The hinterland inside your head

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TITLE, AUTHOR, DATE OF PUBLICATION:

“Hinterlands.” A short story by William Gibson.  Originally published in OMNI magazine (1982), later in his short story collection Burning Chrome (1986).

NARRATIVE PRESUPPOSITIONS:

1. In the near future a Russian cosmonaut named Olga Tovyevski vanishes during a solo mission to Mars.  Her small space craft disappears while triggering a series of hydrogen flares.  It does not explode or disintegrate; it simply blinks out of existence, as if it has been erased.

2. Two years later it reappears, as if from nowhere, blinking back into existence. A rescue team is dispatched and discovers Tovyevski floating in the ship’s cabin in a catatonic state. She has sabotaged the ship’s communications equipment.  More intriguingly, she holds an object in one hand that resembles a seashell, but which scientific tests reveal to be of unknown origin.  Olga Tovyevski’s ship has been somewhere and encountered something extraterrestrial in nature.

3. Olga Tovyevski never recovers from her cataonia.  She eventually dies in a Soviet medical facility.

4. The point in space  at which her ship vanishes is described by physicists as a “singularity.”  In common parlance it is referred to as the “Highway.” Where it leads, only Olga Tovyevski knows.

5. The Soviets send other cosmonauts through the Highway.  Inevitably each returns either dead by suicide or hopelessly insane.  Other nations soon join the quest in a spirit of legitimate international co-operation.  Interest is heightened dramatically when a French astronaut returns clutching a piece of metal of unknown origin; inside the metal is a chemical compound that proves to be the cure for cancer.

6. There are rules.  Robots are never taken, and neither are space ships with more than one occupant.  Sometimes space ships with single occupants are ignored as well, for reasons unknown.

7. A space station is built near the singularity.  The space station is called “Heaven”.

8. In spite of the fact that every astronaut who goes through the Highway returns dead or insane, there is a long line-up of new recruits eager for the opportunity to see what waits on the other side, in the hopes that (a) they can return with another artifact as valuable as the cure for cancer or (b) they will be the first to return in sound mind or (c) if neither (a) or (b) occurs then it will at least be worth death or madness just to know where the Highway leads.

9. Toby Halpert, the story’s protagonist, is a surrogate–a psychotherapist who has what is probably the most depressing job available to citizens of the future: he tries to keep returning astronauts from killing themselves. He spends most of his time in a drug-induced haze in his quarters in Heaven waiting for ships to return from the Highway.  If the returning astronaut is still alive and not completely catatonic, then Toby and his fellow surrogates try to comfort them, using a cocktail of drug therapy and psychological profiling. It never works.  The record for keeping an astronaut alive after returning is two weeks.

10. Surrogates routinely experience a crippling agoraphobia they refer to as “the Fear”.  This happens to them most frequently when boarding a space ship that has returned from the Highway.  The Fear is an atavistic dread in which the sufferer is paralyzed by overwhelming horror at the cosmic signifiance of the Highway.

THEMATIC SIGNIFICANCE:

1. The universe is indescribably vast, and dark, and alien.   H.P. Lovecraft understood this; so does William Gibson.

2. We are ultimately alone in our own consciousness.  The astronauts returning from the Highway are never able to communicate the wonders and the horrors they have seen; this plot element essentially functions as a psychological metaphor for how each individual human being is trapped inside his or her own mind.  I can never properly convey to you what I am experiencing; the only way I can attempt even a modicum of intimacy is through language.  But language is one step removed from the experience itself, and ultimately not that useful.  My words only mean what you interpret them to mean; when you say you know how I feel what you really mean is that you know how you would feel if you were in my situation.

3. In spite of our fundamental loneliness we cannot help but cling to each other, because we are all we have.  This is both horrible and wonderful.

AFTERWORD:

1. “Hinterlands” ends with Toby and Charmaine (his girlfriend and fellow surrogate) lying in Toby’s hammock in the dark, holding each other, reflecting on the futility of it all, yet finding a strange comfort in each other’s arms.

2. From “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold (1867):

“Ah love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certiude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

3. “Hinterlands” is the loneliest story I have ever read.  It is also, along with Danny Boyle’s 2007 film Sunshine, the most awe-inspiring meditation on the cosmos I have ever encountered.  This makes it indescribably beautiful.

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One thought on “The hinterland inside your head

  1. Pingback: What is the point of political philosophy? | Amber Krogel

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