“Billionaires Glamping in Space”: A Conversation with Rebecca Scherm

May 3, 2022   •   By Mairead Small Staid

REBECCA SCHERM IS a novelist gifted with both a visionary sense of invention and an unrelenting attention to fine-grained details — of a place, a day, a mind. Her first book, Unbecoming (2015), was a tale of art theft, forgery, identity, and allegiance told with clockwork precision and piercing insight. In A House Between Earth and the Moon, out now from Viking, she turns her astute gaze on the near future and the not-so-near reaches of space, exploring questions of privacy and privilege, and exposing the persistent delusion that the causes of our planet’s destruction — money, technology — might be used, instead, to save it. 

Set in 2033, Scherm’s new novel follows a group of scientists working on Parallaxis, a luxury space station designed for those who can afford to buy their way off a burning Earth. The station is funded by the Sensus corporation, the tech giant whose other projects include ubiquitous “phones,” which are implanted directly into users’ ears and record every second of their lives, and a top-secret algorithm — the Algo — that will use those recordings to analyze and predict human behavior. 

In a recent column for Harper’s, Hari Kunzru wrote, “Space dreams, of course, say much about the dreamer, about what constrains them, the limits they’d like to move beyond.” In A House Between Earth and the Moon, Scherm reveals the space dreams of billionaires for the nightmares they are. Compellingly plotted and thoughtfully made, her novel speaks to what constrains each of us, as inhabitants and inheritors of this fraught world, as parents and caretakers, as people caught between good intentions and bad options. How we might move beyond those limits is the essential question at the heart of this eerie, deeply affecting book.

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MAIREAD SMALL STAID: I first heard about this book back in — 2015? 2016? It’s wild to think of you writing, in those days that now seem relatively halcyon, about billionaires taking casual trips to space, phones buried in ear canals, heat waves that kill tens of thousands, etc. When I read the novel in 2021, such events seemed to have become all too likely, not in the future but in the present. What was it like to write this particular story over the last few years? Did you find yourself changing the book in response to the world, or did it seem like the world was changing to be more like your ostensibly future-oriented book?

REBECCA SCHERM: Reality scooped me over and over. I started this book in 2014, and my first attempts to imagine an earth-shattering future technology were pitiful. I was writing the first draft when a friend’s boyfriend got a top-secret design job at Apple — he wouldn’t say a word about what he did there. The Sensus technology I “invented” was like a Fitbit or an Apple watch — which was unveiled when I had maybe a third of a draft, and which my friend’s boyfriend had been silently working on.

After that, I understood the acceleration a little better, that however far I drew the line out, technology and its effects on our lives would get there much faster than seemed possible to me, a chronic late adopter. Initially, my agent thought a lot of the ideas in the book were too far-fetched, but I did my research, and then reality would shout these confirmations, like a friend texting me a link that Zuckerberg was working on thought-to-text with the “big eyes” emoji, because she’d read a draft. Whenever I’d see a headline about something I’d imagined in my version of 2033, I’d feel queasy for a minute — I don’t want to be right, but what I’d imagined seemed inevitable to me, so I wasn’t exactly surprised. Billionaires glamping in space always seemed inevitable because they want to win all the games (and Earth is a game) and they prefer to fly over the messes they make of everybody else’s reality.

The research you did must have been routinely appalling. Did anything you discovered in the process of writing — or maybe the process of writing itself — change (or affirm) your own daily relationship to technology or privacy or climate?

My relationship to social media certainly changed as I wrote this book, but so did many of my friends’ attitudes toward it — we have all seen the sausage factory now, you are either bothered or you aren’t. Maybe the biggest change is how much personal technology I would classify as “social media.” I’d call any technology that reflects information about your choices to any other users a social media technology. Whether the explicit purpose is “connection” between users or not, that collected information will influence users’ behavior, including your own, and that is how we make social life. Certainly, reading about eye tracking and facial recognition and the various engagement trackers already in use made it clear to me how our tiniest unconscious choices might be used to assemble a pretty good predictive model of an individual person and how that model might be used to change us by shaping what we see and when we see it. I used to think I was paranoid, but I’m not, I’m just more bothered. Do you mind when you’re at someone’s house chatting and then they talk to Alexa and you didn’t know Alexa was there? I hate it. Not that I do anything about it.

Oh god, Alexa. It boggles my mind.

As for our climate crisis — yes, writing this book changed me, and it was hard. We have less time than I used to think we did, and the political game that protects the hoarders will probably kill us. I was hostile to lawns before, but I became an obsessive native habitat gardener, because that’s where I found hope in both individual and small-scale collective action. One person can make life and grow insects and feed birds and capture carbon in a teeny-weeny little yard, if you plant right. I love Doug Tallamy’s vision for convincing people to turn their suburban yards into “homegrown national parks” and the way he talks to people about it. Very diplomatic. I’m trying to become more diplomatic, but my writing is not.

