INTRODUCTION BY CASEY PLETT
Immediate and immersive intimacy is one of many pleasures of Julian K. Jarboe’s writing––which is why it’s difficult to introduce it. To talk about this story necessitates preparing you for the story’s world, but the experience of reading “Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel” is like opening your eyes underwater and beginning to swim.
Jarboe recently described the sci-fi part of their collection, Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel, as “mid-apocalyptic instead of post-apocalyptic.” The title story is set in the near future where a Big Tech company is predatorily employing people to go to the moon, where, it’s implied, they will be left to die or be worked to death. This summary makes it seem like this story is a send-up of the future, but the satire is ruthlessly contemporary. (“Flexible pay,” a purported benefit of moon-employment, is my personal favorite of Jarboe’s subtle-but-screaming send-ups of our current moment.)
Jarboe’s writing makes me weepy and laugh deliriously at the same time. Tons of writers attempt the funny-sad thing, sprinkling jokes and bummers on the same page, but I think it’s so much harder to truly interweave those elements and make them land, like really land. It’s pulled off beautifully in “Moon,” particularly with a “personality assessment,” a questionnaire administered by the Big Techies, which will totally own you.
For the wayward youth of Jarboe’s imagination, a suicidal moon-mission may be the only option left. Oddly enough, there’s something about applying for a job that guarantees death and maybe pay that feels unfortunately familiar. When you get there, complete the questionnaire and see for yourself.
– Casey Plett
Author of Little Fish
Everyone On the Moon Is Essential Personnel
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"Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel" (Excerpt)
by Julian Jarboe
The full moon is rising over an endless expanse of barbed wire and electric fences. They sit atop the city's dark horizon of high walls, district and ward borders, checkpoints, gated neighborhoods, and private estates. Even the gardens of Stella Maris are jagged: armored groves and greenhouses of fruiting Scrub Nut and Atlantic Palm encased in wrought iron, the decorative Treacher Fern and Wandering Wasp collared in shrapnel. Sebastian would like to slide between the bars, over the bricks, and past the security cameras as easy as a shadow, let his dusk-tan skin turn gray-blue in silhouette, his shade-tree stature camouflage him among the delicate vines of Prophet’s Hand and fickle-twisted wands of Rare Pear on the branch, the temperamental nightshades, the sugar tubers. Root himself to the Earth’s surface.
His stomach whines like an obstructed garbage disposal and Yonatan says, “girl, same.” Yonatan promises to buy them both a late dinner when they get to Omens and Pour Tends. The moon looms above them all, flashes through their imaginations in panoramic view of the commercial compound and industrial complex on its surface. Everybody knows all the shitty jobs are headed to space. Sebastian knows he’s headed there eventually, inevitably, running out of earthbound dead ends, spinning in stasis and self-sabotage, though hardly losing the strength to deny and delay again; procrastination as the only working perpetual-motion machine.
“Whatever happened to applying to—what’s it called—seminary?” Yonatan asks. “I can’t believe that’s really the word for it. Still sounds like some weird sort of… cum thing.”
“Uhhhh, so,” Sebastian demurs. “I actually got pretty far in the process! They didn’t really tell me why it stopped, but it stopped after the psychological exam.”
“Oh.” Yonatan sounds a little insulted to not have heard this news sooner. “Shit. Did you literally fail an ink blot test? Is that even possible?”
“Yes? I mean, I don't know, but I’m pretty sure.”
Sebastian tries to keep a diary, but he has never been the type to recount what is happening, how he feels about it, or one moment’s connection with any previous or upcoming moments. Instead, he uses a Daily Examen app on his phone to keep lists of words. Each evening the app prompts him to review the day in the presence of God through five steps and input a short response for each:
- Ask God for light.
- Give thanks.
- Review the day honestly, without delusions.
- Face your shortcomings.
- Look toward tomorrow and the days to come.
