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 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.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

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.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Photo by ClickFlashPhotos (Creative Commons)

As the balloon lifts

Emma Collins

I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I can’t stop this thing!

I’ll miss you, Luna! Do be good to your backers. Press yourself to tell new stories every day! Don’t resort to custom nudes. They’re against the terms of service, anyway.

Goodbye, Chank! Always remember, you’re better than the commenters say you are—even if not by much!

Farewell, Lily! I pray that James comes to terms with your new swingers’ lifestyle. It’s the right choice for you! It’s the right choice for yoooouuuuuu!

Oh, Will! You keep being your sweet self! Tell that possessive bitch that your Internet friends have been telling you to dump her ass for years, and that if it’s us or her, you choose us! You do, don’t you? Oh, please say you do!

LucyG00se! Oh, G00sey! I know things haven’t always been easy between us. We never could decide whether Daneel or Giskard would be on top, but darling, Earth had room enough for both of us, and now it doesn’t have to! Please let’s bury the hatchet! And yes, yes, oh, yes, that is a euphemism, my love!

Clay…sweet Clay! I’ll never forget when we met IRL and we spent all night together, watching other people’s lava lamps and talking about our hopes and dreams. We knew by sunrise, I think, that you would become my next publisher—and my most successful one at that! If it hadn’t been for the New Heidi Chronicles, why, I don’t think I’d be here, flying away from you at a ten miles a second! Oh, the irony! Little Longstocking is weeping into her braids, and I’m weeping into a vacuum!

Goodbye, Baroness. I feel I can hardly see you any more, we’re getting so high up. Can you hear me? Can you trust that I love you? I know you’re there, and I know you—know you better than any of the beings who surround you, down there on the dirty blue planet. You’ve let me in, and I hope that distance won’t change our relationship. I’m only now understanding that somehow, I always thought we’d come together in some room somewhere—come together and hug, maybe even spoon. I fear that the removal of that possibility will change things, and I don’t know why. We’ve never needed that before. Talk to me, my lady. I’ll be listening.

Maggie! Send dick pics! No one draws Coriander’s throbbing member with such precise, affectionate detail as you, Mags. Without you, I feel, he wouldn’t really have a penis at all—and then what would Brussels do? He’d be bereft, simply bereft.

All of you—goodbye, goodbye! I don’t know how to work this thing, and can only hope it catches a fair wind! I’m carrying all of you with me in my pocket, and I’ve already wept over that pocket. Look for me in the places you’ve always found me, and I promise, I promise, I will be there. I’m here for all the world, but I’m there for you. Please come to see me, and when I knock, please let me in. I need you all now, more than ever.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Thank you for supporting our historic mission

Rona Boyle

We are the 18th Mars settlement crew, and—thanks to the generosity of the MacArthur Foundation—the first crew to consist entirely of artists. The existence of this mission represents Earth’s affirmation that artistic expression is at the core of the human experience.

Nearly a century ago, recorded music was included on the Voyager spacecraft so that any beings who might encounter it would understand that we are a species that makes art. Our mission represents the next stage in that journey, as we venture forth committed to using all our powers to document our experience in writing: the most substantial commitment yet to ensuring creative expression—at the highest levels—is an integral part of our space exploration program.

That documentation has already begun, with initial essays by three of our six crew members. Though we’ve demonstrated the ability to work together constructively as a crew, we’re all quite different in our approaches to writing—so you may expect a colorful array of dispatches from our small craft and, ultimately, from Mars.

That said, for my part I am choosing not to share any original poetry until we land. My method must change as my circumstances change, and I can’t imagine being comfortable with any newly composed verse until I am comfortably situated in my new home.

For the duration of these eight months, I will focus on straight reportage—not as much of a novelty to me as you might imagine, given that I’ve written innumerable letters, reports, and grant applications. To me, this feels like merely the latest edition of my monthly e-mail missive to supporters of the Press—without the request for donations (that may come later).

