The Tangible and Ephemeral Intimacies of Climate Fiction: Review of The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamed
Selena Middleton and Kristen Shaw
The Annual Migration of Clouds. By Premee Mohamed. ECW Press, September 28, 2021.
Premee Mohamed’s The Annual Migration of Clouds (a novella released this September from the Canadian ECW Press) is set in a post-climate-apocalypse Alberta. Isolated and vulnerable, Reid Graham and her small community eke out a subsistence living from a changeable land harbouring the horror of the parasitic Cad fungus, which has spread to humans. Ensconced in the remains of a university campus, Reid reckons with the fate of her Cad-infected family and friends, her own diagnosis, and her responsibility to her community after she learns that she has been accepted into a university program at a distant but resource-rich institution.
In the following review, Selena Middleton and Kristen Shaw, of climate change-focused Stelliform Press, adopt the form of a back-and-forth conversation to discuss Mohamed’s extraordinary climate fiction and its implications for community resilience, individual responsibility, and the importance of adaptability in a time of deep disturbance.
Climate Collapse, “Progress,” and the Role of Institutions
Selena Middleton: In post-apocalyptic climate fiction, the setting tells us as much about the survivors and their possible futures as it does about the world they’ve lost. I saw Mohamed’s setting—a community making a diminished, low-tech life on an abandoned university campus—as a subversion of the popular boarding school trope. Reid’s main conflict is the decision to either stay and contribute to her community, or seek a better life at the distant school that has invited her to attend. This decision is underscored by the fact that she already lives on a university campus that did not survive the collapse of society. As such, Mohamed places Reid’s decision and its consequences on a knife’s edge. Members of the community believe that the institution that accepts Reid protected itself to the detriment of society. This raises questions about the role of the university during and after climate collapse. This book questions our responsibility to our communities, and institutions do not escape Mohamed’s scrutiny.
Kristen Shaw: Yes, there are a number of ways that Mohamed interrogates the role of higher education institutions and their role and responsibilities. The University represents an Enlightenment ideal of progress embodied in educational institutions that are not responsive to the realities of the communities they serve. Mohamed critiques the insular elitism of higher education by presenting the University as a site that is inaccessible to the majority and that only survived by separating itself from the larger community. Simultaneously, the way that Reid and her community creatively repurpose the old campus suggests that these institutions, or the remnants of them, could already be reconstituted to suit the needs of the people.
S: You’re correctly separating the university as an institution and the university as a site with the resources for learning. The distinction is built into the world that Reid is trying to figure out. As she questions both dominant and dormant institutions, the reader interrogates their own relationships to both the institution itself and the idea of learning in and beyond communities. This resonated with me as a child of an immigrant mother and a working-class father who stressed that university is the path to a materially better life. The questions that Reid puts to herself and to members of her community are the fundamental questions we should be asking ourselves in a time of global crisis: what are our responsibilities to one another? What are our responsibilities to ourselves and individual growth? Do these responsibilities overlap? Reid is deciding whether or not to reach beyond her known world in search of a better life, underscoring that the accepted ideas of progress in the West are sometimes a force for destabilization and alienation. This movement, I think, is in stark contrast with other work that Mohamed is doing in the novella—through not only interspersed scenes of community cooperation and friendship ties, but also through the Cad symbiotic fungus, as scary as that is. The Annual Migration of Clouds shows us that our personal and social ties are deeper than we conceive and more complex than we imagine.
K: Mohamed doesn’t provide easy answers, but she does foreground the extent to which knowledge is always relational—embedded in and shaped by the communities in which it develops. In this way, the novella contests the trope of the singular, scholarly individual as the embodiment of progress and valorizes diverse forms of knowledge without romanticizing them.
Cad, Freewill, and Interconnectedness
S: I’d love to chat more about the deep ties that Cad brings into question. Cad is a mind-controlling parasite infecting both Reid and her mother. Because of this Reid is often unsure of the origin of both her and her mother’s thoughts and feelings. The boundary between self and nature is blurred by Cad as semi-sentient life that occupies a subjective human body. But should we be questioning subjectivity anyway? Is anyone ever acting 100% in their own interests, without external influence? When Reid is unsure whether she should stay in her community, she is pulled by her obligations and responsibilities to others to stay. How is this kind of pressure different from what Cad does? The question of responsibility, what we owe to our communities, is underscored by the blurring of boundaries created by Cad. Cad helps this novella to expand that question to not only humans, but everything else. What do we owe to everything that sustains us? How does that debt shape our behavior?
K: Yes, Mohamed writes Cad so that it functions as a metaphor for the way every individual is a messy collection of instincts, thoughts, traumas: we are all influenced by the past, by biology, by culture, and social networks. The book asks to what extent subjects are circumscribed and fixed within narratives of identity, both those that we are born into and those we construct for ourselves. This expands beyond the individual, as you put so well, and has implications for how we think about ethics. In one crucial scene, Reid feels the Cad virus resist her efforts to save her friend, but—with great difficulty—resists the virus and acts anyway. This is a powerful metaphor for what it is like to navigate the world at times, and the difficulty of pushing against established social and political relations—which can be both constructive and destructive—to extend care to another. Cad is like the baggage we all carry around, a mix of nature and nurture. The story underscores how difficult it is to negotiate ethics at the intersection of those narratives.
