The premise of Rebecca Scherm’s new novel, A House Between Earth and the Moon, is eerily familiar: in the not-too-distant future, two billionaire sisters and their massive tech company fund a space station called Parallaxis, an attempt at escape from an Earth scorched by climate change. Parallaxis is built for the very wealthy—a luxury residence for those who can afford it—but in its beta form, it is home to scientists and crew members and eventually, they hope, their families. We follow this crew and their work on the station, work that is largely motivated by the promise of family, which is, of course, the promise of a future—a future that is livable for their children, for their children’s children.
The unbelievable part of this novel is not the billionaire urge to escape the planet, nor the parental anxieties about the rapid pace of climate change, nor the immense power of one massive tech company. No, what took me by surprise was the futuristic phone implant—a product of the Son sisters’ company—that everyone on Earth has. The Sensus phones go into people’s ears and augment their vision, layering “a screen, a kind of dashboard that curved around the perimeter” over everyone’s vision. These implants “automatically archived the user’s life to an unprecedented degree,” giving everyone a record of conversations, a replay of embarrassing moments, a virtual reality to live in. Frankly, I find it terrifying.
And so do most of the characters in A House Between Earth and the Moon. Clearly, technology mediates every relationship in the future—the lack of privacy, the constantly available archive, all of it seeps into work, into family, into casual school friendships. We follow three narrators who all navigate this futuristic terrain differently: Alex, a climate scientist working on carbon-consuming algae on Parallaxis; his daughter, Mary Agnes, a high schooler left behind in Michigan; and Tess, a Sensus employee hired to work on a predictive algorithm. For all three of these characters, the technological advances of Sensus and Parallaxis offer connection—yet also make it impossible.
The surveillance aspect of the implants is particularly harrowing: Tess is hired by the Son sisters to watch the entire crew on Parallaxis, coding their every action into an algorithm that seeks to predict human action better than any other technology. The Views algorithm promises an all-access pass to subjects who did not explicitly agree to be studied this way: it “will take you through to the other side: behind their eyes. And not just in the physical world, either, but on their phones. Their dashboards, their messages, their archives. Where they look in their own memories!” As readers, we watch Tess have this encompassing vision and find it overwhelming. Just like us, Tess gets too invested in her subjects—she lacks a critical distance, and it causes her to act unthinkingly. A House Between Earth and the Moon asks: Do we want this view of others? Do we want it of ourselves?
Despite the horror of a private life under constant surveillance, Mary Agnes and her father, Alex, remain connected by this technology, especially when he heads to Parallaxis. It provides them with a means to overcome distance—in fact, their separation almost seems easier when it’s physical, instead of just imposed by Alex’s work schedule. When Alex is still on Earth, his research is so consuming that Mary Agnes doubts her father’s commitment to their family: “their family was a distraction that her father didn’t need, not while he was trying to save the world.” His move to the space station gives Mary Agnes a reason for his frequent lack of communication. It makes perfect sense to her that he is hard to reach.
When Mary Agnes self-implants the phone meant for her mother, Meg, to communicate with Alex, however, Tess gets access to Mary Agnes’s dashboard. Tess sees the same horrifying high school experiences that we read from Mary Agnes’s perspective: bullying, isolation, and a drug-induced assault that gets augmented in VR to paste different girls’ faces onto Mary Agnes’s body. When Mary Agnes retaliates in reaction to the video, making a VR response featuring the perpetrator, it causes extreme harm to the school community. Meg acts quickly, demanding a pair of tweezers. “Take it out right now,” she says to Mary Agnes. She pulls the phone out of her daughter’s ear and destroys it, before moving on to her own: “‘Someone will find us,’ her mother said. She grabbed the stem of her phone between her fingernails and ripped it out.”
Meg’s parenting is under constant challenge from the hyper-connected world. There is no distinction of “screen time” in a world like this—every single thing Mary Agnes sees is augmented by a screen. Implanted phones exacerbate the usual high school dramas, allowing no escape from the online world. Meg decides to send Mary Agnes to her off-the-grid family in Florida, where she hides out until—miraculously!—their family is summoned to Parallaxis. Tess, in her master Views position, is the architect of this plan: she sees the incident occur, understands the potential for legal repercussions against the company, and asks the Son sisters to bring Alex’s family to Parallaxis, using her leverage to bump another crew member’s family off the manifest. Here again we see the complicated duality of the implanted phones and of technological advances more generally. The same implanted phone that caused Mary Agnes so much harm is also the very device that allows her to be saved.
Scherm’s approach to technology is both familiar and alien to us. Our devices pull us further apart from one other. Yet this sense of hyper-connection is still connection. Read through the register of family, the relational potential for technology gets even murkier. It is impossible to see whether these implants, this life constantly mediated by technology, is a means of connection or isolation. Alex and his family are reunited by means of this technology. The entire crew on Parallaxis—a ragtag group of scientists and researchers who come to care about each other precisely because they are undergoing the same intense experience together—becomes something like a chosen family. Even Tess’ relationships with her subjects, too close for comfort, are not fully good or bad. There are disastrous effects and terrible personal repercussions to these technological advancements. But there are also opportunities for love, for intervention, for presence.
It’s telling, however, that the novel ends with the families aboard the space station. If A House Between Earth and the Moon wants us to ask what makes a house into a home, it wants us to know that family is the answer. Everyone settles in for the long haul, reunited with their families. Hope seems restored. But the very last scene of the book leaves us with yet more questions. Tess leaves Parallaxis, finally ousted from her surveillance position after months of lying to her subjects’ faces. She sadly remarks that she has no idea how to beat the algorithm that she has been creating. Mary Agnes and her friend, Inaya, watch her leave, then Inaya writes on Mary Agnes’ palm, “WE WILL.” It’s terribly hopeful—the energy of young women ready to change the world, or the space station. But at the same time, it’s claustrophobic, a very small space, a quiet hope that seems to fall flat. This tension is characteristic of the novel, of course. The solution to these problems isn’t an analog life, or a fear of the technologically advanced world that’s hurtling toward us, or even acceptance of the things we can’t change. What A House Between Earth and the Moon suggests is that there is no solution but some kind of strange mix of hope and resignation, a wry kind of wonder.