When the cicadas of Brood X start to swarm the United States in their billions, try to look beyond their overwhelming numbers. Instead, focus on just one of them. Despite appearances, that individual cicada will be a swarm unto itself—the insect and a community of organisms living inside it. Their lives have been so tightly entwined that they cannot survive alone. Their fates have been so precariously interlinked that their future is uncertain. And their relationship is so unusual that when John McCutcheon first stumbled upon it in 2008, he had no idea what he had found. Sitting in a basement laboratory and staring at the data, his reaction was less Eureka! he told me, and more How did I mess this up?
Many insects harbor beneficial bacteria called endosymbionts, which live permanently inside their cells. Cicadas usually have two—Sulcia and Hodgkinia. Between them, they produce 10 amino acids that are missing from the cicadas’ diet of plant sap. Because those amino acids are essential, so too are the bacteria. Without them, the cicadas can’t survive. The opposite is also true: Inside the cushy confines of their insect hosts, endosymbionts eventually lose the genes they’d need to exist independently. They become forever tethered to their insects, and their insects to them.
McCutcheon began studying this partnership in 2008. He remembers his boss, Nancy Moran, an endosymbiont expert at the University of Texas at Austin, leaning into a freezer and fishing out a brown paper bag full of dead cicadas, which had been collected during the previous emergence of Brood X. McCutcheon thawed them, dissected them, and tried to sequence the genomes of their endosymbionts. Normally, sequencing a genome is like solving a jigsaw puzzle—you end up with many small DNA fragments that must be assembled into a single picture. But with the cicada endosymbionts, McCutcheon simply couldn’t get the pieces to fit. It was as if he was trying to solve several jigsaws at once, all of which were missing pieces. “It was all weird and broken—tiny little pieces of junk,” he said. “I told Nancy that I messed up.” It took him years to realize that he actually hadn’t.
In 2014, McCutcheon was running his own lab, and still studying cicadas. He had shown that most of these insects contain Sulcia and Hodgkinia. But his student James van Leuven discovered that in one South American species, Hodgkinia had somehow split into two distinct microbes. Think of them as Hodg and kinia—two halves of a former whole, each containing a subset of its ancestor’s genes. Only together can these two half bacteria furnish the cicada with the essential amino acids that the full original could produce.
After analyzing other cicadas, McCutcheon realized that Hodgkinia splits readily and profusely. Some cicada species have two versions. Others have three, or four, or six. His student Matthew Campbell found that the periodical cicadas have at least 20. The 17-year cicadas of Brood X have 26 to 42, and probably many more; at some point, things got so complicated that the team stopped counting. That’s why McCutcheon’s data didn’t make any sense back in 2008: Without knowing, he really was trying to solve dozens of incomplete and jumbled jigsaws.
Every 17-year cicada, then, is effectively dozens of organisms in a single body—the cicada, Sulcia, and who knows how many versions of Hodgkinia. The multiple versions are always just small slivers of the ancestral one—Hodg, odgki, odg, gkinia, dg, gk, kin, ini, in, a, and so on. None of these is useful on its own, and the cicada needs close to the full set to get its amino-acid fix. It’s like a chef who’s trying to bake one cake using 42 tiny kitchens, each of which has only a couple of the necessary utensils and ingredients.
Of the many endosymbiotic bacteria that coexist with insects, Hodgkinia seems to be the only one that fragments in this ludicrous way. The reason is unclear, but McCutcheon suspects that it might involve cicadas’ relatively long life. Extended lifespans provide more time in which rare evolutionary events can occur, such as the splitting of a single microbe lineage. It’s probably no coincidence that the most heavily fragmented microbes exist in the 17-year cicadas, which live the longest. “It was almost like a mirror of the cicada’s life cycle, how long it took us to figure this out,” McCutcheon told me. “But I love it so much. It’s so wildly complex. The insects themselves are so cool, their endosymbionts are unbelievably messed up, and they’re all going to overwhelm the eastern U.S. It’s fantastic.”
