The following is from Pola Oloixarac's novel Dark Constellations. Set in three centuries, it follows a scientist in each century attempting to classify, surveil, predict, and understand nature and humanity. Pola Oloixarac is the author of Savage Theories and the libretto for the opera Hercules. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, n+1, and The White Review, and she has contributed articles to The New York Times and the BBC World Service, among others.
The key to successful technology consists of convincing addicts that the future’s heart beats within it, that its mere existence entails the inexorable dissolution of their enemies. In principle, its users are born different from one another, but soon they begin to resemble one another so much that in the end they cease to exist as individuals. Only by collaborating with the invasion can they survive.
In the laboratory lobby, a black flag with a pirate insignia stretches across a wall; beneath the skull are the words commitment to excellence in red letters. Grouped together on an island in the center, computers are stacked like geological strata. There are various panels and metal frames at varying levels of plenitude and disintegration; there are mathematical functions written in green and blue on a whiteboard, monitors and other apparati on the floor, a white camera hanging from the center of the ceiling. High on a rack, rock-climbing shoes ooze with faint intimations of rotting dairy products. Out the massive window, Andean foothills descend to a turquoise lake and the concrete cubes of the Project; it looks like an architect’s model, mountain and metal and cement scripted with shadows. Cassio would later learn that Max Lampard had filled the office/lab with furniture he’d found in the warehouses of the Institute and the center.
Two heads lift, disoriented, as if they’ve smelled something strange. The recent arrival’s hand rises machine-like, a vaguely robotic flag of empathy.
“I’m Piera,” she says. “How’s it going?”
They continue to look at her. Small of stature, no lab coat, dark hair with a few blue strands—the boys of the Project must think she’s on the administrative staff, here to look for something that’s gone missing. Piera knows these moments well, and enjoys the incredulity. She suppresses a yawn. Talking just makes her want to yawn sometimes.
She had seen several films of the group at work; they’d been sent to “accelerate the integration process.” Vignettes of her future colleagues, several hundred hours time-lapsed into a hundred hours of footage. It was recommended that she play it while working or otherwise busy with other things, not really paying attention, so as to get used to being close to them both physically and mentally. When she arrived in Bariloche, Piera turned on the heating, got into bed wearing all of her sweaters at once, and watched the video at x8. The frenetic motion was funny with the volume off.
She also had a look at the employee files. Fredy, twenty-four, Belgian, electronic engineer. Rama, twenty-three, beard, a surprisingly high IQ for a mechanical engineer: for some reason he reminded her of a mentally deficient albino that she’d met in Montevideo. Riccardo, the guru sidekick, Max Lambard’s main partner, who moves about the room like a rising prince of technology. Pablo, twenty-seven, working on genetic interface, talks all the time, barely moves his eyebrows.
Piera put the video back on normal speed and turned up the volume. Pablo separated his speeches with the phrase “Is that clear?” which appeared to irritate the others. She decided that she liked him a lot, and lit a joint, some Paraguayan bud that had passed through the scanners without a problem. She focused on the Kanban board and its little colored papers defining the tasks to be done. This was the Japanese organizational tool that took Toyota to its peak in the 1980s; the Americans had absorbed it into their MBA programs. She whistled a few times as she read through the tasks, but getting things done ahead of time wasn’t the idea. The team’s beings were more entertaining than their work, and now it was Cassio’s turn—big guy, hair like buckwheat. Apparently he didn’t talk much—in general it was the others talking to him. Piera took a drag and closed her eyes, followed the meditation instructions she’d learned in San Francisco. Her mind produced the image of soft cheeses stacked like a snowman. She let herself doze off.
It had been a while since she’d worked with Argentinians; the idea sounded like fun. She knew that, like all human groups, eventually they would stop sniffing around her as if she were some foreign object, would come to perceive her as a person. At some point (and Piera loved this point), everyone was reduced to a molecular sketch of themselves, a minimal quantum of personality. And she’d decided some time ago that being a person didn’t actually make her feel anxious.
