Two young friends travel through space, towards Earth 2.0, onboard a gargantuan craft containing an entire human colony, and are given their first (ever) clothes aged 7, during a weird public ceremony, but are otherwise just like any other humans. Except… all the signifieds we associate with our world—dogs, gods, tractors, A4 paper, forests, cities, books, polo shirts—are meaningless to them. Why? Because Earth (or Dichew as they call it), and habitable planets in general are nought but conceptual. Their craft is a great sealed unit without windows, whose speed is determined by current propulsion technology. Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story clearly pokes fun at the science fiction tropes of light-speed travel, and as a petty atheist, made me delight at the subversive polemic against religion that Le Guin cooks up for us using the snail’s pace interstellar journey. In a sense, religion onboard the spacecraft is a product of inter-generational boredom. Typical space fiction uses technology to bypass the need for real-time journeys. ‘Paradises Lost’ reads this sci-fi shortcut in reverse. It denies the ‘light-speed’ verisimilitude of Star Wars and the ‘warp drive’ excuses of Star Trek, and is about the inability to travel galactic distances in seconds, it revels in the several decades of necessary travel; it is about the generations whose job it is to complete an intergalactic journey by transforming their bodies into vessels for generations of humans, and the loss of linguistic meaning (and nouns) in the process.
Hsjing, the Chi-ans character (of Chinese ancestry), distances herself from the mind-skewing effects of being a middle generationer by turning to mathematics and generally acting as a will-they-won’t-they prick tease to her friend Luis. Their lives in Discovery (the biodome/ intergalactic Air b’n’b/ Bluewater with thrusters) is free from the tyrannies of earthbound history; history is ‘what we have escaped from’, but Earth haunts their young minds in the virtual reality simulators. They experience hills, the wind, primitive earthly humans, birds, but their utopia is beset with its own perfection. Sex is a public phenomenon, children are created with a mildly eugenic lilt, and corpses are recycled into the very materiality of the world they just departed. It’s a carefully formulated and dramatised world that is gentle in its action but incredibly appealing for its analogous politics, and destabilising language.
‘She would still be part of their world, not as a being but as an endless becoming… They were all part of one another. All used and users, all eaters, all eaten.’
Back to those pesky signifiers—in the way only Leguin can, ‘Paradises…’ creates logical and creative coinages that sync with the world without jarring. Nor-ans and Chi-ans are North American and Chinese descendants, the numerical before names, such as 5-Liu Hsing and 5-Nova Luis indicate their generational number. A logic builds which sees the generations slowly slip from adoration of militant atheists to fearing their predestined world; a dirty earthen world which, if avoided, elevates those onboard Discovery to the cult status of ‘Angels’. So convincing is this religious analogy that when they reach Earth 2.0 (Shindychew, and they do reach it), the story becomes a Genesis tale turned on its head. The Angels drift away out of reach and the humans come to learn the shortcomings and delights of a planetary existence.
Le Guin deconstructs the earth-like planet with the same forethought she applies in the initial world-building onboard the spacecraft. Nature for the humans, beyond their own epidermis, is a problem: ‘Wind, air moving fast, hard, endlessly blowing, making you cold… restless, stupid, unpredictable, unreasonable, maddening, hateful, a torment. Turn it off, make it stop!’. Those who have chosen to land on Shindychew quickly learn of its dangers, and those choosing to continue into space forever, onboard an artificial environment doomed to fail sometime, see a return to earth as a sacrilegious ungratefulness to their celestial perfection. It preempts Tim Minchin’s barb that religious fundamentalists with luck might—like evolution—deny the theory of gravity ‘…and float the fuck away’.
An oft-talked of moment arrives when the ‘creatures about a millimetre long with green wings’ are named ‘dogs’, because they act friendly to the colonisers. It’s comical as decentred world-building should be, but also sad. What will humans forfeit to free themselves of history, and travel into the unknown where a majority of earthly knowledge is inapplicable? Will we have to one day reclassify a ‘worldview’, particular to Earth: Earth-centric or Terracentric thought?
‘Ach! what’s that on my neck? Oh, it’s just a dog’
This story could be a warning. Most likely that’s an overestimation, but as William Burroughs and Stephen Hawking alike warn the human race: we are fallible until we colonise space, and with that in mind I hope someday some humanoid digs this post out and wonders what the hell a wordpress is. ‘Paradises Lost’ brings to life cosmological problems in a way only feminism and science fiction sandwiches can, and ought to be taught more widely than it is.