Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
To send your new book to decomP for possible review, see our guidelines. To find out what’s currently under consideration, visit our review queue.
We made a mixtape for intelligent life out there, far off, galaxies away, we being humans generally though the thing was curated by Carl Sagan and a team of fellow self-appointed proxies who had the task—the responsibility—of sampling our variety as a species across history, assembling a soundtrack that would show any aliens who we, Homo sapiens sapiens, really were.
It was an audacious, impossible, weirdly inspiring and obviously fraught mission, but, you know, Carl Sagan, he dreamt big, and Ann Druyan, whom he’d later marry, had brainwaves interesting enough—or maybe merely exemplary enough—to get included in the interstellar care package, too, along with schematics on things like how to play the Golden Record (like “an old-fashioned phonograph”) of songs and greetings; the basic ins and outs of human reproduction; plus some representations, in photographic and sketch form, of what we look like. There were no nude photos, and in the drawing that comes closest, “The man and the woman are not holding hands so the aliens won’t assume that we are a conjoined, duplex being. The only hair on their bodies is on their eyebrows and their heads. The woman kind of rests her weight on one hip, chillin’. In the original sketch she had a vulva, but NASA had it erased.”
There’s something already alien in this reduction of identity to artifacts, this mixtape, this message in a cosmic bottle, and Morena’s book unpacks this, musing on what was included—by way of sounds, specifically—and what was left out or not yet, in 1977, imagined. Grandmaster Flash, Fela Kuti, Scandinavian black metal, “Mongolian long song. A style of music where almost every syllable of the song is performed in a sustained note. Meaning it could take three minutes to sing just 10 words. / A form of singing that originated as a way to communicate over vast, empty distances of grass.”
Morena knows we can only begin to imagine what aliens themselves might be like, let alone their tastes for and thoughts on music (he lists some of our—humanity’s—more notable imaginings, “the Mos Eisley Cantina Band, traditional Klingon Opera, the Diva Plavalaguna.”). But to then consider what an alien might make of the songs strung together on the Golden Record, the juxtaposition of Beethoven, say, with Chuck Berry, how they might read what, to us, is some rough trajectory of historical development, how they might relate to the sounds that each artist made—that becomes impossible. Better, perhaps, to ponder how alien these songs are to us, or how remarkably familiar, peppered as they are with associations, a matrix of culture. When aliens hear “Johnny B. Goode,” Morena thus asks, “Will they hear the Chevy engines roaring outside of the studio, fizzing Coke bottles, Jim Crow, the clamping-shut of fallout shelter doors?”
When they hear the first voice on the Golden Record, what difference will it make to them that the voice belongs to a former Nazi? Surely to us it should matter, as one of our voices, but how, precisely? As warning? Indictment? The Golden Record includes as well a blues song by Blind Willie Johnson who is described in an episode of The West Wing, which makes a few appearances in the space-time continuum of this book, as “seven years old when his stepmother threw lye in his face and blinded him after her husband beat her up for sleeping with another man” and, later, as dying “after he got pneumonia from sleeping in wet newspaper blankets after his house burned down.” What will the aliens make of that, and what, indeed, do we?
Blind Willie Johnson’s voice is travelling, now, well beyond our solar system, or at least a recording of it is, coded as a groove in metal, awaiting some potential audience to assemble a means of playing it and assuming they possess a facility for listening. But what is such facility, because Morena’s fragmentary investigation makes it clear pretty early on that when we talk about listening to music we’re talking about something much more than hearing sounds. Do we—that messy collective we who are represented by this Golden Record—possess a facility for listening? How does it manifest, and what stands as evidence of its presence or lack?
Morena’s book is autobiographical not merely in terms of his obsession with the Voyager program and its representations—in culture as well as those carried within the crafts. This is a book, too, about being an alien, living in Israel as neither Jew nor Arab, living in “The Bubble” of Tel Aviv, so named, Morena tells us, “because it’s easier for people here to pretend that the occupation doesn’t exist. I don’t want to pretend, but I don’t know how else to describe what it is I’m doing here.” In one fascinating scene, Morena takes a bus across this settler nation, always tenuous and threatened while also bristling with military dominance, a land of paradox and mythic promise. He catalogues the view and the behavior of his fellow travelers even as he reflects upon the soundtrack he’s listening to, “our” collective soundtrack, “us” being the species, beyond our political and ethnic and resource divides. Senegalese trance music, the maternity ward of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, greetings in Sumerian and Hittite: how to find “an operatic unity” in this jumble, this grab-bag that is us imagined as a species, a planet? How—to rephrase the question—even to imagine ourselves as that?
Communication, Sagan’s noble goal, is treated by Morena, again and again, as a puzzle. The possibility of communicating with some alien species stands as absurd metaphor of our inability to communicate amongst ourselves. On the Golden Record, Morena notes, “There are 55 greetings and one of them is in Hebrew. It manages to say ‘peace,’ ‘hello,’ and ‘goodbye’ all at once.” The Arabic phrase is “Greetings to our friends in the stars. May time bring us together.” “Which doesn’t tell the aliens not to come, but maybe not to come over just yet.” Two of fifty-five greetings, alien to each other, laced with ambiguity, flavored by contextual particularities and the valences of history. If we can, following Morena’s ekphrasis, hear fallout shelters, Coke bottles, and Chevy engines inside a Chuck Berry tune, what can we hear inside a single Hebrew word, or in this cautious Arabic declaration? And what scientists, with what marvelous machines, can help mediate an encounter between these two voices, face to face?
Can the Golden Record help us to become us, grant us some sense of unity? A mixtape for intelligent life, it’s well worth listening to, and I can’t imagine a DJ more tuned in to the complexities and pleasures, the nuance and conundrums, of this experiment in identity and communication than Morena.
Official Anthony Michael Morena Web Site
Official Rose Metal Press Web Site