While Scott is correct that my logistic responsibilities are few, I do take them very seriously—as do I take my symbolic responsibility as the first among equals, the spokesperson for our small band of interplanetary literary explorers.

Among our number there is a professor of English literature, author of one of his generation’s most acclaimed novels; a penetrating essayist whose audience has expanded rapidly in recent years; a graphic zine artist who brings a unique do-it-yourself aesthetic and an important voice; a fiction writer who specializes in reimagining characters and situations created by her peers and predecessors; and a young prodigy who is as capable in science and mathematics as he is in writing.

Free expression is our mandate, and our privilege, as we traverse the finite yet almost incomprehensible distance between Earth and its planetary neighbor. There will doubtless be dashes of humor in addition to meditations on the profoundest of subjects.

Please know that in the mere act of reading these dispatches, you support our historic mission. If you find them of interest, please consider sharing them with others. While we’ve been pleased to have widespread attention and support, in today’s hectic media landscape there’s always something new to turn one’s attention to, and I know I’m not alone in fearing that we may drop off the radar, so to speak, as we slip away from our native planet.

One’s mind cannot help but reel as one contemplates the vast void surrounding our tiny craft, which we have chosen to name the Ibn Battutah in honor of the 14th century Arab explorer who was perhaps the first travel writer in the sense we understand that practice today.

We were pleased to discover that the most prominent previous vessel bearing that name was an early 21st-century dredger (pictured above) from the tiny, landlocked nation of Luxembourg. We can only hope that our craft shares its namesake’s qualities of workmanlike efficiency and merry absurdity. Let the journey begin!

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Photo: Ibn Battuta, via Facebook

In space, no one can hear you fart

Scott Kendall

I just put it out there: what if we agree to fart freely? In these tight quarters, there’s going to be no hiding it for long if you do the nasty, so when the need arises, we might as well just let fly—that way, at least everyone else will have an audible warning. I also suggested that we give the entire crew a blanket exemption from saying “bless you” after someone sneezes. Neither motion passed.

Not that we have a democracy: that’s been made clear. Rona is the captain, the officially designated decider of any decisions that may need to be made. She won’t have much to do, though; ideally, in fact, she won’t have anything at all to do. The flight plan is completely automated, and everything that’s not controlled by the onboard computer is controlled remotely from Earth.

Basically, then, she’s the arbiter of arbitrariness. She’s gone from running an acclaimed small press to running a light switch—but her reward, besides getting off the third hellhole from the sun, is that she’ll be the one to publish the first-ever hard copy book printed on another planet. She even got a special grant for it.

Our training for this trip was a cross between Space Camp and a corporate retreat. For better or worse, if anything on the flight goes wrong, it will go really wrong, and that will be that—so NASA didn’t see the need to bother with much technical training. (There was a calculus refresher, presumably so we’ll be ready in the event that we need to recalculate our course with a sextant.) Most of their fears, apparently, involve us killing each other before we get to Mars, so there was a lot of kum-ba-ya bonding time.

I honestly don’t know whether any crews have started preparing in private—it wasn’t like once we got into orbit there was a HAL-style revelation where we were clued in on the secret machinations of the Mars missions. I don’t think the President is being prepped to go, I’ll say that—though if I was in her position, I’d be pulling all the strings to get my ass to Mars. That’s one of the reasons I’m sitting here instead of in the White House, I guess—that, and the fact that Jimmy Carter was probably as close as the country will ever get to making an English professor President.

Having gone through the prep process, I don’t know how it could be secret, really. The only way that could work would be with the kind of social isolate who doesn’t have any friends, and who the hell would want that guy to be on his ship? Plus, if people started bolting to Mars out of the blue, that would only increase the security risk—and another Crew 12 could sink the entire program.

They told us not to look at Two Years, but of course I did—and I’m guessing everybody else does too—so I’m well aware that I was consistently pegged as the lowest risk to jump ship. Their record is pretty good—including with our crew, since they totally called it with Paul and Jyothi bailing at six months—so I figured they were right, there was next to zero chance I’d change my mind about going.