It’s less fantastic for the cicadas. They get no benefit from having fragmented endosymbionts. If anything, fragmentation is a curse. Because almost all of the Hodgkinias are necessary, the entire alliance is vulnerable to the loss of any one member. (If one of those 42 kitchens accidentally catches fire, they all burn down, and the chef dies.) The cicadas now have to manage a needlessly complicated set of microbes, when their ancestors did perfectly well with just one (and Sulcia). They’re stuck in what Nancy Moran once called an “evolutionary rabbit hole”—“a generally irreversible journey into a very odd world where the usual rules do not apply.”
For example, once the members of Brood X emerge and mate, females will deposit a dollop of their endosymbionts into each of their eggs, to provide their offspring with the bacteria they need. But the females must ensure that this microbial heirloom contains at least one of every kind of Hodgkinia. And because cicadas don’t seem to be able to tell the different kinds apart, their solution is to shove as many Hodgkinia cellsinto their eggs as possible, to improve the odds of randomly getting the full collection. This is the only option available to them, but it’s a terrible one. Furnishing each egg with so many extra microbes takes energy. And because cicada eggs are hardly spacious, all the Hodgkinias leave little room for Sulcia, the other bacterium that cicadas need. “Hodgkinia is only making two of the 10 essential amino acids,” McCutcheon said. “Sulcia is making eight, but it’s getting crowded out.”
Nature is full of messes like this. Evolution doesn’t proceed according to a plan, and often has to bootstrap its way out of problems of its own making. But McCutcheon suspects that the cicadas’ plight will only get more complicated. Hodgkinia, he thinks, will continue to fragment, and the cicadas will be forced to evolve more convoluted ways of wrangling their partners. Two outcomes are possible. The first is replacement. In 2018, McCutcheon’s colleague Yu Matsuura, who works at the University of the Ryukyus, found that some Japanese cicadas have dispensed with Hodgkinia and all its messy drama.In its place,they’ve domesticated Ophiocordyceps, the infamous fungus that normally parasitizes and zombifies insects.
The second outcome is worse. Although cicadas have existed for about 200 million years, those with fragmented Hodgkinias have been around for only a few million of those. That might be because fragmentation leads to the (literal) dead end of extinction. “The periodical cicadas aren’t going to go extinct next year,” McCutcheon said, “but we know they’re not heading into a good situation.”
Cicadas might seem like creatures with concerns quite different from our own. But like us, they have come to rely on an interconnected network of parts that becomes more unwieldy and fragile with time, and that they can barely control. After a year of straining supply chains, globally coursing misinformation, and the layered disasters of pandemic pathogens and a changing climate, the cicadas’ plight might feel eerily familiar. In a few weeks, Brood X cicadas will emerge into a world not unlike the ones inside them.
This morning an oversight board created by Facebook approved the company’s January decision to indefinitely suspend Donald Trump from its platform, and gave the company six months to clarify the duration of the suspension. The result is a bit of a procedural dodge. There is only one reasonable path available for the company to take: Ban the former president permanently.
The reasons for this are straightforward. In many ways, the question of sanctions for Trump is no different from the theory of how a society sanctions any sort of misbehavior. Understanding how a punishment is generally chosen can help answer the question of what the “right” result for Trump is.
The first concept to consider is that of “general deterrence.” The question here is how to set the sanction at a level that will persuade others not to commit similar acts. Given that not all bad actors are caught, the theory of deterrence is that the penalty imposed must be significant enough to deter others. Put simply, how will the sanctions on Trump impact other political leaders on Facebook? Will it embolden them, or will it give them pause? Permitting Trump to return would tell future leaders that serial falsity is relatively costless. To send the right message, the ban must be permanent.
Next comes the question of “specific deterrence,” or “disablement.” Distinct from general deterrence, this asks whether the speaker needs to be effectively disabled from engaging in prohibited acts in the future. A serial robber cannot rob while he is in prison. So here we look at Trump and his nature and ask whether he is likely to be a repeat offender. The answer seems clear. If Facebook restores Trump to the platform, he will lie again, and when he does, Facebook will have to again banish him from the platform, at least for long enough to prevent him from damaging the next election. (If Trump is reinstated, I recommend saving this article; it’ll be relevant again in a year or so.)
