Premee Mohamed’s 2021 The Annual Migration of Clouds is a stand-alone post-apocalyptic novella.
Reid Graham is ecstatic to receive a letter of acceptance from Howse University. Howse is not merely a respected centre of learning. It is one of the few places in Canada that retains high technology despite a series of calamities that have reduced the population of the world by two orders of magnitude.
The catch? Reid has to get to Howse on her own. This is tricky. Howse is hundreds of miles away from Reid’s home; there are few automobiles still functioning. And … there are other problems.
The world is a far more hostile place than it was two generations ago. Reid’s community of origin1 is short of people and resources. Maintaining their meagre standard of living with enough surplus to survive intermittent calamities is a full-time job for the entire population. The community cannot easily spare Reid.
There is also the problem of Cad. Cad is an insidious parasitic infection, one that has learned the trick of passing itself from parent to child. Before the lights went out, all of humanity’s advanced medicine failed to find a cure for Cad. Now there is no choice but for Cad carriers to live with their parasite.
Cad is always painfully fatal unless something else, like a pack of wild dogs or a leap off a roof, gets the host first. However, it is not necessarily quicklyfatal; some Cad victims die screaming soon after it manifests but others last decades. Cad controls its hosts’ behaviour to maximize its own spread and survival. As humans have discovered, knowing that one’s parasite is fiddling with one’s brain chemistry does not mean one will be able to overcome chemical compulsion.
Reid has Cad. So does her mother. This means if Reid goes to university, mother and daughter may never see each other again. This is a risk Reid’s mother is unwilling to accept. Unpleasant conversations will follow.
The book’s author biography notes that Mohamed has completed degrees in biology and environmental conservation at the University of Alberta. Her background is reflected in the novel in several ways. The author can confidently predict what total environmental conservation failure might look like. It’s bad. From the perspective of the survivors in the novella, the old dust bowl days of the 1930s look like a glorious golden age. Indeed, one might wonder if the term survivors is appropriate for humans in this era. Perhaps humans are a soon-to-be-extinct species.
Biologists often know more than the person-in-the-street about parasites. My readers aren’t quite people-in-the-street and know a fair bit about the effects of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, and Toxoplasma gondii on their hosts’ behaviour. However, we may not realize the extent to which that our own behaviour may have been affected. [CATS ARE CUTE; YOU LOVE CATS; YOU NEED ANOTHER CAT…] It could be that our Toxoplasma gondii overlords are pulling our strings and we aren’t noticing. But of course this is unlikely.
Because this is (among other things) a horror novel, Mohamed’s humans are perfectly aware of the effects of Cad on their own bodies and psyches. Because this is a horror novel, there’s nothing they can do about it. The difference between horror and real life is sometimes unclear.
Clouds is even more horrifying in other ways. It’s a tale in which people have to conduct frank conversations about feelings2. Yes, Reid could just sneak away in the dead of night but she’s not going to. That leaves only talking with her mother, talks that will touch on uncomfortable subjects.
The novella is skillfully executed. The plot pulled me along; the sad setting was skillfully set out; I cared about the characters. It’s not exactly upbeat material but it’s well worth reading nonetheless.
1: This novella is probably set in Edmonton. Reid’s community isn’t explicitly named that I saw, but it’s said to have had over a million people at its peak and is in Alberta (a Canadian province several kilometres beyond Toronto’s westernmost reaches). There are only two cities that large in Alberta and since Calgary is mentioned as a place to which people from this community might go, the community has to be Edmonton.
2: Mom is right to be worried; she’s not just being clingy. Nobody from the community has ever been to Howse. For all they know, the letter is an elaborate scam aimed at enticing a young woman into a trap.