Just as any journey out into the Waste begins with a decision to leave the Town, so does every story begin with a spark of inspiration. What was the origin of this story?
This one’s basically a mash-up of The Road (novel) and Vivarium (film).
I read The Road back in high school, and found unexpected beauty in its lonely last-two-people-on-Earth vibe. I think Cormac McCarthy also used “glass” as a transitive verb meaning “to look through binoculars at something” and I thought that was pretty fucking ridiculous.
I watched Vivarium much more recently, midway through Prague’s first extended lockdown, in a slight deviation from my routine of getting shitfaced and re-bingeing Bob’s Burgers. I remember thinking: If I’m going to be depressed, drunk, and sedentary, I should at least consume some interesting raw material for when I get back to writing stuff.
The only element of the movie that really stuck with me was the baby in the FedEx box, which presented Jesse Eisenzuckerburg and Imogen Poots a moral dilemma that I wish had been explored a little more. I have the cool privilege of playing with ideas for money, so I played with that one.
The story’s last-two-people vibe comes from The Road, but the specific post-apocalyptic setting is one I first introduced in my F&SF story “There Used to Be Olive Trees”—widespread desolation, humans living in small enclaves run by incomprehensible AI gods. The faux-seaside was inspired by haunting photos of the massive ship graveyard in Mauritania.
When creating a near(ish)-future setting like this one, are there certain techniques you employ to balance the recognizable extensions of the present (e.g., dried up oceans, dead whales, the continued earworminess of MIA’s “Paper Planes”) with the near-unrecognizable (such as the biomechanical machines, carbon nanotubes in the sky)? Is it purely aesthetic intuition, or do you take specific steps to meld the two into a familiar, yet alien setting?
I just threw in whatever I was thinking about at the time: artificial constructs designed to look like dead loved ones, the clumsy tender weirdness of real, non-Hollywood sex, the word “noctivigant,” the way intoxicants make things seem both more and less important, creature artwork by Eric Kowalick, and a passing desire to try walking tacos—a culinary creation I’ve never actually encountered in real life.
The MIA thing is a bit of a joke between me and my sister. We used to say “all I wanna do is make various sound effects, then take your money” to each other, for no real reason. And of course I listened to the song again while writing this story. It holds up.
So, with all that in mind, my opinion is that if you nail the tone, you can get away with pretty much any mixture of elements. The sense of cohesion is less about the actual things that appear in the story, and more about the language that surrounds and details them. That’s not to say I nailed this tone—maybe some people will find the juxtaposition of taco trucks and nanite smog jarring in a bad way. But for me, it works.
In a way, the constant, unrequested deliveries Jain and Stromile receive is the logical extension of “The Algorithm” as a self-directed entity—having perfected its ability to identify the products we need to survive (or what we want to watch on Netflix), it has moved on to predicting what we’ll need in the future (say, when our partner dies). However, while Stromile believes the unseen shot-callers give them what they need in a beneficial way, Jain says that it’s a test—that they ones back in the Town are trying to control their behavior through the deliveries. You don’t have to give it away, if you don’t want, but would you like to share how you see this debate playing out here?
It’s safe to assume that the global economy in “Complete Exhaustion” has completely collapsed, but the deliveries could certainly be an after-echo of late capitalism. Maybe it’s a vestigial behavior, the lingering impulse of an artificial intelligence that was once slaving away under Jeff Bezos.
Or it’s something more intentional, but equally aggravating. Just like the autofacs in “There Used to Be Olive Trees,” this story’s mysterious caretakers are inspired by a Phillip K. Dick story I read as a kid, the one where the milk is so thoroughly pizzled. These caretakers may be doing their genuine best to help Jain and Stromile, but they don’t understand what they’re doing.
Humans need food and water and shelter more than they need understanding, but it’s a close thing. We are all driven by this mad desire to have other people really get us, to make the neural ghost in someone else’s head as close as possible to the one we carry in ours. The caretakers can keep Jain alive, but they’ll never get closer to knowing her than Stro did, and the facsimile is uniquely painful for that reason.
There’s an interesting thread here, too, regarding the physical body versus the person inside. Here we see the body as a source of physical pleasure and physical pain; used as a way to express happiness, as well as a focal point for grief. However, at the end, when a lonely Jain receives a duplicate of Stromile’s body—even with an almost indistinguishable intelligence animating it—she destroys it. What can we take from this about the struggle to understand the separation between mind and body?
I think the mind-body divide is a false dichotomy—central nervous system as brainy as a cat, behavior-changing gut flora, etc. If Jain really conceived of Stro’s personality and memory as separate from his dying body, she might be more willing to accept the possibility his “soul” had somehow been copied into a new one.
But since she witnessed Stro’s physical decline, and how it changed him mentally, it’s impossible for her to believe that this healthy, beautiful Stro is the real thing.
Jain also adamantly insists that time is linear, despite being presented with multiple options to get at least a partial do over. If not a full circle, she’s at least offered a spiral. While her refusal to backtrack is very human in its stubbornness, it doesn’t clearly provide her with a “better” path or outcome in the end. Are there questions we readers should ask ourselves as we think about her decision?
It’s interesting that you bring up full circles. In one conception of this story, I had the idea that Jain and Stromile have been wandering the Waste for much longer than they think, and that they really are the last two humans alive: Each time one of them dies, they’re replaced by a FedEx baby, who the other then raises until a certain age, at which point some memory fuckery resets them to their old adult relationship.
So in that scenario, Jain and Stromile have been reincarnated hundreds of times, and might unknowingly be far, far from the people they were a millennia ago. I went with this version instead, but I might eventually take the other for a spin. Don’t steal it. No, I’m kidding, you can steal it. That’s basically all I do.
Jain’s decision at the end of this story is very human, but humans are adaptable. At some point in the future, she might give fake Stro a shot and find that it’s better than nothing. Or she might leave the FedEx baby in its little tube, every day for the rest of her life, and derive an acidic but earned satisfaction from that.
After my experience of quarantine, brief as it was, I know I can’t be alone with myself for that long. Eventually, I’d accept the delivery. You?
I imagine I would, too, but it seems there’s a grieving process to be worked through first. I can certainly sympathize with why Jain might feel like this offer of a replacement is insulting—can our Stromiles ever really be replaced?—but I also think you’re right that some companionship is often better than none, even if it isn’t precisely what we wanted. Once we come to terms with walking in spirals instead of circles, I think there’s a peace to be had.
Finally, as we think about linear time, what’s coming up next on your timeline? Beyond any concrete plans or releases, are there any new ideas or areas that you’re just starting to explore?
Man, concrete plans are a distant memory. My flight to Canada just got cancelled for the third time, so my visit with family here in South Africa might balloon to a half-year stay—luckily they’re not completely sick of me yet, and the government is extending all visas. I hope to use the time to finish rewriting a novel, then jump into twenty-odd unfinished short stories.
Spread the word!