The Voyager Record: A Transmission
by Anthony Michael Morena
Rose Metal Press, 2016
If you wish to write a book review, you must first invent the universe.
I must begin with a vigorous clearing of the throat so bear with me. First admission: I can listen to Carl Sagan speak for hours. Whether it’s about the likelihood of life on other planets, the humility that staring into distant galaxies engenders, or the necessity that we humans be custodians of our planet-a sentiment echoed last year by Pope Francis in his Encyclical on Capitalism & Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home-a refreshing statement from an otherwise opprobrius institution--and, yes, I’m aware the pontiff was referring to the teachings of his saintly namesake and not Sagan, but the message was the same. If mankind is going to be around to receive a sign that the gold-plated record included on the Voyager space missions was heard we, as a species, need to drastically alter the impact that we’re having on our natural environment.
So when Anthony Michael Moreno’s constellation of prose, sorry, billed as the side-B of said record, or the liner notes of, or a fictionalized account of that record’s creation popped into my email, I was excited. And I’m not that sorry for my pun. Morena obviously has a deep love for the Golden Record, the “collection of sounds, greetings, images, and music that they sent into space mounted on the Voyager spacecrafts in August and September of 1977” (2). The significance being, above all things, a testament to hope. A hope that after travelling billions of miles over decades or centuries or millennia, humanity will be found out. It will be made known that we exist. Or existed. Creating for posterity is not always disguised vanity. The inclusion of the Golden Record is a hope that human civilization may become part of the history of another world. Not a cry in the dark, but a modest declaration to what, however incomplete, mankind had to offer.
The Voyager Record is part Morena’s journey as well, from a New York City that he knew to an Israel that would be his new home. Morena worked in a bookstore in Manhattan that shall remain nameless. David Markson used to frequent this bookstore. They were friendly. When Morena relayed plans for his future departure, Markson quipped, “Say hello to Hamas!” (11). As a disclosure, I did as well. Not share solicitations with Hamas or know Markson, but work at that bookstore. We didn’t know each other but I’ve been told our time overlapped. I was a snob on the third floor with a desk and surrounded by expensive volumes. I guess he worked somewhere else…
What stands out is how seamlessly little gems like that are scattered throughout the text. One moment you’re in bed with Sagan and his paramour and future wife Ann Druyan the night of the space launch as they indifferently keep the neighbors awake, an indifference that is almost an extension of the sounds they just sent out into the galaxy in the form of the record-- the next, aliens who exist in flame discover the record, only to have it melt as they touch it, or ones without ears unable to hear its contents, or the Voyager is found by tiny aliens who have to rebuild after losing so much, part of their world crushed under the vast spaceship.
The twenty-seven musical tracks included on the record are given a great deal of attention. Bach specifically, as three are his creations. What we may think of as the universality of notes and chords, a language requiring no translation would, presumably, not be so ubiquitous. I imagine whatever it is that discovers and plays the record would find the sounds of Bach more pleasing than that of human voices, but I may be wrong. And now I’m considering the perspective of aliens. Isn’t that what writing is supposed to do? Poetry and travel and music, the experiences of others help grow our empathy. Exploration is too often thought of in the language of colonization, of a search for that which will help make our fortunes even at the expense of others, but space missions have purer aims. Governments may have funded them to best our Cold War rival, but Carl Sagan and the scientists that worked on these missions knew better. And they know better today. Books like this help celebrate the magnanimous spirit of discovery.
There were two poems included on the Golden Record. One is an excerpt of Baudelaire’s Elevation that Morena quotes in French and then translates gracefully. The other is Harry Martinson’s “Visit to the Observatory.” Martinson had won the Nobel prize three years prior, and here is the second stanza:
Our dizziness of mind imagined
that it rose, high up from war on earth,
from time and space—our life's naivety--
to new dimensions in their majesty.
One of Baudelaire’s `lines translated by Morena:
“beyond the confines of the stars in the sky.” (68)
While this, of course, demands appreciation for the movement of Voyager outward into space away from Earth, it conversely asks that we look inward, from some other world’s perspective. Toward Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, perhaps. Or, as Morena reflects upon the Golden Record, “There are 55 greetings but what does it say about a planet if the people there don’t know how to say hello to one another?” (147).
Review by Craig Chisholm