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The Kiddie Pool of Forever: Max Gladstone’s Last Exit (Part 18)


The Kiddie Pool of Forever: Max Gladstone’s <i>Last Exit</i> (Part 18)

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The Kiddie Pool of Forever: Max Gladstone’s Last Exit (Part 18)

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Published on April 17, 2024

Book cover of Last Exit by Max Gladstone

Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches. This week, we wrap up Max Gladstone’s Last Exit with Chapters 35-36. The novel was first published in 2022. Spoilers ahead!


“When you understood that there was something else beyond—that was when you realized just how much work there was to do.”

Desperate to get help for the gravely wounded Sarah and pursued by the cowboy, Ramon veers the Challenger off the alt-road into uncharted darkness. He is, at last, trailblazing.

On the newly blazed trail, the Challenger races down a steep hill to collide with an oak stump. Ramon, to his shock, finds himself still alive. He helps June ease Sarah out of the wreck. They’ve landed in a lakeside grove of sequoias. The night’s alive with the conversations of frogs, insects and birds; branches twist against the wind. Ramon senses he’s observed. “She needs help,” he says. Branches part. He is permitted.

He and June carry Sarah to the lake. For once, his knack doesn’t divine their location, so they’ll have to find their own way home. Can Sarah last that long? She’s so still that he can hardly tell if she’s swallowed the water he gives her, but they can’t lose her, not after Ramon has left the road, not after he’s asked. It has to make a difference. It has to matter.

June points to a sky overfilled with stars, some of them moving. Ramon thinks of shepherds and angels. Then Sarah says, “Aliens.” She’s awake and smiling. Through the hole in her blood-soaked dress, he sees that her gunshot wound has closed. “She did it,” June says.

Ramon feels paths open all around them, other spokes from the Medicine Wheel. Secret ways to other worlds await, lands beyond the cowboy, “beyond all borders and any map.” Ramon wants to follow them all. For now, though—

“Now,” June says, “we go home. And we get them ready.”

* * *

Two years pass. When it’s safe, Sarah drives her family from Virginia to New York. They’ve spent a lot of time inside, for the sky feels unimaginably big overhead, like it goes on forever. When you understand that there’s something beyond this forever, Sarah thinks, you realize how much work is left to do.

People repeat themselves a lot these days, as do the media, saying things are normal as if that makes them so. Nevertheless, people also tell stories about places that weren’t there when the world closed down, about shut doors now open, about statues that walk, trees that catch fire but don’t burn, lights in the woods, a dog ten years lost returning unaged. About what happened to them personally, people are more reticent. Sarah doesn’t blame them. She knows what’s going on but isn’t sure she believes it.

Ramon has emailed directions “precise as poetry”: Turn left at the dog, go until the sorrow hits you. New York seems like a maze, no, a labyrinth. In labyrinths, all paths lead to the center. Sarah negotiates the maze as if it were made just for her. Six blocks out from Ma Tempest’s house, the streets are so full that she and her family abandon their car. It’s a festival, not quite the Fourth of July. It’s folk of every age and color, speaking every language, singing, offering free cookies, barbequeing feasts. Sarah walks with a cane these days, and her body still aches as it accommodates itself to her injuries. Even magical healing has limits. What’s broken may mend, but it can’t be unbroken. There’s no undoing. There is going on, growing.

At Ma Tempest’s, people make a path for Sarah. There’s a grill going on the roof, but the group up here has a purpose. All around the city, many-colored flags rise and fall; young women with binoculars interpret this conversation, the city talking to itself, and call out answering codes. June is their leader. When she runs to Sarah, though, she’s almost a kid again. Ramon and his partner Gabe stand at the roof’s edge. Ma Tempest sits with folded hands, waiting and watching as she’s done for a long time.

Sarah’s just in time, June says. Can’t she feel it? Sarah feels something, but she’s been wrong before. So she asks, “What happens now?” It’s happening already, June says. It’s been happening. It will keep happening. They must just learn to ride it. Is Sarah scared?

“I used to be,” Sarah says. June smiles, but not at her answer. She’s rigid, as if listening for a sound only she can hear. At her word, the people fall quiet. Someone knocks on the door below.

June runs to the roof’s edge and shouts down: “Come on in. Come on in! It’s open.”

This Week’s Metrics

Fighting the Cowboy: Arizona State University’s Future Tense program uses speculative fiction to imagine alternatives.

Libronomicon: Sarah’s daughter Susan brings a tote bag to the Bronx, full of books to read and share.

