Get an exclusive preview of The Only Living Girl on Earth by Charles Yu.

By Seija Rankin
January 05, 2021 at 12:00 PM EST
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Credit: Tina Chiou; Scribd Originals

Charles Yu does meta better than anyone. The former Westworld writer's most recent novel, Interior Chinatown, uses the format of a teleplay about the Golden Palace restaurant in Chinatown, which is also the setting for the filming of a cop show, to deliver devastatingly honest insights into the ways Asian stereotypes proliferate in Hollywood. His newest work of fiction follows in his highly creative footsteps.

The Only Living Girl on Earth is a short story that imagines life on Earth some 1,000 years into the future and touches on the devastation of climate change, the rise of AI, and the dissolutions of all nation-states. But, like, with humor. (This is a Charles Yu piece after all). EW is exclusively sharing the first excerpt, which you can read below before the full story hits Scribd on January 8.

***

JANE

ON MONDAYS, her mom always calls her from the moon.

“Get to work okay?”

“Nope.”

“No?”

“Sorry to say this. I’m dead.”

“That’s nice, Jane. That’s a nice reaction to your mother caring about you.”

“Like, really dead. Super dead. Burned up on reentry to Earth. It was gruesome.”

“Someday you’re going to feel bad about this conversation.”

“I already feel pretty bad about it.”

“I’m serious. You’ll understand. When you have a kid of your own.”

“You realize I’d have to actually meet a guy in order for that to happen?”

“It’s a long way from our little satellite. All I do is worry about you, and I have to deal with this?”

“Mom. I’m okay. Are you?”

“I’m fine. Just fine.”

“Very convincing,” Jane says.

Then it’s quiet on the line. Jane listens to the crackle of white noise—cosmic background radiation—a faint reminder of the big bang. A single event 13.7 billion years ago, working itself out. From Monday to Friday, Jane lives here. Two hundred forty thousand miles from her mom. It’s a weird distance. Not cosmic. Not even galactic. Just far enough. The size of the local situation. Radius of their private little system.

Today marks the middle of the off-season. Three months since the last of the tourists packed up and shuffled off to various subdivisions on Europa. It’ll be another couple months before the cycle begins again, early birds trickling in. Until then, weeks of solitude, broken up by occasional stragglers, bargain hunters, retirees on cut-rate packages looking for a hot meal and a clean restroom.

Come to Earth! the looping promo video says. Jane wishes she could turn it off, but the remote’s broken. She stretches, sips coffee, watches it for the ten thousandth time.

Gift Shop

COME TO EARTH! Yes, that Earth. A lot of people think we’re closed during construction, but we’re not. The gift shop is still open for business.

Admittedly, it’s a little confusing.

First we were Earth: The Planet. Then life formed, and that was a great and good time.

And then, for a little while, we were Earth: A Bunch of Civilizations!

That lasted until the AI in charge of geo-engineering got out of whack. Which made the oceans crazy hot. Which caused weather patterns to go berserk. Which led to fish stocks collapsing. Followed by the terrestrial food web also collapsing, and from there it wasn’t long before nation-states began to dissolve and the entire world order destabilized.

A lucky few escaped and went out in search of new worlds to colonize. Or so we’re told. The record-keeping that far back gets pretty iffy.

Then, for what seemed like an eternity, we were Earth: Not Much Going On Here Anymore. And that lasted for a pretty long time.

Which was then followed by a really long time.

After a couple of eons, humans, having established colonies on other planets, started to come back to Earth, for vacation. Parents brought their kids, teachers took their students on field trips.

Retirees arrived by the busload. They wanted to see where their ancestors had come from.

But there was nothing here.

Kids and seniors, parents and teachers, every one of them came with hope. And they all went away deflated. That’s it? they would say, or Earth was okay, I guess, but I kinda thought there would be more?

So, being an enterprising bunch, some of us got together and reinvented ourselves as Earth: The Museum, which we thought was a great idea. We pooled our resources and assembled what we could find.

To be sure, there was not a lot of good stuff left after the collapse of Earth: A Bunch of Civilizations!

One of us had a recording of Maria Callas singing the Violetta aria in La Traviata. We all thought it sounded very pretty, so we had that playing over the PA system. There was also a television showing episodes of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. People, long gone, laughing and clapping together. And the main attraction of the museum was a painting we had by some guy of some flowers. No one could remember the name of the guy or the painting, or even the flowers, but we were all pretty sure it was an important painting at some point in the history of paintings and also in the history of people, so we put that in the biggest room, in a wing of the museum called Early Cultures (located by the elevators on the second floor, near the restrooms).

But parents and teachers, being humans (and, more importantly, being descendants of the same humans who messed everything up in the first place), thought the whole museum was quite boring, or even very boring, and they would say as much, even while we were still within earshot and we could hear them saying that to each other, about how bored they were. That hurt to hear, but more than that, what was hurtful was that no one was coming to Earth anymore, now that it had been scaled back to what was, in all honesty, no more than a small and somewhat eclectic collection of, well, stuff.

And who could blame them? After the collapse of civilization, education has just never been the same. Nowadays, by the time kids are done with their five years of mandatory schooling, they are eight or even nine years old and more than ready to join the leisure force as full-time professional consumers. Those with money, anyway.

The ones who could afford to having long ago scattered to far-flung regions of the cosmos. Wherever they are now, they have continued this tradition from their days on Earth—credit accounts opened, spending tracked, constantly earning points in their lifelong loyalty rewards programs. And humans do love their rewards programs—especially those humans who are rich enough to be tourists coming back here to Earth.