The program also displays his stats and leaderboard compared to other users, how many decades of the Holy Rosary everyone is praying and how many days since his last Confession and so on, but he skips these. Instead he records words he sees, reads, hears, writes, says, sings, or repeats. What difference between them is there, anyway? Slogans, idioms, quotes, allusions, prayers, marketing campaigns: anchors to the delicate vessel of his memory, some heaviness, a weight not unlike certainty, sequence, and significance.
Omens and Pour Tends is a long room in the basement of an old six-story row house, and Sebastian and his friends prefer to meet at the loudest, darkest corner of it. The booth seating along the tin-tiled walls is comprised of antique oak pews surrounding scavenged work benches, discarded kitchen counter tops, and one foosball table that the owner insists is from a genuine Two-Thousand-And-Ought-Naught era tech startup, but Yonatan and the other servers suspect it’s just from the owner’s old fraternity house where some of his roommates happened to work in tech startups.
Kero is already there when they arrive, her piles of impractical novelty backpacks and totes stuffed onto one side of their usual booth while she sets up her DJ rig on the platform of shipping crates and road cases that designates the “stage.”
“Love the new hardware,” Yonatan remarks on Kero’s robotic left arm, where tonight she’s switched out her usual claw for a flayed and circuit-bent Furby.
“Thanks dude,” she says, and uses the terrible little beak on the toy to pincer audio cables and records.
Yonatan brings them all dandelion toddies and places down a caddy on the center of their table crowded with bottles of hot sauce, packets of tapioca pearls, salt, utensils, and miniature divination games: a pocket-sized magic eight ball, a fold-out Ouija board, a scattering of fortune cookies, dice and cards and so forth that all came standard with a table at Omens.
Usually the friends read their paper cookie fortunes aloud to each other, always adding “but at what cost?” to the end of the fortune. If you performed the whole thing with high-volume melodrama it was called “fortune yelling” and whoever else laughed first had to give you their fries.
Sebastian cracks a cookie open and announces its contents to Yonatan, waiting for a grin of recognition, but Yonatan’s attention has already shifted to the televisions above the bar.
Sebastian itches on the inside of his stomach as he watches his friend entranced by some pointless commercial. Yonatan’s eyes are deep hazel flecked like bloodstones, armored by dark lids, broad brown cheeks, and eyebrows thick enough that Sebastian could take shelter from a rainstorm beneath them, and Yonatan might say, “my goodness, you’re soaked through, let's get you out of these clothes before you catch your death a cold,” because for some reason, in this fantasy, Yonatan talks like a cross between a simple country nurse gone to tend the wounded soldiers on the field and a Byronic anti-hero finally deciding to sow tenderness upon his vast estate.
Kero dims the overhead lamps and sets off a chase of small rainbow pin-lights around the room, and there’s a moment, right as everything is ready to go but nothing is happening, where time pauses entirely.
Sebastian has—or had, or will have—a difficult time with time. Sometimes it moves in a different direction or not at all, he was sure of that much, or it was naked anticipation. He could lay down and live there.
Witching hour comes and the room packs with late-night regulars, mostly older goths and punks, some of the Jesuit brothers from the nearby parish, the community college theater club, and a handful of that particular kind of tourist who pride themselves on seeking “authenticity” in their travels. Omens and Pour Tends is not on any visitor's guide, which is precisely its appeal for this type, usually single white dudes in their twenties and thirties, but also hippy couples, awkward graduate students of all stripes conspicuously looking for a narrative in their observations. Sometimes, even poets come, already three sheets to the wind and clearly hoping for something violent to occur so they can possess and decorate it, but there’s rarely fights. There’s never sports on the televisions. The staff are fearless, the regulars are friendly, and the rowdiest it ever gets is when the theater club kids bring new members to initiate and think everyone else is their captive audience. But nobody minds, really. One of the Jesuits always claps politely for the singers.
The tourists stick out by how they carry their assumptions. Sebastian can always tell when someone comes to bask in the atmosphere of the dive. Their faces curl and glint with the masochism of standing too close to the blown-out speaker, finishing the odorous well draught, earning themselves a little bit of damage to escape their own minds, but with a wink, like they were regular people trapped in the onslaughts of their daily lives and not jerks on vacation.
