I wrote The Annual Migration of Clouds all in a rush in 2019 after seeing a single tweet from an entomologist I followed (I didn’t even read the paper right away!) containing the phrase ‘heritable symbiont.’ My imagination yanked the reins from my hands and went galloping across a blank document I think literally hours later; dimly I suspected the paper was probably about Wolbachia, a bacterial genus that inhabits some insects and affects their reproduction and behaviour, but I was too excited about the possibilities for a human disease. And ofcourse there are human diseases and syndromes caused by infections that affect our behaviour, as well as examples in various other species (Cordyceps is the obvious one, but there’s also Toxoplasmosis, many infections that cross the blood-brain barrier, certain parasitic infections of the gut, etc).
As I created this heritable symbiont, I began asking myself: How can I craft a story out of this though? What we have here is a premise. The premise is: What if there was a disease with a long latency period, invisibility to testing, and uncertain transmission, that affected your behaviour and maybe even your thoughts, and you were never sure of your own free will? It wasn’t a plot.
Where I began to come up with the plot was asking myself why Cadastrulamyces was identified but not eliminated. What happened in between? Why wouldn’t ending a global pandemic of this disease, which aside from its behavioural effects can also cause untreatable pain, disfigurement, and death, be a priority? I thought it was far more likely that it couldn’t be cured than that it wouldn’t be cured. And that led into me building a story set in a world reeling from multiple disasters, knocked back to a state of technology that could look back on our current time but never be able to go back to it, and therefore the state of medical research and treatment unable to cure this new disease.
The obvious apocalypse is no longer nuclear; it is climate change. It is us loading unprecedented levels of energy into global meteorological and biogeochemical systems every year. It is also climate change as an amplifier or booster for every other disaster that might occur, from political to economic. But I didn’t want to focus on the disasters themselves. I wanted to focus on a world after all that, a world rebuilding, and especially a world composed of many, many people carrying a disease that the old world bequeathed them and that they have to live with and accommodate in one another. I wanted to focus on community and what community means for the individual as well as the collective — especially when so many individuals are, in a way, collectives of their own.
We live in the Biological Sciences Centre; a strange affair, as I know from my reading, but what were people supposed to do?
I don’t remember sneaking in “as I know from my reading”, but looking back I think it makes sense. If you were born and grew up in an academic building, and so were your parents, you’d think it was perfectly normal. The writing of the past would show you that these buildings weren’t meant to be lived in. Now they are places of rest instead of work and study.
No one seemed to have accurately imagined, let alone zoned neighbourhoods for, a human existence in which no one in the world could survive unless it were close to a river in a sturdy building. And the university still had those when Grandma’s generation was forced to find refuge, and so here we are today. It’s not a disaster if you still have a roof, Mom always says. It’s not a tragedy. Not if the wolf gets to the last piggy’s house and finds he can’t blow it down.
Long ago pillaged and sacked, our castle of brown brick and cream trim still stands, snooty, even snotty, above the ruins of newer buildings; ugly (really; over a hundred years old, and wonkily coyote-shaped on the map) but proud of its ugliness, filled with hundreds of offices and labs that slowly became occupied as the world shook itself apart. Home sweet home.
Mom and I are on the eleventh floor (Zoology), Henryk on the eighth (Genetics).
Grubby stairwells, concrete and brick, everything smeared with the passing touch of thousands of people, redolent of unwashed bodies and the outside dust that gets into everything. But redolent also of things that refuse to fade, of books, chemicals, specimens, ink, age. Dignity, maybe.
I went to the University of Alberta for two degrees, and for my molecular genetics degree, I swear about half my time was spent trudging up and down the stairs in BioSci. I loved it even as it weirded me out; it was like a friend I would not have particularly bonded with except for proximity effects. During my orientation week, and later when I was an orientation leader, they told us about the history of the building (multiple architects, mistakes everywhere, this particular nonfunctional clunkiness and vindictiveness caused by too many egos on the same building footprint). The thing is, if you were choosing a building on campus that you could survive an apocalypse in, it would be the first one many people thought of. It’s weird, yes. But it’s tough.
The persistence of the smell suggests that we are participating in, rather than merely witnessing the aftermath of, some proud and even noble long-unbroken chain of knowledge and study; but the truth is, of course, that the chain did break. And not once but again and again and again; and not just in the transmission of knowledge from the learned to the unlearned but also parent to child, elder to youth, country to country, every way you could think of. We live in the scattered links that remain.
Some of us try to piece them back together, of course. Impossible to resist at least trying. But the powers of the old world are required to reassemble it in full. Easier, though infuriating when you are surrounded by essentially intact existing links, to make a new one. Otherwise you end up as nothing more than an alchemist, screeching about theories based on texts even the ancients didn’t write with a completely straight face. The wheel was practically the only thing that did not have to be reinvented.
I wish I could spend less time thinking about this but I cannot! It is not my fault! There is just too much sci-fi out there where people from the Very Far Future manage to get past tech working again, and the truth is, the more I read, the less likely it seems. I cannot get data off the CDs I burned in university. Most of the ancient readings we have to work from survived on nonperishable materials (terracotta, stone, lead sheets, ideally anything baked accidentally or deliberately in a fire). As Western society depletes the easily accessible nonrenewable resources and changes the climate in a way that will kill off the renewable ones (trees, etc), what happens after a disaster is that technology will get knocked back to a level that cannot be advanced ever again because it can never again access the resources that were accessible with prior technology. The technical knowledge may be there, maybe it was even deliberately preserved, but everything in the past (that is, now) is setting up a future in which a catastrophe is going to simply take away our ability to return to the current level of technology.
