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Chaos Trifecta #16: Death Across Time

chaos trifecta
Written By Ai Jiang

Ai Jiang is a Chinese-Canadian writer and an immigrant from Fujian. She is a member of HWA, SFWA, and Codex. Her work can be found in F&SF, The Dark, Uncanny, among others. She is the holder of Odyssey Workshop's 2022 Fresh Voices Scholarship. Her debut novella Linghun (April 2023) is forthcoming with Dark Matter INK. Find her on Twitter (@AiJiang_) and online (aijiang.ca).

It is interesting, and sometimes unfortunate, the way history repeats itself, cycling endlessly. But what fascinates me is the way that not just events, but the way cultural history and traditions are carried forth and how they might remain similar or become different in modern contexts, how they might evolve and complicate depending on the direction of humanity and society. Below are three different examples I think capture well the idea of “death across time”:

“Of Flesh, Of Bone” by Tania Chen in Strange Horizons

I have an endless soft spot for diaspora stories, and this gem is no exception. “Of Flesh, Of Blood” explores death rituals, of traditions centered on the idea of being tied to family, of dying with family, of trauma of past generations being carried forth. Chen navigated the desire to abandon culture and traditions in favor of belonging and assimilation on foreign lands and how assimilation, in the end, is killing a part of the self.

This story illuminates how forgetting for the living, though it might not often seem that way, is easier compared to those who have passed, particularly ghosts and the dead holding on tight to the living world with vengeance—hungry ghosts who feast and fester.

One of my favorite quotes from the story:

“Grief has no rhyme or reason, no logic or formula to work through. His mother is just another ghost now, not because she’s dead but because she is not, having packed her bags and left a few weeks back.”

And another:

“The past is past, the past is dead, the past cannot come back to haunt you.”

Except it can, and it does.

Exhuma (film; 2024)

What a wild movie this is that intertwines the past and present in an urban supernatural horror/thriller that somehow also makes it seem as though the ancient has come to visit the present. This movie explores the commodification of death, where rituals of the past by spiritualists of the present are now for hire, and at a high cost. Specific plots of land that are auspicious and appropriate for burials are also dwindling in number and often extremely expensive to procure. There is the persistent fear of grave robbers for the wealthy.

Exhuma draws on Korean superstitions and traditions and a concept called “Grave’s Call” in which vengeful, ancestral spirits, lingering, with the inability to move forth, return to plague their descendants due to improper burials. Though there are rituals that can be performed to appease spirits, sometimes only cremation may be the only means to rid families of hauntings once and for all.

“Being Time” by Rachel Handley in Possible Worlds and Other Stories

Compared to the previous two, Handley’s “Being Time” offers a very different look into the meaning of “death across time.” In this story, Handley explores the way ghosts do not have anything new to say because they are of the past. They can recall things from when they were living, from their own past, but nothing from the present and future because they themselves do not have a future. Ghosts become beings trapped in an endless loop of telling the same stories to anyone who will listen, and their past living timeline becomes their very identity because they have an inability to change and grow and develop and be impacted by external influences given the way they stand as is, just as they are, the way they always have been, and the way they forever will be.

What I find most interesting about this story is the way Handley compares ghosts to algorithms and the way they draw from the pre-existing, though perhaps even more so limited—the same set of events, memories, experiences, without the machine learning aspect. The story also tackles the idea of time being intangible and space as tangible—of space as breakable, but not time—and what happens if both of these things become sentient.