Madness Takes Its Toll: The newspapers and TV doth protest too much about how normal everything is.

Anne’s Commentary

At the end of Chapter 34, we finally got to the fabled crossroads. Well, Zelda got to them, and Ish almost, oh-so-close. To be halted at the threshold of the alt-riders’ goal was his punishment for succumbing to the cowboy’s fear-tactics. It was also his last shot at redemption, which he took with unerring aim; in doing so, he achieved his personal goal of saving Zelda. He also saved his friends and contributed to saving his world. The cowboy dead, Zelda could climb the chain link fence between the black-flower path and the crossroads. She changed and grew, to meet Sal on Sal’s own ground.

It took Zelda long enough, as Sal said. That was so Sal, and you can’t blame her. Time is different in the alts, who knows how stretched out in the beyond. To paraphrase Sarah’s question to June in Chapter 36: What happens next? I just knew Chapter 35 would tell us, with suitable cosmic-level fireworks.

No. Instead of witnessing whatever BIG WORLD-RIGHTING MAGIC Sal and Zelda wield following their reunion, Chapter 35 returns to Ramon as he crashes the Challenger into one more damn tree. Luckily, it wasn’t one of the magisterial sequoias that ring his landing site—he and his passengers survive, though Sarah’s in no condition to hike home. Ramon forces himself to look at her wound, to find it healed! Somehow, perhaps through the jolt of Ramon’s trailblazing, she has gathered enough spin to heal herself.

Here’s the initial resolution for three of the alt-riders. Whatever else follows, they’re going home. From the vastness of space-time that separates them from the crossroads, they view the fireworks happening there. The crossroads are where BIG, FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE can happen, presumably due to Sal and Zelda’s combined spins. Anyway, new stars crowd the sky, “in all the colors whose names [Ramon] had ever forgotten.” Colors out of space, for real! Ramon thinks of angels. Sarah thinks of aliens, but she smiles, cool with the idea. June, recently as alien as shadow-Sal, has returned to her human, practical self. How much she’s changed awaits revelation.

Chapter 36 provides a tantalizing glimpse of a world also in flux. Sarah supplies the point-of-view. The physician’s healed herself, but magic only goes so far, leaving her with a limp and “cascade aches.” With an unresentful resignation she lacked earlier, Sarah accepts that what’s broken can’t be undone. It can, however, “mend, and grow again.”

As with Sarah, the world. Ish, who in the end loved his friends more than he clung to fear, has killed the cowboy. No, really: The cowboy seems to have departed from the earth, along with the crippling paranoia he promulgated. His death may have been the prerequisite for whatever BIG MAGIC took place at the crossroads. With the cowboy gone, people eventually dare to crack their defensive shells and notice the BIG MAGIC that was always there. Immediately after the change, people clamped their shells tighter than ever, self-isolating as against a pandemic. Venturing out again, Sarah notices that she’s “turned chatty.” People start gathering under the open sky, with barbecues as their excuse. They tell stories about magical happenings, though not ones that occurred close to home. Sarah hears no personal tales of the incredible, but she doesn’t blame people for their reticence. They have residual fear enough to insist that things are normal again, and for the media to echo the comforting idea. Sarah knows you don’t say something so often if it’s true. She knows things aren’t normal, but hey, even she’s not sure she believes it.

One epicenter of magical change seems to be the New York City area. People keep giving Sarah directions on how to skirt the NYC hot zone. She’s undeterred: Something big is about to happen there that she can’t miss. Ramon’s directions take her through a massive street party to Ma Tempest’s house. With Ish dead and Zelda and Sal elsewhere, it’s as much of a reunion as the alt-riders can expect. Sarah has come with her family. Ramon has come with Gabe. June is there, at home among the “switchboard” girls keeping the city connected and safe. Ma Tempest lets June play hostess. Her job is to sit and wait.

But to wait for what, or whom?

Of changes in the world at large, June tells Sarah, “It’s happening already. It’s been happening. It’ll keep happening, and I guess we’ll all just learn to ride it.” Echoing the words she spoke on the princess’s balcony, June adds that Sarah’s arrived just in time for a specific event, Soon after, she  goes rigid, “one finger raised, as if straining to a sound only she could hear.” When she calls for silence, Sarah hears knocking on Ma’s front door, and June shouts down for the new arrivals to come in, it’s open.

