Read “Post-Nihilism,” a Queer Romance in a Climate Apocalypse
Now for something a bit different to distract you this Thanksgiving. io9 has run short fiction before, from our collaborations with Lightspeed Magazine to excerpts from novels big and small. But here’s “Post-Nihilism,” an original tale of love and hope in a near-future world ravaged by climate disaster, from Gizmodo’s own Blake Montgomery. Enjoy! – James Whitbrook, Deputy Editor
Professor Francis Jude arrived from Oregon at the Golden Fields Tower flustered, winded, alone. His train had been delayed. He ran to the class he was supposed to be teaching.
Late, he stood in a semicircular lecture hall before three dozen students. He was overdressed in a tie and tight blazer of radiant orange. His students wore neutral tones: loose-fitting jumpsuits of beige, brown, blue, and gray, checkered with wide pockets. His long arms, though thick and strong, appeared gaunt and gangly as they extended too far out of his orange and blue sleeves. Sweat ran down his angular face. His gold glasses fogged under his untrimmed brown hair.
He shuffled through his papers at his desk. Out of breath, he said, “I apologize for my tardiness. Welcome to Historical Philosophy. As I’m sure you read in the course description, our class will delve into philosophical movements while also studying contemporaneous events and societal shifts.
“We will begin by discussing Post-Nihilism, one of the least-known intellectual undercurrents of the century leading up to 2200, but, I would argue, one of the most essential and most closely tied to history.
“The first examples of what scholars would later call Post-Nihilism were memoirs documenting the authors’ own individual experiences, an uncommon beginning for a philosophical movement. These authors had been actively and intently suicidal as they observed the deteriorating state of the natural world, but they all emerged alive from their severe battles with depression and went on to chronicle their experiences. As Benedict Dymphna wrote—”
A student in the front row raised her hand.
“Yes?” asked professor Jude.
“I’m sorry professor, but I think we’re out of time. I have to get to my next lecture.”
“Ah, of course. We will pick up on the same topic when class reconvenes.”
The classroom emptied, and professor Francis Jude sat, breathless and alone.
Francis screwed up the courage to eat dinner at the tower cafeteria, which was open to all every night. He had not yet stocked his fridge, and though the city in the wind turbine offered several restaurants, he thought his chances of meeting new friends better at a long table. He signed up for pasta and sat among the other residents. He had forgotten to change into the olive-green jumpsuit issued to him and still sported his fluorescent outfit.
The gargantuan white wind windmill soaring above the flaxen Oakland hills contained an entire community: apartments, schools, restaurants, a hospital, grocery stores, pharmacies, shops, nightclubs, libraries, a city hall, municipal agencies, utilities, recreation centers, businesses, a university, and more. At its base, parks and farms, the only locales of life that now required sprawling horizontal real estate, occupied a limited circle. Its massive blades thrummed past windows at all hours. The town in a tube drew its power from the wide circuits of the windmill, which cranked three enormous generators in its skull.
Dozens of mammoth city-cum-turbines like Golden Fields Tower pocked the landscape, and each rested within its own 25-mile radius, allowing a wide and undeveloped green divide to stretch between. The framework arose from a rigid lattice of laws dictating city structure. Rails connected them like the roots of aspens. The windows of a train car would offer passing views of the parched and charred hulls of old metropolises.
Though the dinner seating order was assigned—each thing and each person in the compact city had their exact places and appointed times—the chair across from Francis remained empty as the table filled.
“It’s Maximilian. He’s often neither here nor there,” said the young woman sitting next to Francis through a mouthful of noodles. The brown profusion of curlicues on her head bounced as she chewed and spoke, not dissimilar from the pasta on her plate. She wore a tan jumpsuit. Francis caught the aroma of the astringent sauce through his hooked nose. She continued, “If you don’t tell the quartermasters where you’re eating, they sign you up for the cafeteria by default. Maxi never goes to restaurants, but he doesn’t often show up here either.”
“I’ve seen him stumbling around the hallways coming back from the turbine,” said a man in a nearby chair. He wore jumpsuit the dark brown of tree bark. In a hissing whisper, he said, “It’s Magentol.”
“Really?” said the woman.
“Magentol?” asked Francis.
“The turbine lubricant that makes you hallucinate like you’re in a soft dream. Makes you loopy and talkative. Makes your body feel like it’s calm and glowing. Best you’ve ever felt. Addictive as anything. Surely people used it in your tower. It’s everywhere,” the man replied.
“Ah. In my old home we simply called it Grease,” said Francis. “And its devotees ‘Grease monkeys.’”
The man said, “We call them that, too, but be careful. Those words will get you into a fight. It’s more like a slur here.”
