RESEARCH SERIES #1
The publication of The Absence of Light inaugurates the Sonic Acts Research Series. Sonic Acts commissioned the short science fiction story The Absence of Light from Omar Muñoz-Cremers for the afternoon event on space debris earlier this year.
The Sonic Acts Research Series is a series of online dossiers devoted to specific aspects of the research that Sonic Acts conducts for its activities. Commissioned texts and interviews with featured artists and speakers are combined with films and material from previous Sonic Acts events. One such dossier will be published every month. The texts will eventually be made available in various formats to accommodate different reading and browsing tastes.
Dutch author Omar Muñoz-Cremers specialises in science fiction and essays on sociological themes that are often related to music culture. On Twitter he describes himself as ‘author, copy writer, conceptualist, sociologist and Head of Theory’. He contributed essays to the Sonic Acts publications Travelling Time (2012) – about time travel in science fiction – and The Dark Universe (2013) – about retromania and the lost idea of the future in Internet culture. The Absence of Light is pure science fiction, set in the distant future, with a protagonist whose well-paid job is to clean up the space debris that endangers space travel: remnants of spent rocket stages and old satellites, dust from solid rocket fuel and flakes of paint.
The space debris and space junk orbiting the Earth is an actual, growing problem for satellites and space exploration. (This probably entered the popular imagination with Alfonso Cuarón’s film Gravity in which the characters played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock have to take cover from hurtling space debris). The European Space Agency (ESA) is investigating how to deal with this – as you can find out on their website, and in the video ‘The Space Debris Story 2013’.
‘How to imagine the future’? In fact that was the subject of the panel we organised in cooperation with Simon Ings of ARC – ‘a magazine of futures and fiction from the makers New Scientist’. Four writers, all of them ‘steeped’ in science fiction – though not pure SF writers in a narrow genre-based sense – examined different aspects of imagining the unknown. Frank Swaintalked about the importance of the uncharted to stimulate the imagination: undiscovered lands can be filled with the creatures of our dreams. Tim Maugham pre-premièred the film that he made for his short story Watching Paint Die, set in a not-too-distant future London in which QR-codes and Augmented Reality rule the underground culture. Simon Ings – whose new novel Wolves came out a couple of weeks ago – referred to both the Soviet science of Alexander Bogdanov and the medieval Arabian scientist Al-Haytham, founder of the science of optics, to make a point about imagination, embracing the unknown, and science. Alastair Reynolds, a science fiction author with a solid background in science, talked about the relations and differences between the imaginations of science fiction and those of science.
If you missed it at the time, the video documentation of this panel is now online. You can also read Simon Ings’ text ‘Black and White’ in the Sonic Acts publication The Dark Universe.
Soon we will make the bilingual (English & Dutch) edition of The Absence of Light / De afwezigheid van licht available as download in our webshop.
The Abscene of Light
by Omar Muñoz-Cremers
Orbiting Europa, waiting for the next convoy, his thoughts wandered to his childhood hero Alexander the Great. These days it was rarely the Alexander of the famous battles and increasingly the movement of his army, a roaming city from which different languages and smells rose. His thoughts did not linger for long with the frontline, the horsemen with their shining armors and unforgettable names. He moved towards the dark alleys of the city, the rear end of this military force, where order was hardly upheld. The last footsteps from which a trail arose of food rests, feces, extinguished fires and the bodies of dice players who had been abandoned by the goddess Tyche for too long. Finally the vultures would land.
The convoy would silently pass Jupiter in a few hours, still four planets removed from a point that would launch them far into the universe. Here at the edge of the solar system scientists had created an opening into time and space with which colonists were transported to new worlds. The route from Earth to The Gate formed the longest highway in the history of mankind. As soon as a convoy passed he and his colleagues started to move in order to clean the way. Asteroids were destroyed, scraps of the space age collected, the bodies of unfortunates recovered. An object the size of his fist moving aimlessly at just enough speed was a deadly projectile which could mercilessly penetrate any vessel, killing everyone on board.
That’s when work got interesting. In the bars on the moons of Jupiter, which his colleagues frequented to pass the time, the salvaging of ships was a perennial topic of conversation. Enfolded in opiate smoke they traded legends of wrecked ships inhabited by billionaires who, surrounded by treasures, were embalmed by empty cold space. Their daily work was paid handsomely and a favorable salvage job guaranteed early retirement. Insurance companies would pay out generous sums for securing complete wrecks, but the real jackpot consisted of finding artworks onboard. Naturally with the rise of intergalactic colonialism a new smuggling route had been created instantaneously. According to a hastily drafted U.N. resolution on cultural heritage it was forbidden to send artworks out of the Earth’s atmosphere before living conditions became unbearable. Many a lost painting, disappeared in the art thefts of the past centuries, was retrieved during the first wave of accidents. In drunken conversations stories were often retold of perforated Picasso’s and amateurishly packaged masterpieces which were ruined by radiation.