Finally, there is the factor of contrition. To what extent has the actor acknowledged the nature of his prior acts and demonstrated remorse or behavioral adjustment? The greater the contrition, the less severe the sanction. By contrast, in the absence of a clear recognition of culpability and harm, it is reasonable to believe that the actor will repeat the activity even at risk of additional harm. This renders severe sanctions more compelling.
Can anyone looking at these factors seriously doubt what the result should be? Just consider the harm Trump has done with his megaphone. Four months ago, a violent mob stormed the United States Capitol in an attempt to overturn the presidential election. That insurrection was incited by a lie—the lie that the election had been “stolen” and that Trump was the true winner. Far from fading away, that lie has metastasized and become an article of faith among some voters. It has also become a litmus test of loyalty—so much so that one cannot, it seems, continue to hold a position of leadership in the Republican Party unless one is willing to shove the riot down a memory hole and publicly embrace as truth that which is manifestly false. The election lie was spread by many, but the lead proponent was Trump himself. He used Facebook, and other social media to propagate the falsehood—postings that led to violence and death at the heart of American democracy.
At no point has Trump demonstrated contrition, and every signal has indicated that he remains undeterred. Indeed, one can make the argument that Facebook acted too late and with insufficient force. By not banning Trump earlier, Facebook enabled and encouraged more and more brazen posts by Trump and other high-profile speakers precisely because there was no sanction. Given that, does anyone realistically think that if he is allowed back on the Facebook platform, Trump will not return to his fraudulent ways?
If any evidence was needed, on Monday, Trump made clear that he has no plans to refrain from continuing to spread falsity. In response to claims that he was lying about the election, he issued a statement declaring, to the contrary, that the 2020 election itself “will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!”
Were this persistent dishonesty just the repetition of a casual lie of no import, it would be of no practical moment. One can, for example, persist in a counterfactual belief that the Earth is flat, and this creates no societal harm. But Trump’s lies are more than that; they are an imminent and persistent danger to democracy itself.
Years ago, considering a question of free speech, Justice Robert Jackson gave voice to a cautionary idea: “The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is danger that, if the Court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.”
He was speaking about government regulation of speech and the dangers that came from the lack of limits. But what he said then is equally true today of commercial social-media platforms and their moderation of the content they host. The platforms are, themselves, the product of a robust liberal democracy in which order and liberty contend daily. The social-media platforms cannot allow themselves to become the germinating soil for the seeds of their very own destruction and that of the society that enabled them. By dodging a final decision and throwing the burden back on Facebook, the oversight board merely postponed the inevitable reckoning.
The Atlantic’s CEO Nick Thompson announced that Andrea Valdez is joining his senior leadership team as senior vice president of audience strategy later this month. Valdez is the founding editor in chief of the nonprofit, independent news organization The 19th, and was previously an editor at The Texas Observer, Wired, and Texas Monthly.
“Andrea is one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with,” Thompson said. “She has a profound understanding of editorial and has been an editor in chief. But she also has a profound understanding of business, and what it takes to thrive in media. She can play offense, she can play defense, and she can make everyone laugh too.”
In this newly created role on the business side of The Atlantic, Valdez will collaborate closely with newsroom leadership; product, engineering, and growth; and B2B teams on audience growth across platforms. She has a history of building readership as an editor, and will translate those sensibilities into a business strategy for continued audience and subscription growth at The Atlantic. The past year has seen record numbers of both, as audiences turned to The Atlantic’s exacting coverage of the pandemic, of threats to global democracy, and of an overdue national reckoning on race. The Atlantic currently has 770,000 subscribers––the most in its history.
Valdez helped launch The 19th in 2020 as an independent newsroom focused on the intersection of gender, politics, and policy. She was previously the editor in chief of the Texas Observer, editor of WIRED.com, and editor of Texas Monthly’s website. She wrote the book How to Be a Texan: The Manual. She serves on the boards of the Texas Book Festival and the Student Press Law Center.
In April, The Atlantic announced the hires of Jefferson Rabb as VP of engineering; and Kas Mayanga, who will be the publisher’s first VP of information security. Both Mayanga and Rabb are joining the product, engineering, and growth team, working to support and amplify the journalism, revenue growth, and experiences of The Atlantic’s readers and subscribers.
