[Tin House; 2022]

Imagine that the Earth gets word from outer space. What changes? Humanity learns that we’re not alone, that extraterrestrial life not only exists but is talking to us. What happens next?

This is the question explored by a sub-genre of science fiction, the so-called “first contact” storyline. The prototypical title in this taxon is Contact—both the 1985 Carl Sagan novel and the Roger Zemeckis film adaptation that followed in 1997. In each version, a young girl, gifted in science and math, grows up to detect, as a PhD researcher, a cryptic instruction sheet sent from the void. This discovery kicks off a Cold War arms race to answer the aliens. Nations mobilize titanic bureaucracies and sizable sums. Ostensibly world-altering advancements are thus flattened into familiar ruts of geopolitical graft and greed. Decades before Sagan, the Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem satirized this “rush to respond” scenario in his 1968 novel, His Master’s Voice (translated by Michael Kandel in 1983), which trades the R&D plot for a philosophical meditation on the sheer impossibility of cosmic community. Gathered in a remote location by government agencies, scholars and experts debate endlessly about whether an alien message can even be considered a message, never mind what it means. Contact here convenes an interminable academic conference. More recently, the Chinese writer Liu Cixin has revamped this genre with his Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (first published 2008–2010). In thousands of pages that span galaxies and eons, we witness the totalizing transformations—political, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, linguistic—that flow from first contact. Cixin’s gift lies in his profound sense of scale, his ability to extrapolate on the level of civilizations. What would change? Everything.

In his new novel, Singer Distance, Ethan Chatagnier suggests just the opposite. With inverse proportion to Cixin’s soaring summations of human populations come and gone, Chatagnier focuses on a single star-crossed relationship. The novel opens in 1960 with five friends—graduate students on holiday break from MIT—driving to Arizona in a rented van. Two of these characters are central to the narrative. Rick, our narrator, is the logistics maestro who has planned this cross-country trek; he’s placed his faith in his girlfriend, Crystal Singer, a precocious math genius. Named, perhaps, with an eye to the technological breakthroughs in radio communications afforded by geological crystals, Crystal is a characterological echo of the protagonist of Contact, with whom she shares not only an early aptitude for equations but a formative link with her father figure. Indeed, following in the model of this genre predecessor, Crystal claims to have thought up an answer to the decades-old Martian riddle that baffled even Einstein. Because in this fictional world, someone (or something) on Mars has been communicating with humans since at least 1896. After a Dutch astronomer carved a massive message into the sands of the Tunisian desert, Mars answered back in its own landscape calligraphy. A pattern begins: Mars asks a question, seemingly to test humanity’s science and math know-how. When the planets align, we answer, proving ourselves through a kind of protracted group IQ test. First, Mars asks us to solve “3 + 3 = __.” But the extraterrestrial exam gets harder with each prompt, and Mars simply waits, never interjecting to help. Eventually, a question stumps us for generations, turning away no less than the wild-haired theorizer of general relativity. The question is about how distance, whether infinite or infinitesimal, is an illusion—how “a distance being traveled is different from a distance being measured.” Mars wants us to demonstrate how this apparent paradox could be true. Until Crystal’s breakthrough, nobody has managed it. Now, these five friends are traveling to a desert site where, with rented farming equipment, they will scrawl an outsized answer in the dunes.

We learn about this history of communications with Mars early in the novel, just thirteen pages in. In fact, we learn this saga alongside Crystal in a kind of secondhand flashback narrated by Rick. In 1948, the Soviets answered the Martians, and an eleven-year-old Crystal heard about it. After questioning her father, she learned when it all started and what had happened since. Is it plausible that a bright young girl could reach sixth grade without learning that there are alien folk up there? Chatagnier doesn’t think so, because he immediately tries to iron out this wrinkle, qualifying the timing of Crystal’s discovery with reference to world events. “American kids,” we read in the voice of Rick, the narrator:

learned the history of our attempt to communicate with the Martians in third grade. It was rote to us, but to Crystal it must have been the first time the world looked open. When she was in second grade her family had been focused on outrunning the Germans, fleeing Poland for Belgium and then Belgium for the United States. She’d missed hearing about Mars in school, and it was one of the many things lost the chaos of rebuilding. No one had time for history, let along astronomy, in those years, and the Martians had been quiet for so long nobody talked about them.

Considering that the so-called “Golden Age of Science Fiction” began roughly a decade before this remembered moment—and began in part due to a Western-world fascination with science and discovery spurred by international warfare—Rick’s explanation is less than convincing.

But even if it seems suspect that the existence of Martians wouldn’t break through the fog of war, this relayed gloss on Crystal’s childhood ignorance does aptly indicate the real concerns of Chatagnier’s novel. Yes, Singer Distance is titled for Crystal’s mathematical answer to the Martians. But the novel is less about alien communication than it is about how this communication renders Crystal alien to the individuals who love her. Rick wants to know Crystal completely: He wants to know her so well that he can recall her upbringing for the reader without her input. But after Crystal solves the first Martian question and receives another question in response—this one about entropy, albeit vaguely defined—Rick is shut out. Crystal recedes, first emotionally and then totally, vanishing from Rick’s searching grasp. Eventually, she also neglects the couple’s daughter, Rhea, who she keeps secret from Rick for thirteen years. Contact with another planet cuts Crystal off from those nearest to her. This is Chatagnier’s aim: to explore how an abstruse mathematical problem about distance being at once vanishing and vast might be meaningfully transposed to measure the ebb and flow of a relationship warped across time and space. Chatagnier pins our attention to a relational microcosm just when we would expect the macrocosm of his fictional world to grow more macro and more cosmic. As a conceptual narrative gambit, this move is bold and exciting; as a reading experience, it is not. The simple problem is that the relationship in question is less a relationship than Rick’s one-sided pining for Crystal. For most of the novel, Rick is broken by a lost love that we, the readers, never had the chance to appreciate or understand. 

