It’s the future. Earth, environmentally ruined and abandoned, has become the dead planet, and a martian – with the ‘m’ of species rather than the ‘M’ of locality – is sent back there by his unspecified supervisors to collect samples and seek for new life.
Life on Mars itself isn’t great, as we learn bit by bit: the radiation, the pollen-storms, the food that’s basically mould, the terrible sex. And the culture is brutal: even martian fairytales and lullabies are grim and sadistic, and the planet’s Adam and Eve are vengeful, genocidal children.
The martian, who’s small, fat and black, and his accompanying robot, who is tall, white and shaped with ‘overt femininities// all relics of an ancient era’, land and find a place to inhabit. They raid the shops and he goes out daily looking unsuccessfully for life. He casually destroys museum and cathedral artefacts, starts to think telephones are alive, and scatters the ‘prototype’ seeds from the university lab (causing further disaster). With Crusoe-ish irony, he thinks his own footprint is from another being and chases it round the world. Eventually, however, he finds a house with a functioning artificial garden capable of producing real food, abandons his sample jars and settles down to tillage. He puts the robot back into the rocket to go home, but ‘she’ deserts it before take-off, and the book’s end has them watching as the launch fails.
This is all narrated – unusually for J O Morgan – in separate, titled poems, which build in a back-and-forth way into the story. It’s as deliberately anachronistic as At Maldon: sometimes Earth doesn’t seem all that long abandoned, while at other times ‘eons’ have apparently passed. It plays with our assumptions as to which poems are about Earth and which Mars. It exploits and ironizes the tropes of classic sf – colonisation, terraforming, fixed gender roles, the lone hero, the starward destiny of humanity. The big topics are all there: the utter loneliness of our planet(s) in space, the loneliness of individuals and the sheer stupidity of our environmental behaviour and of our faith in technological solutions; plus, for good ontological measure, our unlikely existence and our justifications of it: ‘if mere existence was itself a success’.
It’s all done in a nicely-weighted free verse, powered with anaphora and polysyndeton, whose syntactical plainness and lack of obscurantisms makes it a speedy first-time read, although it needs (but merits) several iterations to tease out the narrative and pick up the full freight of the sour jokes about catastrophe.
Have you swapped out the isotope scrubbers?
Are the shoreline plastics waiting piously
for their sublime incineration?
We’ve mapped out the stars to a depth of one third
of the universe. We’ve ridden the gravity-quakes.
We’ve noted how dingy it’s getting.
The fish are gummed up with humectant.
The crabs carry sandcastle shells.
How long till the oceans are empty of all but their water?
We’ve unravelled the cryptogenera
for all living things. We know the eye colour
of prehistoric lice.
Sickening, depressing, violent, existentially bleak, and such great writing.
Guy Russell 19th October 2020