Thursday, September 19, 2019

Quick Conversations: Post-Apocalyptic SFF (with L.D. Lewis, Marianne Kirby, and Nibedita Sen)

Okay, so something a bit different today! I’ve done some interviews in the past for my Quick Questions series, but today I’m starting something new (and exciting!)...Quick Conversations. Which will run a bit longer and will be more of a round-table discussion about a topic of interest in short SFF. Today I’m welcoming three excellent writers to the blog to discuss a subject near and dear to a great many SFF readers’ heart—post-apocalyptic fiction. The idea comes from a super-awesome-looking anthology that is Kickstarting now, Glitter + Ashes: Queer Tales of a World That Wouldn't Die from Neon Hemlock (edited by dave ring). Definitely check out the campaign, and perhaps pay special attention to the promise that the project “will be an anthology about queer joy and queer community in the face of disaster.” I mean, yes please! 

The good news is that it’s already funded, too! There are still stretch goals to hit, but the project itself definitely is happening. The project’s editor, dave ring, has this to add:
“I am over the moon that we've met our initial goal.  One way or another, this book will be in your hands next summer.  I'd really like to increase the level of compensation for our writers, as well as include the folks who've agreed to jump in at each of our stretch goals, so please check out our project!  Now that we are funded, submissions will open over at, and will remain so until November 30th."

Anyway, if that hasn’t convinced you, I invite you to sit back, relax, and absorb some amazing insights from some of the project’s contributors.


Quick Sip Reviews (QSR): Hi all and thank you so much for being a part of this conversation. First off, I’d like to do introductions. Tell us a little about yourselves!

L. D. Lewis (LDL): I'm a queer/bi Black writer and editor of SFF, and I work in acquisitions and script consulting for genre audiobooks. I'm also the Art Director and Project Manager at the award-winning FIYAH Literary Magazine. I'm, uh... busy. 

Marianne Kirby (MK): Hey, y’all - my name is Marianne Kirby and I’m a fat femme activist, writer, and occasional editor. I love writing about bodies, whether that is from a fat acceptance standpoint or a body horror one. I’ve got some books out and I’m often obnoxious online.

Nibedita Sen (NS): Hey all! I’m a queer woman of color from India, a Clarion West grad, and assistant editor of GlitterShip, a queer SFF magazine (this feels pleasantly congruent, hah). I have a bunch of short fiction out in places like Nightmare, The Dark, and Fireside, most of it horror or dark fantasy. 

QSR: Okay, so the project that we’re sort of jumping off of is Glitter + Ashes: Queer Tales of a World That Wouldn't Die from Neon Hemlock. There’s a Kickstarter going on right now, just fyi. Now, I will admit that sometimes post-apocalyptic SFF can be a hard sell for me, because often I feel that the genre/style focuses on a kind of grimness that sees the worst in humanity. But this project seems to be a little different, which is reflected prominently in the subtitle. Not just the queerness part, but in the “World That Wouldn’t Die” angle. Tell me, how do you feel that aspect of the project, the focus on resilience rather than loss, reflects in the kind of post-apocalyptic work you want to see and write about?

LDL: A lot of marginalized identity hinges on the ability to find joy or love or humor in often hopeless situations. There's no will to get through them otherwise. So an anthology that highlights those aspects of our lived experience and not just the grit and doom can't help but be refreshing. 

MK: WHEW, okay, so - for me, I feel really strongly that post-apocalyptic narratives are often way too focused on presenting futility and despair as human legacy. But the truth is people (*cough* generally, marginalized people *cough*) have lived and keep living through local apocalypses because humans are resilient survivors. We form networks and communities even in the midst of the worst the world has to offer because we want to survive and we want to find connection. For me, a meaningful post-apocalyptic world highlights what we are doing as humanity to keep on living, where we find out joy, how we continue to find meaning in life. It isn’t like our current technological level is required for survival to be meaningful. So for me, the focus of this project really gets at the heart of what we as people do when things get bad. 

NS: The part that really stuck with me when I first heard the anthology’s title was ‘A World That Wouldn’t Die’. A lot of post-apoc fiction has this idea of what the ‘ideal’ survivor is, you know, the kind of person who’s best equipped and most likely to make it in a post-apocalyptic world, and shocker—that person is usually white, able-bodied, neurotypical, and male. There’s this persistent, poisonous implication that the things that make marginalized people, well, marginalized, are also the things that would make us weak and unsuited to survival in a Badass, Hard-Scrabble, post-apocalyptic scenario. And that’s just bullshit. Like Marianne said, us marginalized folk are resilient. We also tend to be very aware of, and practiced in, the value of building community—looking out for each other, protecting the most vulnerable among us, in a world that has deemed us less than. So there’s this wonderful sort of defiance to me, in that title, a kind of “we’re still here, we’re not going anywhere. We will endure, we will survive.”

