September 14: “Americans on Mars!” by Allegra Hyde

Hey hey, Story366! Another beautiful day in Missouri and another day when I’ve been able to post earlier rather than later. Some of you who follow this blog know that I post, quite often, right at midnight, as I often don’t get a chance all day to read and write the post, so then sit down late to read the book and compose the entry, sometimes posting after 11:55 p.m. Today, for the second day in a row, it’s still light outside as I do this and I can’t express how much that changes my life, my evenings, and my outlook on this project when I can get it done early and then spend the rest of the day knowing it’s done, no pressure to post, no worries that something will go wrong, no concerns that I’m rushing and therefore not doing as good a job. Since my brother and his wife are coming to town tonight (see my post yesterday about what that entails), I won’t have time later, as they’ll want to do something besides watch me read books and type words. So, I’m taking this time after my classes and office hours to compose, valuable, valuable house-cleaning time. I’ll have to double-time it as soon as I’m done, but fuck it: With Story366 done for the day, I’m ready.

Today I’m featuring a book that’s not out yet—I haven’t done that much this year, if at all—Allegra Hyde‘s new collection Of This New World, a John Simmons Short Fiction Award winner, due on October 1 from the University of Iowa Press. I published a story by Hyde in Moon City Review a couple of years ago, a piece I absolutely loved, and have seen her work in other journals (e.g., The Missouri Review) since then. I think I’ve always had the feeling that this writer was meant to have great success, as her work is really damn good. It was no surprise when this collection showed up in my mailbox the other day, a book I couldn’t wait—not even until its release—to read and discuss.

I read three stories from Of This New World, including the lead story, a short that extends the Adam and Eve myth, firstly—it’s a lot of fun, these outcasts trying to figure out the logistics of non-paradise—but it also sets up the book’s theme, the one that I see in all three stories I read, that of people setting out on a new life in a strange place. Next I read “VFW Post 1492,” about a disabled veteran imagining his identical twin brother’s vacation with a girlfriend, an experience he knows he’s unlikely to ever have. I then moved to the collection’s finale, “Americans on Mars!” and will write about that today.

“Americans on Mars!” starts with a convoy of American couples arriving on the red planet, there to colonize, to populate, basically to have as much sex and babies as they can. The story is told in the first person by Rex, a guy who six months earlier had barely been fit for society, whose life changed when he applied for and was accepted to the NASA colonization program. During his training, he met Tanya, who picked him out from all the other recruits because she saw him eyeing her in the cafeteria line. Her pick-up line: “You ever get a girl pregnant?” And really, for colonists, this seems like the main criteria, not skill set, not health, not IQ, but how potent their sperm and eggs are. Rex and Tanya apparently passed all the tests, fit the bill, because there they are, at the start of the story, ordered to get busy as soon as they land.

There’s only one problem: Rex is having performance issues. You had one job! someone might tell him, and that job was to have sex with a beautiful woman—Tanya is easy on the eyes, it’s made clear—allowing his lab-tested baby seeds to do their job. As soon as the couple gets to their tiny space igloo, Rex finds he can’t get it up. He goes to their space bathroom and tries to figure it out, but when he can’t, Tanya immediately grows annoyed. As you might guess, her annoyance, coupled with the immense pressure of, you know, saving the human race (wars and famine and protests backs on Earth, by the way), doesn’t make things any better.

Weeks go by and the other colonist couples post their conception news and the population is soon on its way to increasing by 50 percent. First, it’s a few, then a few more, then every single colonist couple except Rex and Tanya are expecting. By this point, Tanya can’t stand to be in the same room with Rex, which is unfortunate, as their igloo is basically one big room—it’s not like Rex can crash at a Motel 6. I’ll stop there in terms of plot revelation, but as you can see, Rex is in quite a predicament: What’s he going to do if he can’t get Tanya pregnant? It’s not like they can send him back or he has any other function.

Allegra Hyde’s spin on performance anxiety is a lot of fun, as her voice for Rex is dead-on, the guy who knows he’s lucky to be there, but is fucking it up nonetheless. The setting just makes the situation more dire, plus gives it a satirical, tongue-in-cheek sci-fi feel. And “Americans on Mars!” is just one type of story in Of This New World. Remember, there’s the Adam and Eve short that starts things off, then in the middle of the book, there’s a dead-serious story about a disabled veteran trying to find meaning in his life. All in all, this is such a compelling and promising first book by a really talented author. On October 1, I suggest you grab a copy and see for yourself.