A real scientific advance, like a successful date, needs both preparation and serendipity. As a tired, single medical student, I used to feel lucky when I managed two good dates in a row. But career scientists must continually create this kind of magic. Universities judge their research faculty not so much by the quality of their discoveries as by the number of papers they’ve placed in scholarly journals, and how prestigious those journals happen to be. Scientists joke (and complain) that this relentless pressure to pad their résumés often leads to flawed or unoriginal publications. So when Randall Munroe, the creator of the long-running webcomic XKCD, laid out this problem in a perfect cartoon last week, it captured the attention of scientists—and inspired many to create versions specific to their own disciplines. Together, these became a global, interdisciplinary conversation about the nature of modern research practices.
The cartoon is, like most XKCD comics, a simple back-and-white line drawing with a nerdy punch line. It depicts a taxonomy of the 12 “Types of Scientific Paper,” presented in a grid. “The immune system is at it again,” one paper’s title reads. “My colleague is wrong and I can finally prove it,” declares another. The gag reveals how research literature, when stripped of its jargon, is just as susceptible to repetition, triviality, pandering, and pettiness as other forms of communication. The cartoon’s childlike simplicity, though, seemed to offer cover for scientists to critique and celebrate their work at the same time.
The concept was intuitive—and infinitely remixable. Within a couple of days, the sociologist Kieran Healy had created a version of the grid for his field; its entries included “This seems very weird and bad but it’s perfectly rational when you’re poor,” and “I take a SOCIOLOGICAL approach, unlike SOME people.” Epidemiologists got on board too—“We don’t really have a clue what we’re doing: but here are some models!” Statisticians, perhaps unsurprisingly, also geeked out: “A new robust variance estimator that nobody needs.” (I don’t get it either.) You couldn’t keep the biologists away from the fun (“New microscope!! Yours is now obsolete”), and—in their usual fashion—the science journalists soon followed (“Readers love animals”). A doctoral student cobbled together a website to help users generate their own versions. We reached Peak Meme with the creation of a meta-meme outlining a taxonomy of academic-paper memes. At that point, the writer and internet activist Cory Doctorow lauded the collective project of producing these jokes as “an act of wry, insightful auto-ethnography—self-criticism wrapped in humor that tells a story.”
Put another way: The joke was on target. “The meme hits the right nerve,” says Vinay Prasad, an associate epidemiology professor and a prominent critic of medical research. “Many papers serve no purpose, advance no agenda, may not be correct, make no sense, and are poorly read. But they are required for promotion.” The scholarly literature in many fields is riddled with extraneous work; indeed, I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that this sorry outcome was more or less inevitable, given the incentives at play. Take a bunch of clever, ambitious people and tell them to get as many papers published as possible while still technically passing muster through peer review … and what do you think is going to happen? Of course the system gets gamed: The results from one experiment get sliced up into a dozen papers, statistics are massaged to produce more interesting results, and conclusions become exaggerated. The most prolific authors have found a way to publish more than one scientific paper a week. Those who can’t keep up might hire a paper mill to do (or fake) the work on their behalf.
In medicine, at least, the urgency of COVID-19 only made it easier to publish a lot of articles very quickly. The most prestigious journals—The New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and The Lancet—have traditionally reserved their limited space for large, expensive clinical trials. During the pandemic, though, they started rapidly accepting reports that described just a handful of patients. More than a few CVs were beefed up along the way. Scientists desperate to stay relevant began to shoehorn COVID-19 into otherwise unrelated research, says Saurabh Jha, an associate radiology professor and a deputy editor of the journal Academic Radiology.
A staggering 200,000 COVID-19 papers have already been published, of which just a tiny proportion will ever be read or put into practice. To be fair, it’s hard to know in advance which data will prove most useful during an unprecedented health crisis. But pandemic publishing has only served to exacerbate some well-established bad habits, Michael Johansen, a family-medicine physician and researcher who has criticized many studies as being of minimal value, told me. “COVID publications appear to be representative of the literature at large: a few really important papers and a whole bunch of stuff that isn’t or shouldn’t be read,” he said. Peer-reviewed results confirming that our vaccines really work, for example, could lead to millions of lives being saved. Data coming out of the United Kingdom’s nationwide RECOVERY trial have provided strong evidence for now-standard treatments such as dexamethasone. But that weird case report? Another modeling study trying to predict the unpredictable? They’re good for a news cycle, maybe, but not for real medical care. And some lousy studies have even undermined the treatment of COVID-19 patients (hydroxychloroquine has entered the chat).
