I continue to be hopelessly behind on my reading, so I’m only just now hitting Nicasio Andres Reed’s “All the Gifts That Remain” in Nat. Brut. Since I’m here, you’ll be unsurprised to find out I have caught some feelings about it. And as is often my way, I’m going to spoil some of it to scratch at them. So go read the story first if you don’t want the spoiling. I’ll still be here when you travel back.
Feel one here is a whole lot about the technique at play. Ostensibly this is the story of a writer meeting and attempting to interview the enigmatic Anita Murthy, an artist best known for creating something called a body ship. The tension the narrator feels at landing this interview bleeds into a tension from the question of what the hell a body ship is and why it’s so important to both the narrator and, it seems, the world at large. It’s a purposeful tension, teased out into a proper slow burn. Reed turns away from that answer more than once, such that each time I wound up reading just a bit more frantically to get there. And when we get there, it turns out a body ship is just what it sounds like: a (space)ship shaped like a body.
This choice, to play out tension with a question whose answer is on the tin, could have backfired, could have felt like a let down, but it winds up being vital for me to the themes of the story, because “just” a ship shaped like a body both is and isn’t a simple answer, as it turns out. A proper body ship also seems to have interstellar travel capabilities unlike any other ship the world of the story knows.
Further, no one is clear on exactly why that is. Nevertheless, it is: if you embody your ship, the ship is itself empowered. There’s an elegance to the way the history of body ships works as metaphor for a number of elements. This is ostensibly the work of an artist, after all, such that I can’t help but feel the non-answers about what makes a body ship travel so far are tangled up in the equally inexplicable ways in which art has a power we can’t always articulate. The ways in which art both is and isn’t as simple as explaining its physical elements.
Beyond this, though, is the way in which Reed pushes body ships to explore our concepts of humanity. In a brief survey of the ships that have come before, we see that the power of a body ship isn’t restricted to any kind of body. Not a single shape, not a single size, not a single apparent age or gender or ethnicity. Every type of body ship has the same inexplicable power to span galaxies so long as someone chooses to use that body type to make a ship. So, yes, body ships are a metaphor for art, but they’re also a resonant, powerful metaphor for humanity in the simple-and-complicated sense of ‘who gets to be human.’ And by sculpting everyone in steel and rockets, the story tells us everyone, and here’s the receipts.
In the end I know, in that ineffable way the people of Reed’s story know body ships changed their own understanding of the world, that there’s even more at play here. An itch I can’t reach to scratch. Or a galaxy only a ship that is part body and part art (and each of those part of each other) can get me to.