From: Boreal, Emily <Emily.Boreal@samphire.house>
To: Picual, Jim <Jim.Picual@samphire.house>,
Joss, Lillian <Lillian.Joss@samphire.house>,
Gupta, Mohan <Mohan.Gupta@samphire.house>
Cc: Executive Committee <Ex.Com@samphire.house>
You sent me to find the god of a dying world, and I found her, but it didn’t turn out the way you expected. I’m not sorry for what I did, but I do owe you an explanation.
Those of you reading this know very well the problem we faced, but I assume this message will be forwarded to at least one board member, so I’ll go over the basics.
Molly Khan had written six books in as many years, starting with Elyse Flayme and the Ice Queen, surprise best seller, first in the series that became the heir—at last—to Potter. Even better, this series meant something, because the crisis that faced Molly’s mythic world of Arrenia was a clear parable for climate change. The books were urgent and serious, but also fun and charming and, as Molly’s characters grew up, not a little bit sexy. They were broccoli fried in bacon fat.
Six years, six books, and a glossy TV adaptation running in lockstep: so far, so profitable. But Molly Khan’s agent was good. The books were contracted one at a time rather than all at once, so with each success, her leverage increased. Furthermore, the TV show was not permitted to proceed without a book to guide it: there would be no Game of Thrones–ing ahead of the author’s imagination. Molly Khan’s agent was really good.
Molly’s seventh book would conclude the series. There we were, proud publishers, along with our counterparts at the streaming service: perched, poised, ready to proceed into the final stage of this billion-dollar project.
But the Green Tolkien did not submit her seventh manuscript. The due date passed, and Molly was silent. We knew the book’s title: Elyse Flayme and the Final Flood. Another month passed. That’s all we knew. Three more months. The actress who played Elyse was being pursued for a Star Wars movie. Everything stood frozen, waiting on the author, her imagination, her drowning world, its fate.
She would not reply to emails; would not answer the phone. She was holed up in her house in Bodega Bay, the one she bought with the money from the first Elyse Flayme book and never left. She was, apparently, staring at the ocean.
So you sent me to California.
My mission was simple: determine the cause of Molly’s delay and identify what was needed to finish the book. I was authorized to offer, as enticement, an additional 2% of total back-end across all media, which could easily amount to $20 million. On the plane to San Francisco, I imagined myself carrying a giant check. In the rental car up the coast, I imagined myself hauling a sack of gold bars.
You all warned me about Bodega Bay. I’d never been to California at all, so of course in my imagination it was Eden, warm and woozy and comfortable. This stretch of coast—cold to start and colder as I crept north, with the cliffs calving away into the black water and the geological fault line totally, hilariously apparent—this was a world ending, literally ending, in slow motion.
I found Molly’s house out on the edge of town, perched on a particularly ragged and desperate cliff. The house wasn’t large, but its design was very modern, a slanted box built from wood that might once have been dark but had long since been blasted pale by the salt wind.
We had met in person only once before but had corresponded at length, mostly in the comments attached to the manuscript for Elyse Flayme in the Ocean Beyond Oceans, her most recent book, now lingering on shelves. Molly had included my name in the acknowledgments: “My thanks also to Emily Boreal, who gets it.” This had come as a complete surprise, and even now, when I think of it, my face gets hot.
Molly answered the door in sweatpants.
“Of course it’s you,” she said. “Smart of them.”
I told her I was just here to help, if I could.
Molly nodded. “Fine. Let’s see if you can.”
On the flight, I wondered if Molly had suffered some kind of breakdown; the writer’s agony and ecstasy that, if we’re being honest, editors find sort of delicious. Encountering her, I had the sense not of a bulwark broken, but one currently loaded down almost unimaginably. Molly Khan was short and slender, swallowed up by her sweats; following her into the house, I was conscious of all the money, all the expectations, all the emotions balanced on that little body as if it were a fulcrum.
There were millions of readers, yes. Millions of viewers, sure. But the thing you really had to contend with was the cosplayers. Elyse Flayme had become a central symbol of the climate justice movement; at every rally, on the steps of every capitol, you found dozens of Elyses, and even more Osric Worldenders, partly because his cold wrath resonated powerfully and partly because his costume called for very short shorts. Molly had achieved the thing that had eluded a thousand earnest climate journalists; she had surpassed even the girl from Sweden. How? By transcribing, without flinching, the fears of a generation. They trusted her. Molly’s readers wrote steamy fan fiction and they marched on their centers of government.
