io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we'll be featuring a story from Lightspeed's current issue. This month's selection is “Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince” by Jake Kerr. Enjoy!
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“Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince” by Jake Kerr
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Julian Samuel Prince (March 18, 1989 – August 20, 2057) was an American novelist, essayist, journalist, and political activist. His best works are widely considered to be the post-Impact novels The Grey Sunset (2027) and Rhythms of Decline (2029), both of which won the Pulitzer Prize. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2031.
Prince was a pioneer of Impact Nihilism, a genre that embraced themes of helplessness and inevitable death in the aftermath of the Meyer Impact. His travelogue, Journey Into Hopelessness (2026) outlined Prince’s return to North America, ostensibly to survey the damage to his home state of Texas. The book’s bleak and powerful language of loss and devastation influenced musicians, artists, and writers worldwide, giving voice to the genre as a counter to the rising wave of New Optimism, which sprang out of the European Union as a response to the Meyer Impact and the enormous loss of life.
Not much is known of Prince’s early life. He spoke rarely of his childhood, and with the loss of life and destruction of records during the Meyer Impact, little source material remains. What is known is that Prince was an only child, the son of Margaret Prince (maiden name unknown) and Samuel Prince. He was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, but moved to Dallas, Texas, when he was eight years old. In an interview before his death, Prince noted:
I was a good kid, a boring kid. I didn’t cause trouble, and trouble didn’t find me. I studied hard and planned on being a journalist, figuring that I was better at observing the world than shaping it. I graduated high school, and continued with my journalism classes via the net. Up until the Impact, I was thoroughly and utterly average.
Upon earning a bachelor’s degree from Khan University in journalism, Prince embarked on a career as a web reporter.
Excerpt from Julian Prince’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 2031
So it is that life, to which we all cling with desperation and joy, prevails. Yet I cannot let go of the memories, the experiences, and the physical reality of those that have passed away. The ghosts are all around us, even as we squint to see through them. It has been said that I deny optimism and ignore our future, but that is not true. It is just that I refuse to let the difficult questions remain unasked. I refuse to conveniently ignore the graveyard that is now half our planet. And I refuse to feel joy that so many have lived when so many—so many—have died.
It is with humility that I accept this award, not for myself, but for the hundreds of millions who are not here with us today. I did my best to tell their story, but they deserve so much more than I can possibly give. If I achieved even a small part in doing so, I am glad.
Prince spent the decade before the Meyer Impact crossing the globe courtesy of a series of freelance journalism jobs. His first writing job was with AOL Local/Patch in 2010, where he aggregated citizen journalism stories from North Texas and rewrote them for syndicated release to the net. He continued to work for AOL Local for seven years, until he quit in 2017. He wrote about this transition in an essay on the carefree lives of the pre-Impact world in 2031:
I quit because I wasn’t excited. Can you imagine such a thing today? To leave security and stability because your life just isn’t dangerous or crazy or exciting enough? Such was the innocence before the Impact. So I left the boring to move to Africa, where the excitement was, and where I could write about things that shed light on life and death, not ennui or entertainment.
Prince took a job with European news agency Star News in 2017. His writing up until the Impact in 2023 was spare and fact-driven, although flashes of Prince’s eye for emotion could occasionally be seen. Prince would say of those years, “Everything I wrote back then was worthless, but it was also worth everything—because it was the mind-numbing limitation of facts and cold description that allowed me to view the Impact in its true light.” 
Excerpt from “Maldives’ Last Grain of Sand,” reported by Julian Prince (Star News, 2018)
Ahmed Manik sits in a rickety wooden boat, watching as a wave crests over a strip of sand. Manik is the grandson of Maldives’ last President, Mohammed Manik, and the strip of sand is all that’s left of the island country of Maldives, a country wiped away by global warming, rising water levels, and decades of mismanagement. Scientists don’t even bother estimating how long this last remnant of the former island nation will remain before it is washed away. It may be weeks, perhaps even days.
Manik shrugs when asked about the lost legacy of his family and former country. “We are all grains of sand, just waiting to be washed away,” he says and smiles, which accentuates the heavy creases around his eyes and mouth. He may have accepted the inevitable force of the rising waters, but it has taken a toll.