I should pause here to acknowledge that I’m a hypocrite. “Some thoughts on how everyone else is bad at research” is listed as one of the facetious article types in the original XKCD comic, yet here I am rehashing the same idea, with an internet-culture angle. Unfortunately, because The Atlantic isn’t included in scientific databases, publishing this piece will do nothing to advance my academic career. “Everyone recognizes it’s a hamster-in-a-wheel situation, and we are all hamsters,” says Anirban Maitra, a physician and scientific director at MD Anderson Cancer Center. (He created a version of the “12 Types” meme for my own beloved field: “A random pathology paper with the phrase ‘artificial intelligence’ in the title.”) Maitra has built a successful career by running in the publication wheel—his own bibliography now includes more than 300 publications—but he says he has no idea how to fix the system’s flaws. In fact, none of the scientists I talked with could think of a realistic solution. If science has become a punch line, then we haven’t yet figured out how to get rid of the setup.
While the XKCD comic can be read as critical of the scientific enterprise, part of its viral appeal is that it also conveys the joy that scientists feel in nerding out about their favorite topics. (“Hey, I found a trove of old records! They don’t turn out to be particularly useful, but still, cool!”) Publication metrics have become a sad stand-in for quality in academia, but maybe there’s a lesson in the fact that even a webcomic can arouse so much passion and collaboration across the scientific community. Surely there’s a better way to cultivate knowledge than today’s endless grid of black-and-white papers.
This story contains mild spoilers through Season 2 of For All Mankind.
During the Geneva Summit of 1985, as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to negotiate their way out of the Cold War, the American president paused the proceedings, the lore goes, to pose a question. “What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space?” Reagan reportedly asked. “Would you help us?”
“I said, ‘No doubt about it,’” Gorbachev later recalled. “He said, ‘We too.’” And the summit went on from there.
Reagan’s query was perhaps a joke meant to minimize tensions between him and the agent of the place he had once dubbed “an evil empire”; his question also, however, belied a long-standing dream. Reagan was an ardent reader of science fiction. One of the enduring themes of that genre involves the hope that humanity, existentially confronted, might put aside its differences and find a way, finally, to collaborate for the common good. Space, in that vision, is both primal and transcendent: an opportunity for humanity to recalibrate its failings. A place to search for, and perhaps even locate, our better angels.
The allure of For All Mankind, the drama that just finished its fantastic second season on Apple TV+, is that it takes the fond old hopes of collaborative humanity and, with great artistry, crushes them. The alternate history of the space race treats travel beyond Earth not as an opportunity for human improvement, but instead as an extension of human deficiency. The show is one of several recent works, among them the film Stowaway and the novel Project Hail Mary, that question operatic illusions about space. The final frontier, they suggest, will be no different from the other frontiers. Space will be a place of violence, of struggle, of selfishness and occasional grace—a place, that is to say, that bears both the image and the brunt of flawed humanity.
For All Mankind begins with a crescendo: Humans, speaking in soaring terms about technological achievement and common cause, take their first steps on the moon. In this world, however—initially set in the 1960s—the Soviets are the ones who take that giant leap before a rapt and tearful world. The story unfurls from there, as Americans absorb this humiliating loss. NASA, chastened, struggles to assert its dominance over the new frontier. It invests even more in its space program. Understanding that the moon is in some sense a matter of marketing, it ramps up its efforts in public relations. Responding to the fact that the Soviet space program has included women among its ranks, NASA hastily—and half-heartedly—recruits women as well.
