The new novel from visionary SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson tells the compelling story of the first colony on the moon.
Can Go Up Can Go Down (Xi)
Someone had told him not to look while landing on the moon, but he was strapped in his seat right next to a window and could not help himself: he looked. Quickly he saw why he had been told not to—the moon was doubling in size with every beat of his heart, they were headed for it at cosmic speed and would certainly vaporize on impact. A mistake must have been made. He still felt weightless, and the clash of that placid sensation with what he was seeing caused a wave of nausea to wash through him. Surely something was wrong. Right before his eyes the blossoming white sphere splayed out and became a lumpy white plain they were flashing over. His heart pounded in him like a child trying to escape. It was the end. He had seconds to live, he felt unready. His life flashed before his eyes in the classic style, he saw it had been nearly empty of content, he thought But I wanted more!
The elderly Chinese gentleman strapped into the seat next to him leaned onto his shoulder to get a look out the window. “Wow,” the old one said. “We are coming in very fast, it seems.”
The white jumble hurtled toward them. Fred said weakly, “I was told we shouldn’t look.”
“Who would say that?”
Fred couldn’t remember, then he did: “My mom.”
“Moms worry too much,” the old man said.
“Have you done this before?” Fred asked, hoping the old man could provide some insight that would save the appearances.
“Land on the moon? No. First time.”
“So fast, and yet no pilot to guide us,” the old one marveled cheerfully.
“You wouldn’t want a person flying something going this fast,” Fred supposed.
“I guess not. I remember pilots, though. They seemed safer.”
“But we were never that good at it.”
“No? Maybe you work with computers.”
“It’s true, I do.”
“So you are comforted. But didn’t people program the computers landing us now?”
“Sure. Well—maybe.” Algorithms wrote algorithms all the time; it might be hard to track the human origins of this landing system. No, their fate was in the hands of their machinery. As always, of course, but this time it was too much, their dependence too visible. Fred heard himself say, “Somewhere up the line, people did this.”
“Is that good?”
“I don’t know.”
The old man smiled. Previously his face had been calm, ancient, a little sad; now laugh lines formed a friendly pattern on his face, making it clear he had smiled like this many times. It was like switching on a light. White hair pulled back in a ponytail, cheerful smile: Fred tried to focus on that. If they hit the moon now they would be smeared far across it, disaggregating into molecules. At least it would be fast. Whiteblackwhiteblack alternated below so quickly that the landscape blurred to gray, then began to spark red and blue, as in those pinwheels designed to create that particular optical illusion.
The old man said, “This is a very fine example of kao yuan.”
“Which is what?”
“In Chinese painting, it means perspective from a height.”
“Indeed,” Fred said. He was light-headed, sweating. Another wave of nausea washed through him, he feared he might throw up. “I’m Fred Fredericks,” he added, as if making a last confession, or saying something like I always wanted to be Fred Fredericks.
“Ta Shu,” the old man said. “What brings you here?”
“I’m going to help activate a communication system.”
“No, for a Chinese agency.”
“Chinese Lunar Authority.”
“Very good. I was once a guest of one of your federal agencies. Your National Science Foundation sent me to Antarctica. A very fine organization.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Will you stay here long?”
Suddenly their seats rotated 180 degrees, after which Fred felt pushed back into his seat.
“Aha!” Ta Shu said. “We already landed, it seems.”
“Really?” Fred exclaimed. “I didn’t even feel it!”
“You’re not supposed to feel it, I think.”
The push shoving them increased. If their ship was already magnetically attached to its landing strip, as this shove indicated must be the case, then they were safe, or at least safer. Many a train on Earth worked exactly like this, levitating over a magnetic strip and getting accelerated or decelerated by electromagnetic forces. The white land and its black flaws still flew by them at an astonishing speed, but the bad part was over now. And they hadn’t even felt the touchdown! Just as they wouldn’t have felt a final sudden impact. For a while they had been like Schrödinger’s cat, Fred thought, both dead and alive, the two states superposed inside a box of potentiality. Now that wave function had collapsed to this particular moment. Alive.
“Magnetism is so strange!” Ta Shu said. “Spooky action at a distance.”
This chimed with Fred’s thoughts enough to surprise him. “Einstein said that about quantum entanglement,” he said. “He didn’t like it. He couldn’t see how it would work.”
“Who knows how anything works! I’m not sure why he was so upset by that particular example. Magnetism is just as spooky, if you ask me.”
“Well, magnetism is located in certain objects. Quantum entanglement has what they call non-locality. So it is pretty weird.” Though Fred was damp with sweat, he was also beginning to feel better.
“It’s all weird,” the old man said. “Don’t you think? A world of mysteries.”
“I guess. Actually the system I’m here to activate uses quantum entanglement to secure its encryption. So even though we can’t explain it, we can make it work for us.”
“As so often!” Again the cheerful smile. “What is there we can explain?”
The moon now flashed by them a little less stupendously. Their deceleration was having its effect. A white plain stretched to a nearby horizon, splashed with jet-black shadows flying past. Their landing piste was more than two hundred kilometers long, Fred had been told, but going as fast as they were, something like 8300 kilometers an hour at touchdown, their ship would have to decelerate pretty hard for the whole length of the track. And in fact they were still being decisively pushed back into their seats, also pulled upward, or so it seemed, strange though that was. This slight upward force was already lessening, and the main shove was back into the seat, like pressure all over from a giant invisible hand. The view out the window looked like bad CGI. Landing at the speed of their spaceship’s escape velocity from Earth had allowed them to travel without deceleration fuel, much reducing the spaceship’s weight and size, therefore the cost of transit. But it meant they had come in around forty times faster than a commercial jet on Earth landed, while the tolerance for error in terms of meeting the piste was on the order of a few centimeters. Their flight attendant hadn’t mentioned this; Fred had looked it up. No problem, his friends with knowledge of the topic had told him. No atmosphere to mess things up, rocket guidance very precise; it was safer than the other methods of landing on the moon, safer than landing in a plane on Earth—safer than driving a car down a road! And yet they were landing on the moon! It was hard to believe they were really doing it.
