35mm film photography & journalism
and where will the stars go?
Performed as part of It's Freezing In LA!'s solastalgia showcase at Wimbledon BookFest
Maybe I could talk to him about stars.
When do kids start learning about stars in school? Five? Six? Of course, this kid is imaginary, so it doesn’t matter. Still, I’ve always liked to keep my fantasies realistic.
I decide to test my hypothesis on my imaginary child. “Have you learned about stars at school yet, love?” I ask. His imaginary face looks up at me from his screen with an expression that falls somewhere between pitying and sardonic. My brain has helpfully recreated this from what I remember of my niece, whose face so often hinted at her clear conviction that all questions from adults were evidence that human intelligence declined with age.
“I know everything about stars,” he announces. “They’re big and they shine bright
because of gases. There are hundreds of them.” He mimes with his hands, as if to
hold all the hundreds between his palms. “Before all the clouds, we could see lots
of stars. Now we can’t see that many.” He looks up at me, as if struck by a thought.
“Did you ever see that many stars, Mummy?”
“They were like glitter,” I say, after a pause. “Like glitter. Covering the sky.”
“Glitter in the sky? That’s funny. Mummy, that’s funny!” He’d clutch his stomach and
roll around a little in exaggerated laughter. In these imaginings, he’s always a he.
I’ve always thought I would have had a son first, then a daughter. Perhaps I’d be
pregnant with her already, a warm weight newly knitting itself inside me, as my
six-year-old imaginary son pokes at my belly with his stubby fingers.
“It was beautiful. Imagine looking up at the sky and seeing it glitter!” I retort, feeling
the need to convince him out of his laughter into solemnity. “Most nights. Some
nights there was cloud. But the clouds weren’t so thick, like they are now. Clouds - ”
I pause again in my head, combing through words like driftwood. “Clouds were just made of water. Rainwater. Now the clouds that we see are also made of bad things. That’s why we can’t stay outside all day any more. When I was younger, we could. But people kept....putting bad things in the air.” Am I being patronising, I wonder? But there seems no better way to describe it, even from an adult’s perspective: dark, hidden, ancient things seeping like ghosts from the depths of the punctured planet and being burned and burned until they blanketed the sky like a shroud.
“Why?” He’d blink up at me, round Os of his eyes trusting and confused. Maybe I’d ruffle his hair. Or was that something people only did to children on TV? I didn’t know.
“There were lots of reasons. We couldn’t work out how to give everyone in the world the energy they needed,” I start, then stop again. I don’t want to lie to this child. Even if he is imaginary. Reverse; ruffle hair (tentatively); tell the truth.
“Nobody wanted to change,” I say. The words send the hot prick of tears unexpectedly to my eyes and throat, spilling over; here, in the real world, I scrub my face with the back of my hand. There was a time when I would have thought it bizarre, even embarrassing, to cry - to think of crying - over this; before the flooding, the lashing heatwaves, the smog; when everything was manageable, when clouds were followed by rain, and the rainwater could be cupped between your hands, and drunk; who would have known what to cry for, what would be lost? “People were making lots of money,” I add.
The child is silent. Through his voice, I have nothing to say to myself. The question had been a dead end, anyway.
I open my eyes. The tones of the room are bluer than I had expected, already shifting into shadows at their edges. There are no children in the room - how could I bring a child into this? Unwillingly, into a world of sealed windows and masks, where every breath is a risk? I think of my own childhood, of playing at the edges of lakes with water so clear you could see every stone you stood on; of watching for shooting stars at night, the air cold enough to suspend clouds of breath for long seconds before they dissolved. Outside the window, the perpetual layer of cloud hangs, unshifting.
Highly commended in the Sapiens Plurum Future of Life Institute short fiction contest
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
And God called the light Day, and the darkness She called Night.
And the evening and the morning were the first day.
She sleeps fitfully. Every light creak of the cottage wakes her, her body in its semi-conscious state always uncomfortable no matter which way she turns. It is her first night out of the Build in months, and though she knows well to expect it now, the uncomfortable encumberment of physicality is always a shock to the system; particularly on the first night, after so long free of form.
