…And Other Disasters
By Malka Older
Mason Jar Press, 2019
218 Pages, $18.00
Review by AnnaLee Barclay
As a child, I secretly pled to the car radio, hoping it would play a song I didn’t know the name of, but had heard and loved. When it would come on, or my dad would stumble upon it while scanning the stations, I’d feel like the DJ heard my heart and adhered to my request. Nowadays, it’s easy to figure out the name of a song — just google the lyrics or ask Siri to listen to it. Sure, it’s more convenient, but it’s not as fun as the leaping feeling in your stomach when you stumble across something you’ve wondered about for years.
I thought about this a lot while reading Malka Older’s new mixed-genre collection, …And Other Disasters (Mason Jar Press, 2019). Through short stories positing possible futures, poems about environmental destruction, and flash vignettes that tell the story of states’ secessions from the U.S., Older explores the ever-mutating relationship between humanity and technology. All of these beautiful pieces come together to portray various aspects of imagined futures. This is entertaining and delightful on the surface, but Older digs deeper by exploring questions that don’t have sure answers: What imprints of humanity will be marked upon its own creations? If we were to come into contact with other life, what kind of first impression would we give? And, what are the implications for our brains when the instant access of information replaces our ability to wonder, research, and imagine?
In “The Black Box”, a recording device (the Lifebrarian) is surgically planted into a person’s brain and essentially is a backup copy of their mind — a feed of someone’s life from their perspective, an instantly accessible mental memory card. Humans have rampantly chased recording life, through hieroglyphics, pictographs, daguerreotypes, personal diaries, blogs, selfies, a drive which as always been initially presented as younger, self-indulgent, and narcissistic.
Older posits that type of future for everyone, regardless of age: “Imagine if you never had to remember anything,” considers the impacts it would have on humanity. For instance, when the parents debate whether or not they should install Lifebrarian into their baby Sumi’s mind. “It will probably affect the way her brain evolves,” her mother argues. It’s not too dissimilar from the conversations people have about search engines, which provide us with instant answers, but at a cost to memory. If I could watch my life back like a movie in which my mind is the video camera, I doubt I would want to actually do so. Later in her life, adult Sumi feels similarly:
“The very few times when she personally wants to remember a time, a place, she also resists. This is what it was like to live before, she tells herself; this is how my grandparents lived their whole lives.”
I find many of the conversations surrounding the future to be grim and repetitive, often centered around either the uprising of robots or total ecological annihilation. To place certainty and value judgments on something unknowable is to automatically delimit your imagination about the possibilities. There are bound to be negative, overwhelming, and creepy consequences to everything we do, but that’s true throughout all of human history.
Older’s collection shows there also can be surprising and delightful outcomes, like an army of midwife soldiers in charge of colonizing and protecting society on a new planet, or human contact with a matriarchal alien society that chooses its leaders based on the candidate’s understanding of suffering. There are no guarantees when it comes to the propulsion of existence, “artificial” or not.
In the last story, and my favorite of the collection, “Saint Path”, a robot’s coding is strongly rooted in what the team of engineers believe to be the most valuable human quality: empathy. In a governmental hearing, the AI argues it understands human emotion best above all, precisely because they are not one: “I have no ego or envy, only empathy. I am not afraid of death and I’m not interested in sex.” Older masterfully shows us more about ourselves simply by removing those attributes from the consciousness of an artificially intelligent being, a reflection of an idealized form of human consciousness. The robot understands this as well:
“As I mention each attribute from which I am spared, I observe their fears growing. It is fascinating: for each of them it is a different word, and in a different degree, and layered with other emotions: anger, jealousy, surprise. They are not afraid of me. They are afraid the human emotions I am mentioning will now disqualify them from their positions of power.”
The entirety of …And Other Disasters is simultaneously creative and probing, looking past the robot/AI uprising or mass ecological destruction, notions that are valid but feel rote at this point. Instead, each piece seems to ask the same pertinent question: if humanity were to look towards the future as a mirror, what would we want to see staring back at us?