“Hard to believe,” Fred said.
Ta Shu smiled. “Hard to believe.”
* * *
It was easy to tell when they stopped decelerating: the pressure ended. Then they were sitting there, feeling lunar g properly for the first time. Sixteen point five percent of Earth’s gravity, to be exact. That meant Fred now weighed about twenty-four pounds. He had calculated this in advance, wondering what it would feel like. Now, shifting around in his seat, he found that it felt almost like the weightlessness they had experienced during the three days of their transfer from Earth. But not quite.
Their attendant released them from their restraints and they struggled to their feet. Fred discovered it felt somewhat like walking in a swimming pool, but without the resistance of water, nor any tendency to float to the surface. No—it was like nothing else.
He staggered through the spaceship’s passenger compartment, as did several other passengers, most of them Chinese. Their flight attendant was better at getting around than they were, very fluid and bouncy. Movies from the moon always showed this bounciness, all the way back to the Apollo missions: people hopping around like kangaroos, falling down. Now here too they fell, as if badly drunk, apologizing as they collided—laughing—trying to help others, or just pull themselves up. Fred barely flexed his toes and yet was worse than anybody; he lofted into the air, managed to grab an overhead railing to stop himself from crashing into the ceiling. Then he dropped back to the floor as if parachuting. Others were not so lucky and hit the ceiling hard; the thumps indicated it was padded. The cabin was loud with shouts and laughter, and their attendant announced in Chinese and then English, “Slow down, take it easy!” Then, after more Chinese: “The gravity will stay like this except when you are in centrifuges, so go slow and get used to it. Pretend you are a sloth.”
The passengers staggered up a tunnel. It had windows in its sidewalls that gave them a partial view of the moon, also of one wall of the spaceport, looking like a concrete bunker inset in a white hill, black windows banding it. Concrete on the moon was not actually concrete, Fred had read during the flight, in that the cement involved was made of aluminum oxide, which was very common in moon rock, and made a lunarcrete stronger than ordinary concrete. The landscape around the spaceport looked as it had during their landing, but hillier. Nearby hills were white on their tops and black below. Sunrise or sunset, Fred didn’t know. Although wait; they were near the south pole, so this could be any time of day, as the sun would always stay this low in the polar sky.
Fred and Ta Shu and the rest of the passengers shuffled carefully along, either holding on to the tube’s handrails or hopping up the middle of the tube. Almost everyone was tentative and clumsy. There were many apologies, much nervous laughter.
The sun spilled its jar of light over the hills. The rubble-strewn land outside was so brilliant it was hard to believe that the tunnel windows were heavily tinted and polarized. It might have been easier to move if the tunnel walls were windowless, but it did look wonderful, and the visual fix might also help people adjust to the gravity, affirming as it did that they stood on an alien world. Not that this was keeping people from going down. Fred held a side rail and tried little skips forward. Crazy footwork, ad hoc hopping—it was hard to move! No one had mentioned how strange it would feel, maybe that passed after a while and people forgot. He felt hollow, and without a plumb line to judge if he was upright or not.
Ta Shu moved just behind Fred, smiling hugely as he clutched the rail and pulled along as if on a climbers’ fixed rope. “Peculiar!” he said when he saw Fred look back at him.
“Yes,” Fred said. It was like weightlessness with a downward tropism, some kind of arc in spacetime—which of course was what it was. Frequent course corrections had to be made, but with very slight muscular efforts. Toes could do it, but shoes amplified what one’s toes tried for. Quite awkward, actually. A feat of coordination. Tiptoeing in slow motion. “It’s going to take some getting used to.”
Ta Shu nodded. “Not in Kansas anymore! Where are you staying?”
“The Hotel Star.”
“Me too! Shall we have breakfast together to start our day?”
“Yes, that sounds good.”
“Okay, see you there.”
Fred followed signs to the foreigners’ line for visa control, noticeably shorter than the line for Chinese nationals. Quickly he was facing a pair of immigration officers, and he handed over his passport. The officials gave him a quick look, put his passport under a scanner, and gestured him on. Beyond the controlled area two Chinese men saw him and waved. They greeted him and led him to the next room, which looked like any other airport baggage claim area. Signage was in Chinese characters, with small English script below them.
WELCOME TO THE PEAKS OF ETERNAL LIGHT
Baggage carousels spit out luggage as at home: many black cubes with inset handles, all similar. His had a green handle. When he saw it he hauled it off the carousel, almost tossing it into the air behind him; he spun around like a discus thrower, staggered, caught his balance. He was getting yanked around by a weight of a pound or so! But he wasn’t much heavier, and mass was not the same as weight, as he would have to learn. No doubt the unicaster in his luggage made it heavier or more massive than it looked.
His minders watched him impassively as he spun. When he calmed down one of them carried his luggage for him, so he could hold a handrail with both hands. Gingerly he tiptoed toward the exit, feeling conspicuous, but all the other newcomers were just as maladroit; there were still many low-impact falls, with people embarrassed rather than hurt. The halls were filled with laughter. The moon was funny!