In A House Between Earth and the Moon, Rebecca Scherm Confronts the Startling Art of Speculation

Speculation demands ambition—the ability not only to sketch out the depths of human depravity, but also to pine for its redemption. As any artist who’s lived through the pandemic (or, say, any era of human history) can tell you, that’s not an easy feat to imagine. But many, including author Rebecca Scherm, would argue it’s an essential one. In her first novel since 2015’s psychological thriller Unbecoming, Scherm has turned to science fiction in A House Between Earth and the Moon—and discovered a world that startles her even more than present reality.

In the book, set in a near future, the gargantuan tech company Sensus—an amalgamation of Apple, Google, Facebook, and their ilk—owns the world’s data, including, but not limited to, its users’ faces, voices, biometrics, and emotions. Those users interact with one another through invasive phones that probe, worm-like, into the inner ear and connect to the person’s retina, making their entire field of vision like that of a VR headset. Meanwhile, the world around them is becoming increasingly less habitable, and scientist Alex is convinced his gene-edited super-algae might have the capacity to gobble up all that excess carbon. Trouble is, he needs a secure, controlled environment to test his experiments. His best bet is the final frontier, where Sensus has constructed Parallaxis, a first-of-its-kind luxury space station outfitted for billionaires. When Sensus selects him as one of its Pioneers—the first crew to set foot on the station—he opts in, leaving behind his ex-wife, Meg; troubled teenage daughter, Mary Agnes; and sickly son, Shane.

As Alex is sucked into the claustrophobic, dissociative panic on Parallaxis—a panic clumsily handled by Sensus’s sister CEOs—his family must deal with what remains: Meg with two children she barely understands, Shane with threats to his life everywhere he goes, and Mary Agnes with access to technology far more powerful than she can comprehend. The result is a story mind-boggling in its scope, but measured in its intentions: Says Scherm, this is a book about what happens when the human race gives up, and why it is essential that never happens.

Below, the author digs deeper into the influences behind her sophomore novel, as well as why such speculative fiction matters at all.

Where did the idea for A House Between Earth and the Moon first originate?

Well, I think there are at least two origin stories, which is always how it works with me when I’m writing fiction. I think I’m having different ideas about different projects, and then at some point there’s some day when they smack together. And then it’s fizzy; it starts to sort of effervesce.

I think the first thing was that I was enjoying watching movies that take place in space, and how they forced drama in a very claustrophobic situation. And then, also, my impulse in literature is always to look at the way people try to escape their problems and themselves by going somewhere. Anytime a character embarks upon a quest or they make a move or they blow up their life, they’re trying to escape themselves—but no matter where you go, there you are. And those ideas sort of started to mingle. But what I did not expect to happen was for this to turn into a book about parenting.

I started that version of this book before I was pregnant with my first child. And then, when I was pregnant with him, I was a mess. I was so incredibly anxious anticipating the world that he was going to grow up in. I started writing from the point [of view] of this mother, who was Meg, and I started writing about trying to parent children who have lives that I worry I can’t understand. And then there was a crash. I remember, around this time, I would often say to my husband when I was worried about the state of our country, “Can’t we move to New Zealand?” As if that would solve anything.

I had an old professor who would say, “Can’t we move to the moon?” There started to be a crash between these ideas, the fantasy that you could help your children escape some reality by taking them somewhere else, and what if that opportunity came at this great cost to your ideals and to your fears and anxieties?

The book employs some of the familiar science fiction tropes, but there’s also some hauntingly modern concepts: the thought that this one tech company is watching everyone, and the whole world has voluntarily—to some degree—agreed to give up their privacy. Then, of course, you have the climate change of it all. I’m curious how those elements were each incorporated, and particularly how you juggled them.

It didn’t seem as if I could pare away any pieces of our reality for the sake of narrative purity, I guess. I understand that it would’ve been a cleaner, more conventional book if I could have done that, but I could not imagine a 2033 without every concern that we’re stewing in now.

I’m not able to focus very long on thinking about climate change before I start worrying about war and then, oh, look: A war has begun. The way that our world is so completely connected all the time, from environmentally to epidemiologically…I would love to isolate myself and my family and my loved ones and all the people that I care about and all the people I’ve never met from some of these concerns. But since I couldn’t do it, I had to let [these issues] surround the characters.

I hope [the book] reflects a little bit about how we think day to day: You’re at the grocery store, and you’re thinking about the most mundane and the most threatening aspects of life at the same time. And that was sort of what I was trying to get at with Mary Agnes—how you can be completely overtaken by the drama in your own life, even as people are literally burning to a crisp a couple states over.

