As temperatures crack the triple digits in Europe and the US dithers on meaningful climate legislation, we’re reminded yet again that no matter how bad things get, there will always be someone out there pretending everything’s just fine. This week’s Terraform speculation draws that denial all the way out to the temperate Arctic. In this future of automated luxury and virtual polar bears—with nothing left to fight for and nothing to do but hobbies—only one question remains. What’s your passion? — The Eds.
The community center in central Novo-Artica extended several blocks and was divided into four quadrants, each roughly the length of an air-hangar. The Prairie was dedicated to the pursuit of domestic passions. The Jungle was for the arts. The Beach was for intellectual pursuits, and The Mountain for athletics and outdoor activities. One could even get married or honeymoon there.
Or throw cocktail parties, which was how Masato ended up at The Mountain one evening, in an attempt to appease his girlfriend, Laylane.
It was a Passion Party. Everyone was encouraged to come dressed as their favorite leisure activity and mingle with other community members over wine and cheese.
Their neighbor Kiril greeted them at the door. Middle-aged like Masato, but without the receding hairline, Kiril wore a dark green leotard with matching leg warmers, and held a purple-and-white striped hula hoop. Behind him, at the back of the hangar, Masato could see skiers barreling down a miniature Mount Everest. A fake volcano erupted fake lava a few feet away from the fake snow.
“What are you?” Kiril asked, pointing at the sandpaper attached to Masato’s suit.
“Friction,” said Masato.
“Woodworking,” said Laylane, shooting a sharp jab to Masato’s ribs.
The Passion Party was to celebrate Kiril’s completion of a new activity, which would be commemorated with a special pin. Everyone loved collecting pins. This one depicted a small pink hula hoop.
“Do you think hula hooping is your true passion?” asked Masato.
“Masaaato…” said Laylane.
"Nah, I’m planning to move onto Flower Arrangement,” said Kiril.
“Jump right into the next thing,” Masato nodded.
He felt Laylane tense next to him, her hand reach in front of him like a crossing guard. But what did she expect? She had forced him to come.
“Maybe you’re giving up on the hula hoop too soon,” Masato told Kiril. “Maybe the point is that you’re supposed to show up every day and hula hoop until you learn to love it, until it would kill you if someone took it away from you.”
Kiril shook his head. “The point is contentment. Contentment can’t come by force.”
“Or by hula hoop,” said Masato.
Laylane shot him a look and pulled Kiril towards the buffet table. Her distance tugged at him, like a cord stretched taut across the room. But it never snapped back.
Disappointed, Masato scanned the crowd for someone like him, dragged there by a spouse or partner, a slight, sustainably grumpy face suggesting a degree of permanent discomfort. But Masato seemed to be surrounded by nothing but enthusiasm.
He supposed it made sense: the only people who showed up to Passion Parties were the ones whose jobs were newly automated, those still energized by the promise of a life of leisure. Those who had given up stayed at home. Failing at leisure was almost as embarrassing as loving work.
But Masato loved work, he was work, and it bothered him that no one—Laylane in particular—seemed to think that was acceptable. That somehow it was fine to be a Master Hula Hooper but not a Namer.
Masato was a Namer. He would always be a Namer.
Laylane had once loved this about him, asking him for help when she got stuck on the crossword or needed the right turn of phrase for a memo at work. “I’m smarter when I’m with you,” she’d say, and Masato had felt the same way about her. Laylane had been an extension—a better extension—of him. She thought deeply, expansively about things, and considered the twists and turns of words as they fell on the page. She could turn a single phrase into a long, philosophical debate. Once an AI Ethics Officer for a multinational company, she’d fought the government’s automation policy until the day it reached her desk.
Now, she mainly wove baskets and made small ceramic creatures at the Community Center.
While he waited for Laylane to finish her social rounds, Masato read the Leisure Bulletin along the far wall:
Wall decorations in the 20th-Century Style
Vintage Book Reading II
Walking Techniques VI (Combined with Salsa I)
At any moment of the day, there was something to help you discover your true purpose in life, or at least keep you occupied for an hour or two. Nothing serious. You could take The 7-Day Novel or DIY Victorian Hairstyles, but there were no courses available that might help you become a writer or a hairdresser—nothing to suggest you were anything more than a visitor to a buffet table of amusements. Leisure led to happiness; jobs led to disappointment. Or so the theory went.
A loud honk from behind Masato made him jump. He turned and was greeted by a clown’s wide grin.
“I’m Chuckles! Not sure we’ve met before. Have you been liberated?”
It was the first thing strangers asked when you were introduced—not how many kids you had, or what you did for work. Just, Have you been liberated?
Masato sighed, but played his part in the expected greeting.
