The Big Idea: Max Gladstone
Consider two sisters.
Kai and Ley live in different worlds, but sit at the same table. They grew up together, but they don’t see each other often these days. If you asked them, they’d give reasons—school and travel and work and things like that—but those reasons aren’t enough to name the distance. There was a death in the family when they were young, and they grew up in a hard home, in a country in trouble, and dealt with that in different ways. Kai dug into her home soil, dove into work, and built a life. Ley left, chasing a dream she could barely name, always just out of reach. She wanted to change the world, and she couldn’t do that at home.
They need each other more than anything. They’re all they have, in a dangerous time. But their different values have caused them to make different choices, and the conviction that they’ve made the right choices makes it almost impossible for them to understand each other’s needs.
One sees the girl who couldn’t leave, and the other sees the girl who couldn’t stay.
That’s the heart of Ruin of Angels, my new novel: the challenge of living in different worlds in the same space. What happens when it’s so difficult to understand the people we live beside—or the people we love—that we can’t help them? That we don’t even know how to help each other?
Cities are filled with different worlds, interlaced but not always intersecting, defined by values, history, choices, architecture. There are many Bostons, New Yorks, Nashvilles, some so sealed off from the rest their inhabitants never step into the worlds they live beside. Some people live all their lives in one of these sub-cities; others never have the freedom of that ignorance—they pay careful attention to which city they’re in at any given moment, because stepping wrong is the difference between life and death.
Class and culture and race shape these worlds, and they’re reinforced by the values residents hold, or are trained to hold. Is it a good or a suspicious thing to have a well-paying corporate job? Do you feel exhausted, or excited, on your fifth week of eighteen-hour grind? How important is it to live near your blood kin? Would you go to space if there were a good chance you’d never come back? When is violence the answer? (Are you sure? How does your experience of violence line up with the stories you tell about it, or about yourself?)
But crisis demands we break down those walls—or let them crush us.
Agdel Lex, where Ruin of Angels takes place, where Kai and Ley meet, is a fractured city. A hundred fifty years ago (or so), a great war started there—the God Wars, the near-omnicidal conflict between human sorcerers and the Gods whose powers they stole. The cataclysm frayed reality around Agdel Lex—and while every city holds many worlds, the worlds of Agdel Lex are a bit more literal than most.
The Iskari, Agdel Lex’s occupying power, have one vision for the city they seek to rule: an orderly metropolis, fit to a considered design, with everyone in their proper place. (Proper so far as the Iskari are concerned, anyway!) Like many governments, they think the many worlds should all be one. As the Iskari rule grows more complete, thanks to time and effort and new technologies, the families who ruled the city before the Iskari take shelter, and tell different stories, about a different city. Beneath these two cities gapes the inescapable fact (and world) of the War, a horror no one can quite bear to confront, but no one can forget. Torn between two poles, we find immigrants and wanderers trying to build their own future.
The system has worked—not really—for a while.
But a crisis is coming. It doesn’t start with Kai and Ley—their fight’s just the point when it turns visible. When the crisis strikes, Kai, and Ley, and their friends and enemies and lovers and students and partners, face dangers they can’t resolve alone. They’ll have to take down the walls that part them—walls formed by history, by pride, by self-absorption and pigheadedness and trauma. They’ll have to trust and reach out—and maybe even that won’t be enough.
W.H. Auden said it best, but he said it twice, and I’m not sure which version’s right:
We must love one another, or die.
We must love one another, and die.
That’s the big idea in Ruin of Angels. It’s the big idea in a lot of my life right now. The times are changing. We have to love, and work like hell, to build a better world. And no one can do it alone.
So, good thing we’re not alone.