Part novel, part anthology, Ben Berman Ghan‘s What We See in The Smoke is an evocative and powerful read. Each chapter is a separate short story that can be read on its own, independent of the other chapters. Taken as a whole, they form a grand epic of humanity’s descent into the far future–through a Torontonian lens. Each section and story progressively moves further from the Toronto (and Earth) we know.
The sci-fi elements are both outlandish and belieavble. The tone is often dark and sometimes funny, and there’s always something at stake that hits at the heart.
The first section, “These Memories of Us,” covers the nearly familiar future. We see inter-connected people struggling against overbearing and implacable systems while tending to their own limitations and empowerments. “Planet 58” put us in the mind of people whose understanding of the wider world threatens to cut them off from the local one. “Time Loop Tango” dances with determinism in a way that pushes at its limits. “A Carnival World” jars the reader with 2nd person narration.
Aside: I heard a professor say it wasn’t possible to write convincingly in the 2nd person but obviously that prof had never read “A Carnival World” or the other 2nd person stories in this book or N.K. Jemisin.
The second section, “These Violent Machines,” stretch all the way to 2280. The first story, “Yum,” opens with an epitath from Moby Dick that sets a dark stage for the rest of the book.
“Cannibals? who is not a cannibal?”
While the stories are not (all) about cannibalism, they each introduce a dehumanising factor. “Darkly Dreaming” envisions a Toronto in which the controlling arm of the corporations reach deeper inside a person than we ever thought possible. “Re-Pilot” follows a job applicant trying to adjust to life on Mars. “The End of History” puts the reader in the front seat again, returning to the 2nd person to watch the end of the world as it comes.
As the stories fly further and further from out present-day point of view, Ghan keeps bringing us back to ourselves with relatably broken characters.
Finally, “An Uncertain and Distant World” takes us far from familiar earth, with mind-implants, teleporting art theives, robots on trial, and (my favourite) an ever-evolving race of beings waging eternal war on a hull breach. The settings and circumstances are believebly outlandish. The characters are tanglible and real.
What We See in The Smoke peels back painful and beautiful layers of humanity in a time when we are becoming more and more aware of the futures we are constructing for ourselves. These stories are engrossing and powerful. The prose is darkly comic and brightly sombre. This is a book for anyone who loves stories about Toronto, rocket ships, and the kinds of love that can survive apocalypse. Go buy it!