“Nice to meet you, Chuckles. What’s your passion?”
“Clowning around!” Chuckles said. He slapped his knee and honked his horn.
“And how long have you been clowning around?”
“Two days,” Chuckles said. He pressed a flower on his lapel and a surprisingly forceful stream of water squirted into Masato’s eye. He immediately blamed Laylane for this.
“Watch it!” Masato said.
“Just living my passion,” Chuckles grinned.
“Oh yeah?” Masato took a step closer. “Two days in and you’re sure this is your passion? You sure you don’t just keep flitting from one class to the next, collecting your silly pins? Are you really that happy?”
Water shot again in Masato’s eye.
“Hey! Stop it!”
“You stop it!” Chuckles screeched. “Do you think I came here looking to be interrogated by a piece of sandpaper? Of course I’m happy! I’m very, very happy!”
Masato felt a push on his chest and then lost his footing, falling to the ground. When he looked up, he saw everyone had moved to the other side of the room.
So predictable. Pins for their hobbies and fake smiles of camaraderie; backs turned to him when they realized he was different. It didn’t even hurt when they rejected him.
Except for one detail: Laylane. She was standing next to the erupting volcano, staring straight at him, her face blank and inscrutable, which in her case meant angry. He didn’t want to upset her, but he didn’t know any other way to be.
An hour later, Masato and Laylane shuffled home in Novo-Artica’s perpetual dark, following the trail of small, glowing orbs that connected the community center to each person’s home.
Masato tried to bring up the new vid everyone was talking about at work—a bunny trying to scale an iceberg—but Laylane didn’t seem to be in the mood to talk. He felt bad about his behavior at the party, but it didn’t feel right to feel bad, either. That things had changed between them wasn’t Masato’s fault. Masato was consistent: Masato five years ago, Masato today, Masato at work, Masato at the party. It was all the same Masato. She’d once liked that about him. “You’re the sturdiest object in my life,” Laylane had once joked.
She opened the door to their apartment and they were greeted by the dreamcatchers and ceramic heads Laylane had made at the community center over the past few months. She paused at the curio shelf to rotate one of the heads so that its gaze was fixed on her. This seemed to reset her. She smiled and turned towards Masato.
“Shea was telling me about a vintage poetry class where you learn to tell a story that rhymes. People apparently used to think that a rhyme made ideas sound more important. Isn’t that wild?”
Masato didn’t say anything. Every night she had some new class Masato would love.
“Stop being an ass, and take a class,” Laylane singsonged, following him into the living room.
“It’s not the same thing,” Masato said. “I’m not a poet. I’m a Namer.”
Over the past three decades, Masato’s company, Branded Emporium, had named 2,606 of the 3,004 snack foods produced in Novo-Artica. That track record had once meant something. Wherever Masato went, he was introduced as a Namer, the guy behind winners like Tutti Frutti Booti, which still led the 100-130-year-old female market, and Kooger Krumbs, which had won Name of the Year 18 months earlier, just before the government eliminated all work-related prizes.
Nowadays, no one but Masato seemed to care about any of that. Laylane, his neighbors, even his employees all banged on about the same thing—sell the business to the government or one of the robot multinationals and liberate everyone to lead a life of leisure. As if clocking in at the community center each day provided the same meaning as finding the perfect way to describe a tiger-shaped pudding treat to a six-year-old.
He had given that same example to Laylane countless times, and each time it was met with a smirk. But the two things weren’t the same. A name was a living thing, it spoke to people. Masato felt his words as he wrote them into existence. His own spine straightened with the extension of an l, his gaze moved like a curved road around an s or a c. Masato was inside each of his names and they were inside of him.
“Masato, hello? Are you listening to me?”
“What?” he said sharply.
“What,” he said again, more gently this time. He put his hand on her shoulder and her face softened.
Masato felt sorry for her. All Laylane wanted was to take Couples Cha Cha and sign up for a three-year Arctic cruise—an experience so supposedly delightful and delicious that Masato’s company, hired to do the branding, had named it a “cruiselish.” He couldn’t imagine anything more pointless than a three-year boat ride staring at extinct animals and fake ice.
She should leave him, he thought.
He should leave her.
In the kitchen, Laylane made him a cup of coffee. He grabbed an orange from their fruit bowl and peeled it for her the way she liked. The more arguments they had, the more polite their other interactions became, like two strangers meeting on a path and ceding the way to the other.
Laylane pressed an orange slice to her lips, closing her eyes as she sucked out the juice. A drop rolled down her chin and she omitted a low hum of pleasure. She ate all food like this, as though each bite were something new and profound.
