There’s a certain kind of story about working-class men in hard circumstances that comes up a lot in the literature of resource economies. We have a long history of sending our poor men into hard, labourious work that often claims lives young: fishing, mining, logging, and now add to that oil extraction. It’s a living, but it’s a hard one. Long hours far from home, dangerous conditions, isolated locations far from support. This hard life spent fighting the forces of nature lends itself to bleak storytelling. The stories and ballads of the working class are full of brothers and husbands lost at sea, families torn apart by fathers made hard by dangerous, thankless work, or whole communities traumatized by natural disasters.
Rich Larson’s ‘The Air We Breathe Is Stormy, Stormy’ (Strange Horizons August 11th 2014 – https://www.strangehorizons.com/2014/20140811/stormy-f.shtml) is in many ways prototypical of the genre. Cedric has taken work on an oil rig in order to escape an abusive father and a pregnant girlfriend. There, he spends the long and lonely hours smoking weed and reading on a cracked Kindle, more concerned with getting away than going towards, until he pulls a woman up out of the sea.
Cedric has many of the trappings of the working class anti-hero: he drinks and smokes too much, facing the dangerous rig work with the nihilism of a person with no options. But, atypically, Cedric is also fairly literate, preferring to read Melville and Auden to drinking and gambling with the lads. His exile on the rig is self-imposed: the poverty and circumstances that force most people into the work don’t really apply to him after his first tour, but he stays on as a way to avoid facing his pregnant girlfriend, Violet.
The girl Cedric pulls out of the sea – whose name he cannot remember – is his water-bound counterpart. She has no more direction than he has, but the mess she is in casts his own mess into perspective. Sick from years spent living under the rig “eating garbage”, she nevertheless returns to the sea after her time spent with Cedric. “I lived down there in the muck because I knew it well, and I was scared of cleaner things,” she tells him. When the time comes for him to choose the muck or something better, he chooses the latter.
“I lived down there in the muck because I knew it well, and I was scared of cleaner things,” she tells him.
On the one hand, it’s a powerful statement about how we limit our future with our fears, but on the other, Cedric’s fears dissipate too easily. His early treatment of the woman from the sea helps establish his character as fundamentally good, despite his fears that he might become his father, but his brief, empty affair with her, followed by the ease with which he returns to the idea of loving Violet, takes a lot of the weight out of his personal struggle. The woman from the sea shows him the mirror, then appears to swim off with his fears. What did he offer in trade? What did this redemption cost him? The lingering sense is that Cedric was not that badly trapped after all. It’s hard to feel too sorry for him.
William Delman’s ‘The Cure’ (Bastion, August 2014 – https://www.bastionmag.com/previous/august) tells the story of a man, Simon, who has come back from Mars to visit his family on Earth, only to find them in dire straits. Another working-class family, Simon’s siblings Sean and Dee live on a failing farm in the wake of a climate disaster, struggling with the usual trappings of poverty and the legacy of an abusive father. Life on Earth is hard, and Sean’s alcoholism is dragging them both down.
Life on Mars, on the other hand, appears to be flourishing. Though the early years of the colonial project were hard for him and he has worked through his own alcoholism, Simon eventually signs up with the nascent Martian law enforcement and works his way up from agricultural labour. By the time he returns to Earth, he is fit, professional – and physically enhanced by a nanotechnology “cure” available only to Martians.
Life on the Carver farm is something straight out of a Faulker novel, a mess of abuse, poverty, deteriorating conditions and an emerging anti-Martian nationalist movement, but Simon brings with him a potential solution. They can leave everything behind and start fresh with his technological cure.
It sounds too easy because it is. Delman has us ask, if you could instantly solve every single problem in your life in one easy shot, would you do it? All you have to do is give up your entire life. Would you do it then? On the outside, it feels like a no-brainer. Dee and Sean’s life is a train wreck. Why wouldn’t they give it up? But Delman has done a wonderful job of building a place and a family which, though dysfunctional, still carries with it weight and obligation. History and circumstances come with baggage that nothing can wipe away. In the thick of her life, the cure Simon offers feels impossible to Dee, even if it is right there in the case in front of her. Making the choice to get out of a bad situation is not as easy as taking a cure.
Delman has us ask, if you could instantly solve every single problem in your life in one easy shot, would you do it?
‘When Swords Had Names’ by Stephen Graham Jones (The Dark #5 – https://thedarkmagazine.com/swords-names/) takes an entirely different tack with the bleak prospects of his anti-hero, taking him from a hard situation and making it horribly harder. Soldiering is the most universal way our civilization has wasted and ruined its working poor, and Jones’ hero tries to escape it by deserting. After dodging soldiers and wolves, the enemy which eventually catches up with him is hunger.
After more than a week spent starving in the forest, the narrator is finally allowed to share a meal under very strange circumstances. The meat he is given is transcendent. “Those twelve measured bites of meat, I would have put them on a scale against the whole prior span of my life,” he tells us. “And they would have outweighed me.” The man who emerges after the meat is not the soldier who deserted his post, but a creature who can no longer eat anything but this meat tasted once. He no longer has any purpose in life beyond obtaining his next perfect meal, which may never come. He has “escaped one great loneliness for another.”
“Those twelve measured bites of meat, I would have put them on a scale against the whole prior span of my life,” he tells us. “And they would have outweighed me.”
In the clutches of a hunger that trumps everything else in his life, the narrator has become a monster. Without any regard for his own safety and survival, to say nothing of the lives of his quarry, the narrator stalks a herd that he has very little chance of ever successfully hunting. Jones puts us right into the head of the monster, shares every detail of his obsessive addiction. Yet even cringing and squirming as the narrator gives in to the depravity his hunger encourages in him, we are given to understand that the narrator is helpless, has always been helpless. This is not a man in control of his actions. This is not a man who has ever had control over anything in his life.
Dragged along this awful path by a narrator who can’t help himself, the horror of the conclusion seems unavoidable. Jones lets it drag out, each line offering the barest hint of a path that might let us out of this terrible place, might let us off the hook. The suspense is handled with absolute mastery, right down to the heart-wrenching moment when the narrator himself “looked behind me one more time, for torch light. For faces. For anything to stop me.” But this was never a story about a hero. This was a man who broke right in the beginning. Lost at sea, buried in the mines, shot on the wall – gone.