QSR: I love that you’ve all touched on the idea of survival. Because I do recognize a certain schism in post-apocalyptic works in how they imagine survival. For many, the lean is to imagine survival as a trade-off, where people live only to the extent they embrace violence, authoritarianism, and a rejection of “civilization” (with all the loaded baggage that comes along with that). There becomes a consuming focus on weapons and control (often with the added obsession with reproducing and keeping the human race from dying out). But you’ve mentioned a different framing of survival, one less tied to a “kill or be killed” mentality. How do you want to explore the idea of survival in post-apocalypses, or how do you want to see the idea of survival complicated? 

MK: Well, I mean, I WANT to root the idea of individual exceptionalism out of post-apocalyptic fiction. The myth of the lone survivor, to me, really feeds into the idea of the stereotypical Alpha Male Savior in actively socially harmful ways, especially when you consider who is perpetuating the most harm in our culture. The reality of survival is that we cannot do it alone - and the narratives that imagine we can (when they aren’t exploring the horror and tragedy of it) are so often masturbatory power fantasies. There are alternatives to this - and exploring the complications of community under threat/pressure is where things get both meaningful and just plain way more interesting for me, especially as a way of modeling alternate power structures. And the narratives working with these concepts wind up exploring so much more about WHY we survive instead of just how. 

LDL: The "kill or be killed" aspect of survival is always sort of a reptilian brain response. We insist on surviving because it's counter to our nature not to. Threats to our physical selves must be eliminated if we're expected to go on living. I want to know what happens to the romantic essences of humanity post-apocalypse, the purported reasons for living, not just the mechanics of doing it. What art still gets made? How does restricted access to food change the way we express affection through our cooking? How does sexual intimacy change in a world with diminished access to contraception or prophylaxis? What can we learn from societies for whom these things are already realities?

NS: Hah, you guys took the words right out my mouth. I second everything said above, and would add that there’s this revisionist imagining of history that often goes hand in hand with post-apocalyptic survival fantasies, where we just assume ancient societies with limited resources were merciless about weeding out the vulnerable and disabled. And of course, there’s no shortage of such atrocities in human history -- but at the same time, we’re discovering bones that show disabled people in ancient hunter-gatherer societies lived well into old age, because they were clearly well-cared for and provided for by their community even when they couldn’t actively contribute to said hunting and gathering (and there’s another thing to interrogate: this idea that your contributions decide the value of your life, or your right to live with dignity). And that’s fascinating to me, because like -- if we can be so wrong about how we imagine our own past, what does it say about the way we imagine our future?

QSR: The idea of apocalypse is vast. From climate change to nuclear annihilation to alien invasion to natural disaster, trends in the kind of apocalypses people focus have changed over time. Are there some apocalypses you’re especially excited to explore? And do you feel that post-apocalyptic stories must reflect some extension of a current crisis to be topical?

MK: I don’t think a post-apocalyptic story has to be an extension of a current crisis - especially since sometimes those stories hit a little too close to home for people who are already stressed and/or panicked about, for example, climate change. That’s one reason I really like to see a variety of apocalypses in fiction; the diversity gives us the room to emotionally process the trauma we are living through in the best way for us. For example, when I write about a post-apocalypse Florida, I still can’t dig too deep into the immediacy of an apocalypse. I try to focus on the world that has become because the world AS it becomes is a little more than I can emotionally handle. That said, I AM particularly interested in exploring a world that has been altered by climate change - the aftermath in which people have adapted and find the work of rebuilding something meaningful. 

LDL: I feel like all apocalypse scenarios are indicative of current crises. The drama of the apocalypse is its tangibility, and we can see their possibilities—and fear them—so vividly because they're extensions of the current states of things. Climate change? Absolutely. Nuclear war? Give the wrong despot (there are plenty) the right button to push and yup. Eldritch monsters? I don't see why the hell not. Have you seen the ocean? Terrifying. For my part, I'm interested most in those scenarios humanity would be disinclined to think we could bomb ourselves out of. So no zombie virus, no toxic foreign policy, no alien invasion. I'd be interested in exploring an angle that sees humanity's position as an apex predator diminished, which probably means I'm leaning toward climate change and assorted beasties.

NS: I admit I’m less interested in the exact nature of the apocalypse itself than the aftermath, hah. Personally, something I find weirdly comforting is the notion that the planet has endured worse than us, and will endure long after we’re gone. So I’m really interested in envisioning futures where human society fucks up but nature just keeps on going -- forests taking back the cities, animal species moving back in to reclaim their territory or evolving in specialized ways to deal with the fallout of the apocalypse better than humans can, that kind of thing. I want to imagine us being confronted by our utter smallness and insignificance in the face of geological timescapes. I think humanity would have to make a decision in such a scenario: learn to live side by side with nature, or be swallowed back up by it. The former is where things like solarpunk come in, and I’m endlessly fascinated by that -- the idea that we can learn to have a sustainable, healthy relationship with the planet again, rather than an exploitative one. And all the ways in which that might draw on non-western, non-white models of civilization, philosophy, and interacting with the land -- can you even imagine?

