IFComp Review: 500 Apocalypses

500 Apocalypses is essentially a stochastic novel, a large collection of loosely-connected vignettes meant to be read in a random order. Its blurb should probably come with a broad content warning for mature and disturbing themes, which I am bringing up here because I’ll be discussing some of it.

Each vignette one is an impression of the death of some alien civilization, ranging from the wry (a society that dies because they just never figured out the wheel), to the poignant (various emotive glimpses into lives at the edge of their worlds), to the aggressively miserable (a hopeless survivor carries around their cancer-ridden partner around the wasteland on a wheelchair, trading her body for painkillers to ease her suffering). The stuff in the latter category is only a fraction of the content, but I found that after a while it suffuses everything. To me it seems too much like trafficking in the sort of misery tourism that stuff like Threads is built on. The entire piece seems built to be a tonal melange, but saddest shit” is an overpowering flavor. Eventually, even the wry or absurd or thoughtful entries take on the faint smell of misery porn. It’s as though all the different vignettes were uncovered food in the same fridge, slowly taking in one another’s flavors.

It is, after all, about the end of the world; says so right on the title. About the world ending over and over again and in different ways, all of them unhappy in unique ways. The problem with structuring that as a collage of vignettes is that it’s all build up and no conclusion. Maybe there’s an ending to 500 Apocalypses, but I didn’t want to stick around to find it, and the piece is very clearly structured to dispel the idea that there is an ending. And so, reading it is like going down an Escher staircase into gloom; there’s no point of catharsis or release to all the pathos, there’s just more pathos. Even the implicit ending that every apocalypse has, in which the suffering is finally over as death comes for everyone, is denied the reader: Click through and read another entry. There’s another apocalypse two clicks away. There’s 500 of them. The abstract field of dots it uses as an index to its entries comes across as a minefield: How long until it presents you with something aggressively unpleasant and unsettling that you were unprepared for?

The harsh, dissonant tonal shifts feel like a cheap shot: You can go from a wry or absurdist entry to one that is terrifyingly miserable, and every time I can hear the gearbox scraping inside my head. Eventually I learned to just expect the worse from every entry, which blunted the subtler poignancy that a lot of entries have. It feels like it could have done with a narrower band of tones, like it should be playing a chord or a scale rather than mashing its hands all over the keyboard.

This is not to say that the different entries are disjointed. Far from it; they have currents of theme running through them. Many of the vignettes fall under the rubric of body horror; many others fall under body discomfit, quietly reminding the reader that they are about alien lives situated in alien bodies only hinted at. Re- and deconstruction of the body. The relationship between a civilization’s semantics and its infrastructure. So does sex, as is obligatory in literature that is about death. Often, masturbation, reproduction, and the regulation of physical desire, make appearances.

In the end, it’s hard to dispute that 500 Apocalypses seems important, and it’s undeniably well-written and affecting. But I’m not sure if that equates to good. The affect, for me, is mostly of creeping nihilistic misery, or maybe lingering anxiety. And this puts me in a bit of a bind; I’d be a pretty poor critic if I could only appreciate art that makes me feel good, but at the same time I eventually came to find this work unpleasant. Not artistically flawed, not ill-conceived, not badly written, but unpleasant. And if the goal was to create revulsion, even dread, then it succeeds at that; it’s not ineffective, even if I’m not fond of the effect. But I’m not sure it’s necessarily correct to say that being effective is the same thing as being good, either. If the question I’m supposed to be answering is whether I like this, well, the answer is no; I do not like this one bit. But I can’t tell you how much that matters, or if it matters at all.

My bottom line with 500 Apocalypses is that I don’t feel better off for having read it. But there is a lot to it, and there is definitely a fascination that it exerts, morbid though it may be. There are fascinating and powerful ideas there, but I’m not a partisan of the idea that the best way to get those across is by causing the reader distress; and, inasmuch as fiction writing can be distressing, I find 500 Apocalypses pretty distressing. It is, above all else, a work of horror fiction. But without the focusing of a singular narrative, it feels too much like touching the third rail. It’s horror without enough of a direction. It doesn’t have the cathartic, clarifying quality that good horror has; instead, it’s just mounting dread without release.

Or maybe it’s not so much that the meal is overdone, but rather that I choked on it. Maybe this is just a singularly affecting piece of work that I encountered in the wrong mental state. There’s too much subjectivity here, far too much for my liking. I think that people who want to understand will have to play this for themselves. And maybe they should; maybe this is an important piece, one that we will be coming back to years from now to talk about hypertext. But I can scarcely recommend something that doesn’t pass this basic test: do I feel better off for having read this?

Grade: Not recommended.