Cities, alienation, spaceship design and fish

Dead fish 

Space is so often seen as an open field that exists to support some form of vast, optimistic transcendence. But in fact, reality suggests that it will force an almost infinite claustrophobia on us. Surrounded by its empty hostility, we’ll travel it in tiny metal tubes, at best spending only years locked together with nowhere else to go. It’s going to be a surreal, alien experience; but that estrangement will come as we dive deep into ourselves and our fellow space travellers, rather than leap into brilliant externals.

The fish are key to this. Trust me on this.

Anyway… up until now, I’d have said that my favourite take on the oppressiveness of space travel came in A. E. Van Vogt’s ‘Voyage of the Space Beagle’ (or ‘Space Bagel’, as it’s known around these parts). Amongst other things a key inspiration for ‘Alien’, the novel spends a lot of time thinking about exactly how best to manage tight groups crushed together, for decades.

But that’s changed, as I’ve just finished James Tiptree Jr’s devastatingly brilliant ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’. In part a psychological inquest into a group of people who’ve come to know each far too well, it takes Van Vogt’s claustrophobia and runs with it in several magnificently psychedelic directions at once, generating a devastatingly effective combination of Lovecraftian existential horror and possible-end-of-the-human-race pathos as a group of advance colonists, fleeing an overcrowded Earth, seek a new planet for the human race to colonise.

No more detail about how JTJr does what she does; rather, buy her wonderful short story collection, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’, and go read. Instead, here’s a passage that caught my eye and made me realise how her understanding of the closeness of space is rooted in a very human sense of how we live with each other in communities of different sizes. Her protagonist, Aaron, is considering an earlier colonist ship – the ‘Pioneer’ – and thinking about lessons learned from its failed, decades long journey from Earth to Barnard’s Star:

‘The people of ‘Pioneer’ had suffered severely from the stress of too much social contact in every waking moment; the answer found for ‘Centaur’ was not larger spaces but an abundance of alternative routes that allow her people to enjoy privacy in their comings and goings about the ship, as they would in a village. Two persons in a two-meter corridor must confront each other, but in two one-meter corridors each is alone and free to be his private self. It has worked well, Aaron thinks; he has noticed that over the years, people have developed private “trails” through the ship.’

What intrigued me here was the implicit definition of a core feature of city life; the multiple ways that we move through cities, the multiple intersections possible as we do so. Implicit in Centaur-space is not just ‘avoidance of people’ but also ‘avoidance of seeing the same people every day’. Privacy in this context is not ‘not seeing anyone’ – rather, it’s ‘only seeing strangers’.

Aggressive estrangement is a key feature of big city life. Moving from Scotland, I was struck by how aggressively Londoners guarded their lack of relationship with each other. More recently H, coming from Seattle, has had the same experience. Of course, I’ve internalised the guarding and now – like any other Londoner – regard anyone I don’t know who tries to break through my shields and have some sort of personal engagement with me as at best dangerously insane. Anyway…

That estrangement is a key driver of surrealism. We don’t just see strangers; we see the strangeness they leave behind, the artefacts that no doubt make perfect sense to them but – shorn of context – become insoluble puzzles to us. Hence the picture of the fish; we found them on Sunday night, lying in the Waterloo Underpass. I’m sure there’s a very logical explanation for them being there, but deprived of that context they became a truly odd presence. A stranger had left them, and so they were strange.

And not just strange. Surreal; alienated from direct meaning; in fact, alien. But at the same time, entirely human; left by a human going about his or her business. Which reminds me of J. G. Ballard’s comment that ‘it is inner space, not outer, that needs to be explored. The only truly alien planet is Earth’, and which helps me finally understand why I so admired ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’.

In the deepest sense, its characters encounter nothing that is not human, or intimately linked to the human. Its horrors at first appear to be profoundly other but – as the story progresses – are revealed to be anything but. At the story climax, we’re left to face a profound truth; the truest surrealism comes from our own hidden selves, and the only alien is us.

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