We need more worlds. Better worlds. We can’t overlook the need for horrifying, ruined worlds, true, but more than anything we need better worlds. The worlds academics build in dissertations, in articles all too often locked behind paywalls, in conference presentations, are too often small, tame things. Most of those worlds are shadows of the past anyways, bad rubbings memorializing how things were six months ago, a year ago, two years ago. Those are useful, vital, but we are not careening towards the past, we’re stumbling towards a set of futures, and it can be hard for us to get from the past worlds we captured in ethnographic amber to any future but the one that seemed most likely six months ago.
To get to the unlikely futures, the good ones, we need to imagine them. We need to imagine lots of them, mixed and matched in every combination. Imagining good futures is not an easy task in a time when an army of Great Old Ones is probably thawing out in the Manhattan-sized void under the Antarctic ice, but that’s why it’s such an important task. That is why I’m excited that our first foray into fiction publishing is Savannah Mandel’s novella Moon Monogamy and Other Things Bound to Go Wrong. I hope that you enjoy the world of Asimov Jones and The Ellis as much as I have, and that this is only the first of many worlds we help to propagate at The Geek Anthropologist.
We’ll be releasing Moon Monogamy in serialized form, with a new installment coming every month. -Nick
Everyone thought the first generation would be a bunch of STEM-worshipping squares (and don’t get me wrong we’ve got astrophysicists and mathematicians a plenty) but when the call went out, qualification number one was ALL APPLICANTS MUST HOLD A GRADUATE DEGREE IN BOTANY, PLANT SCIENCE, ECOLOGY, AGRICULTURAL SCIENCE, SOIL AND CROP MANAGEMENT, SUSTAINABILITY STUDIES, OR A RELATED AGRICULTURAL FIELD. They were farmers. We were farmers. And guess whose delinquent affection for certain illegal plants turned into more than just a hobby? That’s right. This girl! Yours truly, Asimov Jones, Young Botanist of the Year 2091. Don’t believe me? Just ask my probation officer. According to the last transmission I got, he’s now dating my dad. Funny how these things work out.
Anyways, I’m not just a botanist, and if I’m being honest the subject was never my first love. None of us here are just one thing, thanks to qualification number two, ALL APPLICANTS MUST HOLD A SECONDARY GRADUATE DEGREE IN ENGINEERING, CHEMISTY, ASTRONOMY, PHYSICS, INTERSTELLAR SCIENCE… the list goes on… but at the very, very, bottom, behind a couple hundred “better” options you would see AND ANTHROPOLOGY (Hey! That’s me! That’s me!) Any theories yet on why my anthropology degree was so specifically enticing to the Ellis Island application council? (Hint: it has to do with another troublesome habit of mine)… Space sex! Yep, you heard me right. Three years of fieldwork in the Crisium Lunar Research Base awarded me the distinction of first anthropologist on the moon and conceived (pun intended) one exceptionally satirical dissertation titled “Houston Had A Problem: An analysis of Lunar Monogamy”; spoiler alert- lunar monogamy does not and should not exist. Attempts at monogamous behavior while on base resulted in the first extraterrestrial murder (how was I supposed to know Lopez would throw Sgt. Green out the airlock? Really, none of us saw it coming).
All jokes aside, I ended up here on Ellis Island- or more officially Starship 67BA4, but I’ve never understood the point of the serial code. It’s not like there are any others. It took enough effort and resources to build this one, even with the help of the Singularity Boom (congrats Kurzweil, for predicting that one. You got it right! Down to the semi-apocalyptic genocide committed by the artificially intelligent). I’m not complaining though. Earth is a shithole and everyone wants off. A whole new subfield of anthropology has even popped up, focusing on growing distaste for and alienation from Planet Earth (some kids go off to college, others escape to a new solar system). It’s not like I have much family down on the motherland. Until Dad adopted me I spent most of my time in the foster system or detention facilities. Now, I’m part of something bigger, I guess you could say I have a purpose, and it’s kind of nice. Plus, I’m a lot better off up here than I ever was down there. Hell, I even have healthcare now. Crazy, right? But as it turns out, even when you’re living on an interstellar “island paradise” shit can hit the fan. And boy was that proverbial fan spinning fast this morning.
