Yeah, because we’re so totally normal

Emma Collins

Hey, y’all, how’s it going? It’s Saturday morning for you. I’m writing this in the bubble, trying to be social instead of squirreling away in my room like we mostly do when we want to write something. It’s weird to look out the window at the sun and think that’s the same sun that’s shining down on brunches in Brooklyn, on playgrounds in Cleveland, on beaches in San Diego. It’s also incrementally baking the human race alive, so…six of one, half a dozen of the other, I guess.

The funniest thing I read this week was a community post on Five Years arguing that we’re the first crew of truly “normal” people going to Mars. “Ironically, this specialized crew of writers are the first people I can really relate to. Maybe it’s just because they can express themselves, but they seem like a nice change from the square-jawed space heroes and noble, boring educators who usually get shipped off.”

Yeah, we’re normal, I guess. For sure the most different thing about us, compared to you back on Earth, is just that we’re here. Here’s some more irony, though: “normal” was never anything that any of us, I think, was ever called back on Earth. We had to board an inflatable spaceship to Mars to start seeming like, whatever, just normal folks.

Now that we’re here, we do everything we can to try to make our lives seem normal—like, Earth-normal. We have movie nights and snack on these salty chips that are the closest thing to popcorn we can make. We have what Rona calls “family dinners.” We make artificial nights and artificial days.

One reason I decided to go to Mars is that it seemed like when I lived on Earth, I was really just living on the Internet anyway. It seemed like the most important people in my life were my Internet friends—and you are, you are you are, but the longer we’re up here, the more I realize that I had a life on Earth too.

I still have my Internet life, and now I’ll have a new life on another planet—which is thrilling, and what I thought I always wanted—but I find myself thinking back on stupid things that I’ll never have again. Things like brunch on a patio, like having a whole house to myself, like losing myself in a crowd of people who don’t know who I am. Like bowling at a grotty old bowling alley, with shoes full of fungus and drinks that are weak but it’s all okay because you have someone to kiss.

I’ll have someone to kiss again, I know. Maybe someday my life on Earth will seem like a relationship that you don’t think you could ever live without until suddenly you realize that you can, and in fact you’re better off. Maybe someday I’ll look back on it like high school: so important at the time because it was all you knew, but in the grand scheme of things, really just a passing phase of your life.

The phase of my life that took place on Earth has passed, and I think I’ll get over it. Right now, though, I miss it. I want to hug it to me like a pillow wrapped in a t-shirt from a homecoming game that was lost years ago.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Photo by Ginny (Creative Commons)

UN Flag

In praise of internationalism

Rona Boyle

Since the terms of our funding require this mission to comprise exclusively American crew members, I feel it’s important to state as plainly and as publicly as possible, on behalf of our entire crew, that we applaud the spirit of internationalism that has thus far characterized the process of Martian settlement. We hope it continues.

Writers have always been acutely aware of the poignant contradictions of nationalism.

On the one hand, we celebrate the parochial spirit in our art: we compile anthologies and teach classes on “American literature” or “Russian literature” or even “New York writing.” There are ample constructive reasons to do so: the best writing has always been rooted firmly in place and time, and regional networks of writers support and challenge one another. Even so, we’re painfully aware of the potential such activity has to encourage those who would valorize one “national character” over others.

On the other hand, we recognize the unique ability of literature to bridge barriers of space (as it were), time, and language. What is so specific to place and era as the writing of Chekhov—and at the same time, what is so universal? Shakespeare’s plays, like the music of Bach, have been reproduced and reinterpreted innumerable times precisely because those quintessentially Elizabethan works of literature carry such timeless insight into the universal human character.

It’s both apt and ironic, then, that the first Martian crew consisting entirely of writers also consists entirely of American writers. What a strange situation we now find ourselves in, both as humans and as artists: is the writing we produce to be counted as “American literature,” or should it now belong to an emerging “literature of space” or even “Martian literature”? The simple fact that I’m the first black writer to go into space makes this humble post, by definition, an important work of African-American literature—and yet, from here inside our tiny vessel on an interplanetary path, such a distinction somehow also seems utterly absurd.

I like to tell people that my high school—the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania—had no cliques because it was simply too small to accommodate such petty rivalries. Try as you might to exclude someone from your social circle, you could only do so for a short while before you inevitably found yourself working on a class project with her, or playing on her intramural sport team, or compelled by your mother to attend her birthday party. We all understood that maintaining the integrity of the whole was more important than defending any one little piece of social turf.

