Coping with Death and Destruction, by Arrison Kirby - 3 Stars

There are aspects of this book that I do like but I also feel the high points are dragged down a bit by themes I personally don’t find informative or enjoyable. That’s subjective but I’m trying to be objective in the review. I said “I review science fiction” and got asked to review it anyway, so perhaps someone who regularly reads darker topics would have been more friendly to this? I wouldn’t exclude the possibility that many readers might like to hear about: dead end families, tragic loss, the pointlessness of existence, stupidity sensu Darwin Awards, web-troll ignorance, grinding jealousy, glass getting spiked into a neck to display the cheapness of street life, despair, extra judicial pistol-whipping murder and the horror of a body left in the park as a series of creatures collect to peck out its eyes. I don’t want to only hear about sweeties, joy and fluffy pillows but equally I don’t want to read only themes of despair, so if books and life itself are a balancing act, this one is the flight of the lopsided.

There’s a common current along the lines of confronting human death and not much else to bind the individual explorations into a whole as the 12 parts don’t seem influenced by calendar months or the zodiac, unless I missed something. It’s mostly an American journey but the characters do get to travel to Asia and Africa at times. “What is death?” is a fair enough question as the answer would help us with the question “What is life?”, which for me is a more exciting one. If you watch the documentary called Babies (dvd), which is about new life and social conditioning, that film is the twin opposite of this written compilation. I know I shake my head at both of them but at least someone is considering subjects that us mainstreamers try not to think about.

Okay, I’ve covered the fun bits, the magical Disney glades of death, so let’s look at the rest.

The afterlife party culture is an interesting idea. In the hypothetical and completely un-evidenced scenario that there is an afterlife, I can imagine it would be correct that all the things that we thought were so important in our Earthly lives would be unimportant and hold almost no significance there. Also, the ideas that the new situation would be informed by our post-death belief cultures which made a mental impression in our previous existences could make sense, e.g. Muslims get their 40 partners and Catholics get whipped (whatever turns you on). In case the author has got it right, I’m going to make a list of luxury comforts and entertainments to build into my belief system and funeral rites in preparation.

I also liked the North Koreans in Africa and their rocket fiasco, perhaps the most expensive, drawn out and elaborate suicide attempt in the history of fiction. This short story includes the best line in the book, with a minion reported to have been “fatally reprimanded”. I can’t see him doing it again. This tale was too cheesy to be possible but if you need a slice of cheese in your life and if you suspend disbelief and go with the entertainment, that was inventive, imaginative and had only a trace of the disturbing. A few times I asked “Where are you going with this?” but it got there in the end. Tying the whole space flight and widespread toxic catastrophe down to the fate of a small dog in Tennessee on Kim Jong Un’s and David Bowie’s shared birthday I suppose allows me to categorise it as a genuinely surreal space oddity.

Passage between our accepted reality to dream consciousness is a transition theme covered several times in this collection, where the outcomes weren’t supposed to match across stories consistently. The author describes the scene, then lets the reader discover if the person is dreaming or a ghost etc, following the show not tell rule. In the short story format though, it’s hard to connect to characters and care what happens to them, especially if you know you’re in a 12 story framework with death circling every one of them. If there’s a diseased patient lying on a bed, clearly doomed, do you feel comfortable getting to know them and making small talk? It’s a similar problem to the John Lennon pacifist film about the Second World War where every time one of the soldiers died they would still be walking around in the platoon but they had changed to a bright colour and stopped saying anything. If it wasn’t Lennon, it was someone with a distinctive scouse accent. If you find out what it was though, don’t see it because it’s too depressing.

The final good point I can tell you about was back at the beginning (I’d better not criticise anyone else’s sentence structure after writing that). After a major change, a kind of apocalypse without casualties, new religions form on the stories that parents tell their children. This is a mirror of the spoken history of a tribe or culture being passed down before people could read and write. The new religions are formed around comic book and film characters, heroes if you like, which leads to inter-religion rivalry, fighting and schisms. For example, the followers of one religion may split and have a branch worshipping the dark side. People die stupidly and become holy martyrs as well, so it’s a fully formed and workable metaphor for our own Bronze Age, Arabic, Socialist religions having roots in verbal folklore (Christians, Muslims, Judaism) and then being codified, although in this story the religions are of course very different to those in our reality because the childish ones in this book take it all much too seriously, get stupid with it and start persecuting each other. Can you imagine?

This little punt across the River Styx was okay but was not my preferred subject matter. I think there might as well be a book about everything, at least one project to explore a detail of our existence from as many angles as a writer can come up with, so this fulfils that purpose. If you do read it and put it in your top ten list of favourite books of all time, that’s good, good for you, but it didn’t leave me quite as cheerful and positive about it as that. I’d like to move on before I get sucked in.