Beyond Patchwork

(My thoughts on a friend’s exciting new novel)

Imagine you were given the option of boarding a spaceship to fly to an Earth-like planet in a solar system many light years away. You might feel some excitement, wouldn’t you? Especially if you knew that the spaceship, two miles long and almost one mile wide, was equipped with engines more powerful than ever before; that it had multiple levels with streets, houses, crop fields, parks and other amenities simulating real conditions on Earth. But what if you found out that the trip would take several decades and that its purpose was to colonize the new planet with no chance of ever making it back? Would you panic then, or would you slide into the mindset of the early settlers and pioneers who had come to America, built a place for themselves in the new continent and then started their expansion west?

Such thoughts and feelings are the subject matter of Clark Riley’s recently published novel, Patchwork. Like the traditional artist who assembles pieces of various fabrics and colors into a warm and beautiful quilt, the spaceship is populated with people of all ages, professions, backgrounds and creeds. No one is more valuable than the other because they all join in the panoply that would represent us to the rest of the universe. All professions would be needed in the new world and in this modern-day Noah’s Ark, we find no antiheroes — all are good. It is 2050 and the tension in the novel, because there is tension, is of a technological nature amplified by the stories that caused each one of the characters to make the hard and irreversible decision to leave Planet Earth. Well written and fast paced, the novel is as engaging as it is original and interesting.

Julie, the main protagonist, a woman barely past adolescence, goes through her own sequence of happy and tragic moments, but she never second guesses her desire to fly to the remote planet. That is her destiny, and nothing would stand in her way. She is the embodiment of purity and trust in whatever is new. She is also a top-notch engineer, a profession that is highly valued under the conditions where the success of the mission is critically interlinked to the perfect functioning of a complicated spaceship. The scratches on her arms and legs, caused by crawling into ceilings and other tight spaces behind the engine room, are proof of that.

Eli, the leader, the man at the top, is very smart and intelligent and also a very good engineer. He is short tempered when it comes to politicians’ shenanigans and to whomever might stand in his way. But he has a great heart and treats the people on his spaceship with much love and respect. He had worked with Julie’s father and he knows what a valuable ally Julie is.

The spaceship revolves around Earth for a long number of months in order to be supplied before leaving for the deep space. They need food, fuel, and most of all people, and bringing them all on board takes a long time. Also, this time serves those who might have a last change of heart and decide to return to home. Given the expected duration of the trip, no matter how many provisions are loaded up, they would have to be self-sustaining, recycling, growing their own food, generating water and energy. The design of the spaceship allows for it.

The spaceship also rotates around its axis, to create its own gravitational force. The force varies with the distance to the center which poses challenges and offers benefits as well. One of the most attractive features in the non-gravitational center of the spaceship is the Centerline Pool. Here is how someone describes it to Julie soon after she comes on board: The water is on all the walls, and there isn’t a ceiling! You climb up — or down, I forget which they call it — and jump at any angle and kinda’ fly into the water. It’s a long room, but if you’re really good, you can jump from one end to the other over the whole pool. You’re essentially weightless and can fly. Naturally, all the kids love to see who’s best at that. Really a lot of fun! Well, I think so, too, and what a difference this makes to the otherwise worrisome concept of traversing the dark space for years and years on end! Of course, this is only one of the many attractive elements that are provided to humanize the flight into such a remote corner of the universe.

There is a huge window in the Great Hall, from where one could look out. While the spaceship gravitates around our planet, there are many opportunities to see Mother Earth, with the characters’ private thoughts, memories and nostalgia swirling in their minds. The reader flies over Maryland and its torrid summers, over the Shenandoah Valley, over Indiana with its brilliant sky, over the Arizona desert, over the city of Chicago illuminated at night, over oceans and valleys that form our myriad lives. They are all beautiful and special and always touch our souls.

And then they leave on their long journey and Julie, alone in the Great Hall, looks into the darkness beyond the window. Two hundred degrees below zero her sensors told her. Yet she could peer across that blackness to stars burning thousands or millions of degrees. Amazing. It was so cold, so hot, so hostile outside the window… She turned her attention to the Hall. It was warm, but not too warm — perfectly comfortable in her colors [clothes] and bare feet… She could swear she felt movement inside her.

There is always a future beyond the abyss!

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