It gets later and then too late. Sebastian misses the last bus home until morning. His friends are busy during these peak hours, of course, so Sebastian has a lot of time to eat fried food and gently disassociate, or to watch who in the crowd watches him, and to contemplate the way his presence becomes the subject of other’s contemplation.
Some part of Sebastian wants to tell these people, “I have nothing against you, but other sorts of people, who are not here, would steal your wallet and kick your butt all the way to Pizza Hut if they were. I just think you should know that. Maybe you can put it in your autobiographical road novel? But I don't know anything, really. I’m only a local character. I’m the atmosphere. I’m the vibe. By my very definition, I’m somewhat naive. Not creative in any way. Not like you.”
A scruffy, kind of waxy-looking guy with his collared shirt tucked in and a yellow lanyard hanging from his back pocket comes in and half-waves at Yonatan, orders an expensive sake. The man is unfamiliar, but carries himself with less transience than tourists, so must be new to the city for an office job that keeps him long hours. Something thin, hard, and rectangular sits at the end of the lanyard, an ID card for the job most likely, but Sebastian doesn’t need to see what it says to know the company. The shade of yellow is trademarked. The color belongs to the same people, or entity, or whatever they are, who are running the recruitment ads for the moon, looking to staff it with the huddled masses yearning to break into the bourgeoise.
Their logo is everywhere. Their name is a household one. But Sebastian resists speaking or writing it as much as he can. Power that omnipresent should not be permitted something as volatile as a name, not even a codename meant in parody. Taking God’s name in vain was one thing. But there is no safety in naming mortal power, least of all to satirize it, when all the good that does is inspire the power to take you at your word, enact your dystopian exaggeration as their next move, turn your hell into your next reality.
Here is what to do instead:
- Write down the longest verb you can spell, in any language, without a dictionary: __________.
- Write down the last, family, or formal name of the worst boss you’ve ever had. Or if you, like Sebastian, have never been employed, choose any other authority figure who sticks in your memory like thorns through the palms of your hands; one who lacerated your motivation, you idealism, or your benefit of the doubt: __________.
- Now take (a.) a syllable of choice from each word and write them together as a single bicapitalized word, or, (b.) if you’re feeling that big pharma energy, with a hyphen, or, (c.) for a dash of software-as-a-service, drop consonants and swap vowels for emoji. Whatever it is your decide, write it down but keep it secret: __________.
And if you cannot keep a secret, you may still write it down, but then you must—you simply must—erase it immediately.
Give it a try in this following paragraph: __________ (fill in the blank) are establishing their second North American headquarters in Stella Maris following a years-long bidding war between cities across the continent, the governing bodies of each locale genuflecting before the promise of “jobs,” courting with tax incentives and exemptions, ceding public lands, extending eminent domain to cede more than a few private ones as well.
Most people in Stella Maris are as surprised as anyone else to be the chosen site. Some are very angry. Some are very excited. And enough are trying to find hope and positivity in their lives to tune out the anger and ride the excitement instead.
It doesn't seem to matter what else __________ produces if it produces jobs; it started as an online-only clearinghouse for novelty infomercial products and light consumer gadgets, then it had outposts nationally, then globally, now extra-terrestrially, expanding to include a private mail service, a coffee shop franchise, a bank chain, weapons manufacturing, raw materials speculation, and a popular subscription box of shelf-stable food and nutrition supplements. Their business on the moon is vaguely described as “research.”
But it also doesn't seem to matter to most people in Stella Maris what manner or quality of jobs this development entails, if there are a high enough quantity of them. Technically, thousands of jobs appeared virtually overnight for the fancy, lucrative positions, but if Lanyard Guy is any indication, they were just as quickly filled by internal transfers. What’s left are the contracts, the subcontracts, temping and testing and data entry and other garbage gigs, also some literal garbage gigs.
