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17776 and the End of Nature

July 19th, 2017 | 11 min read

By Jake Meador

If you read Hannah Anderson’s Humble Roots a few days before reading Jon Bois’s “17776” you’ll experience a kind of whiplash. Anderson’s book is about gratitude and exploring the ways that creation teaches us about God, about ourselves, and about virtue. Bois’s story is about dealing with the ennui that exists in a world where most limitations have been transcended and, most notably, the limitations imposed by mortality: It is set in the year 17776. In 2026, human being stopped giving birth and stopped dying. No one knows why. It just happened. 15,000 years later, many humans have decided to use their time to play long, complicated games of football because, well… why not?

This conversation between two of the three characters in the story gives you a feel for what Bois does with the story. The characters are trying to make sense of what they saw in the previous chapter—an endless game of football being played between two canyons that will never actually end because neither team can win and neither team is willing to quit:

I think they’re doing the best they can with immortality. A human being will rarely admit this to you, but they tend to be terrified of living forever. They were born and raised with the understanding that their lives would end. They’ve achieved everything they wanted to achieve, all the ills that plagued them.

And now boredom is their only enemy. And they get up in the morning and fight it every day of their eternal lives. Recreation and play sustain them. Football sustains them. And if you find yourself in a football game that’s such a gargantuan task, that seems undefeatable, that will claim eons of your time and passion?

I think that makes you one of the lucky ones.

In another scene, one character explains to another why humanity has basically settled for football instead of attempting some greater, more grandiose work, like space exploration:

Humanity tried and tried to send themselves to other solar systems. In 3143, they succeeded, and found… nothing. No life. Nothing interesting. A bunch of planets full of rocks and gas. They then deployed probes to visit other stars in the Milky Way galaxy. But do you know how many stars are in their galaxy?

There are 250 billion. Specifically there are 257,880,113,002 stars.

You have to use a minimum of 900 pounds of metal to build a deep-space probe. So if you want to send one to each star, that’s 120 billion tons of metal.

That demonstrates the enormity of the galaxy, yes? We can’t visit each star because we literally don’t have enough stuff to build it. We couldn’t mine that much without seriously damaging our planet or another planet.

So we built what we could, and sent them out there. They found nothing even the slightest bit interesting. Everything was as we guessed it was when we saw it through the telescopes.

It was the grandest anticlimax imaginable. It shattered what people thought of themselves and their destinies. The letdown was, in itself, sort of a brilliant wonder of its own.

The space probes are all out here. We’re still out here, ready to tell Ground Control if we see something. That is a fantasy because we won’t. And if we do, it will be on a scale of time so impossibly vast that it may as well be never.

People had a choice. They could continue wandering through the endless darkness, an absence of everything they loved, an endless void of disappointment and loneliness…

or they could look down, and embrace what they always had and loved.

I am more and more inclined to think that the most important question we can ask ourselves and ask our neighbors is what we see when we look at a grassy field or a sunset. If you read Anderson’s book—or other books like N. D. Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, or Lewis’s Discarded Image—you’ll find writers who look at that grassy field and see possibilities: In Notes Wilson speculates about the water in a stream that we step over absentmindedly while hiking or the ant that we step on without a second thought on a summer day. Anderson sees lessons in humility and love in a tomato plant. Lewis looks up into the night sky and sees not “space,” but “the heavens.” In his science fiction trilogy, we find that the heavens are populated with beings and that earth has gone silent, haunted by a dark spirit that has bent our planet’s inhabitants and prevented us from hearing the music of the spheres. The story climaxes in an echo of the Babel story as the beings from outside our silent planet descend, placing the curse of Babel on the story’s antagonists while also reminding many on earth of what they are actually made to be and do.

Bois, on the other hand, sees something different. In one sense, he sees nothing—and this is what leads to the boredom and the malaise. But if we were to stop there it would be unfair to Bois and his truly remarkable work. Within that boredom Bois sees something else: He sees people who could just give up and die choosing instead to make something of their meaningless lives: They play football. And that is actually a remarkable and beautiful thing for Bois. Of all the things people could do, they choose to play games that challenge them, bring them together with other people, and require them to use physical strength, mental acuity, and social skills to achieve goals. Does it accomplish any greater good? Well, not really. But does that matter? It does accomplish a good of some sort—it gives people something to do to fill their time and make life pleasant.