Prince was already in Africa during the six-month preparation for the Impact and thus didn’t have to take part in the Expatriation Lottery. He wrote many news articles during this time, but no fiction or essays. There is no record of Prince’s life for the 18 months following the Impact and the immediate global environmental catastrophe it caused. Prince would write about this time often, but never about his own life—only what he had seen.
Excerpt from “Immigration Concerns Dominate South African Presidential Debate,” reported by Julian Prince (Star News, 2023)
Cheers followed South African presidential candidate Maxwell Mahlangu on each stop of his tour of the country, despite deep concerns that his endorsement of the United Nations Emergency Emigration Plan for North America would upset the entire framework of the country. “Our country’s motto is ‘Unity in Diversity,’” Mahlangu said at a rally in Port Elizabeth. “How can we let these people die simply because we refuse to accept more diversity?”
Later in his speech, Mahlangu touched upon a common theme expressed by leaders across the globe as countries prepared to take in refugees from North America—no one really knows what the Meyer Asteroid will do to the world. With a massive death toll a certainty, the real economic unit of the future may be people, so taking in immigrants is a good idea: “No one knows what God has in store for us and what life will be like. In the future, with more people, South Africa will be stronger!”
Sitting president Jacob Sisulu rejected Mahlangu’s moral and economic argument. He continued to object to the UN’s current plan for South Africa to accept up to a million expatriates from the United States. “Such a wave of people would severely stress every part of our country,” Sisulu explained during a press conference in Pretoria. “They will starve! China or Russia or Europe should take them!”
In 2025, Prince’s essay “Coming Home” was published in Der Spiegel. It became a worldwide sensation and ironically helped create the New Optimism movement that Prince’s later work would reject. In the essay, Prince described the unloading of thousands of North American refugees in various cities along the African Coast, using the metaphor of humanity leaving its doomed colonial past to come home to Africa.
Literary critic Gerald King described the essay as the perfect origin point for both Impact Nihilism and New Optimism, and its publication immediately marked Prince as the leading light of post-Impact literature:
The central concept of “Coming Home” is warm and welcoming. Africa, the cradle of civilization, is welcoming home its wayward sons and daughters, even after their many sins. The deep themes of forgiveness and generosity fed directly into the New Optimism being loudly voiced in Europe. But many overlook that Prince did not flinch in describing the gaunt, guilty looks of those that exited the boats—a few million survivors while hundreds of millions of their friends and family members were doomed to die back home. The language that Prince uses in describing those left behind is very stark and makes it clear to the close reader that one should mourn, as well as celebrate.
The reception of “Coming Home” led directly to Prince tackling the difficult subjects of the Impact and “the Lost,” a term for those who died in the Impact that Prince coined himself inJourney Into Hopelessness.
Excerpt from “Coming Home” by Julian Prince (Der Spiegel, 2025)
Not one person who landed in Africa looked over his or her shoulder. It was as if the direction labeled “West” no longer existed. Sunsets were no longer a thing of beauty but a painful reminder of those doomed across the ocean, a literal dying light. Thoughts stopped at the ocean. It was overwhelming to consider friends and family alive yet suffering with the knowledge of their impending deaths.
Denial was the coping mechanism of choice. No one that landed in Africa could remember having any family or friends remaining in North America. I asked dozens of refugees, and none would admit to having left anyone behind. Friends, neighbors, colleagues, family—they all somehow made it into the expatriation program.
In Mogadishu I met a man I used to work with. I asked him about several of our former colleagues and whether he knew if they had been chosen to expatriate. He denied ever having known them. I was shocked for a moment, but recovered and asked about his family. He smiled and said that they all made it and were settling across various cities in Europe. He didn’t know anyone that had been left behind.
No one knew of anyone left behind.
To know was to be a participant in their death sentence, and that was too painful, too sad, too horrific. But the guilt existed, nonetheless. So they did what they could to avoid it. They didn’t look West. They didn’t watch sunsets. They never called or messaged North America, even as it still lived. They cut off their former lives and looked ahead to their new ones.
And thankfully, mercifully, Africa was there with open arms. A return to home and hearth, as it had for time immemorial, made everything better.
