The Excellence of Malka Older’s …and Other Disasters

The profile of a face with an old fashioned movie projector projecting the words "...and other disasters"

…and Other Disasters

Malka Older
Mason Jar Press
November 21, 2019

Malka Older’s newest book, …and Other Disasters, is excellent. Maxwell Neely-Cohen describes it as “a book of beautiful fragments,” and while that feels pretty accurate, I read the whole thing in one sitting and felt very satisfied by it. It was like eating an entire charcuterie platter in one sitting, and while one knows one should pace oneself, one does not wish to do so.

The cover of the book ...And Other Disasters by Malka Older

…and Other Disasters is speculative fiction in a very literal sense: it offers short stories of multiple versions of future worlds, interspersed with three poems, and textbook-style narration in seven numbered parts from a possible near future in which the United States has begun to disband. These sections of “The End of the Incarnation” are matter-of-fact descriptions of sweeping change. Their distance from personal concerns of individual characters illuminates the fact that the stand-alone short stories in the collection each focus on the human decisions made possible in different situations, enabled by climate change disasters or technological advances, or the connections between the two.

They speculate not only on what the future of humanity will be but how a person will react to each possible future.

The settings are varied—everywhere and everywhen from near-future Earth to the recent past in the 1990s, to far-distant times when contact is already established with extraterrestrials—is explored. I could, however, easily theorize that all of these stories occur at various points in the same timeline. That is part of what makes these “fragments” feel so coherent, but the larger thematic coherence of disaster is certainly the more explicit link. Whether the science is the focus or the backdrop, each story presents characters reeling from recent disasters or bracing in the face of their certain soon coming.

My favorites are “The Rupture” and “The Divided,” which are not the outliers of the times and places in which these stories occur, but do serve to show the breadth of the genre with which Older is adept. In “The Rupture,” a human scholar who lives on a far distant planet goes to Earth to study its remaining inhabitants. In the story, the Earth suffers “ruptures” frequently and devastatingly, and it seems clear the planet is doomed to fall apart entirely within a generation or so. The scholar asks the Earthlings, “Why don’t you leave?… I mean, why don’t you emigrate?” and is surprised to learn that they find their own precarious survival preferable to her rule-restricted one on a “safer” planet far away. In “The Divided,” readers are presented with an alternate present, in which an impenetrable wall has grown, suddenly and seemingly organically, along the southern border of the United States. People are stuck in the wall, and the story is told from the perspective of the grandchild of an abuela whose body stuck inside the wall. I was relieved to read in the acknowledgements that this story was written originally for a horror anthology because: it’s very scary.

The three poems that appear also present a range of styles and perspective, and different poetic forms. They all stick with the theme of disaster, though like the prose, the disasters in the poems range in scale and proximity to the speaker.

The disasters in the book may range from personal to national to planetary, but the focus on disaster is to be expected from Older, as is the experimental and varied content. Older is the celebrated author of the Centenal Cycle, a trilogy of science fiction political thrillers, and one of the authors of Serial Box’s Ninth Step Station, whose second season is in the works.

She is also, however, a sociologist and aid worker whose research addresses how governments respond to disasters. It is clear how her vast knowledge and interest of disaster response shapes her fiction, and how her ability to imagine multiple futures must shape her perspective on her research. All of her work is speculative.

While the focus on disasters may seem bleak, I found it comforting to think about the ways that people will try to find the best ways to adapt, the workable systems to develop, in different scenarios. We’ll cope; we’ll continue.

Emily Lauer

Emily Lauer

In addition to being a contributor to the site, Emily Lauer is the Pubwatch Editor for WWAC. She teaches writing and literature at Suffolk County Community College where she studies comics, kids' books, adaptations and visual culture. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter and dog.