Journey into Space by Toby Litt
Reviewed by Martin Lewis
06 March 2009
Toby Litt is a smartarse (in the best possible way). This is clear from his writing, from the tricks and gimmicks he constantly employs, but it is also clear from the nature of his A to Z project. In a stroke of either genius or madness he has set out to produce 26 books titled in alphabetical order; the project so far reaches from his debut short story collection Adventures in Capitalism (1996) to this, his latest novel, Journey into Space. Prior to this work, the letter in Litt's alphabet of most interest to readers of Strange Horizons is probably H, for Hospital (2007). In this surreal coma dream of a novel, a group of doctors and nurses who are deliberately designed to resemble soap opera characters are stranded inside the titular hospital by a mysterious and deadly mist. Litt then introduces Satanism and voodoo, and hence immortality and regeneration, taking a giddy delight in working through all the implications these raise. So, for example, not only can people not die (except by venturing into the mist), but their lunch claws itself out of their stomachs and decorative pine cones on executive desks transform into giant trees.
Journey into Space takes place in another hermetically sealed environment: a generation spaceship leaving Earth to colonise a new planet. It is a considerably more sombre environment than the hospital, though. None of the inhabitants were born on Earth and none of them will live to see the new planet: "The vessel had been launched three generations ago, and it was not even halfway to its destination" (p. 25). They are constantly and comprehensively monitored by the ship's computer, it, and the recordings so produced are both relayed back to Earth and made available in real time to the crew. There is no privacy. Apart from the artificial intelligence that surveils them, technology has not advanced much from the end of the 20th century. Their conditions are crap and their ship is already obsolete:
A large unmanned transporter, intended to resupply them a couple of years after they arrived on the destined planet, and which itself had set off a full decade after they had, was now due to overtake them. (p. 10)
The novel follows four generations of crew as, over four acts and a coda, this dismal world degenerates. This journey is a very bleak one indeed. No wonder, then, that Celeste and August yearn for something else. Their lives are cramped, utilitarian, robbed of opportunity and agency:
Her bra-straps were dull grey, from repeated washing, not from dirt, not from her dirt. (p. 27)
He still yearned for greatness but had realised, instinctively before rationally, that the life he had been born into mitigated against glory in every single detail. (p. 41)
They escape by imagining the world they have left behind. Hidden in a small pocket of isolation—a tennis court where the lights have burnt out and never been replaced—they describe the planet they have never seen to each other, trying to evoke another, better existence. It is a beautiful idea that sustains the first act as their friendship and then courtship is inextricably bound to this revelatory game, the ebb and flow of the unknown weather and the seasons of Earth becoming the back and forth of their relationship. It is a joyous journey that is rendered bittersweet by the inevitable impending tragedy that Litt is always at pains to foreshadow. The act climaxes with ten pages of imagery in which Celeste and August are entirely absent, and yet we understand that this is a metaphor for their lives.
The second act opens with the birth of Celeste's son, Orphan. It is a name that at first seems rebelliously poignant but is soon only grotesque. Celeste and August are cousins, the ship is scandalised by their incest, they are not allowed to see each other, and they fade from the narrative. They are the old generation, Orphan is the future. It is quite shocking for the reader to see how casually they are discarded after the text has clung so close to them initially; Litt is definitively marking the end of any possibility of hope, of a better world.
But not happiness (for the moment, at least). Orphan is mentally disabled and his simple pleasure in the ship around him is a breath of fresh air in a sterile environment. He becomes one of the most popular members of the hundred-odd crew as soon as he can talk. In a way that is unlikely but not impossible this popularity eventually, inextricably, translates into his becoming Captain. After this the pseudo-military hierarchy of the bridge becomes more akin to the court of a Roman emperor. Discipline is cast off, and do what thou wilt is the whole of the law:
Alcohol, also, it is discovered, brings previously unattractive men and women into sexual play. If one thinks of them in terms of sex, rather than of physical beauty, they seem different creatures—worth considering, perhaps, for the sake of variety alone. The fuck begins to replace the relationship as an ideal. (p. 132)
As this quote captures, Litt's prose is detached, almost sociological. Earlier I mentioned his tendency to smartarsed literary pyrotechnics, but apart from the sustained metaphor near the beginning (which is neither understated nor overblown) this is held in check. Instead he methodically presides over an experiment in hothouse conditions, his narrative voice that of a passive observer.
Once Orphan's reign is fully established the narrative shifts to his third daughter, Three. After spending the early part of her life as the sort of prima donna you would expect from the child of a living god, she starts to question her existence. The story cycles back to the first act, to the idea that there might be more than the empirical confines of the ship. She too discovers a way of escaping her world: she decides to write a letter. This is not an easy task on a third-rate spaceship without pen, ink, or paper. The possibility of hope has already been extinguished from the book, though. By the third generation, the hedonism of the court of Orphan has become horrifically normalised:
And so although Chang was able to rape her (as before) whenever he wanted—just so long as a party was taking place—she remained essentially aloof from him. (p. 175)
Three's epic struggle to create ink—a project that takes decades—is heartbreaking. At first this is because it seems doomed to fail but then, far worse, it is subverted. The cycle repeats itself again.
Litt is a magpie, so it is unsurprising that this is the way he approaches the grab-bag of SF tropes, taking only what he needs. As such, science fiction fans are likely to find his generation ship unconvincing; it notwithstanding, it often seems more like an ocean liner. Did they really hope to colonise other planets with this tin can? I don't think this is a major flaw; it doesn't really affect the story he is telling. However, you only have to look at Jonathan Lethem's "Lostronaut," published last year in The New Yorker, to see that literary fiction set in space doesn't need to absent itself from the nuts and bolts and, indeed, it is stronger if it doesn't. More seriously, you could question the plausibility of his depiction of humanity. Are 99% of us really intellectual pygmies and moral cowards? Are we all just three meals away from anarchy? There are plenty of real world examples and counter examples, but Litt doesn't make his case; his detachment means he expects us to accept what he presents at face value.
Journey into Space is a bleak book, a pessimistic book, but it is not an entirely misanthropic one. There is always a green shoot, even if the ground is otherwise completely barren and there is a crushing boot waiting to descend. The fact that Litt forces the boot to descend so many times makes it an uncomfortable reading experience, but it does not necessarily make it an implausible one.