“THE CONSCIENCE OF A GENERATION”
Prince traveled back to North America to survey the damage from the impact in early 2026. He spent six months traveling across the continent with a United Nations Blue Team, observing and sometimes helping as they assessed the damage. This experience was the basis for his worldwide best-selling travelogue, Journey Into Hopelessness. His stark and often graphic descriptions of a barren landscape, littered with dead flora and fauna, were described by critics as “poetic,” “beautiful,” “poignant,” and “chilling.” Prince himself described the trip as the “hardest six months of my life. It was like performing an autopsy on your own parent.”
After returning from North America, Prince spent the next six months working on his first piece of fiction, the novel The Grey Sunset. The novel follows the life of Phil Gumm, who is a working class truck driver from Kansas and a winner of the Expatriation Lottery. The novel is highly introspective, and the narrative follows Gumm’s descent from exhilaration at being one of the lucky few to the depths of guilt over those he left behind. The bulk of the novel takes place on the journey from Galveston, Texas to Capetown, South Africa, and the physical journey is an extended metaphor for the emotional and spiritual journey that Gumm also takes. As Gumm physically gets closer to safety and a new life in Africa, he emotionally and spiritually gets closer to guilt, despair, and, eventually, suicide.
The book was released at the height of the New Optimism movement and was immediately heralded as a compelling counter. The phrase Impact Nihilism had already been in use since the publication of Journey Into Hopelessness and similar works, but it was The Grey Sunset that defined the genre and helped propel its popularity. The Grey Sunset won the Pulitzer Prize in 2027, which had been re-established by the Expatriation Heritage Foundation the year before.
Prince shied from publicity, and spent the bulk of the next two years working on what many consider his masterpiece, Rhythms of Decline. The novel is a complicated narrative of five families, each of whom lives on a different continent. The centerpiece is the impending impact of the Meyer Asteroid, and how each family deals with an uncertain future. Only one family survives the Impact, although their future is full of doubt as the novel ends.
Literary critic Malcolm Spencer described the book as “the work of unparalleled genius.” He described the American Smith family, as “the definitive representation of our times. They face impending death with a kind of sad and yet warm acceptance. They live one day at a time, knowing that days are all they have left.” Spencer described Prince as “the conscience of a generation” for his unflinching look at the tragedy of the Impact and the guilt and pain it left behind.
Some critics saw the book as a complete repudiation of New Optimism, and this led to significant criticism of Prince. London web daily The Beacon called Prince “The Prince of Doom and Gloom.” The Paris Review printed a scathing review of Rhythms of Decline, describing it as “one man’s self-absorbed journal of guilt over surviving the Impact.”
Prince did a series of interviews in the wake of the criticism. His most famous appearance was on the popular holo The New Day, broadcast out of Berlin. When asked about his critics, his reply became one of the most quoted lines of the post-Impact era: “I’ll listen to them when they’ve walked among the three hundred million ghosts that I have.”
Despite the controversy, Rhythms of Decline won the Pulitzer Prize and led directly to Prince being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature two years later.
Excerpt from Journey Into Hopelessness by Julian Prince (Vintage/Anchor, 2026)
Finally we landed in Texas.
When I was young my parents took me to Palo Duro Canyon in northwest Texas. It was a massive rift in the Earth that my mother told me God himself had carved out of the Texas plains. I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as a broken land born of violence, something left behind when the plains and hills had collided. But broken as it was, I saw it as natural and beautiful. The sharp angles and the bare rock acted as a balance to the plains that spread into the distance. And despite the wound in the land, life continued to thrive around it.
There is nothing natural or beautiful in the tortured land that now covers North Texas. The force of the impact stripped away everything. There are no trees, no plants, no grass. There is nothing but scarred land, windburnt ridges, and fetid water. Everywhere there is decay, death, and the certainty that this is a barren land with no future.
Excerpt from an interview on The New Tonight Show (Canal+, January 18, 2030)
Phil Preston: Speaking of your trip, there are rumors that you didn’t get along with the UN team during your visit to North America.
Julian Prince: Well, we spent six months together, so there were the normal conflicts, but I wouldn’t say that I didn’t get along with the team. I actually have a funny story about it.
Preston: You have a funny story? This I’ve got to hear.
