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Propellercontents 22 | Antihero vs. the Yangy Stars

In Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven, “effective dreaming” renders the wild territory of one man’s dreams real. Trouble ensues. By Melissa Reeser

34 | Tom Bissell wastes aliens

The writer of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter weighs in on the best science fiction games of all time. A Propeller Q&A

46 | Outer space psychodrama

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris investigates what happens when a man falls in love with a woman drawn from his memories. But is it science fiction? By Dan DeWeese

92 | Portfolio: Scott Campbell

Six images from the art director of Psychonauts and Brutal Legend.

106 | The Maddest Scientist

Edward Teller, “father of the hydrogen bomb” and inspiration for Dr. Strangelove, was often taken seriously. This was an achievement. By Benjamin Craig

Propellercontents 14 | Aisles Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us

The planet has swallowed us up completely. Weisman describes what happens next. Review by Evan P. Schneider

70 | Poem & Prose Joyelle McSweeney “Arcadia (Post-Caucasia) For the Caucasian Dead” and an excerpt from Charisma

122 | Fiction “My Martian Laundrette” by Alex Behr (image by Matt Hall Life on Mars. In a laundromat.

144 | Poems Daneen Bergland

“Love Scene With Organs” and “We May Find Our Way Back”

Touchstones: Science Fiction

Writers describe formative experiences with the genre

10 | Homunculi of the Mind

“On his down time he wrote fiction, much of it set in a may or may not have believed he’d visited.” By Lucas B

18 | 1984 in 1985

“We vaguely understood that 1984 had some connecti Union, but the understanding didn’t stick.” By Jennife

30 | Ultraman

“Even Ultraman’s foes had more personality; the mon and expressive eyes.” By Alex Behr

42 | Nebula

“Never once had I been told there were things beyond that no one knew where the universe ended.” By Evan

66 | The Tripods

“The clear thinker, the uncompromised mind, the nin ting in the library, could save the human race.” By Rac

e, stories that have stayed with them, and brushes with the science-fictional sublime:

a far, far future he Bernhardt

ion to the Soviet er Ruth

nsters had pupils

d our galaxy, and n P. Schneider

ne-year-old girl sitchel Greben

88 | Very Clearly Visible

“Yes, the surface is fine and powdery. I can kick it up loosely with my toe.” By NASA

102 | Back/Future

“I felt certain that once a person had entered the past, there was no longer any Future to go Back to.” By Shea’la Finch

118 | Bodysnatched

“For me, as a child of five or six, what held both fascination and terror was that these aliens looked just like us.” By Sarah Kruse

140 | Tunguska

“We started crying out for father, mother, brother, but no one answered.” By Chuchan of Shanyagir Tribe

150 | Venus in Rain

“Only one student, a recent immigrant from Earth, remembers the sun.” By Lisa Sibbett

launching autumn 2010 Nine Simple Patterns For Complicated Women Stories by Mary Rechner Available October 2010

0: Propellerbooks

“It was a medium-sized room. There was a table with a chessboard, one chair, and a kind of packing crate on the other side to sit on, and I guess a bed of some kind in the corner. There was a pile of tobacco ashes on the table, where he used to clean his pipe. There were two nails in the wall, with a piece of string hanging down from one. And that was all.” — William Copley, on the New York apartment of Marcel Duchamp

Propeller Volume 2, Issue 3 July 2010 Editor Dan DeWeese Managing Editors Lucas Bernhardt Benjamin Craig Evan P Schneider Contributing Editors Shea’la Finch Matthew Hein Alison Schneider Lisa Sibbett Keri Thomas Design Presence/Absence Cover, Moonscapes, and E.L. Swift Touchstone Typographies Information News Archives Store Letters Submissions Publication January April July October


ery early on, it was assumed that Americans were scrappy. From just a mule, a butter churn, a railroad spike, and an aptitude for improvisation—a homestead. Scholars later pointed out that although intelligent people do not buy in to the idea of “national character,” they do. As Americanism became less a matter of conquering wildernesses and more that of, say, assessing sales unit efficiency, the American imagination rebelled. From the 50s on, fantasy was the national pastime, and Cordwainer Smith was fantasy’s Sandy Koufax. Born, raised, and interred Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, Smith learned the propaganda ropes during World War II, and developed into a psychological warfare expert. During the Cold War, while ostensibly a Professor of Asiatic Studies at Johns Hopkins, Smith traveled the world, undermining the morale of indigenous insurgents everywhere. On his down time he wrote fiction, much of it set in a far, far future he may or may not have believed he’d visited. In this future, an indigenous insurgency of considerable merit is gaining the upper hand.

My favorite Cordwainer Smith story, “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” involves a key future-historic event called “The Rediscovery of Man.” Some fourteen thousand years hence, a totalitarian world government has decided to combat its citizens’ sterility and malaise by reintroducing—on a calculated basis—risk, deprivation, disease, and national cultures, all problems they’d solved long ago. Virginia and Paul, the story’s protagonists, emerge from a period of hypnosis with new identities, speaking an ancient language: French. They fall in love with one another on sight, but Virginia soon worries that their new lives may not be authentic. Paul is unconcerned, but Virginia must have the truth. They are to go on a journey, their ignorance of the dangers of the road and of the means for defending themselves from harm notwithstanding. Their chances of success are poor. Like household pets set loose in a city, they are, at first, “Drunk with happiness.” — Lucas Bernhardt

Carina Nebula: “The Caterpillar”






The World Without Us Alan Weisman Review by Evan P. Schneider


hen you envision the future, what do you see? Flying personal automobiles à la The Jetsons, with robots doing much of people’s dangerous and dirty work? How about a globalized society ruled by conglomerate continent-states not unlike those in 1984? Perhaps you’re more of an optimist and prefer to see things shaping up like Ernest Callenbach does in Ecotopia, and think we can soon come together as global citizens and agree to play less roughly with the Earth so as to ensure our safe passage through the current environmental crisis. Though these and other scenarios could plausibly come to pass, they have in common one important underlining feature: that in the future, humankind will still exist at all. But what if we don’t? There are fictional accounts of this situation, too, of course, but even 12 Monkeys,

The Day After Tomorrow, The Matrix and others don’t go so far as to wipe out homo sapiens altogether. There are always a few of us left behind to rebuild (read: re-colonize and re-ravish the globe). Alan Weisman wants nothing of that hypothetical state of affairs. In The World Without Us, he imagines that the planet has swallowed us up completely, leaving only plants, animals, the forces of nature, and empty cities. As such, Weisman’s book is some sort of hybrid speculative nonfiction research chronicle. If there is a main character, it’s the Earth, a protagonist who has been abused for millennia by selfish bully humans who care only about themselves and their own petty trifling. Thus battered, the planet is given full reign in the pages of Weisman’s book to take back what was once a healthy site


for systems in symbiotic relation. The first task the Earth sets out to complete is reclaiming our homes, season by season, material by rotting material. Weisman is at his best when he employs fast-paced and vivid description to intertwine the processes of a vast number of organisms and influences that succeed in decaying items we’ve constructed. Mold, moss, bacteria, water, heat, and wind: they all begin to deconstruct and erase our physical footsteps almost immediately upon our departure. From our homes, the planet moves onto destroying community structures and streets and largescale infrastructural devices we’ve found fit to build. In some cases, Weisman points out, the things we’ve done will take thousands and thousands of years to undo. Eventually, though, the planet will mostly look like it did pre-Stone Age, with the exception of a few huge monolithic structures we’ve erected, like Mount Rushmore. Consider, for example, the fact that we can still visit and roam the Roman ruins and Egyptian pyramids; they’re not going anywhere any time soon, even though no one has cared for them for centuries. Some wounds are so grand they leave gaping, unending scars. What’s so compelling about Weisman’s book is its ability to hold history, the present, and the future together in one hand while painting a convincing picture of how the world really

“Weisman allows th ture, the tendencie of humankind, and an unknown and un ture speak for them might look and act sans people. It’s refreshing, too, that there is very little overt environmentalist propaganda throughout Weisman’s thought experiment, though it’s blurbed and praised by just about every big name Earth-friendly writer around today. Weisman allows the facts of nature, the tendencies and failures of humankind, and the terrors of an unknown and unpopulated future to speak for themselves. This is not to say that the book is a pleasure to read, mainly because the ominous facts are so hard to ignore and so unpleasant to consider. During a time in which even our planet’s weather has begun to carry political connotations (last winter, for example, after a deeper than usual snowfall blanketed the nation’s capitol, some well-known Washingtonians posted

yard ease do i of t on Wh ticle of t sno verb Th cap it or to s

he facts of naes and failures d the terrors of npopulated fumselves.”

d signs in snow drifts calling Al Gore’s une a hoax), what Weisman’s book helps us to is imagine, in painstaking detail, the impacts this collective lifestyle we’ve been imposing the planet, often without even knowing it. ho, for example, knew that small plastic pares in lotion clog up the digestive systems tiny underwater microbials? Several feet of ow, therefore, is really just the tip of the probial iceberg. There is no question: the planet is extremely able of going on no matter what we throw at r how we treat it. Whether we will be around see it do so, however, is another question. Ω


he détente between capitalism and communism may have thrown a third of the globe into violent chaos, but it threw Americans into an enviable state of semi-alert complacency. We could be instantaneously destroyed by a red button, but we couldn’t help thinking it wasn’t really going to happen—we would continue indefinitely the buffered life of the free and prosperous. There was the occasional, unsettling taunt like Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, the jab to the ribcage that said we were the mirror image of the Soviets. Big Brother stalks their psyches, this reasoning went, but the Jones’s haunt ours. But there was something satisfying about even that reasoning: a thoughtexperiment in which capitalism moonlights as a commodity-stocked communism gave us just the sense of being manipulated that we needed to better appreciate how good we had it. Fisher Price and Mattell at five, Lord of the Flies and 1984 at fifteen. Mindcontrol, doublespeak, thoughtcrime, brainwashing. I read George Orwell’s novel in high school, and it was a “What if?” What if a black hole sucks up Earth? What if the Nazis had won WWII? What if there were TVs in everyone’s houses that could report your every facial expression? What if there were a political regime that continuously rewrote the past to fit the ideology of the present? What if there is a parallel universe with a planet on which your doppelganger cavorts?

We vaguely understood that 1984 had some connection to the Soviet Union, but the understanding didn’t stick. It didn’t fall into place in our heads as a glimpse into other people’s twisted and terrifying reality. In an essay on Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon, a fictionalized account of the Moscow show trials of the 30s, Orwell bemoaned the ignorance of his countrymen: “In 
Europe, during the past decade and more, things have been happening to
middle-class people which in England do not even happen to the working
class.” We in 1980s America had no experience of totalitarianism. We did not know what it was like to live where people inside are cut off from the outside, where the past gets updated by the political imperatives of the present, where neighbors turn on neighbors and children on parents in a dizzying spectacle of paranoid cannibalism. We talk in 2010 about the Cold War as if it were a time in which free-market profiteers manipulated the American public into hating and fearing communism, a time in which we were taught to see the specter of totalitarianism around every corner. And, of course, it was that—it was like that. But even so, in 1985 we read 1984 as if it were science fiction, as if it were a portrait of a future hypothetical and not of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China. Argentina’s Dirty War. Today’s North Korea. Today’s Iran… — Jennifer Ruth

Jupiter and Ganymede





The Lathe of Heaven Ursula K. Le Guin Review by Melissa Reeser


nd then I woke up,” is not an original ending to a story, but it is, perhaps, an interesting beginning. The borderlands of sleep and waking have long captivated the literary imagination, but have been especially appropriate terrain for science fiction, with its frequent attempts to imagine alternate worlds that comment on current realities. Ursula K Le Guin’s seminal 1971 work The Lathe of Heaven begins with a sluggish awakening, as everyman George Orr recovers from an overdose of pills intended to keep him from sleeping—or more to the point, dreaming. Orr has “effective” dreams: dreams that have the power to alter reality, changing it retroactively so as to reverse the course of history. It’s a power that terrifies Orr, and as he seeks desperately to cure himself of the gift, the reader pieces together a bleak image of waking life. Set in a then-futuristic 1998 city of Portland,

