Big Echo

Critical SF


by Peter Milne Greiner

I followed the coast of Queen Maud Land for less than a day, less than a morning, with my all weather pen, my all gravities pen, circling every named outlying island and, ever the glossarist, wrote down the definitions of various obscure words for rock. Tor was familiar and so was scarp, but not yardang, not nunatak, not vesleskarvet. Those I searched in the encyclopedia. Their twists and their pinnacles rose up from the northern deserts and the southern oceans like monuments, scarecrows, familiar things. Staring at the images I also made a list of every known color. Orangutan is not a color, but I knew what I meant. I wrote amber, bad rust, palo santo, Mars. Then potting soil, vacuum black, screen black, penguin black-part black. I looked at all my circled islands. Islands dot coast: that’s called a loose rule, I captioned the wet, green Antarctic beaches of Queen Maud Land. In one image a nunatak stuck out from the ice like a circus tent statue. Weird rust, off-fog, I wrote. I always imagine, as I do at this moment, not exactly travelling to but materializing in such places, only to rediscover their viewless views, to rediscover the unexperience of being specifically there or anywhere. At the top of the nunatak, which is a gray mesa, I am not changed in any way. I look out at a sea with many proposed names. The names are interchangeable; the waves are interchangeable. The continent is different, but well within all projections and models; the continent disappears when I hear the approach alert.

I look up from the map and see Plexaure. It is a tiny gray dot at the end of an arc. It’s on a screen connected to the nav computer. It’s fifty hours away. It’s time to start waking up Clive, see what happens, and then put him back to hardsleep. I tuck the map and pen away in the map and pen drawer and refresh the telescopes. T2 is set to Plexaure and T1 is set to Neptune. I look at Plexaure first, and am the first, I realize, to look at Plexaure. It looks like every other little crumb-cum-moon I’ve ever seen; it’s gray, it’s battered, there are a few prominent but mundane surface features. You are going to take me around my eighth planet, I tell its gray little hillocks, its gray little cliffs, its gray little scree, its gray ancient little regolithic husk. I stick to the plan and don’t look at Neptune. I look at the rubbleine face of Plexaure, across which no breeze has ever twisted, and look away. I look at Clive. Clive Cell is dreaming. The hardsleep bed monitors him and the nici presides over them, sending its stimuli. He is dreaming, and he is talking. I press Wake Up 1. I start the process. I go to softsleep for forty-nine hours and when I wake up we are in orbit and that’s when I look at Neptune and see every blue and every white like an uncanny ocean covering an uncanny Earth. Perturbations perturbing, forces forcing, playing out their high but uncompelling physics. The obstinate spot in the southern hemisphere revolves and revolves and revolves as if always on the verge of becoming a whirlpool, of actual collapse, of yielding to spectacle. It never will. High altitude clouds wisp and so on, like that, but they’re bigger obviously, giant actually, parasite-white and etceteran across what technically is a sky, I guess. And that is the nature of the proposed Effect 8, Neptune Overview, for me—an elevated dread. The water I see is alien but inert, fool’s tranquility, mere convulsion. I would never touch it. I look at it like I’ve looked at everything else, that is, past it. And past it, I think, is Muta: dark ark, apocryphal despite the data, leading its anonymous entourage of ice around the sun once every interval of shallow deep time, a blank spot, a redacted body, erasedly there. What mundane Effect 9 waits there, its supreme will to disappoint me one with the rest of the universe, I wonder as I watch the Wake Up progress bar creep toward one hundred percent? I let that one go. Drifting across Neptune’s equator is the Chinese station from the report. Jiaoren it is thought to be called and it looks like a waterbug: oblong control module all dark thorax, and tubes running out of it all wandering kilometers of proboscis leading to the planet’s uppermost atmosphere. It is allegedly unmanned. Pondlife. Unthreatening. I take the pictures and run the scans. The ship turns himself with Plexaure over and over the planet. I call him he, against obvious and legacies-long tradition, privately, to myself, when I come out of softsleep for the first time since losing count. Fifteenth time total, the computer says. The fifteenth time I woke up I gendered Marchflower male, arbitrarily, I think as a means of asserting eventness on the moment, as if he was my friend, something here I could call the presence of another. Once Clive is awake we’ll talk. We’ll look at the nici’s data, discuss, synthesize, arrive at unanimous decisions, celebrate, perform rituals, we will genuflect and praise and beg and fall down on our knees, we will be spoken through and chosen and fate will lead us to the place of dawns and epiphanies and ages and paradigms and banners and feasts.


Reindeer hooved their trails around the strip mine—up the ridges and rims, down into the valleys, between sinkholes, under the power lines, over the mosses, amongst voles and partridgeberries and pipeline, amongst the unabridged histories of extraction technology—and disappeared with the shepherds like gems and gasses from the Earth, onto its surface, across it, fed into some chamber or other, offerings finally to a dark, unmastered entropy. Spectra of changedness patterned the terrain according to viability. On one trail, high up but not so high, overlooking a giant artificial hole, Clive Cell’s closed eyes nonetheless see the obvious interstice. His palms face upward; there is a machine attached to his face. His lips are parted as if mid-word. He is speaking to the wind. He is speaking to the nici.

