Jonathan Lethem Returns To Science Fiction, With A Gorgeous Downer Of A Story

Illustration for article titled Jonathan Lethem Returns To Science Fiction, With A Gorgeous Downer Of A Story

Jonathan Lethem has a haunting new story of astronauts stranded on a space station in this week's New Yorker. "Lostronaut" is a depressingly bleak, yet beautiful, story told in the form of an astronaut's letters home to a loved one. It's the most science fictional thing I've seen from Lethem in ages, and also one of my favorite pieces of his writing ever. And it's the first piece of science fiction the New Yorker has seen fit to publish in ages. Spoilers ahead. The New Yorker used to champion science fiction, back in the Tina Brown era, but of late, it's turned up hits long cartoon nose at the genre. So "Lostronaut" is a good way of dipping back into the inky waters of the genre. It's really worth checking out "Lostronaut" for yourself, but in a nutshell, it's a story of an astronaut, who we learn is female at some point, writing to her lover, Chase, who's back in New York. The astronaut, and five others, are trapped on a space station where everything is slowly breaking down, and the Chinese have put up mines to keep them from escaping for some reason. There are leaf-cutter bees running wild, from the semi-failed hydroponic garden. ("We're all in denial about the bees," Lethem writes at one point.) And then the narrator gets a tumor on her foot, and has to go through chemotherapy in space, before she finally has it amputated. The thing I love about the story is the juxtaposition of the grinding realities of life in space with the stuff the narrator imagines her lover is doing, back on Earth. There are some really gorgeous passages, Lethem's best prose, like this one:

We’re soaring atoms, Chase, that’s what orbit consists of, the inhuman hastening of infinitesimal specklike bodies through an awesome indifferent void, yet in our cramped homely craft, its rooms named to evoke childhood comforts, with our blobs of toothpaste drifting between our brushes and the mirror, our farts and halitosis filling the chambers with odor, we’ve defaulted to an illusion of substance. Inside Northern Lights, we’ve managed to kid ourselves that we exist, that we’re curvaceous or lumpy or angular, bristling with hair and snot, taking up a certain amount of room, and that space and time have generously accorded a margin in which we’re invited to operate these sizable greedy bodies of ours, a margin in which to dwell, to hang out and live our pale stinky stories.


Really great, if depressing, stuff. Check it out. [New Yorker, thanks to Heepcak]

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I wonder if part of that story was inspired by the real life of Jerri Nielsen, the doctor who discovered she had breast cancer *after* she had arrived on Antarctica for the winter with no hope of transport for months. She had to do her own biopsy and administer chemo for herself.