Nature Future Conditional

The story behind the story: Proxima junk

This week, Futures welcomes new writer Mark Vandersluis with his story Proxima junk. By day, Mark is an IT manager for a telecoms company in the UK. By night, he writes, and we are pleased to present the fruits of his labour. Here, Mark reveals the inspiration for his story — beware, this post contains spoilers, so please read the story first!

Writing Proxima junk

I’m old enough to have grown up feeling terrified by the ever present threat of nuclear Armageddon, and old enough now to fear the catastrophic consequences of climate meltdown for future generations.  In this story, I decided to look at what might remain of humanity’s greatest achievements should such planet-wide catastrophes occur. How might we be remembered or understood some centuries later? I wanted to consider these questions by taking an outsider’s viewpoint; in this case, the narrative would be delivered by an alien with no real knowledge of our history or motives. Wanting to set the story at a nearby star, the ‘Proxima’ part of the title came first; I have no idea why the word ‘junk’ then spontaneously came to mind, but in that moment, the exact setting for the story crystallized and from that, the whole the story quickly followed. For me, this is not the first time that a seemingly random process of title selection has been the catalyst for the production of a complete story. Are there any explanations out there?

Most of us have at some time or another browsed around a curiosity shop, a junkyard or car boot sale, looking through bric-a-brac for something of interest, or of enough value for us to consider making a purchase. So here we find ourselves somewhere near Proxima Centauri, a bit of a galactic backwater, in a scruffy little junk shop with one alien salesperson and just one prospective customer. The salesperson must use all his finely honed skills to keep the customer engaged and interested, in order to achieve a sale. Reading between the lines of the salesperson’s (mostly incorrect) speculations on human artefacts, we learn that humanity’s greatest achievements have either been destroyed by ourselves or ended up in this second-rate junkyard. Most of what remains from Earth seems destined to become a ‘coffee table’ curiosity (or even worse, eaten!). We also learn that after damaging our planet irreparably, things rapidly went downhill for us as a species.

So what is left that aliens might consider worth buying? Sadly, in my eyes, the answer is ‘not much’, unless you have a taste for radioactive metal, or would like that last remaining Voyager disc as a talking point in your home. This future is a bleak one for us, one which we must absolutely strive to avoid.

As readers, we do also get to glimpse some of the wonders of our Universe, which unfortunately our own species never managed to behold: advanced spacecraft, exotic lifeforms, advanced artefacts and energy sources, alien art. By contrast, our technologies are dismissed as ‘primitive’. In the partial descriptions and conversations of salesperson and customer, we get a hint of the diversity of races in the Galaxy. We also see that many of the traits and behaviours (some positive, some less so) which we identify as ‘human’ might well be universal: special offers and discounts, guarantees and loyalty cards, mailing lists, limited edition collectables, accidents, haggling, inane questions in second-hand shops. The importance of family. The likelihood that salespeople will be salespeople the Galaxy over.

And of course, we learn never to underestimate the universal comfort of dunking a biscuit into a nice cup of tea or coffee (or slime!) at break time.


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