As NASA readies its next Mars launch for today, we’re getting used to the idea of entertainment in space. Recently, Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut, shot a music video of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” onboard the International Space Station and it quickly went viral. It’s had about 19 million views on YouTube — about half the population of Canada. And then Lady Gaga announced that she’ll be shuttling into space to perform a single track in 2015 as part of Zero G Colony music festival. But where’s all the literature in space? Actually, it turns out poetry is fairly well represented and there’s more on the way come Monday. But it’s pretty much a fiction desert up there.
There are two poetry recordings making their way through interstellar space. In 1977, NASA launched Voyager I and II, and the former has officially left the embrace of the solar system. It’s traveled roughly 12 billion miles since it was launched, becoming the first man-made object to reach the cusp of interstellar space known as the heliopause. For 36 years the probe has been carrying the Golden Record, Earth’s mix tape for future humanity or curious aliens who know how to spin vinyl, whoever finds it first. Etched into the grooves of the Golden Record (it’s actually gold-plated copper) are 116 photographs of earthly life, 90 minutes of music — from Bach to Blind Willie Johnson to a Navajo night chant — greetings in 54 languages, and a sonic essay that features wind, rain, birdsong, and the yowl of a wild dog. Because there is also a written Presidential address from Jimmy Carter, NASA felt that it should acknowledge the role of Congress by including a list of its members, many of whom advocated for the space agency in Washington during the 1970s. There are also two recorded poetry excerpts. The French delegate to the UN, Benadette Lefort, quotes the first two stanzas from Baudelaire’s poem “Elevation” in Fleurs de Mals:
Above the lakes, above the vales,
The mountains and the woods, the clouds, the seas,
Beyond the sun, beyond the ether,
Beyond the confines of the starry spheres,
My soul, you move with ease,
And like a strong swimmer in rapture in the wave
You wing your way blithely through boundless space
With virile joy unspeakable
Anders Thunboig, Sweden’s UN delegate, follows suit by reading from Harry Martinson’s poem “Visit to the Observatory.” Compared to the Austrian delegate’s utterance — “As the chairman of the Outer Space Committee of the UN and the representative of Austria, I am pleased to extend you our greetings in this way” — the Swedish and French sentiments feel like outpourings of pure, terrestrial emotion.
So there’s a smattering of poetry wending its way through space and apparently there’s more on the way. Over the summer, NASA announced that it would be hauling more than 1,000 haiku on this month’s launch of its Mars-bound spacecraft, Maven, courtesy of a University of Colorado Going To Mars competition (the winning entry: It’s funny, they named/ Mars after the God of War/ Have a look at Earth). But where’s the fiction drifting through the dark sea of ionized gas? Outside of whatever the crew of the International Space Station happens to have on their Kindles and iPads, it’s a fictional wasteland up there. If we could make the Golden Record all over again, wouldn’t we send at least one Chekhov story? And I’m pretty sure aliens or our distant future cousins would gladly swap out the list of congressional members for passages from Lolita or Madame Bovary.
What follows is a completely biased, unrepresentative sample of what I consider to be fictional cornerstones worthy of sending into the galactic void. In the spirit of compression — there’s only so much a copper-plated LP can hold — I limited myself to scenes or moments from fiction of the 20th century. My apologies to the three preceding literary centuries. And the current one.
The prologue from DeLillo’s Underworld
The road trip from Nabokov’s Lolita
The first encounter with Septimus Warren Smith in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway
The scene in which Viri gets measured for custom shirts in James Salter’s Light Years
The first fevered dream in Katherine Ann Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider
The harrowing moment when the Professor realizes his fate in Paul Bowles’s “A Distant Episode”
The scene on the beach between Seymour and Sybil in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”
The final dialogue between The Misfit and the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
The scene where Otto and Sophie seek respite at their country house in Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters.
The opening pages of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, leading up to the line “This is the great invention of our time.”
Like all lists and mix tapes, this is a wildly imperfect one. It fails to take account of world literature and it’s probably got a heavy male bias. Asking for a top ten from any writer forces them to dispense with things they should include to things they must include. It’s reasonable to ask: what would anyone make of these fictional slivers without the full context of the story or novel in question? On the other hand, they’d probably glean more about our planet from these vivid and fraught moments, from the crafting of human language, than they would from the Voyager photos of a supermarket and the Sydney Opera House.
As it turns out, these selections have something in common with the Golden Record’s most intimate recording—the sound of a woman’s body as she experiences the first throes of romantic love. As Ann Druyan has described elsewhere, when she was first falling in love with Carl Sagan — to whom she was married until his death in 1996 — she went to Bellevue Hospital so they could record the sounds of her body. If the aliens can follow the scientific notation we’ve posted for them and fathom how to place the stylus into the gold-plated grooves, they’ll hear Ann’s smitten metabolism and the thrumming of her love-addled heartbeat. In other words, they’ll have direct access to human interiority. If we’d sent along some of our best and most haunting fiction, the effect might have been the same.
“Eye of Mars” image via NASA/Wikimedia Commons
You’ve got to hand it to Oprah. After a public snub from Jonathan Franzen, an abrupt switch to focusing on classic books, and a return to the contemporary with a confessional memoir that turns out to plagiarized – resulting in the very public humiliation of its author on her show – one would think that Oprah would have run out of opportunities to grab big headlines with her book club. And yet, by selecting Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and convincing the famously reclusive author to appear on her show, she has done it yet again.I had a couple of thoughts about this pick. In the early days of the club, Oprah selected quite a few emotionally challenging books, often with female protagonists in some sort of peril. With her selection of Franzen’s The Corrections, however, the club broke out of its shell and then traversed the various ups and downs noted above. Still, it is fascinating to me that this unabashedly mass market phenomenon, the TV show book club, would pick a book that is by all accounts harrowing and devastatingly serious and not an easy read in any sense. It’s not the first time Oprah has selected a formally “difficult” book. Recall the “Summer of Faulkner.” Still, to take a book that is all of the above and also contemporary seems rather incredible. It will also be interesting, if The Road goes on to win a Pulitizer or National Book Award, to have had Oprah “anoint” a book before our more formal institutions have.Secondly, I couldn’t help but think about poor Franzen as I read the news that McCarthy would appear on Oprah’s show. Franzen, of course, famously feuded with Oprah after she selected his book and he was publicly ambivalent about being an “Oprah author.” This led to plenty of comments like this one from an independent bookstore owner at the time of the controversy, saying that she felt “that good literature cannot be an Oprah selection.” With McCarthy appearing on the show for his “first television interview ever,” it’s hard to make that argument any more. We’re talking about a legitimate Nobel Prize candidate here (and somehow this is different from Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s classic One Hundred Years of Solitude being selected a while back). And poor Franzen, taking a public stand for his art and facing plenty of ridicule at the time, has had his legs cut out from under him by a literary giant – a famously reclusive one at that – eschewing the hand-wringing and taking the Oprah honor in stride.Update: It’s been pointed out to me that The Road missed its chance to win the National Book Award – it went to The Echo Maker, as you’ll recall. The Road is still in the running for the Pulitzer, but as it is far from the typical Pulitzer candidate, I’d guess its chances there are slim. So McCarthy will have to be satisfied with the unlikely duo of an Oprah Pick and a TMN Tournament of Books win (which the book appears likely to snag).