[Coffee House Press; 2021]
Two post-human space-faring workers are hurtling among the stars in a ship called the Wobble. Quiver, a cyborg astronaut and one half of the Wobble’s crew, is tasked with harvesting resources from alien worlds (minerals like “potluck” and “blasterite”). She feels cooped up and out of place; she belongs neither to this cybernetic realm nor the unknown human world. She passes the time with her counterpart — in life and work — a robot called Mic (short for Michelangelo). Of course, because this is a sci-fi adventure story, also aboard the ship is a holodeck device, that is, a room that stages real or imagined environments through computer generated holograms — first appearing in science fiction stories in the 50s, and then made famous by Star Trek: The Next Generation. The holodeck on the Wobble is called the Lights and, when off duty, Quiver uses the Lights to generate forests to run through. But one morning — or “First Cycle” — the Lights, unprompted, present Quiver with a tantalizing vision. A girl with “dazzling red hair” dashes through the woods, meeting Quiver’s gaze with a “crazy and unforeseen intensity.” Later, disaster strikes at one of their mining sites, and Quiver and Mic decide to evade punishment from their boss and “go rogue,” setting off on a quest for the utopian planet Trafik. And the redhead in the Lights, whatever her true identity might be, increasingly seems to be connected to the duo’s new destination as they get closer to it. Why the redhead has appeared now is a mystery to Quiver. She had only asked the Lights to put owls in the trees of her virtual forest, but along with these old literary symbols of wisdom, it seems the Lights have provided her a clue to the answer she has been searching for without knowing it.
Another issue with the Lights is that they are so vivid and entertaining that Quiver doesn’t have time to read her book, one she has kept since her youth on the Moon as a token from a past lover — a book by Julio Cortázar, of all people. That copy of Cortázar, the only book in Quiver’s possession, is possibly the last physical book in existence, lost in a cosmos teeming with strange things: a world-sized snow globe, gladiatorial emus, angelic beings singing karaoke in a tea parlor, parallel universes made of coral and beeswax, tiny alien pods that hatch dalmatian dogs that merge into dairy cattle. How does the reader make sense of all these eclectic elements hanging loosely together as if in zero-G? What does a book and a holographic girl have to do with the planet Trafik, and how can Quiver and Mic possibly make sense of the unreal phenomena on their journey? In Rikki Ducornet’s fiction, the first step in trying to make the world intelligible is often simply to believe that it is. As in her prior novels, Ducornet presents us with another world of radiant surrealism, only now she goes into outer space with a novel that works as a throwback to the pulp space operas of Leigh Brackett and E. E. “Doc” Smith, as well as the clever and biting satire of Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad.
Trafik is a short book — not so much a story but “a novel at warpspeed,” as the subtitle attests. A montage of short chapters from beginning to end show the reader the rhythms of working and living in space, before zipping the reader from one exotic locale to another. A planetary romance, Trafik is light-hearted and has sweet and quirky moments, but it is also steeped in mourning; both the mourning of the characters for a lost homeworld, and a more general mourning for a time when literature and culture mattered more than they do now, when they were closer to the galactic center of the zeitgeist than in their current specialized niche in the outer arm.
Ducornet’s prose packs rhymes and delectable sound patterns into a rich and steady drift of sentences. It might be tempting to offer somewhat stereotypical descriptions of the arresting, pyrotechnical style of Ducornet’s writing, except that it is decisively unostentatious. It refrains from precious similes and tells the story efficiently. Although, efficiency here doesn’t refer to delivering plot beats, but to how the language carries the situations and feelings of the protagonists so transparently and yet with a precise, pleasing rhythm. An example is Quiver’s reflections on her profoundly lonesome being, trekking between galaxies with Mic — a human and machine, yet she is neither.
“How terrible it is and yet how familiar, to be forever on the verge of falling. And would it have been any different had I gestated in a womb, and not in an envelope in a darkened room, rocked by the breathing of a fumevap, the whispers of apprentices moving among us in their blues like ghosts?”
While Quiver’s pluckiness comes with moments of storm and stress, as well as melancholy, the android Mic’s nerdy fixations — otaku culture, for example — and neurotic outbursts make him a loveable sidekick. Ducornet has a gift for drawing these benign figures, such as Uncle Emile in The Stain, and the sailors full of tall tales in The Fountains of Neptune. For Mic’s part, being stuck in the Wobble with Quiver has him struggling to understand her human aspects, and to grasp his objective situation as “a man of tin as, unforgettably, he had once been called to his face. A man born of abstraction, contrived, schematized, then . . . printed. Printed in parts! [. . .] If he is not ‘human,’ still, he is human, in so many ways! See how I suffer! he thinks. Is this not human? This suffering?”
Early in the novel, after one of their frequent quarrels, Mic declares to Quiver “I am a self because I think!” An intentional paraphrase of the famous formulation Descartes put down in the Second of his Meditations — in which he talked about looking out his window onto the square, where the people walking by, for all he knew, beneath their hats and frock coats, might have been robots — and, referencing this, Ducornet links Mic’s sense of himself with how the dualist philosopher structured consciousness. Mic struggles to understand how an artificial being like himself can still have spontaneous responses to sexual longing, to hearing the blues, and to everything else offered by the “erratic” and “irresistible weather” of human emotions. Untrusting of the senses, Descartes argued for a pure and independent cognitive perception over a more entangled or somatic approach. And Mic is, indeed, a cartesian man: a rational and intellectual being whose intellect and reasoning come not from sensation, an experience he can’t really have, but from being “an embodied abstraction of human thought.” Despite being concise, Trafik’s sub-100 page count does not skimp on the conceptual density.