Of course, I thought we’d be able to tear ass at will.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Photo: NASA

Earth is dying

Luke Demetrios

It may seem callous or alienating—so to speak—to detail Earth’s status in a post written from a spaceship flying forever away from it and leaving billions behind, but it’s necessary to establish the reason for our flight.

Though many continue to insist that the Mars colonization is a matter of pure exploration, that’s disingenuous at best. Pure exploration could be much more efficiently accomplished with unmanned craft, and wouldn’t justify the enormous expense of building a colony on another planet.

Too, there are those who continue to insist that the degradation of Earth’s climate is merely cyclical, or reparable by a sort of reverse terraforming—undoing what we’ve done. The latter remains a possibility, but I wouldn’t be on this ship if I were confident that it will succeed.

The vast efforts being exerted in that direction are as likely to backfire and make the situation worse as they are to improve the situation, if and when the global powers allow for their enactment. What I fear to be the most likely outcome of those efforts is a haphazard rollout, with various nations independently pursuing different solutions, the collective result of which will be to accelerate the slide of the planet’s climate into, literally, a hot mess.

To put it baldly, I do not have confidence that Earth will remain inhabitable for the remainder of my natural life. Beyond the direct results of the planet’s warming, continued deforestation and increasing population may strain Earth’s ecosystem to the point where agriculture on the required scale becomes untenable; the air itself may even begin to become unbreathable.

Human efforts to cope with these changes are already making the problem even worse, more rapidly consuming the planet’s natural resources. It’s unsustainable: the only escape is into a completely artificial environment. That may, of course, be built on Earth, but there it will be too dangerous. Everyone will want to get in, and no one will want to leave. Even the strongest powers won’t be able to fortify themselves against the growing hordes, fighting for their very lives.

We’d like to believe that’s merely a dystopian nightmare, but at the turn of the century we wanted to believe that a six-degree temperature rise by mid-century was a wild fantasy. It’s now a reality. Weather is now so severe that if I remained on Earth, it’s my estimation that no matter where I lived, I’d be lucky to survive long enough to starve.

Among the many clamoring to venture to Mars, I was one of the few people with the right qualifications in the right place at the right time. I would have been a fool not to take the opportunity to join the new colony, whatever personal sadness it brings to leave my friends and family behind with little hope of ever seeing them in person again.

The large majority of my life is still ahead of me, and in time, Earth will simply be my hometown—a hometown to which I can never return, and that is a reality I have accepted.

The prospect of helping to settle a new world is inviting, and the opportunities for discovery, both scientific and personal, are undeniable. At this journey’s outset, however, I think it’s important to state clearly that I don’t take this as a mission to Mars: I take it as a flight from Earth.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Photo: NASA

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?

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Photo: NASA

plastic star ceiling

Fiction and Poetry

he took a picture of me in a flat brown house in alabama

wearing a black bandanna wrapped around my chest like a

white flag we didn’t know then that the spring always ruined

everything for us, sent me leaving bus tickets were

another way to say i can’t say sorry & i said i know

getting off the bus dragging my trash bags from the bottom of it

a girl & i smiled and she gave me a bag of honey chex mix

and trazodone i was listening to acid bath when i fell asleep

and that was his favorite band a year later i would be scraping

something soft and powder white from a jar not angel dust

but all of heaven in its pure form & he said kayla your bones

are starting to show in the back i said good & realized that

without trying i had made him into my father the real kind not the

one he was not the call me daddy kind of daddy but the one who

lifts you up on his shoulders when youre small so you can see

the whole world i was that girl once hair in my face his head below me

below bedsheets his mouth to my ground and i bled hard all over him

not my period but he felt like that like an ending they say a girl

compares every boy to her father and i do

i do

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Photo by David DeHetre (Creative Commons)