The Big Idea: Kali Wallace

Is the glass half empty or half full? If you’re Kali Wallace, writing here about her new novel Salvation Day, you might say that it doesn’t matter, that’s the only glass we have.

KALI WALLACE:

We’re doomed.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Ask anyone! We’re killing the earth, we’re setting everything on fire, we put kids in concentration camps, we give sexual predators and hateful narcissists the highest levels of power in governments around the world, and nothing changes because a very small number of very rich people want to keep it that way. Nothing matters anymore. Everything is pointless. We’re doomed!

I get it. Things are very, very bad for very, very many people in the world today. There are a lot of sociopaths with a lot of power actively working against the possibility of making any improvements or heading off any of the extra-double-special future disasters ahead of us. We have so, so many problems in our world. Many of them are so big and so daunting the best-case scenario is that it will take generations to solve them. It seems like we slide backwards seventeen steps for every one we inch forward. You can’t break an entire planet and expect to fix it in a few years.

Still, I get this complicated little recoil of dismay when I hear people say that we’re doomed, or that nothing matters, or that we might as well give up. It’s such an easy way out. Doom means the ending is inevitable. We can give up. If nothing matters, nothing changes, and nobody cares, we don’t have to solve the extremely difficult problems all around us. We don’t have to answer hard questions and do hard work. It’s the exact opposite of a call to arms: it’s a sigh of surrender.

It was thinking a lot about these conflicting reactions–fully understanding how bad things are but instinctively recoiling from declarations of doom–that led me to the big idea behind Salvation Day.

(Aside: Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, the first big idea behind Salvation Day was, “Wow, I really want to write about a creepy abandoned spaceship full of corpses!” But that’s not a particularly interesting idea to interrogate, because who doesn’t want to write about a creepy abandoned spaceship full of corpses?)

I’m not a person anybody has ever accused of being an optimist; I’m pretty much a walking, talking ball of generalized anxiety wrapped in a lightly scuffed depressive coating. Even so, I don’t want to accept that we’re doomed. I don’t want to believe that we have no choice but to wait for the end of democracy, the end of the republic, the end of decency, the end of empathy, the end of the world. I don’t want to accept that we’ve already passed the point of no return–as though there could even be a single point, or a single path to return, rather than countless, convoluted, ever-changing variations of each.

Maybe that’s a foolish hope, but it’s the hope that underlies the story I’m telling. Salvation Day takes place in a future in which all of the bad things we’re looking forward to and are in the middle of, right now, today, have already happened. Ecological collapse, decades of worldwide war, pandemics, famines, wealthy people looting the Earth and leaving everybody else behind, the works. Our much-prophesized near future of doom and destruction is the not-so-distant past of the world in which my characters live.

The book doesn’t take place in a dystopia, but it’s certainly not a utopia either. It takes place in a civilization that is deliberately rebuilding in the aftermath of all that destruction, but humans are having–shall we say–mixed success. It turns out that leaving Earth didn’t work; the generation ships that tried to escape the destruction all failed. What did work, more or less, was a conscious effort to correct the mistakes of the past and build a better world.

The space between those two little words–more or less–is where I found my story. More for some people, less for others. While I want to believe that humanity will endure, I also believe that we’re probably going to keep making the same mistakes over and over again. We are, after all, only human, and humans are messy, imperfect creatures. Governments that start out with the best of intentions drift towards authoritarianism. Societies that purport to welcome all enforce borders and build walls. Cultures that outwardly value discovery still cling to the comfortable myths of the past.

We’re going to keep fucking up. We’ll find new ways to fuck up when we find new problems before us. We’ll invent new ways to fuck up once we’ve tired of the old ways.

But that doesn’t mean we stop trying. The problems we create for ourselves are never going to get easier, but we’re not completely useless hairless apes. We are, in fact, pretty good at problem-solving, when we set our minds to it. The trick is figuring out a way to set not just individual minds but entire societies to solving our problems.

I don’t know if we can do that. I don’t know if I’m wrong and the “we’re doomed, nothing matters” folks are right. What I do know is that as a storyteller, the most interesting scenarios grow out the spaces between our yearned-for utopias and worst-case dystopias. As an actual human person living in this world, I think those spaces are where we’re most likely to end up, again and again, no matter how long we manage this existence thing.

But most of all, as a writer and lover of science fiction, as somebody who delights in imagining all the whiz-bang awe and excitement of potential futures but cannot ignore our current problems, I don’t want to give up on humanity just yet.

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Salvation Day: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Instagram.

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