I spent a week in California last month, where it was easier than ever before to imagine the end of the world. Well, the end of human civilization, anyway. Driving through the Central Valley–which in my imagination has always been a wonderland of vibrant green crops and thriving livestock–was like driving into the wastelands of your favorite post-apocalyptic nightmare, where the sky was yellow with smoke and the grass the same shade. Only on the coast and in the affluence of San Jose did it seem like we weren’t on the verge of tumbling into the desert.
Home now in the Midwest, the leaves are starting to turn and fall. It’s less startling here. I’ve had decades of experience of watching the slow slide into winter, when the world washes out into shades of grey. Here, it’s just the thing that happens every year. Here, I look forward to the smell of smoke in the evening air, to the chill that settles in even when you’re safe and warm. Here, I don’t spend long drives staring at the horizon and wondering what will be required of me when we’re up against the wall.
I was an infant when my parents fled with me to the ocean floor. Sylvia City had already turned away thousands of Carbon War refugees after the first few hundred tried to spread the dryland conflict to the benthos. But my mild-mannered parents were engineers with the skills to fix Sylvia City’s overburdened environmental systems. My parents were welcomed. I was let in, too. I have no memory of life beyond the ocean floor, but growing up, I was known as the last dryland refugee. Ten thousand cable repairs can’t erase that fact.
The Carbon War seems to be an endless conflict, lasting long enough to be a danger during the protagonist’s childhood and now, when it looks like war has erupted on dryland again. As the last refugee, it falls to our protagonist to safeguard the world she knows–the underwater refuge where she has bonded with the ocean dwellers. As a technician in an outpost on the cable that connects the city to the dryland power station, she is the first to discover that danger is on their doorstep again. The cable doesn’t just provide power; it could act as a bridge to invasion forces, as the dryland becomes uninhabitable. I didn’t get the sense that there was ever really a decision point for the protagonist. She has to do what needs to be done, because she is the best suited to it and because she owes a debt to the community who accepted her family. As an apocalypse story, this one is somehow both unsurprising and fresh.
The first stamp my sister got when she began collecting was a deep cobalt blue, engraved. It was on a letter from her best friend, which we did not know at the time would be the last letter from her best friend. She had the impulse to cut it off the envelope anyway, all unknowing, and I found her soaking it in a little dish of water.
This story unfolds in ten chapters, one each for a stamp in the sister’s collection. A plague has isolated the sisters from the rest of their world. Unknown numbers of people are dead–or infected–which means as good as. As their quarantine continues, the protagonist grows more concerned about her sister’s behavior, which culminates in a burst of (necessary?) violence. The plague is understandably obscure; the world slightly less so. We know there is magic, because the sister was an apprentice mage whose training was cut short. The sister chafes at not being able to work with those in power to find a cure for the plague while her own personal supplies dwindle. As a sister myself, I’m always delighted when a sibling relationship is depicted in ways that ring true to my own, as it is here. Though I could have read twice as many words in this setting, the ending was satisfying though some may find it frustrating.