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Nobody wants this job. And you can understand why—the long trip in sublight, the isolation, alone or mostly alone on the abandoned backside of a mostly-dead planet that doesn’t want us any more. Who would want to do that? At first, maybe, back when we thought we might be able to come back to Earth one day. But after three hundred years, it’s pretty clear that this is no longer our home.

People wonder why this program still exists, why we waste our resources sending dusty scientists back to tinker with monitors and rovers that keep telling us the same thing: there’s no habitat for us here any more. Confirmation of our own failure, of how thoroughly we destroyed our home when our society was young and foolish with its technologies. Advocates say that’s its value, that it reminds us that we are not invincible, not perfect, and keeps us from making the same mistakes again. Keeps us from taking for granted the beautiful new home that we’ve made for ourselves, reminds us that we’ve managed to save ourselves by making a habitat that is well adapted to our society and cautions us to keep ourselves in balance.

It’s more than that, though. The truth is that the escape plan that once seemed like dire necessity has become, now, a reality we would never change. Perhaps it was our grandparents, or maybe even our great-grandparents, that first began to feel love and communion for the strange and wonderful accident that has become our home. Watching the thin green fuzz stretch across the red dust, shepherding fragile new lifeforms out of the lab to take root in the bare Martian regolith. We created a habitat that suits us, a biology that meets our needs and with which we can live unfettered by the limitations of a planet that we grew too big for. A hyperoxygenated atmosphere optimized for human productivity, that maximizes the solar gain we need to power our cities, build our ships, keep exploring further and further away from the humble blue home where we began. We’ll never run out of asteroids to mine, and we’re freed at last from the shackles that our ancestors lived with, needing to dig out and rip up the guts of their own planet in order to grow. Imagine, spending your life’s work on a planet where there are venomous snakes, vast lifeless deserts, an atmosphere with so much carbon dioxide a human has to stop and rest all the time! Our new biology is programmed to produce exactly what we need, to recycle our wastes—it fits us perfectly, like a bespoke suit. We’ve adapted our new home to fit us, but we have found ourselves adapting to it, too, in spite of ourselves, the way longtime lovers pick up each others’ little habits and sayings. We belong there now, not here.

Besides, everyone knows that the lifers, the researchers who start out here and never leave, are all a little bit … odd. These are first jobs for penniless graduate students, and the sensible ones go home with redoubled commitment to their studies: it’s good motivation to pull all-nighters on lab reports when you know the alternative is the academic purgatory of going back to this. Nobody says it outright, but everyone knows that the lifers are washouts, slackers, nobodies. Anyone with the drive and the work ethic and any real academic potential is going to spend their career making biology, not passively watching it unfold.

And you can see that it wears on them, too. They are squat, stocky, compressed into muscular blocks by the heavier gravity. It nearly knocks you flat when you first get here, and you get sick of feeling tired all the time from pushing against it. You miss the lightness that your lithe Martian body has grown up with. Their skin is puckered, wrinkled from all that UV, and you secretly wonder if they’ll all die of skin cancer like people used to before we left here. Back home, our perfect atmosphere filters that stuff out and nobody thinks about keeping themselves out of the sun.

You miss the sun, too, forced to hide in the lab for most of the day and only venture out at dusk and dawn, when the heat is tolerable. They build the stations mostly underground, and you see that the lifers go out at night, wander across the desert under that weird, cold, blue moon. The harshness of the daylight hurts the eyes and you miss the soft pink perfection of the light of Mars that’s never too bright, never too warm. You grumble, at first; haven’t they heard of environmental controls? Why does it have to be so damned hot in here during the day and so cold at night? The lifers nod ruefully. We know, they say. Don’t worry about it, you stay here and do base monitoring. It’s a hell of a walk from the landing site to the monitoring station, but we’re used to it. We’ll go.

It all seems pretty futile, since the data they bring back always shows no change, or little change, in all this time. Oh sure, there are spikes of hopefulness, if you can call it that: a few random data points here and there that show increased carbon sequestration in isolated areas, some growth in forest cover in parts of the northern and southern temperate regions, patches of coral reefs that hang on in the acidic bathtub of the overheated oceans. But then you sit trapped in the lab for five days while a hundred-and-fifty-mile-an-hour gale rages across the desert, scouring the world with sand that gets into everything no matter how carefully you seal the hatches, and you shake your head and count the days till you go home.

