Short Story – The Things I Learned on Genesis

This story owes an awful lot to two things. One is Tom Wolfe’s excellent book The Right Stuff, an acerbic, shocking and often brutal look into the US manned space program and jet fighter development program. It is a work of nonfiction that any fan of science-fiction, of robot anime or boys-own aviation stories like Top Gun should read. It talks about the real life analogues – to be blunt almost to the point of banality – of the most memorable figures in military science fiction. It is a book about the people whose fictional equivalents are Roy Fokker, Isamu Dyson, Bernard Monsha, and so on.

I read it and felt no military SF I had read really captured the world of the fighter ace adequately. In order to make stories in that world entertaining, the aces must be cocky and ultimately, for the most part, successful. They do not die until pathos requires it and it was that that was exploded by The Right Stuff. The military fiction mould from which military mecha anime is cut eschews – in the sorts of stories that felt most analogous to The Right Stuff – the arbitraryness with which someone’s life could end. As a result they do not, I feel, adequately capture the macho camaraderie Wolfe also highlights. The most memorable characters of stories I loved were revealed as thin facsimiles of far more fascinating historical figures.

Yet the second inspiration for this story is undeniably Macross Plus. It is still – even if it now feels hollow and empty in its characterisation – an OVA which gets across, I feel, how the world of the test pilot was presented to the world in the space age. The rebellion is sufficient to thrill but still undercut with respectability. There is a sense of nobility and responsibility as Guld is forced to come to terms with his being a bad person. I have not watched Macross Plus since reading The Right Stuff but I very much want to, because while Wolfe’s book was often brutal, unremitting in its depiction of a churn of human life that seems to a modern perspective insane and unsustainable, it was also humorous and hopeful and filled with – as one settled into its prose style – the camaraderie that made it all possible. In its bizarre scatological moments, its depictions of utter bravery in the face of death, its depictions of the constant pursuit of success, it makes the sanitised fictionalised version of events seem believable.

This story is my response to all of this – my response, in fact, to my considering what I liked about mecha anime in light of reading Wolfe. Its protagonist is introspective, trying to understand from an outsider’s perspective how others she has distanced herself from live.

When I was five, the boy next door disappeared.

We used to live in identical white-wood bungalows with blue painted doors and window-frames on the edge of an orange-red desert that rested underneath blue skies free of clouds. Yellow suns seemed to gyrate above us through the long summer days, two blinding points of light that danced together and disappeared separately below the horizon, plunging the evenings first into a lengthy twilight and then a blue-grey night.

We used to play together in our shared, scratchy garden of dry earth and heavily-watered flower beds filled with homely plants that our parents forced to eke out an unhappy existence under a sky that was no home for them. Always with the lingering eyes of our parents over us, worried we would burn or suffer from sunstroke or wander out into the appealing desert and never return, for our garden had no back fence to speak of. The one concern that never seemed to cross their minds was that we would run into dangerous wildlife, for on Genesis man had safely ensconced himself as the superior being.

Our parents would, and at the time I never knew why, keep a respectful distance even as they both sat on deckchairs under wide umbrellas to watch us. We were allowed to mix, even if they never did. We were too young to understand what conversations of theirs we overheard, too young to care much for the news. Perhaps if we had cared a little more his disappearance would have been less of a surprise, but one day he told me he was going on a trip with his family, and the next the house was empty. My parents tried to reassure me he would be back soon but even at five I could see how they were trying to lie to me for my own sake. I might not have understood why he had to leave but I understood that he was probably not returning. I had had my first experience of real life on Genesis.

When I was sixteen, the boy next door disappeared and this time I felt it a lot more deeply.

He was a little older than me, not by much, enough to be exciting and own his own car which to be fair was more than enough for me. Not only did he have a car, he had a motorbike too and I used to enjoy riding with him down long, empty desert roads. The spiralling light of the twin suns and the endless twilight of a double sunset was now no longer a welcome extension of time to play in the garden, it was a too-long transiatory period before a young boy and a young girl can do what they believe people do at night. Of course neither of us particularly understood what was supposed to happen and I am sure, if my parents were to read this, they would be pleased to know we never found out, but we made do with awkward kisses and so on.

Perhaps if I had cared a little more his disappearance would have been less of a surprise, but one day he told me that he had been accepted into the military with a sort of downcast, wrenched smile that I should have read as disappointment and a premonition of what was to come. Everyone in our little town talked about the military. Everyone wanted to ascend to the stars, to walk proudly into – and then, years later, proudly out of – the angular chrome gates of the Armour Training Academy. I should have realised when the boy next door was talking about being accepted in the way he did he was not going to walk that walk. That was the crushing thing, I realise now. You were in too deep once you’d applied to simply drop out if you didn’t get what you wanted. What kind of a person would proudly say they wanted to serve their race, and then have second thoughts and complain that they weren’t doing it the way they wanted to? His acceptance probably gave him any number of potential futures. But none of those futures involved him walking into the Genesis Armour Training Academy, and none of those futures involved him living next to me and letting me ride his motorbike. This was, I suppose, my second introduction to life on Genesis.

It is not fair to say that the boy next door disappeared when I was twenty-three and finishing my first courses at the fleet officers’ college. I know exactly where he went and for a few years I would visit his grave because we had been, at the time of his death, very close to making our relationship something formal. Probably never marriage, but we would have lived together in a white-wood bungalow to see how things went.

