The title story of Catherynne M. Valente’s latest short story collection The Future is Blue is set in the mid to far future, when the hungry seas, fed by climate change, have swallowed up Earth’s land. What’s left is
Nothing but ocean and more ocean and a handful of drifty lifeboat cities…circling the world like horses on a broken-down carousel. Nothing but blue.
One of those cities, the one in which the story is set, is Garbagetown, a floating patch of rubbish the size of Texas, made habitable by the labour of people who
spent [their] whole life moving rubbish from one end of the patch to the other so that a pile of crap could turn into a country and babies could be born in places like Candle Hole or Scrapmetal Abbey or Pill Hill or Toyside or Teagate.
The Garbagetowners, in other words, dwell literally in the shadow of our rubbish. Which got me thinking about the salvagepunk aspects of Valente’s work, and especially this collection. At the micro level, one of the building blocks of Valente’s whimsical, faux-naive prose style is the list. From “The Future is Blue”:
I love encyclopedias, a cassette I found when I was eight that says Madeleine Brix’s Superboss Mixtape ’97 on it in very nice handwriting, plays by Mr. Shakespeare or Mr. Webster or Mr. Beckett, lipstick, Garbagetown, and my twin brother Maruchan.
Items of junk, items of value and people all get the same treatment here, partly for effect, but there’s also something going on here to do with excess. The story’s heroine lives among junk, in the shadow of junk, and so for her it’s difficult to distinguish what is junk from what is important. The importance of rubbish in Garbagetown has its echo in the next story in the collection, “No One Dies in Nowhere”, which is set in a kind of purgatory: the dead bring with them the objects they used or dwelt on in their last day alive, but over the centuries these relics lose all trace of meaning and are traded away for the small items that others have brought with them. They become items of junk, despite/because of the fact that they are the only things the dead have left.
Evan Calder Williams has this to say about salvagepunk:
Perhaps, then, the salvagepunk world should be seen primarily as the dreamwork of choice and construction…it is a world of stealing from the ruins, robbing the graves, and rearranging the leftovers.
This is, Williams goes on to add, a kind of reaction to the “doomed-to-repeat trajectory” of late capitalism: salvagepunk as resistance to, and rejection of, a “fluid”, comfortable worldview that we nevertheless have little choice but to participate in. So one of the things salvagepunk aims to do is change our relationship to capitalism, and thus to its products, junk, salvage, the detritus of our consumer existence. The heroine of “The Future is Blue” rejects, at great personal cost, the kind of resource-hungry, capitalist sense of entitlement that drowned the world in the first place and, in her view, threatens to destroy her world a second time:
They were gonna use up every last drop of Garbagetown’s power to go nowhere and do nothing and instead of measuring out teaspoons of good, honest gas, so that it lasts and we last all together, no single thing on the patch would ever turn on again, and we’d go dark, really dark, forever…This is the future. Garbagetown and the sea…We are so lucky. Life is so good.
And the meaningless system of trade and barter that the dead of “No One Dies in Nowhere” engage in to pass the time is only an echo of our own meaningless consumerism, trading junk we think will give us status and power and above all individuality. The goods of the dead do not serve to identify them one from the other.
This reimagination of our relation to the status quo is of a piece with the rest of the collection. Almost all of these stories are about existing in the shadow of ancestors who have fucked everything up – whether that’s (my personal favourite) “Down and Out in R’lyeh”, in which millenial Lovecraftian monsters complain about the Elder Gods having stolen all the limelight and done everything worth doing, or “A Fall Counts Anywhere”, which recounts humankind’s betrayal of fairykind through the medium of a robot v. fairy wrestling match. And all of these stories end with a fundamental reimagining of the status quo; a reimagining that, in fact, breaks the story, makes it impossible to continue because the terms have so radically changed.
(An exception – albeit a very honourable one – is “The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or, The Luminescence of Debauchery”. It is, nonetheless, probably my second favourite story in the collection, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.)
Rarely is this an entirely positive thing. Hearts are broken. Things are lost. People die. War comes. That is the terrible poignancy of The Future is Blue: broken systems need changing, but it’s impossible to change them without losing things that are good. It’s a book that feels fiercely of its time, of this time, when the neoliberal capitalist system is so broken, and yet even beginning to change it seems an impossible task.