Stephen Markley Is Smiling Through the Apocalypse

stephen markley
Stephen Markley Is Smiling Through the ApocalypseSarah Kim

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For someone who’s spent ten years thinking about the end of the world, Stephen Markley is a surprisingly cheerful guy. He’s funny, upbeat, and miraculously willing to discuss things other than the looming apocalypse that should consume our every waking moment.

“We can just talk about books, if you like,” he says, laughing. Though he does admit to bafflement at the collective apathy about our future. “How can this not be the front-page story every single day of the week?”

By “this,” he means our environmental crisis. Global warming, the climate collapse, call it whatever you want—in a sane world, it would be the only thing anyone is talking about, because it constitutes the greatest threat to human society in our entire checkered history. But this is not a sane or rational world.

We can still talk books, though, because Markley has written one. A big one. The Deluge, out now, is his second novel, following 2018’s acclaimed Ohio. Both books share certain traits: a broad cast of characters, an of-the-moment response to crisis, and well-researched insight into the details of the problem. But where Ohio focused on a single night in a single blue-collar town, The Deluge takes the entire planet as its stage. It’s a behemoth, 900-page map to the madness of humanity’s near-future. The book traces our shared fate through four decades of accelerating chaos as activism fails, politics betray us, and both the world and society heat up. No bookseller would place this in the horror section of the store, but it is profoundly frightening nonetheless.

Maybe that’s why Stephen King went out as an early batter for The Deluge. “Prophetic, terrifying, uplifting” he tweeted, back in August 2022. Now, upon the book’s publication, I was keen to speak to Markley about each element of that praise. In particular, I was interested in King’s final word: uplifting. Because in the face of such existential threat, how do we cling to hope? And how does Stephen Markley remain so damn cheerful?

ESQUIRE: We’re speaking a week before The Deluge hits shelves. How are you feeling, considering the amount of work you’ve put into this book?

Stephen Markley: Well, the nerves are starting to butterfly around. It’s been over a decade working on this book, so the thought that it’s going to be read by actual people is alarming. I know I should try to enjoy it, but that’s still pretty notional.

I read The Deluge in that strange no-man’s land between Christmas and New Year’s when reality already feels malleable. Considering how the book incorporates real events, and how speculative elements seem to be coming true, it made for an especially disconcerting read.

Well imagine writing it! I turned in the first draft to my editor in February 2020. Suddenly it’s lockdown and global pandemic and for a year, the news was full of things that happened in my book. It was eerie. I had some dark, dark nights. It was difficult to write this book and look at what was happening and not have some despair. Plus, I felt so fucking stupid and trivial. “Oh, so that’s what you’ve been working on, writing your little book? Great.” I had to cling to the idea that art matters. That it provides a way for people to orientate themselves emotionally to what is happening.

You incorporate events as recent as Biden’s election. Was there a challenge in accommodating the pace of events over the years you spent writing?

I’ve been working on this book for years, as things in it have become increasingly true. The two threads that I had landed on as key to our social and environmental future started to happen in real life faster than I could write the book. I’ve had to write around those elements, which has been occasionally terrifying.

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The Deluge


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The biggest challenge of the book was that I wanted it to be intended for the exact moment of its publication. When it comes out, it should be able to articulate the urgency of the situation we’re in right now. The hardest part of that is getting what I call “the zipper” to meet—making sure that events in the near future reflect what has happened in the immediately recognizable past. I had all the technical problems of writing a near-thousand-page epic, with the problems of trying to reflect our actual moment.

The only thing you don’t have in there is the war in Ukraine.

I think Putin launched literally the day after I submitted the final pass. Actually, in the next edition, a few sentences will be changed to reflect that reality. Also, the next edition will include the Inflation Reduction Act that just passed here in the US.

You take an extremely detailed approach to mapping the trajectory of the crisis, considering the finer points of science, geopolitics, technology, finance. How did you manage to speculate so authentically about how each of those strands would play out in your imagined future?

Well, I certainly went a little crazy for a while. But to an extent it’s what I’ve been doing for a while in my writing, so it felt utterly normal to me. I made sure that I had a grasp of every subject I wanted to write about, but also to understand how those things affected my characters. I thought about the books they would read, the politics they would look at. I tried to take every aspect of the book seriously, not just plug in what the zeitgeist currently stipulated about a given topic like AI or VR.

Because of that sheer size and intricacy, do you have concerns that the only people who will read The Deluge are those already invested in the subject? That it won’t appeal to the people who perhaps need to read it the most?

Well in terms of size, my feeling is that because it asks so much of the reader intellectually, it also has to move like a fucking freight train. It has to grab the reader, not allow them to breathe, force them to invest in these human beings. That’s how it can serve as a tour guide to the complexity of our situation. Books aren’t movies, though. I just watched Damien Chazelle’s Babylon and I had to go to the bathroom about four times. Books are different; you can put them down or you can be swept away on a four-hour reading binge. For me, if a book is moving like lightning, and moving me… I don’t care how long it is. I remember reading The Stand as a kid and being so taken that I couldn’t sleep for days. Forget about middle school, I just wanted to be there in that world.

I’m glad you mention The Stand, because Stephen King has been a major early advocate of your work.