Prince: Since this was officially a military mission for some idiotic reason, the scientists and I—all the civilians—had to take part in an orientation. The orientation was basically our team leader, Colonel Cooper, telling us over and over again that he was in charge and we had to listen to him. He was this husky bald guy with a kind of soft voice, but he had an intensity that made it clear he was used to people doing what he told them to do. His look and demeanor reminded me of Marlon Brando’s character of Kurtz from the movie Apocalypse Now, so when he finished I said something like, “Sure thing, Kurtz.”
Prince: I thought it was funny, too, but he didn’t seem to get it, and he marched over to me, put his nose right up to mine, and said, “The name is Cooper, and you can call me Colonel or Colonel Cooper.” Of course I called him Kurtz for the entire six months.
[Audience cheers and laughter]
Preston: I’m surprised he didn’t do anything.
Prince: I just assumed that he had no idea who Kurtz was, but during the last few days of the mission I said to him “I’m going to miss you, Kurtz.” No one else was around, so I hoped he realized that I meant it. He then shook his head and said—and I remember every word to this day—“You have been calling me Kurtz this entire trip, and I had hoped by now that you would have realized how foolish that has been.” He then leaned in and whispered in my ear, “You can’t go native when there are no natives.”
Preston: Wow. That’s intense.
Prince: I know. And people call me the Prince of Doom and Gloom!
[Scattered audience laughter]
Preston: Actually, do you mind that—when people call you the Prince of Doom and Gloom?
Prince: [Pause] Yes.
Preston: Well, you’ve dated Janet Skillings, so I’m guessing that being the Prince of Doom and Gloom hasn’t interfered much with your love life.
Prince: Well, being rich and famous helps.
Preston: So is there anyone in your life right now?
Prince: I’m afraid not. I live life one day at a time.
Preston: So what you’re saying is you’re only up for one-night stands.
Prince: Life is a one-night stand.
The next ten years of Prince’s life were marked by political activism. Violence in Africa and Asia led to the rise of the Repatriation Movement, which fought for the return of former North Americans to their home continent. While most countered the movement on practical grounds—North America simply wasn’t habitable yet—Prince saw the movement as something deeper and darker. He felt the movement was about rejecting Africa and Asia and the expatriates’ hosts more than a desire to return to their devastated homeland.
In a widely quoted speech in 2034, Prince said:
This is not a movement about returning home. This is a movement about rejecting friends. This is not a movement about finding comfort in familiar lands. This is a movement about fearing those who wish to help. This is not about repatriation. This is about rejection.
Prince was a prolific essay writer during this period, but nothing ever approached the popularity and power of his earlier work. His essay “Rejecting Home” (Der Spiegel, 2035) an acerbic and politically pointed update of his essay “Coming Home,” was described by critic Gerald King as “a sad attempt by Prince to leverage his earlier brilliance to make a point about what many are starting to see in him as a naïve perception of unity in people who want no such thing.”
Prince ceased his anti-repatriation activism when parts of North America were re-opened for settlements in 2038.
Excerpt from Rhythms of Decline by Julian Prince (Knopf, 2029)
Simon had hoped that all would be normal in the end. He would tuck Annie into bed, pat Arthur on the head, and then kiss them both goodnight. Jason would wander off, falling asleep to the dull glow of some video game or another. Later, Simon would poke his head in, mutter a goodnight, and then turn the electronics off. Finally, he and Annie would hold each other and let the night take them. That was his dream—that they would fall asleep as a family and never wake up.
Yet, somehow, this seemed better. Their tears, their grief, and their fear tapped into a well deeper than family ritual. They were together in a moment when being alone seemed profane and wrong.
Jason joined Simon and began to cry as they all held each other. No one said anything. They breathed the air that gave them life. They shared the love that made them family. They cried the tears that made them human.
And then they died.
LATER LIFE AND NOVELS
Prince lived the rest of his life in Capetown, South Africa. He only published three more novels; all were well-received but garnered far less praise than The Grey Sunset and Rhythms of Decline.
Countdown (Knopf, 2040) told the story of a young man named Franklin Proudman who had decided to repatriate to North America. Proudman lands and finds life a lot different than he expected. Much of the book is a rambling series of anecdotes around the hopeless efforts of Proudman to build a life. He eventually dies from starvation, the ground still too damaged to produce crops.