It was those kids who now had Molly Khan tied into a knot.
“I can’t finish it,” she said simply. “I’ve considered every possibility.” She waved at a little desk that sat facing the ocean; a tower block of notebooks rose on its surface. “Arrenia can’t be ruined, because I can’t say, yeah, sorry, we’re doomed. No way. But it can’t be saved, either, because ... well, it can’t. You know the story.”
I knew it very well. In Arrenia, the elves who lived on the coast of the Ghost Ocean had, through their misuse of magic, wrecked the climates, plural: meteorological and spiritual. The ocean was rising and the stars were raining down curses. To avert calamity, the elves would have to give up magic—immediately, decisively, forever.
The real achievement of the books was that they made this seem appropriately difficult. Magic was fucking awesome! No wonder the elves didn’t want to give it up. No wonder they might rather drown. In her fiction, Molly dramatized all the paradoxes. She danced inside the grinding gears of inevitability. There were revenant sharks in the Ghost Ocean. You could ride them.
“But aren’t the books actually about that tension?” I parried.
Molly looked at me witheringly. “Yes, but I still need an ending.”
I searched. “The ending could be about ... not knowing ...”
“Oh, Emily, yes! Very literary. I’ll end the series with Arrenia’s fate still hanging in the balance. I’ll say: That’s the point! We don’t know the future, do we? Meanwhile, I’ll haul my royalties away, go enjoy my life, because I’m part of the last generation for whom that’s even possible.”
She paused. I was already dead.
I started reading Elyse Flayme in high school and continued through college. I was one of them, the millions who mothed to this author because she saw the climate nightmare clearly; because she stood beside us in the vise grip of energy and time. But we had put off the reckoning, all of us, author and readers alike. If a happy ending was impossible, but we refused to revel in doom … what did that leave?
Molly Khan poured wine and led me to the glassed-in balcony that projected off the back of the house. We talked while the sun dipped into the real ghost ocean. I asked her what it had been like, wrestling with the book. She told me about her notes, her experiments. Enough to fill five finales, she said. All abandoned.
I didn’t push her; didn’t even mention the offer I’d been authorized to make until halfway through the second bottle of wine.
“You could donate the money to climate activists,” I said lamely.
Molly shot me an acid look. “You know what I think about that kind of laundering.”
I did; everyone did. Elyse Flayme’s best friend Meritxell was always coming up with ways in which they could keep using magic and delay Arrenia’s destruction, and Elyse was always saying, We have to choose what matters to us, Mer.
We talked into the night. Mostly, I listened. I came to understand that Molly Khan had been cooped up in that house by herself for way too long. Her false starts came spilling out. The horizon faded to buzzing black as she ticked through the various versions she’d tried and rejected. She went digging in the notebooks for half-remembered lines. The truth is, they all sounded great to me, but Molly wasn’t satisfied.
All along, a certainty was growing in my mind.
Molly Khan emptied the second bottle of wine, and when I probed her about Elyse Flayme—asked what Elyse had kept hidden; what this avatar was capable of, in the end—she became animated. She had been rooting in the kitchen for more to drink, but this question brought her back out onto the balcony: she said one thing, then another, and another, all while I cheered her on. I was the only witness: there, in the dark above the ocean, out of nothing, came something: an ending.
Soon after that, Molly sat at her desk and started to type what she’d just explained. I collapsed on the bed in her little guest room. My last thought before sleep was that I had succeeded in my mission: unblocked the writer, secured the future of the franchise. Maybe I deserved a commission … just a tiny cut of that $20 million.
In the morning, I found Molly in the same place exactly. She had not slept. A low-slung district of coffee mugs had joined the tower block of notebooks on her desk. Her keyboard clattered like a subway car; she barreled down the track, not stopping at any of the stations. She was absolutely focused; no part of her moved except her fingers, careening toward their destination. Is this how she had written all the books?
I padded into the kitchen, afraid to disturb her because breaking the spell would be costly, and because I was afraid she would turn around and her eyes would be like Osric Worldender’s, shadowed pits crackling with black lightning.
I rustled in the refrigerator, found yogurt, and tapped out an update email, cc-ing most of the people now receiving this. As you might recall, I wrote that things were going well; that Molly appreciated our generosity; that she seemed very energized! This was all true. But I might also have added: The money was an insult; she had not slept; I was afraid to speak to her.
