It’s the year 2057 and from 1 million miles away Earth appears as a black-and-blue marble with wispy streaks of gray. From 10,000 feet, the Art House comes into view, a colossal concrete fortress complete with a miraculously green lawn, shimmering swimming pool the size of a small lake, and gleaming white patio that brings to mind the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center. The house sits on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, which is still as vibrantly blue today as it was 100 years ago. The surrounding area, though, looks like Aleppo circa 2016.
The Starship-100 hits the water roughly 50 yards from shore with a terrific splash. Eli peels off the space suit he’s been trapped in for six months. He stretches his arms and hops up and down in celebration of his arrival. He pushes open the hatch and smells the Earth air for the first time in his seven-and-a-half-year life. It smells smoky, ozone-y, with a distinct metallic tang.
The Inflatable Horizontal functions as bed, gurney, and dinghy. Eli extracts it from the overhead rafters, pulls on a kind of rip cord, and lets out a woo-hoo as it expands to life. He is familiar with Jacuzzis, swimming pools, ponds, bathtubs, birdbaths, and faux savanna watering holes, but he has never seen the ocean. He straps on a backpack, launches the dinghy, and paddles shoreward. As he reaches the beach a small wave lifts him up and whooshes him onto the sand.
Eli drags the dinghy above the high tide line. He looks up at his first real sky—mostly blue, with black clouds gathering to the north. He does what he has seen men do in movies: He brings his finger to his tongue, then holds it up, possibly a religious gesture, possibly some kind of victory sign. He scales the scrubby slope leading up to the Art House and comes to a forbidding gray wall that’s at least 10 feet tall, a metal door at its center. From his backpack he pulls out a remote control and punches in 2046. A baritone sound and the door creaks open.
Up the concrete driveway bounces Eli. He comes to a floor-to-ceiling glass door. He enters more numbers and it opens. There’s a white carpet, a round wood table, and three white chairs of pleasing curve. Hanging on the wall is a giant black and white portrait of a man with a distinguished face and tousled dark hair. Hanging on the wall adjacent is the same giant black and white portrait, though this one is slightly blurry. Hanging on the wall across the room is the same giant black and white portrait, though this one blurrier still. That man must be important, thinks Eli.
He scampers up a flight of stairs to a small white room. Here’s something he knows and loves: a bicycle wheel, albeit an ancient one, set on a stool. Eli spins it, woo-hoos, lightly hops. Across from the wheel is something else he knows: a white porcelain urinal. This one is set on a wood base. There’s no sink, no paper towel dispenser, no condom machine, none of the usual accoutrements, but the sight of the lone urinal reminds him that he needs to pee. He climbs up to it and lets fly. With his free hand, Eli scratches his armpit and looks around.
In the next room over he sees what appears to be a 10-foot-tall mountain of Play-Doh in various bright colors. Eli fondly remembers Play-Doh. His trainer gave him the gooey stuff to squeeze and shape and smear and occasionally eat when Eli was a baby chimp. On the wall facing the Play-Doh is a painting of a cartoon cat eyeing a spoonful of whipped cream with a maraschino cherry on top. He looks ravenous.
Eli finishes peeing and looks down. Graffitied on the edge of the urinal: r. mutt 1917.
There was the American president’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement in 2017. There was the calving of the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica in 2022. There were a whole lot of I told you so’s. In movies, the Apocalypse typically came in a single blast or with the press of a button. But the real Apocalypse didn’t work like that. It happened gradually—the sea level rising four inches here, a spate of terrorist attacks there. And as these things were happening, a cohort of Plutocrats began to construct habitats on Mars, so that just as the world was drowning and burning, they were making their great escape.
As if in a futuristic and five-star version of Noah’s ark, they brought private chefs, personal trainers, masseuses, genetically fortunate women of dubious profession. Prime species of plant and animal life were rocketed up, along with scientists, hydroponic farmers, pods full of 2009 Château Margaux. They were happy for the first decade or so, life on Mars like being in a giant shopping mall, with trompe l’oeil landscapes and a projection of the sky synced to the circadian cycle.