Singer Distance begins with an excellent set-piece, building tension before the fivesome’s attempt to reconnect with Mars. But once this first alien question is successfully answered, the long middle section of the novel slows down. Rick loses Crystal, whose newfound fame for solving the distance problem has enabled her to disappear for years as she seeks the answer to the new Martian question about entropy. Much as the relationship loses steam, so too does the novel’s plot plummet toward heat death. Eventually, the third and final part sees Rick connect with Rhea, the daughter, in another cross-country trip, this time in search of Crystal. The finale shifts yet again the novel’s extended interest in the idea of distance. But by this point, Rick’s love seems so desperate and unwavering as to seem unbelievable. Is he really so ready to accept someone who has left him for this long, who kept his daughter from him, and who offers so little explanation or account of herself? Perhaps not, perhaps this is far from happily ever after. But the fact that Crystal’s sudden reappearance occupies only the last five pages of the novel compresses what should be emotional payoff into a rushed resolution. 

This eventual reunion is unsatisfying in part because we have not seen Rick meaningfully change in the intervening period of his abandonment. For instance, when, years after Crystal leaves, Rick almost falls for another woman, he breaks things off with the hammiest of friend-zoning shorthand: “I’m sorry. There’s a door in me that’s shut. Someone else has the key.” Soon after, when Rick follows up with his jilted would-be lover, we get Rick’s flat exposition where dialogue would better probe his fraught feelings: “I told her my feelings were complicated. I’d never known how to untangle them.” Although here applied to a relationship-that-wasn’t, this brittle emotional accounting also mars the interactions that are supposed to matter most, as when Rick and Rhea debate whether to keep pursuing Crystal. “‘But you’re ready, aren’t you?,’ I asked. ‘You’re ready to go home.’ No, she said. She felt the same. She felt closer for being on the trail.” Surely this sentiment—of a desperate daughter compelled to cling for her absent mother—deserves to come from the character herself rather than from the bare-minimum information delivery system that is her father’s robotic perspective. Singer Distance is stricken by Rick’s wooden wording, reduced from human drama to summative cliches. Clearly, Chatagnier wants us to refocus not only from the alien to the earthly but from the apparent hero of the contact genre—Crystal, the genius Mars communicator—to the mundane human partner who suffers for this hero’s achievements. But because Rick remains one-dimensional, flat in his functional narration and his lovestruck devotion, the story stalls. We are asked to delve a relationship that lacks the depth to reward the journey.

What changes with alien contact? Very little. So little, in fact, that, that historic Armstrong and Aldrin moon-landing still happens in Singer Distance on its actual date: July 20, 1969. Perhaps Chatagnier’s point is that the space race was already so fevered in reality that even messages with Mars wouldn’t have moved up mankind’s giant leap. Having self-elected into the contact genre, Chatagnier redirects Singer Distance away from the alien essence of this story form, suggesting that earthly issues more deserve our attention. To some extent, the novel’s striking lack of concern with the Martians is justified by the fact that, as several characters opine throughout, the Martians don’t seem all that concerned with Earth. Surely whatever alien civilization that would test humanity by starting with arithmetic doesn’t have a high opinion of us. After all, how could Earth have the technology needed to glimpse a question written on the surface of Mars without it also having knowledge of basic math? Are we, as a civilization, a plaything or experiment for Mars, an insignificant sideshow, or—at best—a child that needs more time to grow up than they, in their impatient adulthood, are willing to grant?

Chatagnier raises the specter of this chilling alien indifference but never commits to exploring what such a planetary snub might mean for our fervent desire for contact. Instead, he hews to a humdrum human story. And, in so doing, he implies a specious distinction between the otherworldly and the earthbound. A compelling contact story can be both intimate and expansive. For proof, return to that archetypical story, Contact, or to its spiritual sequel, the film Interstellar (2014). More literary examples include Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (1998), which was adapted into the film Arrival (2016), and Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Lagoon (2010). The latter, for instance, crashes an alien invasion into the midst of a socio-politically and ecologically complex Lagos, Nigeria. With kaleidoscopic narration that shifts not only character interiorities but species perspectives, Okorafor subtly undercuts the novelty of the contact genre, suggesting that the ostensibly upending chaos of alien intrusion may feel quite familiar in a place already living the entwined legacies of colonial incursion and environmental collapse. Here, each character in a cast spanning Lagos is given far less page time than Rick. But in Okorafor’s deft handling, we learn about each person as an individual and as a fictional focalization of real-world concerns with stakes outside the novel. In this sense, Lagoon braids together the personal, political, and planetary orbits that Chatagnier splits apart.

Benjamin Murphy, PhD, is a Lecturer in the English Department at Elon University, where he teaches courses on writing, American and African American literature, and genre fiction. Find out more about his teaching, research, and writing by visiting benjamin-murphy.com or by following him @benjmurph.

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