I don’t know when this book is set. I think about sixty or seventy years from now? Something to think about. I’m spending too much of my time reading papers by existential risk theorists. How do these people sleep at night? They are stealing my sleep and I haven’t even written this stuff!
Briefly, as usual, Henryk and I pause to catch our breath on the sixth-floor landing. The staircases are mostly left clear, concrete polished too smooth by too many feet to be really safe. Someone tumbles down a flight about once a week as it is without something to trip over. People brush absently against our backs in passing.
“Did you ever fall down those stairs?”
I certainly did. Friends did. Professors did. You had to be absolutely on your game on those stairs; their width, shape, and depth was unforgiving to the extreme.
In silent agreement we squeeze into the window to study our valley. Unlovely in the early spring, crusted with a thin rime of muddy snow, the river still choked with ice, a single slate-dark thread of water at its centre. Sleeping tangle of grey saplings, dead shrubs of sepia or amber or faded dogwood red. Brown sparrows and dust-coloured pigeons. The only real colour is magpies, repeated shouts of iridescence, irritatingly clean in their black and white suits. Like photographs of actors or spies. How do they stay so clean in this crap, I always wonder.
Is it obvious that I like magpies? Opinion in Edmonton is always divided about them. I think you could do a lot worse than a magpie. I mean in terms of “birds just kind of hanging around in great numbers.” Their noises are unpretty, I will grant you that. But they are more melodious somehow than bluejays! And you cannot deny that they always look charming in their little tuxedoes.
Staring down at the trail of destruction from last month’s storm, raw soil and even bedrock exposed by landslides, I can almost hear Henryk thinking, Do you remember when we
— Yes, the dust storm when we were five years old, just when the grownups had thought those were all over, a relic of the past. Everyone rushed inside, not pausing to snatch up drying clothes or smoking fish; and Mrs. Chermak from the third floor, who had been sick for weeks and didn’t look strong enough to pick up a fart, scooped us both under her arms and sprinted a hundred yards flat out, charging through the propped-open door ahead of a walloping cloud of dark grit.
The start of this paragraph, I will freely admit, is based on me and my best friend (who, yep, spent a lot of time with me in BioSci in that first degree). We always seemed able to read each other’s minds. I miss him a lot now that we are far from each other.
A week later, when we had exhausted every drop of potable liquid (and several inadvisable nonpotable ones: a dozen of our neighbours were dead already of imbibing from unlabelled bottles and specimen jars), a scouting party went out for water. And Hen and I, and Tash and Arvin and Nadiya and McConaughey, formed our own investigative cabal and sneaked out as well. Not far, I said, so that we could run back. Arvin terrified, tears tracking down his dusty face, holding the door open, and Nads on lookout. But lookout for what? The air was still, opaque, a hot cloth stretched over the face, heavily unmoving. We pulled up our shirts, uncaring of exposed bellies, to protect our noses and mouths, and tiptoed into the dark orange light.
Did someone really name their child McConaughey? Well, I suppose there’s no accounting for baby names. At any rate: Reid as the ringleader, tsk. Henryk as her loyal sidekick. Brave Nadiya as lookout. I picture her taking her duty very seriously even as a child.
How had it hung like that, the darkened dust. Why wouldn’t it fall? We stretched out our hands and stared as static tugged the filth to our skin, leaving a trail in the thick air the way it seemed you could do with clouds (so creamy, so solid) but the grownups assured us you could not. Stomachs churning with fear in the unnatural stillness. Like standing at the bottom of a grave, firelit, studded with the tiny corpses of sparrows.
I pulled free of Hen’s grip on my jacket, scooped from a drift, cried out, the sound muffled in cloth like a chirp. The cupped handful of dust weightless to the skin. Like placing one’s palm into nothing more than a puff of warm air.
It wasn’t till it settled, covering the entire valley in a foot of black fluff, that we realized what it was: our precious topsoil for miles around, blown away, destroyed. We were so stunned we could not even have wept if we’d had the water to spare. And in the years to come… no, don’t think about it.
As a soil scientist, I think about this constantly… for this flashback I was initially thinking of other climate-related disasters. They are all so predictable, scientists have been predicting them for decades, the models tell us: This will happen then this will happen then this will happen. I thought about a storm, but I wanted something more incomprehensible, something the kids would have seen for the first time in their lives. Something that would scare them with the mid-day darkness, the dead birds, and also the reaction of the adults. And after the snowpack and glaciers go here in Alberta, after precipitation regimes start to change as a result, we are going to see drought, and drought will be followed by desertification, and all around the city our good black Chernozems and our dark gray Luvisols will not be able to hang onto each other any more and they will blow away. I’m afraid of it. I hope we can prevent it.
Now I think: I could never do that today.
Or: I would never be permitted to do that today.
What’s all this then… is Reid thinking of her mother not letting her go out to explore during a dust storm? Or her neighbours? It takes a village to raise children these days, naturally. Who would stop her? Family? Friends? Or something else? Something internal?
Premee Mohamed’s The Annual Migration of Clouds is out now, published by ECW Press.