But there was one thing the Plutocrats had failed to take with them when they were departing Planet Earth: art. At first they felt a subtle ghost itch, a muted ennui the roots of which they couldn’t quite locate. But over time it became apparent that their new lives lacked beauty, emotional gravitas. They needed aspiration. They needed big ideas. “Without art,” declared a renowned oil baron at the annual Red Planet Summit, “life on Mars is as hollow as the McLaughlin Crater.” And there was word of a repository of some of the last great works, a 40,000-square-foot architectural masterpiece in Malibu, California. Had it survived? Could the art still be intact? There was only one way to find out.
Enter Eli. His mother, Susie, was a pedigree ape with a voluptuous rump and a pronounced muzzle. His father, Eli Sr., was the last working chimp in Hollywood (best known for his appearance in the music video for One Direction’s “Steal My Girl”). Eli was the first chimpanzee born on Mars. He was bred specifically for the Mars Expansion Project, in which a troop of select chimpanzees, body cameras mounted to their space suits, was sent out into the minus-80-degrees-Fahrenheit Martian desert in search of prime real estate. The chimps encountered giant dust storms, carbon-dioxide snow, and crippling loneliness that often brought these fledgling recon missions to a premature end. Eli was undaunted. By the tender age of 4, he’d logged more miles and more hours in the field than any of his peers.
So Eli was the obvious pick for the art-reconnaissance mission. He was taught the basic ins and outs of Starship-100 operation. A tiny camera was surgically implanted in his forehead, a kind of invisible third eye. He was given instructions that initially flew over his head: You are going to a house full of works of art, which is something we sorely miss here on Mars and intend to ship back, provided you find what we hope you’ll find. Enter the house, visit every room, take a moment to look at everything you see.
The house is massive, minimalist, echoey. He trots down another hall and lets out a woo-hoo. It comes back woo-hoo woo-hoo woo-hoo woo-hoo. He enters the foyer. Standing mightily in the center of it, with bulging calves and forearms, is a statue of a slick black Popeye puffing his pipe and flexing his big bicep. Eli knows nothing about art, but he is well versed in film and television. On a recon mission a couple of years back, he slipped on a large boulder and broke his left leg. He spent almost four months on crutches. During his convalescence, he binge-watched classic movies, episodic TV, and old cartoons. He woo-hoo’d every time Popeye knocked back a can of spinach in a single gulp. He wondered what it would be like to mate with Olive Oyl.
Across from Popeye is a medicine cabinet, its long shelves stocked with dozens of pills in red, blue, green, yellow—every color of the rainbow. In his training, Eli was rewarded with Gummi Bears and Skittles. He wonders if this is a kind of thank-you gift left especially for him. He considers grabbing a chair and hurling it through the pane of glass that separates him from his sweets, but remembers the drill: First you do the thing, then you get the reward.
He meanders into the dining room—stark and spacious, with a lovely view of the pool. Not far from the dining table is a TV showing an image of a black sheep in a holy, almost genuflecting position. Eli moves in close to watch. He waits for the sheep to move or the scene to change, but it doesn’t. After a long head-scratching look he realizes it is not a TV at all, but a tank housing an embalmed, once-very-much-alive sheep.
It is not something he can put his finger on, but Eli knows a sort of existential dread. It hits him on occasion back home, when he’s in what’s meant to resemble sub-Saharan Africa but is really a cage, and it hits him now, as he ponders his expired mammalian cousin. It’s a very singular melancholy that comes with questions: Who am I? What am I here for? Most of the time he tries to avoid it. He plays the stereotypical male primate: He tugs at fellow chimps’ ears, he spits in his hand and hurls it at his trainer, he copulates as much as 45 times a day with tumescent females. But it is there, and it is real: this sense of fraudulence, this sense of living their life and not his own.
