Earthly Bodies


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A space mission to help save humanity from an uninhabitable Earth goes terribly wrong in this eco-horror novel about nature and infection.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo was a sixteenth century Italian painter, who was born and died in Milan. While he painted traditional court portraits of rich royals, he's most remembered for his fascinatingly strange still-life human heads: instead of painting flesh, Arcimboldo depicted fruits, vegetables, flowers, and other inanimate objects--arranged to look like a person. These paintings are simultaneously grotesque and whimsical, with political commentary on the wealthy and symbolic gestures lurking in Arcimboldo's artistic choices and placements.

Arcimboldo is also an important character in Susan Earlam's feminist eco-horror/body horror dystopian novel Earthly Bodies--an epic tale of climate disaster and infection outbreak that spans from Arcimboldo's time to the future. Earthly Bodies is a carefully composed nonlinear narrative, which mostly follows a cast of characters who've set out on a humanity-saving space mission. Unfortunately, people aren't the only life form on the ship: a new species is growing in the vessel's murky depths, and it's evolving fast.

In 2058, Earth is quickly falling apart and becoming less and less habitable. Rebecca, a recent widow, decides to leave her old life behind and accept an invitation to start over. She, along with other specially selected humans and a group of robots called MAGIE, will head to space and attempt to ensure the survival of the human species elsewhere. Unbeknownst to the passengers is the shady figure behind this plan: a disgraced tech entrepreneur who faked his own death. A Royal Air Force time traveler and a mysterious psychoanalyzing head geneticist are also along for the ride. As the characters bond and cycle between periods of sleep in pods containing an ominous fluid, the mission starts to go very wrong. People start getting sick, especially men, and the disease seems to be spreading fast. Plus, there's some kind of strange mushroom fungus growing up through the floors. The passengers need to stay healthy if they want to be able to repopulate, but what if what's going on inside the ship is too dangerous and powerful to stop?

Earthly Bodies starts as a slow-burn, descriptive speculative fiction narrative, but then the book explodes into a frightening, tense, and entertainingly disgusting climax of body modification and contagion. And, just like Arcimboldo's paintings, there's some serious social commentary underpinning all the unnerving imagery. Although the outbreak spreads and works in a network similar to the technology of the internet, it's an entirely biological phenomenon. In Susan Earlam's world, the presence of more advanced forms of artificial intelligence isn't the threat to humanity: instead, it's a seemingly unstoppable force of nature. If humans want to survive, they'll have to figure out a balance--how to bond with nature and respect it, instead of continuing to engage in devastating destruction.

Reviewed by

Michelle Hogmire is a West Virginian writer with an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. She writes about Horror at Master Hogmire's Scream Along Blog. Her work has been featured in Rampant Magazine, BOMB, KGB Bar Lit Mag, and Columbia Journal. She's currently finishing her first book in Chicago

2058 Rebecca, June

About the author

Susan is from North West England. SHe has switched from award winning interiors blogger to author. Her short fiction has appeared in publications and anthologies including Pure Slush, feminist surrealism journal, The Debutante, Mslexia, Reflex Fiction & Cabinet of Heed. view profile

Published on April 17, 2021

80000 words

Contains mild explicit content ⚠️

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Dystopian

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