As the glaciers melt, the sea levels rise and the human project accelerates toward its inevitable decline, Kristine Ong Muslim is building a world of her own, one story at a time.
It's hard to say with any kind of authority what this world is like or how it came to be, as we only catch glimpses of it in her fascinating new short story collection, Age of Blight, which represents a fraction of the 600 stories and poems she has published. One thing we can say with absolute certainty is this world isn't a utopia.
Here's what we know. The year is 2115, and some kind of cataclysmic event has devastated the planet, triggering a wave of extinction events that the population more or less takes in stride. Yet life in the suburb known as Bardenstan and in nearby Outerbridge, "the only part of America where plants are still grown in soil," life goes on with some semblance of normalcy. Children attend school. Parents go to work. Families gather together for dinner and chew fake celery.
But in Muslim's world the dead return to life with terrifying regularity, families adopt two-legged pets they torture and train, and people fall prey to a terrifying disappearing disease known as The Empty. When a student succumbs to this disease in the story, "There's No Relief as Wondrous as Seeing Yourself Intact," the headmaster addresses the student body with a less than reassuring message.
"The Empty will get us all in the end and we can't do anything about it, unless something else kills us first."
That's no idle threat in Muslim's oeuvre where there are many things more terrifying than a disease that causes body parts to disappear.
For example, in "Zombie Sister," the narrator reacts to the news that his sister is no longer dead but not quite living. Though the story is just five pages long, her newly undead status is thoroughly examined. After undergoing a quick formaldehyde treatment, the sister is ready to return to her family, who are told they "shouldn't take it personally":
"'Besides, the world is going to end soon,' the physician, who was schooled in the science of human vital signs, said. Then he winked at my sister, who did not or could not wink back."
In Muslim's stories, appearances can be deceiving. Things are not as they seem—they're much worse. In "Dominic Dominic" a young boy buries his fingernail clippings in his backyard. Within a short period of time the boy is astonished to find fingers "growing" in the same spot.
"By the time Dominic was eating dinner, the fingers were twitching for the first time, feeling the air of the small fenced backyard that was silent in the stifling late-summer heat."
When Dominic tries to bring this to his mother's attention, she can't see what he sees, and therefore doesn't notice when Dominic's double begins to take shape in the dirt outside her door.
In these stories, children have it worse than adults. When they're not being ignored they endure the brunt of their elder's mistakes and manipulations. They see things more clearly, but they're not entirely without blame and are capable of deeds every bit as monstrous as their forebears.
Muslim, who comes from a small rural farming community in the province of Maguindanao in the southern Philippines, seems to be saying that we lack agency when it comes to the forces, big and small, that shape our world. Sometimes these forces are ecological, such as a severe drought, and sometimes the forces are personal, like a boy with bad intentions and a sharp rock.
It's interesting to speculate whether Muslim's upbringing makes her more attuned to these forces, but in "The Quarantine Tank," it feels as if she is addressing her readers in the West. "Because you and your people are safely ensconced in your part of the world, you do not care about anything else."
There's not a lot of caring in Muslim's devastatingly spare stories whose characters are tied to their fates like sea captains lashed to the wheel in a storm. Muslim's brand of storytelling is perversely pessimistic, the wink of a zombie who has lost control of her body, replete with metaphors for our poor stewardship of a doomed planet.
You won't find many happy endings in Age of Blight , but these stories sound a convincing wake-up call.