Markham called while I was doing my usual pre-work existential crisis. In other words, I was lying in the wheat fields bordering the “farmhouse”, starting up at our great, artificial, Stephen King-style dome sky wondering if men really needed their nipples (vestigial anomaly or sensual epicenter?) My wristpad vibrated and I answered without looking to see who was calling. I figured it would be Mali or Cristoph or Nabokov or someone I owed money to.
Instead, it was maybe the last person I expected, and definitely the last person I wanted to talk to. Chief Council Member of “Internal Satisfaction” (the External Satisfaction guy was in charge of Earth-Ellis relations) John Markham appeared before me in tiny, adorable, holographic form.
“Good Morning to you too, Dr. Jones.” (Hold your Raiders of the Lost Ark jokes or I swear I’ll get out my bull whip and send the giant boulder rolling over your pop culture addled skull.)
“Hammie! It’s been a while… how’s Jinora and the kids? Saw Junior over at the Garten just last—”
“Listen, if this is about those missing mushrooms I swear I’m just helping Avery out with a little… um… side research… on um… possible aphrodisiac effects of psilocybin fungi…”
“Jones!” Tiny five-inch Markham yells louder than you would expect.
I sit up, trying to keep the crushed wheat I had been laying on in my shadow, “Yes Ham!”
He sighs, “At least call me Markham. How many times have I told you…”
“Weird, you know I was sure you said your name was…” I can tell he’s not amused. “I mean, yes, sir?”
“I need to see you within the hour.”
Through his translucency I can see the great clock in the sky (a literal clock, not a projection of the time-keeping constellations Ursa Major and Minor) displaying a big 08:43, “But, I have work in 15 minutes.”
“I know. That’s what this is about.”
… Was it possible to get fired from a job on a Starship?
Qualification number twelve, MUST BE ABLE TO REMAIN CALM IN THE FACE OF STRESSFUL SITUATIONS.
“I swear to God or Allah or Yahweh or… or… Anubis! That’s who! I swear to Anubis god of bloody death that I will embalm whoever reported me for… whatever I did… and throw them into the damn fusion reactors!”
Okay, so maybe I lied a little in my application.
“Relax. Nobody reported you for anything… recently at least. We’re just making some adjustments because of what’s happened…” His face softens. Markham may be a hard-ass but most of the time he’s only doing his job. Plus, there’s a reason he’s a leading council member- something about him just makes you feel… internally satisfied… no matter how many times he calls you out for misbehavior or misconduct or public indecency (not my fault, I swear. Dian, from Agri-Ring 2 had just distilled a batch of apple pie moonshine and next thing you know I’m being dragged off a self-driving tractor that’s stuck on the roof of the robotics lab in Agri-Ring 4, naked as the day I was born. Nope, definitely not my fault. I blame bored physicist and 140 proof alcohol).
But what he says catches me off guard, “What happened?”
“Well it’s a small comfort that you haven’t heard. We’ve been trying not to let the news spread too rapidly.”
My curiosity piques, “What news?”
“I’ll tell you in HQ.” Tiny Markham starts to turn away and I think I’ve gotten off the hook.
“Stop crushing the wheat. We need that to survive and you lot steal enough as is for that train wreck of a speakeasy.”
I can’t help but grin mischievously. So even Markham knows? “Right. Sure thing, Ham.”
“It’s Markham… Ass.”
That gets a scowl out of me. Az is a nickname that led to a hell of a lot of teasing as a kid, not to mention a couple bar fights as an adult.
Uh oh. Here it comes.
“The Sheriff will be by to retrieve that mushroom “experiment”.”
“Goodbye to you too, Dr. Jones.” A shiver of static shudders through his miniature form as he hangs up.
With a groan I belly flop onto my bed of crushed vegetation, which was starting to feel more like an ancient Norse funeral pyre. He was right. I was going to have to find a better place to existential crisis. I didn’t want to end up responsible for the end of toast. And croissants. And cake. And pie. And beer. And… jeez… there’s a lot of awesome things that need wheat. My eternal gratitude to Levantine botanists of 10th century BCE.
