"A man on the road is caught in the act of a becoming. A woman on the road has something seriously wrong with her. She has not 'struck out on her own.' She has been shunned." I remember Vanessa Veselka's words on female road narratives as I boot up the free game Space Engine.
Ten thousand galaxies live in a tiny folder on my desktop.
The universe lives here. I double click and it expands to fit my screen where I float by undiscovered stars, slip through strange nebulae, linger in the rings of faraway planets just watching the rotation of moons.
Just now, for example, I circle RS 8409-2710-8-14246776-51 8.7. It is a cold titan. It is nine years old. It is a marbled blue, with rings looping gracefully around it. It is huge and silent and the music of Space Engine undulates and pulsates around me. This is what it is like to feel small, but - and this is important - it is what it means to be deliberately far away from everything.
Space Engine is a space simulator that enables a player to explore the entire known universe and further via procedural generation. "The entire Hipparcos catalog of stars, as well as all known extrasolar planets, over ten thousand galaxies, and all of the most prominent objects in our Solar system are included," the Russian developer states.
I click on another planet with the selector and push 'Go to object'. The whole world seizes and the stars and the black rush past and I slow and land on the frozen ice giant RS 8409-2710-8-14246776-51 8.6 where the ground is mottled beige and mountainous against light blue hues and the white dawn. I gently rotate, looping over and over myself, because gravity bears down less on me here than on earth.
I left home last year. In fact, I stopped having a home all together and became an itinerant writer.
Since I left I have been on so many different timezones my tweets and essays seem like they are launched into the dark, like time capsules towards distant stars. I feel like I am drifting in the space of the internet, the only place where I exist now, where my Journey Log is: the star Alnitak, frozen ice giant RS 8409-2710-8-14246776-51 8.6, the cool selena with the orange glow that has a gravity of 0.7. I write about what I observe and move on. Only my voice left and no body. And the voice has become smaller, and less noticeable, and the nebula is crowded. Sometimes I wish I could exist on earth where Current Events happen, where I might rub shoulders with other human beings who think my life is relevant to theirs.
Charlotte Alter posits that the women of last year's media were 'gloriously, intentionally, radically alone'.
In Space Engine I am intentionally alone, but I wonder if I boot it up because in life, I choose to undertake hardship or solitude, because it is a punishment for myself. As I zoom towards the blue main sequence star, RS 8409-2738-1-2-2, wondering if anyone before me has ever discovered it, I wonder if it is to show myself that it is possible, or to run away from something? I wonder if it is so that someone will see my trail. Or, like the question posed in the game Glitchhikers, am I moving forward just because I like it? Am I travelling because travelling is feeling uncomfortable next to beautiful things?
In Space Engine you can fly freely, weightlessly and soundlessly through space, or you can take a rudimentary science ship through hyperspace. You can click on any far object and travel there, waste time watching the clouds ripple and the nearest sun set as the hours pass by.
In Space Engine I have never typed 'Earth' into the dialogue box and landed there.
The planet Earth is a symbol of everything that crushes my feelings into painful shards: claustrophobia, ill will, voices of distress, memories of rejection, accusation, scorn, intrusion. Some of these are necessary things, but games where 'completion of objectives' are how you 'gained new content' as Dara Ó Briain once said - they heap even more anxiety on me.
Space Engine is about becoming comfortable with distance and detachment, it removes responsibility. There is no way to interact with the planets; you are an observer only. I cannot leave a mark on this simulated universe, I cannot damage anything. I cannot die, and I cannot f*** anything up.
The Journey Log is just a list of stomach-lurching, starkly moody, beautiful worlds and I am charting my landings.
It may be true that when some women strike out on their own traditional narratives frame it as if they have been rejected. It may be true that some women see a lone road trip as an adventure like The Odyssey, where they 'find themselves' or become 'caught in the act of becoming'.
But there is a little check box on the 'Locations' menu of Space Engine, a box that you might miss if you weren't looking closely. It sits in the bottom left of the box, and it reads 'Pause Time'.
When I clicked that and sat by orange giant RS 8409-2738-5-10524-43 as if I were gazing into infinity I thought: we do not go on road trips because we have failed. We go on road trips because everything is failing us.
I make lists of galaxies, stars, planets, gas giants in my Journey Log. Diaries of thoughts that came from the far side of the known and unknown universe. Space Engine has a dialogue box where you can type your next destination, any known space object, or you can spin the dial and go somewhere completely unknown. I know I can type 'Earth' at any time. But I do not type 'Earth'.