Satellites could do this job, you grumble to yourself. And they do, collecting large-scale data from orbit. But the lifers are always rambling on about the value of ground-truthing, about transects and species monitoring and all that crap. And you can kind of see their point; all the projections you run with all the satellite data always show more or less the same result, that the planet ought to be restabilizing, slowly healing itself. But somehow, the data from the ground tells us that it’s not. The contradiction niggles at your scientific curiosity; what are we missing? Why aren’t we seeing on the ground what the models tell us ought to be happening? Why is the climate still so unpredictable, the deserts still relentlessly expanding, the soil still too full of some bacteria and too empty of others? But like everything else about being on this unfriendly ball of mud, it just seems to confirm the sense that you had inside when you got here. We fucked up. We’re the problem. We don’t belong here; maybe we never did.

The lifers can’t seem to put it down, though. They stay out there for days, weeks even, and come back dusty and dirty and cut and bruised, carrying their sample cases and their datacubes like parents carry a new baby. They’re going to crack this nut, solve this mystery. There’s a feedback mechanism at play here that we just haven’t nailed yet, they say, a process or group of processes that we don’t have algorithms for. You shake your head a little, and wonder why they bother—you dream of getting back to a biology that follows its own rules, has discernible patterns, has been built to function cleanly and properly. You look at this mess of incoherent data and wonder why you’re bothering.

Each defeat, each failure, strengthens your conviction that this will be your one and only term here. It seemed like a great adventure when you were brain-sore and fresh from your undergrad, but the reality is that there’s never going to be any great scientific achievement here, no breakthroughs. If you really want a career, you’d better get out of this dead-end backwater and get back to making real, useful, powerful living things for the betterment of human society. You feel bad when you accidentally say things like that out loud, but the lifers just chuckle and nod. We know, they say. We’re crazy. It’s a kind of madness, I guess. Don’t stay too long, you’ll catch it too.

There’s some that you hear about that you never meet, the ones who’ve been here for decades with hardly a trip home at all. They stay out there for weeks or months at a time, tinkering with their equipment in the farthest study sites. Some of them live out there permanently, you hear, trying to grow crops right in the uncooperative dirt and only making contact to send back documentation of their failures. There’s a hydrogarden in the base station, obviously, you’re not going to depend on resupply from home all the time, but to stay out there for so long like that, trying to farm your food right out of the ground? With insects and weeds and bad weather, all the things that humans used to have to contend with, before we had a home we built for ourselves that serves us, that actually wants us there? It’s hard to believe. A kind of madness, indeed.

You can see it catching, too, maybe even someone in your cohort. Someone who went out too far, stayed out too long. They come back with something of that same look, windburned face, eyes shining, with stories of the trees, the moss, the deep blue green. Maybe they met some kind of animal out of a storybook, a bear or a raccoon or a yellow-eyed coyote—you can’t help but smile, at first, because you can feel that rush of excitement at seeing in real life something you’ve only read about. But when they start to wax poetic about it, start to wonder about the lives and ways of these beings that we have no relationship with, that aren’t part of a pattern that we made but are instead the thing they used to call wild—then you have to roll your eyes and pour another beer. Tell them they sound like a lifer, they stayed out too long. The other research assistants laugh and nod, jibing your friend good-naturedly. The talk turns to other things, but your friend keeps their eyes on you. You can’t read the look they give you.

Maybe you even see your friend starting to take it all a little too seriously, and you decide to stick your neck out to take them aside one day, at the end of the day when there’s nobody else in the lab. The wind is howling, throwing sand at the outside of the building and you can hear it screeching and chittering along the paneling, taste it in the air even with all the filters. Look, you say, don’t forget that there’s a real career waiting for you. You have a great advisor backing you, important work to do back home. Don’t get stuck here, don’t become a lifer.

But the data just don’t add up, your friend will say. The orbital monitoring matches the projections for a return to a livable atmosphere, a stable climate, a planet we could thrive on again. But the ground-truthing keeps showing the opposite and it doesn’t make sense! If we had more resources, could put out more equipment at more test sites … we haven’t even been back very deep into the temperate belt, we hardly know at all what’s going on in there. It’s like all the data is there, we’re just looking in the wrong places! I don’t know why all the project leads keep putting our equipment in all the sites that seem the least likely to return good data—they say they want to be conservative, not artificially inflate the data, but it’s so frustrating! I don’t understand, we could …

Your friend is getting animated, eyes glittering, a look you know well: scientific curiosity, a mystery to solve, a problem to master. You know that feeling, and you put your hand on your friend’s arm. We’ve been doing this for almost two centuries now, you remind them. And the data is all the same: this planet can’t fix itself, can’t stabilize its systems enough to support a human civilization that needs regularity and predictability and order. It doesn’t want us any more. You became a scientist because you wanted to help human society advance, remember? That’s what we’re all doing, just playing our small role in the great project of human progress. That’s not going to happen here. The future is Mars, and beyond. Don’t waste your life trying to take us backwards.

