Review: “The Fifth Star in the Southern Cross” by Margo Lanagan

2 of 5 stars.

Appearing in After the End: Recent Apocalypses edited by Paula Guran, this very short story [no more than ten pages] embraces the grotesque. This move takes it a few notches beyond dystopian, unfortunately I also feel that the story should have lengthened up to tell more and to develop more fully. What we are given is worth a deeper investment than its brevity allows in that this story is so far removed from others I’ve seen.

Earth has succumbed to an alien apocalypse. The aliens have made themselves at home, but to what extent and for how long now we don’t know. The only aliens we see are a prostitute, Malka, and “her” baby being birthed. Our narrator Jonah, who paid for the prostitute, is a cad to the umpteenth degree and the only male human in the story. It is tempting, based on our view of him, to label the story as man-hating as this character is so detestable. However, every type of person is given the same treatment. Jonah spouts homophobic vitriol and yet assures us that the fudgepackers have been wiped out. Both our narrator and the story manage to treat women with equal disdain. The only female we see, Fenella, is a former one-night-stand of Jonah’s. The grotesque is quite physical in descriptions of her: EurOwsian beggar-girl was . . . a bundle like someone’s dumped house-rubbish. She crinkled and rustled . . . . shaven-headed and scabby-lipped. . . . She beamed and licked away another drop of blood.

Jonah’s world is immersive and bleak. The author treats everyone with disdain. This is where I was left wanting more. How could society and the human species have socially devolved to this degree? I don’t doubt it–I want to understand it. It is made clear the humans don’t have real relationships anymore; those are things of social myth at this point. Human genetics has been faltering with most people unable to viably reproduce. The why remains unanswered. The human infants that are “created”, surrogated and raised [all by different females] seem to emerge from a system worth exploring. [Also hinted at are power-shortages and other failures of modern urbanity, yet no consequences or causes are offered here either.] My curiosity is worthy of two stars, but my lack of satisfaction holds my rating there. Possibly, this story needs the full novel treatment. The question then is if the reader could suffer hundreds of pages with a narrator as detestable as Jonah.

I should offer a quick side note as to why I have tagged this review as “queer” with its dearth of queer characters and its insufferable treatment of the exterminated queer populous. In short, queer does not equate to queer-positive nor does it imply that there is a major queer character though one of these scenarios is usually the case. Queer means inclusive of something beyond the hetero-normative society. In the case of this story, hetero-normative society is no-more. It has imploded [albeit taking the homos out with it]. Nothing could be further disrupting of the hetero-normative society than destroying it. The narrator even replaces interactions with human females opting to fornicate with aliens of indeterminate gender. Also, the entire reproductive element of society is redefined. I, personally, get tired of “alien” societies that are overly human down to the racial tropes and bi-gender, hetero-normative social construction of modern Earth.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

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