Oregon, the novel presents a teeming, diseaseravaged dystopia on the brink of environmental collapse. The city’s main river has become a concrete labyrinth of bridges and tunnels, while parking garages have been converted into office spaces following the collapse of the auto industry. Over all of this, a warm, perpetual rain drizzles. Lives are piled together in space-efficient apartments where children starve or suffer from protein deficiency. Dreaming would seem the last realm of escape from such a dismal cityscape, yet Orr would rather stay awake than inflict the consequences of his dreaming on the world. When he’s caught stealing more than his ration of pharmaceuticals in order to drug himself awake, the authorities sentence him to therapy with a low-rung dream specialist, one Dr. William Haber. Haber’s eyes glint with mad-scientist delight when he spies the potential boon in solving Orr’s problem. He


begins building a dream Augmentor, studying Orr’s brainwave patterns, and suggesting content during hypnosis to remake the world according to his own ideals. But dreaming is the wild territory of imagination and memory, and Haber remains limited by the peculiarities of Orr’s subconscious until he completes his work on the Augmentor and can induce effective dreaming on his own. Haber’s seemingly benevolent manipulations—eradicate overpopulation, end wars, solve the “race problem”—take on unexpected manifestations when translated through Orr’s brain. Once these dreams have been dreamed, it is as if the realities they represent are the only way things have ever been. Millions of people are wiped out overnight, along with every trace of their existence. Rather than a panoply of languages, shapes, and colors, human beings are now only an unvaried shade of gray. The suggestion of “peace on earth” induces Orr to dream-catapult all violence into space, which incites a war with aliens. As each new version of reality addresses the issues of its predecessor, new problems emerge, and Orr begins to realize Haber has no intention of curing him. He will have to face his fear of dreaming effectively, and stop Haber before he goes too far. With friendly, sea turtle-like aliens, a love story written ten ways through shifting

realities, and a cinematic melting of Portland that puts Dali to shame, The Lathe of Heaven has all the makings of a thriller, but it goes further than that, and deeper. It does so through humor (a subtle ribbing of trends in 1970s utopian sci-fi), a strong grounding in history (epigraphs from the Tao Te Ching and nods to sci-fi classics), and the graceful inverting of traditional roles that is characteristic of Le Guin’s work and central to its enduring relevance. Orr is something of an anti-hero, the yin to the yangy stars of Western lit. Rather than reaffirming power in a traditionally masculine form—the hero as conqueror, acquisitive and dominating—Orr embodies the traditionally feminine power expressed through standing aside. It’s tempting, as we all know, to want to “fix” things about human existence that we are incapable of fixing: past mistakes wrought through greed and ignorance, the longing for connection that defines us, and of course the fact that we die. That Orr ultimately prevails— and that his neutrality is shown as compatible rather than antagonistic to the natural laws of the universe—provides a sound lesson in today’s stranger-than-fiction culture of A.I. projects, precarious faith in technology, and environmental instability. Le Guin’s vision of 1998 in fact lines up pretty well with 2010 realities: overpopulation, devastating pollution, and the


“Le Guin’s vision of 1 lines up pretty well w alities: overpopulati tating pollution, and of nuclear war, not nations of starving ch ing auto factories, an that continue crawlin and onward into U.S

1998 in fact with 2010 reion, devasd the threat to mention hildren, failnd suburbs ng outward S. deserts.�

propellerlibrary “If, as Le Guin writes, ‘the eternal sorrow is but the eternal hunger of insatiable desire,’ perhaps it would help to try to understand that desire.”

Marian Wood Kolisch

threat of nuclear war, not to mention nations of starving children, failing auto factories, and suburbs that continue crawling outward and onward into U.S. deserts. Yet The Lathe of Heaven is as strangely hopeful as it is pertinent, with its humble insistence on the wisdom of surrender, a wisdom profoundly human and ever accessible. Dreaming, we practice a perfect faith in this wisdom. Waking, we struggle and fail to keep the balance. Le Guin doesn’t tell us what happens with Haber, but we’re given to understand that he can’t “win” by doing it his way, and he won’t succeed. Orr learns to accept himself and trust the universal laws (to get by with a little help from his friends, the sea turtle aliens, who know more about the way things work), and the reader goes through the experience with him. Essentially, Le Guin suggests that it is wise to surrender to what is because that is how we learn about ourselves. If we draw inward, we will learn what is causing our problems. Surrendering doesn’t mean that everything magically gets better, though, only that struggling and scrambling and resisting like Haber only generates more and more trouble. Perhaps the most disturbing, and therefore

the most instructive, aspect of this short novel, then, is its exploration of the dangers of altruism. Despite Dr. Haber’s good intentions, each manifestation of his ideals (through Orr’s brain as a metaphor for human limitation) has numerous unanticipated consequences, and never satisfies his hunger for knowledge and power. Faced with the world’s horrors—earthquakes, oil spills, endless wars—the instinct is to reach outward, seeking something to staunch the pain. It is tremendously difficult, and seemingly selfish, to reach inward. And it’s confusing, particularly in a culture convinced of its power to fix the unfixable and confident in its right to have what it wants at any cost. If, as Le Guin writes, “the eternal sorrow is but the eternal hunger of insatiable desire,” perhaps it would help to try to understand that desire. Which is not to say there will be an answer in the end. In fact, as Chuang Tzu advises (in an English translation of the Tao Te Ching that Le Guin has been working on for nearly thirty years), “To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.” Ω


t’s taken thirty-odd years for Chris, my younger brother, to clear up a misconception that made me question his sanity. For years, I thought he liked Ultraman, which we watched, in grainy black and white, whenever we were stuck at his friends’ brick houses in some northern Virginia suburb. My mom wasn’t friends with my friends’ mothers; she was friends with my brother’s friends’ mothers, which meant as they gossiped in the kitchen, I was banished to a chilly den on a cat-stained sofa with my younger brother while he and his friends watched Ultraman or Star Trek or another drecky sci-fi show. My brother, now grown with two master’s degrees in the sciences, naturally seemed like a fan of a show whose aim was to torment the ears and eyes of a sensitive, dramatic older sister. I liked my version of sci-fi: the passive-aggressive I Dream of Jeannie. (Sci-fi, as in imaginary elements can be explained scientifically: while on a mission, astronaut Tony Nelson lands on a desert island and unleashes a bottle containing Jeannie, a sexy Babylonian genie. That’s science—time travel.) Ultraman got energy from

the sun, yet became weakened over time on Earth. That’s his science. Ho-hum. No sex appeal. Ultraman wasn’t an expression of the Id, as with Kirk, or the Super-ego, as with Spock, he was the Other, an androgynous space creature with a helmet for a face. The only ways in which my girlfriends liked sci-fi is if they could boyfriend the main character: Kirk; Spock—what was the option in Ultraman? Even Ultraman’s foes had more personality; the monsters had pupils and expressive eyes. Ultraman had bad kung fu moves. I watched a clip on YouTube: It looked like Ultraman and a monster were splashing in the ocean. The soundtrack: an air blower screeching behind canned military music. Via a recent text-message (AKA my research for this piece), Chris told me that he never really liked Ultraman, that defender from outerspace. He wrote: “Maybe I was an odd kid. Only recalling now what I recall. Godzilla: cool. Ultraman: dork.” — Alex Behr

Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC1300



am uninterested in whether games are better or worse than movies or novels or any other form of entertainment. More interesting to me is what games can do and how they make me feel while they are doing it,” Tom Bissell writes in his new book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. A rumination not only on the title subject, but also on questions of art, criticism, identity, addiction, and the “shock of the new,” Extra Lives showcases Bissell’s nimble analytical skills as well as his relentlessly inquisitive intelligence. “The first time I played Resident Evil is the only instance in which I was acutely aware of being present at the birth of a genre (that of ‘survival horror’), and it was one of a handful of occasions that a medium I believed I understood felt objectively, qualitatively new—and not merely

new to me,” he writes later in the book. But because Propeller was not present at this birth, nor have we logged, even collectively, one-tenth the hours that Bissell has with contemporary video games, we said to ourselves: Questions about craft and writing be damned! Yes, Bissell shifts effortlessly between personal narrative, criticism, and interview. Yes, he crafts an energetic written voice that balances enthusiasm, lexical inventiveness, and clear-eyed analysis. But this is our chance. So for this issue’s craft discussion, we asked Bissell one question: Propeller: Tom, what are the three best sciencefiction video games of all time? His answers appear on the following pages.

Trisha Miller







Bissell: “One of the most terrifying games ever made, Dead Space uses sci-fi tropes like zero-g environments to create some truly amazing set pieces. And the plight of its silent protagonist, Isaac Clarke (his name a mash-up of two of our most esteemed science-fiction writers) manages to be oddly heartbreaking.�



the not f

Bissell: “A bravura nerdgasm of space opera storytelling, with a number of surprisingly well conceived and frequently riveting characters and plotlines, Mass Effect is rare game whose cinematic elements do feel ill suited to the medium.�



Bissell: “On the surface, a pulpy, bloody piece of space-marine ridiculousness. Deeper than that, though, one finds a game whose combat mechanics never feel anything less than elegant, compelling, and utterly cathartic.�


t 17, I read a terrifying copy of National Geographic one night before bed. Near the end of the issue, a relatively short article that explained “where stars are born” highlighted photographs the Hubble Space Telescope had recently returned, and featured several unbelievable color images of the Orion nebula. By way of earning my astronomy merit badge, I was pretty familiar with Orion. You could easily find him near the horizon on most clear nights by locating his belt—three prominent stars that pointed diagonally up through the dark black sky. But despite the previous celestial knowledge I possessed leafing through National Geographic, the very idea that stars could be born and die was surely new to me. Stars, to my knowledge, were simply balls of light that floated around the planets. Never once had I been told there were things beyond our galaxy, and that no one knew where the universe ended. How could that be possible? Hadn’t scientists been able to predict and/or guestimate how things worked, and when they started, and at the very least, where they ended? The most frightening aspect of this article about expanding galactic clouds of gas and dust was not necessarily the idea that we didn’t know everything about them. It was the terminology the article used to explain these findings that so

disoriented me. “A scattering of stars,” one of the photograph captions read, reaches “across six light-years of space (35 trillion miles).” But light-years only ever appeared in movies and pulp fiction about alien spaceships. Why was National Geographic trading in this language of absurdity? That distance, 35 trillion miles, was deeply confusing. And then it petrified me. I tried to read on, but I grew further troubled that though I could plainly see it out my bedroom window, we could no in way ever travel to Orion, even in a dozen lifetimes. The terms and conditions of outer space coming to me at warp speed out of the pages of this magazine—the idea that the cosmos is infinitely filled with supernovas and Trapezium stars and stellar ionic winds—worried me so badly that even as a high school senior, I quickly closed the magazine and stuffed it beneath my bed. I was unable to comprehend “six light-years of space,” and it scared the shit out of me. What I didn’t know then was that this would be my first taste not of science fiction, but of hard, immovable fact: the truth that in the grand, cosmic scheme of things, I’m just a tiny irrelevant being—a disquieting reality that the closing and hiding of a magazine, of course, would never ameliorate. — Evan P. Schneider

Supernova Remnant: Cassiopeia A


OUTER SPACE PSYCHO DRAMA Solaris, Genre, and the problems of loving simulacra


By Dan DeWeese


little over an hour into Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris, Kris Kelvin nervously tells Hari, his wife, that he has to leave the space station he is on but that she is welcome to come along. She agrees, but when she asks him to help her take her dress off so she can change into a space suit, Kelvin loosens a few rows of laces at the back of the dress before he realizes that there is no seam there to be opened—the laces aren’t functional. Kelvin tears the dress open from the neck to the shoulder; Hari doesn’t flinch. When he pauses at her lack of reaction, she looks at him, baffled. “What are you looking at?” she asks. What he is looking at is a woman who—like the dress she is wearing—is impossible. Kelvin came to the space station alone; his wife has been dead for years. But it’s telling that Tarkovsky has amplified not the pages (and pages) of scientific speculation present in Stanislaw Lem’s 1960s novel of the same name, but this single, inspired

sartorial moment, and the familiar fear we see in response to it in Kelvin’s eyes: This woman is not who I think she is. We know that though science fiction dramatizes stories that take place in the future—it’s how they make the science fictional—the genre actually delivers cloaked versions of some contemporary moment: Planet of the Apes riffs on civil rights, Star Wars recasts World War II, and Blade Runner suggests transportation solutions for the mess that is downtown Los Angeles. In Solaris, though, Tarkovsky curtails dramatization of the future to such an extraordinary degree—and so expediently shrugs off any of the genre’s typical conventions—that it’s tempting to suggest the film isn’t science fiction at all. We open on shots of plants, water, and sunlight, so that our expectations of a technological backdrop or alien environment are immediately thwarted. The soundtrack begins with Bach, and the film’s first hour—this material is not in


