‘A dark, vast emptiness within, as boundless as the universe outside’—Read an excerpt from Alistair Mackay’s debut novel It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

The JRB presents an excerpt from It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way, the debut novel from Alistair Mackay.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way
Alistair Mackay
Kwela, 2022

Read the excerpt:

The sound of a thunderstorm breaking over the highveld. Dark clouds gather on the horizon. Lightning branches out over golden plains and acacia trees. Malcolm has his alarm set to randomised natural noises and scenes in the windows so that he doesn’t come to despise any particular tone. He taps the thumbs-down emoji to make sure this scene never wakes him up again. Too dark and dramatic. He rolls onto his back. Opens Somno to see if he recorded any new dreams last night, but there are no new files in the library.

He rises, showers. Scalding hot water, lemon and tea-tree shower gel. He drinks a coffee while he dresses. Another one downed by the front door on his way out. The bomb squad has found no other devices. The office is open again.

Outside, the air is a pleasant twenty-five degrees, almost completely windless this far from the air vents along the base of the Wall. He can hear them, though. He can always hear them. Low, sibilant humming. He glances up at the tower of black smoke coming from somewhere in Kapelitsha. The mountain is lost somewhere in the dark blur of a sandstorm. He turns up the music in his ears and steps onto the curb. It’s a larger pod that pulls up, one of the multi-passenger vehicles that are styled to look like the minibus taxis they replaced. ‘Siyaya’ it says on the back. Three rows of four seats. The door even slides open to make it feel authentic. Malcolm scans his wrist over the payment pad. He finds a seat in the back row. It’s surprisingly full considering how few people want to take multi-passenger pods these days, but no one talks. Do Not Disturb is activated in most passengers—little pinpricks of red light glow in their earlobes—and their eyes are silvery opaque.

Malcolm drops his destination pin into the navigator system and switches his eyes to ‘media’. 

There’s nothing interesting on social, yet again. Stupid memes and empty, performative outrage. He starts an episode of one of the new shows the algorithm keeps punting at him: Endless Night, a look at the fashion and food trends of New Washington, Antarctica. Many items on the show are clickable, and he finds himself filling his cart with ‘essentials to help you adjust to life at the poles’ before berating himself and closing the show.

He clears his eyes and watches the high-rise buildings and neat lawns pass by. He listens to a podcast about art rescue and preservation in abandoned cities. When his office block approaches, he turns to the man sitting beside him—an old habit that still kicks in sometimes, the urge to smile and say goodbye—and finds the man stabbing himself in the thigh with a small, blunt knife. The man’s right hand is pale from the pressure of his grip on the knife’s handle. He pushes slowly and shakily downwards until the blade pierces the fabric of his jeans. A small intrusion into the flesh. The grimace on the man’s face relaxes.

‘Oh my god.’

The man ignores him. Looks straight ahead. He twists the blade, pulls it out, moves it over a few centimetres and starts pushing into his thigh all over again. ‘Stop!’ Malcom cries. The black jeans have obscured all of the punctures, all the blood. There are multiple tiny, bright wounds along the top of the man’s thighs, Malcolm sees now. Jagged little bowtie shapes oozing blood, the flesh pale at the edges. Malcom tries to grab the man’s hand to stop him. In the process, his own forearms push down into the warm, wet fabric. The man lets out a wordless groan. Malcolm lets go. His forearms are streaked in blood.

‘Malcolm,’ says the pod, cheerful and British-inflected, ‘please would you exit the vehicle. This is your stop.’

‘Can someone help me?’ Malcolm says. He grips the man’s hands again and strains against his unexpected strength. The other passengers sit in silence, lost in virtual worlds. Their Do Not Disturbs are set to deactivate only when they reach their destinations.

‘How can I help?’ says the pod. ‘Is an object blocking your path?’

‘Stop it!’ he yells at the man.

