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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Finally, a Down-to-Earth Space Odyssey

It’s 2033. Wildfires have intensified, and “heat blocks” hover over North America, cooking people alive. The escape plan of choice for the ultra-wealthy is a suite on Parallaxis I, a ring-shaped luxury space station developed by a tech conglomerate called Sensus. But it’s not open for business just yet. Instead, a team of Pioneers—mostly scientists, with a couple of astronauts thrown in, plus a few family members—have arrived at the station to conduct cutting-edge research and prepare the station for its incoming pampered guests.

Alex Welch-Peters, one of these scientists, is desperately trying to synthesize ocean-cleaning super-algae in his space station lab. His family, including estranged wife Meg, teenage daughter Mary Agnes, and young son Shane, stay behind in Michigan. Ashamed of what a lousy husband and father he’s been because of his relentless work schedule, Alex promises himself that his research will be so fruitful that he’ll win his family back by slowing climate change. No pressure! Down on Earth, a young social algorithm researcher named Tess is laser-focused on her own work, ignoring her family and gulping down junk food as she stares endlessly at her computer monitor. She has ditched academia for a gig at Sensus, where she heads a project known as Views. Unbeknownst to the Pioneers, Tess is watching their every move, studying them as part of Sensus’ efforts to predict human behavior. In addition to surveilling the Pioneers, Sensus founder Katherine Son employs Tess to spy on her sister and cofounder. Charismatic younger sister Rachel Son is the public face of the company, but it’s the shadowy eldest, Katherine, who pulls all the strings. As the climate crisis on Earth accelerates and billionaires clamber for Parallaxis I to open, Katherine sends Rachel to the space station with one goal—get it ready, or else.

Name a hot-button social issue and it’s likely Rebecca Scherm’s A House Between Earth and the Moon touches on it. This is a Big Ideas book. In addition to climate change, space tourism, and Big Tech, plot points also hinge on deepfakes, cyberbullying, screen addiction, abortion rights, and surveillance. Toggling the perspective between Alex, Tess, Mary Agnes, and Rachel, and from Earth into space, a less-nimble author might’ve wound up with a story spread too thin, told too shallowly. But each character is fully realized, as is the expansive world in which they struggle to live. Scherm’s prose is not especially stylish—there is a description of Mary Agnes curled up “like a shrimp” which made me physically frown—but it is sturdy enough to carry the story halfway to the moon nonetheless, and briskly paced. A House Between Earth and the Moon, out this week, synthesizes genres to create something new. Part ensemble family drama, part coming-of-age story, part social novel, part cli-fi, it’s original and affecting not despite its overstuffed melange of big ideas but because of how deftly Scherm weaves them together. It could be subtitled Everything Happens So Much.

Mary Agnes, the youngest point-of-view character, is the novel’s bruised heart. A lonely nerd, she is elated when her father’s space travels make some of her school’s popular crew notice her. Even in the future, though, the in-crowd sucks, and Mary Agnes’ charming crush turns out to have a sadistic streak sharpened by technology. The screen-addled, empathy-deficient teenagers are reminiscent of the jerky crew of M.T. Anderson’s prescient Feed, and Mary Agnes’ story reads like an especially observant young-adult novella braided throughout the book. (Her younger brother Shane, alas, doesn’t get a similarly compelling storyline. His only personality trait seems to be “allergic to everything.”)

Mary Agnes worries that her schlubby dad will be changed by the posh Parallaxis I she sees in promotional videos, but her fear is misplaced. Parallaxis I is portrayed as pristine in advertisements but barely functions in reality. The Pioneers must double as amateur space-station builders as they scramble to get the place up and running. Alex thinks of it as a “freezing, comfortless warehouse.” It’s like a zero-gravity version of “luxury” skyscrapers riddled with issues like 432 Park, its exclusivity and high price tag obscuring how janky it is.

Despite its glaring issues, some of Alex’s teammates are planning to bring their families up, like Lenore, the team’s 3D fabricator, who plans to have her grandparents come. She frames it like they’re simply space enthusiasts, but there’s a financial angle. On Earth, they’re broke. In fact, several of the Pioneers are motivated by precarity. Meanwhile, even as Sensus’ guinea pigs sleep in makeshift dorms as they try to make the space station functional, the Sons are peddling Parallaxis I to investors as the one place privacy can truly be guaranteed.

And the true concern of A House Between Earth and the Moon is the value of privacy. In this imagined future, the Supreme Court has ruled that privacy is a commodity, not a right. It has become a luxury only the elite can attain, by becoming “privatized” to varying degrees, with Z-level the most coveted. Katherine, who has achieved a level of privatization beyond the alphabetical designation, describes power as the ability to bypass image entirely—the ultimate status symbol is to not be perceived. Tess, Katherine’s true-believer follower, doesn’t register privacy as something to treasure. Instead, as she observes the Pioneers, she reminds herself of how much good might come from the obliteration of privacy in favor of an algorithm that could predict someone’s choices. For Tess, “all ‘privacy’ meant was the degree to which a person allowed their choices, preferences, and feelings to be known, and every day people traded their privacy for privileges, goods, and services.” As the avatar for Sensus’ plan for the future, she deeply creeps out almost everyone who meets her; internalizing the company’s ideas about commodifying humanity saps Tess of her own.

A House Between Earth and the Moon primarily takes place in space, but it succeeds because of how richly Scherm depicts her characters’ interior lives. This is the kind of book that practically begs for a sequel, one that dangles some tantalizingly loose ends. This is a house with more rooms to explore.

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