Friday 12 January 2024

A New Moon Illuminates The Apocalypse

Rice offers an apocalypse from
a fresh perspective and with 
interesting insights. 
(Image via Goodreads)
Post-apocalyptic fiction is known for its hopeful restarts, but the subgenre can also include ultimately nefarious elements perhaps best described as fantasies of re-establishing paleoconservative social hierarchies. In the aftermath of societal collapses, readers are encouraged to imagine themselves as a heroic survivor, either uniquely prepared, or uniquely suited for the new world that arises from the ashes of the old. Unshackled from the confines and complexities of middle-class suburban civilization, the post-apocalyptic prepper fancies that they’d be able to reach their full potential.

From Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead, to Stephen King’s The Stand, to John Ringo’s The Last Centurion, many authors have used a white cis man empowerment framework to construct a political argument about what sort of idealized rugged individualists would thrive and what kind of world they’d build in the absence of society’s constricting rules.

Almost inevitably, there’s an aspect of libertarianism to these works. The end of centralized government that is inherent to these stories is obviously an appealing prospect to authors who believe government is generally a bad thing.

Over the past few decades the subgenre of post-apocalyptic fiction has sometimes seemed a bit stale. The protagonists are too often fungible, omnicompetent white dudes who live by a rigid moral code. Characters like Joel Miller (Last of Us), Dave Marshall (Slow Apocalypse), Robert Neville (I Am Legend), Miles Matheson (NBC’s Revolution), or Rayford Steele (Left Behind) are basically interchangeable. It should not be lost on anyone that Earl Turner — the protagonist of the white supremacist novel The Turner Diaries — hews closely to this archetype. Race, class and gender are all entwined in the tropes and conventions of apocalyptic fiction, and often with reprehensible subtext.

Given this context for the subgenre, Moon of the Turning Leaves by Waubgeshig Rice is an admirable change of pace. Set a dozen years after a technological collapse, the book follows members of a small Anishinaabe community in Northern Ontario who have used traditional Indigenous knowledge and skills to survive as much of the rest of North America has fallen into ruin.

Although Moon of the Turning Leaves is Rice’s second novel following the Shkidnakiiwin community (after his 2018 novel Moon of the Crusted Snow), it stands on its own fully. Of the two, it offers more depth and insight into what has happened across this post-apocalyptic world.

In Rice’s first novel, the Anishinaabe community located north of Gibson Ontario survived the apocalypse by moving from their government reservation to the banks of a large lake where they’ve been able to subsist on fishing and hunting. By the second book, the resources of that lake and its environs have begun to run out, and the community sends a team of six people south to scout out their ancestral lands near Lake Huron.

Northern Ontario's wilderness provides an
interesting backdrop for an apocalypse.
(Image via Tourism Ontario
Led by Evan Whitesky and his 15-year-old daughter Nangohns (Anishinaabemowin for “Little Star”), the group is forced to confront what has happened to the rest of North America over the post-apocalyptic decade. While Rice’s first novel was about a group of people turning inward and forming community to survive, this second foray is about looking outwards and to the future to thrive.

In this setting, it should come as no surprise just how much time and effort these characters must put into ensuring they have enough food. The depiction of subsistence hunting, for example, brings into focus themes of respect for the land and for traditional practices. There are consequently long stretches of the novel in which not much happens other than surviving without modern conveniences, commercial agriculture, and supply chains. Some of that time might have been better spent on character development, as secondary protagonists can feel indistinguishable.

This is apocalyptic fiction with a rich sense of perspective, a strong authorial voice, and a compelling philosophical argument. In the event of a global societal catastrophe, it seems believable to us that the communities likeliest to thrive might be those who already faced a cataclysm (in this case, one that started in 1492) and thus carry a unique set of survival skills with them.

Is there an aspect of wish fulfillment and empowerment fantasy in Moon of the Turning Leaves? It would be easy to read it that way. But a story about a group of marginalized people seeking to return to their pre-colonization homelands has a completely different resonance than all the tales of privileged yuppies yearning for a might-makes-right world.

Moon of the Turning Leaves breathes new life into post-apocalyptic tropes, and deserves strong consideration for both the Aurora Award and the Hugo.

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