Excerpt: ‘How to Build a Universe’, by Emily Meller


Illustration by Angelica Roache-Wilson.

Whenever you build anything, you start with the parts.

I am starting with Michael’s room. We are sitting in front of a huge screen, flying through space. We pass familiar planets then unfamiliar stars until the Milky Way is spiraling in the middle of the screen. Billions of stars go by and the Milky Way becomes a smudge to the left of Andromeda.

“See?” Michael says. “We are nothing.” Michael is very excited about this.

“I don’t think that’s right”, I say.

He turns to me and says, okay, nothing is the wrong word.

“But do you agree we are made of stardust?”

By this he means: do I concede that at one point, at the very start of everything, the entire known universe came from the center of a star – all the elements, except hydrogen? That this adds up to ninety-three per cent of our body?

Sure, I say, but we can be stardust and something else, something discrete from all other things. I feel self-conscious that we sound like wankers and turn back to the speck of earth on the screen.

“Who made this?”

“This crazy-genius Russian programmer. Built the whole thing himself.”

The program is called Space Engine. It’s somewhere between a space simulator and a game – a mostly true reconstruction of the universe that lets you travel in any direction as far as you want to go. I say true because it is based on scientific data – the entire Hipparcos catalogue of stars, galaxies from the New General Catalogue, all well-known nebulae and extrasolar planets. But once you pass the point that scientists have mapped or modelled, the game keeps going. It starts generating its own planets and stars, combining accurate astronomical phenomena in wild patterns.

This part of the universe is ‘procedural’. It’s not strictly real, but all of the objects it contains do or could exist. There could be two moons spinning around each other out there. There could be a planet with single-cellular life forms and six asteroid-belt rings around it. There could be a star cluster that is a perfect disc.

The skeleton of Space Engine is built from hard data, but it is a fiction. Even if you start on earth with its familiar blue oceans and clouds swirling in our apple-skin atmosphere, the game doesn’t end there. In fact, it doesn’t end at all.

On message forums, people praise Space Engine for its scientific accuracy and its beauty. But they don’t acknowledge that its beauty mainly comes from the parts of it that are not real.

After one particularly pathetic crisis in personal confidence, brought on by a boy with fashionable facial hair not answering my text, I sat over a mug of warm tea at Michael’s house. Soon it was two in the morning and I had almost run out of things to complain about and voice to complain about it with. Michael told me that he had to show me something before I left. It would make me feel better, he promised.

Even though I had recently decided that all male, male-identifying and male-empathising organisms are incapable of keeping promises, I trusted him.

For a while, metaphysical poets were criticised for intellectualising emotions, for overlaying life with clever extended metaphors, ones that impregnated insignificant moments with false meaning and wordplay. They didn’t write from the heart: their poetry wasn’t art, it was academic.

But T. S. Eliot knew the truth. If we’re going to write poetry from the heart, he said, we also have to write it from the cerebral cortex, our nervous system and our intestines. It’s possible to have feelings and write like a cyborg. As long as the lines are clean and the imagery is interesting, who cares if it doesn’t quite seem like reality? What you should be asking is how it makes you feel.

I ask Michael to show me Space Engine again and explain it a bit more. We start by hovering over Australia, but Sydney is covered in clouds.

“The world itself is always really cloudy,” he explains.

He means our world, the one we are sitting in IRL. The way all the surfaces are rendered is through shavers.

“No – shaders, not shavers,” he says.


In the recording I made of us going through Space Engine you can hear the program’s music in the background, soft and mysterious. It makes it sound like a cool radio play – something otherworldly. I ask Michael about the first time he went on Space Engine and the music crescendos below his answer in just the right place. It makes him sound philosophical.

“I went and looked and it was 1GB which is crazy—ridiculously, ridiculously small for a program—and then I sat with a big stupid smile on my face for probably the next 45 minutes as I realised what this thing was.”

We accelerate and hit the speed of light. It would take us seven minutes to reach the sun at this rate, and that feels like a very long time in Space Engine. I ask Michael why he was smiling.

“It’s a question of scale. You hear this stuff all the time about the distance of earth from the moon, and the moon from our sun – that’s a cool shot.”

Michael takes a screenshot of the sun in the center of our galaxy.

“Here you can actually see for yourself. Something clicks in your brain.”

This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #30subscribe and we’ll post you a copy immediately, or you can pick one up from our network of stockists. You can also read the piece online in full as part of the digital version of our magazine.

Emily Meller was once called “quite serious”. She writes about serious things like her feelings and privacy law. She edits Seizure’s Flashers Nonfiction and is currently based in Phnom Penh.