whimsy, wit, & unearthing history: a look at the voyager record: A Transmission
The Voyager Record: A Transmission by Anthony Michael Morena. Brookline, MA: Rose Metal Press. May 2016. 168 pages $14.95 Paperback.
The Voyager record was sent into outer space in 1977, and in 2016 Anthony Michael Morena wrote a hilarious and expansive book about it. Through history, reflection, and imagination, The Voyager Record: A Transmission chronicles and explores the impact and context of the record, which was essentially a globally compiled offering of human culture and existence to whatever space entity might come across it in the distant future.
Carl Sagan, on whom Morena sheds gallons of spotlight, hoped that distant future would fall within the span of a billion years — how long he hoped the record would last.
A billion years. Think about that.
In a communicative and conversational fashion, Morena uses humor, wit, and sincerity to unearth the history of the record along with its loose and hilarious imagined future. How many books that explore the Voyager mission offer exchanges like the following:
There are 55 greetings but no Swahili. Because the Swahili speaker who was scheduled to record the greeting forgot about the appointment and a fill-in couldn’t be found.
Which means that if the aliens ever hear the greetings and ask: “What language is that? Swahili?” in all cases the answer will definitely be no.
The Voyager Record is constantly both in awe of the record’s mission and totally aware of its ridiculousness. Its attitude straddles the intersection of respect, admiration, mockery, and pure curiosity. In a number of scenes imagining various types of alien life coming into contact with the record, Morena leans toward a healthy, imaginative angle of mockery:
The aliens who discover the Voyager record are always on fire. They have bodies, somewhere beneath all those flames. You can tell because of the smell. And because sometimes pieces fall off. This is how they reproduce. When they reach out to retrieve the record from Voyager, it melts.
Just as ridiculous as the record itself, these alien beings offer some sort of ending for an object which will most likely fade into nothingness over the course of a few thousand years. For now, though, Morena gives us something to visualize and apply the history of this record to:
They have no audio technology because they never needed to listen to anything before. The data on the Golden Record that they can understand — the images — is all that makes sense next to the rest of this gibberish. But they want to understand, so they build two massive speakers, lay their curling heads between the boxes, and let the woofers rattle their brains.
The true poetry in this surprising book lies within the interior desire for this absurd quest to manifest and succeed — a feeling of near-preciousness for the childlike optimism, with that nugget of earnest agreement popping through quietly but sincerely.
What glues together Morena’s multi-faceted approach is autobiographical moments; after all, how can someone truly write about such an incredible and far-reaching piece of human history without injecting their own human history? Morena offers us relation and empathy with the act of compiling a playlist which would exist only to be gifted elsewhere. Though, rather than an entirely unknown species of sentience, his version involves a young woman he’s trying to impress:
I liked to make mixtapes. I would take songs from my CDs and other tapes. I’d wait, listening to the radio, until songs I wanted came on.
Morena’s autobiographical moments span opinion and simple facts of the self. These glimpses add a much richer experience in that we, in the midst of thinking globally and universally, are given a very exact point of existence to conceptualize:
In July 2012, just about the same time Voyager 1 was breaking through the heliosphere, my son was born.
The Voyager Record is as complex as its topic, and Morena leaves no stone unturned. At its core, the book is an examination of humanity’s take on itself — sort of a high-stakes Match dot com profile for extraterrestrials. But the sincerity of the record and Morena’s honest and identifiable interest in its history is an incredible thing, written down with a careful balance of wit and earnest:
Carl Sagan thought that the record might last a billion years. But then it was always a billion with Carl Sagan. We could still put our hands on it. If we wanted we could get it back. All we have to do is move fast enough. Or we could let it go on: forever, more or less.
While the book might taper off as it goes on, it does so while balancing the whimsy with history and deeper explorations of simple questions like What would you have put on the record? or What other kinds of aliens might find this thing? or What else was going down in 1977? Despite moments that might lull, The Voyager Record is unique and creative enough to warrant a beginning-to-end read, and makes looking at another person feel like staring into outer space.