Tom Sweterlitsch’s The Gone World is a mystery, sci-fi thriller that follows Shannon Moss on her criminal justice journey to figure out what happened to murder victim, Marian, ultimately driven by the trauma of losing her best friend, Courtney. She is so good at her job that she’s invited to join a secret project involving space and time travel, an ultimate mission to find where Terminus begins to avoid the end of humanity.
Terminus is a complex idea in the novel, but it represents the end of humanity brought on by the onslaught of QTNs which break down the composition of the human body into geometric shapes of another dimension and eliminate all life. Shannon witnesses these decaying events in several IFTs she visits, but the novel reveals three ways that suggest time travel is an incredibly dangerous idea.
1. The future is not singular.
When thinking of the benefits of time travel, I could easily see a common response of visiting the future to gain knowledge of a lucky event to change the outcome of the present, like winning a lottery ticket. Shannon reflects on how she “imagined time travel as something concrete, that knowing the future would be as certain as knowing the past...imagined that knowing the future might help me cheat at something like the lottery, seeing winning numbers before the numbers were ever pulled.” But we quickly discover the complexities of time travel in this novel, and winning the lottery is still quite impossible as winning it in the present without time travel capabilities.
"I imagined time travel as something concrete, that knowing the future would be as certain as knowing the past...I imagined that knowing the future might help me cheat at something like the lottery, seeing the winning numbers before the numbers were ever pulled."
Whenever Shannon does travel to the future, it takes place in an IFT, which only represents one possibility of the future. This is another reason why discovering where Terminus begins is so difficult, because every time a character discovers a new Terminus, it throws off the investigation even further without knowing if it will certainly happen or not. Not to mention that every time someone enters an IFT, Terminus grows closer to the present in Terra Firma. The novel even shows Shannon visiting several IFTs, depicting different versions of 1997 and 2015 with horrifying depictions of possible futures with Aryan rule and terrorist attacks. Time travel comes with many rules in this novel, as well. I would feel quite comfortable staying in Terra Firma because I would be too afraid of breaking the rules and inevitably destroying the past. It’s very complex, but I think Shannon’s motives for using time travel to redeem Marian’s murder and save humanity are pretty bad ass.
2. Life without time is horrifying.
In one particular IFT, Njoku described one particular Terminus where “immortals begged for death, because life without the passage of time becomes meaningless. It used to be thought that hell was a lack of God, but hell is a lack of death.” These immortals in particular were the ones who lived privileged lives inside ancient pyramids, living like kings, Njoku describes. This idea suggests that living life in complete luxury without any obstacles or tribulations is completely meaningless and not worthwhile. It also suggests that meaning in life is found through overcoming struggles, as Shannon has seen many times in her life. It’s disappointing that the entire novel is essentially an IFT once we get to the epilogue and found out that she’s younger in a new, reset Terra Firma, because that means that everything she had to overcome never happened, and the ending is truly a happy ending—or rather, a happy beginning before the entire novel started.
"Immortals begged for death, because life without the passage of time becomes meaningless. It used to be thought that hell was a lack of God, but hell is a lack of death."
3. The present is no more stable than the past or the future.
Throughout the novel, Terra Firma is described as the present where all return to after coming back from an IFT. I seriously doubted the idea of stability in this book, especially established in a concept like Terra Firma, since it felt like time and all the plot lines were very twisted and unstable.
Supposedly, “only the Present is real, only the Present is terra firma.” Which is even further complicated when Shannon discovers how to reset Terra Firma to 1986 before she loses her leg and even before Courtney dies. I think what Sweterlitsch is ultimately trying to critique about time is that it is anything but stable. In this novel the past primarily correlates to trauma that cannot be undone and the characters must live with the actions since Terra Firma, no matter what kind of time traveling they do. The past though can still prove unstable because of memory. Memory distorts the concept of time and what we remember. The present is also unstable because it is impacted by so many decisions of others we cannot control. The present feels like the time period where we have the most agency of controlling, but it doesn’t give me hope unless change is a collective choice, especially how the narrative of climate change has evolved in the last 200 years. And the future has always been unpredictable and infinite, which is a pretty universal standard in most novels.
