Sometime in the past couple of years someone said, in an Instagram Story or a Tiktok or some other ephemeral medium, something that stuck with me: “You can’t see the end of the path until you walk it.” The person in question was talking about the environmental movement, about how it seems impossible to adapt to the changing world we find ourselves in, how every proposal for change is met with the same questions — “Well how do you plan to accomplish that? How will you pay for it?” — and how many of these questions are fundamentally in bad faith. There is no way to map out every detail of societal change, but even the details we have, the signposts and maps we’ve drawn up for the path we must take, are derided or ignored in an effort to keep us from walking that path at all.
This question of how to move forward into a better world is one which Max Gladstone spends a lot of time on in Last Exit. Set in the United States, speaking specifically to a lot of our large cultural shifts and pains — poverty, whiteness, and the dystopian sense that this is the best we can do — Last Exit follows Zelda and her companions as they search for a way towards a better world, fighting off eldritch creatures as they jump from dimension to dimension in action that will be reminiscent to readers of The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. But so many of the things they have been taught about the world they live in and the worlds they have visited are more complicated than they appear, and Zelda must confront her own assumptions about who she is and what role she has played before the end of this book. She must choose to believe in a better world with everything she has.
Hope is a radical act. Choosing to see an alternative to the current system is not blind optimism. It is intentional. LeGuin explores this in Omelas, how a better world feels unbelievable without a cost. So does Voltaire — in Candide we discover that this world we have is the best possible, with all its flaws. The question of hope, of change, of striving, is one that many of us are spending a lot of time with lately, but it’s not a new question. Can you envision a better world? Do you have a compass needle in your chest, pointing north? Or have you given up on the path? Is all you see brambles?
Over the past couple of years, I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating how to see a better world. How to dream of it as fruit on the tongue. How to have faith in a bridge that seems as if it will not support my weight. Last Exit felt like it answered some of those questions, becoming another block in the bridge I might build to something like a future. Zelda and company make mistakes. A lot of people don’t survive those mistakes. But they don’t stop running, they don’t stop reaching forward. Ultimately a lot of the mistakes made aren’t really mistakes at all. Trusting others and being betrayed, getting lost on the road — it’s part of living. The grasp for security, the clinging to what is instead of seeing what could be — perhaps that’s the greatest mistake of all.