The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamad
Whether it’s writing weird horror, fantasy, science fiction or science horror fiction — a subgenre I think I just made up — Premee Mohamad is one of the best around right now, and she does great work in the novella length. Her latest example is 2021’s The Annual Migration of Clouds, a short, harrowing work set in a tight-knit community surviving after catastrophic climate change and a loss of arable topsoil.
Reid is a teenaged girl in a small, successful community. This group is egalitarian, with each person doing their part to keep things running, even though they have no farmland, no electricity, and little in the way of medicine. Reid is one of the miraculously lucky few who just got an invitation to Howse University, an enclave of pre-disaster learning and technology. It’s so rare to get an acceptance that some people think Howe is mythical or even a sinister plot. Reid has never heard of anyone who has been accepted. Even the location is a mystery, forcing the recruit to find it on their own, a final test in a way.
Climate change, rising oceans, and extensive droughts have changed the part of the world where Reid and her mother live, and one of the biggest changes is the Cad fungus, which colonizes humans, eventually killing them. Before the fungus kills, though, it protects its host. By controlling the central nervous system, the fungus can control physical movement and behavior. Reid’s mother is a host, and so is Reid.
While the Howse acceptance is wonderful, it’s loaded with problems. Specifically, the group she lives with is so tightly-knit that the loss of a single person leaves a noticeable gap. Reid fears that there will be no way the group can care for her mother if she leaves. Worse, her mother definitely does not want her to go. As her mother’s arguments grow louder and stronger, Reid, like us, begins to wonder if it’s her mother speaking or the Cad fungus itself.
The fungus is the very first thing we see in the story, and it is Reid’s most intimate relationship. Whether Reid likes it or not, there is a kind of communication between her and the fungus inhabiting her. Reid is afraid to leave, and thinks the fungus doesn’t want her to leave, and at the same time she desperately wants a chance to change this world. She comes up with a plan to earn enough community credit to cover care for her mother, even if it means risking her life and lives of others — and if the fungus will even “let” her participate.
The Annual Migration of Clouds is a complex story told in a few pages. The community where Reid, her mother, and her best friend Henryk live is regulated, survival-based, warm, nurturing and friendly. Reid knows nearly everyone. The town teacher encourages all the students to apply to Howse University. People take care of each other. Alongside the neighborliness is a harsh justice system that concerns itself more with the eradication of a potential threat than with actual guilt or innocence. These aspects seem contradictory, but they fit together smoothly and are believable in this isolated place.
Henryk and Reid are best friends, who enjoy taunting the elders by producing increasingly mangled variations of “See you later, alligator,” as a way of saying good-bye. Their banter sparkles, lightening the mood of the piece in several places. Ultimately, an act of betrayal comes between them, and the clock is ticking down to the time when Reid must make a final decision — stay or go.
Mohamad’s prose is etched with a diamond-sharp precision, swooping into heartbreaking moments and moments of strange, weird beauty, making us laugh, and making us hold our breath in terror during a crucial part of the book. There is some classic SF “What If?” here, in the global warming world, not just the science of the climate but the sociological questions of this community. What does the individual owe the society that nurtured and protected them? How much right does a society have to require people to meet other people’s needs? It’s also a coming-of-age story, and then there’s the Cad fungus, and Reid’s final resolution with the thing that inhabits her and will ultimately kill her. As I was reading this, I just felt like I couldn’t put the book down. When I finished it, I paused for a moment to feel a sense of awe at how much is addressed in this slim novel.
I try to avoid the word “original” in reviewing, because it’s used so often it’s lost most of its meaning, but The Annual Migration of Clouds is a story that isn’t like anything I’ve read before. It works because the character of Reid is so immediate and inhabits this world so thoroughly. Go read it.