Even so, the difference here is significant: For the people I’m going to call the naturalists (partly to troll the materialist sorts that agree with Bois and partly because I want to make a point about the word “nature”), there is some sort of inner thingness within the various material things we bump up against in the created world. Put in more precise terms, there is some kind of intrinsic value conferred upon them. They have a nature, they have this thing that is theirs simply by virtue of existing, and which both dictates how we interact with the thing and proves to be an unending source of delight and interest. The great English preacher and abolitionist John Newton once said that when he heard a knock on his study door, he knew that whatever interruption was coming to him then was something from God and, therefore, “it must be interesting.”

If I’m understanding Bois correctly, he doesn’t see anything as having any kind of intrinsic nature. It’s just raw physical stuff and we can choose to interact with that thing however we like—and, remarkably, beautifully, amazingly, we often choose to interact with it in ways that are delightful or amusing. But it’s the acting upon that is the key here: One person can choose to take photos of a canyon. A bunch of other people can choose to play a never-ending game of football inside it. And there’s no way to say that one choice is somehow better than another.

I don’t necessarily have an argument to make against Bois, here. I think the thing we’re talking about is probably so basic and intuitive to most of us that the better course is to try and make oneself see the world as one’s opposite does without filling that experience in with your own commentary and reasons why that way of seeing it is illegitimate.1

As I was finishing Bois’s story, I was reminded of an exercise I made my writing students do last year partly to amuse myself and partly because I think it’s actually valuable: I made them do Robert Farrar Capon’s onion exercise. If you aren’t familiar, it’s relatively simple: You spend an hour cutting up an onion.

That’s it. You take an hour. You chop up an onion. The end. But there is, or at least there is if Anderson, Wilson, and co. are right, a method to Capon’s madness. Here is the good reverend explaining the exercise:

Take one of the onions (preferably the best-looking), a paring knife, and a cutting board and sit down at the kitchen table. Do not attempt to stand at a counter through these opening measures. In fact, to do it justice, you should arrange to have sixty minutes or so free for this part of the exercise. Admittedly, spending an hour in the society of an onion may be something you have never done before. You feel, perhaps, a certain resistance to the project. Please don’t. As I shall show later, a number of highly profitable members of the race have undertaken it before you. Onions are excellent company.

Once you are seated, the first order of business is to address yourself to the onion at hand. (You must firmly resist the temptation to feel silly. If necessary, close the doors so no one will see you; but do not give up out of embarrassment.) You will note, to begin with, that the onion is a thing, a being, just as you are. Savor that for a moment. The two of you sit here in mutual confrontation. Together with knife, board, table, and chair, you are the constituents of a place in the highest sense of the word. This is a Session, a meeting, a society of things.

You have, you see, already discovered something: The uniqueness, the placiness, of places derives not from abstractions like location, but from confrontations like man-onion. Erring theologians have strayed to their graves without learning what you have come upon. They have insisted, for example, that heaven is no place because it could not be defined in terms of spatial coordinates. They have written off man’s eternal habitation as a “state of mind.” But look what your onion has done for you: It has given you back the possibility of heaven as a place without encumbering you with the irrelevancy of location.

I guess what I’m saying is I’m very curious about what would happen if Bois spent an hour in the society of an onion. What I couldn’t shake while reading the story was the sense that nature is wholly absent in Bois’s story, nature in the sense of “intrinsic properties that really do exist in a thing and really do place obligations and demands on us as to how we should treat them.” Certainly that idea is central to what Hannah is doing in Humble Roots. Scripture itself presumes such a thing as well. At minimum it assumes that I can go out into my front yard, look up at the sky, and in that moment the sky is able to teach me something about God. The Psalms give us this idea and you also bump up against it repeatedly in the book of Job. And if the sky is teaching me something, then I can’t conceive of it as being empty in the way Bois does in 17776. I think most of us can probably intuitively grasp this on some level—you’ve stepped outside and been awed by something. Or maybe you’ve experienced something marvelous and yet, even as you experience it, you feel this weird interior pang of longing, as if the thing you’re experiencing is itself an echo of something. There’s something that really is there in the cosmos and we just can’t quite grasp what it is.

Here I am struck by something else in Bois’s story: Bois’s protagonists are three space probes—but they act like humans and even compare themselves to humans. There is no sign from the story itself that we should question this or be suspicious of it. And maybe that’s the problem: Human beings are cut off from nature in myriad ways in Bois’s story. I don’t recall encountering any animals in it. Even the landscape we see in the title image, shown above, features only man-made features—there are no trees or wildlife in it. And even the midwestern corn fields that the camera pans over in many of the videos are all strikingly empty. We are alone, even as we (presumably?) still live alongside animals. Therefore the only brothers and sisters left for us to have are the robots we made. We have turned our back on nature and now find that nature itself is silent.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).