In a Climate Crisis, the Future Relies Alarmingly on Big Tech

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By Sandra Newman

By Rebecca Scherm

Rebecca Scherm’s second novel, “A House Between the Earth and the Moon,” centers on Parallaxis, a space station designed by the tech corporation Sensus as an orbital luxury condo for billionaires. Sensus has hired a team of world-class scientists to construct the station and make it habitable long-term. In return, they are told, they and their families can live there, safe from the catastrophic climate change that is devastating society below. They are not told they will also be experimental subjects; Sensus is using the station to test Views, its new, top-secret surveillance and behavioral modification system.

The novel makes us feel the terror of a 2030s Earth where extreme weather events are so common that whole cities routinely burn to the ground and even the affluent have become nomadic, always one step ahead of natural disasters. Mass deaths are a staple of daily news, and privacy is a thing of the past, available only by going off the grid and doing without the evacuation alerts that would warn of approaching floods or wildfires. We share the desperation of Alex, whose work on carbon-extracting 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.”

Just as frightening is the depiction of space-station life, where all necessities must be flown in from a dying Earth, and weight restrictions mean that everyone wears “combo” clothes that come in packets the size of a deck of cards. The fake sky has a glitching panel; walls meant to have a “pearlescent glow” look like packing material; the air is kept safe by technology still in the process of 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 corporate bosses for one’s survival. In that regard, it feels a lot like life on Earth in 2022.

The author’s clear, relatable voice and close personal focus make the book compulsively readable. Scherm spends as much time on the questions of whether Alex will be able to heal his marriage and how his teenage daughter will deal with a cyber-bullying incident as she does on global catastrophe. Plotlines proliferate at all levels. One of the most absorbing sections concerns Rachel Son, one of the co-founders (with her sister, Katherine) of Sensus, who is sent to the space station by her dominating sibling despite her abject terror, and rapidly disintegrates from anxiety and alienation.

The approach does have pitfalls, however. It ultimately feels peculiar that the Son sisters are treated primarily as people with ordinary problems, even as they test and implement Views, their mass mind-control project. The Views plotline, meanwhile, is shown from the perspective of a lonely data scientist, Tess, who is given access to the visual feeds of Parallaxis employees and their families and becomes consumed by voyeurism, living vicariously through her subjects to the point of stalking. Scherm manages the difficult trick of making us care about these essentially unsympathetic characters, but neglects to explain how Views is meant to work, or why hiring Tess to watch their subjects go to the bathroom would be of use. Similar weaknesses undercut the novel’s ending, which focuses on individual emotions in a way that feels increasingly trivial, while failing to offer a convincing resolution to the political and environmental crises.

But in general, “A House Between the Earth and the Moon” is a thought-provoking and absorbing read. By deftly combining the subjects of big tech and climate change, Scherm has created a world that fully embodies the anxiety and indignity of our times.

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