Donatas Banionis in Solaris (1972, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky). Lem’s novel—concentrates on the natural world: a stream, fields, a house, children, and a horse. Viewers hoping to be dropped into the usual science fiction milieu of future time or extraterrestrial place will be disappointed, and maybe even angered, by the degree to which Tarkovsky withholds those items. This extended opening takes place at the country home of Kelvin’s father. Kelvin is scheduled

to leave on a flight to a troubled space station orbiting Solaris, a planet covered by a possiblysentient ocean composed of a mysterious material. The space-time realities of space travel mean that this is the last time Kelvin will ever see his father—the older man will be dead long before Kelvin ever returns. The two have trouble talking, and are then interrupted by a visit from a man named Burton, who had been at the

space station long ago and had a hair-raising experience there. He wants to prepare Kelvin and influence his belief in the importance of studying the planet. There is a young boy with him whose identity is left a mystery. There was certainly precedent for opening your science fiction epic in the countryside— Kubrick, of course, has us spend the opening section of 2001 with the apes, and there’s no way

to watch Solaris without thinking of its mod scifi cousin. The sterility, absence of women, and antiseptic formalism that Kubrick brought to 2001 couldn’t be further from Tarkovsky’s vision, though. The characters in 2001—the ones we watch after “The Dawn of Man,” at least— operate with an all-encompassing, unquestioned resolve. The astronauts headed to Jupiter, especially, have no uncertainty regarding their


2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, dir. Stanley Kubrick). “The film has made on me an impression of something

ng artificial,� Tarkovsky said.


mission, and they do exactly what they’re supposed to do. The drama arises from an external, machine-oriented issue: Kubrick’s astronauts are engineers, and their computer fails, so they have to take steps. The dramatically-gripping parts of 2001—as opposed to the technically-, philosophically-, or psychedelically-gripping sections—form what is essentially the first and greatest Information Technology drama in the history of cinema: Can something be done to fix this computer?

Audiences felt—and still feel—that Kubrick finds all sorts of fascinating material, both narratively and visually, in this. Tarkovsky didn’t share this opinion. “The film has made on me an impression of something artificial,” he said of 2001. “It was as if I have found myself in a museum where they demonstrate the newest technological achievements. Kubrick is intoxicated with all this and he forgets about man, about his moral problems. And without that, true art cannot exist.” Tarkovsky’s claim that Kubrick

“forgets about man” seems, at first, odd. For all of 2001’s opacity or psychedelic suggestion— it’s easily one of the top scoring “What did that mean?” films of all time—one thing that seems clear is its focus on possibilities for where humanity is headed. But man’s “moral problems” are not necessarily the same as the possibilities for his species, and therein lies Tarkovsky’s complaint. The motor that drives 2001 is essentially anthropological: We are a species, the film suggests. We came from somewhere, and we’ll

head somewhere. The forces behind this are monolithic. The motor that runs Solaris, though, is psychological. Tarkovsky draws the tension in his film from guilt, doubt, and shame. The discovery of an exotic extraterrestrial landscape and intelligence is, in this story, old news. The planet Solaris has been discovered, explored, studied, and theorized about for decades and decades before the story even opens, and it has led to no particular insights about humanity, and even


fewer about Solaris. “Why is it that in all the science fiction films I’ve seen the authors force the viewer to watch the material details of the future?” Tarkovsky asked. “Why do they call their films—as Stanley Kubrick did—prophetic? Not to mention that to specialists, 2001 is in many instances a bluff, and there is no place for that in a work of art.” This complaint is in many ways the one Kelvin finds himself investigating at the opening of the film: people have already taken their prophetic stances on this space ocean.

They have examined its composition and speculated about what—or who—it is. But the science of “Solaristics” has come to nothing, and Kelvin openly doubts whether the study of this place he’s being sent to is even intellectually important. It’s possible the whole thing is just a waste of time. And then he reaches the station and finds an environment he is entirely unprepared for. “I’d like to film Solaris in such a way as to avoid inducing in the viewer a feeling of anything exotic.

Technologically exotic, that is,” Tarkovsky said. The refinement in the second sentence there is crucial. Because rather than the clean, computer-controlled mod-pad of 2001, the space station in Solaris is a disordered site of grotesquerie, mortification, and shame, in which the two remaining crew members (a third has committed suicide just before Kelvin’s arrival) are being visited by corporeal manifestations of people or creatures from their thoughts and memories. And the first time Kelvin falls asleep, even

though he barricades the door before climbing into bed, he wakes up to find that he’s sharing his cabin with his late wife. She seems a bit disoriented, but she is wearing that lovely dress, and it’s a perfect fit. Though the manufacturer—of the dress and of the woman—apparently doesn’t realize that human clothing is supposed to come on and off.


his is a commonplace, but it should be said that both Solaris and 2001 are formidable


works of art in part because they allow for multiple readings. Watch 2001 when you’re a child, for instance, and the shutdown of HAL can feel like the silencing of the astronauts’ child: he said something wrong, and now he can’t live with them anymore. Watch it when you’re older, though, and another metaphor feels equally viable: these men are taking their parent off lifesupport, and they’re going to have to live without him now. The tensions in these films—and the ways in which those tensions and situations, because they’ve been dislocated to outer space and the future—allow us to project our own

particular assumptions and preoccupations onto them. What’s interesting in Solaris is how, though the problem is located on a space station, the problem doesn’t, even within the world of the story, have anything to do with space or the future. The men call the manifestations visiting them “guests.” We learn very little about the other crew members’ guests, though, because each man seems either to be ashamed of the identity of his guest, or to be doing physical battle with and possibly “murdering” his guest as a way of getting rid of it. (Kelvin isn’t innocent of the latter strategy. He shoots the first Hari into space, but a new Hari—with no memory of the previous one—shows up the next night.) The men aren’t battling a technology, so they aren’t sure whether they should respond with technology. They discuss whether to bombard the ocean with radiation, but they’re grasping at straws. When the guests stop appearing, one crew member hypothesizes that this might be because the ocean has read something in Kelvin’s mind that has made this form of communication—which the men experience as psychological torture, though the ocean probably isn’t aware it’s poor form to communicate with humans by sending them manifestations of their dead wives—no longer necessary. By that point in the film, though, we’ve watched what has primarily been a story about a relationship between a man and a woman. The ocean is just the MacGuffin that sets every-

thing in motion, and we don’t know what’s in that ocean any more than we know what’s in the monolith in 2001. Both films circle an enigma. It’s surprising, when thinking about how useful these MacGuffins are in the context of science fiction, that the auteurs of the 1960s and 70s didn’t work in the genre more often. The Birds wanders in that direction, but Hitchcock always keeps a tight rein on his material—it never moves beyond the bounds of suspense. Antonioni was asked more than once if and when he would make a science fiction film, because his examinations of relationships between men and women were often so uncompromising that they unnerved audiences, or moved into perceptual territory—one usually says “visual,” but Antonioni’s obsession with the instability of any one person’s vision makes “perceptual” seem more accurate—that felt alien and unsettling in a way we associate more closely with science fiction than with traditional relationship films. Antonioni’s response to the question of whether he’d like to make a science fiction film is revealing of his characteristic dourness, as well as of the falseness, even at the practical level, of thinking that the genre is somehow different. “Actually, there is a science fiction film in the works,” he said. “But I’m not entirely happy with it yet. I would like to, though—who knows? Perhaps one day. Most likely, we’ll still come up against the same problems.” Antonioni never made his sci-fi movie (unless you count the end of Identification of a Woman,

though that’s more a reference to science fiction rather than its actual presence), but it’s the terrain Antonioni already shared with Tarkovsky that interests here. One of the insights of Antonioni’s films is that falling into or out of love with someone always already involves entering an altered state. Antonioni likes to have one or more characters who are so keenly aware of this fact that they’re distressed by it. Regardless of the character Monica Vitti plays, for instance, the woman knows she is losing herself. Knowing you’re high on someone doesn’t necessarily make the high go away, though, and Antonioni so aggressively interrogates the notions of identity and desire bound up in relationships that he

Andrei Tarkovsky


Red Desert (1964, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni). Regardless of the character Monica Vitti plays, the woman eventually pushes his characters—and thus his narratives—into modes of perceptual disorientation that viewers often had no words to describe outside of the vocabulary of psychedelia or…science fiction. But Antonioni’s characters don’t do drugs (sit down, fans of Red Desert: quail eggs don’t count) or go into space, and the films take place in the present.

In Solaris, however, Tarkovsky had the opportunity to go ahead and start with the preconditions of science fiction—travel in a spaceship; to an extraterrestrial location; to meet an alien consciousness—but then allow the narrative to pursue questions not merely of that alien ocean, but of what it means to love. Can you love a simulacra drawn from patterns in your head?

n knows she is losing herself. Or are we only ever in love with simulacra—the things we project onto people, drawn from patterns in our heads? Solaris begins with talk of a space station in the future, but ends in the territory of relationships and the past.


here Tarkovksy’s Solaris (Stephen Soderbergh’s 2004 remake is forgettable) and

Antonioni’s Red Desert meet is the narrative location that gives the lie to genre as a useful organizing principle in the first place. Genre may be a way of categorizing our thoughts in addition to our DVD stores and websites, and we of course already have a common phrasing for what many great films do: “transcend” genre. Even that metaphor is loaded, though, suggesting as it does that genre works are somehow babbling down in the inferno, and we require a brilliant Virgil to help us escape upward to paradise. It’s more accurate to suggest that some directors simply operate independently of genre considerations. In Solaris, for instance, in the space of a few seconds we are thrilled by a vision of weightlessness, moved by a man and woman embracing, entranced by the image of the convulsing ocean, absorbed in the details of a Breughel painting, stirred by images of Kelvin’s parents and childhood, and still cognizant of the struggle these men on the space station are engaged in with their situation. The moves Tarkovsky makes between these kinds of material feel entirely natural. The film is devoid of any particular show-off sensationalism, pulpexhibitionism, or winking suggestions of being somehow “post-modern.” Things proceed quietly, and watching the film, one is reminded that to move so smoothly between these supposedly disparate states is in fact entirely natural—that thoughts like these are not disparate, but the natural process of our minds at work and play. We think about all sorts of things each day, and experience all sorts of moments, and most days move through these thoughts and states fairly naturally. In the bookstore and at the theater, however, we accept the market’s claim that these are very different things—that science fiction


isn’t about relationships, that psychedelia can only be the result of psychotropics, that mysteries must include detectives, and if there are more than a few laughs, it must be a comedy. It’s the parsing out of material into these rigid categories, however, that is the artificial or stylized act, and not any author or auteur’s failure to conform to the rules of the game. In other words, it isn’t the authors who make odd moves, it’s the marketplace. It’s genre as a concept that is weird, not intergenre or genre-

crossing work. And the enmity that genres often feel for one another—the way in which “literary fiction” sniffs at “memoir” (two terms whose use to indicate discrete genres is recent enough that people in publishing as recently as the 1980s still found the term “literary fiction” odd), while they both condescend to science fiction and fantasy, who then look down upon the detective novel, which looks down upon the romance novel, which looks down upon pornography (a genre which is happy to

complete the cycle by accusing literary fiction of being repressed, affected, uptight, and therefore something to be looked down upon)—points us straight toward the old narcissism of slight difference. It’s so easy for material operating in one genre to slip into another genre because the boundaries are illusory in the first place. You’re trapped on a space station investigating a mystery, and what appears is the simulacra of a beautiful young woman whom you loved in the past—and the simulacra says that she loves you

now, and cannot bear to sleep anywhere other than with you. We have a science fiction setting, the investigation component of a detective narrative, the emotional conflicts of a relationship narrative, and the naturally resulting sleeping arrangement decisions to be made. So when claiming that Solaris is one of the best science fiction films ever made—and it is; I am—the problem is that one of the methods Tarkovsky uses to achieve this greatness is to make the film not particularly science-fictional.


