Last year ECW editor Jen Knoch asked me a few questions about A Tidy Armageddon.
I loved the central concept of this book, which basically turned our staggering material possessions into a maze and put a few humans as rats in it. Where did the idea for A Tidy Armageddon come from?
I’ve always been a conservationist, the person who turns out the lights no one is using and castigates you for putting that recyclable in the garbage. When I see a product on a shelf, my mind involuntarily navigates its entire lifespan, from acquisition of its raw materials, to production, packing, marketing, distribution, purchase, unpacking, use, disposal. I don’t buy much, and when I do it’s with care. I’ve always wondered why most humans are ignorant or apathetic about the full cycle and impact of their consumption. What do I see that they do not?
My sister lives in Tucson, Arizona, and on my first visit in the mid-1990s, I drove past Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the location of the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group and the largest aircraft boneyard in the world. The spectacle of thousands of large, complex, and expensive aircraft, row upon row – B-52 Stratofortresses, C5-A Galaxies, F-4 Phantom IIs, F-15 Eagles, A-10 Warthogs, all mothballed in the desert – both impressed and alarmed me.
Humans have evolved to appreciate phenomena at a limited scale. When I was a kid, one million was the ultimate big number. A million dollars was the pinnacle of wealth. “Billion” was reserved for astronomical scale – Carl Sagan and his “billions and billions” of stars. Today, we encounter “billion” as a word and concept constantly, and we use it casually, without appreciating its scope.
A billion isn’t just an upgraded million, double or triple or even an order of magnitude larger. It is a thousand million. A thousand is a lot, and a million is the former champion of “a lot,” and now we talk blithely of individuals who hold multiple thousand million dollars in wealth.
Nothing will make you understand a billion like seeing, actually seeing, a billion of anything. If I tell you civilization has produced a billion microwave ovens, you know that’s a huge quantity. But without seeing what that looks like, you can’t appreciate it, feel it, as a shock to your psyche. Anything in extreme quantity feels threatening. It’s like bunnies: a couple are cute; a thousand are horrifying. Multiply that horror by a million to appreciate the dread of a billion bunnies.
Seeing those aircraft assembled in one place made me consider how concentrations of various objects could help readers consider their own consumption habits. I could help others see what I see when I look at a product, while offering a compelling and entertaining narrative. From that vision evolved the concept for A Tidy Armageddon.
As the section came across new blocks, I wondered about the objects they encounter. How did you decide certain objects would make the cut, and how did you figure out how much space each item would take up?
My first priority was randomness, to create a varied collection without imposing meaning on the arrangement of the objects. I wanted our culture to be viewed as alien to whoever or whatever did this, not just to suggest, as the characters conclude, that aliens are responsible for this assembly, but to detach meaning from it all, to show it as nothing but organized mass. So objects big and small, precious and worthless, rugged and fragile, profane and sacred, all abut one another, and you never know what the characters will encounter next.
As anyone in cryptology will tell you, randomness is surprisingly difficult to achieve. We respond readily to local cues, so if you are sitting in a kitchen, and I tell you to quickly name ten random objects, many will likely be associated with food prep and consumption. I rejected dozens of items for each one I selected.
To indicate that this cataclysm encompasses the entire world, I included objects from diverse cultures – what’s a common kitchen implement in India, what’s a bottled water brand in Thailand? There characters encounter cricket bats, and though the sport isn’t popular is North America, the stack is substantial, because, to quote one character, “The rest of the world plays cricket.”
And after that, I considered the aesthetic factor. What would look cool stacked nine-storeys tall? What would be fun to describe, and for readers to visualize? Alarm clocks, ocean liners, diamond rings, lighthouses, reclining Buddhas. I could choose to represent literally anything. Even now, I encounter objects every day I wish I’d included.
I created a FileMaker Pro database to track and record the products in the book, plus to compute block volume based on my research of quantities produced. I could access the database on my phone, to input new products wherever I happened to be (frequently at a mall or market, in a museum, or in another city or country). I scrolled a lot of Amazon.
I tried to represent the scale of each product block accurately by researching and computing the volume of each product. I used whatever sources I could find, e.g., websites for trade organizations, government statistics, sales reports, and enhanced those stats with a lot of conjecture and extrapolation, to reach viable quantities.
To determine each block size, I only had to plug in a few numbers: the object’s average dimensions, and the quantity produced. The database would compute the area of a block as a square, with the standard height of 27.9 metres. To make a rectangle, I could then tweak one dimension, and the database would yield the length of the other side.
How many microwave ovens have been produced in history? (about a billion) What are the average dimensions of each? (35x55x40cm) What volume does that represent? (77 million cubic metres) How would that manifest in a nine-story block in terms of width and length? (1661 metres per side, about one square mile) If one side was instead 200 metres, what would the dimension measure? (13.7 kilometres)
The various members of Three Section represent a range of lived identities, politics, and viewpoints. What did you want to play out in their differences?