“You got here! Wow, I think you’re the first living being to figure out how to find this place on your own. Welcome!” It was Max. They’d met on Skype; he was taller and a little better looking than she’d thought. He gave her a brief hug—manly, transmitting a sense of protection—and carried
on talking as he turned to the rest:
“Hey everybody. Hey! Achtung, babies. This is Piera, our star biologist. Piera, this is our humble Stromatoliton research group. Like I already told you all, Piera is a genius. Piera, I hope you’ll be comfortable here. If it’s okay with you, this desk here can be yours, and you’ve got your own spot in the clean room—Cassio will show it to you. Right now everybody’s hard at work, so we’ll put off the individual introductions for a bit, but I want you to get to know the charms of each member of this extremely charming group.”
Heterosexual camaraderie is an extremely thin parabola. In this particular field, the idea persisted that the appearance of women was a preamble to decline—that the presence of girls was a signal that the revolutionary period of a company had ended, or was beginning to end. It signified that the normal period was starting, full of unmarried females and middle management, i.e., mediocrity.
Piera smiled without showing her teeth. It was important to let the jokes run their own benign course, to attack only when it wouldn’t seem defensive. Max Lambard leaned over a head that ended in a ponytail:
“Later you’ll take her to Antares and get her properly drunk.”
“Alcohol’s not my thing,” she said. “Just pure heroin, and eight-balls of crack.”
Cheerful murmurs. Ice broken.
Max lowered his gaze to the little apparatus on his arm, and took his leave with a wink. The kid with the ponytail (Leni? Piera wasn’t sure she’d seen him in the video) came walking up with his hand outstretched:
“Waskam. Leni Waskam,” he said.
He held out a maté. Piera took it, smelled the infusion. “It’s mine, but I activated it for you so that our microbes can flow together in friendship.”
Piera toasted him, took a sip, and the eyes of all present shone brightly as they watched.
Her last job had been at the main Bionose laboratory in San Francisco. There she’d studied under Otrayo, a Chilean-American hippie with a PhD in medicine, hired to help the employees’ minds achieve psychomagical moments, to open themselves to the enchantment of existence. Piera closed her eyes and visualized currents of water pouring into the deep, pushed her thoughts toward pools that grew bluer and bluer; she was to do so until an unexpected image came to her, and for the next few minutes her mental life was to organize itself around this image. If she saw a boat, she made sentences with the boat—the boat just now turned on the heater, the boat had left its chewing gum in its jacket—until it no longer held her attention. It was kind of a dumb exercise, but after doing it, something in her brain became accessible once again, and she could return to programming clear-headed. Just now, however, magic events were taking place outside her actual window: an incomparable sunset, with golden striations streaking the sky, and clouds gliding about, a system of fiery ships. She got up to make herself some tea.
Stromatoliton had offered her Las Araucarias—a luxurious house on Nahuel Huapi, surrounded by araucaria pines and other conifers, reserved for special visitors—but Piera had declined. She didn’t want to live on the lake, as it made her dream of seismic movements weaving back and forth beneath her, of nocturnal lakequakes. Moreover, a view of the real lake might interfere with her imaginary lake, might dismantle the visual entertainment she needed for cerebral relaxation. She described these fears endearingly, and they were accepted as a charming quirk.
The arrivals manager took for granted that Piera knew all about the recent cases of persons devoured on the lakeshore, and explained that both the police and the Ministry of Genetics were looking into them. No explanation had been needed. She was given a small apartment with big windows looking onto the mountain peaks, which resembled the knuckles of a fist raised against the sky. The apartment was located above a bakery, which Piera took to be an opening onto a happiness she’d never felt before—a life of freshly baked croissants for breakfast every morning. But beginning around four a.m. each morning, the constant hum of moving pistons rose up through her floor, which turned her insomnia (which was only the result of living somewhere new, though the others referred to it as “urban sleeplessness”) into a vice.
She studied the sky for a time, sipping her rosehip tea until the darkness had covered everything. There were ten or so men on the Stromatoliton staff with whom she wouldn’t have to work directly; some of them had something resembling a concrete masculine form. In general she appreciated the trait of manliness, but wasn’t attracted to any of these particular beings.
