I am something of a fan of the “lived-in” future, the grimy industrial look of things like Alien, Star Wars and so on. It seems an aesthetic that quite suits a pseudo-cyberpunk world, one of technology abused for the purposes of perpetuating inequality. That’s where this story came from – a series of aesthetic inspirations from the deserts of Dune and The Phantom Pain to a kind of indistinct mix of Mad Max‘s post-apocalypse and Michiko & Hatchin‘s sunburned South American favelas, tied together with the voice of a character trying to maintain a punk, anti-authority facade but – like I think many people do – finding their thoughts tend to the melancholy and introspective when they are alone with them.
After all, it is easier to be angry that the water is out again than to really do something about the ownership of the means of production when the bourgeoisie are millions of miles away on another planet.
It’s the best part of forty degrees outside, somewhere in the thirties inside, and the fan pushes the air around like it’s a liquid and I’m inside a fish tank of my own sweat. This block probably had air conditioning once but it sure as hell doesn’t now and you can tell the moment you walk into the hall. I’ve had to climb six flights of stairs that stink of things you don’t want to consider in the heat to get to my apartment and all I get is a view of the world through piss-coloured blinds over a city that’s baked orange in the sun that never seems to properly go down this time of year.
In case that’s not clear enough let me spell it out, I’m currently drinking the only cold thing within arm’s reach, a bottle of the urine they call lager around here, and my blinds are about the same colour as that, because why the hell would you waste water to clean them? It’s a miracle that we even have water some days so I’m not using my allotted shower to clean some blinds. If I’d paid attention in school, or should I say if I’d been to school long enough to pay attention, I could tell you with big pretty words why it never gets dark enough to comfortably sleep without hanging bedsheets over the windows but guess what, I didn’t. And yes I’m hanging my bedsheets for curtains because the curtains disintegrated months back and I’ve got better things to spend my paychecks on, like more of this beer.
It’s a vicious circle, isn’t it? Drink to deal with the fact that your flat is a shithole, spend your money to make sure you’re never sober enough to care that you spent the money that could have been used to unfuck the sorry situation.
At least the fucking TV works today.
Heavy boots stained with orange dust sat on a table that had dents the size of the heels in its cracked formica top, at the end of a pair of legs part of a body that oozed frustrated dejection and overheated fury. Something resembling work-clothes formed a slimy, sweaty pile of rags on a stained linoleum floor, abandoned by their owner who had stripped down to as little as decency would permit for drinking in the height of the afternoon. A flat screen bolted to the wall with pitted metal braces provided banal background noise, playing out scenes of discontented prosperity to the back of a lolling head. The television might have been working but there wasn’t anything to watch. In several hours, when the sun had tilted enough towards the horizon to make it bearable to stand outside for any length of time, the discarded clothes would be put back on, clinging damply to perspiring skin, and their owner would go back to her job. Work here took place in the mornings and evenings, rarely through the sorry excuse for a night for the simple reason that it had been decided preserving some semblance of a body-clock was generally better for people working in jobs that needed precision.
Cliche would have had it that the dispossessed and malcontent would labour under the shadow of prosperity, their pitiable dwellings the unfortunate marring of the view of the super-rich in their gated luxury.
Reality had seen the super-rich take a far more practical approach and simply go somewhere else entirely, one of the benefits of affordable space travel (affordable if you were paid a minimum wage that was mandated by law pretty much anywhere but this deserted economic albatross of a planet). All the workers generally saw of the space age were massive bulk freighters touching down in the charred pits that passed as a space-port to take on the seething chemicals and grim, dusty ore shipments that made this place a vital embarrassment to an empire that wanted to present a clean and beautiful face to the galaxy. Producing the materials that made luxurious future living possible needed a lot of people prepared to put up with terrible environments and do jobs that nobody in their right mind would do. Keeping them there was as simple as never letting them afford anything different. Preventing them from killing you once they realised this was as simple as not actually being on the same planet for longer than was absolutely necessary. Well, that was how the first generations had been. They had ranted and raved about how they had been sold a lie, that their dutiful service to the cleverer people who got things done was being rewarded with nothing but dust and long shifts, but when they had realised nobody was listening and they could not easily get to the people responsible, they had settled down into the classic human cycle of making the best of a terrible situation. Esprit de corps might have its limitations as a social cement in the long term but it had been enough to make the mining worlds survive for long enough to stabilise. Now all that remained were the successive generations of people who had given up even lying to their children that you could work your way offworld, and focused instead on making the most of this awful place. In many ways, an outsider may have observed, it was the same attitude as had been seen just before humanity had made its excuses, got its act together for a while and finally left Earth. The damage has been done but let’s do what we can to carry on as long as possible.
The apartment-block stank of a lot of things, the unhappy result of a lot of humans with only limited access to showers and suchlike. Cigarette-smoke was not one of them, because when the air was so hot breathing was laborious the last thing anyone wanted was to make it more difficult. If you absolutely had to smoke, you did it on the roof under the baking sun or outside, hiding in the shaded inches afforded by the door-frames and porches. Flat 614’s occupant had decided early in her life that this was a major inconvenience and given up smoking. Alcohol was a far more refreshing vice, after all – and more affordable. One of the things that tended to surprise people studying these hostile mining worlds was how well-fed the people had the potential to be; shops were well-stocked with fresh produce. Humanity’s greatest minds had thought that carefully through. Well-fed workers worked better, so it was an acceptable expense to build reliable, expansive underground farms and hydroponics facilities. As a result it was quite easy to siphon off enough produce to have a flourishing brewing and distilling industry.
Flat 614’s occupant might not have cared enough about her school days to learn planetary physics but versions of these thoughts occasionally circled her mind. Access to information about how the other half lived was a constant drone on the television, and it hardly took much of a logical leap to work out that nothing was actually improving.
You have to be actively stupid, or at least never speak to someone old enough to remember the riots of fifty years ago, to not realise what’s going on here. But you can’t change it. You can’t change a whole world. And if you realise that, realise you’re going to be putting up with this shit life until you die, you can focus on making it as not-shit as possible. That’s why we don’t smoke indoors, that’s why we go to the market and buy decent stuff to eat, that’s why I choose to afford a case of beer rather than a pair of curtains. Isn’t that a pretty good rebellion, when you think about it? Giving the people who thought they were screwing us over the finger by proving we don’t mind all that much?
I’ll never get off this planet, I know that. But I’m saving a bit every month and there’s every chance in a year or two I’ll be able to move to a block of flats with, you know, aircon and lifts and a TV that works all the time and a bathtub not a rusty, slimy shower. That will be a thing. They can’t stop me doing that, can they?