Introduction to the reader

Charlotte Houette and Clara Pacotte

  • U+1F576-002




  • w.n.

    Print, 1,9 × 3,8 cm

  • Brétigny Aujourd'hui, №7, p.10


Two women missing in an elevator shaft in Paris’s 19th arrondissement.

On 27 March 2018, Clara Pacotte and Charlotte Houette took the elevator in the ‘70s style building of Samuelle N.[1] and never came out. A missing-person alert went out this morning following repeated calls from their family. The case remains a mystery, as one of their friends, who is in a state of shock, explains, “I don’t understand. They just came over for a drink and dinner at home. I always take that elevator. I’ve never had a problem…”

The caretaker of the building has affirmed that no one entered at that hour. Few resources are available for an investigation, the result of budget cuts, and friends and family of the missing women fear they may never get an answer.

The trip down in the elevator took hours. Fortunately we had just eaten dinner at Sam’s. Xe[2] had even sent us off with the leftovers. Clearly it was a put-up job. We saw indeed that xe insisted we take the elevator rather than the stairs to get down to the street. If you think about it, it’s pretty stupid not to go down on foot when you can. But probably light-headed after a few glasses of wine, we followed xir[3] advice. We had the time to read, eat, and polish off the flask of wine that happened to be at the bottom of one of our bags.

All of a sudden the elevator slowed down. We stood up as if we were going to face some possible danger that things seemed to point to. In movies, the elevator never gets to play the good guy. The doors took forever to open. Leaving us the time to dream up a whole slew of horrible, stupid, quick deaths, a treasure, slimy stalactites, scary faces. Oddly enough, nothing very friendly.

A vague fog hindered us from making out just what was awaiting us. It eventually dissipated – a relief for our respective hearts, both of which were pounding. Stretching out before us was a vast place covered by an opalescent dome. Its texture let us glimpse the movement of meteorites, the radiance of stars, and the colorful streams of galactic gases. Beneath this cap, a thin vapor wisped in contact with the crowd. People were running across the space, sweeping along the fine mist, while others seated in a group seemed to interact by signs, stirring the air by fits and starts. Some were going from one small group to another at a calm unhurried pace or hopping along. All of their shoes glowed when touching the ground, sparks more impressive than the combustion of copper or lithium. We saw transparent outfits on the rear of bodies, shoulder blades, buttocks, calves, and thighs visible, soft armor with holes at breast level, caps in the shape of beekeepers’ hats and veils equipped with a shimmering mesh. It would be impossible to precisely describe their physical appearance, and their voices blended in a rather gentle kind of melody. They certainly seemed human.[4] Our criteria were not enough to completely explain how they differed from us. The bodies moved about this square without running into one another. To say “men” and “women” to describe them would have been so simplistic that it was better for us to limit ourselves to observing the clever fashion touches to indicate someone.

No one was staring at us and we were able to step out of the elevator with the false certainty that nothing special was going to happen. It seemed that we were free to move around as we wished. We noticed digital signs pointing towards a passageway whose walls were illuminated in blinking colors. That’s where we decided to go and explore further. Among all the alternatives, and in the absence of any possible logical reasoning, our eyes decided in our stead. At the end of a multicolor corridor, the ceiling went up and away from the floor to meet the top of a great translucent door that was engraved with changing motifs. Words from apparently earthly languages, rectangular images, braille. Barely visible, the engravings were continually scattering and overlapping. Just as one of us approached and tried to touch it, the door vanished into the walls.

The hole that remained revealed to our stupefied selves the bright interior of a large oval room surrounded by shelves that were bending beneath the weight of innumerable books. The library, which, in the ten minutes that followed, we learned was an entertainment room, looked to be bigger than the Sea of Stars Square in Dalian.[5] We tried to comprehend the mathematical surface area. The only instrument available to us for taking measurements was our own body. We could guess the distances by comparing the size of the figures at the far end of the room with our fingers. We used the height of the books as a basis for our calculations, inexact by the way, for it was impossible to determine an average size of the figures opposite.