“I’ve never seen it in person. I heard it does horrible things to you,” whispered the woman.
“That is true,” said Francis. “My tower was evacuated due to a rapidly spreading pathogen, but those who had already been infected were forced to stay. The quarantined residents often turned to Grease. Their hands and feet calcified, not unlike sclerosis. It was very sad and painful for those who had to remain and those who had to leave them behind.”
“What happened to them?” asked the woman.
“They’re still there. Most succumbed to the mania of Grease overdoses and killed themselves,” said Francis. “The despair at their circumstances drove them further into their addictions.”
Francis returned to his apartment to find that the plumbing below his bathroom sink, unsupervised and rambunctious, had boiled over in his absence. Though the water had receded, a thin brown residue remained. He discarded his teaching clothes in favor of a sleeveless shirt and attempted to scrub it away with the thin bandana he had brought with him. The anemic fabric failed him, and he grew frustrated again with how little the authorities had allowed him to bring with him from his home. His apartment had only a bed and one chair. With a sigh and an exclamation of disgust audible two units over, he left for the communal cleaning supply closet.
Within the large storeroom, Maximilian Kolbe slumped against a dark wall in a ragged posture. His head swayed to a wild, invisible tango as he drank from a hefty, conspicuous flask. His shaggy blonde hair glinted even in gloom. The telltale liquid merriment sheened his smiling lips a reddish purple.
Francis heard Maximilian’s gulps as he entered. The saccharine scent of Magentol filled his nose—soap and rotting fruit. “Hello? Is someone in here?” he asked. He flipped the light switch and brought down jarring fluorescent beams.
“Piss off. And turn that off,” said Maximilian.
Francis did not know where the supplies he needed were shelved. He flicked the switch down in hopes of currying favor.
“Where would I find disinfectant and sponges?” he asked.
“I’m a repairman in work hours, but I’m off now. I’m not a janitor at any time”—here Maximilian slurred—“Good luck finding a cleaning closet librarian.”
“Why are you in here?” asked Francis.
“Because not many people come in here. When they do, they’re in and out. No one comes to a cleaning closet for a leisurely stay, so no one bothers me,” said Maximilian.
“Your apartment is private, too,” answered Francis.
“That’s true, but somehow it feels more sad to drink there alone than do it in here, and the clubs are closed. I’m older than you, I think, and I remember when I could drink in my own damn yard, whether I was alone or with my friends,” Maximilian said.
“Were you the empty seat at dinner yesterday?” Francis asked.
“Good guess, glasses.”
“My name is Francis Jude.”
“I don’t care,” Maximilian said as he took a deep draught. Bright liquid dribbled through his thick beard and splattered on his chest. The drink gleamed like neon blood. “This stuff kills my appetite. One good thing about it. You may be younger than I am, but I’ve still got the body I had a decade ago.”
At Maximilian’s remark, Francis noticed the unzipped crag in the other man’s jumpsuit, black in the light of the dim alcove, that opened to the underwear at his waist. The wiry muscles were indeed there. Francis stirred.
He asked, “What is it you’re drinking?”
“Come on, you know. I’m sure people chugged the turbine cleaning fluid in your old tower, too. Want any?” asked Maximilian.
“You call it Magentol here, I hear? Why do you take it?” Francis sat on a creaking crate. He did not think he would ever learn where the supplies were, though as his eyes adjusted, he enjoyed looking at Maximilian more and more. He could make out the strength of the repairman’s jawline and neck, the veins that led into the hairy chest.
“I’ve got an endless supply of it as a turbine repairman. And because we’ll destroy the whole world someday, just like we almost did before. We’ll finish the job. I’ll be done with it then. Or maybe I’ll be done with life. But while I’m here on earth, I like to hear music, to dance… ‘To and fro in the seven chambers, there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams, and these, the dreams, writhed in and about, taking hue from the rooms, and causing the wild music of the orchestra to seem as an echo to their steps…’”
“Poe. ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’” said Francis.
“Right on the money there, Dr. Brains. That’s the best description of what this red-pink mess feels like. Nothing beyond me and the party. What I see is different every time, something like another line from that story: ‘There were much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.’ It’s a ball for one.”
“Do you dance yourself?” asked Francis.
“I am dancing, can’t you see?” replied Maximilian.
“You are sitting.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” said Maximilian. “Right now I’m two-stepping down the line with quite a few handsome cowboys.”
“That does sound lovely,” said Francis.
“You might be the first person to say so. Everyone else tries to scurry away when they see what I’m sipping,” said Maximilian. “You sure you don’t want some?”