A character wears a space suit for a bit; we see some stars and an ocean; there are hallways we understand form a circle. That’s it. But while we’re dazzled by those distractions and our own expectations, Tarkovsky uses sleight of hand to simultaneously work with all sorts of other material, as well. And though it’s fine—and fun— to distract an audience with a puff of smoke, the best magicians appear to be doing nothing in particular. Tarkovsky knows how people’s eyes track across a frame (one of his favorite moves is to have a character exit a shot, then re-enter moments later from a surprising direction), and he knows what their minds hope to derive from a story. In science fiction, we expect a rocket ship and a space station mystery with alien creatures. And we get that here, but slant. We get it, but so in the end we’re moved not because an alien has been defeated, but instead because the film has somehow become a meditation on how badly we miss childhood, how intensely we love our parents, and how powerfully we regret the ways in which our own attempts at love have failed or gone wrong. By the end of Solaris, we occupy Kelvin’s position: we don’t understand what machine or entity has taken us to this surprising place, but we feel we belong here.


he fate of the woman with the odd dress is similarly arresting. In this case, unfortunately, ingenuity finds a unique path to heartbreak rather than home. Like Antonioni and Bergman, Tarkovsky’s talents seem particularly enlivened when there is a woman at the center of his films. (Mirror, the lovely, languorous film he made after Solaris, features Margarita Terekhova in what may be the sexiest fully-clothed hair-washing scene you’re ever likely to see, at least in any film in which the same actress plays the roles of a man’s wife and of his mother.) It’s not terribly surprising that Kelvin, knowing full well his space station girlfriend is a counterfeit, becomes taken with her anyway. When we see that Hari is developing the ability to be away from Kelvin, though—to live, if only for moments, on her own—she becomes even more fascinating. Loosening herself from whatever alien force has bound her to this man seems a noble struggle. But with neither a personal past nor an identity, the independence Hari develops while stranded on a space station offers limited consolation. Kelvin finds the flaw in the dress, but it’s Hari who sees a way out. Because though weightlessness is lovely to watch and perhaps a brief thrill, no one wants to float forever. Ω


hen I think of happy times in elementary school, I see myself sitting down at the library, poised to enter the world of John Christopher’s Tripod trilogy. The White Mountains introduces the giant robotic Tripods who ruled a docile human species by placing metal skullcaps on their brains at age fourteen. The Capping ceremony served as a rite of passage, at which time all human artistic, individualistic, and inventive critical thinking skills would submit to the peaceful rhythms of work and procreation. The aptly named Will escapes to a community of free thinkers in the White Mountains (formerly known as Switzerland), traversing ruins of ancient cities on his journey through a futuristic-medieval landscape. Could there be a better genre for encapsulating the surreal experience of growing up? Science fiction at its best presents a heightened state of human possibility and peril, and reading it as a child provided architecture for my soul, along with a promise that growing up would be harrowing and fraught with danger. You would be lonely, parting ways with your family and the comforts of home, in order to think and live freely. But unexpected bursts of beauty would

illuminate the landscape. The clear thinker, the uncompromised mind, the nine-year-old girl sitting in the library, could save the human race with her purity of heart and mind. A recent impromptu road trip found me at a Shell station surrounded by oak trees and wandering chickens, just south of Mount Shasta. The hood of my car had been jammed and I was in desperate need of oil. In the end it was Alyosha Red Star, a gold-skinned hermaphrodite with blazing hazel eyes, who wandered over to my car and deftly unlocked the trigger on my hood. He told me he had been kidnapped from Russia as a child in 1952 to develop military technology for the United States. This is why he was so knowledgeable about my car. According to his story, the six-year old Alyosha had invented the prototype for the same V6 engine that was currently gurgling down three quarts of oil. As a child in Russia, he had only wanted to become a ballerina, but the dancers deemed him hopeless. His goal now was to escape a benign captivity under the American military’s watchful eye and return to Russia. And maybe become a composer. You will make it, I smiled. — Rachel Greben

Sombrero Galaxy


Arcadia (Post-Caucasia) For the Caucasian Dead Harsher severer crueler And just all that shit you were pulling trying to go viral Honest normal Overwhelming majority and perfectly decent Very sensitive So having a downer day being in this valley, but now having kind of a peak thanks to your selfless action, Angelica Thanks to your self esteem Valley Where comments have been disabled Where contaminants, contents and laminates shed Hair treatments made from horse placenta Maiden’s porch On the gilded age Fenestrella Crumbling away Ambient pathogens in the Kinko’s-parlor In the Pachinko parlor Goodmorningnews tumbling down Tinkling like gum wrappers from the b2 bomber Dropped to disturb the sonar

So the weaponized whale pod startles and wheels around Somewhere far away Emits a ‘photocopier’ or ‘new car’ smell That fills the valley Extinct olfactory Nasal estuary Shellfish smog, mother-ofWaiting to be unlocked like Waiting to be unriddled Idling in the engine of the mind like A map shoved in the glove compartment Body in the trunk Lung-y Ting-a-ling -y Residue Gives Uncle Sugar Sugar Roger The good old contagious run around Weaponized, brushed Up or aside, ill Logical hairdo ice pick or ice cream rinse or headache -icide needle Inserted where the lining Mumbles its lines

The crinkled Dollar bill Fetal cells like a wrinkled sock are citizen-immigrants Ectopic, out of place In the abdominal Organs of state Unfoldingcrisis line Congo Line Where the palm cells close (Far cry) at dawn like a bordello Put up their dukes in a palisade layer Wax-fisted Knownothing Cowtown Krill Kreme Vroom Croon Bordello fans The saga of bringing hot water to bordello Bathtubs The button at the cuff Of madness catching in my hair That was sprayed to a stiff prow Astroglided Buddah’s girdle Black Widow Swiping away the smut of self-doubt Above the ethereal gaming table Where the chromosomes kiss and divide

Kiss and ride Sweet fission Sweet degraded copies Ride and disseminate Black Widow Your head devoutly down Your sweet parting Hidden in a peak-imbued gown Your black- and blueBaby face Unpranked by age or doubt, your Nasal bridge snub pistol Unreconstructed Blows of a baby’s fist Green gallowglass above the glass factory The bellows the Estuary downwind of Abbatoir High I Got me a woman so young she smell like milk so Sayeth the Lord To the bedrock ’s mountainface Theogenic lockertalk The valley’s greensward Light dips its blade in the scabbard-valley

Comes up clean as money in the bank Swiss and nameless Zeros and ones The playback system sheds its value All over the place Sheds information Sheds its asking price The technology issue Goes extinct like a magazine The magazine stand Just sells Jordan almonds And celebrity face The ex-tissue -scabbed valley Face Was known to cause a changing of the mind A parting of fetangelic Waters A pluraling Of fates Wormwoodling Hangovers Which the district head discretely denies Devoutly Sinusoidal Nasal ash that now Rises now

Rides Currents To the laudspeakers Vaults Termitic chambers Eats, shits, and dies, and eats Away the nerve sheath And dies and is esophagal Becomes a gastric bypass A channel and tunnel Choking traffic, spilling fuel Chunnelling All over Wet petals Blow down The subway line Black boughs rictus up it Cough up a black syrup Grin through smashed tiles Begin to look like the map When your face begins to look like your forged Subway pass or blown out Subway line time to leave, time to Exit sign Too Late and too Soon Spring is spied dropping From its hinges, its hide

Smoking and melting Spring’s concealer and eyeline In Spring’s concealed cylinder A chemical marriage Spit and ash Makes a black ink Pollen and white Flash makes a woman I know Lie down White as a lie Her lovely small white Kisses the pedal Blankets the terminal line

Excerpt from Charisma The following is an excerpt from a novella-in-prose-poems called Charisma. Charisma is an anachronistic bodice ripper bearing some elements of Occupied France and some of our current political moment. It features the prostitute lover of a Picasso-like figure who flees the Capital to wait out a revolution in a remote coastal village, only to find the military come to town, looking for suspected revolutionary Adeodatus X. FOUR SOLDIERS arrive in town one Sunday noon when the double doors of the chapel have finally clapped smugly closed. The young soldiers stand somewhat uncertainly on the browned green, their uniforms and skin both varying shades of clam and grime, even their four-wheeled military vehicle looking tinny and anemic. They speak with inland accents and seem unsure of themselves in the presence of so huge and blank a slate as the sea, challenging them to chalk up their lessons before the whole class. After scanning the sleepy buildings and empty square for some time, they ask in the bar-cafe for the mayor, who as it happens has repaired here with his wife for a Sunday lunch, wearing his usual brown pinstripe that hangs all around him like despair. As suits his office, he had been a rotund man—it had been rumored that extra links had been added to the mayoral chain to fit his rounded form—but a dire illness had struck him last year that shrank him down almost to the bone. He has survived like a revenant, though of course he is the selfsame man: it’s the rest of his flesh gone walking elsewhere. I suppose he will be reunited with it in the next life. Each Sunday with his still-portly wife he sits down to an outsized meal typical of his former self—fish in cream, meat in gravy, potatoes boiled, baked, fried and gratineed,

some limp protesting greenery, cheese and dried fruit and boiled eggs and crackers, a lumpy many-tiered desert, food enough for six hungry travelers. The owner sweats and brings his entire stock of platters to bear on this bounty, and though the wife applies herself like a dignified barnyard creature, the mayor struggles more with every bite, his chin up, his neck distending like a wading bird when swallowing a fish. He gives a greenish look around the cafe at these moments, straining to keep his eyes anywhere but on his plate and the gloomy task of consumption. And when he sees the soldiers he instantly springs up. The soldiers, mayor, and the owner talk back and forth over the bar. They need rooms in advance of their officer’s arrival. It will be no problem; the unrest has hurt tourism, and all the rooms above the bar are empty, save one.

AT THIS MOMENT when forward motion stops completely, time is an echo of the train. A visual echo. Maybe something’s wrong with the film. The train’s stopped. Smoke curls around the train like a second dragon. Time’s commuters peer at its flank. What city is this, what station? Move to the back of the luck, please, it chants over and over again, in Hindu and Marathi, and leave the station through gate number one. Move the train and leave the station. Smoke can collect itself, it can make its own way. But for now it stays. It circles itself like a dragon. It erases the train. It makes a cranial bell of the stuttered gables. It raises its stakes. Like a smoke-cure, to clear the hive, it rises, and like a bee-cure, to cleanse the brain, it shudders down. I heard it die, I herd its pain. Can I be the one to lie down now. Can I be the one to lie. I ate the gold knob and now the face is frozen. I ate the gold fob and now the chin’s collapsed. Can I be the one who has hid my berries in a pail under the pile of luggage. Lungage. Incendiaries, I mean. Under the language. Move to the back and towards door number one. And exit the station. I came like a girl to the story, to the room where the bears were asleep. No. To the room from which the bears were missing. To the room without bears: Russianless remainders. No, threadbear. No, roulette. Full chambers. A thousand threads accounted for all. Then I was the one who spun gold of it, then I wove up and down the sheet. Intoxicated, on the median stripped. Then I was the one wound up in it, then I was the one asleep. Then fate poured out three helpings, the little, the big, and the mean. For history rewords big eaters, reworks them. I stood up and ate the grain, it reworked what lay in my gut, and it was bitter coming up. Then I spoke whole cloth without mincing, I spoke bolts, and what I vomited was gold cloth: fate. Fake, fake, fake, fake blessings, greening the neck like fate. (Limber fate, where is thy jack) Cold, cold, cold, cold blessings, a slate beach makes a cradle makes a grave, the fish lies down in the barrow and wakes up perverted, preserved in its gravid scales, a saint. It stays perfect till it’s eaten. But life is no saint. To be alive is to be corrupted. Make room. Make moon. At the back of the bank. In the box of the train. Next we’ll showerbath in the gin from this fizzle, this flash of it, this flask of fate, we’ll make a goo of it, we’ll make a hash. Fate or bust. At the next stop, the next station.