Once we had got beyond the entrance, where we stood like two lifeless posts bulging with questions, someone called out to us. In our language. Without the slightest hint of a foreign accent, except for a tiny trace of the French spoken in the 1980s.

“My name is Monique W.,[6] and you?”

We didn’t know what to say, and the pronunciation of our first names rang out like a semi-disaster:

“Clara and Charlotte.”

After a brief silence (in a room that surprisingly did not echo), Monique’s face took on a recognizable expression again:

“Looks like we’ve chosen the same set of shelves! What a nice surprise!” she added cheerfully.

“Sorry, but what shelves?”

“Those right there behind you. Moreover, I think you were interested in my work.”

“But you’re dead. You know us?”

“Ah, you’re earthlings.”


And the interpretation of Wittig pulled on our sleeves.

“Let me introduce you to Joanna.[7] You were meant to meet.”

“Nice to meet you. Is anyone a lesbian?”

“Your database is still lacking a little in subtlety, Joan!”

“I don’t exist to adapt.”

"Clara and me find you very funny.”

“Stick around then in that case!” Monique exclaimed.

We did an about-face towards the bookcase, which was constantly being added to, filling up with books gliding in between the ones already in place as smoothly as if there were no publications whatsoever, no primer, brochure, fanzine, volume, encyclopedia, collection, edition, memoire, grimoire, periodical, album, or novel on the shelves. The library shone with plastic covers that were seamlessly rearranging themselves. It looked like the reconfiguration of a computer but on the macroscopic level. Right in front of us stood the spotless ivory spine of a 300-page tome. Joanna and Monique nudged us to pull it down from its shelf while they talked about the Gouines Rouges[8] and their possible reinvention in a more or less distant future. It made us want to crash the conversation and add ideas from our more contemporary point of view. But contemporary of whom and what? We were no longer on Earth at that moment.

The copy of EAAPES #1[9] we had snagged was intact. We didn’t understand how it got there. We had sold the last one a week before. In our hands the reader began to grow heavier. To the 340 original pages dozens of new ones were being added. The table of contents was now 5, 6, 7, 12 pages. And we stood there, perplexed, the book open in our hands. We looked as if we were preparing to bury a ghost, and to brush off that unpleasant feeling, we began to page through it.

The page that had just appeared was part of the summary and taking a closer look, Charlotte pointed to a line. In black letters on peach-colored paper, we clearly read the name of Hilma, xir 4-month-old child. The line referred to another page and announced an introduction to xir thesis on “Representation of Gender in Science Fiction between 2001 and 2043.” Xe was quoting us, xe was quoting writer-friends as well as unknown novels and names. The French was unrecognizable.

We quickly wrote down on a piece of paper, like an exquisite corpse, a description of the library and the people around us, which Clara hastily slipped inside the reader. A few seconds was all that was needed before we saw new pages appear, including a piece of fiction dated 2045 that was inspired by information on the sheet of paper, a conspiracy critique touching on the existence of the ship and its real motivations taken from a washed-up macho organization, and a lyrical text by Hilma in that new and definitively inclusive form of writing French, in which she conjured up a intertemporal interstellar communication, based on the rediscovered writings of xir mother.

It was looking increasingly like a movie. It seemed like a game and a kind of mental experience at the same time. We continued to watch new texts and even new images appear. Without being able to completely believe the truth of the dates, forms, and faces. Did the Earth and its occupants exist in another space-time?

The interpretation of Octavia Butler[10] popped up spontaneously and explained to us that the ship was immense and hundreds of people lived there. The space station’s AI[11] was randomly choosing a planet to approach and was collecting feminist cultures and writings in all of the languages of the galaxy. They were physically stored in the library for as long as the station was floating near the planet in question. Later AI archived the data in the ship’s dematerialized date base. The room served as a social theater where everyone could come and be entertained by connecting up to (without making clear how) the chosen books and incarnating a fictional character, revolutionary figure, little-known activist, researcher, or any other kind of being. And then interacting with the others. She didn’t want to tell us if occasionally the ship’s inhabitants slipped additional materials onto the shelves. Octavia paused for a moment before our bulging eyes and the excitement mixed with fear that was obviously overwhelming us.

