Driftwood might be the oddest novel I’ve written, and I say that as somebody whose previous novel is composed of diary entries, letters, newspaper clippings, and the footnoted translation of an ancient mythological epic.
Part of the reason for that oddness is the setting, which is composed of the still-decaying fragments of mostly-destroyed worlds. But part is that it didn’t start life as a novel: it’s what’s known as a “fix-up,” composed of short stories joined together to make a larger whole. (If you find yourself thinking, “huh, so the form of the book reflects the form of the setting,” give yourself a cookie: that’s why I decided to create a fix-up rather than writing a more conventional novel.) For this excerpt, I’ve decided to give you the opening two scenes of the first story in the book, which is also the first one I wrote.
In the days before their world shattered, crumbled, and finally fetched up against that cluster of old realities known as Driftwood, they were called the Valraisangenek.
This is where it all started. The short story “Driftwood,” being the very first one I wrote in this setting, is different from the others. Whereas everything else except one flash story are written from the third-person perspective of other characters, “Driftwood” shifts between third (which you’ll see later in this excerpt) and first, the latter from the perspective of Last, the thread binding these pieces together. Because it’s the odd one out, and because this story begins with a clear orientation into the setting, I put it first in the novel.
One of their scholars once spent a week lecturing me on that name alone, before I was allowed to learn anything else. Valraisangenek: echoing their once-proud world of Valrassuith, “The Perfect Circle”—itself based on the ancient root word of velar, “totality”—and their race’s legendary founder Saneig, “Chosen of San,” chosen of the Supreme Goddess, from whom they were all descended (genkoi). A name full of meaning, for those who know how to read it. But most people think the name of the Valraisangenek is too long and difficult to be worth remembering, especially when there are so few of them left. These days, everyone just calls them the Greens.
So admittedly, this is a bigger wodge of exposition than I would normally put so early in a story. But the point is to make a contrast with where it ends: hey, here’s all this complex stuff… which pretty much everybody has now chucked out the window, because they’re in Driftwood, and that kind of thing rarely survives here.
After all, that name has the advantage of being so obvious anybody could remember it—or at least attach it to the appropriate target on sight. Somebody walks in with hair like sea foam, eyes like emeralds, and skin like moss? You’re looking at a Green. Slap on whatever the word is for “green” in your language, and you’re set to go. Or “blue/green,” if your people don’t distinguish those two colors, or “red/green” if your race is color-blind, although in that latter case you might run a risk of confusing a Green with a Kakt. But the red-skinned Kakts are numerous enough, and well-known enough, not to mention horned enough, that if you’re not smart enough to tell them apart from the Greens, you won’t last long in Driftwood anyway.
Last’s cynicism and world-weariness (worlds-weariness?) are starting to show. These are pretty key to his character, though the different stories wind up playing with them from different angles.
The Kakts’ world is so newly-Drifted that on three sides it still borders on nothing but Mist. The calendarists I know figure within a year it’ll share a boundary with Egnuren—a Kakt year, that is; nearly two Egnuren years—but I don’t recommend telling the Kakts that. Most of them still deny the Driftwood thing. They’re new; they’re proud. They don’t want to admit that their world is gone, and they’re all that’s left of it.
The Greens know better. Hard to deny the death of your world when it’s shrunk down to a small ghetto whose name hardly anybody bothers to remember. There are theories on how to slow the decay, of course, and back in the day the Greens tried them all. Stay home, and pretend Driftwood isn’t there. Speak only your own language. Breed only with your own kind. And pray, pray, pray to your gods, as if Driftwood is some kind of test they’re putting you through, or a bad dream you can wake up from.
One of the tricks of doing exposition is to infuse it with conflict somehow. So rather than just explaining to you what Driftwood is and how it works, Last’s narration here embeds it in the context of the Kakts resisting the truth of their situation, and the Greens’ failed attempts to deal with it.
None of it helps. I should know.
But no one listens when I tell them.
So who is this guy, anyway? He’s clearly got some perspective on Driftwood and its dynamics. There’s a sense in which this first story is a mini-mystery: at this point you (the hypothetical “you” who isn’t reading an annotated version) don’t know who this narrator is, and even once that becomes clear, there’s the question of why Last is who he is. That question underlies the whole interaction he has with the other main character, Alsanit. Speaking of…
Alsanit found him in a Drifter bar. Had her mission been any less urgent, she would not have gone; she was pure Valraisangenek—a “one-blood,” in Driftwood parlance—and among the Drifters with their mixed ancestry she stuck out like an emerald in sand. But the Circle had wasted too much time already in doubt; once the decision was made, she left within the day. The whispers and stares of foreigners were nothing, the contempt and even the risk of being mugged, when weighed against her people’s need.
The Greens are not a random example of a Driftwood community; they’re introduced in the previous section because they’re the focus of the story. Also, green is my favorite color.
The bar was called Spit in the Crush’s Eye, and it lay nearly across the Shreds from what was left of Valrassuith. Greenhole, to its neighbors, and even most of the Valrai called it that, these days. That was why Alsanit was braving the stares of the Drifters. Two days ago, she had called her home Greenhole.
If something didn’t change, they were doomed.
Spit in the Crush’s Eye was something I made up randomly for this story, because at the time, I only expected there would be this one story. Oddly, it wound up being the second most enduring feature of Driftwood, after Last himself — though in a very different way.
She went from Greenhole to Wash to Heppa to Hotside, and then after that she was into Shreds she didn’t know. She got snowed on in the place after Hotside, and two Shreds after that got chased by things that looked like dogs but weren’t, but the directions she’d gotten were good, and after about four hours of walking she found herself on the border between Chopper and Tatu, at Spit in the Crush’s Eye.