Eventually, one of us realized that the most popular part of the museum was the escalator ride. Although you would think interstellar travel would have sort of raised the bar on what was needed to impress people, there was just something about moving diagonally that seemed to amuse everyone, and then one of us finally woke up and said, well, why not give them what they want?

We did some research, on the computer, and also in the few books we had left, and the research confirmed our hypothesis: More than anything else (even loyalty rewards), humans love rides.

So Earth: The Museum was shuttered for several years while we reinvented ourselves, developed merchandise and attractions, things we’re naturally good at, and a er a long while we were able to reopen as Earth: A Theme Park and Gift Shop, which did okay, but before long we realized the Theme Park was kind of a hassle, really, since our engineering was not as good as we’d thought—we kept making people sick (or in a few cases severely misjudged g-forces)—and word got out among the travel agencies that Earth: A Theme Park and Gift Shop was not fun and actually pretty dangerous, leaving us no choice but to drop the Theme Park portion. Which is how we became Earth: The Gift Shop.

Which was all anyone ever wanted anyway. To get a souvenir to take home.

We do have some great souvenirs.

Our top-selling items for the month of October:

  1. History: The Poster! A colorful poster showing all of the major phases of human history. From the Age Before Tools, through the short-lived but exciting Age of Tools, to the (yawn) Age of Learning, and into our current age, the Age A er the Age of Learning. Comes in standard (24" x 36") or expanded (30" x 42").
  2. War: The Soundtrack. Take a journey through the history of armed conflict. A three-minute musical interpretation of the experience of war, with guitar and drum solos. And for karaoke lovers, sing-along versions with lyrics in a dozen Earth languages.
  3. Science: The Video Game. All the science you need to bother with. Almost nothing to learn. So easy you really don’t have to pay attention. Ages 3 to 93.
  4. Art: The Poster! Beautiful painting of a nature scene. Very realistic, almost like a photograph. Depiction of cool, flowing water, very wet-looking water, and lots of green (green was a big color back in the day; many of Earth’s plants were green). Twenty percent off if purchased with History: The Poster!
  5. God: A Mystical 3D Journey. Twenty-two-minute DVD. Never-before-seen footage. Comes with special glasses for viewing.
  6. Autumn in a Bottle. Sure, no one can go outside on Earth anymore, because it’s 170 degrees Fahrenheit and the atmosphere is poisoned with sulfur, but who needs fresh air when there’s laboratory-synthesized Autumn in a Bottle? Now comes in two scents: Mist of Nostalgia and Fresh Pine.
  7. Happiness: A Skin Lotion. Experience the emotion of happiness while also being moisturized. From the makers of Adventure: A Body Spray.

Other strong sellers for the month include: Shakespeare: The Fortune Cookie (which can also be purchased as a ringtone, T-shirt, coffee mug, or key chain) and, for the wee ones, Psychologically Comforting Bear, a talking stuffed animal that teaches children four key ethical and philosophical concepts about mortality and suffering, in a cheerful male or female British accent (extra concepts sold separately).

And coming for the holidays, get ready for the latest installment of Earth’s greatest artistic work of the twentieth century: Hero Story: A Hero’s Redemption (and Sweet Revenge), a computer-generated script based on all the essential points of the archetypal story arc that we humans are hardwired to enjoy.

Which brings us back to our original point. What was our original point? Oh yeah: Earth: The Gift Shop is still here. Not just here, but doing great! Okay, maybe not great, but okay. We’re okay. We would be better if you came by and shopped here. Which is why we sent you this audio catalog, which we hope you are listening to (otherwise we are talking to ourselves). Earth: The Gift Shop: The Brochure. Some people have said the name Earth: The Gift Shop is a bit confusing, because it makes it seem like this is the official gift shop of some other attraction here on Earth, when really the attraction is the Gift Shop itself. So we are considering changing our name to Earth (A Gift Shop), which sounds less official but is probably more accurate. Although if we are going down that road, it should be pointed out that the most accurate name would be Earth = A Gift Shop, since basically, if we are being honest with ourselves, we are a theme park without the park part, which is to say we are basically just a theme, whatever that means, although Earth, An Empty Theme Park would be an even worse name than Earth = A Gift Shop, so for now we’re just going to stick with what we’ve got, until something better comes along.

So again we say: Come to Earth! We get hundreds of visitors a year, from near and far. Some of you come by accident. No shame in that! We don’t care if you are just stopping in to refuel, or if you lost your way, or even if you just want to rest for a moment and eat a sandwich and drink a cold bottle of beer. We still have beer! Of course, we prefer if you come here intentionally. Many of you do. Many of you read about this place in a guidebook, and some of you even go out of your way and take a detour from your travels to swing by the gift shop. Maybe you are coming because you just want to look, or to say you were here. Maybe you are coming to have a story to tell when you get back.

Maybe you just want to be able to say: I went home. Even if it isn’t home, was never your home, is not anyone’s home anymore, maybe you just want to say, I touched the ground there, breathed the air, looked at the moon the way people must have done a thousand years ago. So you can say to your friends, if only for a moment or two: I was a human on Earth. Even if all I did was shop there.

# # #

Excerpted from The Only Living Girl on Earth, published by Scribd, Inc., on January 8, 2021. © Copyright 2021 Charles Yu.

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