“No, thank you. But I do love dancing,” said Francis. “I have been looking forward to your tower’s party on Saturday. We did not have them in my tower for fear of spreading infections.”
“Yours was the bad one in Oregon?” asked Maximilian.
“Yes. I left before it was declared a pandemic,” Francis said. “Now it is locked down. It grows less and less likely anyone will ever leave or be permitted to return.”
“I’m sorry,” said Maximilian. “That’s a damn shame.”
“Thank you. It has been very difficult leaving my family and my old university behind,” said Francis.
“Will you dance with me?” asked Maximilian. “I like how your arms look in that shirt. You seem quite strong.”
“I asked if you’d do a dance with me.”
Francis had expected to ogle Maximilian from afar. The prospect of touching flustered him. He said, “I, uh, I don’t, uh…”
“Oh, fine, never mind, professor. The sponges you need are on the second shelf up to the left.”
“I did not mean to offend, I simply, uh, I…” Francis grabbed at the disinfectant and scrubbers. Several tumbled down around his embarrassed head. He flushed in the darkness as he scooped them up.
“Thank you for helping me, Mr…?”
“Maxi. Maximilian Mary Kolbe.” The slouching man drank deeply. “Everybody seems to have some plumbing issues their first days, and I’ve cleaned up more of that poop-hued scum I’m sure you’ve got than I care to remember. See you around.”
Francis, still blushing, returned to his apartment.
Professor Jude continued his first lecture in his second class. A dozen students in a semicircle scribbled notes.
“The dominant theme of Post-Nihilism is ecological devastation. The immolation of the natural world we see all around us poisoned the writers against themselves, as they saw no hope for humanity and therefore no hope for themselves as individuals. The movement’s most famous practitioner, Benedict Dymphna, coined the phrase ‘The Unworlding’ to describe both his own deteriorating mental state and the fraying of the natural world. The term is the title of his best-known work. Dymphna found himself suffering inner crises that reflected the destruction of the earth around him, mental breakdowns induced more by the events of the world than the ontological frictions of consciousness, though he was not so circumspect at the time. One of his most famous vignettes described him going for the same morning walk every day but returning home covered in more and more ash than the day before. The darkness of the burning world quite literally weighed on him and clouded his sight.
“The writers explained their post-depression emotional and mental state as a synthesis. Theirs was a newfound enthusiasm for life that recognized their previous despondency. Each rejected the label of ‘optimist’ with vehemence and disdain. One writer, assuming the name of the poet Mary Oliver as an homage, described her emotions as ‘tempered, blackened happiness,’ ‘singed sincerity,’ and ‘burnt joy.’ Many began to see the phenomenological world in similar terms. Another, Teresa José, was more blunt, calling her approach ‘mutant pragmatism.’ Dymphna popularized bodily metaphors among major voices in the movement. The most common comparisons in his work are to scar tissue or to broken bones healing. My favorites, though, are his descriptions of eyes: ‘Sight and the sky are blinding after cataracts. How brilliant, how blue, how beautiful.’
“Academics soon noticed the themes of the memoirs and codified them in literary analysis papers, which gave rise to strident critiques of the philosophy the writers expressed. The new worldview had struck a nerve.
“Post-Nihilism was itself a reaction to other ideas, the antithesis to a preexisting thesis. The memoirists and then the literary theorists found ethics rooted in despair to be cold comfort in the face of worldwide environmental catastrophe. The ideas of Existentialism and Absurdism, for example, proved useless when faced with a literal, global crisis of existence rather than one rising from within the self. As Dymphna defiantly wrote, ‘There will be no meaning in our world only if there is no survival.’ He was at once bleak and bold.”
Francis arrived early at the all-tower party too early. He dressed in the formal fashion of his tower—loudly patterned jacket and tie—but as more residents filtered in, he realized that they wore cleaned versions of the same muted, casual clothes they donned every day.
He approached Maximilian, who wore his same dirty black work jumpsuit, matte but for the glossy stains left by turbine repair.
“May I lead you in a dance?” the professor asked.
“Hey there, glasses. So you’ve got dancing feet now?” asked Maximilian.
“You seem less indisposed,” said Francis. He hoped the joke did not poke too hard. He wondered if the tower’s gossiping residents would stare as they joined hands and began the steps of the dance.
“And you seem less embarrassed,” replied the smirking repairman.
“Both can be true,” said Francis.
“Fair enough. I’ll give you one dance, but I’m leading,” said Maximilian.
Francis smelled chemical sweetness on the other man’s breath. “Are you high?”
Maximilian did not answer.
“Why do you take it?” asked Francis.