Eli ambles into the living room. He smells it before he sees it: a dark wood humidor set on a round glass coffee table. Next to the humidor is a crystal ashtray holding a book of matches. He takes a seat on the white sofa, grabs a cigar, a Cohiba, and twirls it between his fingers. He puts it in his mouth, strikes a match, lights it. He puffs and watches the smoke dance and curl.
He remembers the first time he smoked a cigar. To celebrate Eli’s successful trek up Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system, a circle of Plutocrats took him out to a club called Stilettos. They gathered at a leather booth and drank single-malt Scotch and passed around cigars. They taught Eli to puff lightly, to savor the smoke in his mouth but to never inhale. For a moment he felt great monkey-to-man kinship. Then, out from some secret back room came about a half-dozen young girls clad in lingerie and high heels. They danced, they flirted, they sat on the laps of the much, much older men, who shoved their jowly faces between ripe and mouthwatering breasts. On some primal level Eli sensed that this went against sexual-selection theory.
But it did not stop there. One of the Plutocrats shouted, “Eli!” and it quickly turned into a chant: “Eee-li! Eee-li! Eee-li!” They banged on the table. They patted his shoulder and slapped him on the back. An orange-faced man, all teeth and evil laugh, attempted to force Eli on one of the girls. The girl recoiled in disgust. Eli felt deep humiliation.
He puffs on his cigar, watches the smoke curl. Across the room is a big painting of polka dots in bright colors. It strikes him as innocent, childlike. That humiliation he felt was less about the fact that he’s hairy, flat-nosed, and not exactly tall, than the fact that he was on parade for the Plutocrats. He was their puppet at Stilettos and every time he went out on a Mars Expansion Project recon mission. He is their puppet here and now, on Planet Earth, inspecting this house full of strange and beautiful things so that the Plutocrats can ship it all back to Mars. Eli contemplates this, smoke pluming from the tip of his cigar. He does not think verbally, but if he did, that feeling that rises up inside of him would say, “I am nobody’s puppet!”
He looks out to the pool. Water, water everywhere, at least several years’ worth. He extinguishes his cigar in the crystal ashtray and heads toward the pool, but as he steps from the living room to the patio he bumps into a floor-to-ceiling pane of glass so immaculately transparent he thought it was open air. The bump jars him. He brings his hand to his forehead and inspects it. No blood. He woo-hoos.
In the backyard, Eli notices a row of green and robust citrus trees—oranges, lemons, tangerines. Bulging out from behind them are banana plants with long wayward fronds and bunches of green bananas. Alongside the banana plants are vines of passion fruit, and behind them, an avocado tree. He inches up to the pool, dips a cupped hand, raises it to his mouth. The water tastes cool and clean. He lies face down on the warm concrete and drinks, drinks, drinks, quenching something far more than just his thirst.
He ambles over to the orange tree, plucks an orange, bites into it, peel and all. Sweetness sings throughout his mouth. Juice drips down his chin. He takes a seat in the dirt and looks up. The sky is vibrantly blue, with a cluster of what looks like popcorn to the left. The sun is hot and bright. Off the ocean blows a light breeze. A seagull flies overhead. It flaps, glides. Flaps, flaps, glides. He has never seen a bird flying in the wild. The seagull dips and arcs into a gorgeous turn, wings almost vertical.
Eli watches, transfixed. The seagull flies seaward. Eli shoves the rest of his orange in his mouth and follows the bird in an elated, knuckle-dragging scamper. He scales the tall gray wall the way he might have done had he not been born in captivity, if he were a jungle ape. He sidesteps down the scrubby slope, eyes following the gliding gull. He finds his Inflatable Horizontal, pushes it across the sand toward the shore break and shoves it into the waves. The surge and retreat of white water bounces it back and forth, then takes it slowly out to sea. Eli watches for a long while, then heads back to his house.