A Pan-Stellar Haven

“Why does everyone talk about that word?” Replies Lucas Benitez-Schroeder when questioned about his ‘humanity’. “Language is just a limescale that encrusted itself between you all, and still you waste time trying to establish a hierarchy of virtue around it. Why not give such prominence to revenge?”

Lucas is impatient with the assertions of humanity; what with him not being a human himself. He rejects the single-word concepts and finds more natural insight of people within their proverbs. The proverbs were more reflective of people on earth, numerous, constantly being recycled, re-invented, new ones are born occasionally, many contradictory, and easily manipulated or misinterpreted to mean something else.

“So which one is it?  ‘silence is golden’ or ‘the squeaking wheel gets the grease’? Should we cease judging a book by its cover or accede that the clothes maketh the man? It’s both, but not for all.”

“Watery Arc” is the third, and most humorous, novel by, Brazilian-born American, August Cooney.  The son of an American diplomat, Cooney lived a privileged and transitory life, on the road and in the air, following his father all over Latin America; with his private tutor in tow. He has often talked publicly about his upbringing and how he felt himself to be a martian; shifting from mansion house to airport business lounge to diplomatic convoy to neo-classical congress buildings, all the while peering out of the limousine window at scenes of extreme poverty, oppressive conflict and civil unrest.

And so, with this novel, the interloper is Benitez-Schroeder, an interstellar criminal from an unknown space and time, whose real name (if one exists) is also unknown. Having committed, what appears to be a politically significant but unexplained interstellar crime, he is being shifted to planet earth to hide from retribution from the grander galactical authority – this authority, much like Douglas Adams’ interstellar community, seems unaware of earth’s existence, or see it as an insignificant cluster of life. Earth’s qualities, he is told, are only fully to the knowledge of the seedy underbelly of Benitez-Schroeder’s conspirators. It’s not clear how their lifeforms work, nor is it relevant, we meet Benitez-Schroeder as he studies his human guise for the first time.  Studying in the mirror the “rocky calcite fortress wrapped around the sensual chunk of flesh within the mouth”. The limitations of the human body are a confounding prison for him: to rely so much on the eyes is ridiculous, the ears are benign and pick up all sorts of irrelevant frequencies, and what is happening in the mind is too slow, mostly noise and flashes of detail. He cannot possibly comprehend how he is to remain in this body, with such disparate and uncoordinated senses, and not lose his mind.

He does, however, grow accustomed to human life and its pleasures due to the simplicity of power in this underdeveloped world. Very few questions are asked of him as he wanders into Julius Bauer Bank in Zurich with the passport of a man who recently, and remotely transferred 50 million dollars into their accounts. From the very beginning, he is treated as a king, given for free, as much as he pays. He spends some time with his fellow interstellar outcasts, all filthy rich like him and using the planet as their a playground for their, much decried, limited sensual pleasures of their new bodies. His fellow fugitives are always reticent to inform him of how long they have been hiding out. Some admit that they have stayed, such is the simplicity of the monetary system that allows them glide over the rest.  Here, they assure him, if you have money, you don’t have to adhere to the people who won the war – here, in fact, you can finance an insignificant war yourself.

Cooney’s novel is like Dante’s Inferno, in that he follows a path from one layer of corruption to another, and unto increasingly absurd and shocking scenes.  The twist is that the higher the levels (or lower) the escalation is in the detachment – bloodthirsty penance is quite low on the scale.  Detachment seems to be his main concern with the ‘scaling-up’ of humanity.  Benitez-Schroder and his cohorts have long discussions, detailing earth’s potential to ascend into galactic relevance; and their conclusions are very much that the thing that must be removed is both the collective and the individual. The economic system is about the destruction of both and this is the grand aim, in order to ‘belong’ to the wider world.

So this ‘watery arc’ is destined to be part of the wider universe, but no one can be sure when or at what cost, only that there will be a cost before ‘when’.  From the outside the novel may seem cynical or fatalist, but Cooney’s eye for catching ordinary life can, at times be exquisite: a scene of a teenage boy bringing home his meager wages to his sick mother, in spite of his alien boss knowingly gouging the low pay exemplifies Cooney’s belief that all people are ambitious but in un-quantifiable measures. In this way, Cooney is very much in line with Polanyi, in that the economy functions only when space is given to the immeasurable desires that govern a person’s happiness – the aliens, insulated in their pleasures and their capital shifting grow morose in their jealousy that people insist upon living without being like them.

This is Cooney’s third novel, and his shift away from the idle pursuits of the moneyed class, is bold statement from someone who was celebrated for his apolitical musings.

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