[…] HE studies me over a cigarette, leaning against a headstone. He is a student, and he is the student. Adeodatus. X. I say you know that soldiers have covered the town. You know that students have covered the street like a snowfall, each one bleeding from the chest a sweet poppy-colored breath, like life was just a schoolboy phase, now phased out, from breath side to death side like aliens, teen dreams. You know it’s bandtime when its bedtime, beat the band and beat the sheet, for the last under the duvet is a goose and like a goose stinks and like a goose gets stuck with a dirndl needle up its underside. And like a goose stuffed with the finest sweetmeats. Beats a retreat. That’s the better part of valor. Re-read. Retreat. He says You know the heart is a piece of valor, a bleeding piece, as the bandolier is an object lesson, and that’s why soldiers wear them like vestments, a Greek cross of souls ready to beat a retreat. You know students wear their souls in those black bags, straps that cut their chests. You know a student pedaled up to a group of soldiers on his rusting bike and blew the pack of them up. You know the little settlement of students was razed and dozed into the sea. You know the tangle of student’s bones forms the skeleton of a huge whale, a hungry whale that nonetheless choked on the bone in his own throat. I take out a cigarette, and as he leans forward to light it our reciprocal wrists lock in a moment of twinship, symmetry. Comrade, I say, wrinkling my nose at the homely word. As I smoke I think about damage and lucidity, I gaze upwards at the absentminded night, puttering around its chamber in its loose dark robe, hardly noticing the colony of rodents scrabbling here below.

[…] I FALL asleep to the radio and my dreams are cured in music and advertisements and serials and sermons and news. Let’s gather round our fosses all the shades that mother nylon has to bless: nude, peach, sunset, nude beach sunset, ebony, mahogany, ma vie in blanc, ma vie en brink, in the drink, Marianne, your tit droite’s showing, and a good part of your gauche. Here on the rooftop we have Euro-style toplessness, and for symmetry a second moon, here in L’Auberge Automaton, which is a dead hotel, modeled on the chambers of the nightingale’s heart, the ballroom its eyemarl, the float pool its flight bones, and the flightless wings its wings. Let’s all gather at the todespiano for a spiel a carol a canon a spell Nikolai Nightingale, you’re such a drag drag drag O Nikki Nightingale you’re such a drag drag drag You’re the angel of the trenches but you’re really such a hag Nikolai Nightingale you’re such a sham sham sham Nikolai Nightingale you’re such a sham sham sham You clutch your sacred heart like it’s a stolen ham Crack a knucklebone you’ll find a gem gem gem Crack a knucklebone you’ll find a gem gem gem On a corpse or on a copse its all the same same same I fell asleep in Kansas and awoke in Kansas, France. The city had shifted around me. I had been a high school student and was now a student of design. A tout a l’heure, I had designs. I harbored them, fondled every ship, its wallet bulge, its prow. Had a good lead on diesel till the price went flop. When the prince went down, I tipped my hat, farewell to princelings, and goodbye tuteleur, I took my lit-rit-cher for a ride, the pages mouldering, I bore them like a termite bore the cross, they say the bugs that

bored the true cross shat gems, that made for ruby diadems, that kissed the brows of Russian princesses that dropped down flat to find them in the snow, oh, from their bosoms tipped the o(r)dor of the rose, the ordure of the glen, and their bare bosoms bore the secret any citizen should know, the larval truth, tubercular truffles, a knit truce between myself and my self-same scar, a tissue, a lady’s rag tucked in the cuff, expiring at the scene, sacerdotal, I lift this burnt offering which makes a smoke ring, laminate, a killing scent, an unequal march, a waltz with a drop step, a drop stitch, a chainlink a fit in the square a fist in the lip a list a tryst a Liszt a triste Nikolai Nightingale you’re such a drag drag drag You sulk like you’re a woman but you’re really just a Nikolai Nightingale I knew you well well well you played the maid of heaven but you made the beds in

[…] LATER, dozing in my lover’s sheets, which are filthy with charcoal, paint, graphite, wax and wine, I dream into a dark blue vault, in which I spot the wooden bird flying fitfully, knocking about in the eaves for an exit, its eyes painted wide and unable to close. It sees me and turns to me its pried open beak. And I too float or fly forward to peer inside that tiny hinged orifice, and then I am inside, where all is black and gelatinous, and I like an avatar glide on, with one fist forward, the fist locked behind me at the small of my back, signifying resolve. The body of this bird is more capacious than it had ever looked, and lightless, and my eyes are completely blinded as I punch forward with my lifted fist. Matter cakes and flows from my eyes, face and mouth. I’m choking. I open and close my fist experimentally, to see if I can breathe through it. My lungs fill. My arm is now my throat. If I can keep moving forward, I’ll close my hand around the jewel in this bird’s gullet. My wrist will swallow it. Then I’ll be the bird. I’ll turn myself inside out and make a pendant of this bit of bile, my heart.


rmstrong: Yes, the surface is fine and powdery. I can kick it up loosely with my toe. It does adhere in fine layers, like powdered charcoal, to the sole and sides of my boots. I only go in a small fraction of an inch, maybe an eighth of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine, sandy particles. McCandless: Neil, this is Houston. We’re copying. Armstrong: There seems to be no difficulty in moving around—as we suspected. It’s even perhaps easier than the simulations of one-sixth g that we performed in the various simulations on the ground. It’s absolutely no trouble to walk around. [Pause.] Okay. The descent engine did not leave a crater of any size. It has about 1 foot clearance on the ground. We’re essentially on a very level place here. I can see some evidence of rays emanating from the descent engine, but a very insignificant amount. [Pause.] Okay, Buzz, we ready to bring down the camera? Aldrin: I’m all ready. I think it’s been all squared away and in good shape.

Armstrong: Okay. Aldrin: You’ll have to pay out all the LEC. It looks like it’s coming out nice and evenly. Armstrong: It’s quite dark here in the shadow and a little hard for me to see that I have good footing. I’ll work my way over into the sunlight here without looking directly into the Sun. Aldrin: It’s taut now. [Long pause] I think you’re pulling the wrong one. Armstrong: I’m just...Okay. I’m ready to pull it down now. There was still a little bit left in the... Aldrin: Don’t hold it quite so tight. Okay? [Garbled, then pause] Armstrong: Looking up at the LM. I’m standing directly in the shadow now, looking up at Buzz in the window. And I can see everything quite clearly. The light is sufficiently bright, backlighted into the front of the LM. And everything is very clearly visible. — NASA transcript following the words “for all mankind.” Apollo 11 July 20, 1969

Nucleus of Galaxy Centaurus A


Scott Campbell Images

“Chowing on Some Breakout”

“Puffy Commute”

“Some Wine Perhaps?”

“Keeping Them At

t Bay”

“The Hive”

“Rocket House”


n the morning of October 25, 1985, at the Twin Pines Mall in Hill Valley, California, two men achieved the unthinkable: time travel. With a stick of plutonium, a modified DeLorean, and Doc Brown’s flux capacitor, Marty McFly traveled back to 1955. The events that unfolded in Back To The Future forever changed the face of science fiction in my six-year-old mind. Starscapes, sterile and distant, were replaced by the hot mess of the human condition. Although I’m certain my first brush with existentialism had occurred two years previous, the cold draft that wrapped my heart as I first wrassled concepts of time was little different from that initial sensation of existence. It fell effortlessly into place beside another hard-hitting question I was deliberating at that point in my life: How was North not above me? I was certain, despite my family’s claims, that to ascend the staircase was to head North. As my older brother patiently attempted to illuminate the Cardinal directions for me, my head ached. It ached in a tight and frustrating way as I grappled to make sense of this nonsense that my most trusted source for information was presenting to me. So as I sat reeling from Back to the Future and repeating back to the future, in an effort to link my understanding of past and future to this convoluted concept, my head ached. I felt

certain, as I approached my brother in hope of insight, that once a person had entered the past there was no longer any Future to go Back to. And even more pressing: what was your future person doing as you were living in the past? If now is now and you are living in it, then how could there be another you carrying on another life? Were they talking to your parents? Could they even be trusted? Little light was shed on alternate realities back then and even writing this now, decades into the future, the questions my six-year-old self posed continue to confound. I will accept the concept True North but I’m still not convinced that once you travel into the past you can return to any future you once knew. Otherwise, at what precise moment did George McFly transition from pathetic to dashing? Unless he remains spineless in one reality running concurrent to the self-confident reality and if so, how did Marty choose which one to time-warp back into? Let Doc Brown and his contemporaries say what they may, I remain unconvinced, unable to believe that Marty was able make out with Jennifer Parker in the back of his truck at the lake in 1985 while he was making out with his mom in a car outside the Enchantment Under the Sea dance in 1955. — Shea’la Finch










By Benjamin Craig


tak Science Books, a blog that chronicles “unusual connections in the history of science, math, art and social history,” recently included a story about a 1946 plan to relocate the entire U.S. population so that dense urban centers (which are inviting targets for enemy bombs) would cease to exist and be replaced by a perfectly geometric grid of moderately populated suburban sprawl evenly covering all habitable geography in the nation. The blog’s author aptly tagged the story for inclusion in the category “Bad Ideas.” The opening image for the story is a graphic of two atomic explosions – one over a densely populated center, and the other over a thoughtfully distributed grid. In the imagined nuclear strike, the distributed model experiences fewer casualties. The badness of this idea to pepper the country with twelve homes per square mile seems obvious: the efficiency of the city replaced by a complex network of shipping lanes; social vibrancy and pastoral quietude merged into neighborly distance. But, these complaints do not overshadow the elegance of the images or of the idea itself – so long as it stays an idea. The author of this plan, first presented in The Bulletin of

Atomic Scientists, but later republished in LIFE magazine with all new visual propaganda, was Edward Teller – along with two other notable scientists. Teller was born in 1908 in Budapest. As he grew up he developed distaste for both fascism and communism, the established government of Austria-Hungary and the revolutionaries who attempted to overthrow it. Growing political tension and increasing violent incidents, along with growing concern over his safety as a Jew led him to flee in 1933, first to England and then to Copenhagen where he married Mici, the sister of an old friend. In 1935 he emigrated to the U.S. to teach physics at George Washington University where he earned a reputation as a gifted theoretical physicist. That reputation eventually garnered him an invitation to Robert Oppenheimer’s summit on nuclear technology, which eventually led to the Manhattan Project and to Teller’s invitation to Los Alamos to participate in the U.S. development of nuclear weapons. He was often taken seriously. This was an achievement. In addition to being the “father of the hydrogen bomb,” Teller was also a man


“One of Teller’s pet projects was a plan to use nuclear devices to create a halfmile wide artificial harbor near Point Hope, Alaska.”

who stirred up controversy in the scientific community when he testified at one of the McCarthy hearings and suggested that Robert Oppenheimer might be a security risk. As the leading atomic expert for the bizarre and secretive Operation Plowshare, one of Teller’s pet projects was a plan to use nuclear devices to create a half-mile wide artificial harbor near Point Hope, Alaska. And, just three months after the Three Mile Island reactor meltdown Teller authored a spread in the Wall Street Journal, opening: On May 7, a few weeks after the accident at Three-Mile Island, I was in Washington. I was there to refute some of that propaganda that Ralph Nader, Jane Fonda and their kind are spewing to the news

media in their attempt to frighten people away from nuclear power. I am 71 years old, and I was working 20 hours a day. The strain was too much. The next day, I suffered a heart attack. You might say that I was the only one whose health was affected by that reactor near Harrisburg. No, that would be wrong. It was not the reactor. It was Jane Fonda. Reactors are not dangerous. My interest piqued, I picked up three books on Teller: Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove by Peter Goodchild, Teller’s own Memoirs, and Brotherhood of the Bomb by Gregg Herken. Goodchild emphasizes the sexier elements of the scientist’s story: his rabidity, and the outlandishness of his many pursuits. Goodchild’s subtitle, The Real Dr. Strangelove, references the widely held belief that Teller was one, if not the primary, inspiration for Peter Sellers’ mad atomic scientist in Stanley Kubrick’s film. Goodchild points out that in addition to sharing certain experiences with Strangelove—Teller helped invent the hydrogen bomb, advised Presidents, and fled the Nazis—Teller matched some of the physical characteristics as well: he spoke with a marked eastern European accent and suffered an obvious physical disability (Teller wore a prosthetic foot after his was severed by a streetcar). Goodchild likes to titillate with his descrip-


tion of events. He explains that Teller and “an entourage from Livermore” arrived in Juneau, Alaska unannounced in 1959 and demanded to be heard by the Department of Health, rotary club, and press before describing in mesmerizing, resonant tones […] his intention to create a deep-water harbour […] by instantaneously blasting 70 million cubic yards of earth and rock with several hydrogen bombs. Despite Teller’s apparent eloquence, Project Chariot (which would require 460 kilotons worth of bomb, thirty times the size of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima) was not completed because neither the team, nor anyone else, could think of a practical purpose for a far-north artificial harbor in a location that was ice-locked nine months of the year and at least 400 miles from any resource that might need to be shipped out of the area. It is worth noting that the parent project of Chariot, Plowshare, was created after a conference on the possibilities of nuclear technologies which kicked off with Teller addressing the attendees with the thought that “one will probably not long resist the temptation to shoot at the Moon to observe what kind of disturbance it might cause.” By contrast, Teller’s description of the trip to Alaska to press locals to accept his plan to carve a new harbor at Cape Thomson by detonating

five nuclear devices is succinct and seemingly unaware that, out of context, the plan reveals itself as drastic and bizarre: We stopped in Juneau and in Anchorage and found rather less than the expected opposition to the project. Teller’s memoirs are revealing in that they are often not very revealing at all. He is keenly aware of the historical significance of his endeavors and of the controversy attached to each. As a result, he describes scenes and situations rather stoically, only occasionally reflecting on the meaning of his work—most often to note that the work he was doing was, perhaps, a little too far ahead of its time to be fully understood. Teller seems to suggest that his work carved out spaces for history to fill in, that he created possibilities into which history settled. He is not unaware of the specific cultural context which allowed him to work away, well funded, on atomic science for most of his life, but he sees himself as working a bit ahead of his peers who spent time developing the urgent technologies while he concentrated on keeping one step ahead of his communist counterparts. That his rapid development of nuclear technologies is precisely the suit against him, he simply ignores. While Goodchild tries to be comprehensive, his book excels when elucidating the human


