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Literati — Progress

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William Park­er Wrothgate’s The Future Para­dox—or “TFP,” as it is affec­tion­ate­ly called in sci­en­tif­ic and lit­er­ary circles—immediately rev­o­lu­tion­ized sci­ence fic­tion when it was pub­lished 36 years ago. Called “bril­liant,” “genius,” and “utter genius” by crit­ics, the nov­el won Wroth­gate both a Pulitzer Prize for Fic­tion and a Nobel Prize in Physics for his “inno­v­a­tive ideas regard­ing jet propul­sion.” Wroth­gate became an instant celebri­ty, mobbed every­where by fans, sci­en­tists, and paparazzi. In his cel­e­brat­ed com­mence­ment address to the Har­vard Class of 1974, Wroth­gate promised to con­tin­ue his life goal of “imag­in­ing a tech­nol­o­gy that is at once unfath­omable and unques­tion­able” with his next work.

Although he is still con­sid­ered to be a key mem­ber of the lit­er­ary intel­li­gentsia, since 1974, Wroth­gate has not pub­lished a sin­gle word. This week, he breaks that silence with The Astronaut’s Lament.

“It’s not that I haven’t been writ­ing,” said Wroth­gate in his first inter­view in 30 years, recent­ly aired on Date­line, “I’ve con­stant­ly been work­ing from my cab­in in the Berk­shires. It’s just that every time I sent a draft to my pub­lish­er, there have been issues.”

The “issues” to which Wroth­gate alludes are with the futur­is­tic worlds he imag­ines. In the ear­li­est incar­na­tion of The Astronaut’s Lament, then called Arti­fi­cial Feel­ing, the main char­ac­ter, Alexan­der Ger­bain, is injured in an inter­stel­lar laser bat­tle in the first few pages, and his crew must devise an arti­fi­cial heart for him. Wrothgate’s under­stand­ing of arti­fi­cial trans­plant tech­nol­o­gy was detailed and expert—he spent at least 200 of the draft’s 280 pages detail­ing the device and the specifics of the oper­a­tion. Wrothgate’s ideas were accurate—so accu­rate, in fact, that they could be mis­tak­en for tran­scripts of the first real arti­fi­cial heart trans­plant in 1978, which occurred two days after Wroth­gate fin­ished the draft.

Insist­ing he could come up with some­thing com­plete­ly new, Wroth­gate returned to writ­ing with a vengeance. In the sec­ond incar­na­tion of the book, Galac­tic Con­nec­tion, Ger­bain has no heart issues. Instead, he tries to con­nect with sur­vivors of an inter­stel­lar laser bat­tle by con­struct­ing a mas­sive “Inter­mat” sweep­ing the galaxy, where beings from all plan­ets can com­mu­ni­cate. The draft was fin­ished August 6th, 1991, the same day CERN pub­lished the World Wide Web Project. Wit­ness­es say that when Wroth­gate saw head­lines about the project, he start­ed tear­ing at his clothes and mut­ter­ing about anti-mat­ter.

It is rumored that Wroth­gate went through 26 drafts of The Astronaut’s Lament. Titles such as Red Plan­et Rover, Dil­ly the Clone, and iPod all had to be scrapped, as their plots hinged upon imag­ined tech­nolo­gies that quick­ly came to mir­ror inven­tions like the Hub­ble Tele­scope, the devel­op­ment of the Human Growth Hor­mone, and, most recent­ly, the video stream­ing and social net­work­ing ser­vice Wizi.

Wrothgate’s final prod­uct, then, is a depar­ture from what the author orig­i­nal­ly pic­tured. As it stands, The Astronaut’s Lament sto­ry gives the last thoughts of a dying Lt. Ger­bain after the galaxy has been dec­i­mat­ed in a series of inter­stel­lar laser bat­tles. The 2,200-page tome is writ­ten in a stream-of-con­scious­ness style as Ger­bain, on a for­eign plan­et, with his back bro­ken, lies wait­ing for his oxy­gen tank to run out. It has no punc­tu­a­tion and includes sev­er­al expans­es of blank pages inter­spersed through­out, as well as var­i­ous abstract draw­ings by the author. There are no unfath­omable yet unques­tion­able inven­tions pre­sent­ed, just sim­ple descrip­tions of for­eign bod­ies seen through the shat­tered win­dow of a space­craft and the child­hood mem­o­ries those images evoke for Ger­bain. When asked what he want­ed to say with the work, Wroth­gate sighed, “Future… in… space?”

The Astronaut’s Lament is pub­lished by Bryce Turn­er House and is avail­able now in hard­cov­er. It will be released soon for the Kin­dle, a device Wroth­gate envi­sioned last June. ♦