A quarterly fiction magazine
Editor-in-Chief and Designer: Joel Caris
Associate Editor: Shane Wilson
(Figuration Press, Issue #3, December 2, 2016, 108 pages, Print $12.00 per issue, $39.00 annually, PDF $7.50)
Into the Ruins is a rare breed of magazine. Unlike most other science fiction periodicals, its attitude toward the future charts a refreshing middle ground between mindless cheeriness and unremitting apocalypticism. The stories it features are ones in which present-day industrial civilization has collapsed or is in the process of collapsing, in keeping with the plethora of scientific evidence indicating that this is exactly what is occurring in the real world. Yet this doesn’t mean that humans have been wiped out or have lost their will to survive. On the contrary, the characters in these tales, just as in real life, are busy adapting to their changing worlds and forging new ways of living. As such, they supply realistic models for inhabitants of the modern developed world to follow in adjusting to the seismic shifts now reshaping our reality.
The magazine’s latest issue provides a number of such models, beginning with the mystical gardener portrayed in Jason Heppenstall’s “The Fifth Garden.” This story is about a mysterious old man who travels across a desertified countryside planting and nurturing gardens as he goes. It takes years of full-time commitment to establish each garden in the drought-plagued landscape, and the man sometimes journeys hundreds of miles between destinations. He travels with a trusty rickshaw and uses various forms of divination–for example, reading shooting stars and dowsing rods–to determine where next to start planting. In the case of his fifth garden, which the man senses will be his last, the spot happens to be where a building once stood, meaning that a thick concrete foundation will have to be chiseled away before the soil can be seeded. But this is no matter, as the man possesses “nothing in this world but a few tools and endless patience.”
“Water Ink” by Rachel White explores the role of myth in a world where literacy has ceased being commonplace. It puts us into the mind of a nine-year-old girl named Jorna, from a village known as Klavoden, to illustrate how the people of her world have come to interpret and describe the world around them in mythic terms. The “water ink” of the story’s title refers to rain, which Jorna once heard described as “the ink that communicates the language of the world.”
Catherine McGuire’s “Cascade” tells the story of a downtrodden young woman who strives to free herself from a life of debt bondage. Her name is Rya, and she works for an unscrupulous employer who seems determined to extend her contract as long as possible. The setting is a town named Cascade Falls, whose economy depends on salvage from the ruins of a nearby, unnamed industrial-age city, as well as a labor force of indentured servants. As usual with McGuire, the setting and characters are superbly realized, we’re involved in the plight of the protagonist and the plot takes exciting, unexpected turns.
The shortest but perhaps most captivating story is Ian O’Reilly’s “Revival.” It takes place in an intensely localized, agrarian future in which long-distance travel is arduous and risky. Our viewpoint character is a young man named Ali, who is dissatisfied with life in his small coastal village and longs for distant lands. One night, during a boisterous outdoor celebration held in honor of the longest day of winter, he breaks away from the party to look in awe at the ocean. As he does so, he finds himself wondering–in much the same way that people today wonder if life exists on other planets–whether there are people on the far side of the Atlantic. He concludes that there must be, and this conviction strengthens his resolve to see as much of the world as he can by one day becoming a scout or an adventurer.
This issue contains two things of particular interest to John Michael Greer fans. The first of these is a story by Matthew Griffiths set in the same world as Greer’s novel Star’s Reach. The second is yet another thoughtful entry in Greer’s “Deindustrial Futures Past” column, which looks retrospectively at futures posited by sci-fi authors of bygone times. The Griffiths piece is an engaging, sharply written tale that seamlessly evokes the 25th-century “Meriga” of Star’s Reach. As for Greer’s latest column, it examines two novels from the 1970s set millennia from now: Poul Anderson’s The Winter of the World and M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City. Both are significant works that make effective use of their deep-time perspectives to comment on the state of modern industrial civilization. Greer’s discussion of them is characteristically erudite and lovely to read.
The one other work of literary criticism in this issue is a piece titled “The Citizens of Union Grove,” by Justin Patrick Moore. It surveys the major characters, events and themes in James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand series, the final chapter of which came out this past year. These novels unfold a couple of decades hence in the fictional community of Union Grove, located in what is now eastern upstate New York. Kunstler’s aim in writing the books was to awaken people to the harsh realities facing us today, and to do so by appealing to readers’ emotions and senses, rather than to logic or reason. Moore cogently argues that this was the right approach. “No matter the cut of their cloth,” he writes, “the citizens of Union Grove and its outlying counties have a lot to teach in Kunstler’s rendition of the not-distant future.” Moore’s analysis provides some interesting insights without spoiling the books for people who haven’t yet read them.
Joel Caris, the editor of Into the Ruins, says one of this issue’s highlights is its “thought-provoking, rollicking, filled-to-the-brim letters section”–and indeed, these are all apt descriptors. There are about twice the usual number of letters, and they span such topics as ocean acidification, the student debt crisis, the increasing toll our accelerating pace of life is exacting on our wellbeing, the futility of trying to talk reason to those who don’t believe in ecological limits and the numerous vital issues that all the U.S. presidential candidates who ran this past year studiously avoided.
Letters of this latter type were written in response to a prompt that Caris posed to his readers online this past September. The prompt called for letters dealing with “unmentionable” facts of life in today’s America that readers wished a presidential candidate would choose as a central campaign theme. The responses Caris received cover everything from the failings of classical economic theory to the nation’s decrepit infrastructure and bloated military budget.
Some letters propose specific solutions, while others merely raise questions. An example of the first type is one by G. Kay Bishop, a noted poet and regular Into the Ruins author. Bishop has some interesting thoughts on how the economics of transporting produce by rail could be greatly improved for local, small-scale food producers. He describes how farmers in a given region could develop a narrow-gauge railway system connecting their farms to the nearest market town. The rail service would be locally, cooperatively owned–which would provide plenty of jobs for the community–and federal job-creation funds could help get the project going and keep it moving. A letter that focuses on posing questions rather than answers is one by J. Shamburger, who laments America’s out-of-control military spending and challenges readers to consider ways in which the wasted money might be better spent.
My sole beef with this issue is the title Caris chose for its introduction: “Disquieting Vistas.” Granted, it’s accurate to a certain degree, as the introduction begins with a brooding rumination on some disturbing future scenarios that have been troubling the editor of late. Yet Caris also goes on to describe how choosing to focus more on the here and now and less on the far future brings more pleasant perspectives into focus. When one does this, he writes, “there are joyful views mixed in with those dark ones, even when they exist within the darker vista.” Why couldn’t the introduction’s title have reflected this quality of joyfulness? The current title sets an unduly foreboding tone for a volume filled with precisely the sort of lovely close-up views that give Caris solace amidst an otherwise black landscape.
Teaser photo credit: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=174932