Lost in North America (Knopf, 2045) is Prince’s only foray into the science fiction genre. The novel tells the story of the Winkler family, who hide in a fallout shelter in Rapid City, South Dakota. Despite Rapid City being ground zero for the Meyer Impact, the family survives and exit the shelter a year later to rebuild their lives. When it becomes clear that there is no food or wildlife, the family begins a journey, foraging for food across North America. The book has clear allusions to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but the emptiness of the landscape provides for a uniquely Princean view. The book generated significant positive critical press.
Prince’s final novel, Crater (Knopf, 2056), was released the year before his death. The book continued his exploration of the dark aspects of repatriation. The novel follows a scientist, William Ho, and his assistant Wendy Singh, as they attempt to descend to the bottom of the Meyer Crater. Like Prince’s other novels, Crater is rife with introspection. As Ho and his assistant get closer to the bottom, they realize they are in love. It is when they have reached ground zero of the Meyer Impact when the two realize they have found their future together. The novel’s ending is ambiguous, as the two are attempting to climb out of the crater but are uncertain if they will ever escape. While thematically similar to his earlier novels, Crater employs a denser prose style, with long paragraphs that often include a stream-of-consciousness technique. Despite its ambiguity and often dark scenes, the novel was marked by some as a return to the optimism of “Coming Home.” Crater was a bestseller and re-established Prince as a popular figure in post-Impact literature.
Prince was romantically connected to several celebrities during his life, including actresses Renee Diaz and Janet Skillings. None of these relationships lasted more than a few weeks, however. In 2050, unofficial Prince biographer Susan Nillson announced that she had uncovered proof that Prince had left a girlfriend and child behind in North America. The document, a digitized copy of a Texas State birth certificate backed up on a European server, showed that Prince fathered a child named Samuel to a mother named Wendy Reynolds. Prince never acknowledged Nillson’s allegations, although most contemporary historians consider the claim accurate.
Excerpt from Julian Prince’s final interview (Paris Live!, 2056)
Aliette Rameau: You’ve achieved so much, Monsieur Prince. Do you have any regrets?
Rameau: Monsieur Prince?
Julian Prince: I’m sorry. Your question is a bit overwhelming. My life is full of regrets.
Rameau: Is there anything specific you could share with us?
Prince: No. [Takes drink of water] I’m sorry. Could we change the subject, please?
DEATH AND LEGACY
Prince died on August 20, 2057 in Capetown, South Africa, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He left no suicide note. Having died without any heirs, Prince bequeathed his literary estate and assets to The 300 Million Ghosts Foundation, which was founded to record, research, and archive the stories of those who died during the Meyer Impact.
Prince’s legacy continues to define and influence artists to this day. While Impact Nihilism has fallen out of fashion, Prince’s stark images and deep themes can be seen in everything from the paintings of Ellen Winslow to the music of the Bluefins. His use of introspection and stream-of-consciousness has influenced writers as diverse as Joe Lguyen and Isabel Shoeford.
The play “Coming Home” debuted on the anniversary of Prince’s death in 2058 at the Globe Theater in London. Adapted by Nobel-winning playwright Andrew Hillsborough, the play was an unabashedly optimistic look at a world that survived an extinction event and came away smiling. Hillsborough noted on BBC, “Oh, I’m sure old Prince would have hated it. But the words are all his. Somewhere along the way he changed. Just because he decided that facing the abyss meant that we were all doomed to fall in, doesn’t mean we have to agree with him.”
Epitaph on Julian Prince’s gravestone
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine (www.lightspeedmagazine.com) to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the March 2013 issue, which also features original science fiction by Rich Larson ("Let's Take This Viral"), along with SF reprints by Holly Phillips ("Three Days of Rain") and Angélica Gorodischer ("The Sense of the Circle"). Plus, there’s original fantasy by Sarena Ulibarri ("The Bolt Tightener") and Lisa Tuttle ("The Dream Detective"), and fantasy reprints by Felicity Savage ("Ash Minette") and Karen Joy Fowler ("Lily Red"). For our ebook readers, our ebook-exclusive novella is "Things Undone" by John Barnes, and of course we have our usual assortment of author and artist spotlights, along with feature interviews with acclaimed authors Philip Pullman and Angélica Gorodischer, and an excerpt of The Midnight Blue-Light Special by Seanan McGuire. You can wait for the rest of this month's contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99. It's another great issue, so be sure to check it out. And while you're at it, tell a friend about Lightspeed!