Who will you be when the world ends?
What will you do with the time you have left? What will matter to you? Who will you stand with, even if it costs you everything? Who might you sell out, when you’ve got nothing left to lose?
And when the world ends, what will happen to the powerful, who’ve thrived in the old order? The liars hiding away in high towers - how long can they last when their foundations are shaken? The illusions we all held on to because they helped us live - can we survive letting them go?
And when a small voice, when someone powerless speaks out and tells us something we do not want to hear, will we listen? Or will we do what people have always done, and silence our prophets before they have a chance to change us?
I chose a strange time to write about the end of the world. In 2016 when I was creating this story, trying to say something about the toxic alliance of religion with patriarchy and power, I didn’t have to look far to see how these things play out in our own world, on the biggest possible stage.
Then by the time the book was first published, a story about what happens when the world is turned upside down, I was celebrating with champagne in my living room because none of us were allowed to leave our homes.
City of Ruins starts with an earthquake. Like the people of the nameless city, we’ve all been forced to grapple with changes we never asked for. We’ve felt the ground shift under our feet, as things which seemed impossible yesterday become necessary, ordinary today. Our lives have been held up to a new light, showing us what’s precious and lasting, but casting long shadows too.
The earthquake cracks the land along the fault-lines, shows up corruption and injustice where they have been thriving in secret. The word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘revelation’, the laying bare of what has been there all along. We seem to be living in apocalyptic times.
But maybe we’re not so special. I think every generation has lived through an apocalypse or two. This story takes place in a nameless city, outside of real history, in part because I wanted it to feel timeless. All of these things have happened before and they will happen again. As one of the book’s characters, Felix, says, This is the course of every city.
It’s the course of every life, too, that loss and change will come and shake our foundations. I wanted this book to feel personal as well as mythic, the character’s hopes and fears raw and real as our own. There is a strangeness about these people because their world with its altars and sacrifices is so alien to us – but they should feel familiar, too.
They are trying to find safety for themselves and those they love. They are trying to find a meaning bigger than what their traumas and disappointments have shown them. They are clinging to the past or running from it; falling in love with the wrong person at the wrong time; trying their best to rise to the occasion when the times call for courage.
Even their faith in a pantheon of gods should not feel too far from our own experience. We all hope on some level that we live in a universe which isn’t just meaningful, but merciful. This story turns around two different forms of faith – one which is aligned with power, the other which belongs to the powerless. One brings a crushing burden of shame: one brings mercy and renewal.
This is a cosmic version of something deeply personal, rooted in our most vulnerable selves: our need to be safe and loved. A fragile need in a world which can so often be chaotic, incomprehensible or downright cruel. As the poem which I picked for this book’s epigram has it, To be human is to be completely alien amid the galaxies/which is sufficient reason for erecting, together with others/the temples of an unimaginable mercy.
The divine is both intimate and remote in City of Ruins because to be human is to be on a deeply paradoxical journey. We are all journeying between hope and despair, the transcendent and the mundane, afraid of being unloved, which is the same as being alone in the universe.
All of us live through the end of our own worlds, more than once in the course of a lifetime. I know I have. Redemption and regeneration sometimes feel too easy for this story. They’re like wild animals after a forest fire – they’ll come back in time, when the ground will sustain them. Even then we might only see them in glimpses.
I think of a word that’s used in the study of Native American stories, about a people who have endured the unendurable: survivance. Survival and endurance, or survival and resistance. It means that we survive by changing, by becoming something else. This truth is written at the level of our atoms, the particles of our bodies which are made completely new twice every decade. Biologically, atomically, we are not who we were.
So who will we be? What will grow from the ashes? We find ourselves still reeling from disaster, licking our wounds and counting our losses. This book ends, I think, on a note of hope – but also of ambiguity. Hope is needed when we can’t yet see, and don’t yet know.
What we build next is up to us.