It remained a fascinating sight. From a distance the true size of a mothership was hard to estimate. A silent city of countless lights pushed into motion by the largest discharge of energy the human race had ever produced. The boosters, extinguished after launch, were followed by a convoy of ships consisting of a host of smaller ships inhabited by smugglers, fugitives and the wealthy…and after that, just for now invisible, a trail of waste. The first cleaners slowly moved into action.
As a young boy he had strongly identified with the despair Alexander felt confronting an army that refused to go further, which was fed up with the unknown. Years in space had increasingly shifted his sympathy towards the troops who longed for home.
Nightfall, the clear sky of winter breaks, with dark blue clouds at the horizon suggesting a mountain range. Hardly more than a image. Vaguely remembered skies and winters which probably didn’t exist anymore. Strange how you couldn’t imagine in advance missing just that particular feeling of cold air against your face.
It was never told if the Macedonians, returning without their king, had really felt joy to see their fatherland again. How many of them had truly found peace? Those who left for the new worlds seldom returned. The deadening return trip through the solar system formed a barricade which kept everyone but the sickliest of nostalgics from returning. Besides, the sporadic messages which were received from the colonies exuded an almost universal relief concerning the liberation from the pressures of overpopulation. A life without pollution, continuous conflicts, without the excess of rules and laws. Humanity was reborn.
The man with unmistakable Chinese features spoke in true new-Amsterdam dialect:
“I can’t take these.”
His gloved hand moved carefully over the stones in which faintly glowing green veins were visible. Two years ago they were mined from an slowly revolving asteroid on the intergalactic route.
“You see, the material is…unknown, therefore priceless. Certainly for me.”
With a gesture he separated the stones from the other finds.
“These though,” a sparkle appeared in his crystal blue eyes, “…enough for a life on a new planet. A very good life.”
A new planet. Why would he? He stepped into the permanent rain peopled by an oppressive crowd he could not get used to ever since returning. The maximum stay of five years in space as a cleaner of space debris had shortened his life expectancy sufficiently. Intensive therapy would repair some of the damage but hardly enough to cross the solar system any time soon. But the biggest barrier was psychological. Since his return he had trouble sleeping, the darkness of sleep an echo of the emptiness of space. Yet he also feared light. For a long time he wore sunglasses at night, a precaution as important as the training program that would get his muscles back in shape for normal gravity. During the preparation for life in space you learned that one seldom dreams of Earth out there. He couldn’t remember one single dream. The years had passed away in short cycles of waking and sleeping without any noticeable dream work.
Within week his job transfer was approved. Once he arrived at the edge of the desert the dreaded blinding did not take place when he slowly took of his glasses. The sun detonated and in the explosion a reservoir of dream matter flooded his being, the neurons in his brain appeared to sing while billions of connections flashed in a moment that left words smoldering somewhere far away. When he regained consciousness he saw that the desert of mirrors was real after all. From the Nile to the Atlantic Ocean row after row of solar panels formed the only human structure which could be observed from space with the naked eye. Even a cloud of debris could never completely cover this scar of light. Here the cleaners who didn’t leave for the colonies or lost themselves in the labyrinth of pension were sought after. They were easily recognized: during routine jobs they stayed behind in the jeeps, silently battling the pulsating sun which hardly was contained by the sunglasses and tinted windows. At dawn and sunset they came out. Their knowledge was activated for the bigger jobs, the recyclable fragments, unknown objects or possible antique remnants of illustrious satellites.
“It’s only a fifty kilometer drive, Ragab. You think we could take that route?”
His Egyptian colleague behind the wheel studied him closely.
“Siwa, right? Should be no problem. No doubt we will run into enough jobs with all the activity of the past days. But let me tell you this. As a boy, I think I must have been seven, eight years old; I often used to wander with my grandfather past the necropolis close to our village. Most of it had been blown away by the wind a long time ago, except a reasonably intact complex built high up against a hill. At the bottom of the steep hill there was an opening, something resembling a doorway. So every time we walked past I nagged my grandfather that we should enter it. In my fantasy I saw steps and secret hallways that would eventually lead us to the complex. Perhaps even a forgotten treasure chamber? A path nobody had dared to explore in thousands of years. One day my grandfather apparently had enough of my nagging and we stood in front of the opening. I took a look inside and at the bottom of the steps I could make out an enormous pile of plastic and rotting garbage. An important moment, you know? The moment the hammer of reality comes down. Cold. Hard. The world of grown-ups.”
Standing on the hill they had a view of the ruins surrounded by the oasis and behind it the rows of panels that slowly cooling, absorbed the hazy starlight without any interest. They wandered through the remnants of doors which according to archeologists had led to the oracle.
“You see, the fire from heaven is a phenomenon of the distant past.”
He smiled immediately, realizing the irony of his words.
“Man was never that important. But who knows, we are still alive.”
Later in his sleeping bag he studied the veined space rocks. What had he expected, that a mission would be completed when he placed them on the correct spot, just like in one of the computer games from his youth? That they would suddenly start to speak in tongues? An ancient language reborn? In the morning they silently drove towards the latest impacts. In search of new promises.