We have explored the dark side of the Space Race in this blog before, but that was history. Here in the final section of our Uncharted Constellations anthology, we discover an insistent unease, and sometimes downright cynicism, about the mission ‘to boldly go’ into the universe beyond. The psychology and politics of space colonisation are teased out in these fictive pieces. The arrogance. The price paid. The risks when technology, or humans, break down. With wit, weirdness and some goosebumps, our writers plunge deep into space* – where no-one hears you scream. Or do they?
Tim Bombdog’s poem The Chequered Flag captures the heady rush of the Sixties Space Race but keeps its tongue in its cheek too, as the title’s pun implies.
I am space station
I have rockets in my pockets
Stars in my eyes
While I race to the moon.
Every cell, every molecule
Breathes space dust and follicle …
All the way to infinity and beyond.
Bombdog raids pop culture from Thunderbirds to Buzz Lightyear but never forgets the ‘cold wars, hot wars, star wars’ that fired up the space fever of the decade.
Meanwhile Rebekah Tobias’s poem Hue of Blue channels the Moon’s ancient status as a goddess in world mythologies. From her remote vantage point, she surveys the efforts of Earthlings to colonise her alien surface:
‘I’m malevolent, benevolent, dragging tides of tears.
I am Izanami,
Sina, Selene, Gwaten, Anahita.
I am Chandra, resolving, revolving, unveiling the invisible.
I was your destination
The goal of every dominant nation.
Sputnik, Soyuz, Gemini, Apollo.’
We sense that the goddess views humans with the same disdain as we might view the ‘fruit flies’ once packed into rockets to test space travel.
However things take a much darker turn with the opening line of J.K. Fulton’s sci-fi story: ‘The last thing you want to hear when you’re four light years out from Earth is the emergency alarm.’ In a tale that’s more space horror than space opera, Fulton relishes the claustrophobia of a long-haul space flight:
‘Fifteen months I’d spent cooped up in this tin can with him; fifteen long, dreary months, and every single thing he did annoyed me, from his refusal to shave to his monosyllabic conversation. It was almost nice to have a break from the routine – he’d been into his second hour of complaints about the ship’s biscuits when we’d been interrupted by the alarm.’
When this siren signals a malfunction, they try everything from replacing the ‘Advanced Neural Navigation Module’ to rebooting the system. But then we learn the true meaning of the story’s title, ‘Always Carry a Spare’. The humour is pitch-black in this sweaty space nightmare.
If you’re creeped out by Fulton’s story, you’ll welcome the gentle banter of two planetary colonists in Yevgeny Salisbury’s flash fiction, ‘The Pioneer’s Dilemma’.
Messages from Earth were usually longer. Darkon carefully rearranged a few things on his desk, lining up the pencil, the notepad, the photo of the Second Generation Explorer he was meant to be dating. Was it love? Hard to say… Hell, this message from Earth was concerning.
‘Kiz,’ he said … ‘Come and have a look at this. Reply concerning the Lo-3. I’m just a bit…’
‘The Lo-3? Is it eight years already?’
‘Yes, but can you see why I’m concerned?’
She leant over his shoulder a moment. ‘They’ve taken it badly, do you think? They’re touchy about fertility on Earth, I told you.’
Gradually we realise that the colonists are AI settlers sent ahead to terraform the planet. And it’s all working beautifully. If it wasn’t for those niggling messages from Earth every eight and a half years. What’s a kind, ethically sensitive AI to do about the humans?
We round off this section, and the anthology, with a story that won’t let go of you easily. Paul Rudman’s disturbing and hallucinatory sci-fi tale, ‘Mother’, features a religious space cult. Two figures are waking from cryogenic sleep in ‘Ninety-nine time-freezers’ and someone, somewhere, is crying. Never has the phrase, ‘Where’s Mummy?’, sounded more chilling.
That voice again. This time, K turned enough to look sideways though the freezer’s carbon-glass skin. Nothing… K closed his eyes. His master had told him to expect hallucinations, to wait until his head cleared before forcing his way out… He took a slow, deep, breath, and returned to the mantra. The light is within me; I am the divine. The light is within me; I am the divine. The light is within me; I am the divine.
Deep breath. It is time.
Like much New Weird fiction, the eerie atmosphere of this story, and the flickering in and out of several consciousnesses, never fully resolves into a neat explanation. But the possibilities of that child’s voice, and the identity of the titular ‘Mother’, will linger with you long afterwards.
We hope that you’ll want to re-read these pieces, as we have done, and find more in them each time. Uncharted Constellations will be available to buy direct from Space Cat Press as an e-book from 13th September onwards.
- with thanks to Saketh Garuda for the wonderfully spooky picture of a solar eclipse in our header (Unsplash)