The things we carry…into space

Abby Knapp

Proponents of “living small” will appreciate our interplanetary lifestyle. We each have a “room” barely big enough to fit our own bodies in, and we were each allowed one carry-on when boarding the Ibn Battutah. Just one. On the up-side, all luggage fees have been paid by the MacArthur Foundation.

A few days in, we had a show-and-tell session where each of us revealed what it was we chose to bring. We’d discussed our choices extensively before take-off, but for lack of anything more compelling to do out here in the void, we opened our suitcases (standard issue) and each displayed at least some of their contents.

Interestingly, each of us brought at least one book. It seems like a waste of weight to launch hard copies into orbit, but we’re all writers, and we all turn out to have physical books that are important to us. I brought a signed Housekeeping first edition that I bought in Iowa. Rona brought a Clive Irwin poetry book, the first book her press ever published. Amber has her favorite issue of the Stars & Bleeding Hearts comic.

We also each brought at least one piece of clothing. I brought my favorite sweater. Emma brought lingerie—she doesn’t like the government-issued underwear. Scott brought a scarf. Apparently clothes are brought very commonly, and there’s practically a thrift store’s worth at the colony already. One colonist is trying to crowd-fund her own clothing line using synthetic fabrics, although there’s no immediate prospect of anything other than Martian crust samples being shipped back to Earth.

Luke actually brought less than his allotment would have allowed: a physics reference book, seven copies of his favorite hat, and something he says his mom asked him to bring that he doesn’t want to share with us.

Rona brought a piece of Earth: specifically, a rock. She says she deliberately didn’t try to choose a special rock. She walked down to the bank of the Mississippi River and picked up the first hand-size rock she noticed. Choosing a rock that looked unusual or that had special value, she said, would just have reminded her of humans’ problematic relationship to their home planet.

I chose my belongings—the bag of items that now, for all practical purposes, are my only belongings in the world—by process of elimination. I piled all the things I thought I might want to bring into a heap on the living room floor, and one by one I removed the least essential items. When I was left with enough to fit into my bag under the 20-pound limit, I packed it up.

It was liberating to free myself of all the detritus that seemed so essential to my life for 30 years. I don’t need keys any more, or a phone, or a wallet or a purse. I don’t need furniture. I don’t need jewelry. I could have brought some—Rona and Amber and Emma did—but there will never again be an expectation that I’ll have a necklace or earrings to wear to an event.

Of course, we’ll find new trappings to cling to on Mars. Within a few years, we’ll be able to have almost anything on Mars that we had on Earth and that we really want. We just won’t be able to have everything, we’re told—as if, on Earth, we ever could have.


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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?


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Photo by Claire Whitehouse (Creative Commons)

What are we escaping from?

Abby Knapp

We’ve left Earth behind, and I find it impossible to understand what that means. I don’t know when it will seem real—when it will stop feeling like an exotic vacation that began with a press conference, when it will begin feeling like my new reality.

When the initial burn was complete and we were granted permission to move about the ship, there was a feeling of, almost, giddiness. Freedom from our restraining straps was welcome, but there were additional layers of freedom we were being granted for the first time. Freedom from prying eyes, freedom from safety classes…and, of course, freedom from Earth.

The irony is that our escape vessel, though it seems large now, will doubtless feel tiny in eight months’ time. It’s also unclear how much less restrictive our new permanent home will feel once we’re settled there. Right now it’s about the size of a mid-sized shopping mall, home to 96 people that will number 102 when we arrive.

It’s also challenging to imagine the audience for this post. Before I began this journey, I knew who my audience was: the people who read literary journals and creative non-fiction, maybe the occasional book club. Some of them were much older than me, some of them a bit younger, but we were all much more similar than we were different.

At a minimum, my readers and I shared the same existential conditions: we were all living on the same planet, breathing the same air, facing the same future. Now, that’s all changed. I’m heading to a newly colonized world, a world that only few of you will ever experience first-hand. I’m writing both to my new neighbors on that world and to my former neighbors on Earth.

Though I’m alone in this chamber now, alone writing these words, and largely alone in space with just five companions, I have the company of billions in trying to understand the circumstances of my departure. Is it even possible to understand that the essential stuff of life is liable to be sucked away? I might come to understand that with a terrifying immediacy if we encounter a meteorite in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the vacuum of entropy that’s working inexorably upon Earth is stranger, more complicated, more tragic insofar as it was once within our power to avoid.

It’s the truest of writers’ garrets I occupy now: a small cell in a thin cylinder surrounded by a balloon floating so high above Earth that it’s no longer truly above the planet, it’s alongside it in orbit. Bruce Chatwin couldn’t have wished for anything more remote, but what would he have thought about my ability to reach billions of readers in moments simply by clicking the publish button?

While his travel stories were filtered through so many layers of intervening experiences and interpretations that they were published as fiction, the veneer of fiction is a luxury I don’t have. You all know exactly who I am, and my reports can be checked against not only photographic and videographic evidence, they can be cross-referenced with the reports that will be filed by my shipmates on a regular basis.

In all this vastness, my mind remains the only space where I am a unique reporter. Do you trust me?


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Photo: NASA