P.G. Streeter’s story “A Xenothanatologist’s Guidebook to Death Practices Among the Sapient Species of the Outer Perseus Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy” was published in Metaphorosis on Friday, 14 October 2022.
A friend of mine recently earned a degree in the field of thanatology—the study of death. I was fascinated to learn about this discipline, and I even imagined that if I were to go back in time to repeat my own years in academia, I might choose to study this subject myself. But, as it is, I’ve made a career of teaching literature and a hobby of dabbling in some writing of my own. So, I asked: how could I take this idea and apply it to a bit of speculative fiction?
Of course I immediately began imagining alien creatures, and how their own views on death might be shaped by the unique circumstances of their physiology and planetary ecology. The textbook sections of this story started coming to me, and I furiously started to put them to paper.
Attempting to make the personal narrative underpinning all of this work just as well was much more difficult. I knew I needed this part to be more emotional, whereas the textbook portions were intellectual. The narrator needed to be grappling with death on a personal level, and that story needed to resonate with those informational passages in a coherent way. Honestly, though, this was really hard! I’m infinitely grateful to B. Morris Allen, whose guidance during the revision process really helped me make that story come to life so much more strongly than it did in earlier drafts.
The universe is big, and I have no doubt that there’s other intelligent life out there. I don’t know how those beings conceptualize mortality—but I do know that confronting the reality of death can be a harrowing personal journey. The more I look beyond the initial perspectives I learned by rote as a child—the more I turn to the wisdom of people across different disciplines and from different cultures—the more comfortable I get with the ultimate mystery of it all. Years ago, trying to tell this story would have put me into a state of perpetual heebie-jeebies. Somehow, though, I’ve gotten to a place where this story was exceedingly fun to write. It’s the fun that comes from being curious about ideas, from allowing yourself to luxuriate in questions of what if. Art, and especially fiction, have helped me get there. I hope that, among whatever else it made you think and feel, this story invoked a bit of that curiosity in you, too–and that you had a bit of fun staring into the abyss with me.
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