A World to take over the plot
Reviews of Decay by Igor Ljubuncic and What it means when a man falls from the sky By Lesley Nneka Arimah
Conventional literary rules dictate that plot and setting should interact much like the components of a pinball machine. The plot should bounce around the setting lightening up rewards and revealing dangers. In Tom Wolfe’s first novel ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’, Wolfe takes his readers through Manhattan high society and the Bronx’s criminal justice system. There was a plot driving the action, but the book was more memorable because of the world the plot inhabited. In a journalistic fashion Wolfe told us what was meant by the phrase ‘lemon tart’, he explained how ‘the favor bank’ worked and described the difference between lion and donkey bravery. I don’t know if Wolfe’s description of 1980’s New York was accurate, but his book describes a vibrant all be it callow society. I believe that in Wolfe’s case that plot only served as a tool to explore the setting.
One could argue that in speculative fiction the relationship between plot and setting becomes less important to the readers. The popular fantasy novel the ‘Name of the Wind’ fills a thousand pages with topics ranging from the day-to-day life of homeless street children, describing the campus of a wizarding school (magic is called sympathy), the mating habits of dragons, and discussing different methods of constructing mystical lighting equipment. There is very little overt mention of the main character’s quest to avenge the death of his parents. All the plot does in ‘The Name of the Wind’ is to add gravitas to the main character and it helps set the tone for the world. ‘The Name of the Wind’ wasn’t a whodunit, an adventure story or a cliffhanger ridden thriller but a careful exploration of a verdant imaginary world. World building was the book’s chief appeal. This begs the question, if the primary concern and appeal of one’s story is world building is the plot relevant?
The two short stories I am discussing today concern themselves chiefly with setting, both straddle a plot but for different effects. The short story ‘Decay’ (by Igor Ljubuncic available through Amazon) tackles one of the perennial challenges in speculative fiction: reimagining a staple troupe. ‘Decay’ follows in the footsteps of ‘The Outsider’, ‘I, Zombie’, ‘Warm Bodies’ and numerous stories before it; ‘Decay’ attempts to recreate the zombie as a character. The story “What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky” by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Riverhead Books 2017) gives us a dystopian future in which Africa has been colonized and conquered by Europe a second time.
The zombies in ‘Decay’ are humans afflicted with a disease, which stops the heart, numbs one senses, dulls a persons emotion, handicaps cell repair and immunity such that the flesh of the afflicted literally rots of their bones. But until the rot actually destroys them the afflicted can still walk around, talk and eat. The zombies in Decay are not immortal undead but physically weaker and more fragile that living humans. Set in a near future version of our own world the members of Igor’s rotting community are an oppressed minority. These zombies could be seen as an allegory for the lepers, those afflicted with polio or the HIV positive. The zombies are prejudged as criminals and monster because of their disease, and are unfairly seen by humanity as existential threat. The result of this persecution being that the zombies, (they preferred to be called Humanz in an obvious ploy to market their brand to the Feringi) have formed their own shadow society with a president, intelligence network, special forces unit, slang, mores and cultural hierarchy.
‘Decay’ is told from the President of Zombieland (POZL) point of view and the POZL spends much of his narration explaining the nature of Humanz biology and society. ‘Decay’ is impressive in that it manages to unpack all this without awkward information dumps and in a manner that serves the story. This unpacking of the world work because it all pinned to a tight but unoriginal plot. Extremists zombies have stolen a nuclear weapon and the POZL has to direct efforts to recover the nuclear weapon. Thus, while the plot is so trite as to be arbitrary it does provide a serving dish for the world building and gives the characters something specific to talk about.
