Half A World

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora is a space odyssey with a difference. Generations of people live in a craft the size of a city. As the founding pioneers die out and the ship moves through deep space without finding anything of interest, the younger spacefarers become disillusioned with this whole exercise and turn the craft around for home. On return to terra firma, the cosmonauts find themselves denounced by the scientific establishment – to them they are quitters and cowards. But the idealism and wisdom is with the ones who quit. Why build spaceships instead of cleaning up the environmental mess of our home planet? If we find another habitable planet wouldn’t we just ruin that one like we ruined Earth? Robinson quotes the poet Constantin P Cavafy:

New lands you will not find, you will not find other seas.

The city will follow you. You will roam the same

streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;

in these same houses you will grow gray.

Always you will arrive in this city. To another land – do not hope –

there is no ship for you, there is no road.

As you have ruined your life here

in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world.

Or as Freya puts it in the novel: Wherever you go, there you are.

Iris Cohen is exhausted and sad and bored. She works in a digital marketing job she doesn’t understand, drinks too much, falls in and out of meaningless relationships and struggles with a traumatic past. Salvation appears in a reality TV show set on the planet Nyx, recently discovered through a wormhole in the Pacific Ocean. Nyx offers a new life – a chance, its founder says ‘to leave all that behind: the emails, the messages, the notifications, the constant communication with people you hardly know. Instead, you’re going to enjoy a closer connection with the people and the world around you.’ Millions apply for Life on Nyx: Iris works her way through AI conducted interviews to the final few thousand, who live in a self sustaining biome on the new planet, farming, exercise, talking and procreating. Someone asks what Iris did for a living back on earth.

‘I was a digital innovation architect.’ She covered her face, laughing with delight at how far away she was from her old life.

‘What does that even mean?’ said Hans.

‘Honestly, I don’t know.’

‘It doesn’t mean anything,’ said Elizabeth. ‘None of it did.’

There’s one catch – the door is one way and there’s no coming back. Iris makes her decision subconsciously and by increments. There’s a wonderful scene where Iris wanders through London at night:

Iris carried on walking down a residential road, where a fox casually crossed her path, then past Hackney Downs. She crossed through Dalston, where the shops were shut, though some still shone their neon lights. The sound of cars kept her company. Usually, whenever she walked alone, she would listen to music or a podcast, but now she just listened to the world. Each bird sang in its own particular pattern. It was amazing that they chose to live there, in the city, and not in a nice green field. They were used to it, like Iris.

She is saying goodbye to the city. Everyone knows it. Everyone in Iris’s life tells her not to leave. Even the Nyx panels give her every chance to pull out. They even track down the love of Iris’s youth – but Iris again is disillusioned with the present self of the woman she fell for. ‘On another planet, in another universe, we’re still kids and it’s summer, and it always will be. That was the planet she wanted to go to.’

It’s hard to write about Everything You Ever Wanted without spoilers, but to convey a sense of this remarkable novel I must at least hint at them. Nyx in itself doesn’t seem lethal. Outside the biomes there are birds, insects, even a great lake. One lesson of the novel is that no one can guarantee that you will always be looked after. Seven years in, the colony starts running out of food and resources. Despite this scarcity, the Nyxians do not turn on each other. Relations remain friendly and supportive. One aspect of the utopia holds.

Still, the last hundred pages are not an easy read. There is an enduring and spooky sadness almost unbearable in its intensity, that leaves the reader waiting on a deus es machina that – spoiler alert – never comes. Everyone on Nyx ends up missing aspects of their home planet – Iris has several chapters devoted to lists of commonplace delights, to cheeseburgers, painkillers, bacon and eggs, chocolate, pigeons, foxes, makeup, the tubes, even work and ‘the moment on Friday evening when she would turn off her computer and already feel the glow of alcohol in her chest.’

I could mention – with my political head on – that the worst ideological movements then and now are the ones that think of humanity or nations as having some authentic self that civilisation just gets in the way of. Rivers Solomon‘s novel An Unkindness of Ghosts takes this on with her story of a spaceship run by white supremacists heading for some mythical Aryan paradise. The Nyxians don’t go anywhere near that far and the lessons are not for Iris alone.

What Iris discovers is that the clutter of modern life isn’t some white noise that gets in the way of the true essence of humanity – the clutter is the humanity. Luiza Sauma has written a profound and beautiful novel about our irrational desire for a meaningful existence. Wherever you go, there you are.

And yet there’s no sense that Sauma is lecturing us. Humans are risk takers and it’s our nature to go on mad quests, whatever the cost. To quote Kim Stanley Robinson again: ‘a consciousness that cannot discern a meaning in existence is in trouble, very deep trouble, for at that point there is no organizing principle, no end to the halting problems, no reason to live, no love to be found. No: meaning is the hard problem.’ It certainly is and Sauma makes an attempt at solving it as brave and stylish as anything you’re likely to read in fiction.

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