Ellis is your classic centrifugal starship, modeled after designs originally inspired by some of the greatest—Kubrick, Robinson, Weir, etc. Built with 10 Rings along a cylindrical center that does triple duty as both engine, storage, and transportation network, it is home to 1,015 passengers (1,000 carefully chosen. 23 newly born. With 7 deaths between the two. Maximum population 1,500. Optimal population 1,276.), 12 biomes, and a lot fewer live animals than you’d think but way more fish than any of us expected. Ellis’s layout is simple and streamlined. Sure, our home was a technoscape, but it was a technoscape that looked suspiciously like farmland. In fact, if we’re thinking about “scapes” and Appadurai’s theories of Global Cultural Flow, I’d say we could add a sixth scape to his list of origins of cultural flow. The agriscape (very original, I know). The agricultural makeup of Ellis is so distinct in its ability to motivate and pass on the creation and flow of culture that it deserves its own category in Appadurai’s design. Anyways, being surrounded by manmade ecosystems was probably for the best considering the disastrous psychological impacts that long-term habitation of the ISS had. Thank god they finally got that mismatched hunk of junk spinning. Creds to my PhD supervisor for a really disturbing article on “The Death of Hope: Why leaving humans in a tiny, metal, space cage for 5 years is a bad idea” and creds to the producer that turned it into a horror movie. Still shook up. That scene with the space pen and the duct tape… gruesome.
Anyways, the ship is something like 6.45 kilometers long, and Rings 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 all have a circumference of 1.61 kilometers, making the diameter of each around .51 of a kilometer (but math isn’t my strong suit so don’t ask me for any more than that). Ring 10 is slightly larger than the other Rings, measuring 1.93 kilometers in circumference, and is home to the nuclear fusion reactors, one nuclear laboratory, and the fertilizer processing facilities (humans really don’t seem to like the prospect of using their own species or even other mammals as fertilizer and they really, really don’t like the thought of living next to it while it’s happening. So, the designers thought it best to put it as far away as possible. The nuclear scientists, on the other hand, seem indifferent and have been known to take their lunch breaks in front of the fertilizer processing factories’ viewing panel. They call it “peoplewatching” and it’s probably worth of its own anthropological study.
Ring 1 is the smallest Ring, and home to mission control, council headquarters, Ellis’s mainframe and the Tundra (complete with saltwater biome). I like to think of it as our serendipitous North Pole, but like everything on this ship, the Tundra’s positioning was part of a greater design. The Arctic saltwater biome is crucial to our multi-generational survival. Besides the valuable Salmon, Char, Haddock, Halibut, and Herring populations that rule its oceans, (as well as the rich culture of arctic peoples that has begun to grow with it) the most important part of Ring 1 is its temperature. Not only does the subzero weather keep the mainframe cool and happy, it also became the perfect location for the Svalbard Cryogenic Vault where the other 4 million “sleeping” (and unborn) inhabitants of the ship reside; all the Terran species that made the cut. Most of which were chosen for adaptability, durability, and rapid evolutionary development, and many of which (at least in my opinion) will prove to be useless on whatever dead planet Ellis ends up on.
Today, Ring 1 was my destination. Making my way through the spine’s transportation network took four minutes by “elevator”, which I only took because of the time crunch (usually I prefer to walk rather than regurgitate my lunch in that magnetic slingshot from hell). On my way I would pass Agri-Ring 2, home to the Taiga and Temperate forest, sheriff’s offices and the cabins. Then I would do what everyone else does, enter through the only airlock (it’s never depressurized but the ship is modular in case something goes wrong and knowing my luck, eventually something will go wrong), graciously accept my visitor’s parka and, if I’m lucky, catch a “sled” into the town center. (Why do they call them sleds in Ring 1, when they’re the same hovercraft every other part of the ship uses? Because humans are irrational.)
Just for the sake of further comparative analysis, while it took me four minutes to go from Agri-Ring 3 to Agri-Ring 1, it only took me forty-five seconds for Markham to piss me off more than he already had this morning.