The show’s genre may be sci-fi, but its main interest is psychodrama. It skillfully marries major plot twists with subtle insights about the frailties of the human heart. It is interested, deeply, in the idiosyncrasies of the people who form, and inform, NASA’s bureaucracy. (This includes a lengthy subplot about the moral consequences of the organization’s pioneering rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun, having previously worked for the Nazis.) The intimacy of the show, in that regard, makes it less of a typical counterfactual—a grand thought experiment, considering the sweep of history—and more of a finely tuned character study. The imagined timeline here is so minimally changed from the version people actually lived through that viewers might forget that it is, in fact, imagined. Reagan still becomes president. Women who pilot spacecraft continue to be discriminated against back on Earth. The Bob Newhart Show factors prominently into several plotlines.
Tonally, the series shares DNA with films such as Gravity, Apollo 13, The Martian, and other works that explore what happens when vulnerable humans confront the bleak hostilities of space. It diverges, however, in its final message. Human collaboration, in For All Mankind, is not a source of salvation, but rather an impediment to it. You might classify those earlier, more hopeful treatments as “competence porn,” the subgenre that basks in the quiet glory of being good at one’s job. For All Mankind offers a bit of that thrill—its characters are largely both brilliant and passionate—but it studiously withholds broader catharsis. The competence displayed in those previous works is typically a product of selflessness and teamwork: In Apollo 13, for example, you have all of Houston, it seems, working to engineer a solution that will save three astronauts from the consequences of a mechanical failure. In The Martian, you have the whole world, essentially, invested in the effort to save a single man who has been stranded on Mars. (In that case, too, you have an answer to Reagan’s question to Gorbachev. I won’t spoil specific plot points, but suffice it to say that rivals put aside their differences in trying to deliver Mark Watney back to Earth.)
For All Mankind—the title is deeply ironized—has little of those works’ elemental optimism. Yes, the show is awed, sometimes, by space. (Its title sequence features shimmering images across a sprawling darkness, set against an orchestral score.) Mostly, though, the series is curt about what might happen when human brains, with their capacity for selfishness, for suspicion, for war, navigate new worlds. Again and again in this show, people and nations try to work together; again and again, they fail. And the failures escalate, and compound. Season 1’s version of the space race may look roughly familiar to the one real humans lived through; by Season 2, the dreamy rhetoric of a humanity shed of its divisions has been revealed as a pipe dream. Americans have established a full-fledged colony on the moon. (They have named it Jamestown.) The Soviets have built one too. Were there air on the lunar surface, it would be full of tension: The Americans and the representatives of the “evil empire,” their disagreements ported off Earth, are always a mere buggy ride away from each other. The show doesn’t need to do much to emphasize the sense of impending doom. You know there’s going to be fighting, somehow. You know there’s going to be competition, and very likely bloodshed. This is, after all, what humans do.
A modern story of space that is both more tragic and more hopeful than For All Mankind comes from the Netflix movie Stowaway. A retelling, of sorts, of Tom Godwin’s 1954 short story “The Cold Equations,” the film follows a crewed mission to Mars that is wrestling with an unforeseen complication. A ground engineer, Michael (Shamier Anderson), injured during liftoff, ends up as a passenger on the spaceship. The accident that led to Michael’s unplanned joining of the three-member crew also damaged a device that clears carbon dioxide from the air. This leads the astronauts to a horrifying realization: The ship cannot support all four people. Unless one of them dies, all of them will.
Stowaway is a difficult film to watch. It transports the gutting choices of the trolley problem, the philosophical conundrum that asks about the ethics of killing the one to save the many, into the setting of space. Unlike Apollo 13 and The Martian, which take as a given that if humans work together, no one needs to die, Stowaway assumes that sacrifices must be made. The film is, like the story that inspired it, a work of hard science fiction. It eschews idealized treatments of possible worlds in favor of blunt calibrations: the finitude of resources, the immutable laws of physics. Stowaway’s well-meaning humans cannot collaborate their way out of scientific reality. As a consequence, in this version of the final frontier, there is no such thing as a fully happy ending.