Early drafts of a short story version of the story featured an army section comprised of conventional “soldier-type” male characters, but it turned out to be nothing like what I wanted to write. I read a lot of diverse fiction – literary, speculative, by women writers, BIPOC writers, etc. – and I could not bear to tell this story from the perspective of army men, like some 1950s military sci fi novel.
Since the environment of the apocalypse is conveyed through character reaction, I had to ensure that the scenery and interpretations of the products encountered would be conveyed through varied perspectives.
There were also practical reasons for the diversity. Private Cheree Leclerc’s encyclopedic knowledge, for example, allowed for the dissemination of information about products in the landscape most characters would not possess.
Private Adonia Virago brings an activist’s perspective, while Private Abigail Deeks’s cynicism and humour serves as both entertainment, and a source of conflict. Corporal Che Yat Tse brings his own set of perspectives and skills, that are instrumental to the plot. Private Travis Bronski is a social conservative denier. And all the characters grapple with the apocalypse in their own ways: with fear, skepticism, vindication, acceptance. I want readers to find a viewpoint among the characters that relates to their own ideas and world view.
What does it mean to have an Indigenous woman as the protagonist of an apocalyptic story? Why did you make that choice?
In my drive to portray diverse characters, as described above, it was important for me to include an Indigenous character, not as a token, and not in a secondary role, but as both a lead character and a leader. At the same time, I wanted to avoid culturally appropriating by casting Elsie Sharpcot in some stereotypical role, a caricature, for example as a sage “steward of the land” who laments the devastation of the environment by capitalism’s excesses. And I didn’t want to flinch from portraying the prejudices she has suffered, and at times suffers from the other characters, as an Indigenous woman, within society in general, and within the armed forces in particular.
Beyond that, it felt like a modest contribution to reconciliation, when Indigenous people, especially Indigenous women, have been neglected, exploited, erased, and murdered, to write a smart, competent, kick-ass character, who not only commands respect, but survives the apocalypse, and leads the survival of the other characters in their survival, all while remaining vulnerable and human.
Why did you choose to make your characters members of the armed forces? How do you deploy the military to different effect than in other apocalyptic stories?
This was initially a practical consideration: the characters are protected from the effects of the apocalypse by a nuclear bunker into which they are sequestered to act as a reserve force. It also allows for a disciplined structure among the characters, with a hierarchy that maintains the group’s cohesion. It also sustains the group’s diversity – why else would such varied characters be grouped together?
In other apocalyptic stories, the military is often depicted as a key player, maintaining order or failing to do so, and in worst cases contributing to the chaos. The characters in A Tidy Armageddon offer conjecture of the military’s involvement in the apocalypse, and conclude by the state of the things that all world’s armed forces have experienced total defeat. The characters initially assume the role of an expeditionary force, hunting for the people, but they also appreciate that they are the people, possibly the last, and their role shifts from protectors to survivors.
Are there other novels, or non-fiction, that you see as companions to this book? I thought, for example, of J.B. Mackinnon’s The Day the World Stops Shopping.
I wasn’t aware of Mackinnon’s book, but it would clearly make a good companion. The novel owes much to a long tradition of post-apocalyptic fiction, everything from On the Beach to A Canticle for Leibowitz to The Drowned Worldto The Road to Station Eleven. But there exists in literature and film as far I know no “orderly” apocalypse like this one. For that perspective, I’d recommend Edward Burtynsky’s work, books such as Burtynsky: Oil and Anthropocene(also a film), along with the many exhibitions of his stunning works.
When we’re talking about apocalyptic narratives, real or imagined, people always want to talk about hope. How did you approach hope in A Tidy Armageddon? Does that align with your real worldview?
It does align with my view of hope, which is actually pretty cynical. Yes, there is always hope, but because of our societal resistance to economic transformation, it arrives only in the post-apocalypse, after devastation has run its course, and we rise from the ruins to re-establish a civilization based on different norms.
I know that’s bleak, but it’s realistic, if you consider our current behaviour, for example, when adopting environmental policy, we: 1) set weak goals to appease business, and then, 2) fail to achieve those goals anyway! How many targets has Canada missed, targets that were blunted to placate resource interests like the oil industry?
If we don’t make changes ourselves, there is still hope, if your allegiance is with the planet, with its structure and biomes, rather than civilization. Nature always wins. Physics and chemistry and biology do not compromise. We can fix things ourselves, in ways that preserve our culture and institutions, or they will be fixed, with unflinching brutality, by nature.
I know after reading this, I’ll never buy something again without thinking of it stacked nine storeys high with all its like objects. Did writing this book change your relationship with consumer goods?
The concept for this book came to me in the 1990s, and it’s both a product of and source for my attitude toward consumerism. I’ve been imagining the things I buy in a nine storey block for three decades. But I’m one person. We need to radically change our culture, and my hope is that A Tidy Armageddon can serve as both an entertaining distraction and a compelling influence on readers to consider their own consumption, and mitigate it – while there’s still time.