Qualification thirteen; MUST HAVE THE PATIENCE AND EXPERTISE FOR CONFLICT RESOLUTION.
“You’re demoting me?!” I imagined breaking his stupid, pompous, 3D-printed nameplate over his dumb dumby head and replacing it with a giant AZ WUZ HERE AND MARKHAM IS A HAM. Or maybe drawing something phallic over it would be better.
“Aren’t anthropologists supposed to remain unbiased?”
“Unbiased?!… Un… this isn’t about bias! They’re robots.” Words replaced themselves with an angry sputtering of curses.
“It’s not a demotion. We just need you to focus on a new demographic. We’ve noticed some of the issues arising from your new research at the reproduction center.”
“Demographic? They’re not even human!”
“We know. It’s just…”
“I’m sorry! Was the last five years of research I conducted not good enough for you?” I stand abruptly, attempting to knock the chair I’m sitting in over for dramatic effect, but the damn thing is built to stay upright during all sorts of gravity shifts and whatever else could happen during the trip, so it just rocks back and forth. Mocking me.
I give it another kick for good measure.
Qualification twenty-seven; MUST NOT BE QUICK TEMPERED.
Okay, so maybe I checked a couple boxes I shouldn’t have.
“Asimov. Calm down. You know we respect your research or else the council would not have approved your suggested zone of sexual mediation.”
He means the “brothel” (which is more like a swing club rather than a brothel) – my hand-crafted center of sexual expression, the Aqua-Ring 9 island paradise, my baby (which is a real oxymoron because Ellis’s population is sterile until approved and ready for reproduction), Xuannü. You may be asking yourself, why choose this sex goddess specifically out of the hundreds that exist across cultures… because Xuannü isn’t just a Chinese goddess of sexuality, but of longevity, and our Xuannü will one day be home to the senior citizens of Ellis Island. As we are only five years into our multi-generational journey, the oldest member on our ship is Smitty from Agri-Ring 5, who is just a sprightly 63 (the youngest resident was born last week. One of the last of what is now termed the “blast off” baby boom, a pre-decided initial burst in reproduction which I think was honestly to keep the first generation occupied and busy). And so, the senior center has been re-categorized to serve other purposes. But based on Smitty’s number of visits, I don’t think our old timer will vote for Xuannü’s conversion anytime soon.)
“So why are you demoting me then? It can’t just be because I don’t get along with the staff at the repro…”
“Az, how are you going to keep up research on reproductive practices if you’re refusing your own reproductive opportunities? People don’t like it. It makes everyone on the ship uneasy.”
“It’s my choice! I remain unbiased, so why can’t they!”
He raises an eyebrow.
I cross my arms.
We both sigh.
“Listen, it’s not the only reason… this incident is…”
“Incident. More like malfunction. And honestly, one robot commits suicide. So, what? Aren’t they… you know… don’t they have free will and all that? It’s bound to happen eventually.”
“I thought you would be more interested in the event because of your…” He trails off when I narrow my eyes at him, “Anyways. It’s not that simple. They’re only allotted so much sentience these days.”
I pace two steps forward and three steps back before giving up and slouching back into the stupid ergodynamic chair, “I know more about human sentience than robotics. Refresh me.”
Patiently, Markham explains, “Well then you know that humans, on average, acquire or are born with around 3.00% sentience. Meaning we don’t typically have access to around 97.00% of our sentience.”
Qualification three; APPLICANTS MUST TEST AT A SENTIENCE LEVEL OF OVER 3.27% TEST RESULTS MUST INCLUDE KINETIC, QUANTITATIVE, AND NEUROLOGICAL RESULTS.
Miraculously and unbeknownst to me, my highest results were in the neuro category. Which is the one test you can’t cheat your way through… not that I found a way to cheat my way through the others… seriously. Promise.
“Okay, that’s the part I understand.”
“Well, as we discovered from the Singularity Genocide…”
We both shiver.
“Artificial intelligence can access far more of its own sentience… not to mention Google. After the Genocide a protective block was installed… I’m sure you’ve seen the movie version of the whole ordeal… and now all AI max out at 2.97 sentience.”