According to what little she’d seen walking around the civic center, Bariloche was still a profoundly masculine world, thick with testosterone both indoors and out. The local demographic appeared to be composed first and foremost of an elite corps of engineers and scientists working in the hard sciences. They’d been drawn here by the city’s reputation as the continent’s preeminent science hub, rivaled only by the Manaus Industrial Zone in Brazil, the lab complex at the Federal University of Latin American Integration in Foz de Iguazú, and the Technological City in Iquitos, Peru, all of which were focused on south-to-south biotech swaps with China.
Another testosterone-rich group consisted of alpinists, skiers, and rock climbers summoned here by the resurgent paradise of high jungle, trout-filled streams, conifer forests, and countless lakes. Although these men hardly interacted with those of the other group, they all wore the same alpine outfits, which gave them all the same rural Patagonian air, which made them all look alike. This was something that Bariloche and San Francisco had in common: everyone was dressed for a triathlon, formalwear was casual (sports) wear, people probably bonded through extended periods of hiking together, which made it hard for the newcomers, who had everything to share except for mountain time spent together. According to one of Piera’s personal theories, concentrated testosterone eventually dissolved individual masculine features; this could be observed on soccer teams, and in tech companies too. In her field of work, it was most clearly seen in the nerds who began to develop thin, high voices and notable mammary curves.
There were still a few colleagues left to inspect. Piera plugged in the flash drive that held the introductory video, and set her tea off to one side. Then she opened a darknet screen, which was configured so as to leave no trace of her visits. She put a piece of tape over the built-in camera in case anyone tried to spy on her (this happened fairly often) and went to YouSuXXX. She put on the special glasses and closed her eyes. Two Komodo dragons—black skin, iridescent stripes—were attacking a very thin blonde woman who was completely naked except for her white tennis shoes. Piera made a few gestures in the air; the blonde stood up on the bed and smiled at the dragons. The dragons slowly closed in; at times they had human faces and hands. By now the blonde had practically lost consciousness, and her hair was thick with sweat; there were black snakes hiding inside her, famished and feeding, coming out only to breathe. Piera began to masturbate, rubbing a stick of deodorant against the soft fabric of her underwear. After a time, the dragons’ movements began to slow. They took turns squeezing the snakes out of the woman’s anus; trembling, they worked to wring out more juice. White fluids dripped from the hole down the side of the bed to the carpet. Distracted, Piera noted the money shot, and thus the nearing conclusion; she moved the cursor back to the beginning.
Then a document on the flash drive caught her eye. She opened it, and at first glance she couldn’t tell what it was, but it was handwritten, saved in digital form for posterity. It was signed by Max Lambard; the words looked like groups of hunched homunculi. It didn’t fill the page the completely, the document broken on the screen, her broken brain. It was a poem. And it wasn’t the only poem. Apparently he wrote poems periodically, whenever he felt inspired by the discreet pleasures of natural language. This one summarized the vision of the company in bullet points:
• Every human action has consequences in physical space.
• Like the waves that a stone creates as it falls into a pond, the consequences of human actions spill out over the world. They are perceptible long after the stone has sunk.
• (If they did not have consequences, they could not aspire to be called actions, as it is indisputable that they would not be acting upon anything.)
• Millions of stones per second falling into a pond generate waves that intermingle, intersect, interfere with one another, much like the waves formed by meteorites raining into the primordial swamp.
• For someone watching the pond, it would be inconceivable to try to distinguish the effects of one particular stone amongst all the others.
• Attempting to reconstruct the precise location where each stone struck the water an instant ago would be likewise unthinkable.
• Nonetheless, what has occurred lives on in the pond. The actions of men live on in the space of the world as effects spilling out within a system. They survive their actors in time, and represent them.
• These are the fundamental principles of Stromatoliton, the fount of its knowledge and the origin of its power.
From Dark Constellations by Pola Oloixarac. Used with permission of Soho Press. Copyright © 2019 by Pola Oloixarac.