Thus far, the dynamic on Mars seems to have a similar quality. Of course there are short-lived tensions and disagreements, and the highly public nature of Martian life permits (indeed, seems to encourage) a sort of jostling for support in the vast public realm. Still, the bottom line is that one’s status as a Martian colonist is so much more overwhelmingly significant than any other status one might possibly have, and the stakes so high if relationships among the small number of settlers were to sour, that everyone seems to see reason at the end of the day—and no one goes to bed angry.

We can only hope that this spirit of empathy, good will, and sound reason continues to characterize relations among colonists as the population of Mars grows. Our lives may depend upon it.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

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Things you may not know about how our ship operates

Luke Demetrios

Thus far we haven’t much troubled to provide a detailed account of our ship’s functioning, because we’re aware of what a vast body of data you have available to you. After 16 prior successful missions, with videos and text constantly being transmitted back to Earth, those of you who care to know the workings of the Ibn Battutah can be practically as well-informed as we are. Still, there are some details you may not yet appreciate.

For example, you may not realize how much blood we’ve had floating around in zero-gee—unless, of course, you’ve been watching Scott’s vivid videos. Our small, sound-proof “rooms” provide a welcome escape from social interaction when we so desire (and we all often do), but after a time stopped up in a room, one tends to want to exercise large muscles and bounce about the bubble. As we’ve discovered on multiple occasions, for those still getting their “space legs,” this can be hazardous.

One of the most exhaustively well-documented aspects of the transit ships is their ability to reprocess liquid and solid waste into edible form. What has most surprised me about the system as it actually functions, though, is neither taste nor texture but the seeming inability of my shipmates to refrain from making scatological Captain Picard references while using the device.

There’s also the matter of graffiti. Since upon our arrival the bulk of the Ibn Battutah will be parked in orbit, at the end of a chain of prior transit vessels for potential emergency use only, there’s a sense among its crew that it will—indeed, should—function as a museum dedicated to the memory of our flight. Unsurprisingly given her profession, Amber has taken the lead on “customizing” her room with decorative markings. At Emma’s request, Amber has drawn on the walls of Emma’s room too. It seems inevitable that this practice will eventually spread to the public areas of the ship, though at present Captain Boyle (and NASA policy) forbids it.

Finally, you may be surprised—given the closeness of our quarters, and the several people packed into them—at how possible it is to move about the ship unnoticed. Here in my room, I have little sense of where my shipmates are; I can only presume they are for the most part where they were when I came into my room a short while ago. I can sense through vibrations when my immediate neighbors enter and exit their rooms, but I don’t know if anyone is entering and exiting with them—and I certainly have very little idea as to what’s happening on the other side of the interior stem. When all of us are in our rooms, as is the norm at night, a substantial amount of unobserved activity would be possible.

I’ve experienced this myself when, being unable to sleep, I’ve occasionally ventured out of my room at night to find myself alone in the bubble. With the interior lights deactivated, and my shipmates all stowed away, those have been the only occasions on which I’ve found myself truly enjoying the opportunity to look out onto the stars.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Photo: NASA


In my defense

Emma Collins

I knew it would be like this. I’m the crazy fangirl. Because I can list all of Linnea Barnes’s 38 lovers offhand, I “don’t have a life.” Because I have opinions about autogen anime, I’ve lost touch with reality—but you’d still be happy to be stuck on a spaceship with me, because you find me physically attractive.

I have my own fantasies, yes—and one of the reasons for that is so I don’t need to be yours. I know what I want, and what I want is a complete set of Ding-Ding mysteries in hard copy. (I left them with my parents.) More importantly, what I want is friends—Internet friends, yes—who respect that, and respect me. If you respected me, you wouldn’t treat me like a slot machine, pulling my levers to see if I pay out.

I’m way over paying attention to trolls, but this isn’t about the active trolls—the ones who try to get my goat. This is about the passive trolls, the ones who comment publicly about me and simply don’t care whether I see or not. Don’t you understand that you’re just as bad? You’re worse, in a sense, because you’re not even pretending to engage me in a dialogue. You’re just talking trash about me, and you don’t care who hears, even if it’s me.

I’m flying away from all of you at a speed I can’t even comprehend, really, sealed up in my little chamber here, but you’ll always be with me. If I thought I couldn’t continue my online life as I settled on Mars, I wouldn’t be going. I need it way more than I need an IRL life on Earth, and you know that—or you should know that—and yet you comment about me as though being physically far away (and kind of famous now, I guess) makes me blind and deaf to you.

I’m scared. Of course, I was scared to be on Earth too, but at least there—at least, in the moment, from hour to hour and day to day—it’s possible to imagine that nothing will ever change. I was a frog in a frying pan, and the heat was turning up so slowly that I couldn’t feel myself fry. I can feel this—feel the weightlessness, feel the cold, feel the isolation.

