First sentences: My return to our ancestral roots began with a crocodile’s eye that sprouted on my right breast. It felt like a grazing kiss from a razor-sharp bamboo tip, or the sting of the cold current of a river that once flowed on the ruined Earth.
Synopsis: Mandisa lives in the far future on a distant, ravaged planet. She is the wife of Chioke, who’s supposed to be a “crocodile man”, marked by traditional scars. Nanobots are supposed to keep the millenia old traditions alive, but something went wrong. They destroyed the high-tech civilization which is isolated from the rest of humanity in order to contain the apocalypse.
It is a sad world where the few tribal people don’t touch out of fear of transferring nanobots. They’ve already infected Mandisa’s husband. Mandisa breaks the social rules and comforts the dying man. Now, she’s infected with the nanobots and goes through a physical transformation.
She has to leave as a pariah on a quest to save her tribe using a new “antidote” program which needs to be planted into a special device on the other side of the planet. On this quest, the crazed memory nanobots lead her on a surreal journey.
I was inside the mouth of a mystical snake, next to a being who was neither man nor woman. I carried a child in my arms and hid it next to a ceiba tree. I brandished a double-axe, invoked lightning, and healed a father. I was a woman born from an ostrich egg. I broke a vessel against the ground and from it a river was born. It took me to the sea. Along with my thousands of faces that began to sink into the darkness, a proud tree proclaimed to reach heaven, and it was punished by the gods to have its roots above and its branches underground.
Review: The story grabbed me instantly with the first sentence like only very few stories did. Recently, I’ve read a lot about technological singularity. The Grey Goo-scenario (self-replicating machines don’t stop and process everything to further self-replicating machines) is one of those possibilites where technology creates an apocalypse. The author softened the extreme form by extrapolating “only” a pandemic form of nanobots.
Those nanobots are enormous fascinating, in that they are not only able to adapt people to foreign ecosystems. They also work as guardians of past cultures. Having nanobots transforming people is a an old SF trope, but the other idea was new to me. The author did a great job by applying the “technology goes crazy” to both aspects, bringing out the gods in nanobots.
This works on several levels – the nanobots are gods themselves, and they also remember their hosts of old gods like Yemaya which is a water spirit from the Nigerian/Cubean/Brazilian Yoruba religion. Just google “Yemaya Yoruba”, and you’ll find lots of fine art!
The traditional scarification – cutting the skin and manipulating the healing process – is a human tradition which is thousands years old. It might sound alien to outsiders, but it has a serious ritual purpose which is based on cultural beliefs and the social system.
The killing and pain is contrasted by Mandisa’s solution which shows, that the connection to ancestral roots can be without killing, harm or destruction. To fix the abusal connection of violence and tradition, she has to go into the heart of the bot territory, and fix the root cause, thereby reconnecting her people to their past.
This transforms not only her, but also her folk.
This story truly has several layers. If you are going to read it, don’t stay on the surface but let it drag you deeper into the millenia. Pandemia mixed with mythology, far advanced technology recreating the primitive past. Enjoy!
Meta: isfdb. Available online at Clarkesworld. I’ve read it it in the anthology Best of World SF.