Like H.G. Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come, Matthew Derby’s wondrous debut collection of stories, Super Flat Times, imagines a history of the future. Wells’s speculative treatise—published in 1933 and narrated from the vantage of 2106 (the last recorded event, chillingly, is “the levelling of the remaining ‘skeletons’ of the famous ‘Skyscrapers’ of Lower New York”)—foretold wars and advanced a theory of socialist-technocratic utopia. But Derby is interested in the literal shape of things to come—their color, texture, taste, smell, and sound, their object-like qualities and synesthetic possibilities.
A malevolent, obscurely motivated government looms (as do mysterious, diktat-issuing Corporations), but otherwise, Derby’s dystopia upends the tenets of sci-fi along with the laws of science. A bizarrely seamless fusion of the haunting and the ridiculous, this is a world where lines of work include face attendant and air harvester, where population control involves conception simulators and buttoned uterine flaps, where solid clouds serve as seedbeds for behavioral drugs, where all-meat diets are enforced by law and retired teenagers are taught a new energy-efficient type of eating called Eating.
The prologue situates us in the baffled aftermath of a genocide that most of the survivors do not recall. The stories that follow, results of a necrological project entrusted to Those Who Have Been Allowed to Remember, take the form of recovered memory—retrieved not with hypnosis but drilling equipment. The victims were buried in concrete, their dying breaths now air pockets embedded deep within the mass graves. As the prologue’s author—one Mi Jin Ahn-Strauss, writing in Seoul II—explains, “This air, once isolated in a glass cabinet at the Hall of Memory and massaged by a professional translator, can sometimes reveal the Missing Person’s final thoughts.”
Things to Come presented itself as the “dream book” of a Swiss scientist. Even more fantastical, Derby’s overriding conceit confers mock-sacred status on Super Flat Times as a book of the dead, an album of prayers “to be placed on a wooden lectern and read aloud at gatherings.” Each narrator is deceased, each narrative an eternal freeze-frame. Only one captured memory addresses its thinker’s imminent execution, and it does so with the droll placidity of the other stories: ” ‘It helps to think of the first thing you can remember,’ she whispered, but what I heard was ‘think of the worst thing you can remember.’ ”
So what do the dying think of, as they sink stiffly into gray quicksand? The most disconcerting thing about Super Flat Times may be its contention that your existence will not flash before you in a nostalgic home-movie blur, that ulcerating, lifelong disappointments will make a final panicked appearance in the fading embers of consciousness, that anyone who says they have no regrets is lying. Derby barely lets a sentence go by without a stab of loopy hilarity, but also marinates his scenarios in mundane, inconsolable sorrow.
Beneath the busily mutating surface weirdness, the stories are rife with abandonment and loss—lovers fighting paranoia, inertia, and each other, but mainly, nuclear units in meltdown (parents are inadequate and pathetically contrite, children resentful and appallingly ductile). A patricide here, an infanticide there. Dr. Spock books seem to have been replaced by the Eraserhead parenting manual. A couple lose their daughter at the mall, but avoid looking in the obvious places so as not “to cheapen the disappearance.” A mother finds her son, distressed by his father’s depression, clinging to an icy tower of marbled beef. The child of separated lesbians (same-sex marriages are common in these Super Flat Times) stumbles upon troubling photographic evidence: “Daddy” was an aluminum tub, its contents “emptied . . . into his mother’s womb.”
Throughout, alienation verges on the psychosomatic. The body is regarded as outside oneself, a curious, brittle object prone to grotesque accidents. Confronting cross-sectioned images of himself at a clinic, someone notes, “You begin to understand . . . how much work the skin does in holding off this absurdity.” Derby proves quite the body-horror maestro (more in the Farrelly Brothers than William Burroughs vein), and his storytellers have a juicy, childlike way with the details of corporeal gross-out. Flouting Atkins-diet wisdom, one recounts how the exclusive consumption of meat altered the human physique: “We got fat for a while . . . but then the fat left us, so that what we were left with were baggy flaps of limp, oily skin, whole bolts of extra body. We gathered this loose flesh in long, flat clips at our shoulders, so that the worst among us appeared to have wings.”
The cautionary sci-fi tropes of artificial breeding and ethnic purification are also subjected to the demolition Derby. The Royal Child Harvest compels women to produce “up to nine thousand eggs a month, grapefruit-sized clusters that often broke the carrier’s hips.” The solution to miscegenation is outlined in the horrible, literal-minded terms of an eight-year-old: “They wanted everybody back inside their original race. . . . they let people with mixed blood choose one strain they’d like to keep, and a machine would separate out all the rest.”
Often recalling the coiled equipoise and tonal fissures of Ben Marcus and George Saunders, Derby’s sentences are designed to ambush—indifferent declarations booby-trapped with implausible dissonance: “I like home, generally, but I do not like home the way that I left it—with a large wild bobcat living there.” “It is difficult to remember with any clarity the time in which we met, partially because I sold a great deal of those memories to buy cloth for Philip’s bassinet.” “I found a piece of another woman caught in his teeth.” Science fiction generally encourages the reader to secure a foothold in alien realms (decipher the rules, detect the parallels to ours), but Derby totalizes the disorientation by utterly thwarting—or, perhaps, tantrically prolonging—that experience. If the genre operates via defamiliarization, SFT atomizes that sensation of “cognitive estrangement” (as critic Darko Suvin termed it)—the oddness is in the telling, the matter-of-fact inversions of logic, the super flat affect, in every deliberately chosen word.
The cumulative effect warps perspective—it starts to seem that these stories, born of an involved alchemy, are in a subtly foreign language. Indeed, we learn that the era’s lingua franca is called English III—no further elaboration, but the joke underscores the concept’s brilliance. This post-apocalypse of erased memory banks is after all a world of lost and only partially found; it makes sense that language itself has been extinguished and tentatively relearned. Derby’s methodology—to break something down, squint at its constituent parts, piece it back together—applies not just to words but emotions. The end result is something altogether unexpected and heartbreaking, fragments cemented with the residue of a mysterious violence.