Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Microreview: The Impossible Resurrection of Grief by Octavia Cade

Octavia Cade offers a short but brilliant meditation on humanity's relationship to nature in The Impossible Resurrection of Grief.

Cover art and design by Rachel Lobbenberg.

In the near future, ecosystem collapse is endemic. This has brought with it Grief, a kind of severe depression in humans that leads to madness and, ultimately, suicide. Once it has infected a person, the decline into death is inevitable.

Although Ruby is a marine biologist working in conservation, she has so far managed to escape Grief's grasp. This is in part because her beloved jellyfish are thriving in the warming oceans. Her friend and colleague Marjorie hasn't been so lucky. After Marjorie commits suicide, a bundle of her letters is delivered to Ruby, kicking off a series of encounters with other Grief-stricken individuals.

The Impossible Resurrection of Grief packs in a lot in under a hundred pages. There is, of course, the climate change aspects and humanity's relationship to nature. Grief is the central expression of this: the exhaustion and despair of watching the Earth die around you (especially that element you are particularly attached to -- be it a species of small bird or the Great Barrier Reef) and not being able to do anything about it, seeing only the futility of your efforts. Anyone with a background in ecology or conservation, or with even the smallest interest in the natural world, will find this relatable.

However, Cade is not interested in presenting uncomplicated pictures. Throughout the story, she reminds us of humanity's capacity to compartmentalise. We ignore what doesn't directly affect us -- or even what affects us only indirectly. It allows us to continue on more or less as normal while the world slowly dies around us. Ruby is a prime example of this. On an intellectual level, she understands that things are dire -- which is why she has elected not to have children. She works hard on helping her colleagues obtain vital research grants to support species that are rapidly disappearing. However, on an emotional level she remains unaffected, caught up in the wonder of her jellyfish and a worldview that could be seeing the silver lining or could be toxic positivity.

The concept of Grief also acknowledges the colonialist aspects of ecological disaster. We're told that rates of Grief are higher amongst indigenous and First Nations people, reflecting their deeper ties to land. The story also discusses the near extinction of the Indigenous populations of Tasmania. While it is in many respects deeply problematic to put Indigenous people on the level of animals (a troublesome pattern that continues to crop up particularly in Western SFF), the author is at pains to show how rhetoric of white settlement equated them and used the same tactics to achieve annihilation.

But again, this perspective is not allowed to be uncomplicated; indigenous people are not a monolith. In this case, Ruby's husband George provides a counter example. Of Maori descent, George left behind his homeland in Aoteroa to immigrate to Australia. Like Ruby, George is good at compartmentalising and is untouched by Grief. In fact, he still hopes to have children, which is why he and Ruby are undergoing a very amicable divorce.

The relationship between Ruby and George may strike some as a little underdeveloped, but that seems to me to be a very intentional decision. In fact, many apparent flaws of The Impossible Resurrection of Grief are, on closer inspection, actually features. Ruby and George's relationship is a microcosm of humanity's position in the world: a comfortable habit lacking in deep affection that will have to be let go in order to move on to something truly worthwhile.

The structure of the story is another example. The opening and ending focus on Ruby's relationship with her friend Marjorie, and these bookend three encounters Ruby has with other Grief-afflicted characters. The transitions between these sections can be a little jarring, particularly as Ruby travels from Tasmania to New Zealand. However once again, I feel this is by design. After all, it so aptly reflects the compartmentalisation that is an important central theme of the story.

Criticisms of the story as needing to be longer are patently ridiculous. What more is needed? Certainly not worldbuilding. The world of the story is just a breath away from our own, where crown-of-thorns starfish plague the Great Barrier Reef and species extinction and endangerment are rising rapidly in Australia after a record summer of bushfires.

This is a difficult story to discuss without spoilers, and the ending especially so. Consider this your warning and feel free to skip to the end of the review.

The ambiguity of the ending may not be to everyone's taste, but fits the Little Mermaid motif that runs through the story, stealing away Ruby's voice just as Anderson's Sea Witch does. It also serves to make Ruby's choice our own. Are we going to compartmentalise this as just a story and continue on our usual way? Are we going to succumb to despair? Or are we going to take our grief and anger and forge it into a weapon to fight back for nature?

The writing style was excellent and the uneasy atmosphere it invoked reminded me of Kaaron Warren at her finest. This was particularly the case during Ruby's encounter with Granny, a scientist who has managed to resurrect the extinct thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger. It was also particularly present in Ruby's final encounter with the Sea Witch, as her friend Marjorie has become. It gave a real sense of humans as predators, giving a glimpse into a world where any separation that might have existed between humans and nature has been obliterated, allowing the use of human technology to help nature fight back against humans. The veil is pulled back and we see how these predators have camoflaged themselves, preying on the humans who have ruined the world and setting a trap for Ruby.

I find myself wanting to give this book to everyone but aware that, like Marjorie, I have to pick my targets carefully.

The Impossible Resurrection of Grief is on the shortlist for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards, Aoteora's premier award for speculative fiction -- and where it will go up against Cade's own Scales, Tails and Hagfish in the category of Best Novella/Novelette. While I'm pleased to see it being recognised in the author's home country, it seems an oversight that it hasn't received the same recognition on international stages.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for managing a nuanced perspective of a complicated topic in such a short story

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10