“What was there to fear in death? Death was just an end, and ends were good. They might hurt you, but then they stopped.”
In order to get the most out of Driftwood, a reader must arm themselves ahead of time. Archeologists’ tools – brushes, trowels, and picks – are recommended. This, you see, is not merely a book… but an artefact of another world. Driftwood immerses the reader within its ever-shifting borders. It demands that the reader explore and discover, content in its own ergodicity without crossing the line into onanism. The constant press of the new and novel, the erasure of history and culture, and the preservation of individual identity within that atmosphere is explored with a subtle, deft hand. This is less a novel than it is a glimpse into a distant, alien future that might have been.
The world – or rather worlds – of Driftwood are an ever-present reminder that time waits for no one. Driftwood is the shore where worlds wash up to die. At the edges, life can more or less continue on as normal. When worlds have only recently ended, they’re able to maintain much of their history… for a time. As new lands fall and wash up from the Mists and into Driftwood, their weight begins to push others inward. Everything compacts in on itself, slowly and inexorably being pushed into the Crush, where everything ends once and for all.
“Life is different in the Shreds. Out on the very edges of Driftwood, places like Kakt, a determined person can live her whole life pretending her home is still its own world. A little farther in, when things have gotten smaller and you’re not by the Mist anymore, you start thinking of your world as a country; you learn about your neighbors, trade with them, set up embassies in their territory. But in the Shreds, there’s no ignoring the weirdnesses of Driftwood, the way it’s summer on one street and winter on another, day here and night there, obedient to your laws of reality in your own ghetto, but operating by a totally different set of rules three houses down. Don’t ask how it works. It’s Driftwood. Patchwork of world fragments, illogic made concrete. It just is, and you learn to live with it.”
Each of the short vignettes presented in the novel explores a different facet of preservation. Very few go gladly unto their deaths; most are desperate to grasp at the smallest chance that they might regain who they were before Driftwood eroded away at their home and culture. They’ve lost their land, their temples, and sometimes even their own names. They have not only been destroyed, but also replaced – they have been ground away by the new worlds appearing at the edges, forced into extinction by new world, new people, and new cultures. They have grown old and forgetful. Their identity has been diluted until it became no longer recognizable as their own.
The many featured narrators are gathered together in an amphitheater located in a small Shred of a world, itself a microcosm of Driftwood at large. “The amphitheater has been abandoned for ages, and for good reason. Any living creature that remains within its truncated bowl when that world’s sun rises dies . . . or disappears and is never seen again, which amounts to the same thing.” While the amphitheater exists at a much smaller scale, it represents the same sort of cyclical renewal-destruction process exhibited in Driftwood as a whole. Each dawn is a destruction of any who remain within its boundaries, just as the arrival of a new world to Driftwood spells the end of an existing one.
One person in Driftwood exists outside of this basic law of creation and Crush. Known only as Last, he is the only remaining survivor of his world. His people and land disappeared into the Crush long ago; unlike other one-bloods who never mixed with other races of Driftwood, Last managed to avoid disappearing alongside his home. Each of the narrators describe one small facet of Last’s story. He brings them hope, heartache, and ruin in turns. Through this lens, they unveil Last’s own struggle with immortality.
Last is deeply, deeply alone. While he finds small bits and pieces of meaning and identity through his role as a guide to those who are lost, he nevertheless faces an internal battle not dissimilar to the physical world’s. He is burdened not by the future, but by his own past. Memories of his people have long ago ceased to be a comfort; now, they weigh him down and press him in just as the new worlds push and jostle the older ones. Last struggles to remain in the present as he watches countries come and go. Each one that succumbs to the Crush is yet another weight on his soul. He struggles to maintain close friendships, keeping others at arms-length by keeping to his contracted role as a helper.
“You’re the only one who remembers,” Noirin said. His world, and countless others that had come and gone. “If you forget . . . then they’re dead, even if you live.”
“Maybe I want that,” he said harshly, cutting across the steady rise and fall of the music.
“For now. But not forever. There will come a time when you regret the loss of those memories. And who will remember them for you then?”
While Last’s fate is ambiguous, what he desires most becomes clearer and clearer throughout the course of each story. This culminates in the final, the last, story in the novel. This one is told from Last’s perspective, focused on a small, tiny farm that appeared at the edge of the Mist. Due to its diminutive size, it was commonly held that Paggarat would disappear long before it ever reached the Crush. However, its two inhabitants held on, smiling, until the very end. To them, what mattered existed in the moment. The connection and love between the two of them allowed them to smile even in the face of annihilation. Connection: the one thing that Last both seeks out and rejects in the same breath.
These conflicting desires as they exist alongside the destruction and renewal are what sets Bennan’s novel apart. Driftwood will haunt you long after you’ve set it down. Brennan has crafted a gorgeous, poignant apocalypse where getting a second chance doesn’t always mean getting a new life. Each of the diaspora she’s depicted are richly imagined, complex, and compelling. I cannot recommend it enough.