Yet, Trafik is not purely interested in getting drunk on philosophy, since it’s not just love and loss that concern Mic and Quiver, but all the devices and raw materials and sheer stuff that make up their lives and the lives of other humans and animals, here, on terra firma. That is, the book is swamped in images of commodity production: Mic’s Swift Wheel device, vaguely similar to our phones and tablets, is full of music and movies and information; a hologram of Al Pacino, which is Mic’s own obsession in the Lights, as well as holograms of the old Earth’s hi-tech products (like Al Pacino’s juicer appliance); and Quiver and Mic have a kombucha cooler in their Wobble. In Ducornet’s science fiction, you get to have your chocolate cake in space, and Quiver enjoys a slice, though this tasty treat is a mechanical reproduction: the icing is of a different “molecular shuffle.” These details may amount to a “cozy” atmosphere, but Trafik bears its own charge of political allegory, particularly in the worlds visited during the novel’s back half. Reading the books in Ducornet’s great Four Elements tetralogy from the 80s and 90s, along with Trafik, creates the impression of an immense narrative world (and cosmos) where the marvelous collides hard with the capitalist mode of production. There is enchantment and adventure, lovers and storytellers, as well as bigotry and orphanhood, fascists and colonizers. There is no hard separation a la Descartes here; progress and tragedy are forever intertwined and interdependent.
The underlying tragedy in Trafik is of course the destruction of Earth, wrought through a “cascade of catastrophes” named “The Burnout, The Washout, The Scouring, The Scaling, The Noise, and, lastly, The Scattering.” These processes are left vague but the reader is told that there is a debris field of stone where the blue planet once was. A native of the Moon, Quiver’s loss is indirect, but she still feels that loss acutely: “I am longing for a sky that never stops moving. I am longing for cumulus clouds; I am longing for a buttermilk sky.”
But it is not only the natural world that has been reduced to detritus (of both rock and the data packets in the Swift Wheel that serve as an “archive”) — the literary and artistic products of the earth’s peoples also now constitute a debris field, literally groundless, and this image is a powerful way to think about modernist aesthetics. The art historian T. J. Clark, at the very beginning of his book Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, published in 1999, invites us to imagine these 20th century works as if they were artifacts left over from a calamity that has wiped all trace of their context. Would the archeologists of the future be able to reconstruct the lifeworld that produced these difficult and demanding works? Would they surmise that these paintings and sculptures and texts of the early 20th century already had “ruin” and “void” written into them?
Quiver’s experience with her book, Cortázar’s From the Observatory, resonates with this sort of encounter with modernist works. Quiver knows nothing of Earth, yet she is still pulled to respond to the wistfulness of Cortázar’s lines, the flow of images of love by the sea, and the idea of remaining outside of time. In Trafik, as in reality, Cortázar was once a real human being in an existing world, composing words that once belonged to him and now belong to his readers, including Quiver. But the extreme scarcity of this book, a commodity (albeit a rare one), reminds the reader of their own ultra-modern culture, with its attendant forms (film, TV, and video games, more relevant and more capital intensive) and attendant cultural politics. This new culture that has superseded the book is as easy to consume as it is hegemonic and ubiquitous. Generations of critics have elegized the serious novel, but surely something has shifted when public intellectuals, like Richard Dawkins on Twitter this June, can openly admit with smugness that canonical references like Kafka are unintelligible to them. Put another way, the innovations of modern art and the old halo of arts and letters are no longer useful to bourgeois society in the way they once were in the prior century (as capitalism transformed into the modern imperialist system, the very process that is traced in the background of Ducornet’s work). Compared with the Swift Wheel’s hallucinatory mashups of mass culture, reading Cortázar requires a different kind of attention, and, perhaps, the audience with this kind of attention is diminishing, as all old things will and must. It’s not fortuitous that the proper names for the apocalypse in Trafik are apt descriptions of our pluralized yet homogenous mainstream culture, and the philistinism (under all political signboards) that is often expressed by its influencers: “Burnout,” “Scattering,” “Noise.”
Mic’s Swift Wheel is a way to fill in Earth’s lost lore, being a “gigantic album of everything.” But the Swift Wheel is “impoverished” next to the “tangible density of the incomprehensible” — it can only help Quiver to learn from afar, and its database is very much like the asteroids Quiver and Mic encounter on their adventure (which turn out to be compressed masses of more consumer products). There are plenty of writers and thinkers on our planet right now who would agree, who would say this wonderful world is fundamentally blocked from our knowledge — who are agnostics, in a word. Ducornet weaves mysticism and occultism all through her work, up to and including the terrible visions of gnostic insight in the Four Elements, like a massive monument of meat in The Stain, or a ghost ship commanded by a giant sorceress in Fountains of Neptune. In another writer’s hands these themes might chart a course for anti-science. But many of Ducornet’s protagonists never give up on the possibility of understanding the world, and Trafik seems to urge the reader to stay connected to the senses, for they are the bridge to a world that has certainly passed more than a few ecological points of no return. But it’s still here.
Without giving too much away, Quiver and Mic do reach their destination, with a few other planets as pit stops in between, and their visions in the Lights will find their respective consummations. It is a tidy ending, maybe a simple one in the sense that desires are fulfilled, the lost is found, and utopia is unambiguously claimed. But this ending, and perhaps the whole narrative, is fairy tale logic in the sphere of astrophysics. Anyone who likes Ducornet and the Borgesian strain of lyrical, philosophy-driven fiction should get much fun out of Trafik — a galloping space romp and a love story, as told by the smartest voice in the room.
Alex Lanz has published stories, essays, and criticism in magazines including Entropy, Shantih, and Empty Mirror. They live in Brooklyn.