A HOUSE BETWEEN THE EARTH AND THE MOON
By Rebecca Scherm
Rebecca Scherm’s second novel, A House Between the Earth and the Moon, is about Parallaxis, a space station designed by the technology company Sensus as an orbital luxury apartment for billionaires. Sensus has hired a team of world-class scientists to build the station and make it habitable for the long term. In return, they are told that they and their families can live there, safe from the catastrophic climate change that is ravaging the society below. They are not told that they will also be subjects; Sensus is using the station to test Views, the new top-secret monitoring and behavior modification system.
The novel makes us feel the anguish of a 2030s Earth where extreme weather events are so common that entire cities routinely burn to the ground and even the wealthy have become nomadic, always one step ahead of natural disasters. Mass deaths are a staple of the daily news, and privacy is a thing of the past, available only by going off the grid and without the evacuation alerts that would warn of impending flooding or wildfires. We share the despair of Alex, whose work on carbon-decarbonising algae has become a race against time: “He wanted to save his planet, and with each disastrous year, his work became more necessary and less possible.”
Equally terrifying is the depiction of life in a space station, where all necessities have to be flown in from a dying Earth, and weight restrictions mean everyone wears ‘combo’ clothing that comes in packs the size of a deck of cards. . The fake sky has a glitching panel; walls intended to have a “pearl glow” resemble packing material; the air is kept safe by technology still under development. The inhabitants also live at the mercy of Sensus, and the reader never loses the sense of how precarious this existence is, and how terrifying it is to depend on the whims of the corporate bosses for your survival. In that respect, it looks a lot like life on Earth in 2022.
The author’s clear, recognizable voice and narrow personal focus make the book compulsively readable. Screen spends as much time wondering whether Alex will be able to heal his marriage and how his teenage daughter will deal with a cyberbullying incident as he does a global disaster. Plotlines are rampant on all levels. One of the most captivating sections involves Rachel Son, one of the co-founders (along with her sister Katherine) of Sensus, who is sent to the space station by her domineering sibling despite her terrible fear, and quickly disintegrates from fear and alienation. .
However, the approach also has pitfalls. In the end, it feels strange that the Son sisters are treated primarily as people with ordinary problems, even as they test and implement Views, their massive mind-control project. The Views plotline, meanwhile, is shown from the perspective of a lone data scientist, Tess, who accesses the visual feeds of Parallaxis employees and their families and is consumed by voyeurism, vicariously living through her subjects to the point of stalking. Screen manages to let us take care of these essentially unsympathetic characters, but fails to explain how Views is meant to work, or why it would be helpful to hire Tess to watch their subjects go to the bathroom. Similar weaknesses undermine the ending of the novel, which focuses on individual emotions in a way that feels increasingly trivial, while failing to provide a convincing solution to the political and environmental crises.
But overall, “A House Between the Earth and the Moon” is a thought-provoking and engaging read. By deftly combining the topics of big tech and climate change, Scherm has created a world that fully embodies the fear and humiliation of our time.