I fiddled with my phone while the clacking of the keys continued. While I waited, a few of you sent enthusiastic replies: Way to go! Yeah, Emily, great news! I guess you really do “get it”!
The clacking slowed, became a stately chug. The chug broke down into silence. Molly lifted her head and peeled herself away from her laptop. She looked out across the ocean and, from my perspective, was framed against it: a ragged silhouette, baggy sweatshirt and wild hair conspiring to make her into a witchy apparition.
In another world, she would have rolled her shoulders, put her head down, and finished the book. She would have committed to the page these events, which she had imagined and described to me the night before:
Elyse Flayme would have climbed the great tower at the center of Svanta City, using all the powers she’d accrued over the past six books to knock down the obstacles in her path, absolutely shredding the elvish security forces. Osric Worldender would have been there at her side, throwing black lightning, exultant. At the tower’s top, she would have found the Ghostburn Council, the ones who profited most from the use of magic. Among them would be Meritxell, her old friend, who had been catapulted into power in book five and aimed to transform the council from within. Meritxell, who—
Elyse Flayme would have killed them all. She would have abrogated all her values, crossed all the lines established in the previous six books. She would have done precisely the thing her foe from the first book, Mauna the Ice Queen, had stood poised to do: the massacre young Elyse had prevented, in an impassioned speech that kids still quoted on the hand-written signs they carried to rallies at capitols. THEY ARE ABOVE ALL AFRAID, one sign might read. WE WILL SAVE THEM WHETHER THEY LIKE IT OR NOT, might read another.
There would be no speeches in this final scene, just blue fire and black lightning and, in the space that death opened, a glimmer of hope.
In another world, that’s what Molly wrote, Final_Flood_v19_Final_ReallyFinal.docx. In this one, she—I don’t know how else to say it: she crumbled. I watched it happen, like a cliff sliding into the ocean. Exactly that heavy. Exactly that final.
She put her head down on the desk, and it stayed there. I wondered if she was crying. I wondered what I should do if she was crying. Then she stood, screamed once, and stalked out of the room.
In that moment, I was terrified. Would I have to soothe her? Was that my mission? I am not a soother. I do not soothe. I annotate. I stood frozen in the kitchen and strongly considered flight, but in a pulse of character development worthy of Elyse herself, I bested my chickenshit heart and hustled to pursue Molly Khan, who had exited not only the room but the house.
Outside, thick fog had settled along the coast, and I could not locate any witchlike apparitions. I scrambled around, checked the front of the house, looked up and down the road, raked the coast with my eyes. Nothing.
Then I very gingerly approached the cliff, where I spotted a figure pacing the beach below. I hustled down switchbacking stairs to find Molly circling the sand, staring into the gray. The muscles across her face were tight. In her hair, I saw crumbs, along with a stalk of some hardy coastal grass. The wind whipped off the water, stung my eyes, extracted tears. There were tears in Molly’s eyes, too.
“IT DIDN’T WORK,” she shouted above the wind. “This is what happens. Like a loop, this whole year. I think I have an ending, and I get so excited, but I realize I can’t publish it, because it’s not what they deserve. THEY’RE BEYOND ME, EMILY! I can’t write what they deserve!”
If I had found Molly’s crumpled body on the beach, rather than her scowling face, I wouldn’t have been surprised; and it was that realization that shook me into action.
Because, as I said before, a certainty had been growing in my mind. The idea occurred to me first on the plane, but I had smothered it. It reappeared on the drive, but again, I pushed it aside, because I understood how dangerous it was. Now, though, I saw how deeply Molly Khan was suffering, and I saw—as she did—that she would never complete this book in the way she, or any of us, had planned.
What had Ambassador Agora said to Elyse Flayme in book three? “We cannot undo these curses with the same kind of magic that created them.”
I was certain what Molly Khan had to do, so I told her.
She looked at me, there on the beach, her eyes narrow. She asked for clarification: “Can I ...?”
She was the god of a dying world. Of course she could.
We climbed up to the house, where Molly prepared a proper breakfast. For the first time, I detected a lightness in her. Ever since I’d arrived—and for the whole year prior—her brain had been whirring, searching, grasping. Failing. Now she allowed it to rest. She gave me a plate of eggs, perfect, then dialed her great and terrible agent. When Molly explained my idea, her agent’s reply shook the phone speaker: “THAT IS ABSOLUTELY UNHINGED. I LOVE IT. I MEAN, I HATE IT. BUT I LOVE IT!”