In the context of surviving apocalypse, time allows characters to heal and overcome battles, while trying to cope and survive in the present with the hope of looking forward to another day. These connections are the foundation to Shannon’s character and her motivations for making time travel decisions in the novel. If time travel does become a real possibility and plays out like it does in this novel, I will be quite happy to stay in the present.
Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is the first piece of literature besides the graphic TWD novels I’ve read that involves humans living with zombies on Earth. I’ve seen almost every episode of TWD with the exception of the two most recent seasons; I was studying abroad in London during Season 9 and experiencing a pandemic during the delayed premier of Season 10, so keep spoilers away from the comments! With that being said, I have seen the first 8 seasons and may discuss content from what I’ve seen, so you have been warned about spoilers!
Besides TWD, my favorite zombie movie narratives include World War Z, I Am Legend, and Warm Bodies, each with unique relationships between both species and cures or lack thereof. Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is similar to Warm Bodies in that there are multiple zombie species with varying abilities. Whitehead splits his zombies into dangerous and rapid skels and slow and sluggish stragglers. The main narrator, Mike Spitz shares accounts from three days in total in the novel, and shares unique insights on relationships with humans who are still alive and between the two zombie species.
I found many connections with these zombie works, but I found three in particular that resonated with
TWD that made these real-world concepts more real and engaging.
“That wall out there has to work. The barricade is the only metaphor left in this mess. The last one standing. Keep chaos out, order in.”
When the Lieutenant describes the wall encircling NYC, specifically the island of Manhattan, I immediately envisioned the chaos of so many walls that physically broke in TWD, including the Prison’s fences from a walker invasion invited by the evil Governor, Woodbury’s fall brought on by the Governor’s choice of self destruction, and Alexandria’s first fall invaded by Negan’s crew. All of this destruction is met with zombie forces, but humans are also at fault in every instance, and they are at fault in in ˆZone One, too.
It isn’t known what exactly brings the large zombie herd in Zone One’s last Sunday, but the mythology surrounding the wall and it’s falsifying comfort of safety is what interests me, similar to the notion of safety in TWD. In a post-apocalyptic world, safety and comfort is a privilege, and I find fault in the destructive nature of sweeping the zombies out of NYC and cleansing the city of its impact by burning the bodies. While these zombies don’t sound like pleasant species to cohabit a space, they are never given a chance, especially the harmless stragglers. I find ethical dilemmas in eliminating the stragglers in addition to the skels, but Sunday’s ultimate fall is ominous and somewhat foreshadowed in Spitz’ thoughts and internal commentary on the stragglers’ peculiarity as a species and their existence in the same space.
“Before the rise of the camps, out in the land, you had to watch out for other people. The dead were predictable. People were not.”
I have always been emotionally invested in the human characters of TWD narrative, and emotionally torn when beloved characters like Glenn and Carl were killed. More so, characters like the Governor and Negan were certainly more dangerous than the dead because they were, like Whitehead points out, far more unpredictable than the dead. The first few seasons of TWD reveal how the characters interact with the walkers and survive. As power complexes and tensions rise initially when characters like Shane become wildly unpredictable and display erratic behavior, I quickly became more afraid of the human characters than the walkers themselves. Of course, in mass numbers seen in the seasons with Alpha, those numbers were quite frightening, but the mind control and manipulation that Alpha possessed over her daughter and her clan of followers was more disturbing than any walker.
I can observe similar manipulation of the government using civilians on sweeps to clean the streets of NYC to eliminate the zombie population, keeping the sick and already dead out beyond the wall. Some of the characters even played games with the stragglers and defiled them before killing them, which I found extremely disturbing and despicable behavior. I felt untrustworthy towards a lot of Whitehead’s characters, including the main narrator Mark Spitz simply because the fragmented timelines and flashbacks mimicked a real-life three-day weekend where flashbacks would probably occur. This makes the reading more lifelike of what this apocalyptic world would feel like, but it still made me uncomfortable in the right moments to make me more weary of humans than zombies.
In literature water can take on a multitude of meanings, most often that of cleansing and renewal, but water plays an interesting role in Omar El Akkad’s American War.
“In an instant the brown water swallowed her. Instinctively she closed her eyes and in the darkness felt the warmth of it in her hair and on her face. For a moment she believed she was drowning. A panic reflex unlike anything she’d ever felt before took hold of her muscles” (129).