There are five other people with me, yes, but it’s like having a shelf of five thick books: they feel infinite until you spend some time with them. I’m not saying that my shipmates are boring, I’m saying that they’re finite. So am I, and so are all of you, but I’ve spent my whole life among billions of you.

I need you—I need all of you—to keep my grip on reality here, okay? You’re all part of my universe, more important than you’ve ever been. Every like, every comment, every follow, it’s all meaningful. When I check back and see I have a few thousand notes, that reminds me that life is going on, and that I’m still a part of it.

I know a lot of you are jealous, and I’m not telling you not to be. I’m just asking you to please be compassionate. If this wasn’t me out here, it would be someone else. Would you rather it be someone else?

Don’t answer that.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.


Bring on the interplanetary drama

Scott Kendall

Of course living on Mars will be like being on a reality show—that’s the main reason I’m going. Here are the ten people I’m most excited to hang out with.

10. Liz. Not just because People officially declared her the hottest person on Mars. I’m also interested in talking about her nonprofit aimed at funding Mars education in Earth schools. I 110% agree that kids should know all about a planet they’ll never get to go to.

9. Jim T. The only colonist who’s publicly requested a ride back to Earth if and when such transportation becomes available. I understand his reasons, but what I want to know is whether homesickness is really the most important reason—or whether this is really about his break-up with Ashley.

8. Ashley. Now that she’s single….

7. Imani. Everyone talks about Imani’s expertise in fighting infectious diseases, but what want to talk about is the fact that she’s the officially designated delivery doctor. What’s she going to do when the first Mars pregnancy occurs, and who is she betting it’ll be?

6. Isaac. The oldest man on Mars! Just six years from being the first-ever sexagenarian on the Red Planet! God willing this decision is still decades away, but…burn or bury, aren’t you curious?

5. Wei. Mars’s only officially certified rocket scientist. Has Jim asked him to build a ship that he can escape on? What does one bribe with on Mars, if not sexual favors?

4. Alice. The “crazy one,” according to Five Years. I think that’s a little harsh—just because she tried to plant a tree on Mars and made a one-woman show about it that she sold tickets to live-stream. That must have made her the richest person on Mars…now who’s crazy?

3. Stella. The only (formerly) professional writer on Mars, before our ship of fools arrives. Of course she says she’s retired, but it must be tempting to succumb to the demand for a sequel to her pseudonymous bodice-ripper. Sex in space: it’s the first, second, and third thing anyone ever asks about when they’re talking to a colonist. Stella could write the novel—ideally a thinly-veiled memoir—that could answer everyone’s questions and put the matter (so to speak) to rest.

2. Jacob. The sexy hydroponic farmer, runner-up to Liz in the hotness contest. How does he get that definition in his obliques? I was never much of a gym monkey before, but now that it’s doctor’s orders to work out at least two hours a day—an easy goal to meet, given that there’s nothing else to do up here—suddenly I’m following workout streams and flexing in the mirror. How can I stop being a weightless (75 pounds on Mars) weakling? Mars has plenty of sand for people to kick in my face, so I’m understandably nervous.

1. Charli. Who are you, Charli? In a Five Years poll, 67% of people say you don’t really exist, or that you died en routeand everyone is just covering for you. If I could get a Charli tell-all interview, my literary fame would be assured—or, at least, I could write something that would get 20 times as many readers as my novel did.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Mars 3-6

Our new home on Mars

Rona Boyle

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s seminal space-exploration novel Red Mars, the initial group of settlers on the Red Planet number 100—evenly split between Americans and Russians. When the Ibn Battutah lands on Mars, our six crew members will raise the population of the planet to just over 100; to 102, to be precise. We can only hope that space elevators and vastly expanded lifespans will quickly follow, as they do in Red Mars.

Like Robinson’s characters, though, we have to dig down before we build up; the diplomatically-named International Mars Colony exists increasingly under the surface of Mars, where colonists and equipment can be shielded from radiation and other environmental hazards more readily than above the surface under a giant dome (if only!). In our lifetimes, we’re not likely to see the colony rise very far above its rows of sturdy barracks.

The colony is rapidly expanding, however—both down and out. Each month brings a new shipment of colonists, and a new shipment of equipment to aid with the expansion. As the colony expands, our hope is that its capacity will grow geometrically. Even at the current pace of settlement, in a decade the colony will number nearly a thousand; the most optimistic hopes are that it might grow as large as several times that size.