QSR: I feel like part of what’s being talked about is post-apocalyptic work not just as warning or augury (which seems to be their traditional framing), but as inspiration. As motivation not just to enact reactionary policies or “pump the breaks” on “technological advancement,” but also to imagine what might be possible if current systems still buttressed by colonial injustice, corruption, and oppression could be wiped away. Do you think that this reflects a pessimism that any substantive change cannot occur without an apocalypse first to clean the slate? Or are there other ways to find hope in the often bleak futures imagined by post-apocalyptic writers?

NS: There are certainly times when I feel despairingly like an apocalypse might be inevitable, but never that it’s necessary.  Even if I believe that we can come out the other side with something good and worth protecting, the terrible truth is that a global disaster of that scale is almost definitely going to result in disproportionate casualties among the poorest and most vulnerable of us. On a global warming front, to pick just one example, temperatures in India and South Asia are going to reach critical levels long before they do in North America -- so I can’t really take any pleasure in the prospect of old, white climate change naysayers having to eat their words when I know it’s my family who’ll be suffering as a result. And when you consider the fact that it's the next generation that's going to take the brunt of it -- yeah. No matter how you slice it, chances are good that the people who are most culpable are also going to be the people who either get off scot-free or, at least initially, are insulated by their privilege. So I can't help but feel there's an element of privilege involved in any fantasies of burning it all down and starting anew, or of doing a hard reset. 

Maybe there's a distinction to be drawn here between ‘apocalypse’ and revolution? Because I'm definitely much more enthused by the prospect of the latter. 

LDL: I think there's an element of practicality to seeing apocalypse scenarios as hard resets just based off of how we handle problems in other areas. In our daily lives we're presented with situations in which things become such irreparably monumental levels of trash that we have literally memed "throw the whole X away." Failed manuscripts, toxic relationships, various oppressive structures, entire governments. It makes sense that we'd approach something as harrowing, traumatic, and perhaps inevitable as end times with the hope that it will bring something new or better. Not to be a comic book villain, but rebirth has its place in nature and it's even a tenet in most religions with an afterlife. This isn't to say it's necessary to pine for destruction in order to acknowledge it as an avenue for change. 

Suppose your government is led by a crack team of incompetent and otherwise unrepentant homunculi bent on finding new and dazzling ways to drain you of your life force and the world of its resources everyday. Suppose they are intent on leaving you no recourse to combat them within the existing structures of society. Suppose the time, energy, and resources you would expend on revolution—if you knew what to even do with that idea—are spent instead on threadbare survival for you and your family. Revolution requires coordination, a surety of course, a reliance on a network of unknowable entities, and it’s met with consequences. It takes effort. With a certain amount of privilege (or at least hubris), an apocalypse scenario becomes a low-energy solution. It’s romanticized as an out, an imagined relief from the rigors of societal obligation, a perceived leveling of the playing field, and an opportunity to feel a renewed stake in shaping the world denied to you previously by people who preferred you not exist in the first place. So I don't think it's so much pessimism as looking for a scenario in which you're not as helpless as you may be "before the fall" so to speak.

MK: So, huh, uh, I don’t actually think of post-apocalypse as being defined by pessimism in general - in fact, all too often I’d say it’s actually founded in...a masturbatory white male power fantasy. The stories that deviate from this - that queer the trope, to frame this in a queer theory way - in fact seem so founded in optimism to me as a reader and writer. We might need an entirely new way to survive but we will survive in a meaningful way is always the message I walk away with in these narratives and that is the foundation of hopefulness for me. Heck, so many queered post-apocalypstic narratives are still dealing with colonial injustice, corruption, and oppression - which I think reflects that many people aren’t expecting even a clean slate (and how awful that concept is even in fiction - the number of lives lost) to reset us all to equal footing.

What I do think is that the focus on post-apocalyptic narratives, particularly in queer circles, reflects how scared we all are that we are living through an apocalypse right now. We are telling ourselves stories of survival just in case we don’t make it through whatever happens next.

QSR: Lastly, just for fun, tell me how you’d destroy the world, and how you’d survive? 

LDL: 1: bees. 2: space yacht. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

MK: Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire… I’m going to go with plague. But, to respond maybe too honestly to a question meant in fun, I don’t actually anticipate surviving an apocalypse at all!

NS: Eat the rich. Or at least compost them. That’s all I’m saying.

QSR: Thanks all! So looking forward to what you all come up with for Glitter + Ashes!!!

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