Saturday, March 28, 2015

Our place in the universe: Martin Amis's "The Janitor on Mars"

Blinded, betrayed, and bereft, King Lear's Duke of Gloucester cries out, "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods./They kill us for their sport."

That pretty well encapsulates the theme of Martin Amis's short story "The Janitor on Mars," appearing in his collection Heavy Water. In the middle of the 21st century, Earth is contacted by an alien intelligence, a Martian "janitor"; the term's full implication is unclear until late in the story, but our point of view character back on Earth is an actual janitor, a largely chaste pederast who works at a facility for at-risk youth . . . if I've understood the organization properly. Things are morally muddy, as consensual relationships, no matter how imbalanced in terms of power, are encouraged and protected. Someone has assaulted one of our main character's charges, however, and he presses the nearly speechless, victimized boy to give him a name. Meanwhile, all of Earth is riveted to TV screens showing the arrival of the human delegation at the appointed meeting place on Mars. It's a juxtaposition that shouldn't work, in part because the science fiction aspect digs deeper and deeper—and for a sizable portion of the narrative—into certain "hard" SF premises having to do with the history and purposes of powerful sentient species. Just when you think the story can't get more grim, it takes another step down its dark path, unrelenting in the logic that governs its universe. Our Earth janitor, for his part, wants to protect one damaged boy from the terrible encounter the whole world is watching.

The story is rich with mordant humor as well as science fictional ideas, and it's deeply humane as well, despite the hopeless framework. What connects the narratives on Earth and in the heavens are the story's ideas about power. Perhaps there is something that makes us stand out against the dark infinitudes, and perhaps, Amis posits, if it's our frailty and weakness, then that may be a good thing.