Prime Meridian‘s fictional universe reminded me of the world of Blade Runner. Not the replicants, action set pieces, and squalid neon environment, but a world that is adjacent to ours, a near future where space exploration and planetary settlement are a reality but are lurking at the peripheries of the narrative. In Blade Runner (both movies in fact) we are told that humanity is spread throughout space, and characters make reference to other worlds but, like the majority of people residing within this fiction, we never see these worlds. Moreover, by the time of Blade Runner 2049 the imaginary of this series became an alternate future history due to the fact that the first film’s setting of 2019 was no longer believable in 2017. Atari and PanAm were still major corporations; the cold war still persisted in some form. Similarly, Prime Meridian seems to be set in an alternate future history where the Soviet Union still persists: it is only several years ahead of our own world, and the development of its social networking technology is believable, but it also possesses a slightly altered past (with different films and filmmakers slotted into its adjacent 1930s) and the fact that there is an established outpost on Mars.
Of course Prime Meridian is not Blade Runner. Or rather, if it is, then it is a Blade Runner told from the perspective of those who comprise the populations through which the latter’s main characters navigate. Anonymous everyday people whose struggles are “common”, represented by extras.
More accurately, the comparison to Blade Runner is mainly relevant if we need to locate a Science Fiction precedent for Prime Meridian. For just as its history is adjacent to our own, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s novella is adjacent to Science Fiction. The SF elements are scaffolding; the book draws upon them in order to drive its protagonist’s narrative arc but they must necessarily lurk as subtle and normalized elements of the fictional terrain.
Prime Meridian‘s protagonist, Amelia, is a working class woman trapped within the boundaries of her social class in Mexico City. Passage to the settlement on Mars represents an escape from everyday drudgery, and has for years before the novel starts, but this passage costs. Unless one wants to end up in massive debt and over-exploited, a significant fee is required in order to gain access to Mars and Amelia works to save up enough money for this nearly impossible goal. Her main job is as a “rent-a-friend” through an application called “Friendrr” – where wealthy lonely people, such as the starlet Lucia who is one of Amelia’s clients, are able to pay their way out of loneliness. Another job she eventually takes up is the selling of her blood to rich buyers who, like Peter Thiel, think that blood transfusions from the young will ensure longevity.
Years before the novella starts Amelia’s dream of Mars was more concrete. She possessed a scholarship to a university, that allowed her to hob-nob with wealthier members of society, but she lost this scholarship because her mother’s terminal illness forced her to drop out of school. Her university friends, belonging to a wealthier social class, left her behind; her boyfriend, pressured by his rich father, left her. The escape represented by Mars became more elusive, and this elusiveness is made all the more poignant by her relationship with Lucia who once starred in a film about a fictional Mars, the representations of which are interspersed with Amelia’s story. There is the Mars of Amelia’s world, a white-washed settlement on the periphery of existence. There is also the Mars of Lucia’s film industry past, an adventure pulp from the 1930s.
Amelia’s desire for Mars is reinforced by the successive phases of alienation visited upon her by social circumstances. Her loss of the scholarship. Her relegation to a social embarrassment by her economically privileged university friends. Her failing relationship with her sister. Her reunion with her ex-boyfriend, Elías, which is one in which he hopes to keep her as a mistress. That part where she tries to free a rat from a trap and is bitten for her compassion would be tempting to read as metaphorical of her existence, especially considering how she lashes out at some of her friends, but it is not so bluntly metaphorical: it better represents catalyst of the return of the repressed, the motivation to confront her sister.
In the end it is the imaginary Mars that allows for Amelia’s passage to the real Mars. We never witness the real Mars, despite the clues we are given, though it is the novel’s narrative line of flight. A line of flight that bursts through the boundaries of predatory romance represented by the character of Elías, a wealthy man singularly offended that Amelia will choose Mars over a future of being little more than a mistress where “he might devour her whole and she’d cease to exist, be edited out of existence like they edited scenes in the movies.”
Recently I’ve read a number of amazing SFF novellas that should, if we lived in a world that wasn’t defined by genre categories, be treated as literary fiction proper. Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers On Bone and A Song For Quiet, Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Winterglass – to name a few. Moreno-Garcia’s Prime Meridian joins the ranks of these interventions and, like them, ekes out its own unique space as an elegant novella that deserves to be recognized as more than a genre expression.
I’m still a little confused as to why Prime Meridian was self-published since its author is a rising star within the SFF milieux and, not to be insulting, it possesses a level of literary quality that the vast majority self-published works do not possess and in fact fall far short of possessing. In my mind something must be broken in the world of mainstream publishing when a critically acclaimed author decides to publish something with clear literary qualities outside of the SFF avenues that normally publish her work.
“There are only two plots. You know them well,” Moreno-Garcia concludes Prime Meridian, referencing a claim made by Lucia earlier in the novella: “A person goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town.” This claim is ultimately cynical because neither of these plots are truly borne out in the novella. The journey never happens, though it is desired, until the end but is only promised; Amelia is a stranger interloping on the lives of her privileged friends. In any case, the book was a joy to read and I would like to imagine that its protagonist did go on a journey and this journey provided her with a better life.