I was really fascinated by Mary Agnes’s storyline, because hers is a new generation to speculative fiction—this idea of, How will Gen Z and Gen Alpha actually experience the world? Mary Agnes witnesses this horrific deep-fake rape, which some might consider far-fetched. But it’s not. At all. It’s happening now. Where did the decision to include that come from, and what was your intention with it?

First I was asking myself to imagine not just what it would be like to be a mother in this time, but to imagine being the child who is in the world created by the adults around her. To force myself to look at those…what I see as a series of compromises, the innovations and compromises, and to imagine what it would be like to live with them—and then more specifically [made that] about Mary Agnes.

She has an unexpected origin story. I was on tour for my first book, and I was doing the reading in New York, and Jia Tolentino—who is a friend—was doing the questions for me. And she asked me if Grace from Unbecoming [the protagonist of Scherm’s first novel] could have [ultimately] gone down a different track. And at the time I said “no.” But I became dissatisfied with that answer. As a person in the world who believes in redemption and forgiveness and mistakes, and the importance of making mistakes, I felt really dissatisfied with that answer. It just sort of bothered me, and I thought, well, maybe I want to write about a teenage girl who makes a mistake and is really bothered, but it doesn’t end her.

Not to wade too deep into spoilers, but at the ending of the book we get the sense the children are the ones who are actually going to do something about the problems in the world. I’m curious, first, how you got to that ending. But then, is that something you actually believe? That this future generation can save us all?

The ending of the book was initially darker. I had given [the young characters] all of this love and detention and agency to have desires and wills and fears and to make mistakes and correct them and do their best to make amends. And for me to have that ending be dark required them to not be there, really. It sort of had them just sit it out, be benched. And it didn’t feel honest to those characters. The adults at the end of the book feel spent. The kids are still just gearing up.

The adults have been spent by Sensus, but the kids’ gears are starting to turn, and they will have to take this over, in a way. In my real thinking as a person, I think that’s really infuriating—the way that we put that pressure and that hope and assumption on the future generations and children to fix this.

But think about how many people are inspired by Greta Thunberg and the different reactions that we have to her. I think that people my age and older find her really inspirational and also feel defeated and feel some guilt and shame, as we should. And that’s that spent-ness. That’s us coming up against what we have already tried to do or failed to do—what our efforts for large collective change have achieved or failed to achieve.

I think for those kids to act at the end of the book, is a message to the adults in their life who are standing there with them: It’s not good enough that you’re spent. It’s not okay that you’re spent. You’re going to have to keep stepping up because you brought us here. In some part, it’s also a message to myself, that I had so much anger and fear and hope while I was writing this book, and that it has to end on action for me. I didn’t write this book as a tool for action. I wrote it as a novel, and when I finished writing this book and I close it, then what do I do? Mary Agnes told me that I need to stand up and get out there and do something. I’m really, really glad that I didn’t bench those characters at the end.

I don’t even want to think about the reams of notes you had to go through in your research for this book.

It was a terrible headache that I had for seven years. Because I do not have a science background at all. And what on earth was I thinking? Because I’m only ever interested in things that I don’t understand yet.

I called upon some incredibly generous experts, physicists that I’m friends with. My husband is a social scientist and he would read drafts for me. And sometimes I’d send texts to friends—text a friend who’s a veterinarian because I had a question about how the retina might interface with the inner ear to retina situation…I read a lot, wrote drafts that got things incredibly wrong, and then found people to tell me why they were wrong and then sent them baskets from Zingerman’s.

You said the book took seven years?

Seven years. The first several drafts of the book had 20 narrators. I was just trying to come at it from all angles. It was also life and that becoming a mother thing. I started writing it when I was pregnant, and then I had a newborn and a baby and then I had a couple miscarriages that totally derailed me for quite some time. Then we moved twice, these huge moves, and there was so much life. I’m incredibly just devastatingly jealous of these writers who crank out a book every two years. Some of them even have children. I don’t know how they do it. It takes me a long time to figure out what I’m trying to say.

You said earlier that, in essence, it’s not that art isn’t important, but it’s not the same thing as action. So what, then, is your desired result of this book? What do you want people to do or be when they’re done reading?

I want them to feel a little more bothered than they did before. And I think for better or worse, that’s true for all of my writing. I like people to close my books and feel a little unsure of their allegiances.

But with this one in particular, because the stakes are so real…As a society, we keep choosing convenience, and we make that choice thousands of times every day, and I make the choice for convenience often. But what if everyone who read a single book, my book, any other book about climate especially, and also personal technology especially, felt just a little more bothered afterward? That’s it. A little bother. A little friction between you and the convenience that makes you wonder if it’s worth it each of those 1000 times.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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