“In addition to sharing certain experiences w Strangelove—Teller helped invent the hydro bomb, advised Presidents, and fled the Naz matched some of the physical characteristic he spoke with a marked eastern European a suffered an obvious physical disability (Teller prosthetic foot after his was severed by a st

with ogen zis—Teller cs as well: accent and r wore a treetcar).”


side of some of the more ambitious projects in which Teller was involved. The book, in fact, ends with a couple of chapters on the Reagan era “Star Wars” missile defense programs, for which Teller was an adviser to Reagan and head of several projects, including the most terrifying of all of his endeavors—a satellite packed with a nuclear device and dozens of x-ray lasers which, when detonated, would spray super-powered laser blasts in many directions simultaneously in order to shoot down enemy missiles, though, admittedly, of indeterminate power and possibly able to wreak havoc on unintended targets. Teller’s memoir also provides a glimpse at Teller’s view of the various political debates he found himself embroiled in. His views, upon reflection, have not changed—he remains fixed on the unimpeachable logic of his views. Herken’s Brotherhood of the Bomb does not focus solely on Teller, but instead follows the intersections of three of the most prominent atomic scientists—Teller, Robert Oppenheimer, and Ernest Lawrence. The book is particularly strong when navigating the relationship between Teller and Oppenheimer and finds connections that might have gone otherwise unnoticed – as when a chapter on Teller’s testimony before McCarthy (in which he subtly advised against granting Oppenheimer continued se-

curity clearance) opens with the observation by Teller himself that he had been denied his own security clearance at the University of Chicago until “Oppie” intervened on his behalf as well as on the behalf of a few other “unclearables.” While the two stories are not particularly related, and distanced significantly by time and context, by placing them in close proximity the complexity of the two men’s relationship is unveiled. Some of what Teller leaves in his wake is clear: a significantly advanced nuclear weapons program; a leftover Reagan-era “mutually assured destruction” national defense strategy; droves and droves of critics. What is less easy to spot is the legacy he leaves as a manic pursuer of his illadvised convictions and compelling adviser of political policy: the space he carved out for other madmen to fill. He left a vacancy for a variety of successors, though it is difficult to identify them without the benefit of historical distance. It’s fun to guess at who among the current crop of powerful, manic, ambitious idea-makers we will look back on with the same awe and contempt Teller inspires—while crossing our fingers that their bad ideas, though they may be just as grand and graceful as Teller’s were, remain only ideas. Ω


on Siegel’s 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers uses the idea of pods taking over your body while you sleep as a metaphor for communism silently infiltrating small town Americana while you aren’t watching. This seems a common theme for films of this time, or at least a common interpretation. But it wasn’t until I sat down and watched the film as an adult that I noticed such themes. My recollection of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was from childhood, watching afternoon re-runs with my dad. We must have come in on the end of it, or maybe that’s all I remember. For me, as a child of five or six, what held both fascination and terror was that these aliens looked just like us, something in that is far more disturbing than anything Alien vs. Predator could accomplish. Nothing is more troubling to the human psyche than that which appears familiar and is really foreign—that and the idea something could take over in your sleep. At the end of the film, the protagonist, Dr. Miles J. Bennell, is left utterly alone. His only companion turns on him, denouncing him to the others already left devoid of emotion from the pods. I remember the climactic scene in

which he runs down the highway for help and jumps on the back of a truck, only to discover its cargo is a load of more pods. The very last scene has something to do with the military coming in to save everyone, but I don’t remember that from my childhood. At some point, my dad told me this was added later because Hollywood wanted a “happy ending.” I forgot about this ending, which is perhaps, why I’m still fascinated with the film. The confrontation of utter hopelessness with unfaltering persistence in a losing battle is a kind of modern telling of Sisyphus. This is why I’ve never been all that interested by the “red scare” interpretation of the film, and have always been more compelled by the idea of trying to maintain one’s humanity despite overwhelming odds— a theme not all that novel, but perhaps that is the draw of science-fiction in the first place. Science-fiction allows us to experience smallness and futility—like looking up at the stars or out at the ocean—but from a safe distance. Or at least with the Hollywood reassurance that everything will be a-o-kay in the end. — Sarah Kruse

Galactic Center: Color Mosaic (Infrared)


My Martian Laundrette T

Alex Behr

Matt Hall

roy paid attention, so things made sense. He stood on a metal stepstool, next to a rattling dryer. His back ached. He weighed 249 pounds, which on Mars should have felt like 92 pounds, a fucking nymph, but inside the inflatable space-colony dome, he was still huge, lumbering. Colonists were naturally nostalgic, and they had set up the space colony to replicate conditions on Earth, terraforming it with artificial greenhouse gases to make it habitable. No relief for a fat man. At the back of the Laundromat, Troy poked his hand through a hole in the wire mesh covering an air exhaust vent. Someone had inched down through the vent on the other side and cut through, hoping to steal from the coin-op machines. The space colony was crawling with drug-addicted thieves. All you needed was a

clean brain scan to get here, and you could barter pharma meds for a baby’s scan from any orphanage on Earth. They always wanted meds. On Earth’s second day, God had separated the water in the air from the water on land. But on Mars, water was buried underground. The colony pumped and processed it, neutralizing the bad taste. And where water flowed, humans followed. The miners were drawn to the Laundromat not only for the promise of clean clothes but for the steaming, sudsy water in the machines— it prompted saccharine visions of waterfalls and primal memories of when they were suspended in the saltwater curve of their mothers’ wombs. The Laundromat, painted Earth’s sky-blue, had two aisles of washers separated by a long folding table. In the back were the dryers, stacked two high. About a dozen chromium miners,


all men, were doing their laundry, standing over the machines with their eyes half-closed, humming to themselves. Their faces and hands bore the effects of heavy metal poisoning: mottled brown skin and dark pigmentation on the palms. Mars’ thin atmosphere made the miners buoyant, and they gobbled serotonin reuptake inhibitors to help them work happily. One sat quietly in a plastic chair. He must have wet his hair in a public bathroom and combed it down. It rested in slight curls on his shoulders, but was greasy on top. Troy stepped down from the stool, adding the air-vent repair to his mental list of chores, and swept up the ochre-colored dirt. The miners tracked it in, those nasty, poisoned folks with their constant vomiting and diarrhea—no wonder they needed the Laundromat so often. Troy sipped a cola a customer had left behind. He frowned. He smelled rot around the can’s sharp lip. Microbial rot. The supply ships didn’t arrive from Earth too often. The colas went bad and no one fucking cared. He stuck his hand inside his pants pocket to feel his lucky, sacred pebble—the one he had found in the dust by a shredded bra. He needed Bobbi’s attention. She was slumped on a taped-up stool, her butt folded over the seat. She was eating her hamburger and French fries as she did every day, as if her life as a Laundro-

mat manager on Mars were one extended Happy Meal. She ignored his voice. But he needed her to unlock the office door. Troy gripped his broom. He shouldn’t touch her. He needed to. He shouldn’t. It would be painful. The men needed taming on Mars, like anywhere, so to lure women to the planet, the colony leaders had installed electro-shock machines. Men had to press red buttons if they couldn’t control their base impulses. The leaders threatened uncontrollable men with expulsion to one of Mars’ lumpish moons, like being sent to rot on a potato. Maybe a quick tap on Bobbi’s shoulder? What was the harm? He did it, with the tip of a finger. “Hit the red,” she said. She opened the burger and licked a dab of ketchup off the bun. “I need the tool kit.” “Hit the red.” “I did already. It’s still working.” “You touched me. I can feel the imprint, the heat. Hit the red.” Troy reached above a dryer and punched a red button on the wall. It was about the size of his fist, like a miniature smoke alarm. The button beeped, loudly and steadily, as it adjusted its beam on Troy’s balding head. He tensed his body, anticipating the currents penetrating his skull—300 electrical watts per pulse. Pain jacked his body, emptying his mind so he couldn’t ar-


ticulate the result: scattered neuron death. The watts penetrated the three layers of membrane protecting Troy’s brain, all named after mothers, all vulnerable, whether hard (dura mater), spidery (arachnoid mater), or soft (pia mater). He fell, banging his knee and forehead on the chipped linoleum floor.


ining was set up on Mars after it ruined Africa. Sierra Leone and other unfortunate nations were depleted, sucked out. Processing rutile, a gray, pock-marked mineral, to extract titanium dioxide caused the usual environmental embarrassments: the flooding of lowlands, deforestation, tailings like bedsores on the terrain—nothing new, nothing shocking. NASA needed new sources of titanium, chromium, gold, platinum, silver, and other rare metals—especially as space colonization became practical. NASA’s mining component had set up a space colony on Arabia Terra, a Martian wasteland—blighted by erosion not caused by humans but by water, spewed out by volcanoes three or so million years prior. This

underground water was now eagerly, wastefully, pumped out by the colonists. Troy felt extracting metals was worth the human costs. Look at titanium—it had strengthened the Mars rover’s suspension system in 2009. And for that, Troy was thankful. If it weren’t for the Mars rover finding water, he wouldn’t be on Mars now, in a Laundromat, with a steady job. Troy believed in progress. When the pain subsided, he braced himself on a machine and stood. None of the miners paid much notice; one was grinding against a machine, watching the spin cycle. Bobbi unlocked the office door and called him to come with her. Inside, stacks of Chinese take-out containers and fast-food bags filled a metal trashcan. A clipboard on the wall listed customers’ names and amounts refunded for broken machines. Troy still wanted to touch Bobbi. He wanted to unbutton her top, just to let the neck breathe more. She was in her sixties, a black woman from Texas whose husband used to sign up for all the free gifts on the credit card bills. She’d told her husband they weren’t free—nothing

was free—but he wouldn’t believe her. They came to Mars to make a killing on the Laundromat, but her husband died at a Martian bar—he went for a free lap dance and got asphyxiated by a stripper with one eye. Troy picked up a pair of pliers, wire cutters, and a roll of wire. “Don’t talk to nobody,” Bobbi said. “Stay out of trouble.” Troy nodded, holding his hands by his side. By dryer 14, he cut and wove pieces of wire into a tight mesh, sealing the air vent, wishing he could tighten the wire around a drug addict’s throat. They were everywhere on the ship, like fruit flies. A faded cardboard sign above the wall of dryers read: Respect Your Neighborhood. He saw someone to respect. A girl in her early twenties was smoking a cigarette near the corridor. He felt love. He set the tools on the dryer and finished the cola, so his breath would smell sugary, as if to impart his goodness. Cool jazz from the corner speakers couldn’t soothe Troy’s fever. The girl met his standards, which got higher every year. Not that he’d try anything, of course,

but what she did and how she looked and how her dirty laundry got that way were matters to discuss. His place. Troy knew he frightened people. He had bad posture and his teeth were graying. He looked like a thug. He often wore extra-large T-shirts from the lost-and-found box, with someone else’s stains. Sometimes he wore rainbow suspenders. If he could catch some nerve he’ d say, Let’s meet tonight. I’ll tell you my secrets. Like this one: Every night I can’t swallow right. I clutch my stomach before sleep, kneading into the sore spot beneath my belly button. Evil beings bowl in my guts and slam pins against the walls. He had guilt. When Troy was young, he spied on his sister. One day he hid in the media closet behind an accordion door, watching Guineveve stare at the TV in their living room den. Marvin the cartoon Martian told the space dog to get that Earth creature. The drum rolled. Troy didn’t know what Marvin meant by a uranium PU-36 explosive space modulator, but he liked it when Martin said, “Isn’t that wonderful? Now


we can blow up the Earth!” The trombones on the soundtrack slid, and the xylophone went berserk. Their mother came into the room. She grabbed Guineveve’s arm, pulling her out from under a blanket. Her mother tugged the cylinder of almost hairless skin. She had to bring her to the cheap doctor, the one at the mall. She was always taking them to doctors. That’s why Troy liked to hide. Troy opened the door and threw a ball without thinking. It arced above the teddy bears lining the shelves. It hit a glass vase. The glass shattered and pieces landed on Guineveve’s face and dress. Their mother held her to her shoulder. Guineveve’s pain became a warm oval of spit, mucus, and tears on her mother’s dress. When she leaned back to scream, her face glittered with red dots of blood and glass. Or maybe that memory was false? Maybe she got covered in blood when she stood behind a pane of glass and he kicked, kung-fu-style. Little kids who broke glass got spanked. Little kids who drew pictures on the dryers with permanent markers got spanked. Whipped around by their mother, with her death grip on their noodle arms. Each time Troy pressed the red button, he hoped the rays would kill his Earth memories, false or real.

