Collection: …And Other Disasters by Malka Older

Having greatly enjoyed the Centenal Cycle, I was thrilled to receive an advance copy of Malka Older’s first collection …and Other Disasters (2019), a slick, attractively produced volume from Mason Jar Press. Not that I was worried, but if there were any doubts Older was a one-trick pony creatively, this collection should lay them to decidedly to rest.

Older’s penchant for detailed political futurism, which was key to the inventive worldbuilding of the Infomocracy universe, remains vividly on display here. Indeed, it’s a political piece that gives unusual narrative momentum to the collection; a series of brief interstitials, “The End of the Incarnation,” delivers a speculative summary of the fragmentation of the United States in the future. This nifty piece cleverly draw the reader from one story to the next, speaking concisely to the author’s fascination with political systems and their uncertain lifespans.

But there’s more than just political SF, including more traditional thought-experiment SF and even poetry. The first full story is “The Black Box,” an engaging examination of a girl fitted out with a “Lifebrarian,” which records her every memory. It’s an interesting riff on memory-transforming technologies that reminded me of other effective recent explorations on the topic, such as Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” and the early Black Mirror episode “The Entire History of You.” In “The Rupture,” meanwhile, a human being raised on a colonized world in the deep future returns to Earth to study its inhabitants as an anthropological exercise; the ideas are intriguingly examined, providing incisive, one-step-removed commentary about our species’ stubborn resilience in the face of imminent catastrophe. The stark political allegory of “The Divided” renders literal the divisive rhetoric of racism and xenophobia, leading to a chilling, thoughtful, and sad resonance. Older’s first major professional sale, “Tear Tracks,” is a bracing, robust tale of first contact about a woman who learns a heart-breaking, invaluable lesson from a new culture.

I was slightly less enamored of the home stretch of the collection, although there’s still plenty of neat invention on display. “Candidate Y” is an amusing, on-brand short-short about a refreshingly different election system—and an all-too-human attempt to subvert it. The intriguing slow-build of “Perpetuation of the Species,” about a young girl who undertakes an important new position during a lifeship journey, raises interesting questions in service to an effectively jarring endpoint. I also enjoyed the period worldbuilding of “The Email Heiress,” which envisions the early days of Internet startups very effectively, although for me the ending fizzled slightly. Fortunately, “Saint Path” caps off the collection in fine form, an extended thought experiment about an emotion-based artificial intelligence. Prior to this collection, I might have posited it’s a bit early in Older’s career to gather her shorter works, but …and Other Disasters proved me wrong: this is a fast-reading, thought-provoking compilation that suggests Older should be an entertaining innovator in the field for years to come.

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