She has never been patient with her body – one of the things that had most attracted her to Building in the first place – and when she wakes again, not an hour later, she slips frustrated out of bed and shuffles to the kitchen before her tired body can mount a protest. Teabag, water, a splash of milk, the plucking out of the teabag by the fingertips, hands curved soft around the cup; the ritual, she had to admit, had been missed in an incorporeal world where hands simply didn’t exist.
Stepping out into the tiny garden, she feels the light wind lift the hem of her nightgown and press soft fingers through the holes of the shawl around her shoulders. A sea black as tar reflects the almost-full moon like an oil slick, far off the edge of the cliff where she stands; the reflection is cut up by the ghostlike pillars of the turbines, tiny from this distance. Of course, she knows well their towering enormity from sea level: she had led her team in the design of their formation to ensure optimal wind-harvesting efficiency. It had been her first time as Lead Builder and she had been younger than many of the team, but her experiential knowledge of the area had swung the decision in her favour. She has lived on these cliffs, in the same small house, since her memory began. She knows the force of the waves and the flow of the wind like a mother knows the changing moods and caprices of her own child.
The night is uncharacteristically calm, and she feels her mind slipping into retrospect, combing over the past month’s work as it always did in the first few days after a major Build. Her partner Jese had taken the lead: her speciality was tall housing structures, and she’d often complained that their team neglected housing in favour of the more highly publicised, ‘sexier’ Builds like solar and wind farms. She was right, of course, and under her direction they’d created a particularly beautiful enclave of houses near the coast, set in a titanium-alloy structure that descended the cliffs with elevator capsules flowing up and down its sides like cascading water.
She often tries to imagine how projects of this magnitude might have worked in the past. Of course, all Builders had studied the history of architecture – how the building process had been divided into so many groups, the designers and the constructors bizarrely separate from one another’s work, usually never even communicating – but it was almost impossible to imagine how it might have worked in practice, everything constructed by hand and constrained by the limitations of human labour. Their only constraints now were the limitations of imagination.
It had been discovered by accident - quite out of the blue. Every Builder knew the story by heart: a junior architect at a small firm (in Iowa, of all places) working late one night on a complex model, hooked up to the industry-standard electrode set to promote clarity and transmission of thought between brain and design interface, had dozed off thinking about earthquake-proof structures. When she awoke minutes later from running through a forest of glinting skyscrapers waving in the breeze, there they were, scattered around her feet and thick on the desks of the lab: little foot-high models of the same structure she had seen in her dream. She had, understandably, concluded that she was going mad and, having convinced herself that it was an elaborate prank by some telepathically-gifted colleague, swept the models into the bin and left. But the next morning, when someone fished one of the things out of the bin and promptly discovered the scale and precision of the welding was beyond the scope of either human hands or the workshop’s capacity, it quickly became impossible to pretend that nothing had happened.
From there, it had snowballed. Hundreds of thousands had been poured into studies trying to recreate what had happened that warm night in Iowa when something had defied every known law of physics to appear out of thin air. And the studies found two things: first, in a very specific dream state as hard to consciously maintain as hovering between two layers of the atmosphere whilst falling down through it to earth, there existed some kind of hugely powerful neurogenerative potential. And second, this potential was available uniquely to women.
The second part got just about as much attention as the first. The public, faced with one of the most unbelievable discoveries of human ability in the past millennium, chose to disbelieve primarily that a woman could do what a man couldn’t. On daytime TV and at scientific conferences, arguments raged about what this meant for feminism; whether political correctness had biased the studies into overlooking men with the same potential; if the whole thing was faked, somehow part of an engine to sway voters towards – nobody was quite sure, but definitely something. But by this time a handful of other women, designers and housewives and doctors, had come forward to report that sometimes when they woke up they’d find a piece of their dreams sitting incongruously on the bedside table. Some of them wanted it gone. Some wanted to know how they could make money. Most, though, wanted to know if, and how, they could help: do something bigger, change the world, the whole bit. Many apologized for being hopelessly idealistic. Few realised that, with a talent like theirs, idealism could stand to be desperately encouraged.