sock looked as if it had strangled itself around the agitator. He picked it up and put it into the girl’s dryer, number 7. The smoking girl wore silver Mylar leggings and rhinestone flip-flops. Troy named her Susie. Her barrette held her bangs aloft, like a hedge he wanted to trim. She shivered in her leopardprint coat, something she got, no doubt, from screwing one of the roaming flea-market scabs pair of boots and a sleeping bag thudded who visited the space colony every fortnight. inside dryer number 8. Troy huffed on his She stamped out a cigarette and kicked it into glasses. He lifted the lid to washer number 5. A the corridor in a fluid movement.


“Nice aim,” Troy said. He pointed to a book on the folding table, next to a stack of Jehovah’s Witness pamphlets. “What are you understanding?” “You want the red?” Susie asked. “I’m sorry, but what are you understanding? I’ve taken a lot of computer classes. And the books I used were all titled Understanding This, Understanding That.” “It’s Undertaker. Excuse me.” She picked up her book and got a cart. He wandered to the bulletin board, as if they’d never spoken. But

he felt that weird energy of connection, as if his heart were overheating just for her. When Susie emptied the clothes from the dryer into the cart, Troy saw an opportunity. He got a cart edged with gray duct tape and blocked Susie’s cart with his, trapping her in the narrow aisle. She looked down and scratched her cheek. “I like gross things,” Troy said to her. “Your scab is not gross to me.” She laughed. “Do you like medical textbooks?” “No. That’s too gross.” Troy thought, Why is she asking me? What can she guess? “Do you like dead animals?” “Not particularly. I like the precipice of grossness, like hearing a gross story and being able to back away.” Over on her stool, Bobbi rustled her bag of food. “Settle down now, Troy,” she said. If he could get Susie to look him in the eyes for ten minutes, they would fall in love. Troy had fallen for much less. He reached across his cart and picked up the blue sock he had put in Susie’s dryer. “This is mine, perhaps?” he asked. “What the hell,” she said. “Don’t put your laundry in with mine!” “Oh, so sorry. I’m sure you didn’t have room to dry one little sock? I’ll pay you back the extra quarter.” “Get away,” she said. She picked up the sock with two fingers and flung it at him. He smiled, touched. She looked as if she might cry, but

“He studied t that were the read: Enlarg

Free. Conta Registered she coughed instead, a hacking that led to dry heaves. She leaned against a dryer and wiped her eyes. Bobbi stood and pulled the TV earplugs from her ears. “Troy, take it easy and everything will be fine.” She’s jealous, Troy thought. Just the other day she had told him about her cancer treatment. She had her hair up in netting and wore a hospital gown, and he told her she looked great. He of all people should know. He made it his business to study women. Where did Bobbi get off, with her fears that Troy would bother the customers? He stuffed the sock and a couple of damp shirts from the

lost-and-found box into a plastic trash bag. He studied the bulletin board again, as if that were the reason he’d come in. A flyer read: Enlarge Your Mind. First Session Free. Contact Dr. Marcy Grable, Registered Therapist. He thought of telling Susie, Hey, there’s the word rapist in the word therapist. A coincidence? Instead, he ripped down the flyer and walked out.


t home, Troy narrated his life as if to a lawyer, guilty as charged: Here I am: a fat man on his toilet, with a chipped wooden seat. Everything’s filtered with a gold light. Piles of computer magazines are tipped against the hamper,

the bulletin board again, as if e reason he’d come in. A flyer

ge Your Mind. First Session act Dr. Marcy Grable, Therapist.” and my bare feet rest on a plush rug. A soft cascade of speckled vomit runs across the ceiling and down the shower curtain, as if it were a map of the Dark Continent. I have chromium poisoning. I keep it a secret. I vomit only at home. Peeking out of the linen closet is a pink shoe, a mule, with feathers. You want to see me. You want to, and here I am. Cramping and aching. He went to the kitchenette and fried baloney on the plug-in stovetop unit, spattering butter on his shirt. Eating his baloney sandwich, he looked out the bulletproof window to the Laundromat across the corridor. He figured that smoking girl whom he’d named Susie would

come back eventually. He liked his job. He liked where he lived. The apartment came with the job. So easy to fit in here. His heart pounded when he finally spotted her, now wearing a red raincoat as if she wanted him to be the Woodsman, saving her from the Wolf. He put down the rest of his sandwich, locked the door, and walked into the Laundromat. He smelled his fingers. He couldn’t help it. He wished he’d eaten honey instead. Troy clutched his lucky pebble in his fist. Bobbi was gone for the night, but a few customers—old miners—folded their vomit-stained clothes or read newspapers. The buzz of fluorescent lights crawled through Troy’s brain. Susie

ducked her head when she saw him. Maybe she was shy, he thought. “Susie!” he said—but that wasn’t even her real name. How would he learn it? She turned around. She had a screwdriver in her hand. The little thief. His precious girl. She looked bloated. She held her hand over her stomach, as if she held a baby inside. “I can’t look him in the eyes,” she said to Troy, as if she were narrating her thoughts the whole time. “Not you. The guy—the guy with the food I want. My boyfriend never used to look me in the eyes when he was angry, and I can never look at cute men in the eyes. I duck my head in ancient, mammalian subservience. Like you’d duck your head to give him head. Or whatever.” She handed the screwdriver to Troy. Did her hand graze his on purpose, with its shimmery silver nails? With her rings so fragile on slender fingers? “Help me, will you?” she said. Her voice was slurred. He took the screwdriver and wondered what to do with it. Should he stick it in his eye, like Oedipus did to his own bloodshot orbs with two pins from his mother’s dress? Or no, something simpler. She probably wanted money. He banged the screwdriver against the coin-op machine. The boxes of laundry flakes shook inside. “Try again,” she said. “I don’t feel well. Stick it up the other way.” She winked, but her upper fake eyelash got stuck on her lower lid. He stuck the screwdriver into the change slot and jammed it around, feeling for the lever to open the valve. He sweated, shaking coins loose that clattered on the ground. He couldn’t

concentrate; he was so filled with longing. He couldn’t let the scream out. He could feel it in his throat. Susie knelt down, under her red cape, and picked up the coins. She left with a quick wave. The bandit. She didn’t say good-bye. It wasn’t because of him—it was the fault of the drug addict who came in while she was on the floor. The drug addict, a thin white guy with a sore on his lip, shook a stack of religious pamphlets in the air. He lurched toward Troy. He spoke loudly, his breath tainted by sour vomit. “Got any money for old-age disease?” Troy’s shirt smelled like greasy meat. He felt ashamed. He walked out to the corridor, calling over and over, “I love you, Susie!” But she was gone.


he next morning, Troy took a handful of quarters he’d found under dryers and hired a motorcycle driver, the least sick one he could find. The weather was cold and clear. His appointment was at noon. He wore his space suit, duct-taped from all the damage incurred by dust storms. He coughed into his respirator and handed the driver the address. He loved being outdoors, feeling one-tenth his Earth mass, but the air was carcinogenic, and the respirators were notoriously faulty, patched and repatched. The motorbike wove in and out of triple-decker buses with huge, chained wheels, taking miners to work, the windows caked with dried vomit and dust. Water hawkers with weights around their waists hung upside-down from the roofs, handing water bottles to the parched workers inside. Troy’s driver paused to let a convoy

pass. Troy said a prayer to the Tikonravev Crater, which once held an ancient lake. Today, no clouds of dry ice obscured Troy’s vision of it, a huge pedestal crater perched above the land. Martians worshipped it, collecting rocks to caress like magnetized statues of saints. This sector mined titanium to treat sewage and toxic waste; NASA shipped it to outposts past the asteroid belt. Suction pipes dredged miles of Martian soil. Like impervious worms, they separated the heavy minerals from the worthless sands, moving slowly through the terrain and shitting out unneeded dirt into the drilling holes. The driver parked in front of Dr. Grable’s office, enclosed by a gate topped with concertina wire and security cameras. Troy pressed a door buzzer and was let in to a heated, blue room. It

had high windows and a cow’s skull on the wall. The doctor was spindly, but her wrinkles looked severe. She held out her hand, smooth, with no discolorations. Troy put his hands behind his back and shook his head no. “It’s okay, Troy,” she said. “There’s no red button here. I hope it’s okay I call you by your first name.” Troy told her he didn’t have a lot of money. He came here because it was free. Dr. Grable shushed him, calming him. She sat at the edge of a couch and rubbed the cushion in a circular pattern, motioning Troy to sit by her. “I met this man the other day,” she said. She looked at Troy, not blinking. He tried not to blink, either. “I told him to see someone in the healing profession,” she said. “I gave him my card and patted him on the shoulder. I knew no one had touched him in a while. How do you feel about that?”

She reached out her hand to pat him on the leg, but he moved away, his stomach churning. He was so thirsty. The purple cushions on the couch smelled odd, like shampooed goats. Dr. Grable left the room, saying she would bring him something special. He looked for the indent on the couch from her thighs and ass. He was alone with the cow’s skull and its empty sockets. A rhythm of light pulsed from the bulb above his head, yellow and blue like pictures of a sunny sky in a children’s book, but loud chirps pierced from somewhere in the building, like a smoke alarm with dead batteries. But they didn’t have smoke alarms on Mars. He was worried. Why wouldn’t anyone stop it? Dr. Grable returned, smiling with greasy teeth and lips, and handed him a stack of postcards. He studied one from Peru, of mummies in loose

wrappings, whose skulls didn’t betray one happy thought. “You don’t believe I was ever young,” he said. The air was strange in here, making him confused, making him feel high and paranoid. “That’s why you handed me these images of dead things. You mock me.” “Troy—I—I don’t judge you,” Dr. Grable said. “Do you remember the alphabet on the walls? The girls clapping about Miss Mary Mack all dressed in black? And the hermit crab. They forgot to water it, or they didn’t want to. They wanted the water for themselves. It died in its glass prison, shrunken and inert.” He hoped he didn’t have to leave yet. He hoped she wouldn’t rush outside to the driver, to tell him how Troy disgusted her, to touch him instead. The doctor walked across the room to

look out the window. Every so often she tapped it, as if in beat with the mining equipment. “You think you know me,” he said. He sat up and his voice got louder and more insistent. “And when you’re done talking, I’ll still be the kid who stands on the chair when the teacher goes out of the room. All the kids look up at me. There’s Sandy in red boots and Margo in gray tights. I have their attention. I press out my stomach and pull my shirt up. I’m eight, just like the rest.” He crossed the room to the doctor and put his finger on her forehead. She pushed it away. “The kids tease me about my name, Troy Carter,” he said. “They sing: ‘Toilet Farter, Toilet Farter,’ and I chant along. I’ll do anything for them.” He pressed her forehead again. “Do you understand?” he asked. She pulled his hand down and twisted his wrist between her thumb and middle finger, pressing on a nerve. He dropped to his knees. She squeezed harder and her voice got deeper. “I don’t need a red button here,” she said. She let go, and he tried not to faint. He had touched the red button so often, though, that his animal brain, the thalamus, had gotten stronger. “My father died recently,” she said. “We didn’t get along. I hope it’s okay to share. I like to be

