“Not to confuse this kingdom, this ocean of garbage, with a garbage-filled ocean—that’s somewhere else. Although more’s the pity there’s not much way to tell the difference.”
The garbage-ocean created by the world’s wasteful consumers is the setting of “Bang-Whimper,” a new apocalyptic short story by Jeff VanderMeer. It’s a wacky, icky tromp of a tale as a group of four humans and a foul-mouthed robot eke out a morbid survival on their own private mountain of garbage.
What treasure will they find beneath their feet? And what glimpses of humanity are left in their own souls? You can read the whole thing at Literary Hub.
There is fun intertextuality throughout:
- The characters, led by the rambling garbage king Bang-Whimper, are filling their days by cataloguing the “nine-billion names of the trash” . . . essentially digging through the pile and remembering what civilization created during its tenure. That phrase is a nod to the classic apocalyptic short story from 1953 by science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke. In “The Nine Billion Names of God,” a Tibetan lamasery hires computer programmers to write a program that will compute and print 9 billion combinations of letters that which, they believe comprise all the names of God. When complete, the lamas’ earthly mission will be complete.
- The protagonist hopes that a hidden scrap of humanity is buried in the heap, and civilization’s redemption involves “waiting for the day when we would all turn our garbage mountains into ploughshares.” The phrase twists the words of the prophet Isaiah, who advises people to “beat their swords into plowshares.” which prescribes waging peace to combat the forces that would destroy the world.
- And of course, the garbage king’s name is a reference to “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot’s memorably bleak poem of modernity. “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”
Jeff VanderMeer recently published The Southern Reach trilogy, a series that takes a dark, introverted, and psychedelic lens to an unstoppable alien invasion.