Because the world’s cities had needed something new, and they had needed it desperately. Urban populations were skyrocketing, and they were leaving energy and housing and food in the dust. It wasn’t about a lack of money so much as a lack of imagination. Weather patterns were getting harsher, cities were growing fuller, and still buildings were being built in the same way as they always had been; only with more floors stacked on top of each other, each high-rise flimsier than the last. The world needed an architectural revolution. And, within ten years – the time it took to gather and rigorously train women from across the world in how to Build – it had one.
The moon is unusually bright tonight, hitting the blades of the turbines sharp and clear as they turn with regal stateliness out above the ocean. She remembers the building of them with a keen pleasure. Working overnight, pulling the towers up and then the blades out, skating formlessly on the surface of the water like a dragonfly – it was one of her favourite Building memories. But the simulated moon in the Build hadn’t a patch on the pale glow of the real thing: piercingly soft, an eye gazing steady on its shadowed domain, patient.
Nobody - yet - has been able to understand how Building works. There are theories, accepted and contested; countless academic articles; even conferences, now, usually hugely oversubscribed. And still nobody knows; and still it works. How can a person enter an interface (the Build, a virtual platform with unlimited user capacity designed soon after the whole thing had begun) designed to mimic the real world, and make things inside it, and exit to find that those things now existed? It defies logic, people would argue, and she has to acquiesce that yes, it still – even to a Builder as experienced as herself – seems ridiculous.
And yet (although she hardly knows how to articulate it to herself) there is a sense to Building that often overwhelms her. Creation is an urge so natural, so powerful, that she can scarcely believe it hasn’t been happening in the nooks and enclaves of human civilisation since the dawn of time. And as for why only women are capable of it; well, privately, that has always been for her the least mysterious element of the whole thing. To her, to be a woman is to be creative. To feel potentiality thrilling through one’s bones. Art, dance, song, science, new life: there is nothing a woman’s mind and body cannot fashion. So, in the disembodied world of the Build – entering, Builders are represented by the interface as small glowing shapes to allow them to move through and within their structures with ease – the last of the limitations slips away. Creation becomes infinite.
She had argued with Jese about this, not long after they’d met. Infinite creation is dangerous, Jese had said, because infinite anything is dangerous – ‘that’s why God made the world, because the nothing was infinite and She was scared’ – and she was shaking her head at the utter ridiculousness of the argument when Jese had said, eyes holding hers, ‘but dangerous doesn’t have to mean bad. Dangerous can be anything you want it to be.’ Had she known, then, that they would end up together, weaving their lives into a partnership of more than just work, of love – she could scarcely imagine the disbelief she would have felt at the idea. But that’s why they work, she thinks; the questioning and the surprises and the curiosity of them both, for each other, for the world. And they make a bloody good team, flowing around each other in the Build even more seamlessly than in real life, enhancing each others’ work subtly; neither’s style overpowering the other’s, but complementing it as sea complements sky. She often indulges a fantasy of sneaking into the Build late at night, meeting Jese under a night sky that would always be cloudless, and Building with nothing to stop them. They’d create towers of glass and gold and cover them with flowers, write their names in metals light as air and hang them from the sky, build galleon ships on dry land and palaces in the shallows of the sea, and when there was nothing left to create they’d run together to find what they had made, and marvel. They’d never leave. They’d run in the echoing halls of their creations forever.
It was a beautiful dream. But there was work to be done in the real world. The sky has been lightening as she has been dreaming, and now the edges of the sea glow as if lit from beneath by a flame, the moon hanging pale at the zenith. Above her she hears wings beat, the first gull of the morning cry sharp and wild, and she smiles, turning, hands curled around the still-warm mug; stepping back inside the house that waits behind her, that will always wait for her. The world is moving, and they all must move with it.