What Happens After the World Gets Saved?

Once upon a time—as the stories often start—there were some democratically minded people and some people who wanted to claim absolute power and rule over everyone. Maybe there was a space emperor, or maybe a kingdom with too many thrones. Many shenanigans ensued, possibly of the funny kind but more likely of the deadly sort; lives were ruined or changed, battles lost or won. In the end, someone triumphed. (Hopefully the democratically minded sort, but of course that isn’t always the case.) Cue the dramatic climax! And then it’s over.

Then what?

Who rebuilds the space stations or the roads or the castles? Who gets married, who leaves town, who runs off to restart their career as a smuggler? What happens when the democratically minded find another would-be dictator in their ranks? What does day-to-day life look like in the future brought about by all those battles and conflicts? Different, right? Hopefully better?

This is what I want to read about right now. And really, it’s what I’ve wanted to read about—and watch—for a very long time. I want to know what happened after humans got the ability to leave the Matrix. I want to know how all those freshly crowned rulers at the end of stories go about their ruling. I loved Tehanu the best of all the Earthsea books because while it isn’t about rebuilding, it is about the after—the quiet part of Ged’s life, when the story no longer belongs to him. The center moves around. It can’t hold still.

These stories feel hard to come by—and I feel greedy, sometimes, asking for them. It isn’t so much that I want a million sequels (I really don’t! I swear!) as that I want more stories that are about rebuilding, returning, reacting, and the change that comes after the transformative moment.

Do you ever find odd themes like this in the stories you love? I didn’t clock, at first, that this is a thing of mine, but then I was thinking about what I’ve been reading, and what I missed in that reading, and there it was: the aftermath. (It’s entirely possible I started reading Star Wars books again because Chuck Wendig’s post-Return of the Jedi novel was called, appropriately, Aftermath.) I didn’t clock that this is one of the things I adore about Rakesfall, that many of the stories take place after something else happened. Something caused the dead to walk in Luriat. Someone organized the regreening of the future Earth. But in the book, we’re not in those moments. We’re in what comes after.

What comes after is a different kind of narrative with a different kind of narrative tension—not, I think, about who wins, or who rises to the top, but about how we live in the midst of massive change. Maybe to some writers it can feel too instructive: After we save the world, we’ll fix it like this! But it doesn’t have to be in world-saving terms. Put another way: Forget the wedding. I want to know about the marriage. I want the long-term, the unplanned, the ordinary—which is never so ordinary after all. 

There’s always another story. There’s Wicked, which borrows beats we think we know, and then there’s Son of a Witch, in which Elphaba’s son exists in the world after her. (Then there’s the whole Maracoor trilogy, which is an entirely different and beautiful kind of after.) There is, to switch to TV for a moment, the entirety of Battlestar Galactica, which is not about the robot disaster but about how a small number of people survive it and keep going. It has its own battles and dramatic arcs, because things don’t stop in the after. But it is, in a way, an oddity. The “before” story, in the form of Caprica, was never as compelling. What was important wasn’t how we got to that point, the Cylon destruction point; it was the story of how humanity kept living and changing that resonated so vividly. (The upcoming James S.A. Corey book has some things in common with that story, come to think of it.)

The Lord of the Rings, famously, includes quite a bit of the after—the scouring of the Shire, the impossibility of living a life long since left behind. (There is probably more after in the appendices, which I confess I never got through.) Another story might have ended with a coronation, but no: What it means to live in that world (or not), after that adventure, is a key part of the story. 

There are, by now, quite a lot of post-climate-disaster books set in the slightly more distant future, once the new world order has been organized, but not so many that I can think of about the organizing of that new (and often terrible) world order. Station Eleven goes from the terrible thing happening to the new normal that comes years later—and I love it, but still, I want that middle time. Andrea Hairston’s wondrous Archangels of Funk feels like it sits in the late middle; the Water Wars have happened, but things haven’t all shaken out just yet. People are still organizing and sorting themselves out in fascinating and varied ways. 

Are these stories out there? Am I just looking in the wrong places? I guess it’s a hard sell: You missed the big moment, but here’s what happened next! But there is always something else happening, some further piece of the story that’s just, maybe, not what you expected. Kristin Cashore, in the Graceling Realm books, has made a whole series of the way things keep happening. The reason Bitterblue is one of my most favorite books is because it is exactly the kind of thing I’m yearning for: A newly elevated ruler trying to understand what came before, and how to do better. It’s difficult, and there are so many terrible secrets, but she gets there eventually.

But what about when it’s not a ruler, a dynastic heir ascending a throne? What about when it’s people making a new system, a new structure, a new way to be? What if I just want to be reminded, fictionally speaking, that another world is possible, even in the wake of disaster and near-defeat? It’s not the battle I want to read about anymore. It’s how we survive—and change—in its wake. icon-paragraph-end

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