Masato had created many names while watching Laylane eat. Slassels. Calipsus. KlingKlings. Their sounds rose from her body, close enough to touch, and sometimes he did touch them, his tongue following the drop of juice from her mouth, down her chin, along her throat. Those sounds, so desirous of capture. Though it had been a long time since that happened…
Laylane opened her eyes and tossed the carcass of the orange to her plate. Dabbed her chin with a napkin. Then she stared at him, as if waiting for an answer.
“My work has purpose and specificity,” Masato said, trying once more to explain. “I can find the perfect name to market a lemongrass potato chip to 70-year-old widows. But poetry—who reads that? I’d take one class and then be just like the rest of them.”
“The rest of who?” Laylane asked. “Look at me—I’m on Friendly Gambling II and loving it.”
“You were only liberated six months ago. It’s all new to you. What about Cousin Edl—remember all his talk about building an apocalypse bunker? In five years, the only passion Edl’s developed is for the stack of comics in his bathroom.”
“Says the guy who gets his favorite snack names printed on our toilet paper,” Laylane shot back. But then she gave up, pulled out her cerophore, and spent the rest of the night silently looking at Arctic cruise pictures, inserting herself into shots of happy tourists surrounded by preserved polar bears.
Part of him wished he could be there with her. He had tried to want what she did. In his office, he’d spent hours staring at the words on his cerophore, waiting for the letters on the screen to re-arrange themselves into stick figures relaxing on fishing boats or climbing trees. But no matter how hard he tried, once he blinked the letters scurried right back to where they started. They simply had no desire to be diverted to a new purpose.
Why did she care so much about convincing him? Maybe it was because his stubbornness felt like a judgment of her own life. Or maybe it was because at this point, their ongoing argument over his liberation was the only thing they had left to talk about. He felt as real to her as those preserved polar bears, waving their paws at a crowd of people they would never see.
“Everyone’s gossiping about you at the community center,” Laylane said the next evening when Masato got home from work. “About what you said to Chuckles.”
“Chuckles the clown?”
“He’s become a stand-up comedian now. You should hear his routine about you.”
“I think I’ll wait till he becomes a mime,” said Masato, taking a seat in his favorite chair and picking up his nostalgia newspaper, an American one from 2001. Masato liked to read about the problems of the past. Everyone had been worried about terrorists and the economy then; now no one even mentioned that stuff. Though they still worried about the future. Everyone always worries about the future.
“Masato, it’s not funny,” Laylane said. “Some of the neighbors aren’t talking to me anymore.”
She was hanging new posters from her Propaganda & Printmaking class on their cream walls—grassy green rectangles with thought-provoking questions like What does it take to be different? and Is your life leisurely?—and next to them, the apparent answers written in black cursive on tangerine triangles:
As each new poster went up, Masato replaced Laylane’s words with better options in his head.
If he left her, he would have more time for his names. He imagined the l’s of Pillowstuff’ems grown taller, stretched out like string beans; slinking next to him, their arms wrapped around his, showing up to a cocktail party together. Saying hello to Chuckles.
“Masato, you’re not listening to me,” Laylane said, rustling his newspaper. “I don’t know how much more I can take. I feel like I’m losing all my friends.”
“So invent better friends. Take a virtual design class.”
From behind his newspaper, Masato heard Laylane harumph and stomp out of the room.
He wished he knew how to speak to her, to not make her mad. But words were too important to be bent to vague aims. They had to be accurate. You couldn’t sell someone on one thing and then deliver them another.
He probably wouldn’t see her the rest of the night. Lately he only seemed to occupy a few minutes of her daily routine, a ten-minute hobby of Convert Boyfriend to Leisure Lemming slotted between a pottery lesson at the Community Center and waving at preserved polar bears on her cerophore.
It occurred to him then that Laylane was exactly the type of person who could succeed in a world of leisure. No matter how pointless the endeavor, she just kept plugging away at it.
Two weeks after the fight with Chuckles, Masato came home and saw Laylane’s cerophore blinking with a message. Urgent! It flashed. Masato wondered what could possibly be urgent in the life of a woman who spent her day alternating square dancing with Arctic hedge pruning.
The cerophore flashed again, and this time Masato caught the message in its entirety: Urgent! Cruiselish Update!
He felt something flare in his chest. Goddamn Laylane, had she signed them up for something?
This was the last straw. If she signed him up, he’d tell her to leave. Not even pack her bags. Just leave. Or he would leave.
He picked up the device and was surprised to find it unlocked—these days you’d have to go out of your way to disable biometric ID. Had she done it on purpose?
Masato pressed on the message, his decision building steam. They were done. He’d finally say it to her, he really would.