The river near Camp Patience is full of brown sludge, a result of devastating effects of climate change in the South. The map at the beginning of the book reveals further climate change damage with water engulfing the majority of Florida.
When Sarat entered this murky water, the boys put her up to a dare and are completely surprised by her success; though when she emerges her mother refuses to let her in the house, chastising to her: “You did this to yourself, you go get yourself cleaned up. Nobody fixing your messes form here on in but you” (130).
At this point in the novel, she is still adapting to life in Camp Patience and hasn’t been introduced to Gaines yet who later weaponizes her. Perhaps Sarat’s association with the water and it’s gripping power of fear and death is a precursor to Gaines’ dangerous involvement in her life. Sarat is still trying to find confidence as a young child, and the water remains a symbol of filth and isolation from her community. She develops an overwhelming negative association with the water until years later when we discover that Sarat threw Dana’s ashes into the water.
“After she died, instead of burying her in the ground, I buried her in the river...I wanted her to never stop moving” (375).
Sarat reveals this to Benjamin and promises to bury him in the water when he dies. They share an intimate embrace and he understands the river as a complex monster when he observes Sarat entering the water. It appears to heal her and he begins to realize “the build of the world was just like this: wile, unvaccinated, malicious” (370). These monstrous adjectives compared to the healing powers of throwing Dana’s ashes in the river reveal the water’s complex contrasts and meanings for both characters. In the Prologue, Benjamin reflects on this memory, remembering Sarat emerge from the water as “a hulking bronzed body, her back lined with ashen scars, each one a testimony to the torture she was made to endure, the secret crimes committed against her” (6).
The water may be just as complex as the notion of war. As noted in one of the historical documents titled Reasonably Satisfactory and Encouraging to All: An Oral History of the Reunification Talks: “You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories”, which is perhaps why Benjamin destroys Sarat’s stories in the end years later (349). Benjamin is also afflicted and dying of cancer, but by destroying her stories and removing Sarat from the narrative, he frees himself of pain that the water has taken from him and he is unburdened and no longer afraid (6).
Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven tells the story of the Traveling Symphony surviving after a pandemic nearly eliminated all human life on the planet. Mandel emphasizes the survival is insufficient and challenges the ideas of what is necessary to survival. Mandel would argue to live and survive are two different concepts, the former much easier to do with privilege and the latter a delicate balance of precarity. After reading the book and understanding some of Mandel's main themes, I can name 5 things that are necessary to live beyond the means of survival.
"What the Symphony was doing, what they were always doing, was trying to cast a spell, and costuming helped; the lives they brushed up against were work-worn and difficult, people who spent all their time engaged in the tasks of survival" (Mandel 151).
Despite all that collapses in Station Eleven, Shakespeare continues to prosper centuries later with the Traveling Symphony's reliance on communicating through art. They never waver from performing Shakespeare, and it continues to please crowds. In another light, the museum exhibit that Clarke creates is also similar to displaying ordinary objects as art, portraying them as relics of the past in order to pay tribute to a world lost to a pandemic. The creative capacity of our minds is what makes us human, and this is why I believe the Traveling Symphony continues to pursue the arts, to continue creative collaboration that all humans have contributed towards.
"Some places, you pass through once and never return, because you can tell something's very wrong. Everyone's afraid, or it seems like some people have enough to eat and other people are starving, or you see a pregnant eleven-year-olds and you know the place is either lawless or in the grip of something, a cult of some time" (Mandel 114).
Community is an essential tool for survival, but also for thriving with others. In the Prophet's following, his power is dangerously elevated and reveals how community can lack with an all-powerful, patriarchal leader. The Traveling Symphony as a community isn't stagnant and moves from town to town, celebrating and performing music for all to hear. Between performances they would have to collaborate to survive with basic necessities, but they were able to thrive without needing to possess weapons or even stay in one location. They also thrive because they are driven by art, and not by power-hungry motives as seen in the Prophet's community.
"The light we carry within us is the ark that Noah and his people over the face of the terrible waters, and I submit that we were saved...not only to to bring the light, to spread the light, but to be the light. We were saved because we are the light. We are the pure" (Mandel 60).