Looking beyond that, as President Rey has said, America’s hope is that children being born today will have the opportunity to become colonists if they set it as a life goal and work consistently towards that goal. By century’s end, our hope is that the International Mars Colony will have built the capacity to spawn its own colonies—perhaps on the moons of Jupiter. That’s as far as we dare hope, rushed as this entire process has been by the rapidly deteriorating situation on Earth.

For the time being, though, what will our lives on Mars be like? They’ll be full of work, first and foremost. Our work is as writers and creators, and we’ve been assured that allowances will be made for us to spend significant time at our vocation, even if, perhaps, not quite as much as we’ve been able to spend on Earth. While the colony is stable and growing, all hands are needed to maintain the hydroponic farm and to insure that expansion efforts continue apace—lest we find ourselves with unexpected roommates.

Speaking of unexpected roommates, I’ve been mildly surprised—though certainly not shocked—to see how salacious gossip from the colony has become a central subject of fascination on Earth (and, surely, even more so on Mars). Those who choose to follow Five Years and other, even less respectful, content streams are apparently able to stay up-to-the-minute regarding the vicissitudes of relationships among colonists. We’re already being treated as the newest additions to a rapidly-growing reality show cast.

Regarding this matter, I can only say that we’ve been strongly advised not to feed the beast with social media postings of an inappropriately personal manner, and I for one certainly intend to comply with that common-sense guideline.

Our new lives on Mars will be full of challenges, to be sure—both physical and psychological. I think I speak for my entire crew, though, when I say that we’re all excited to land and to play our landmark role in this exciting chapter of human space exploration.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Image: NASA


Can there be literature in space?

Abby Knapp

So now we know how Scott feels about science fiction, but I’ve never given much thought to genre distinctions. Whether 1984 is literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, or smut seems less relevant than whether it’s an effective novel. Clearly it is, and I think my shipmate is being disingenuous to pretend there are no other effective novels being shelved under the heading of “science fiction.”

As a writer heading into space—already in space, in fact, and getting deeper into space by the minute—I’m less concerned with the long shadow of speculative fiction than with the change in my own existential status. If a piece of literature is a bridge between writer and reader, how far can the writer journey before that bridge breaks? It’s not an idle question, and it’s one that concerns each of us on the Ibn Battutah.

Books have bridged vast distances before, of course. Things Fall Apart connected Chinua Achebe to the little Massachusetts girl I was 15 years ago. The Illiad connected me with a fantastic world that was millennia gone. Surely a quick hop to Mars, by a writer who’s spent her entire life to date on Earth, can’t present a greater impediment than literature has already overcome.

So I thought before lift-off. My challenge now is to communicate just how alien this environment already feels, how divorced I am from my previous existence. I’m stymied in any attempt to put this special brand of thrilling terror into words; to explain what it means to be secure in this tiny plastic chamber surrounded by a balloon the size of a rec room, itself surrounded by an environment more implacably hostile than any found on Earth—save perhaps the deepest of sea trenches, but even then you’re only several miles from breathable air.

I’ve lost track of how many miles from Earth we are now. I feel like the rabbits in Watership Down, conscious of having reached a point that’s beyond my capability to comprehend. Like those rabbits, I’m exploring a new frontier because I have to. Whether I like it or not, disaster is set to befall my home planet, and for all the hazards this journey entails, statistically I’m likely to enjoy—if that’s the word—a longer life on Mars than on Earth.

That, too, comes between us—between me and you, my readers. You’re still on Earth; at least, the vast majority of you are. A few of you will be able to leave in coming years, but most of you will have to fend for yourselves as best you can in an environment that is already beginning to choke you.

It’s strange that I’m able to so frankly articulate that fact: something most people on Earth are unable or unwilling to do. What choice have you but to continue putting one foot in front of the other, hoping for the best and enjoying the small satisfactions of daily life? A global panic might be the only thing that could save Earth now—if every single human were to orient their full efforts towards stopping the damage you’re doing, and undoing the damage that’s been done—but a panic could alternately, or additionally, serve to accelerate that destruction. Maybe it’s just as well that no panic seems imminent.

Did you notice what I did in that last paragraph? I said you’re. You and I are now different: you’re an Earthling, and I’m a Martian—or soon to be. Is there anything left to be said between us?

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Photo by Claire Whitehouse (Creative Commons)

Science Fiction

Science fiction is stupid

Scott Kendall

Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” He was so pleased with himself that he kept having his characters from the future quote that line, attributing it to some long-forgotten genius. That’s typical of the self-congratulatory utopianism that largely defines the genre, which continues to ironically thrive even as it becomes increasingly clear that for the foreseeable future, our most “magical” of technologies will be those we develop to save our asses.