The screen opened to a pair of golden tickets bobbing gently in the clouds, Laylane’s name emblazoned across the top ticket in bold calligraphic font.
Masato felt a stab of guilt. Laylane wasn’t trying to force him on to a cruise. These weren’t even real tickets. It seemed she had taken his suggestion and signed up for a virtual design class. He wouldn’t give her the Arctic cruise she really wanted, so she was planning an imaginary voyage. She wasn’t going anywhere without him. Poor Laylane. Masato exhaled, from relief or maybe disappointment.
The image of the tickets evaporated, and in their place a glamorous woman appeared, her hair tied up in a flowery scarf, lips bright red, skin dewy, a bit like how he imagined Laylane had looked twenty years younger. Next to her was a man—dark, handsome and all that jazz, wearing a tacky palm-tree leisure suit that Laylane would’ve loved. The man leaned in and kissed the woman’s cheek. The air around Masato filled with the smell of the ocean; a seagull hologram flew out of the cerophore and nearly clipped his ear. Fine, let Laylane have her silly fantasy.
A waiter approached the couple. He was shorter and losing a bit of his hair; his lips were pursed and his head bobbed, as if muttering in disagreement with the ocean breeze. He handed the couple two pink beverages stabbed with a cherry-topped umbrella. “Welcome to the Arctic,” the waiter grumbled, before shaking his head and shuffling away.
The waiter was Masato.
An hour later, Laylane returned.
“I met your friend,” Masato said, gesturing at the handsome man grinning out from the cerophore. “Seems like a nice cruise you’re planning with him.”
Laylane looked puzzled, then her eyes narrowed.
“Piete is just a friend,” she said stiffly. “He’s the world shuffleboard master in the 50-55 age group. He likes to travel.”
She spoke of Piete as if he was real, like she really believed the people and objects of the online and offline worlds were just a collection of easily interchangeable things.
“How long have you been seeing him?”
“A week,” Laylane shrugged, defiantly casual. “I see him each afternoon, before pottery class.”
“So he’s another hobby?” Masato asked.
“He’s a passion,” Laylane corrected Masato, her gaze aimed directly at him.
It was clearly a challenge, and Masato was ready. He saw the words he needed to say as though they were written across the wall: We’re done. Leave. He could feel the ugly letters in his mouth, bubbling behind his teeth. But he couldn’t do it. They had been together for five years.
Laylane shook her head and turned away in disgust.
Without thinking, Masato went to the fruit bowl and began to peel her an orange. But that night Laylane left her plate untouched, and in the morning, the slices were still there, faded and desiccated, and Laylane wouldn’t have been able to suck anything out of them, even if she tried.
When Masato returned from work the next day, Laylane’s stuff was gone and their cream-colored walls were stripped of their posters. She had taken all the triangular answers but left him the rectangular questions.
Do you want people to remember your work, or remember you?
Do you need liberation to find liberation?
Laylane was right—they were good questions. But that didn’t mean Masato was wrong. Two people could both be right, and that could make everything between them wrong. The break-up was for the best. It was what he needed. He had meant to do this. Etcetera. He believed it and he didn’t, but what was there to do but throw himself into his new reality?
He moved his work desk to their—to his—bedroom, something he had always wanted to do. Then he pulled down Laylane’s questions and tossed them into the trash. In their place, he wrote words in thick, black cursive across the wall and on the white cotton of his throw pillows. He wrote the words that had won prizes, the ones he was most proud of, each one marking a specific moment in his life. Nutribop, the vanilla vitamin shake that he had fed his mother in her final days. Pleazers, his father’s favorite orange candy with the crackly paper. Torontinos, the ruffled chips he and Laylane had shared on their first date.
On the kitchen counter he wrote Kapows!, the crackers for which he’d won his first prize. In the bathroom, written across tubes of lip balm, Slickmouth, the name of the fizzy candy sticks he had eaten as a child. In one evening, he built a dense jungle of letters, thick with memory.
When Masato returned to the living room, a holographic polar bear greeted him by the couch, its paw waving back and forth, its sharp-toothed, pink mouth stretched in a smile. Had Laylane sent this to him just now? Or was it the remnant of her cruiselish fantasies—a simulation she had scheduled to keep her company each evening as Masato read his vintage newspaper?
Behind the polar bear, virtual ice stretched across Masato’s living room; below the bear’s feet, the dark blue waters of the old Arctic obscured his tile floor. Masato wondered what a real polar bear would have made of its virtual future. It had surely known the ice was getting thinner under its feet, that the seals were scarcer with each passing day. It knew it couldn’t hunt underwater, that its senses were sharper on land. But in the meantime, it still had the ocean, so real and blue and deep with possibility. Maybe that was enough?