Stowaway operates on several different levels. In one way, it’s a conundrum come to life, its pathos derived from the grim demands of survival. In another way, though, it’s a simple workplace drama. The film, in tone, is prosaic. It indulges in very few awe-filled images of an Earth made distant. Its spaceship is not exotic, but pragmatic—an office above all. The ship is home to a folding treadmill, sealed pouches of distinctly unappetizing food, a lab full of plants. Stowaway is, in that way, similar to The Martian, whose protagonist Watney, trained as a botanist, utters the line that might as well be the film’s motto: “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”
The two films may diverge in their messages about space as a site of human communion; what they share, though, is a conviction that space is, at this point, fundamentally mundane. The Martian illustrates this not just with its extremely quotidian dialogue, but also with its soundtrack: Rather than the booming orchestrals of the space opera, it features music that is decidedly earthly: disco. “Hot Stuff,” “Turn the Beat Around,” “Love Train”—these are the sounds of The Martian’s version of space. Several other recent works have adopted that mode of sonic banality. One of the best scenes in The Midnight Sky, an otherwise uneven new entry into the annals of space-travel movies, finds the crew of a ship singing along to “Sweet Caroline,” trying to find a moment of levity amid catastrophe. A scene in Season 2 of For All Mankind shows a group of astronauts—people both grand as adventurers and bland as co-workers—joining in a round of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.”
The Martian is based on the 2011 novel of the same name from the hard-science-fiction writer Andy Weir. The book, narrated with jovial charm by the stranded astronaut, is notably casual in tone—so much so that, if you take away the details about radiation and telemetry, the story often has the feel of a sitcom. That same tone informs Weir’s latest work, Project Hail Mary. The novel, published this week, adopts a long-standing sci-fi trope: It tells the story of one human, the scientist Ryland Grace, fighting to save humanity from a potential extinction event. Grace awakens on a spaceship only to discover that his fellow crew members have died. Beset, at first, with amnesia, he describes the situation in a manner that is almost aggressively conversational; in this space drama, instead of awe at the giddy fact of a swirling universe, we get detailed descriptions of bodily functions. Weir’s writing emphasizes what it feels like to be a human body navigating an inhuman environment. (It often feels, readers will learn, exceptionally bad.)
Project Hail Mary is an elegant inversion of The Martian: Instead of humanity working to save the life of one person, here is one person working to save all of humanity. But even this most epic of tales is shaped by the centripetal forces of human nature. Before Grace leaves Earth, he writes a controversial paper and is consequently banished from academia—the victim, Weir suggests, of human small-mindedness. (The story’s hints of normalcy are also injected playfully: As he labors to save his species, Grace encounters an alien that he names … Rocky.) Weir is a master of the narrative splice, and Project Hail Mary cuts between Grace’s memories of Earth and his present in space. The effect serves not only to keep the story propulsive; it also suggests a fundamental continuity between terrestrial realities and cosmic ones. The upshot is similar to what you find in Stowaway and For All Mankind: space, made small. Space, a place of possibility, but also constraint. The magic is the mundanity of it all. “This is one of those things I frequently have to explain to my students,” Weir, as Grace, writes:
Gravity doesn’t just “go away” when you’re in orbit. In fact, the gravity you experience in orbit is pretty much the same as you’d experience on the ground. The weightlessness that astronauts experience while in orbit comes from constantly falling. But the curvature of the Earth makes the ground go away at the same rate you fall. So you just fall forever.
That captures things nicely: You just fall forever. These recent assessments of space travel—their wonder made determinedly banal—are an apt outcome of this moment. Space exploration is ever more a matter of corporate interest and corporate wrangling. As billionaires fight for the moon, it becomes much more difficult to think of space as a setting for some kind of absolution—and to believe that humans might yet find ways to escape our humanity. The new fictions reflect that reality.
But they have a streak of optimistic insight too: If there is to be any hope of transcendence, they suggest, in space or any other place, that salvation will demand a clear-eyed assessment of humanity as it is, rather than as it might be. Human nature makes its own kind of gravity. The first-season finale of For All Mankind coincided, as it happens, with the inauguration of theSpace Force, the new, real-life military branch established with the recognition that space, for whatever else it might mean to the human story, is also a potential battlefield. Season 2 of For All Mankind skips ahead several years, to the mid-’80s: The moon is now home to many different people. Jamestown, the makeshift colony, is now a full-fledged lunar base. The U.S. is mining the moon for its minerals. So are the Russians. Before long comes the twist that is also, all things considered, an utter inevitability: The humans who claim to be bringing about a better world instead bring guns to the moon.