Now you’re starting to get a sense of what it means to call Driftwood “a cluster of old realities,” since in the normal way of things you would probably not get snowed on right next door to a place that gets called Hotside.
The bar suited its name, being defiantly cobbled together from fragments of a dozen worlds, patched with reed bundles, sheets of scrap metal, even what looked like half the trunk of a tree. Alsanit received the expected stares and mutters when she walked through the door, but this was far from Valrassuith, far from where her people were known; they were reacting to her as a one-blood, a non-Drifter, not as a Green. She wasn’t the only one-blood in the bar, though, for at the far wall, she saw the man she sought.
He was tall enough to draw the eye even when sitting; that was how Alsanit first spotted him. Drifters, crossbreeds that they were, tended to average out the range of heights found among Driftwood’s races. And even in the murky light of the bar, his skin shimmered a silvery blue, undulled by any foreign pigmentation, against which his black hair made a sharp contrast. But the sight of a fellow one-blood did not reassure Alsanit. There was a certain uniformity to the unpredictability of Drifters. One-bloods had their own ways, and she did not know what this man’s ways were.
Walking over to him took much of her courage.
Not everybody in Driftwood is humanoid, but since we (being human) tend to attach most readily to characters who are, and since the stories we tell more often feature human or human-ish characters, I decided that’s the most common general shape in Driftwood. But the coloration doesn’t have to be like we have in the real world, and there are other small features that change from world to world. You get to see more variety with the protagonists of later stories.
“Are you Last?” she asked, in one of the more widely-used pidgin dialects of her side of the Shreds.
One of the ways you can identify my work: I try to pay attention to language differences. Fantasy settings where everybody conveniently speaks the same language across a whole continent bore me.
“I am,” he said easily, in the same dialect. “You?”
His teeth glinted pure silver when he smiled. “I’m honored, then.”
Alsanit blinked. “Honored?”
“Your name. ‘Sworn to San’? No, ‘Faithful to.’ You’re one of the Valrai. High-ranking. Only your important women have San’s name in their own.”
Alsanit wondered if her jaw was on the floor. Valrai. Not “Greens.” And he knew them, knew their ways. They were in a bar clear across the Shreds from Valrassuith, and he knew what her name meant. Even the people of the neighboring Shreds didn’t bother with that.
Last’s smile widened into a grin. “Come on—you came looking for me; didn’t you know what to expect? I’m a guide. It’s my job to know things like that.”
With effort, Alsanit regained her composure. “Yes. But I thought I came from outside your usual territory.”
“You do. But it happens I used to have a lover who was Valrai. I still remember some things.”
Alsanit wondered who the lover had been. If the stories were true, then odds were good the woman or man was long dead. She decided not to ask, though whether it was because she feared she wouldn’t know the person, or because she feared she would, she could not have said.
Like I said before, I originally expected this to be a solo story. But when I decided to write more, it became very convenient that I’d decided Last was a guide: it provides a natural reason why he interacts with lots of people from different parts of Driftwood, in a context that means he’s often trying to help them with some problem.
Last leaned back in his chair and interlaced his long fingers. The nails gleamed dark—natural color, or some kind of lacquer? Meaning could be hidden in the smallest of details; for all she knew, among his people, dark nails were the mark of an assassin, or a slave, or nothing whatsoever. All she could do was try to ride the waves of interaction as they rose and fell.
She thought of the stories her people’s priests still told—about waves, about the sea—and swallowed tears. The sea was ages gone.
Since we’re living in pretty grim times right now, I should admit up front that there’s a constant refrain in Driftwood that all these worlds are dying. Generally on a slow timeline, but everybody is dealing with entropy, loss, grief. On the other hand, the overall focus is on how people cope with this: how they still find happiness and meaning, how they form and protect their communities. The Publishers’ Weekly review used the phrase “hope in the face of apocalype.” So if you’re unsure whether you’re up for that right now, be aware that the core topic isn’t a cheerful one, but the approach isn’t a bleak one.
“Let’s get to business,” Last said. “What is it you need? Interpreter? Somebody to tell you the ways of another Shred? Business contacts?”
“Answers,” Alsanit said, raising her chin and meeting his deep black eyes. “An answer. To the only question worth asking in this place.”
He did not move, but the life drained out of his face, leaving his expression mask-like. Finally he clicked his tongue sharply, a Shreds mannerism that meant absolute negation. “Wrong person, Green.”
The name hurt, but she didn’t let it show. She clicked back at him, adopting his own slang. “You answered to the name. You fit the description. I know who you are—what you are—and I need that answer.”
Last stood, abruptly, his thighs hitting the table and scraping it sharply across the floor. Conversation in the bar stuttered to a halt as heads turned to look.
“Wrong person,” he repeated, his voice carrying to the far corners of the room. “I have no answers. Sorry you came all this way for nothing.”
His long legs carried him quickly out of the bar. Alsanit leapt to her feet, intending to pursue, but found her way blocked by a pair of Drifters almost as wide as they were tall, who either didn’t understand any of the pidgins she spoke or were pretending not to. They advanced on her until she found herself backed up to a door on the other side of the room, and then they stood there until she gave up and left. Outside, in the streets of Chopper, she tried to find Last—but he had vanished.
If your world was dying, what would you consider the most important question in existence? Alsanit wants to know how to save Valrassuith and its people. She’s come to find Last because — if the stories are to be believed — he’s the only person or thing in all of Driftwood that’s immortal. But of course it isn’t a simple matter of asking and getting an answer. And while this particular story deals with Alsanit and her goal, the fact that I wound up writing a whole short novel’s worth of stories (with more possibly to come) tells you there’s a lot more play in the concept.