Sebastian thinks, hello, yes, his skills and qualifications are that he knows how to cross a floor of any material without making a sound. That he is quite adept at evading blows, for example to the face, for example he can cross his arms over his face in such a way that bruises can be hidden by long sleeves. That he is proficient at being anywhere and feeling like a visitor to a distant relative and that he should not touch anything. That he is an expert at crying for no reason, or used to be, though he hasn’t cried at all in a long, long, long, long time but that he is confident he could pick it back up again at any time, like riding a bicycle, as they say, though he wouldn’t know, as he never learned to ride a bicycle. Or drive a car. Or swim. Since he’s not supposed to go in the ocean past his chin, he’s probably not allowed in space, either, at least not into the sky past the top floor of a building, really, and even then, only if he leaves enough room for the Holy Spirit between his restless, impulsive body and any open windows.
The moon has always been there as a motif in art or a glow sticker on his bedroom ceiling, but now it grows, becomes the distant shore of his impending future, and he understands that the walls of Stella Maris are his mother. The border is her body. “Here” and “her” lose all meaningful distinction. Is he trapped? Could leaving a place ever really be an escape from it? Is what happened before still happening and will it happen again?
Time forms a circle, and then another circle along a different axis, and then another, until time is a mesh sphere pulsing through darkness to synthesizer arpeggios, a crude computer model on an old tape about the future, but the future in the video is from the past, and so everything collapses, flattens, and tomorrow and the days to come are already here, and you are certain of three fates at once:
- You never leave home and never defy your mother.
- You leave the entire planet in defiance of your mother.
- Your mother is waiting for you on the moon when you arrive. She is in her pajamas and raises one of her slippers, hurls it at your head, and the slipper thwacks you in the face as she shouts about how dangerous this is, that you will definitely, absolutely die if she doesn’t kill you first, how since she made you that she can unmake you, how she saw you before you saw yourself, and meanwhile the slipper ricochets off your forehead and twirls off beyond the ends of the solar system, until aliens find it and study it to better understand human kind. And you cry out, please, yes, hello, your skills and qualifications for this exciting and rewarding opportunity are that you still have a pulse, and you excel at forgetting entire years of your life, and laying in bed any time of day, and laying awake any time of night.
Are you there Sebastian?
Sorry I’ve been kind of distant lately. The reason for that is that I’ve been kind of distant lately.
Follow my instructions. Message one of the contact codes from the recruitment materials. A billboard, a targeted ad, a commercial, it doesn’t matter. They all take you to the same inbox. Receive the automated response with the link that says “get started.”
Get started. Install their proprietary software. It’s a personality assessment. It really is that long. Maybe the duration screens out anyone who isn’t serious about serving a global community for flexible pay. Maybe it’s just a way for them to better understand your judgment and ability to sort important information from unimportant information.
Press “acknowledge.” The light on your phone’s camera and microphone pulse blue. They are recording you taking the test, to ensure that you don’t cheat by looking up answers about your own judgment and ability to sort important information from unimportant information. Maybe they analyze the feed in real time. Maybe they have those graphics analysis A.I.s that can tell them about your vital statistics, or if your face matches the face on any watch-list, or what your expression implies about your intentions.
NOTE: You may now begin.
NOTE: Check all that apply.
Q: What is your age?
- Like, twelve.
- Old enough to know better.
- Vanishing into obscurity.
Q: Are you a robot?
- No, I am not a robot.
- I’m unsure.
- Cyborg (Registered).
- Cyborg (Unregistered).
- Android, Virtual Assistant, or Electronic Companion.
Q: What is your race?
- Passively invested in structural inequality through ethno-nationalism.
- Actively invested in structural inequality through ethno-nationalism.
- Passively resistant to structural inequality through ethno-nationalism.
- Actively resistant to structural inequality through ethno-nationalism.
- Guilty, confused, opportunistic, and/or defensive about this question.
- Actually, it’s about fairness in video games journalism.
Q. Optional but strongly encouraged: How do you identify?
- Everything but rap and country.
- Womxn, womyn, fem/me (including fatal-spectrum), bimb@, or sugar baby.