Faith plays an interesting role in the Prophet's life and his indoctrination towards his community of followers. We later discover he is Tyler, Arthur's son, who takes on some of his parent's attributes, including his mother's belief that everything happens for a reason and his father's womanizing tendencies. The Prophet weaponizes faith as a tool of power, which shows how dangerous faith as a community following can be. Faith doesn't necessarily have to fall into a religious category, though, because I would argue that the Traveling Symphony uses art in the same way as religious followers use faith to survive.
"Other towns, discussion of the past is discouraged. We went to a place once where the children didn't know the world had ever been different, although you'd think all the rusted-out automobiles and telephones would give them a clue" (Mandel 115).
Education and learning is necessary to advancing society, especially in a pandemic like the one we're experiencing. While basic necessities are important, public education actually creates more opportunities for students to access food and internet resources at little to no cost. Although, in the case of Station Eleven, Clarke takes pride in the collection of artifacts he's collected from the past and is thoughtful to educate children, especially about airplanes, given the fact that most of the children born after the pandemic grew up in an airport. This place frames the context of education importance, but in the communities that Raymonde mentions in the quotation above indicate that education is not a priority, or education may be a privilege that comes after basic needs for survival.
"First we only want to be seen, but once we're seen, that's not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered" (Mandel 187).
Remembering is crucial to several characters. The Traveling Symphony as a whole remembers the art of Shakespeare, paying tribute to the playwright with every performance. Clark establishes a museum in the airport dedicated to trivial items like iPhones and signatures. Both of these ideas may seem unnecessary to survival after a pandemic, but these are important to creative energies that fuel the mental capacity to survive. There's also importance to recognize in collective memory, since a large population of the post-pandemic world used to know what the "normal" world looked and felt like, so it's their job to pass on those memories through storytelling to preserve the past in any way they can.
I’ve studied Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” in high school and two college literature courses, and ever time I re-read the story, I discover something new, or I find themes of this short story in other works. We never learn the narrator’s name, which proves how dehumanizing the character feels because of her identity as a woman with mental health issues. Her husband and physician, John, orders bed rest to cure her sickness, which is really postpartum depression. She is separated from her baby and goes mad staying inside one room with a ghastly yellow wall paper. Without any creative freedom, the only thing her imagination can explore is the yellow wallpaper. She eventually loses her mind as a result of the rest cure developed by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and the story’s ambiguous ending leaves the reader to believe whether the narrator is truly free or forever trapped within the wallpaper.
Flash forward more than 100 years since “The Yellow Wallpaper” was published in 1892, and Louise Erdrich addresses the same oppression that women face. What’s unique about Erdrich’s tale rests in her identity as a Native American woman. Her main character, Cedar, is also an adopted Native American woman whose story is told through the journey of discovering who her parents are and understanding who she is based on her roots. Understanding women’s oppression through a Native American lens further deepens the roots of intersectionality that impact women through racial and ethnic identities.
In both stories we see women separated from their children to benefit patriarchy. The narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” has no choice in the matter, and I would argue that the separation from her child causes her more distress than staying away from it. While John doesn’t diagnose her with postpartum depression, bed rest isn’t the “cure” she needs. Her desire to write and imagine were fueled by creative passions from within that were begging to escape beyond her physical desire to spend time in the gardens outside her barred windows. In Future Home of the Living God, Cedar is most likely separated from her baby at the end of the story. I find great happiness in her desire to live through hope, predominantly focused on creating a better world for her child, no matter the outcome of the de-evolutionary madness going on in the world. But I predict that Cedar does not live long after the novel’s ending, or continues to serve the government as a baby-making machine, further subjugating her identity to reproductive means.
Both stories also subjugate women to mental institutions. The narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is taken to a summer home, but the reader can gather that she’s staying in a children’s mental asylum.
Two problems here: 1. The narrator is a grown, adult woman, staying in a children’s facility. John treats his wife as a child, who must obey strict orders and not wonder beyond the confines of her room. It almost feels like the narrator is on permanent time-out, but what did she do wrong? And 2: A mental asylum is not the ideal place for a woman to be cured of postpartum depression. She is confined to one room, and cannot get any fresh air. She’s not allowed to read or write, and she maintains little to no communication with the outside world, even with John’s visitors. No wonder she goes crazy.
