On Writing ‘Superfar’

Ruby Cowling

I’m afraid I have to start by stripping ‘Superfar’ of its title. I only titled it out of administrative necessity; it started life as a single letter, which I wrote for The Letters Page, and only grew into the three-letter piece later – and letters don’t have titles. So this series of three never did until I bundled them together. They’re just the Dear Robyn letters.

I imagine the teenagers R081N and Robyn are connected by the thinnest genetic link, down through a thousand years or so of generations, and now by the let’s-not-think-about-it-too-much wormhole of communication they’ve accidentally opened between Robyn’s bedroom and R081N’s Pod. I’ve been asked whether they are male or female, and the truth is, I never particularly considered it. They’re both, or neither, or whichever; it doesn’t seem relevant. You choose.

It’s certainly close to irrelevant in R081N’s world.

I keep finding myself preoccupied with the way it’s becoming easy for us to spend more and more time in a two-dimensional world, neglecting the complex and demanding physical reality of our bodies and our planet. (I do think the two things are intimately connected.)

With these letters I imagined what life might be like for what remains of humanity in a far, far future, after “the big one” – some global calamity or chain of calamities that must be coming. But I didn’t do it for those kind of sackcloth and ashes reasons. Post-apocalyptic scenarios are always, I’m slightly ashamed to say, a great deal of fun to imagine.

R081N of the future lives “strapt in Pod” most of the time, away from the treacherous surface of a ruined Earth, and, crucially, away from Others. Even hundreds of years after the various calamities which have almost wiped us out, the threat of parasitic infection is still high; this fragile future society has to prioritise isolation and sterility to try to protect the few survivors. (Even the living are ravaged by the scars and mutilations of flesh-eating infections they’ve survived. They’re not the prettiest humans.)

R081N’s entertainment – R081N’s life, really – is in the Pod screen, through which the physically separated survivors can communicate social-network-style, and can enjoy “deepscreen” visual simulations of old Earth. It’s a tragically desperate simulacrum of Life, but R081N doesn’t know any different until receiving Robyn’s descriptions of how things are “back there”.

Like the history of humanity that R081N’s generation learn about in “Basic Awareness”, this piece is a tale of supergood going superbad. Through R081N’s letters, Robyn-of-now gets a glimpse of how superbad things are going to get. Is Robyn moved to take action, to try and spread an environmental message? Who knows.

I’m truly worried about the way we live and what’s going to happen. What we have now is still supergood. Yes, still. So in a way this a cautionary tale, like so much post-apocalyptic fiction.

But it troubles me that I find it so much fun. Sometimes I wonder whether the fact that I love to read and write about this kind of thing – and find it amusing – is a sign we really are doomed. Humans, eh?

10562697_609698285811859_6006607335459870840_oRuby Cowling was born in West Yorkshire and now lives in London writing short and long fiction. Her work has won awards including The White Review Short Story Prize and the London Short Story Prize in 2014. Other work has appeared in print, web and audio formats in places such as The View From Here, 4’33”, Lighthouse, The Letters Page, Unthology 4, and several anthologies including the recent I Am Because You Are, a Freight Books collection of work inspired by the theory of General Relativity, and Flamingo Land and Other Stories, from Flight Press. Links to many of these are at  http://rubyorruth.wordpress.com.

You can read ‘Superfar’ in the Winter issue of The Lonely Crowd, which can be purchased here.

Words © Ruby Cowling / Image © Jo Mazelis.