Well, writing needn’t be! Your book isn’t running for office. (Though I’d vote for it.) Do you hope the book might inspire readers to make similar changes, though, or at least become similarly more bothered? How did you think about balancing these urgent issues with the novelist’s need to create compelling characters and relationships — that is, with inventing people who aren’t merely didactic tools or mouthpieces for various positions?

I didn’t think of writing the book as a tool for action, though I do like to bother, to make you a little unsettled about your allegiances, and in this book, that bother has to do with the decisions we make or fail to make as a society. So much hinges on what we allow or destroy in the next five to 10 years — not “our grandchildren,” which is too abstract.

I did write a couple of those characters you mean, the ones who are mouthpieces for me, and then I cut them. Maybe because their motivations were too close to my own, I hadn’t done that slow untangling of the knot, and they were less engaged in the story, less vividly implicated, more like commentators. No good! I like characters to make different decisions from mine — we should react differently to a fork in the road. For this book, I wrote pages and pages about the lives of the characters before what you have as the first page. I definitely wrote those pages with the necessary delusion that they would go in the book, but I lopped off the whole hunk. It isn’t wasted though — maybe that’s how you get characters who react like real people. They have to have a somewhat inaccessible past, with big stuff and lots of small stuff that felt big to them and only them.

Now I sound like Tess. And I share her desire to, you know, just understand people perfectly, though we have different ways of going about it.

Tess is one of four point-of-view characters in the book, along with Alex, the scientist trying to grow a kind of super algae that will counteract climate change; his teenage daughter, Mary Agnes; and Rachel, co-founder of the corporation funding both Tess’s and Alex’s projects. What drew you to this shape for A House Between Earth and the Moon?

I had this saying in my head: “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.” It comes from the Bible, but it’s been worked over and I’ve heard it a few different ways. I like how, within an individual, it suggests denial, and within a group or an organization, it’s about how we might contribute our bits and pieces to a project we can’t see the shape of, whether it’s a family dynamic or a military campaign, or big tech ambitions. For the first drafts, the book was narrated by about 20 different characters. I was trying to capture all these narrow angles that couldn’t see the others, and I was asking way too much of the reader. Then I wrote a draft narrated entirely by a godlike Tess, where we didn’t know how much was her imagination versus observed reality — I tried to sell this to my editor as “A Sport and a Pastime, but space.”

Ha! I’d read it.

But Tess was unbearable in that voice, and I killed her at the two-thirds mark to let my 20 voices back in, like they were mounting a coup against her. Finally, I tried four voices, two on the inside of Sensus and two outside, and that worked. A right hand, a left, and two feet that have their own will about where to go.

Those 20 different perspectives — or Tess’s all-seeing one — would put the reader in an almost Algo-like position, able to observe and predict, if not control, the characters’ behavior. (I guess it’s you, the author, who is the most advanced Algo, able to control!)

Exactly. I think most — all? — novelists are seeking, somewhat nobly, to understand and, less nobly, to control, so we make these parallel universes, these model railroad setups, where we are in charge. An omniscient narrator is an authorial fantasy of knowing what everyone is thinking all the time, right? I sometimes thought of Tess as an author within the book — watching her subjects, flipping back to see what they did the last time, and still grasping to understand why they do what they do.

That idea of not seeing the shape of what we’re helping to make resonates with all the characters, whose best intentions go variously awry — even those of the teenage Mary Agnes. Was she as present in earlier drafts? Why did you decide to include a young, non-scientist’s story alongside the more high-stakes narratives of Alex and Rachel and Tess?

Mary Agnes was the first character, actually, and I worked out into the world she lives in. I guess that’s surprising! I was thinking a lot about how one generation makes the world that the next one will be formed by — I was thinking this because I was pregnant with my first child and very anxious, trying to imagine the world he would become himself in, and what that world did and didn’t have to do with me. Mary Agnes lives in a world that has been made, in a sense, by the adults in the novel, their choices and priorities.

That absolutely makes sense. There’s a point in the book where Alex, rather sheepishly, starts to talk about his decision to have children, saying, “The logic of the climate-scientist parent is…” and he gets cut off by another scientist: “—is trash.” That hit rather hard, non-climate-scientist though I am! In your book, though, the younger generation is the source of hope, such as it is. Did you consider other (less hopeful? more?) possibilities for the book’s end?

Well, hope is nice, but hope without action, without agency, is garbage. Hope without action is willful denial. I have kids, and I grapple with that decision still — I had children because I so, so, so badly wanted to, and I wonder if I managed to postpone or shut away my fears about the world they will inherit exactly long enough to have them. Classic human being. My husband and I used to joke that we could have another child only if it’s vegan.

There was a version, as you might suspect, that ended just a few beats earlier. But I had brought these kids into the story and given them plenty of agency — was it fair or even realistic to suddenly deny them that agency at the end, so I could have a scary fable? No, and that’s the joy in writing fiction that’s become in some way real to you — if it’s alive, there’s a point when you don’t get to decide what happens, and those kids would not have stood for an ending that ignored them. The story after the book ends belongs to them.

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Mairead Small Staid is a writer living in Minnesota. Her first book, The Traces, will be published by A Strange Object in September.