In Future Home of the Living God, the government abducts all pregnant women, and even encourages citizens to turn in pregnant women who are hiding their pregnancies. Cedar is eventually taken to a “hospital,” which she recognizes immediately as the Minnesota Correctional Facility underneath the “Stillwater Birthing Center” sign. So for both women, why is the medical industry still pursuing these methods for harboring women they feel who are dangerous to society?
It goes to show, despite Future Home of the Living God’s fictional genre, how little progress has been made in terms of women’s reproductive health and rights. For an indigenous woman like Cedar, these complications are heightened by her identity, where the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” may have access to privileges that protect her from government elements that plague Cedar’s narrative. No matter the identity, women in both stories share a collective narrative of oppression as a result of patriarchal influences in medicine and government, and both show how much work we still have to ensure that women have the choice to affordable and reliable health care options that suit all lifestyles, including Native Americans.
To begin my Surviving Apocalypse course, I read Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood and "Pale Horse" from David Quammen's Spillover. Experiencing a pandemic while reading these works makes some of these realities more frightening, but at the same time I'm able to connect with the characters and the haunting predictions that are made.
The nose cones that the characters wear in The Year of the Flood remind me of face masks I wear every time I leave the house. I used to be somewhat embarrassed of being a germaphobe before the pandemic started, but I would always use sanitizer before eating in public or after touching a self-checkout kiosk at Kroger, for example. Now these are standard, and I feel more comfortable using these products to protect my health. With that said, I think corporations are required to increase their health standards in order to stay open, which completely elevates standards of cleanliness in all areas. I noticed that the God's Gardeners conditions weren't the cleanest, with mold in their rooms and limited shower facilities. Yet by the end of the novel when the plague had spread, Toby was concerned with how dirty Ren had looked and thought she was carrying the virus. Sanitary conditions also come into play with the Hendra virus in Quammen's "Pale Horse". In an interview with a vet that caught the virus, she admitted that "in the laboratory all those precautions are easy to take" (47). She carefully explains the procedure of cutting into the horse to discover what its ailment was, and took a deep cleanse shower when she got home. Taking the proper precautions are ever so crucial now to avoid contracting, and more importantly spreading, coronavirus to the most vulnerable citizens in our society. But from the empathy in the vet's interview, I could tell that this case was a matter of dealing with a stressful situation and caring for the humans involved. I don't think people who gathered for holidays this season intended to spread coronavirus either, but the consequences were vast, and the spike certainly came like scientists predicted. Listening to science is ever more crucial, and had this vet taken the proper precautions while operating on the horse, it could have been prevented.
When news spread that the WHO declared that we were officially in a global pandemic, days later school was closed and restaurants and stores were quick to follow. My mental health was severely affected in the weeks shortly after the pandemic was declared. I constantly scrolled through Twitter for updates on the pandemic to see if numbers would get better, and the news became a toxic source in my life. In The Year of the Flood, Atwood addresses information transmission, noting that "the Internet was such a jumble of false and true factoids that no one believed what was on it any more, or else they believed all of it, which amounted to the same thing" (293). The week before the pandemic was declared, I was vacationing in Florida during my university's spring break. I didn't worry about the coronavirus until it impacted my corner of the earth, despite people dying from the virus already at that time in other parts of the world. But once the media got control of the narrative playing out in the United States, that's when I knew it was serious.
Media plays an interesting role in the Hendra virus when they unintentionally created a widespread fear of bats and flying foxes in Australia with some calling to extinguish the species from the country. Quammen also points out that these outbreaks are connected, that "they are not simply happening to us; they represent the unintended results of things we are doing" (39). Although Crake's pandemic is a deliberate act of genocide, the Hendra virus came as a result of species interacting with each other in close proximity. Quammen excellently describes the agency of microbes and viruses, especially when referencing their behavior. It's difficult to cope with the restrictions and lockdowns based on the small microbes that are killing and infecting millions of humans around the world right now, but listening to science is going to be the only direction that saves us, and I have a feeling we will continue to lose lives until we decide to listen to this influence.