open with my patients when I think it can be therapeutic.” “Your dad. Your poor dad!” Troy wanted to cry, but his tear ducts were dried out. “I wish I had a dad.” She told him to lie down on the concrete floor. “What’s happening? What do you see right now?” she asked. “I’m at the hospital and these people are really loud next to me. Some nurse jammed an IV in my hand. It’s painful. The woman next to me told the nurse she saw someone, an elderly woman, whose eye exploded. She had glaucoma and high blood pressure, and the nurse was like, ‘I hope you don’t have to see that again.’ ” The doctor reached for a box from a shelf and put on a ribbed latex glove. Troy lay on his back, clothed and quivering. “This won’t hurt,” she said. She stuck her hand into his mouth and pulled his cheek outward. “No,” he moaned. He wanted the chirps to stop. He tried to relax, but her fingers felt like crabs. He resisted the urge to bite. She must have sensed his discomfort. She smiled and took her hand out. “Anything you’d like to say?” “I’m punching a hole in the wall and the water is seeping down and out across the top of

the window, as if by magic, and dripping into a series of plastic cups. And I know there’s something clawing inside my throat.” “Yes, Troy. Something is inside you. A pigeon’s claw.” “A pigeon’s claw. A wolverine’s claw. Something just stuck. Can I get some water? I’m so thirsty all the time. I try praying. Nothing helps.” “First a hug.” They embraced, kneeling awkwardly on the floor. Troy felt light-headed. He focused on the jingling of her silver bangles. He closed his eyes and breathed in her soft, ribbed sweater and thick bra strap. He opened his eyes and saw dandruff on Dr. Grable’s shoulder. He leaned back. The flakes made her seem so human, so vulnerable. “How did he die?” Troy stammered. “Let me get you some water,” she said. She walked over to a pitcher on a table. Troy sat up. He noticed she didn’t move right. She walked steadily, with no adjustments for the thin air. It felt different in here. He felt more buoyant. The air smelled bad. It was making him sick. Not shampooed goats, more like rancid meat. “My dad was doing germ warfare in the garden when he died,” she said. “He had a heart attack.” She hand Troy a glass of water. He swirled it, and sediment rose from the bottom. “Remember, we weren’t close,” she said. “He was poison-

“She knelt by hi hand in his mou android. Why w him? He hated a thing for the lov ing the caterpillars.” “It’s bad to kill,” Troy whispered. “They were eating the broccoli,” she said. She knelt by him, getting ready to put her hand in his mouth again. Maybe she was an android. Why would a normal woman touch him? He hated androids. They ruined everything for the lovers on Mars. He took her hand, cold under the latex glove. “You said I could touch you?” he asked. “How do you feel?” she asked. He bit her hand, ripping the latex through to the skin and spitting out pieces of flesh. The skin tasted like a rubber band lightly scented with baby powder. He gagged. But if he ate her synthetic skin, maybe it would calm his stomach. Like a poison ivy cure, eating what harms

im, getting ready to put her uth again. Maybe she was an would a normal woman touch androids. They ruined everyvers on Mars.” him to build immunity. She slapped him across the face, but he knew she was programmed to be whole. The doctor looked on the floor for the skin, which wriggled and glistened. Troy stepped on her hand. The android could focus only on her skin. She couldn’t fight back. Under the skin was a titanium core laced with glowing wires. Troy didn’t have much time, but there was so much skin to eat, and it tasted so bad. He was afraid he’d vomit again. Her skeleton was as shiny as the coins refunded to Laundromat customers. He squatted down, his knees cracking. He picked up a piece of skin and dangled it in front of her like it was a dead silverfish. “I know why Laundromats and your office are blue,” he said. “Orange and red make you want to leave—like

the orange walls of lice-removal stations or fastfood joints. Blue makes customers want to stay and add more quarters. You want me to come back. You never want me to get well.” “Bad, bad Troy,” she said. “Toilet Farter.” Her voice crackled. He stood up and got the cow’s skull. While the doctor rocked back and forth, making twittering sounds, he hit her face with the skull. Her eyeball popped into the machinery inside, like hitting a mallet on a little white ball. Troy made sure his lucky pebble was still in his pocket. He said a prayer to the rock spirits, thanking them. He paid attention so even the worst moments on Mars made sense. So when he finally sacrificed himself in the crater, he would have something worthwhile to atone. Ω


e had a hut by the river with my brother Chekaren. We were sleeping. Suddenly we both woke up at the same time. Somebody shoved us. We heard whistling and felt strong wind. Chekaren said, ‘Can you hear all those birds flying overhead?’ We were both in the hut, couldn’t see what was going on outside. Suddenly, I got shoved again, this time so hard I fell into the fire. I got scared. Chekaren got scared too. We started crying out for father, mother, brother, but no one answered. There was noise beyond the hut, we could hear trees falling down. Chekaren and I got out of our sleeping bags and wanted to run out, but then the thunder struck. This was the first thunder. The Earth began to move and rock, wind hit our hut and knocked it over. My body was pushed down by sticks, but my head was in the clear. Then I saw a wonder: trees were falling, the branches were on fire, it became mighty bright, how can I say this, as if there was a second sun, my eyes were hurting, I even closed them. It was like what the Russians call lightning. And immediately there was a loud thunderclap. This was the second thunder. The morning was sunny, there were no

clouds, our Sun was shining brightly as usual, and suddenly there came a second one! “Chekaren and I had some difficulty getting out from under the remains of our hut. Then we saw that above, but in a different place, there was another flash, and loud thunder came. This was the third thunder strike. Wind came again, knocked us off our feet, struck against the fallen trees. “We looked at the fallen trees, watched the tree tops get snapped off, watched the fires. Suddenly Chekaren yelled ‘Look up’ and pointed with his hand. I looked there and saw another flash, and it made another thunder. But the noise was less than before. This was the fourth strike, like normal thunder. “Now I remember well there was also one more thunder strike, but it was small, and somewhere far away, where the Sun goes to sleep.” — The testimony of Chuchan of Shanyagir Tribe, as recorded by I.M. Suslov in 1926 (eighteen years after the event)

Star Forming Region: Large Magellanic Cloud


Love Scene With Organs Once there was a woman full of organs; once there was a face in the reeds. Where sunset glints off a car hood gasping from the marsh, she remembers frog skin stretched on a wire frame, a flame, and a tiny splash – the candle waxing backward. Worms pulled from dirt she remembers pink and sticky as veins. He’d wanted abundance was all: hands pressed over an open spigot. Ever after she is doomed to reason like a dream. He says your sadness is safe with me. As is your blank slate. And dabs at her fever, licking the seams of her face where the light leaks. She watches a purple brow of clouds above the orange lip of a slick headed coastward and whirs.

We May Find Our Way Back A young woman, missing her arm from the elbow down, holds the tip, like a thin loaf of bread clasped in her graceful hand, lovely in her reconfiguration. Disgraced plaster and frayed wires remind us how a body can be reassembled. Remind us of the clumsy repetition of evolving. We’ll never know at what point the ones who could remember died to make room for the discoverers. At what point the walls of our memories collapsed, the doors sealed off from the hallway. Near the end the ship we lived on lived. We breathed into the ducts and our mouths received breath. But trying to put things back is like trying to patch glass. In the future one may hold a cheek up to the hull murmuring like a radio from another room the secret narrative that used to lull us still as statues in our cars. We may still read books, though they’ll be missing chapters and scorched around the edges. Someday we may find the moon empty and know we’re home. The place where, once, an angry angel stepped off the ship into a pool of flamingos.


mong all the woodenly significant short stories I was asked to read in junior high and high school, a few stand out as authentically awesome, non-wooden exceptions: a Donald Justice poem here, an excerpt from Slaughterhouse-Five there, and Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day,” which, oh my God. I have made friends over this story. It is set on the planet Venus, where it always, always only and ever rains. “It had been raining for seven years; thousands upon thousands of days compounded and filled from one end to the other with rain.” The colonist-children of Venus have never seen anything but rain, and they wake “to the tatting drum, the endless shaking down of clear bead necklaces upon the roof, the walk, the gardens, the forests.” They know no weather but rain, and have never seen the sun. They conjecture in their writing assignments: I think the sun is a flower, That blooms for just one hour. Only one student, a recent immigrant from Earth, remembers the sun. She is pale and sickly and fundamentally broken by the loss of the sun and thus sort of a weirdo, and once recently she freaked out in the school shower, clutching her

hands to her ears and screaming uncontrollably. “The water mustn’t touch her head,” the story goes. “Dimly she sensed it, she was different and they knew her difference and kept away.” Now, today, once in seven years, the sun is coming out for an hour. When the teacher is out of the room, the other students lock the girl in the closet half-jokingly, in their resentment, and go out to play and are enraptured by the sun, tumbling and exulting—and they forget about her until the rain closes back in. And that’s the story. Bradbury’s stories are frequently like this: a simple, devastating premise, well and briefly executed. In “Kaleidoscope,” a spaceship has exploded, and we listen in as the spacemen in their spacesuits drift unstoppably off into deep space, slowly losing radio contact with one another. The stories are well written, and beautiful, and I dole them out to myself slowly, one collection over a period of years. Almost every Bradbury story, once read, follows me around making me feel lonely on crowded sunny afternoons and terrified when I try to go to sleep at night. I love and fear them because their risks feel plausible. What if I am shut away from the sun? What if I float off into space? — Lisa Sibbett

Star Birth in Galaxy M83


TOM BISSELL’S work has appeared in magazines including Harper’s Magazine, The Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, Granta, and The New Yorker. God Lives in St. Petersburg, his collection of stories, won the Rome Prize. His memoir, The Father of All Things, was selected as a best book of the year by Salon. He is a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine and The Virginia Quarterly Review.



LISA SIBBETT teaches in Seattle, Washington. In April, she wrote about Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild.


SARAH KRUSE wrote about book scents in our April issue. She has an article forthcoming in the International Journal of Zizek Studies.


LUCAS BERNHARDT, in addition to being a poet and a writer, is a managing editor at this magazine.


DANEEN BERGLAND is a poet and teacher whose work has appeared in journals including Willow Springs, Born Magazine, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. In April, she reviewed Kiki Petrosino’s Fort Red Border.

SCOTT CAMPB appeared in nume lications, as well a His newly launch SHOWDOWNS, pivotal moments has just finished a which will be rele Schuster in the su



MELISSA REESER is an Assistant Editor at Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac.

SHEA’LA FINCH runs tiny showcase, at In April, she wrote about Marci Washington and Deth P. Sun.

BELL’S paintings have erous shows and pubas on CDs and DVDs. hed site, the GREAT features paintings of in film history. Scott a zombie kids’ book eased by Simon and ummer of 2011.



JOYELLE MCSWEENEY teaches in the MFA program at Notre Dame (please apply!), edits Action Books, and is the author of two genre novels, two poetry books, and one poetry book forthcoming from Fence in 2012.


JENNIFER RUTH is the author of Novel Professions: Interested Disinterest and the Making of the Professional in the Victorian Novel. Most recently, she reviewed Bruce Robbins’ Upward Mobility and the Common Good in The Minnesota Review.


. . .

BENJAMIN CRAIG is a managing editor at this magazine.


MATT HALL is an artist and musician in Portland, Oregon. ALEX BEHR is a writer and musician. In a writing workshop, a lawyer perturbed by the character of Troy asked Alex, “You say you’re married?” Alex is married to Matt Hall. DAN DEWEESE is Editor-in-Chief of this magazine.


EVAN P SCHNEIDER, in addition to being a managing editor at this magazine, is Editor-in-Chief at Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac.

RACHEL GREBEN works in the health care profession. She has written, most recently, about George Saunders.

E.L. SWIFT (cover, moonscapes, and touchstone typographies) designs record covers, magazines, and logos for people she likes. When she runs out of storage space, she sells her art at Portland places that serve good coffee or cocktails. She invents adult beverages responsibly, and bicycles safely.

Propeller JULY 2010

books music art film life

Propeller 2.3  
Propeller 2.3  

Propeller: Volume 2, Issue 3