The man seems to hear him for the first time. He turns to face Malcolm. His corneas are clear, his pupils so dilated there’s almost no iris around them. Empty black holes, letting all the light pour in. He is not virtualling, and yet he seems not to see Malcolm. He stares into another world, but if it isn’t virtual, what is it? Chills down Malcolm’s spine. Is this the abyss Malcolm is running from? A dark, vast emptiness within, as boundless as the universe outside. The man’s face is lined and weathered. Tears move silently down his cheeks. The look of anguish makes Malcolm let go of his hand.

‘You did this,’ the man says, but he can’t be talking to Malcolm. He doesn’t see him and he doesn’t wait for Malcolm to respond. He turns his face away, again. He starts pushing the knife into his leg.

‘Malcolm,’ comes the pod’s voice, programmed to sound less cheerful on the second warning, ‘please exit the vehicle now.’

Malcolm cleans his forearms in the BetaMinds bathroom. The blood brightens at first, as it rehydrates on his skin. He scrubs under his nails. He scrubs his skin in the hot water long after the water runs clear. He splashes cold water on his face. That man is going to die. He’ll bleed out right in front of those passengers. Maybe someone will turn around and see him as they’re getting out, but probably they won’t. They won’t help him. They won’t even know it’s happening right beside them.

Malcolm’s forearms are pale and slick and a different kind of red from the heat and the scratching of his fingernails, but he can’t stop scrubbing. He can’t feel clean. Why does he care so much about a stranger going mad? Is it that he didn’t help Viwe either? And then Viwe went mad. Malcolm thought he was powerless to help, but he wasn’t. He could have done something. Anything. He remembers sitting at the hospital cafe with Viwe, Viwe’s mother dying in one of the beds upstairs, Viwe drowning in grief, and what did Malcolm do? He spoke about uploaded consciousness. He spoke about avoiding death. Why didn’t he just hug Viwe? Why didn’t he sit with him in silence and let the guy cry? 

The bathroom mirror is steamed up. Water runs clear over the white porcelain of the basin and disappears down the plughole. What did the man in the taxi mean when he said Malcolm did this to him?

Malcolm shouldn’t read too much into the ramblings of a madman, but it’s frightening. It’s contagious. There are so many madmen these days. It’s spreading. Men and women who talk to themselves in the park, the conspiracy theorists online. Malcolm can’t believe some of the comments that crop up whenever anyone shares anything on social—outlandish, illogical accusations. We’re controlled by lizards. The minister is a Satanist. The administration is in cahoots with aliens. The pandemics are engineered. Malcolm usually ignores these people’s ramblings. He’s irritated by their intrusion into every discussion. But their numbers are swelling. 

And it’s harder to look away when the madness shows up as sadness rather than anger. That feels relatable. That feels like he could catch it.


  • Alistair Mackay’s short stories have been published in numerous journals as well as in the anthologies Queer Africa and Queer Africa II, which was a finalist in the 2017 Lambda Literary Awards. He holds an MA in Politics from Edinburgh University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. Raised in Joburg, he now lives in Cape Town.


Publisher information

Debut novel explores resilience and relationships amid cataclysmic climate collapse.

In Cape Town in the near future, a vast arid slum is almost all that is left of the city after cataclysmic climate collapse has wreaked havoc on the land. Only The Citadel is sheltered from the harsh realities of the outside world. But at what cost? Here people pass their days lost in virtual reality, courtesy of a biotech implant connected to their mind, blind to what is really going on. How did things get so bad in such a short time?

Spanning from the present day until this dystopian fate, It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way traces the story of three men as they face the rapid unravelling of the world around them. Luthando’s environmental activism leads him to a clash with the government. His life partner, Viwe, becomes embroiled in religious end-of-days fanaticism. And their friend Malcolm is worried that his work in the technological augmentation of human memory is being used for sinister purposes.

A story about resilience, and our capacity for love in the face of fear.

‘A bracing read.’—Siya Khumalo

‘Revolutionary. Vulnerable. Chilling in its relevance.’—Mia Arderne

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