It’s a tricky thing to infuse a story set in our actual, current world with giant supernatural problems and potentials. Call it “the problem of allegorical interference.” If we’re aware of actual injustices in the world—and their often-thorny causes—then it becomes, at best, weird to blame them on vampires or aliens, to focus on fictional threats without addressing actual ones. To overlay reality-altering powers onto our current world—superheroes, magic—is to invite the question: why isn’t anyone changing the world more, now or in the past, given the world’s great problems and evils?
The characters in Max Gladstone’s Last Exit found a way to change the world, tried to make it better, and only made it worse. Using some very handwavy math, a group of college friends figured out how to slide between alternate realities, and picked up some essentially magic skills as they did so. Making a poorly-defined attempt to fix the world by going to a nexus of possibilities called “the crossroads,” they instead lost one of their members and unleashed a cosmic horror on the world. Now, years later, they have to get the gang back together and make one last try to save the world, and each other.
The world—worlds, rather—that Gladstone conjures are strange, but not too strange: while there are occasional glimpses of more fantastic alternate Earths, for the most part our protagonists only find devastated worlds, post-apocalyptic scenes of various flavors. Mad Max is a frequent touchstone, and your mileage may vary, as they say, on how much you get out of Last Exit’s extended riffs on Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. There are some memorable bits—a demonic but helpful Dodge Challenger and the surreal and horrific “Cowboy” nemesis stand out—but our protagonists, and even we readers, have seen a lot of these alternate worlds before: that’s not where the novel’s focus is, really.
Starting out centered on Zelda, who originally figured out how to “gather spin” and jump between realities, and who stayed on the road fighting interdimensional terrors after her friends went back to normal life, the novel really starts clicking once the rest of the ensemble comes back together. In many ways, their backstories feels more central than the current plot, and while I occasionally found the temporal structure distracting—the narrative jumps often and deeply between the present and decades-old memories, sometimes obscuring the stakes and pacing of the current plot—the vitality of their collegiate friendships, and the contrast with where life has taken them, is really striking. Dimension-hopping, magic-slinging, and monster-slaying are the surface hooks here, but the novel is more urgently concerned with how people change, how friendships drift apart over time, and the possibility—and impossibility—of reconnecting, and it pays serious attention to trauma and forgiveness.
I’m usually impressed with Gladstone’s ability to make his stories both grim in tone and lightly-moving, snappy; many sections of Last Exit, however, struggle and fail to cast off an essential heaviness. There’s magic, there’s the ability to visit other worlds—but it’s just one crappy apocalypse after another. There are moments of joy and tenderness between characters, but they’re too deep in the shadow of the past and the dangers of the present, and the constant flashback structure makes the characters feel older than they are, obsessed with their undergrad days and long-festering injuries. And, for all the novel’s good dialogue and witty repartee, there’s an intriguing silence around major issues. The banter goes right up to the edge of Whedonesque, and stops: these characters know that cynical flippancy is not an appropriate or fruitful response to the terrors and wonders of the world, but they haven’t yet figured out a different strategy.
Last Exit is steeped in the certainty that we need to change the world, coupled with a self-conscious uncertainty of what that would look like or how to accomplish it. As June, the youngest member of the team, puts it: “Everybody knows the world’s ending. It’s been ending. It’s been ended. And most people don’t do shit.” These characters know that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, global warming, police brutality, all the things we need to change. They know that the way they keep finding apocalypses instead of utopias is “sick, but easier,” as one character puts it—easier than imagining some really radical change. The novel is shot through with interesting and hopeful reflections on friendship and growth, but that indictment of its own failures of imagination feels strangely more real, more depressingly resonant, and unfortunately means that the novel’s quests and plots have a vague and MacGuffin-y feeling.
I think part of Lost Exit’s dilemma is that Gladstone is avoiding that problem of allegorical interference. He names and acknowledges enough real-world problems that it’s hard to refocus on a wholly external and fictional evil, hard to read this as escapism. Our problems are here, and so must our solutions be—which isn’t the easiest starting place for a fantasy book, and the parts of this fantasy that most struck me are the philosophical and personal approaches that transcend the setting. There’s an intriguing thread of Gnostic thought in here—that we might be fundamentally mistaken about the nature of good and evil—and I really loved the tragic arc of Ish, a character whose unintentionally-toxic relationship with security, with safety, is at once a psychological and political critique. The magic system of Lost Exit is all based on “spin,” on gathering uncertainty, on breaking free of the illusions and assumptions we mistake for inescapable reality. It doesn’t quite seem to know where to go next, but that mental transformation is still quite a ride.
by Max Gladstone
Published on March 08, 2022
Appalachian in the big city. Bookseller, specialty coffee pro, SF scholar.