 


 

It’s weeks later when your friend corners you in another empty lab, freshly back from some far away study site with the composty smell of the northern forest still clinging around their hair and clothes. Look, they say, you need to see this. They drag you over to a screen, sample cases scattered haphazardly over the bench and their eyes shining with urgency. Pointing to the tables on the monitor, they grab your sleeve and the words come out in an excited tumble. See, they insist, we aren’t wrong after all, there’s way more organic matter formation going on than the soil reports are saying. The carbon that’s disappearing from the atmosphere is going into the soil, just like it should!

And it’s true, the tables that scroll by on the monitor tell a very different story from the one you’ve gotten used to seeing here. A flush of excitement flutters in your chest for a moment, while your friend carries on excitedly: I left the study site and took samples from way back beyond the tree line, where the project leads keep telling me not to go. I think I know why none of the data we’re getting matches the models, why none of the experiments are working: they’re falsifying the data, manipulating the results by only sampling the most damaged places, trying to make it look like nothing is working when it is, it is! Earth is coming back to life, we could live here again! But for some reason, they don’t want anyone to know!

Your friend is bouncing on their toes as they speak, practically vibrating with excitement. The flutter in your chest flares for a moment—could it be? Could the lifers have been wrong all this time, or even wrong on purpose? You scan through the tables again, your friend’s animated certainty like a warm glow beside you. It would change everything if they’re right. If …

You catch yourself then, and take a deep breath, calming the flutter in your chest back to a reasoned neutrality. Close the monitor and take your friend’s hand, pry it from your sleeve, wrap your two hands around theirs and set it down gently, benevolently, on the bench. Look at them with a kind smile and tell them in as gentle a choice of words as you can manage to get ahold of themself. Don’t get carried away with wild fantasies and conspiracy theories, you’ve been out a long time and you’re tired and overwhelmed. It doesn’t make any sense for the project leads to be messing with the data, why would they do that? They’ve been here for decades doing this work with the same results every time. Surely it’s more likely that you’ve just spotted some anomalous readings and gotten caught up in fieldwork fever and a little confirmation bias, right? Isn’t that far more likely than all the project leads throughout the entire program all conspiring together to manipulate results? If Earth really could start supporting our entire civilization again, why would the lifers want to stay here doing nothing, reporting failure after failure and spending all their time out in the untamed wilderness for no reason? Have a hot shower and some decent food and a good sleep and things will look different. Don’t go spreading wild stories, you’ll make a fool of yourself.

You give your friend an encouraging pat on the shoulder and turn to let yourself out of the lab. As you shut the door you see your friend open the monitor again, and your last glimpse is their face in the darkness, illuminated by the glow from their tables. As you make your way to your quarters, you shake your head and tell yourself that you tried.

 


 

When your term is up and you step back on the sublight transport with a stack of good reading for the long trip and a great sigh of relief, your friend isn’t on the ship. They signed on for another term, taken under the wing of some project lead working way back in the southern temperate zone counting soil bacteria. Even though all the work you all did this whole awful Earth-year shows the result that you knew you’d get before you even arrived. We’ll never be able to come back here, this broken down old planet isn’t healing itself the way we thought it would. The data that the project leads have spent their whole lives collecting keeps showing us the same thing, over and over: we’re not welcome here any more. If there was even one promising pattern in the data, anything that might convince the bigwigs on Mars that there was hope here, we’d be back. But all the science tells us that the path of human progress has led us irrevocably away from this place.

The lifers will stay, and maybe your friend will become one of them, wasting their days wandering through the chaos of this planet’s haphazard biology. No ambitions, no great scientific marvels, no leaps and bounds for human advancement. Just the scraps of green forest and the endless desert dust, and the inscrutable lives of living beings who care nothing for human designs, serve no purposes save their own. Humble, small, bound by the rules and limits of a world that existed long before us and, clearly, will carry on quite happily without us. How sad. You’re grateful to be headed home.



Erin Innes writes, lives, and farms in a small rural community on the shores of the Salish Sea. Their work spans forms and genres, and has appeared in Proximity, Briarpatch, Local Smoke, and many others.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star , however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on).
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
a ghostly airship / sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it / now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable
Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
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Welcome, fellow walkers of the jianghu.
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By: RiverFlow
Translated by: Emily Jin
Issue 21 Nov 2022
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