H.M. Farage rose into the skies of Devon on the 11th of January of 2046, under the nervous gaze of several hundreds members of the intelligentsia – MPs and their staff, civil servants, the military, industrialists and landed gentry in tartan jackets. Eventually, the ship vanished into the darkness, and they all toasted and cheered.
The first phase of the mission was about to end. Britannia, the ‘brit-ship’ being assembled in orbit, would pick up its final load of equipment and colonists from the Farage, and start its galactic journey to find a new home for the English.
There were many goals for this mission.
The plucky, nostalgic wing of the Government wanted to show the world that England could still be a leader. Some of them even secretly hoped that the mission would find an alien civilisation for the English to trade with, now that it had become harder to do this in Earth.
The reactionaries had had enough of this planet, of its complexities and diversities, of its infuriating denial to leave them alone, its insistence on tempting their children with visions of difference, travel and discovery. A new generation of English would build its character in the genetic and cultural purity of the sidereal void, and all would be well.
The realists simply knew that England was politically, economically and environmentally stuffed and about to implode. Now that invading other countries, or joining global coalitions in foreign wars was out of the question, Mission Britannia was a final attempt to distract the nation with a big spectacle, to keep the show on the road for a bit longer.
So, on the 23rd of April, Britannia started its journey with 5,000 colonists, to infinity and beyond.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go according to plan. We have been able to reconstruct what happened after a thorough analysis of their transmissions over the 50 years since they left. This is a quick summary of what we found:
All experts agree that the biggest problems were technical. Critical systems – energy, recycling, climate control and communications – started malfunctioning very soon after the ship left. It is generally acknowledged that UK science and technology suffered after the English made it harder for foreign researchers and skilled workers to come into the country. Britannia was a lumbering, wheezing, breaking-down proof of that, like Akira’s Tetsuo with a bowler hat.
The political situation made everything worse. The reactionaries in Government had insisted that at least a third of the colonists had to be chosen based on their racial purity and ideological loyalty. This was in order to prevent ‘degeneration’, and to quell any Independentism amongst colonists away from the motherland.
These ‘loyalists’ lacked the technical qualifications to keep the ship going, or the psychological make-up to deal with life in space – but they were big, and had a penchant for creative violence. They kept clashing and bickering with the ‘expert elite’ of scientists, engineers, astronauts and boffins in charge of the ship, who had awful flashbacks of being bullied by lumbering goons in the school playground. They ground their teeth and added new instructions to the algorithms regulating ship security and life-support.
The last straw was a cultural malaise. It is hard to over-estimate the physical and psychic toll of life in space, especially in a ship falling to pieces. The food was even worse than at home. The whiff of excrement caused by barely operational recyclers was all-pervasive. Many colonists decided to stop exercising and spent all their time watching cricket re-runs and James Bond films in their Virtual Reality gigs. Obesity – already a problem at the beginning of the mission – became endemic. It was only a matter of time before things kicked off, which they did.
Most of this is a matter of public record so we won’t dwell too much on the horror that was, which some have described as a mixture between J.G. Ballard’s High Rise and Alien.
Coups and counter-coups, political rallies and massacres, whole sections of the ship inundated with sewage or jettisoned into space, a final, failed attempt to turn Britannia around and bring it back to Earth which split it in two, leaving its carcass to float in space like a broken carrion fly, surrounded by clouds of fuel and frozen corpses, shrivelled fragments of St George’s Flag.
The final transmission we have from Britannia was broadcast from the command centre by J.S. Richardson, a 36 year old teacher from Milton Keynes, apparently hallucinating after his ordeal.
“The motion and heat detectors suggest that between 20-50 people are still alive in the ship. They won’t last long, and I can’t do anything for them. It’s all over.
Maybe they are not there anyway. Perhaps the internal sensors are failing, like the external ones. Over the last few hours, they have been picking up signals from the outside, which can’t be possible. Or maybe it is. Maybe the aliens have finally shown up to save us! Will we let them in? What will that do to our immigration numbers? [laughter and coughing]
[Transmission shuts down for several hours]
I must have dozed off. I had a strange dream.
I dreamt of a corridor of light, down which I floated while a coterie of shadowy presences gazed from the sides. I could feel them moving, staring at me, probing my mind with delicate tendrils, slowly shuffling my psyche this way and that, as if to get a general sense of the lie of my soul. They did this for some time, in total silence.
The only sound was a deep humming, which I first assumed was caused by machinery. It slowly dawned on me that it was in fact their voices, a strange, unsettling chorus that coalesced into a message which I begun to understand, like words forming in my head. This is what they said:
We have watched you for long, analysed your progress, and found you wanting. You need to learn how to live with yourselves before you are allowed to live with others. You need to understand – as we think you have started doing, if only slowly – that when you shut everyone else out, you begin a slow suicide. You are starving your soul.
It is not duty to save you. It is your duty to realise what you are doing and save yourselves, for only that way can you mature as a civilisation. We hope that you will do this, and then we can talk. Until then, so long.
[And then, silence]
Mats Gustafsson – 01
This post was inspired by the UK’s EU referendum, Ligeti and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. You can get Mats Gustafsson’s astonishing Piano Mating from Blue Tapes/X Ray.