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In my younger days, when I was far more eager to pick a fight have a discussion with friends and acquaintances who held beliefs different from my own, I formulated what I thought was a foolproof way of countering the claim that a person’s life can have no meaning without the existence of a god or a set of gods. For several reasons, the accusation that a godless life is somehow less fulfilling, less authentic, less moral, and less meaningful struck a nerve with me. It felt like a cheap shot. And it begged an obvious question: Why assume that a god gives you meaning?

So here was my brilliant retort. Bear with me.

Imagine hearing the news, similar to the 1949 noir film D.O.A., that you have been poisoned, and will die peacefully but swiftly in about 24 hours. Most people have contemplated what they would do on their last day on Earth, but this scenario comes with a twist. Imagine that there is a bomb planted somewhere in a heavily populated city. The bomb, if detonated, will contaminate the entire area with the same poison that is slowly killing you. You are the only one who knows where it might be, and you’re the only one who knows how to disarm it. So, how do you spend your last day? Do you wallow in self-pity, do you go on a hedonistic bender with drugs and hookers, or do you disarm the bomb?

I think most people, regardless of their religiosity or lack thereof, would choose option three. Disabling the bomb will become their life’s purpose in the little time they have left, with no need for a blessing from the divine or a promise of an afterlife. (Indeed, if you do need those promises to convince you to do the right thing, a lack of meaning is the least of your problems.) No doubt the hero of this story would be sad to go too soon, but they might be grateful knowing that they were offered such an obvious way of making their time here worthwhile.

This is merely a hypothetical, and a wild one at that. The trick is to understand that all of us are in this very situation, every second of every day. Our precious time is limited. What we choose to do with it, within our limited capacity, is how we create meaning for ourselves.

The trick is to understand that all of us are in this very situation, every second of every day.

I realize others have come up with similar and more compelling scenarios. Nevertheless, I’ve held onto this one. And yet I found it challenged in a surprising way by, of all things, a trio of science fiction stories.

[Spoilers ahead.]

Into the void: Aniara

If you have not seen Aniara, I urge you to watch it right now, even if that means stepping away from this screen. (We’ve already gotten your click, so we’ll be fine.) Based on an epic poem from the mid-20th century, Aniara debuted in 2018 and arrived in the US in 2019, which means that, for many potential viewers, it got lost in the distracted years that followed. The film takes place in the future, when Earth has become a wasteland, and lucky settlers travel to a Martian colony by way of enormous, city-sized spacecraft. The interior of the ship resembles a shopping mall, complete with all of the luxuries of a cruise liner.

When a mishap knocks the Aniara off course, the realization dawns on the crew and the passengers that they may not be able to correct their heading for many years. Though they are able to grow food and recycle air and water, the psychological toll grows heavier with each passing day. Eventually, after many failed attempts to find a way home, a grim reality sets in. Aniara will plunge into the void forever. This ship will be the only world that its inhabitants will know for the rest of their lives.

Some of the film’s most gut-wrenching moments involve the protagonist staring out a window into space and convulsing in panic. This unnamed woman is known to the crew as the Mimaroben (Emelie Garbers), and her primary duty is to facilitate a virtual reality device that projects images and sensations of the lost beauty of Earth. As demand for the service grows, the artificial intelligence of the “Mima” becomes overwhelmed and eventually self-destructs. The loss of this distraction, along with the mounting years and the dwindling hope of rescue, culminates in the rise of a cult of Mima, which threatens the entire ship. Before long, the Aniara is a shell of itself, drifting into the darkness, with only a few survivors still chanting about their memories of home.

With hundreds of characters, Aniara depicts a wide variety of reactions: panic, denial, paranoia, grim determination, phony optimism, hedonism, nihilism, and magical thinking. For a while, the Mimaroben embodies the resilience of the ideal humanist. Even after the Mima fails, and she is falsely blamed and punished, the Mimaroben attempts to bring some joy and purpose to her shipmates. Indeed, this keeps her alive and functional for much longer than most. But this film has little interest in providing inspiration, for we also see the Mimaroben at the very end of her rope. I, for one, could only nod and say that I understood her exhaustion.

Darker still: High Life

Also from 2018, Claire Denis’s High Life is equally challenging, with an even bleaker premise. Instead of a luxury cruiser full of passengers, the ship in this film carries a group of convicts on a doomed mission toward a black hole. On the way, the ship’s doctor—a prisoner herself—controls her patients with sedatives and performs experiments meant to produce a child in space. Whereas the Aniara had the Mima as a diversion, this unnamed vessel comes equipped with the Box, a device the prisoners use to simulate fantasies while they masturbate. The situation begins to unravel as the doctor’s experiments go too far, triggering a series of violent altercations among the passengers.

