“Dark, bad days: environmental collapse, weird roiling skies, breather-masks to supplement oxygen as vast tracts of ocean perished, monstrous corrosive storms gnawing away structures, human and animal populations crashing in months while lunar industry expanded exponentially and cities raced into production at L5 so fast, several suffered fatal flaws.
For a moment every one of Frankie’s vast years haunted her eyes. Then she visibly shook herself, dragged herself back to the moment. “In those years, desperate people accepted stringent measures. These folks, in modern cities? They’re soft, spoiled, demanding, petulant when they don’t get their own way.”
—Jen Downes, “Root and Branch”
“His [Rheinhart Kleiner’s] mother is gravely ill with Spanish influenza, & though he has assistance in the daytime, he has to act as her nurse throughout the night. He is utterly exhausted , & to cap the climax is now fighting a cold which may prove to be the same affliction from which his patient is suffering. This influenza is nothing light, & I certainly hope Appleton [Galpin’s hometown] may escape.
—H.P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, October 18 or 19, 1918
“It’s odd, but despite all the repeated epidemics of the past decade, I’ve never had influenza. No doubt the gods are saving a deal of picturesque suffering for my last days!”
—H.P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, February 9, 1926
This review represents something a little bit different from our normal fare, but as I read this story, I couldn’t help but be struck both by how prescient it was (having been written before our present, global affliction), and by how moving was its commentary on humanity’s behavior. Truth be told, “Root and Branch” is closer to something Clark Ashton Smith might have written than HPL so if you’re just here for Lovecraftian story suggestions, you may want to skip this one. It appears in the inaugural issue of Dim Shores Presents (Volume 1, Summer 2020), a new weird fiction bi-annual anthology. I was excited to purchase a copy as soon as I could pre-order it. I haven’t read the whole volume yet, but I can tell you that what I have read of it has been consistently excellent, consistently surprising, and by a whole plethora of authors whose names are new to me, which is all very exciting. I will be buying the Winter volume when it is released straight-away, as I think Sam Cowan is doing a great job with this! (If I may offer one piece of unsolicited advice: Anthologies like this truly benefit from an Introduction and Story Notes by the authors. Neither are present here.) From the description on the back cover, “Weird horror, strange science fiction, and dark fantasy rub shoulders with each other here,” and that is certainly true. This story is definitely in the strange science fiction category.
The opening sentence tells you what’s happening, “She’s dying,” but not to whom it is happening. Or, in this case, to what. The stakes are high as here we are concerned with the impending death not of a person, but of an entire city. Nor do I mean the deaths of the people who inhabit that city (well, at first), but the city of Waratah itself. Waratah is organic, alive, and it has contracted a deadly virus that is slowly but surely killing it. With no planetary, lunar, or interplanetary habitat able to take all of Waratah’s residents as refugees, disaster looms large, and the scientist Julia Chen and her team are racing against an enormous, ticking, biological clock.
While the plot and the characters are both very intriguing (and, as I mentioned above, pleasantly unexpected) they are not what caught my attention the most about this tale. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, with COVID19 being responsible now for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people world-wide. In many countries they have managed to control the spread of the disease by now, but not so here in the United States. This seems to be a peculiar outgrowth of what makes my country so great: our freedom. That sense of personal freedom is now being brought to bear at the cost of societal well-being and public health. As the plague ravages Waratah, and the threat of it spreading to other bio-cities grows, Downes drops little glimpses into her future/our present that knocked me for a loop with how true they’ve become. (I have no idea when this story was written, but based on the publication schedule of the anthology, it had to of been well before COVID19.) For example, here she presages the mistrust of science, “You want to live in a world where science collapsed and a few survivors compete for dregs shipped down from the space cities?” Elsewhere, the strange importance/insistence on entertainment plays a significant role. Finally, as shown in the block quote at the top, the petulant behavior of some to the detriment of the health of the masses (“We demand haircuts!”) is on full display.
Downes is a new author to me, and I cannot find anything about her on the internet except a Goodreads author page with minimal listings, so my suspicion is she is at the beginning of her professional writing career. I, for one, will definitely be looking for her name in future Table of Contents because this was an excellent story. It features compelling prose, huge ideas, and just enough threat and fear to allow its strange sci-fi-ness to rub shoulders with weird horror. Though I do want to be clear and say that this is not a horror story. Her writing is never distracting, and often full of beautiful concepts, as here, “…it’s a mistake to believe all knowledge and memory spring from the brain. They’re rooted in every cell in your body. Those are your great-grandmother’s ears you’re wearing: you don’t know it, but your body does.” In other places, pure poetry shines through as you both see and feel what is happening, “Fatigue crept over Julia like a thick, quilted blanket. She sat on the couch, sunset behind her, while their voices receded, the lab faded to gray, on into black, and she slithered into dreams without realizing she’d fallen asleep. Even in dreams, she’d begun to plan.”
Lovecraft’s concept of cosmic horror was one that presented disinterested interstellar beings who most often inadvertently threatened humanity with destruction. His horror worked in the same way that the horror of an ant colony might be described as the gardener’s shovel wrecks and scatters its habitat to make way for the new planting. Famously, in At the Mountains of Madness, it was suggested that the creation of humanity was a cosmic joke, for the amusement of vastly superior beings. Disease, especially ones that reach the state of being a global pandemic (like the Great Influenza of HPL’s time and COVID19 in our time), is a cosmic horror all its own. It is uncaring, indiscriminate, and lethal. I don’t know how Dim Shores did it, but they managed to include “Root and Branch,” a story about a pandemic of sorts in an anthology released during a pandemic. It’s possible the story would strike a reader differently if read in a different age, but I didn’t, and so this one hit me hard.
Stay safe out there, friends. Wear a mask! Keep good distance between you and others! Only together can we send this thing back to the nether reaches of the galaxy!
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,