- Call me Cis Male. Some years ago—a lady never tells—having no cash, no class, and neither gas, ass, nor grass to pay my way around the old count-ray, I went to sea for a fee and to see if the sea would agree with me. Anchors a-weigh for pay; it is a way I have of driving off panic attacks and a very long list of other ailments and self-diagnoses. Anyway, I got gone; I prayed, got paid; I did not get laid. With a philosophical flourish, I sashayed to the ship. If they but knew it, almost all men, women, enbees, robots, and probably dogs, in their degree, some time or other, are horny for the ocean, which is our collective wife. This is also the extent of my bisexuality.
Q. Suppose that an explorer boards a galleon headed west across the Atlantic, at a maximum speed of nine knots but an average speed of five knots. Suppose he possesses an outdated map which indicates the trajectory of a floating island off the coast of the New World, somewhere between the Chesapeake Bay and the Saint Lawrence River.
The island is said to have black sand and lost treasures from every sea-faring civilization. The island is said to be strewn, as well, with skeletons. Among the pebbles and the gold are the blanching bones of men and women who followed the call of sirens or mermaids or their own death wish, or so it is said. It may also be said that they are the bones of those who have been kidnapped, enslaved, thrown or leapt overboard, those who drowned in failed expeditions, forgotten would-be conquerors, pilgrims and pioneers, whalers, sailors, pirates.
And growing in the black soil, thriving on the constant fertilization by human remains, is every manner of vegetation: taro and pineapple and pumpkin and corn and saffron and cocoa and tea, lush and wild as mud boils in a hot spring.
Suppose the explorer’s ships are wrecked along seven treacherous rocks in a gulf, a body of water he dubs The Sorrows, where he establishes a village which grows into a fortress which assimilates, eventually, into the American empire. Suppose, in letters, the explorer claims to have discovered the island he sought after all. Arguably, his star-shaped fortress comes to hold many of the world's wonders within, especially beautiful gardens and orchards, and in the ground beneath it and in the sand all around it, just the same, lay the bones of the less fortunate. Assuming the above statements are true, which of the conclusions follow logically for why the explorer claims to believe in his own folly?
- It will increase profits.
- It will encourage everyone to work harder.
- It will support the spread of common values.
Q. When you consider your earliest memories, whose love ensures survival and whose attention is a force to be dodged?
- Childhood is a void to be approached and circled but never ventured into.
- Recovered memories come back emptier and more fragmented than when you started.
- None of the above. Childhood is a myth invented by the Victorians.
Q. When you consider that the responses and habits of trauma can be passed down for generations without conscious knowledge of their origins, whose fear is it when your throat shuts and your joints lock?
- Cold sweat (a plague permitted to ravage, for you are undesirable).
- Night terrors (a destructive dynamic that goes excused and normalized).
- Black out (taken by force, taken by night, suppressed by law, by drink, by your own hand).
- White out (a language and a custom eradicated softly by means of conversion, re-education, love and marriage and sex and family where blending means blending away your distinguishing features).
Q. Who by fire and who by flood?
- Learning to burn.
- Learning to drown.
Q. Whose words do you hear long after they are spoken? Whose opinion of yourself do you hold to be true? Whose fault is it this time? Who is going to pick up the tab? Who is going to fix this? Whose walls protect them and whose walls confine? Who has the luxury to worry about the future? Whose homeland and whose frontier? Whose natural resource and whose unmarked grave? Whose memory of a motherland and whose mother? Whose extermination, whose relocation, and whose assimilation is written on your body but redacted from the records? Who wanders and who is lost? Who is willing to accept pain and who is unwilling to acknowledge their power because of their pain?
- Ask God for delusions.
- Give up.
- Review what is at stake.
- Face your light.
- Look toward tomorrow and its shortcomings.
Q. If you take tomorrow as a true statement, which of the conclusions follow logically?
- There is no such thing as the end of the world, but this also implies that there is no such thing as saving the world, either.
- There are no open spaces in North America, only opened spaces.
- All times are troubled times, troubled differently.
- Delusion is the true nature of evil.
- Hope is a delusion. It will encourage everyone to work harder.
- Despair is a delusion. It will increase profits.