I enjoyed ‘Decay’, even if I didn’t buy into its premise. I don’t believe that a horribly disfiguring disease would drive the formation of such a sophisticated subculture and shadow government. The zombie’s in Decay have almost completely abandoned their previous cultural identities in favor of embracing the zombie lifestyle that has been forced on them. This was particularly hard to swallow because the zombies of ‘Decay’ are so short lived. Who is going to be the carriers of culture if the average zombie lives less then nine years after contracting the disease? How quickly does one give up their human identity in favor of a zombie identity? But for me science fiction is about ideas, and the fact that I want to have these little pedantic disagreements with ‘Decay’ makes the story worthwhile for me. I may not read the future installments in this series, but this short story (at 50 pages this not a novel and barely a novella) provides a fresh take on the zombie genre that I enjoy discussing. Even if you have read zombie stories before and have seen Austin Powers (‘let us just steal a nuclear weapon and hold the world hostage’) ‘Decay’ is worth reading if you want change your zombie from allegory for the soulless drones of modern society to an oppressed minority.
‘What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky’ is worth reading if you want a new take on humanity’s callous hubris and cynical pragmatism. The story takes place in a near future Earth in which an ecological disaster has left most of the Northern Hemisphere uninhabitable, and the European powers have re-conquered and re-colonized Africa. To protect their culture and make space for themselves the Europeans have committed new and terrible acts of genocide and apartheid type oppression. But the destruction of African culture and the murder of the native peoples is presented only as history in this story. The main character in the story is a mathematician (Nneoma) who specializes in the equations of grief. Using her abilities she can remove mental anguish and suffering from others, for a price, and in European occupied Africa there is no end to the amount of suffering that needs to be extinguished.
The mathematical mastery of the human condition is the major conceit of Arimah’s story. The idea is that through mathematics a human being can crack the code of the universe and defy the laws of nature. The titular example of this technology is how mathematicians have figured out the equation for flying. However, the ability to understand Furcal’s Formula, the line of higher mathematics that purports to explain existence and reality is not something that can be taught, but an it is an innate ability. Those with the natural ability to understand the math of life are elevated to an elite status. Thus although Nneoma is a native born African living in British Occupied territory she is able to live like the European elites and is sparred much of the overt and subtle oppression to which the other natives are subjected.
This is a terrifically terrifying setting and premise to explore real world issues. Do the ‘developed nations’ of the world really respect African sovereignty? If it is possible to remove the negative human emotions connected with tyranny and oppression does it change the way we view tyranny and oppression? Do the privileged have any responsibility to the less privileged? All of these are questions that we are forced to ask as we follow Nneoma through her day to day to life.
But what drives Nneoma’s actions? The central plot, that the Furcal’s Formula may be flawed, serves only to bookend the story. Nneoma’s thoughts and emotional experiences are driven bythe numerous subplots that Arimah has tightly woven into her short story. Like all the stories in Arimah’s collection, this story deals with the bittersweet nature of the parent child relationship and the complex relationships between women.
Nneoma, the master of other people’s pain is isolated from others. She has broken with her girlfriend and holds a grudge against her aging father. These scars plus the nature of her profession have made her reluctant to reach out to new people even though her mathematical talents allows her to see their pain and need. The story moves forward via Nneoma’s constant struggle to avoid interactions with other, whether those interaction be with her driver or the people she annoys at a grocery store. Eventually, Nneoma is cornered and is forced to interact with a traumatized child. The story ends where it started; with the Furcal’s Formula failing and we are left with the message that there is no escaping grief or injustice. Nneoma’s last act of compassion is perhaps what leads to her own undoing.
Arimah’s story tells us that to treat the symptoms (as opposed to addressing the cause) of colonization and oppression is ultimately self-defeating. Sci-fi is at its best when the fiction becomes a laboratory to explore real world issues and the human condition. Decay presents us with questions of the human condition and gives us well-developed world to with which test those questions. What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky gives us the same but with a more human and more developed characters and it uses the novel world to try and tell us something about our world. Ironically, I bet many will find Decay’s world of special-forces, nuclear weapons and political intrigue more accessible than Arimah’s tale of a person trying to live a contented life in a discontented world. But both stories should give you something to talk about, even if that thing isn’t the plot.