The murders, suicides, and other fatalities leave only two people alive: the quiet, stoic Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his daughter Willow (Jessie Ross), a product of the fertility procedures. For years, Monte raises the child and maintains the ship as it gets closer to its destination. His duty as a father becomes his identity. Though he can protect Willow in the short term, he can offer her no future. Instead, he joins her on a voyage into the unknown. At the edge of the black hole, the father and daughter launch a shuttle and plunge into the anomaly as a dazzling light engulfs them.

Playing hopelessness for laughs: Avenue 5

Somehow, the third example on this list takes the “into the void” idea and twists it into a sitcom. Like, for actual laughs. The HBO series Avenue 5 debuted in 2020 and is finally releasing its delayed second season in the fall of 2022. Much like Aniara, the show features a massive ship that has veered off course, with a vanishing hope of returning home. To make matters worse, the captain and the crew are impostors. The passengers consist of short-sighted brats and weirdoes, including a living embodiment of the entitled, whiny “Karen” stereotype (yep, that’s her name). The head of customer relations is a self-proclaimed nihilist who is more robotic and oblivious than an automated representative. The owner of the ship is a childish tech-bro who lucked into a trillion-dollar space business he knows nothing about. And the only competent engineer—a low-ranking crewmember named Billie (Lenora Crichlow)—struggles to get anyone to listen when disaster approaches.

In other words, Avenue 5 is an essential parody of our rotten times. In a scene that anticipates the kind of misinformation that has been rampant throughout the COVID pandemic, some of the passengers become convinced that their predicament is a hoax, and that the ship has already returned to Earth. To prove it, they step into the airlock, only to freeze instantly as their desiccated corpses float away. Despite being a comedy, Avenue 5 may be the most cynical, morbid, and hopeless of the three.

I still think that my D.O.A. thought experiment would apply to the scenarios in each of these stories. But I can’t say that with a great degree of confidence. For the passengers on board these ships, their entire worlds have been encapsulated and tossed away, doomed to shrink to nothing. The Aniara could plod along for another generation, or Avenue 5 could avoid a collision with an asteroid, or Monte could save Willow’s life. And yes, those actions would mean something. But the future in store for these vessels will inevitably go cold and lifeless. In a way, their plight is far worse than an apocalypse, for there will be nothing to rebuild in the aftermath, and no one to rebuild it.

In a way, their plight is far worse than an apocalypse, for there will be nothing to rebuild in the aftermath, and no one to rebuild it.

Here, I can imagine some of my religious friends pointing out that I am merely discussing subjective meaning and purpose. Their god, or their religious practice or spiritual framework, can provide objective meaning. That dichotomy doesn’t do much for me, either on Earth or in space. What good is an objective meaning if it’s handed down arbitrarily from on high? Can it be taken away just as easily? And if such an objective meaning existed, our interpretation of it would inevitably be subjective, which brings us right back to where we started.

I have to remind myself, again, that we are all on board the Aniara, albeit on a longer time scale. The sun will one day gobble up our planet. Then it will burn out, as will the rest of the stars. We are here now, in this present moment, and we have a choice to live, and grow, and learn, and love. Or to give up on all that, and destroy ourselves and each other. The scenario is not great, but the choice seems obvious.

In an interview with the science fiction magazine Inverse, Aniara’s co-director Pella Kågerman says, “I think some people need to understand how bad [our situation] actually is, while others need to get some optimism back so we can continue fighting.” Her own interest in the epic poem came after enduring an apocalypse of sorts. When Kågerman was young, her grandmother suffered a stroke. During the long recovery period, the two bonded over the poem, pretending that the hospital was the ship, and the doctors and nurses were the crew. Cultivating a new kind of gentleness got them through a difficult time.

It’s not surprising that storytellers who imagine something like Aniara would ground their morality within the context of human interaction. For them, individual salvation and personal gratification through the Mima or the Box or the airlock are useless at best, disastrous at worst. Instead, it takes tenderness, empathy, companionship, and sacrifice for the characters to press on. To grow, the characters must look outside of their own narrow set of needs and fears. Thus, Monte the convict becomes a loving father. Billie the plucky engineer rises to the occasion to avert another catastrophe. The Mimaroben devises a way to share the beauty of Earth to soothe the weary passengers. This kind of determined, tender stoicism is not always enough, and these stories don’t shy away from showing the characters at their very limit. But in the worst of circumstances, it’s all we have. That and each other.

robert repino

Robert Repino

Robert Repino is an editor for a scholarly publisher and has authored several novels. He lives in New York.