- Not by faith alone are we saved but through Good Works on Earth.
- Not by faith alone are we saved by through Good Works in outer space.
- Aliens might be more likely to find you if you are in space already and some of them could be good looking.
- Slap yourself across the face where your mom can’t reach to do it anymore and cut this out, drama queen.
- God’s light might also be found staying in bed and having a robust panic attack.
- Jesus H. Christ himself is not administering this assessment.
- When the moon is out, clap for it. Tell everyone to applaud. Shout, “ladies and maties, tonight’s entertainment!” Tell everyone that’s where you’re going. It will support the spread of common values.
Q. Look at the shape of your city’s outermost walls. Trace the fortified star. Star like a distant sun, like a compass rose, like the Queen of Heaven, like the fruit of salvation missing from her outstretched hand, the apple sliced lengthwise revealing five seeds arranged in five points. Look at her tin crown of seven stars with five points each, atop her painted head, above her painted feet, pressed onto the silver face of a crescent moon.
Look at the cold-cold moon over the burning Earth. Look at the rockets that go to the cold-cold moon from the burning Earth. Visualize yourself strapped into a window seat. Accept the chances of critical malfunction and fatal catastrophe in any form of travel but most of all the kind beyond the atmosphere. Decide that you will definitely, absolutely die and make a sign of the cross that turns into a shrug halfway through.
Look for trouble and find it. Look at the word “revolution” in every advertisement for soft drinks and sneakers, at “compassion” contained in a forty-five-minute weeknight yoga class with the pretense of spiritual practice. Look at these promises accumulate onto your body and then be ritually shed from it. Look at the world outside your body, and remain the same, regardless.
Look at your mother's limp and your city’s plans for redevelopment. Look at the places along her kneecaps and her spine where the revolution failed. Look at the places along the side of the road where compassion has died on a night with record freezing temperatures.
Look at yourself in the surveillance video and compare it to the last picture you took of yourself: defiant, “reclaiming” your beauty and your presence against the advertisements for soft drinks and sneakers that would have you feel ugly, against the weeknight yoga class that would have you remain absent. Look at the filter that produces an algorithmic light leak and the suggestion of grease on the lens. Look at how it has lightened your skin and widened your eyes and narrowed your nose. Look at how it memorizes and recognizes you and how well it looks out for you by knowing where you have been and where you are going. The bars close and your friends go home but you stay downtown. God has granted you free will, but the police tell you otherwise. They think you loiter too long outside a bodega, so you buy a juice barrel with your bus money and walk home. It’s sunrise when you return. Your feet are blistered over and bleeding with free will. Your mother may not ask where you’ve been all night, but she already knows. There are eyes on the back of her head.
Look how fondly you take to your childhood bed even though your childhood was anxious and unhappy. Look at yourself in the mirror constantly or not for weeks on end. It is possible to be conscious of the myriad overlapping systems of oppression that are against you and still be wrong. It is possible for one’s anger to be justified and one still to be a jerk. It is possible to learn the less humane lessons from so-called practicality, to fall in love with your own sadness even as you long for relief. Look how nostalgia appears to give meaning to this tragedy, give purpose even to despondency. Look for salvation in personal liberation and a revolution of the spirit. The cyberpunks lost, and all that remains is nostalgia, which is an acid that eats meaning.
Your deity rolls back her eyes in every icon and statuary. Look at her from the periphery of your faith so that she can see you in return. Do you love her, or, are you so desperate for recognition that you will seek it even when it destroys you? Stand behind your mother when you decide to leave here—her—and look into the eyes on the back of her head. Tell her where you're going and break her heart.
Look to the stars. Look at how the winners get history and the losers get culture. Close your eyes and ask God for light and look for it.
Press “save.” Press “submit.” Press “submit” again to confirm. Submit as in send, submit as in surrender. Confirm as in verify, confirm as in initiate.
Are you there?
Are you still there?
Are you still with me?
Can you hear me now?
Come back, Sebastian. You are shaking. That is not a productive movement. It’s time to hold still again, to quiet our body, and give it over wholly to the future.