Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Killjoy, We Won’t Be Here Tomorrow (2022)

Margaret Killjoy, We Won’t Be Here Tomorrow: And Other Stories. AK Press, 2022. Pp. 248. ISBN 978-1-849354-75-2. $18.00/£14.97.

Reviewed by M.L. Clark

In an episode of her podcast Live Like the World Is Dying, Margaret Killjoy reframes the concept of eco-nihilism as something that creates room for personal agency amid the inevitability of climate change. If we embrace the fact that climate change is already here, and that we cannot prevent all the horrors ahead, does this not lighten our burden as individuals? Are we not then freed up to focus on what we can do and save, instead of trying to do and save it all?

A similar note of bittersweet emancipation flourishes in Killjoy’s We Won’t Be Here Tomorrow, And Other Stories (2022), a collection of twenty-one short stories that bear the reality of death, and in particular the possibility of imminent death that many live with every day, into fantastical and speculative settings without leaning on any sort of dystopian shock around its implications. One life-and-death scenario in the collection puts it best:

“Are we going to make it?” I asked.
But that’s never really the question, because the answer doesn’t ever matter.

Other potent themes abound here, especially in stories using nostalgic horror tropes to renegotiate the assumption that we should consider ourselves any more locked in to contracts with the supernatural than to hierarchies on this side of the veil. Whether we’ve made an external vow, as in the witchy tales of “The Devil Lives Here” and “Mary Marrow,” or a lofty internal promise related to the beings we adore—dissociative mermaids though they may be (“Into the Gray”)—the idea of an eternal pledge always calls for skepticism and fluidity.

And this matters greatly to the collection’s most critical site of worldly action: its depiction of mutual aid and otherwise anarchical societies. While many stories imagine other ways of being, there’s a certain folly to treating permanence as a central feature for even the most lovingly crafted collectives. In “The Free Orcs of Cascadia” and “Everything That Isn’t Winter,” existential threats always need to be factored into whatever new communities we make for ourselves. And if escape isn’t an option? If the best we can do is to try to resist within the confines of oppressive structures, as in tech—and time-savvy stories like “One Star,” “Invisible People,” “The Fortunate Death of Jonathan Sandelson,” and “We Who Will Destroy the Future”? Then one simply has to accept that there will be limits to all our fleeting victories, for it may well be that even in a moment of triumph,

I was as happy as I’d ever been. I was likely as happy as I’d ever be.

Constancy exists, of course, but it’s not always ideal. In “The Northern Host,” one of a few stories that integrates real histories of struggle, ideological correctives, and insights useful to stealth and overt acts of resistance, our protagonist learns that fealty even to a real and decent god isn’t for everyone. Other ghost stories develop the lesson further, if more subtly: though there’s beauty to be found in the natural park review, “A Reasonable Place If You’re Careful,” and though the phantom in “It Bleeds, It Burrows, It Breaks the Bone” offers helpful guidance through broken-record repetition, it’s each protagonist’s ability to leave, to press on, that makes all the difference.

Granted, our time will also come, as the dreamlike “Not One of Us Will Survive This Fog” makes clear, but why dwell on the horror of loss instead of the strange beauty of all our comings and goings? Do we really want to be like the nature-hating protagonist of “Imagine a World So Forgiving,” whose space-raised loathing for Earth carries her into a bitter Terran end? For all we know, even with an angel’s curse upon us, as in “Malediction,” or when trying to face mortality on our own terms, as in “The Name of the Forest,” we might be left with the ongoing wait for death instead. And isn’t that a marvel, sometimes, too?

Loss cannot be escaped, as the protagonist of “Men of the Ashen Morrow” wishes her years of bartering with a brutal god hadn’t taught her all too well. And even when we try to guide people out of choices that to us feel like death, as in “Beyond Sapphire Glass,” we’ll often only be left with memories to reframe into something kinder. If we can. If our quest for understanding hasn’t driven us to Lovecraftian madness first, as in “The Bones of Children,” or to trade small losses for bigger ones, as in the folkloric “The Thirty-Seven Marble Steps.”

Love, of course, also emerges in these tales—and in so many achingly queer and fluid forms of longing, attainment, and fear of loss again. The collection moves seamlessly, too, between its near-future and presentist SF concerns, and its wealth of folkloric and fantastical slipstream premises. But death truly permeates all—a collection’s worth of memento mori—and it’s a shame we don’t have a better term for fiction that treats the inevitability of ruin as par for the course, highlighting all the exalted spaces for individual agency that acceptance of this fact can yield.

Queer fatalism? Queer chthonic lit?

Labels are not the point, though. Not when stories like “We Won’t Be Here Tomorrow” sing themselves well past allegory, right into the heart of lived experience. So many of us never thought we’d live to see thirty, and maybe “shouldn’t” have, when we think about everyone who died before us on the way. This titular tale is a perfect embodiment of the collection as a whole: a story in which Killjoy literalizes survivor’s guilt (and survivor’s wonder!) through a cartel of ghouls that makes pacts with young people, offering them immunity from carceral consequences in exchange for a promise to die before thirty. But again—fuck binding contracts, right? Especially when offered by entities that hold all the power in the first place. So when our protagonist hits thirty, she’s simply got some work to do to make sure it sticks.

As do we all. But by passing hardwon experience down the line, through stories that feel like fables less for a new world than for the very real and very haunted world we’re trying to make a better home in while we can, this mortal journey becomes less a macabre and more a tender exercise in futility. Whistling sweetly toward the gallows, Margaret Killjoy’s We Won’t Be Here Tomorrow really is all about the friends (and many missteps) we’ll make along the way.

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