“I told you, I like to dance,” Maximilian replied.
“But we have music here,” said Francis. “And won’t you lose your legs?”
“Do you know how ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ ends, professor?”
Goosebumps pricked the back of Francis’ neck. “The guests of the prince die of the plague.”
“Yeah, they do,” said Maximilian.
“The allusion hits somewhat close to home, so to speak,” said Francis.
“What? Oh, my god. I’m so sorry, professor. That’s not where I meant to go.” Maximilian missed a step. Their left feet bumped each other.
Francis sighed. “Then what did you mean?”
“The ebony clock is the only thing left standing, towering over all the dancers and ticking the time away as everyone falls,” said Maximilian.
“And that’s what’s going to happen to us. The windmill will loom over us, white as death. I’m a fair bit older than you, I see in the light. I used to reside in a proper city. These towers may be a big shift from how we lived before, but they don’t really do anything. They’re just a bandage on gangrene. We’re the same destructive, sicko species as when we nearly ended the earth. So might as well have a magenta drink while you can, right?”
Francis kissed him. The professor did not want to answer the charge. Maximilian reciprocated the affection.
Two weeks later, professor Jude said, “Good afternoon, students. We will be continuing our discussion of Post-Nihilism today.”
“The writers we have covered are tied to a specific generation of Americans, one that lived in both the country as it was before The Unworlding, largely uncaring and indifferent to the natural world’s status, even as our environment descended into chaos, and as it is today, far more concerned with the global harmony of humanity and the earth. The most prominent and visible example, of course, is the reimagining of our cities inside massive windmills.”
Maximilian swaggered into the classroom through the door behind Francis. His heavy boots hit the floor with declarative thuds as he sauntered to the back row.
“Students, this is, uh, this is my boyfriend, Maximilian Kolbe. I did not expect him here today. Welcome.”
Francis’ students lit up at the prospect of their professor’s personal life interfering with their class. Their glee made Francis nervous. Maximilian took no notice, gave a languid wave.
Francis continued, “You see the societal shift in attitude most evidently in the way our cities are now structured. In California and the western United States, for instance, we live in densely populated wind turbines for three primary reasons: to minimize any use of fossil fuels, to maximize the use of scarce water resources, and to mitigate fire danger. We originally implemented interstices of 25 miles between each tower so as to allow for recovery from the huge rashes of fires that plagued our region. Over time, however, we discovered that the ecological recuperation that the spacing permitted benefited human beings as well as the earth as water and air became cleaner. The integration of cities into cohesive units, though a bumpy migration, engendered a more egalitarian understanding and led to more comprehensive care for citizens overall. Though sensitivity towards the planet’s climate may prevail among your young cohort and even among much of mine, I would advise you not to take it for granted, as it came at a great cost.”
“Ha!” Maximilian barked a laugh in the back row. “Kids, let me pose a question to you.”
“Mr. Kolbe, please, I am not finished with the—”
“Do any of you believe this junk? That we’ve moved past what happened to the world into a sunnier future where everyone won’t kill themselves?” he asked.
The students, a frozen Greek chorus, did not answer.
“Anybody want some Magentol? It’ll make you imagine the world isn’t ending. You’ll feel better, I promise,” Maximilian asked his rapt, speechless audience. He pulled a flask from a pocket and guzzled. He leered at the students, and his teeth glowed pink.
Francis flamed red. He stood stiff behind his desk. He said, “Students, we will finish this lecture in next week’s class. Do not forget the reading assignment.”
“No, stay! I want to hear whether you believe humanity has any kind of future. I certainly don’t,” said Maximilian.
The students did not move.
Francis swept the papers from his desk in a loud gesture that turned the heads of the entire class.
“Leave, now!” he shouted, trembling.
They shuffled forth. Some left their books in their muffled hurry. Maximilian stared at Francis and felt ashamed.
“Why did you come to my class? And why did you do it high?” asked Francis. His question echoed through the lecture hall.
Maximilian did not answer. He looked down.
“Answer my question,” said Francis.
Maximilian did not meet his boyfriend’s gaze.
“This is where I work. I cannot have you disrupting my class with drunken rants, embarrassing me, and offering my students Magentol.”
Maximilian, so gregarious a moment before, said nothing as he watched the floor.
“Answer me, you stupid Grease monkey!” Francis yelled. “Or are you good for nothing but turning screws and drinking? Did that slime make you mute?”
Maximilian looked up in awe and pain. Francis saw, for the first time, disgust and hurt overtake his boyfriend. Maximilian’s face fell again, this time into a wounded glare as his shoulders rose in a gesture of protection. Where before there had been a permanent and assertive thrust of the chin, there was now only downtrodden, aching rage. He stood and walked to the exit.
