could be, in the sense that we are inclined to approve the characters’ actions, even if unconvinced that they will make them “happy ever after.”

Of the seven runners-up also printed in this issue, only two particularly grabbed me. Kevin Sandefur’s “Legacies” is an effective if predictable eco-horror revenge story, set in an unspecified part of the world and at a date that could be any time in the last fifty years (or the next fifty). A predatory and illegal rainforest clearance campaign meets the archaeological remains of a disappeared ancient culture, with chilling and bloody—if indirectly portrayed—consequences. In contrast “The Thing You Don't Have A Name For” by Catherine Sleeman is a breathless, impassioned, very effective, present-tense, second-person narrative of a child becoming more and more environmentally aware as she watches the world collapse over the last two decades, while not being listened to by adults or peers. Honestly this story is stronger than some of the prize-winners, and should have won something—it’s the story I’m sorriest not to have published! Again it is not a speculative fiction story in the normal sense, but it is so much more than the teenage stream-of-consciousness bildungsroman that my summary may have made it sound like, and is more nuanced than many of the stories in this volume.

The yearly round-ups of prize winners and runners up in Aftermath magazine are not a typical venue for speculative fiction short stories—indeed, they do not market themselves this way at all—which may mean some of the stories are in danger of being overlooked by precisely those readers who will appreciate them the most. The stories that represent the ten “best” submissions to the End of Our World writing contest are a very mixed bag, with both sophomoric ideas and sublime writing to be found, but also with a range of futuristic, fantastic, dystopian, realist and horrific story-types. There is little content here that would not be at home in the spec-fic small press, despite the very “literary” approach many of the authors have taken, and the activist or didactic tone that admittedly seems to have been exactly what the contest runners and editors were looking for. This sort of publication is a very welcome addition to the genre small press world, and we look forward to future instalments of the contest and magazine.

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