S: I see Cad as connecting disparate elements in the book, widening the reach and the boundaries of human, animal, and fungal bodies. This connectivity made me think of Stacy Alaimo’s “trans-corporeality” and specifically how such blurred boundaries require an understanding of “the substance of one’s self as interconnected with the wider environment [which] marks a profound shift in subjectivity.” Reid questions her subjectivity and that of others with Cad and that makes her a critical observer of people’s motivations. She also demonstrates a lot of curiosity about the past and how it led to the moment she lives in, and how these threads stitch together to make up the future. Reid is made of threads: Mohamed points out in moments of stress how Reid’s Cad presents itself as dark threads or ropes under the skin. I thought of this as a visual representation of the Cad symbiont as a new kind of human emerging from the wreckage of the old world that must learn how to form new relations with(in) a ruined but salvageable environment.
K: This is a great connection, and it links back to your earlier question about our responsibilities to our communities and to ourselves in a global crisis. I think you’re right in saying that these responsibilities overlap, and the link to Alaimo’s concept of “trans-corporeality” foregrounds this. The responsibility lies in attending to the relations that shape both individuals and communities (of humans and nonhumans) and that collapse the binary distinction between the singular individual and the collectives in which we operate.
The Extra-Ordinariness of Clouds
K: The slow process of salvaging life from a ruined environment in The Annual Migration of Clouds creates a story focused on everyday life. The “ordinary” apocalypse—the shift of focus from disaster to quotidian collapse and subsistence—is such an important contribution to the evolving conversation of climate fiction. Mohamed’s novella connects the reader’s quotidian reality to that of Reid and her community, threading mysterious and sometimes misunderstood references to culture that is contemporaneous to the reader and highlighting how much of what we deem to be important is possible only once a certain standard of living is achieved. The novella underscores how easy it could be to lose that standard—perhaps how we are even losing it right now, how the cultural elements that seem omnipresent and enduring are more ephemeral than we admit. Focusing on what happens after the disaster turns the story into a quieter, more contemplative examination of how humans (re-)build and what humans prioritize or preserve in the (re-)building.
S: The quietness of this story and its focus on the internal intricacies of family relationships creates a narrative environment in which the reader expects subtle internal developments. While they are expected, these developments are rarely overt; Mohamed’s storytelling shifts below the surface like the Cad visible on Reid’s face. This subtle movement connects to the main motif in the book: the clouds that appear again and again in different contexts, from the cloud that envelopes the community when their topsoil blows away, to the clouds that form the background of Reid’s gifted magpie painting. The cloud motif signals an ephemeral quality of this world that is simultaneously predictable and even agential. Clouds are an unknown and ever-changing element, a feature of the environment which may not be a constant but is constantly returning.
K: I agree with your reading that the cloud motif symbolizes inevitable, cyclical changes within the environment and generally. There is an interaction on this theme between Reid and her best friend Henryk, a sensitive young man who is scarcely cut out for the often brutal post-collapse world; this interaction speaks to the inevitability of change and the impact of climate change specifically. Henryk notes that while clouds look insubstantial and light, they actually weigh millions of tons; they remind Reid that you can’t tell how important or weighty something (or someone) is from a mere look. This comment foregrounds the extent to which despite being “in the background” of our daily lives, climate and natural forces are integral to, and shape, our experience in the world. The same clouds that may appear as wispy and inconsequential fluff have concrete, weighty effects. From the title, to its representation of community, individual, and familial development, to the often subtle depiction of nonhuman elements in flux, the novella emphasizes the inevitability of transformation and the interrelatedness of these shifting networks.
S: Absolutely! And an inversion of this motif extends to Mohamed’s complex treatment of the institutions that shape her characters’ lives: the once omnipresent structures of pre-collapse culture—structures that seem fairly solid to us now, even while they begin to show some permeability—are incomprehensible and ephemeral in Reid’s world. They have become like clouds that will be blown away by the winds of climate change destabilization. But perhaps, more importantly, what is solid in this world is the community that cobbles together a system of care, the friends and family that navigate their collective traumas to tend to each other. This novella situates Premee Mohamed as an important voice in climate fiction, one that demonstrates that this subgenre, often focused on rebuilding and resurgence, should also address how materially diminished but interconnected lives can be immeasurably rich.
Selena Middleton is a Canadian publisher, editor, writer, and a PhD in English literature who currently teaches writing and research to first-year university students. Her research focuses on speculative fiction, ecocriticism, and peace cultures. She is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief at Stelliform Press, a small press for speculative climate stories. Under the name Eileen Gunnell Lee, she has stories published in Nightmare Magazine, Reckoning, Escape Pod, and others. She can be found on Twitter @eileenglee. Stelliform Press is on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook on the web at stelliform.press.
Kristen Shaw is an editor, independent scholar, and instructional designer who received her PhD in English from McMaster University in 2018. Previously an English instructor, she now resides in Northern Ontario designing instructional materials and programming for faculty in Higher Ed. Her PhD project and ongoing independent research focuses on the politics of space and human-nonhuman relationships in speculative fiction. She is an editor and reader at Stelliform Press.
The review was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in June 2021 following a response by the authors to ARB’s September 2021 call for reviewers post. The editor was already acquainted with author Middleton through mutual SFF critic circles and ARB has reviewed books by the authors’ press, Stelliform Press.