It’s generally easier to break things than to make them. So while there are an unlimited number of ways to have an apocalypse, there are precious few ways to fix what’s broken. In How to Get to Apocalypse and Other Disasters, Erica L. Satifka explores 23 different apocalypse scenarios and brings us along for an edgy ride. The range of her stories is delightfully broad, bringing us from an 1800’s logging town to an unknown number of years in the future far reaches of space. Satifka dives right in, starting with “States of Emergency”—a tale of different, and bizarre types of collapse being experienced in various American states—from the suddenly tiny people of Delaware to those being slowly digested by their furniture in Nevada. If you like this beginning, there’s much more to come.
Satifka artfully weaves together longer-form short stories with tales whose titles feel about as long as the stories themselves. “Bucket List Found in the Locker of Maddie Price, Age 14, Written Two Weeks Before the Great Uplifting of All Mankind” is an entire story told in the form of a young girl’s to-do list, with some items accomplished, and others tellingly not. “Thirty-Six Interrogatories Propounded by the Human Powered Plasma Bomb in the Moments Before Her Imminent Detonation” is another story that is just what the title says, 36 questions that tell a terrible tale leading to personal and planetary catastrophe.
In most of the stories, we know who is to blame for the state of affairs. In “Human Resources”, ordinary people can trade body parts to the increasingly freakish rich for money and luxuries. In “Loving Grace”, aliens have taken over the world and humans are obsolete, except for the people who’re picked to serve as temporary “wetware” for surveillance drones. As with so many other stories in the book, the caretaking overlords keep people in line with “foul intent disguised as loving grace.”
In other stories, the original culprits are less obvious, as in “Where You Lead, I Will Follow: An Oral History of the Denver Incident” about a videogame that set off a nuclear disaster and the conspiracy theories about who is to blame. Others tell of plagues with no clear origin like “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Apocalypse?”, which I can only describe as a disturbing little story about a suddenly infertile world and what a dying society will do to hear the laughter of happy children again.
Much of the time, it’s sinister aliens who are to blame, as in “The Big So-So”, a story of the world fallen victim to what amounts to intergalactic drug dealers, getting everyone hooked and then cutting off their supply. The story’s heroine, Syl isn’t susceptible to the “pleasure-juice” like other people and she’s stuck playing house-mom to her tenants/friends as the aliens finish gathering the best and brightest humans for the coveted “compound.” This story provides an insightful commentary on the human condition as Syl points out to her friends that humanity is no worse off than they were before the aliens arrived, but those who tasted the thrill of the pleasure-juice are all cursed with longing for something they can’t have. Something that never mattered to them before, but has now become everything. It’s only those who find a way to let it all go and work with their remaining resources who might have a chance to recover.
Other stories border on morality tales like “A Child of the Revolution”, with a hint of Animal Farm and a lesson about well-meaning revolutionaries trying to save societies from themselves. “After We Walked Away” is a sort of sequel to Ursula LeGuin’s story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, showing us what happens when righteous people leave a society based on the victimization of one person, and exploring whether or not stopping at a simple refusal to participate has done any good for themselves or anyone else.
“The Goddess of the Highway” wraps up with the longest story of the collection about a society where intelligence is controlled by the rich to keep the masses in line. And while technology controls the have-nots, it may be blind faith that allows them to find salvation. There’s a common thread among the stories of the cloying humiliation of abusive relationships. Whether that be aliens, rich people, greedy scientists, or just Mother Nature herself. These stories are about small people who don’t matter, deciding to go for broke to try to get what they need, even if that’s just a few answers. The characters aren’t always particularly likable, but whether they’re working to take down the establishment, or simply finding happiness despite their oppression and loss, the book repeatedly and artfully explores the painful birth that comes with the transition from a bad situation to the unknown.