First I dreamt, he said as he dreamt, of a fraudulent conjunction. The nici, non-intellegent, a computer, an interlocutor, limitations-associated the phrase inconclusively. I could see, Clive went on, three stars from the old days, and our obsolete hopes for them, from an impossible vantage point. Identify three stars, said—but said is such a vague word—the nici. Clive’s body was very cold and slow. Minutes went by. Seconds, different kinds of silence. He said—said—finally: Kapteyn’s Star, Tabby’s Star, Alpha Centauri B. That will sound melodious to you, that chain of names. They sound like places of importance. They’re not. But there were those who wanted them to be. The old and close, the distant and different. The chosen, or at the very least the selected. The nici sends its prods and prompts and its follow-ups, gathering, gathering, vivifying.

Generation-predicated space travel and its narratives are beleaguered by consent: the consent of unborn children. But then, no one consents to be born in any situation, they simply are—born somewhere, on some day, to some person. I was lucky to emerge from the birth canal onto a well-worn (agate brown), possibly worn-out (expenditure brown) landmass, on a calendar day, I wrote before deleting all of it. It won’t work. It hasn’t in any fiction, any treatise, or any experiment. Hardsleep, softsleep, possible possibly, but they won’t interface with, or solve, or even be brought to some other grand vision’s all too obvious plot holes: one grand vision and its sophisms at a time. New technology, I write instead, however inchoate, however makeshift, is always put to use. This was when we passed Saturn and Jupiter without seeing them, as if they weren’t there, as if we’d plotted a course through the solar system that proved it didn’t exist. After Saturn a comical and fallacious quiet befell the unchanged ship and I wondered what it was when I was and was not doing everything else. The entertainment people had sent me Pedro Páramo, the newer adaptation, to watch, along with the usual related reading and related porn. I was watching the scene where Susana wakes up in the middle of the night and hears the pouring rain and hears the door in the next room opening, uncertain as to whether the sound meant the coming or going of a person. Susana had closed her eyes again to sleep when Clive’s voice came over the monitor. Look, he said, and I looked. I paused the film and looked more, waited for him to speak again, but all I heard were the various innuendos of a machine turned on, moving, doing. Unpause. I watched until it ended, in a hesychasmic, appetiteless stupor that overlapped the credits into a near but very much unkept-track-of future, and that was that. I realized I was awake. I was in the encyclopedia looking at pictures of cave-dwelling fish. Amblyopsidae, read a caption. Nervous, solitary apex predators over-adapted to near-lifeless voids. Homo amblyopsidae, I had written down. Cave-dwellers. That, I think, is the generation tech we’ll have to accept: the one that leaves us absolutely behind. In this scenario, the tall ships head out to the remote planets, only to find we cannot live there as we are. So we change. We flee to the caves to escape the harsh conditions. We stay there. Our eyes adapt away, we become translucent, ever softer, our minds and intelligences themselves vestigial traits, capable only of knowing the difference between thought and not-thought. Our artifacts disintegrate, we leave behind being, we swim back into the darkness, but we make it—that way. I call it a day, an increment of conscious time elapsed, and go to softsleep for eleven days. When I wake up the first thing I think about is how wear-and-tear really occurs on a spacecraft, about cosmetic tipping points and functionality tipping points, and whether those tipping points can be reasonably predicted and graphed. Will Marchflower return to Mars unscathed? What has our sleep really spared it? What has it spared us, other than the bleak and atramentous inevitability of waking life? The nici has two new transcriptions of Clive’s hardsleeptalk. The first one says: Here is everything other than what is. The second one, transcribed four seconds later, says: actually happening. That was nine days ago. I go to my long sleeve shirt drawer in my drawer area and release a long sleeve shirt and put it on. I feel like uninventing fire. Months pass. My interests in cave fish lead to extremophiles in general, which leads me to Antarctica. I’m always ending up in places like that. Arrivals, preparations, glossaries, Plexaure’s quick phases, one Neptunerise after another, after another. We’re here. Clive is waking up now.


To say first periscope, then hatch, to say in a shallow white sea, under a fluorescent sun, that the submarine came to the surface, is to say the mind is sometimes rational, interpretable. To say he, I, Clive Cell, lifted it into the air, his, my, fingers taking hold like a benevolent, or benign perhaps, kraken, is to say something at least looked in through a porthole with a point of view. Through that tiny, watertight theater was seen a frenzied crewman staring back out—shiny face, mustache, honors-encrusted uniform, disbelieving eyes wide for the abomination outside; that crewman’s flash of life, light across a night lake, epaulets, walkie talkie, his beginning, his pure endocrine terror—at me, for a split second, at my primitive heart that is visible through my chest. And then the room, its bathtub, its flood of false light works its ancient gimmick of supplanting all of it. Towels, chill, wet doorknob, vestige, residue. The esoteric passage of hardsleep has led me to this same aperture. I have not yet opened my eyes and said my new hello despite the nici’s insistent pings because before I do there are a few people I’d like to thank: the god of wanderers, the god of strangers, the gods of black sheep and painted birds, the god of imposters, the gods of mutant whales and lost albatrosses, the god of paradigms, the god of discrete geological epochs, the god of the soul across its many bodies, the god of holotypes, the god of botched clones, the god of quiet telepaths, the god of anxiety, the god of nausea, the god of undiscovered islands, the god of hadal ocean depth, the god of thresholds and barriers and disputed territorial claim, the god of anomaly, the god of the contents of black holes, the god of shame and the protector of best friends, the god of glossaries, the god of the eyes of hurricanes, the god of asteroids, the god of stellar migration, the god of the expanding universe, the god of velocity, the god of the speculative boundary beyond which, nothingless and taciturn, more gods wait to be activated and adored. Thank you, again, so much. Worship amongst humans is the greatest hyperobject.