We had to take the elevator again.

We had been there for almost two hours already.

“I was still alive 137 years ago and I think you were born 163 and 170 years ago!”

The idea of such age seemed so ridiculous to us that we couldn’t repress a nervous laugh that went on for a bit too long. We simply suggested that xe point us towards the elevator after thanking xem for all the invaluable explanations that xe had given us. It was at that moment that Vlasta[12] intervened. A Czech translator reproduced for us her speech in these terms:

“From the top of this hill of stars you do not see the years passing by. You must struggle with your head if you decide to return to the plain that now extends in 2164.”

The mystery might have sounded exaggerated.

Yet we had to find a way out.

*To go down and live on an Earth that one would only know through books accessible here and taken away in the elevator.

*Remain on board and observe the terrestrial feminist thoughts over several millennia (a quick calculation allowed us to establish a temporal distance of one hour for 83 Earth years), as well as those of other regions of the galaxy. The ship wasn’t going to remain parked here forever.

Below, all our acquaintances were already long dead.

Did we want to meet our descendants OR encourage them to continue exploring from another time?

It was 2:13 am in Paris.

The wine was still having its effect.

The emotional shock didn’t completely temper it and weighed heavy on our eyelids.

Standing with our backs to the altogether ordinary door of the elevator that was bringing us back to Earth, we noticed a pictogram shaped like a sleeper compartment.

Tomorrow will be 2836. We’ll have time to decide.


Charlotte Houette and Clara Pacotte (June 2018)

Invitation made on the occasion of the exhibition Desk Set


[1] This character is the personification of a friend, Samuel Nicolle.

[2] “Xe” is a nongendered version of the third person singular pronoun, where the “x” offers a doubt about the gender of the person and a way to not render it invisible by exclusively using the classic binary pronouns “he” and “she.”

[3] Xir is the nongendered third person singular possessive.

[4] It isn’t known whether they are male, female, or nonbinary (defining themselves as neither women nor men) and so the three possibilities are to be considered. An inclusive system of notation appears throughout the text.

[5] Xinghai is a square in Dalian, the capital of Liaoning Province in China. Built between 1994 and 1997, Xinghai is the largest urban square in the world (as of 2014), measuring 1.1 km2. “Xinghai” literally means “sea of stars.” Nicolas Idier, Nouvelle jeunesse, Gallimard, 2016.

[6] This character is the personification of Monique Wittig (1935-2003), a French writer and feminist theoretician.

[7] This character is the personification of Joanna Russ (1937-2011), an American science fiction author and feminist theoretician.

[8] The Gouines rouges (Red Dykes) are a French radical feminist lesbian movement that was founded in April 1971, out of a wish to assert themselves within both the feminist movement and the homosexual movement, and the fear that lesbians were in danger of disappearing.

[9] Publication created by Clara Pacotte and Charlotte Houette in collaboration with a number of other participants and printed in March, 2018. EAAPES #1 brings together fiction, theoretical texts, translations, and interviews. The publication aims to promote their research touching on questions of feminism and gender in science fiction.

[10] This character is the personification of Octavia Butler (1947-2006), an American science fiction author.

[11] AI = Artificial Intelligence. In this case it is the computer brain of the ship

[12] Vlasta is the name of a legendary heroine who in the 8th century at the head of a troop of women attempted to create an independent state. A woman without a man, an anandryne, to whom even married women rallied, and who was to perish, weapons in hand. An explanation of the review’s title is a golden opportunity for the editors to make clear their project. A “French languages review” that “offers the reading public texts (or other creations) that had been scattered or unpublished until now, foreign to male diktats which are also female ones. For women are a fiction of the male world, a product of it, and the review is about asserting, next to women, lesbians, who are their own origin. Vlasta, Fictions, utopies amazoniennes 1 (spring 83). Les Cahiers du GRIF°28 (1983). D'amour et de raison. 122-123.