Survivor Explores Trauma, and Speculative Literature, Through Uniquely Varied Stories: Book Review

One of the things I love about speculative literature is its ability to capture the emotional impact of real, plausible experiences through fantastic metaphors.

It’s also just really fun to read.

You get both imaginative worlds and deep allegories in the short story anthology Survivor, curated by UIC’s Mary Anne Mohanraj and UIUC’s JJ Pionke. Over a late-night conversation, the two editors discussed the ideas of survivorship, trauma, and healing, and this unique collection was the eventual product. In seventeen stories, Survivor offers terrific speculative fiction—science fiction, fantasy, etc.—that explores what it means to endure, and eventually overcome, physical and emotional trauma.

I tend to prefer short stories set in our world that focus on one sci-fi or fantastic concept. Those types of tales in this collection that left the strongest impression on me were “Mold,” “Eat Me When I’m Fatter,” and “A Little Fall of Rain.” In “Mold,” a family is on the run from its abusive father—but as they run from him, they’re also running from a quickly-growing deadly fungus that infiltrates their home, then their car, and eventually, their few remaining possessions. In “Eat Me When I’m Fatter,” a young girl essentially becomes meat for a suitor, who literally/figuratively consumes her (as her mother watches). And in “A Little Fall of Rain,” a municipal government sends an investigator to see if they should compensate a local Native American man for performing a rain ceremony he claims helped stopped a disastrous drought.

The metaphors are rich in those stories, and it’s easier to focus on the characters because they aren’t living in worlds created from scratch. Instead of focusing on the technical, speculative aspects like in what country/planet the story is set, or what species exist and what are they like, you can focus on what the characters are feeling and thinking vis-à-vis the speculative element.

But other Survivor stories, featuring more intense sci-fi with inter-planetary species conflict and advanced futuristic technology, are definitely still worth the read. “Scream Angel” explores the horrifying effects of drug addiction on addicts and their loved ones, but through the lens of a brainwashed soldier fighting on behalf of a colonizing military. I appreciated the story’s treatment (and by extension, the anthology’s acknowledgement) of addiction as something to be survived, since drug abuse is too-frequently mischaracterized as a character flaw vs. a legitimate disease.

“Green Leaves” is also set in a world where humans interact with other species. A woman is attacked in a freak terrorist accident by Sylvans, plant-like beings that have the power (but rarely the will) to eat people. (I won’t go into the gross details about how the Sylvans eat humans, but they’re delightful if you’re a body horror fan like I am.) She struggles with the trauma from the attack, but she also struggles to come to terms with her own biases and her violent fear of other Sylvans she encounters.

The theme of trauma, and recovering from it, is just one of the topics this collection addresses. If the idea of surviving and thriving as depicted in art doesn’t interest you, don’t let the title of this anthology deter you—it could just as easily be an argument for the merits of speculative fiction. With such a diverse collection, note this warning (or maybe pro-tip?): speculative fiction is a broad term, and the range of the stories in this collection are just as varied. If you’re the die-hard high fantasy type, or if space battles are the only type of story that keep your interest, you’ll have to filter through most of the stories to find the ones that fit your niche. Similarly, there’s one ghost story that will sate the historical fiction fans, but if historical fiction is all you’re into, this collection might not be for you. But if you’re open to seeing how writers create other worlds, or how they write weird and unusual situations in our familiar world, then definitely grab a copy of this book.

The stories won’t always give you a direct description of the trauma the authors experienced, but you don’t need that background to enjoy this collection. All you need is an appreciation for metaphor, the ability to empathize with the struggles of others, or a sense of imagination.

Survivor is available at Lethe Press


—Reviewed by Allison Manley

Allison was born in Georgia, raised in northern Illinois, and currently lives in the Edgewater neighborhood. She studied writing and religion at Northwestern University, where she currently works. She likes opera, craft beer, dogs, and perfume. Consume her bitter tweets @hgmanley.

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