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Writer Dale Bailey on Why We Love the Apocalypse So Much

In Dale Bailey’s short story “Lightning Jack’s Last Ride,” the United States fractures after the NRA uses a dirty bomb to destroy Washington, DC. And while the political subtext of the story seems clear, Bailey insists that his fiction is less about making a statement and more about expressing his anxieties about the modern world.

“I don’t think of myself as a political commentator or anything like that,” Bailey says in Episode 338 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Rather than me coming up with a story to express a political point of view, these are just the ones that come out because of the cultural environment that I find myself in.”

Apocalyptic visions haunt Bailey’s fiction, and his bibliography is full of story titles like “The Rain at the End of the World” and “The End of the End of Everything.” That dark outlook prompted James Patrick Kelly to dub Bailey “the poet of the apocalypse.”

“We’re attracted to these stories, and I certainly am attracted to these stories, whether they’re Mad Max or written by J.G. Ballard,” Bailey says. “And I was trying to think about why that is, because I don’t really want the world to end. I don’t. So where does that attraction come from?”

He says one reason we’re drawn to apocalyptic stories is because they capture the way that personal tragedy can feel like the end of the world. “For somebody, their world is ending as we speak, right now,” Bailey says. “Somewhere some tragedy is enveloping someone, and their world is going to be completely remade as a consequence, and it can happen at any time.”

Despite his fondness for end-of-the-world stories, he’s troubled at the way that so many of them make the death of billions seem like a fun adventure. It’s an issue he tackles in his deflated, self-aware story “The End of the World as We Know It.”

“What I was concerned about was the use of these tropes without any examination of the moral consequences of these kinds of tropes,” he says. “This is a really horrible, terrible thing, and we tend to take it very lightly in fiction.”

Listen to the complete interview with Dale Bailey in Episode 338 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Dale Bailey on getting published:

Starlog had a column devoted to amateur fiction, and I sold a story—’sold’ is the wrong word, since they didn’t pay me—I placed a story there when I was around 12 years old, shortly after Star Wars came out. I remember I got the letter saying that I’d placed the story, and my sister, who is three or four years older than me, came in the door, and I’m very excited and I showed her the letter, and she said, ‘Are you getting paid for it?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And she goes, ‘Talk to me when you get paid.’ That was my sister. … So I was very excited about this, but then I got a letter about a month or two after this saying they’d canceled the column. So my first placement of a story was revoked, unfortunately.”

Dale Bailey on collaboration:

“Ellen Datlow had invited us, independently, to submit a story to this anthology called Lovecraft Unbound, and Nathan Ballingrud was visiting right before the deadline—I mean, a day or two before the deadline, and neither one of us had started writing anything. We were sitting on the back deck drinking beer, and I said, ‘Do you have anything?’ And he goes, ‘I’ve got nothing.’ And I said, ‘I have nothing either.’ Of course I’d had nothing for several years at that point. We started talking, and we ended up going down to my office in the basement, and I started writing this story, ‘The Crevasse,’ with only a bare inkling of where it might be going. … We spent the night taking turns at the computer, rotating through the story, until we had finished a story by the next morning.”

Dale Bailey on “Lightning Jack’s Last Ride”:

“I had to get rid of airplanes. Fighter jets would render the whole story impossible. In no way am I a hard science fiction writer, so that was a piece of window dressing. I don’t know if air could actually get so polluted that planes couldn’t fly—I suppose it’s possible. … I think you need just enough of that kind of window dressing to enable the reader to accept the world of the story while she’s reading it. I think of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge quote about suspending your disbelief, and that’s what I was trying to do with the airplanes and the satellites being unable to function, is just provide enough background—or enough explanation—that the reader could find a way to buy into the story, and I hope it worked.”

Dale Bailey on In The Night Wood:

“The fantasy conceit of the book is that there’s this forest that surrounds the estate which is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside—you go into it and you go into a different place, a different kind of reality, almost. That dimension of the book occurred to me on the drive back from the World Fantasy Convention in 2003—it was in Washington, DC, I think—and there was a long section of Interstate 85 where there was nothing, there were just trees as far as you could see on both sides of the road. It was like no one lived in that place for 70 miles or so. I was with my friend Jack Slay, with whom I collaborated on another novel, and I said to Jack, ‘I feel like the trees go on forever.’ And so it was that fantasy conceit, this huge forest, that then became a way to bring this story about a father who has lost his child into focus.”

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