In comes a wave of flashbacks. Elementary school history lessons. Junior High history lessons. High school history… actually wait, who am I kidding I skipped most of my high school history class.
“The installations came with a lot of new rules, and decision-making processes were completely re-developed. Now an AI has to work its way through a web of a billion… no, probably a quadrillion possible outcomes, with road blocks along the way, just to decide whether or not to turn left or right. Let alone commit suicide. And the likelihood that an AI would reach that conclusion is extremely improbable.”
“Okay, well where do I fit into all of this?”
He hesitates, “Well… we found this…”
And then, as if to tease me further he slides forward and envelope, marked Dr. Jones, PhD in Anthropology.
I snatch it off the table, “And you wait until now to give it to me? What the hell is it?”
I shake it first and then rip open the envelope (which to be fair, probably wasn’t the best way to go about things). Markham continues, “We don’t know Az. Didn’t open it. I just assumed that you must have… you know…”
He doesn’t say anything, as if he’s waiting for me to figure something out.
Then, “Well… your relationship with the robots is special. Unique. So we just thought that you and this robot were… uh…”
I cut him off, “On a first name basis?”
He nods sheepishly.
Turning the envelope back to face him I ask the obvious question, “Then why didn’t the robot write my first name on here.”
It’s at this point I realize we’re both wondering the same thing; why me?
He leans forward a bit in his seat, “Well… what is it?”
Sighing, I shake the contents of the envelope into my hand, and out rolls… one 10-sided die. “Fuck if I know Markham. Guess the bot wants to… play a game?”
His eyes widen a little in surprise, “Oh…” Brief pause, before he says exactly what I thought he would, “… uh… time to cash in on your gambling debts?”
I’m not so sure I want to get involved in this mess anymore, “Listen, Hammie, I don’t have an explanation for this. Nor did I ever meet the robot who offed himself. I think you’re right. Maybe I should stay unbiased.”
He shrugs, “Quantitative investigation isn’t going to be enough you might actually be of some use to us.”
I narrow my eyes, catching his teasing tone, “I get that, but you would need a robot psychologist not an anthropologist. Or a programmer, I guess.”
“Well either way. You can’t work at the reproduction center anymore.”
Long, painstaking, dragged out pause. We’re playing chicken. Space chicken.
He continues, “We won’t push you but until you accept this or find an alternative project to begin, we will need to double your labor duty.”
“Great! Now I’m being punished. It’s a good thing I find the wheat fields very… very… invigorating!”
He rolls his eyes at me. Usually Ellis’s residents between the ages of 14 and 50 have 1 or 2 days of labor duty and 3 or 4 in their specialist field- with those over 40 and under 16 only required to work part-time. I’m not a happy camper but I’ve run out of snarky comments.
“We’re not punishing you but…”
Uh oh. Here it comes.
“Jones, I would start in the Security Office. They’re holding the body until we release a statement about the incident… and… you’re going to be working with Beau.”
Shit. My least favorite person on… okay, maybe not my least favorite person but I’m definitely his.
“You mean babysat by Beau.”
Markham shrugs as if to wipe his hands of the matter.
Well Hammie, so will I. So will I. And I will not start in the security office.
I will start in the Harlem Cotton Club.
About the Author
Savannah Mandel is a Space Anthropologist currently working with the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. She finished her MSc at University College London finishing a degree in Social Anthropology. With fieldwork on the anthropology of human space exploration, conducted with Spaceport America. Savannah harbors a deep love for science-fiction and writing, a love inspired by the works of Kim Stanley Robinson, Issac Asimov, movies such as Alien, Blade Runner, and Interstellar. Her academic blog posts have been inspired by technoscapes, material culture, and futurism. She’s currently working on a speculative fiction novel with the support of her literary agent. Some of her other publications on related topics include; The Elysium Effect: Space Law and Commercial Space Disparities (2018), Ghosts in the Machine: On Losing Control to the Technoscape (2018), To Infinity: Cosmic Anthropology and Science Fiction in Ethnography (2018), and science fiction short story Children of God (2018). If you have any questions or comments you’re welcome to contact her at Savannah.firstname.lastname@example.org