The Big Idea: Erica L. Satifka
Look, you can like apocalypses all you want, but here’s a fact: Erica L. Satifka was into doom before doom was cool. And in this Big Idea for the appropriately-named How to Get to Apocalypse and Other Disasters, Satifka traces her obsession back to the beginning of the end.
ERICA L. SATIFKA:
My name is Erica Satifka, and I have a problem: I’m obsessed with apocalypses.
Contrary to much of the current trend in speculative fiction, I’ve always preferred a bleak ending to a happy one. By sixth grade, I’d read all of the big dystopian classics—1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World—and rounded out my reading list with a generous side of horror fiction. The message in these books was very clear: the future’s gonna suck, and even if you find a way to resist, things won’t turn out well for you.
That message stuck with me as I became a writer, showing up in my first pro story “Automatic,” which was published in Clarkesworld Magazine. Here, the world is completely devastated by a disfiguring plague. Humanity’s survival depends on a race of altruistic sentient energy beams, leading to a lot of resentment from the main character. And now, fifteen years after that story was published, I’ve collected it and twenty-two other terrible futures into my debut collection, How to Get to Apocalypse and Other Disasters.
While most of my newer stories aren’t quite as bleak as my debut one, I’m still exploring that same apocalyptic mindset. When planning out a story I tend to start with a gigantic concept, such as dramatic population decline, alien meddling in human society, or a bomb that wipes out human intelligence. Then I imagine how people would react to these happenings, with the focus on regular people rather than anyone at the top who might actually have the power to alter course. In both life and fiction, some individuals will fight, risking everything to see the world set to rights. Others try to ignore the issue, whatever it may be. And then there’s those who turn tail and run from conflict, but are thrust into the thick of a situation anyway. I’ve tried to provide that wide range of human crisis responses in my stories.
Even though most of these stories revolve around an apocalypse of some kind, they’re not all unremittingly grim. Two of the stories feature a recurring “magic band” that seeks to save the world from existential ennui with terrible music, and are narrated by an easily-distracted woman whose internal monologue is darkly humorous—though there’s more social commentary there than there appears at first glance. It was also hard to be bleak in “A Slow, Constant Path,” set on a generation ship “manned” by robotic cats (based on my own cats, naturally). And in one of only two stories in this collection that are set in the past, a robber baron tries to use sasquatches to put the citizens of an Oregon logging town out of work. That one was a real first for me: I had to do research!
In addition to diverse tones and genres, many of the stories also experiment with form. One of the stories (ironically, the one that got the biggest reader response out of all of them) is an example of the once-popular list format, written as a bucket list penned by a teenage girl two weeks before everyone on Earth is beamed into virtual reality. And another uses the structure of oral history to tell the tale of a Pokemon Go-like game that causes an accidental nuclear blast—and is possibly not under human control. I try not to rely too much on “gimmicks,” but sometimes a wacky structure is the only thing that does a story justice.
There’s a lot that divides us these days, but one constant across people on every side of the political spectrum seems to be that we’re all hurtling toward apocalypse. Some focus on climate change above all other disasters, others see the encroachment of corporate power as the biggest issue, and of course war (civil or otherwise) is always a fear that simmers like background radiation in the human psyche. But everyone seems to understand that a lot of different forces are converging to make the next few decades “interesting times.” I’d rather not live in one of my story ideas, but it feels like they’re advancing on me anyway with unnerving speed. I guess all I can do with my meager amount of influence is make people think. I hope the stories in How to Get to Apocalypse and Other Disasters can do their part to entertain readers—and maybe inspire them to steer us away from the cliff.