I presume you know what her agent loved and hated, because you’ve read Molly’s announcement, and perhaps some of the reactions to it, but just in case—and for the board member, hello—I’ll take this opportunity to make it perfectly clear:
Molly Khan will not submit her seventh book, but the series will not go unfinished.
Remember: Molly Khan retains all rights to Elyse Flayme and her world, and those rights include the power to commit them to the public domain, which she has now done.
Now anyone can write their own ending—and not only in the shadowy confines of fan fiction, but in the scrum of the market. They can publish it, sell it, get it made into a movie. In a stroke, Molly Khan has given up her control over Elyse Flayme. She has turned down the sack of gold bars I carried, and all the giant checks that might have followed, and given it all to … anyone who wants it?
We cannot undo these curses with the same kind of magic that created them.
Don’t worry: you will not be denied your final fountain of money. The public domain, after all, is open to you, too! You can commission a conclusion from one of Molly’s peers, or go hunting for the best one that bubbles up from the ferment of the fans. Every other publisher can do the same, though, so you’d better hurry.
The streaming service will now have total creative freedom, and for them it will be terrifying. Which ending will they choose? How will they justify it? They know the fans; they fear them; and they don’t have Molly to protect them anymore. This makes me very happy.
Here’s the last trick: Molly will write her own ending. It will be something from one of her notebooks; there’s so much to choose from. She’ll publish it just as she did in the very beginning, her fan-fiction days, using a pseudonym. As everyone pores over the ocean of alternatives, they’ll have to ask themselves: Is this one hers? Does it matter?
When I left Molly in Bodega Bay, she was back at her desk, but it felt different. There was no demonic clacking. She typed in normal-person bursts, just a bit at a time, before standing to circle the room. The desperate energy had dissipated. She browsed her shelves, plucked books to consult. When I left, she was lying on the couch, paging through Candide, legs kicked up in the air. She wore real pants. The Green Tolkien is gone, banished, thrown from that cliff. She is again—will now remain—Molly Khan.
Did we really believe we could do any good, buying and selling this climate fiction inside the same system that’s boiling the world? I don’t excuse myself. “Thanks also to Emily Boreal, who gets it,” Molly wrote—but I didn’t. I took a plane to reach her. I drove a car up the coast. In the end, I wanted Elyse Flayme to kill them, the stupid greedy ones, wanted the thrill of blood on the page—and then a safe flight home.
I’m on a train right now, Oakland to Chicago. You’ve probably figured it out: this message is my resignation. Thank you for sending me to Molly, so I could help her open this door, which I will now walk through. I have my own vision for the end of Arrenia. It’s darker than you might imagine. I came of age with Elyse Flayme, and now I have something I want to say through her. With her. I’ll send you my manuscript when it’s ready; maybe it will be the one you publish. Molly introduced me to her agent, who is a demon queen.
In the meantime, don’t be afraid. If you ever truly believed in Molly’s millions of readers—not just as consumers, but as collaborators, co-creators—then believe in them now.
She titled the book before she knew what it would become. The Final Flood is not one story you can control; it’s a thousand you cannot. Control is what got us here! I met Elyse Flayme in a big chain bookstore, and for that, I’m grateful. But now we have to leave it behind. We cannot undo these curses with the same kind of magic … you get it.
I’ve been on this train for two days; it’s just now passing through Denver. I’m searching for “Elyse Flayme” on all the big online bookstores, and they’re already appearing, all the different conclusions, self-published, totally legal, climbing the sales ranks together: Elyse Flayme and the Burning Tower; and the Last Spell; and the Moon’s Promise; and the New Magic; and the Absolutely Shortest Shorts.
How did they write these stories so fast? There can only be one explanation: they were writing them already.
Robin Sloan is the New York Times best-selling author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough.
This CRISPR pioneer wants to capture more carbon with crops
New research at Jennifer Doudna's institute aims to create faster-growing, carbon-hungry plants using the gene-editing tool.
These materials were meant to revolutionize the solar industry. Why hasn’t it happened?
Perovskites are promising, but real-world conditions have held them back.
Running Tide is facing scientist departures and growing concerns over seaweed sinking for carbon removal
The venture-backed startup believes kelp could be a powerful tool to combat climate change. But some scientists fear the ecological risks on large scales.
Inside Charm Industrial’s big bet on corn stalks for carbon removal
The startup used plant matter and bio-oil to sequester thousands of tons of carbon. The question now is how reliable, scalable, and economical this approach will prove.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.