Julian K. Jarboe’s debut collection of genre-defying writing, Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel, reflects the Catholic sensibility of Pope Francis filtered through queer leftism mapped onto a vast array of science fiction and fantasy tropes.
I first encountered Jarboe’s work while in seminary via their viral tweet:
“God blessed me by making me transsexual for the same reason he made wheat but not bread and fruit but not wine: because he wants humanity to share in the act of creation. I am only doing the Good Works here on Earth as intended!”
A version of the tweet appears in their book as part of the short piece “The Android That Designed Itself.”
Jarboe’s incredible range made the collection a standout that defies genre. Lethe Press, the publisher, describes the collection as “body-horror fairy tales and mid-apocalyptic Catholic cyberpunk.” The hilarious “I Am a Beautiful Bug!” reimagines Kafka’s Metamorphosis story to portray a protagonist excited about their surgical transformation into a large bug but confronting bureaucracy at every turn before discovering the power of insect solidarity. “Self Care” depicts a trans witch taking refuge at a Catholic church in an apocalyptic climate-change future flooding coastal cities. It may be sci-fi, but the observations about clerical culture are extremely on-the-nose. “The Thing In Us We Fear Just Wants Our Love” is poetry about werewolf group therapy.
Science fiction and fantasy tropes are ways Jarboe explores the themes of bodies and choosing: the choices we make about our bodies, and other choices. Another passage from “The Android That Designed Itself” is sort of like a manifesto for this theme:
“To take shape is to sever the infinite possibilities of wanting into a fragile burden of being. There is no guarantee this endeavor will yield anything but disappointment, and so there is a dread within the limitations. There is a question within the dread: what if I come to resent having changed myself, having become myself, for any reason at all? It is a dangerous, ridiculous, and insatiable curiosity. It is the only concrete act to save my own life. My life, which is worth more than the probability of outcomes, is greater than the sum and synthesis of its parts, so I am no longer afraid. My life, which is worth more than anyone’s wanting, including your own, is not diminished by its smallness, but honored.”
This theme holds deep resonance for the trans reader, of course, but it doesn’t stop there. Jarboe also examines the ways in which capitalism provides the illusion of choice. The title novella, “Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel,” begins from the perspective of Sebastian, a depressed seminary reject, gay and unlucky in love, in a dystopian future in which an Amazon-like mega-corporation has colonized the moon. We also get a section from the perspective of his sister, Lara, who delves into how the siblings’ problems derive in part from the trauma of their upbringing, and an extended section that parodies personality assessments to give us an oblique sense of why Sebastian will make the decision he eventually does, which is to take a job on the moon.
Along the way, there’s a sharp critique of how capitalism creates the illusion of choice, and particularly of American consumer spirituality. Surrounded by ads promising fulfillment, Sebastian ultimately has few choices in life, at least a few that he can realize from within a depressive fog.
The mix of these ideas about choice challenged me to reflect on how the idea of bodily autonomy, which in itself is deeply radical, can be co-opted by capitalism, like everything else can be, too. As trans people gain increasing visibility, including in literature (and I think this book will be inevitably categorized as a “trans book,” although it’s not really straightforwardly that) up spring apps, clothing lines, and other businesses that take that visibility as a marketing opportunity.
In genres that push the boundaries of what it is to be a person, Jarboe’s work returns again and again to people, making choices about how to interact with things that are larger than us — society, identity, the divine. Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel honors the smallness of our lives and the ways that living in a body can be hot, strange, limited, joyous, and ultimately transcendent.
—Mac Svolos, New Ways Ministry, March 13, 2021