Yes, I know there are ample dystopias in science fiction—but such half-ass dystopias! Since Orwell—whose masterpiece pointedly inverted the digits of the year in which he was writing, as though there was any doubt that his concern was the present rather than the future—imagined future dystopias have largely been, merely, evocative settings for the same sort of conventional melodrama you’re apt to find in any sort of genre fiction.

“Billy Bozo, I wouldn’t sleep with you unless you were the last man on…oh. Well, here we go, then!”

If I were to formulate a Kendall’s Law, it would be that great science fiction is an impossibility, because (I offer this proof):

I. The ostensible defining characteristic of science fiction is its imaginative depiction of a future milieu.

II. Therefore, the less daringly that future world is imagined, the less effective a work is as science fiction.

III. The more daringly a future world is imagined, the more energy the writer needs to spend explaining that world and the characters’ relationships to it.

IV. The more energy needs to be spent explaining that world, the less room there is to explore the enduring truths of the human experience.

V. The exploration of the enduring truths of the human experience is, simply, the reason fiction exists at all.

VI. Therefore, the more effective a work of science fiction is, the less reason it has for existing at all.

This inherent contradiction is perfectly illustrated by the work of Clarke himself—near-universally acclaimed by genre partisans as a titan of the field, but so inept or uncaring regarding his characters as distinct human beings that if their names didn’t vary, you’d have no idea at all whose experiences he was describing.

“You’ve never liked science fiction, though,” you observe. “Why bother to use the bully pulpit of your Mars-bound trajectory to trash a genre for which you care little and about which you know even less?”

Good question, my imagined interlocutor—except you’re not really imagined, you’re a distillation of all the innumerable nincompoops who’ve tugged my sleeve since this crew was announced to ask whether I’ve started reading science fiction (which I’m careful not to refer to as “sci-fi,” as I’ve been told that’s a term used only by dilettantes—though perhaps I ought to openly advertise myself as such).

No, I haven’t. I read what was absolutely necessary to meet my basic requirements in grammar school, high school, college, and graduate school—funny how the closer you get to the doctoral level, the fewer science fiction books are required as part of an English literature curriculum—and I’ve left it at that. To my mind, if science fiction writers kept the “science” to themselves and left the “fiction” to the proper literary establishment, we’d all be better off.

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Morning on Earth

My last morning on Earth

Luke Demetrios

On the day I left, I woke up even earlier than I had to. The sun hadn’t risen, and though I hadn’t felt a particular sense of urgency in the weeks and months leading up to our departure, I suddenly felt a need to escape. I felt as though the atmosphere was pressing down on me, choking me.

I made the bed. I showered and I dressed. I had a small bag packed—a duffle containing everything I’d be allowed to bring. I brought my favorite warm hat, and a painting my uncle did, and a cross my mom wanted me to bring. It was difficult to decide what to put in that bag. If you can’t bring everything, why bring anything?

My dad offered to make whatever I wanted for my last meal on Earth, but I told him to make whatever he would have made anyway. “Remember,” I said, “I’m not dying.”

“I know,” he said. “I know, yes, yes, I know.” He made tofu scramble, with chives.

The TV wasn’t on as usual when we sat down to eat, and I knew it was because my parents were thinking we should have a real conversation over our last breakfast together—as though our small talk would somehow be more meaningful, more worthy of our full attention. I just wanted things to be the same as always, so I turned on the TV. I thought there might be something about our crew on the news, but there wasn’t.

As we drove to the space center, I considered asking my parents if they’d be glad to get back to our apartment after spending six months in an extended-stay hotel. That seemed too broad, though, so I asked if they’d seen our neighbor’s new haircut on Facebook. Mom hadn’t, Dad had. “You’ll hardly recognize her,” I said.

Mission Control has departing crew members arrive at staggered times, so there isn’t one giant scene at the spaceport door. I was the first in my crew, and the sun was just rising as we parked in the slowly filling lot. The orange lights were still buzzing overhead. We climbed out of the car and walked slowly across the lot. My mom took my arm.

When we reached the door, we just stood there for a minute. “Excuse me,” said a custodian who had to get through, and we stood aside.

“Well,” said Dad, “go make a mess on Mars.” He gave me a tight hug, and said, “I love you.”

“I love you too, Dad,” I said.

I turned to my mom. “I love you so, so much, Luke,” she said, “and I’m so proud of you.”

I hugged her, and I could feel her starting to shake. “I love you,” I said, pulling away and looking at them one last time. “I love you both.” At that point it was best to make it quick, so I turned and walked through the door, almost running towards my locker as I listened to hear the door click shut behind me.

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Photo by ClickFlashPhotos (Creative Commons)