You know it’s funny, because when he tweeted about my first novel Ohio, I asked my editor to pass on a letter expressing that Stephen was one of the writers who made me want to become a writer. But it didn’t occur to me at the time that I was working on something that probably germinated way back when I was fourteen and reading The Stand. That DNA is definitely present.

Yes, it’s clear that The Deluge shares many of the hallmarks of classic apocalyptic fiction. But where that genre exerts a kind of glee in creating a blank canvas after the event, you take the harder path of documenting the incremental slide into a nightmare future, and also suggesting that there are ways to avert it.

Thanks for bringing that up, because that instinct to just clear the table is so prevalent in fiction, and I see it as fundamentally anti-human and defeatist. And look, I’ll enjoy schlocky end-of-the-world stories as much as the next guy, but I knew this book could not be about how awesome it will be when our society collapses. It will certainly not be awesome. None of us are going back to holistic medicine and friendly subsistence farming. As I say in the book, it would be grueling and terrifying and unfamiliar as hell, and that’s something that never gets communicated in the clear-the-chessboard scenario. The challenge of the book was not to accept doom, but to say, “Okay, what do we do?” To not see our society crumble, what do we do? That was the most spiritually sustainable element for me, because there are so many people working on this, with incredible ideas and enormous heart and compassion. My characters don’t represent real people, but that’s what many of them point to.

Speaking of ideas, you artfully bounce empathy between different approaches to the problem. In one chapter we follow Kate, a political activist. In the next we meet a militant cell who favor more violent disruption. Each has contempt for the other’s ideas, and the reader’s own opinion shifts depending on our point-of-view.

That was exactly my intention. You get to Shane’s chapters [the leader of the cell] and you have to think like she’s thinking. You have to look at the activists and think, “These people are weak, they don’t know what’s happening, they are useless.” Then you have to turn around with Kate and think, “These militants are ruining our chance to legislate for a better world.” For me, this book was a process of trying to understand what I think myself. As an author, you have to take yourself all the way into the perspective of each character, and not release yourself until you are ready to move onto the next.

Is it actually a meta-exercise to expose how the weak-minded can be easily led by a compelling narrative?

[laughs]. No, but I’ll say it is in future interviews!

It’s a profoundly political book, but it also eschews easy answers. You force the reader to confront some troubling compromises, and even question whether we have to sacrifice enshrined rights and beliefs to counter such existential threat.

The book challenges the reader, like it challenged me, to really consider, “What are our priorities?” It also asks, “What has social media done to our ability to focus on the single most important issue in human history?” I sometimes read the news and think, “What the fuck are you people talking about?” I think that feeling is pretty common today. How can we not be paying attention to this?

A lot of that turns up in the character of Ash [a government data analyst]. He thinks that, y’know, we can all play the game of finger-pointing and moralizing, we can write wonderful poetry about the tragedy, but at the end of the day, this is an engineering problem, a waste-disposal problem. How can we tackle that? Also, I think the book lays out the case that, although the scale of this problem is so terrifying, a path to a better and more equitable world lies directly through fixing it.

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With all that in mind, how is it possible that we can remain so sanguine about this looming threat?

That’s what’s so difficult about the subject; that it’s so complex. It’s a straightforward problem: we are polluting the atmosphere. But the results of that and its implications for how we run our society are so profound. It takes so much mental energy to even approach the topic. That said, if you are not scared about the scale of what we are facing, you are in denial. What we are looking at is so totally fucking terrifying. I don’t say that flippantly. I’m not saying everyone run outside screaming. But if you spend time understanding what this crisis is going to result in, in terms of our human systems, we should be scared.

And you do offer an answer to that question. How did you come up with your grand theory of decarbonization, and how much is on the table for real?

It’s all real. I talked to a lot of scientists and engineers and thinkers who offer the most convincing argument that this is all doable. Even more, if we’d started in 1988, there would have been no real issue. Really, the problem has been the denial and delay of industry.

Feeling shame about inaction isn’t the useful tool that self-flagellating liberals, like you and me, believe it to be. The thing about the climate crisis we have to remember is that it isn’t something being done by us; it’s something being done to us. There are a hundred companies that have produced around 70% of emissions since the 1980s. It’s these industries that have captured the political processes and are stalling action. We have the technology and the policies to begin rapidly decarbonizing the global economy. It’s all there and it’s a matter of pushing our political leaders to the point where they have no option but to act. At the same time, and I hope the book gets this across, we are in a precious handful of years when we still have time to do something.

So, do you have hope?

For me, the difference between hope and despair went by the wayside around page 600. I just believe in doing the work to change the situation. I don’t mean some bullshit stance on “how to green your Netflix binge.” But how do we add up? How do you and I and other people accrue and take collective action to change a little cog here and cog there, until that mechanism adds up? Because the IRA bill passed, suddenly every school and college campus in every state, city, and small town has the ability to electrify their energy systems and begin to crush the demand for fossil fuels. Obviously it’s not going to feel like much to electrify the bus fleet in your local high school. But if a thousand schools do it, suddenly that adds up.

The opportunities we have are what we should pay attention to. Often this situation is talked about in terms of what we have to lose. But if we think about how bountiful and compassionate and equitable our society could be… that’s what I like to focus on.

Is your book one such cog?

Well, if I wrote this book and it can convince five, ten, some small number of people to come together, to take some small step forwards, some small collective action, then it will all have been worth it.

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