Initially lauched in 2018 by the Italian Indie Iperborea, the Passenger was brought to English speakers by Europa Editions in 2020. Each installment is book-magazine that collects reportage, long-form journalism and narrative essays with the aim of telling the story of the contemporary life of a place and its inhabitants. I have found the series a boon during recent times. My itchy feet have travelled metaphorically, as they remained firmly on Scottish soil.

I dip and dive into these volumes of short pieces at sporadic intervals. Which is not conducive to coherent reviewing. I did, however, review the first in the series, Japan, and much of what I said there apropos format holds true of Space. Liberal use is made of photography, illustration, infographics and cartographics making the volume visually appealing. Given the “mother” indie many pieces are translated from Italian. Most, in this volume at least, are English originals. There is one piece translated from Dutch.

As there isn’t much contemporary life in space apart from on the space station, the focus of this volume is somewhat different. It focuses on man’s achievements in space to date, the search for life beyond our planet and for potential new homes for mankind.

Here are some of the candidates:

Can’t say I’d sign up for any of them! Like Elmo Keep I ask “Why do human beings need to colonise the surface of Mars? What could possibly drive someone to leave the Earth behind forever to die on a barren rock in the frozen depths of space?” But the Mars One project had no lack of volunteers and Keep’s essay digs into the reasons why that is so, and why the project actually floundered.

If the vision is to inhabit Mars, substantial technological and biological challenges remain. It’s not just about making these hostile environments habitable, but increasing the tolerances of the human body. There’s lots of information about both in this volume. But let’s assume for a moment that solutions have been found and this vision becomes an actual possibility. Like conquering Everest, the habitation of Mars becomes an ethical question. Just because we can, should we?

My favourite pieces in Space tackles exactly that question. Frank Westerman’s The Cosmic Comedy hones in on the paradox.

The conquest of Space was driven by the rivalry between the Cold War superpowers, and yet space is also where we like to project our utopias of unity and peaceful coexistence. Far from Earth humanity displays the best version of itself. But if we are unable to work together down here, what makes us think we will be able to up there?

Frank Westerman: The Cosmic Comedy

Westerman relates that the Golden Records, affixed to the Voyager probes currently racing through interstellar space, and the information they contain about humankind, include expressions of peace and goodwill in 55 languages, including Esperanto, the language created to foster world peace. Look how well that is going! The picture of humankind on these discs is, he says, “an autobiography redacted to such a degree that it seems to have been drafted deliberately to fool not only alien beings but, primarily ourselves.”

Lauren Groff wonders why we don’t divert the time, energy, creativeness and money that is being spent on “the stupidity of using Mars as humankind’s Hail Mary” into saving “the good blue earth”. But her argument falls on deaf ears during a family outing to Cape Canaveral. In response to her concerns, her husband “just shrugged and said that Musk has a plan to minimise fossil fuel use”.

That provided a surprising laugh out loud moment. There were many other head-shaking ones regarding mankind’s self-belief and self-deception. We want/need to populate space because we are polluting the earth to death? And yet space junk is already a threat to future exploration. “It is calculated that our legacy consists of 29,000 objects larger than 10 centimetres (enough to destroy a satellite), 670,000 larger than a centimetre and 170 million larger than a millimetre (but still enough to cause problems for missions”! Staggering.

Don’t get me wrong. Space provides many moments of wonder. It’s subject is the glory of the universe after all. But ultimately it is a call to homo sapiens to channel its potential positively, to stop being so cavalier with the planet that is habitable, and not to repeat past mistakes. What are the chances?

Iperborea was founded in 1987; its original objective to bring Northern European Literature to Italy. Europa Editions was founded in 2005 by Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, who are also the owners and publishers of the Italian press, Edizioni E/O. Thus the natural synergy in bringing the series to the English-speaking world.

A quick look at the Iperborea site shows that not all Passengers have travelled to English. I am looking forward to the trip to Barcelona at the end of this month. But, if anyone at Europa Editions is reading, I’d like to read them all in English, particularly the Iceland and Ocean volumes. And if someone could put together a volume on Vienna, I’d be ecstatic! 😁