The repairman did not. He slammed the door of the classroom.
Francis returned to his apartment expecting a tirade from the other man. Only a note met him.
“Don’t call, and don’t ever call me a Grease monkey again.”
Francis found Maximilian sitting alone at the scene of the party, now an empty room, swilling and slumping, leaning to and fro on top of an empty folding table.
Maximilian did not turn to Francis when the latter came in. He stared out a window at the stars.
“I can’t believe in that Post-Nihilism stuff, Francis. This world’s just as bad and messed up and doomed as it was before,” he said.
“You have survived greater disasters than I, Maxi. Do you see no power or appeal in returning to hope?” Francis asked
“You wouldn’t understand. What you think of as a new day I see as the slow ending of my life and the world. You don’t know what it was like moving from a city to whatever this tower is.”
“I left many people I loved behind as well,” said Francis.
“You know I used to be married to one of the writers from your class?” asked Maximilian. “I read your syllabus one night while you were asleep. Benedict Dymphna. My Benny. He’s the one who read ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ to me. I never would’ve picked it on my own, but sometimes, if I glug enough of this muck, I hear him saying, ‘All is still, and all is silent, save the voice of the clock. The dreams are stiff-frozen as they stand.’”
“I did not know that,” said Francis.
“I thought everyone had forgotten about him except me,” said Maximilian. He took another drink. “I haven’t seen a copy of his book in years. One that wasn’t mine, anyway. I kept them all. They’re in a sealed box. I can’t bear to open it, but I can’t bear to throw it out.”
Francis said, “His work is very much alive. He is the first Post-Nihilist I talk about because his descriptions of his project and the aims of his writing capture the movement so well.”
Maximilian said, “Do you know what happened to him after he stopped writing? After he put down all those killer lines about hope in that book you teach?”
Francis, silent, put his arm around Maximilian.
“He couldn’t stand how much the world was changing. He was so depressed, then he wasn’t, then he was again,” Maximilian said. “He wouldn’t move into a tower with me, wouldn’t give up our life together in Oakland even as it fell apart around us. Finally, he was forced to. Our old apartment building burned down, so he came to my little cubby in the turbine. I was already working there. He saw that I was happy, and then we both were for a while. That’s when he wrote ‘The Unworlding,’ that little intermission between his despairs. I like to think I was his inspiration. He’s the one who gave me the nickname Maxi. I called him Benny.
“We would drink Magentol together. He’s how I got into it, but he would always drink more of it than I would. We didn’t know how bad it was for you then. It made his moods worse, and he would rant and rage around the tower. It was embarrassing, and now I’m just like him. He grew to hate it. He would quit and relapse, quit and relapse, always so depressed and angry with himself. I tried to make him stop drinking… Then one day I came home and he was gone.” Maximilian grew quiet.
Francis knew what came next. He answered the silence: “He drank so much he threw himself from the tower.”
Maximilian began to weep. “I’m sorry I ruined your class. I really made an ass of myself,” he said. “I don’t want to drink this stuff, but I can’t stop. I don’t want to lose my hands. I don’t want to lose my legs. But I can’t stop. I’ve been so lonely without Benny.”
His sobbing intensified, and he buried his face in Francis’ shoulder.
“I am sorry for what I said to you after class, Maxi. It was cruel,” said Francis.
“Do you tell your students what happened to him? To Benny?” Maximilian asked into Francis’ shirt.
“I do not,” said the professor.
Maximilian drew back. “Why not? How can you keep that from them?”
“Dymphna meant to impart hope at the time he wrote ‘The Unworlding,’ no matter what he may have felt or chosen to do afterward. You know that. Life is very long. Hope is vital, but likewise is it fragile. We must learn the story before we learn why the story may not be the whole truth. If my students are to understand the almighty impulse that powers Post-Nihilism—and I want them to, I desperately do—Benedict’s work must stand as a beacon. He wrote about a willingness to endure even the end of the world. His books remain an inspiration, even if his life does not.”
“‘We must hope to live.’ He would say that to me a lot. I didn’t believe it most days. Sometimes I did, and those days were better than the others,” said Maximilian.
“Exactly,” said Francis.
“I’m glad you know him,” said Maximilian. “You’re not too jaded to dance, and you read, and you’ve got some hope. Benny would’ve liked you.”
“Will you dance with me, Maxi? And stay here with me?” asked Francis. He stood to plug in a speaker.
Maximilian put down his bottle and rested his head on Francis’ shoulder. The two stepped together slowly. Francis led. Maximilian sighed with relief.
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