He was part of the Academy, which meant he spent days on end taking an Armour up for as long as the human body could bear, landing it, eating something to revive his mind and repeating the process until it was nighttime. Flying was, for the daylight hours, his life. It was for all of them. Lectures and theory were things that you had to do to be allowed to fly, and between flights. But you went to the Academy to fly, and I thought that very exciting as I sat in the dull bleached college buildings that bordered the Academy, sweltering in proper neat clothing behind tinted windows and waiting for the evenings when I would see him. Four nights out of seven were ours together, the other three – and those were a hard-won three, otherwise it would have been five, or six – he went out with his fellow pilots. I was not welcome. Their other steady girls weren’t welcome. They, it was no secret, went and enjoyed the company of people two towns over who thought pilots were tremendously romantic people. They drank a lot, that was obvious from how he would reappear as catatonic as when he had landed after a flight, and – as I would find out – they liked to race their motorbikes down the same desert roads my crush at sixteen had.

Of course, one night he had not been quite so skilled at driving as he usually was, and they had recovered his body from the gully just past a sharp bend in the road. The police, and then the military police, had been called out to sort things. There was no time of panic in the hospital because he was dead before they even reached him. And as I watched, sat waiting to be admitted to identify the body (a mere formality – the military of course had done all of this internally already, and done its utmost to make it clear that this was an unusual occurrence and not the natural endpoint of the weekly activities of its candidates), the other pilots seemed downcast, but not exactly in grief. Not exactly sobered by what they had seen. They managed their feelings very differently and had little time for mine. That was definitely the hardest lesson I learned of life on Genesis.

Was my life one of bad luck? It would be easy for you to sit and say that what I encountered was dumb misfortune. But consider that in the three years I studied at the officers’ college there were more funerals among the student body than there should ever have been in a normal military academy. For all the simulator hours that prepared the would-be pilots for action, there came a time when they had to go from the classroom to the cockpit of a two-seater training suit, and from there first to a solo trainer and then to a real, unloaded unit of the sort they would pilot on graduation. And some dropped out, unable to manage the responsibility of real metal and real isolation, but some took to it and it was among those that people died. They were training to be pilots. Many of their parents had been pilots, because the flying bug – so he told me before he died – was passed down easily. With that pressure, and the pressure of competition for grades in the academy, one could do nothing but practice and practice and, as with all these things, practice is never quite enough. So pilots would change the parameters of exercises, push themselves to the limit, and until I realised how fragile their lives were I bought into that glamour. I believed it really was making sure our fleet was protected by the best pilots.

After he died I wanted some time away from the Armour training academy. He had not even died in a training accident; he had been a victim of bad luck, as his team leader (for to prepare the students for life in a squadron they were divided into teams, answerable to what seemed to me to be the loudest voice) told me. Behind his words, as I watched him return to the other members of the squad who were still reeling from the night spent drinking to his memory, I couldn’t help but feel a sense more of better him than me, and – for it was impossible to wholly avoid that environment as our campuses adjoined – I found myself hating the others who talked about piloting. They didn’t seem to care about anything except being the best pilot and all that seemed to involve was being the one everyone would look up to in the class.

The years passed and I graduated, and ended up a fleet officer in a starched skirt and navy-blue cap, and it was not long before I was reminded of my time on Genesis. There was a blind spot, and I can call it only that, across the entire ship – the flight deck. Pilots existed there. They protected us and when they roared into the mess hall we humoured them. These were people who had survived places like Genesis, walked proudly in and even more proudly out having beaten the odds, having proved their superiority, having not died in a flaming wreck on the desert or a crumpled heap on the side of a road. We had to discipline them with putdowns and the odd slap to the face rather than procedures and citations because – it felt to me, the bitter girl in the corner with a clipboard and a head full of memories of absent boys next door – they wore disciplinary complaints as medals. I thought that the argument that they protected us was a thin one. Our gunnery officer – a man in his thirties who had lost an arm when his former posting had gone down and now wore a mechanical replacement with pride – protected us. Our captain protected us. It seemed to me the alienness of Genesis was being once again paraded before me; the pilot existed in his own world, fought not as part of the ship but as part of his own brotherhood.

I think our captain – then a short, derisive woman called Heartwell – felt something the same because she seemed involved in a war with the flight commander, one fought with paperwork and time-sheets and in proxy via the engineering staff. I aligned myself closely with her. I supported her turning the ship into a tightly-run machine which suffered fools lightly. It did nothing to open anyone’s eyes to that blind spot that ate up four decks along the ship’s foresection. The pilots simply continued to exist and, when we fought, I continued to report the losses and the kills accurately. They provided a service for us, and if they would not be part of the brotherhood I wanted – and Heartwell wanted – they would be assets.

All my life my only experience of what being a pilot meant was one thing. Abandonment. It was an all-consuming thing. Families would be uprooted because of it, disappearing in the night as their children were left confused. People would sign their lives away to the army without a second thought to chase the dream of becoming one. People would die trying to prove they had the stuff it took to become one. In contrast, all I had had to do to take my role at the bridge was prove I could remember facts and type quickly. I have tried, for a very long time, to push this to the back of my mind. But Heartwell is no longer a part of my life. Genesis is such a long time ago that I am beginning to doubt my own memories of it. And so sometimes, when I am watching the labelled specks on the star-chart that show our Armours fighting to prevent the moment one fears when a gleaming visor fills the bridge screens and the fire follows seconds later, I have trouble reconciling that with what I think I learned on Genesis.


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