Without telling who’s at the door, Gladstone ends the novel. Does he want us to make up our own ending, or (as I’m thinking) does he believe we’ve had enough clues to figure it out for ourselves? Whose coming would not be an anticlimax? Who can complete the reunion but Zelda, knocking as she did more than ten years ago, only to be repulsed? She’s not repulsed now.

And who could Ma Tempest be waiting for in such an attitude of long-endured loss? Sarah hasn’t come alone. Neither has Ramon. Why should Zelda, when among all the new wonders of the world, the greatest would be Sal, returned to her former humanity but mended and grown as all must be who’ve ever been broken.

Those who’ve never been broken need not come to the barbeque. Unless you bring those really good baked beans, now….

Ruthanna’s Commentary

This week I’ve been putting together our annual Passover seder—a ritual that if done right is mostly questions and arguments. If you’re not careful, though, even the questions become rote, the same year after year with no new answers.

When I try to articulate my reactions to finishing up Last Exit, I keep filling paragraphs with “maybe”. I suppose that’s appropriate, in a book about opening to possibilities—also, inevitably, about opening to doubt and uncertainty. Ish’s flaw was thinking that certainty solves everything, instead of just nailing doors shut. The whole gang takes a long time to admit that they might be wrong about the nature of the Rot. For Zelda, especially, that means admitting she’s been trying to solve the solution for 10 years, locking out the very potential for change that she originally wanted to invite in.

I don’t know why I expected to see what Zelda found on the other side of the fence. Thinking about it, I don’t see how one could reasonably write a scene depicting the things beyond what we can, tautologically, imagine. We do, though, get to see what Ramon and Sarah and June find by leaving the paved road: healing, and stars, and other directions. Aliens, maybe. Unconsidered possibilities, in whatever shape.

“Another world is not only possible,” says Arundhati Roy. “she is on her way. Maybe many of us won’t be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen very carefully, I can hear her breathing.” The alt-riders are a very particular set of people: broken and privileged and broken by privilege. The Princess was clearly much the same. Take someone with a different perspective into the alts and you get, well, June. Someone who won’t need long at all to question assumptions and look beyond the road and imagine what those wearing blinders cannot. Someone who won’t assume that tentacles and claws are as terrifying as they first seem, and who will see tools that aren’t the master’s tools.

What we see on the page this final week isn’t those possibilities, but the world’s response to them. Insistence on normality, and whispers about miracles—only the far away ones, though. Only the ones that aren’t too personal to talk about. Barbeques and poetic road trips. Street festivals and street medics. An imagined release from quarantine that’s as much spiritual as physical: more hopeful and open than the one we got, less shaped by the demands of employers and more shaped by the joys of the people. That choice, almost inevitable for a book written in the pandemic’s earlier days, is hard to read now. It feels like a future we’ve already missed. Maybe we can still get there by a different route, off the paved road and between the cracks.

It’s a harder route for us, because we haven’t lost our cowboy. You can’t actually shoot a story, even with its own bullets. People will keep telling it as long as they have reason. It’s a peril of incarnation, I suppose: national mytho-lies are written into every textbook and carved on every monument, but once you start possessing people with your hat, you’re taking a new risk. Maybe he’s gone back into the textbooks, but quiet enough for the moment to let a few new ideas leak through.

And to let people who’ve traveled in new directions come back, and knock on the door, and tell us what they’ve seen—just past the last page.

Next week, we wrap up National Poetry Month with the first five poems in Marisca Pichette’s Stoker-nominated Rivers in Your Skin, Sirens in Your Hair. Then, in two weeks, we start our new long-read, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Stephen King’s first novel by… reading a different King novel. Join us for Pet Sematary! icon-paragraph-end

About the Author

Ruthanna Emrys


Ruthanna Emrys lives in a mysterious manor house in the outskirts of Washington DC with her wife and their large, strange family. She makes home-made vanilla, obsesses about game design, gives unsolicited advice, occasionally attempts to save the world, and blogs sporadically about these things at her Livejournal. Her stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Strange Horizons and Analog. Ruthanna Emrys lives in a mysterious manor house in the outskirts of Washington DC with her wife and their large, strange family. She makes home-made vanilla, obsesses about game design, gives unsolicited advice, occasionally attempts to save the world, and blogs sporadically about these things at her Livejournal. Her stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Strange Horizons and Analog.
Learn More About Ruthanna

About the Author

Anne M. Pillsworth


Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. She currently lives in a Victorian “trolley car” suburb of Providence, Rhode Island. Summoned is her first novel.

Learn More About Anne M.
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