Moving Forward, Alone: An Interview with Anthony Michael Morena

Guest Article by: 
Lawrence Lenhart

In 1977, NASA launched Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, space probes intended to study Jupiter and Saturn. The probes have since surpassed these near planets, going on to explore Neptune, Uranus, and even interstellar space. There are time capsules aboard the probes, golden records encrypted with images and sounds. The records are meant to convey to would-be intelligent beings what life on Earth is like (at least as of 1977). In THE VOYAGER RECORD: A TRANSMISSION, Anthony Michael Morena analyzes and riffs on the political, cultural, and aesthetic inclusions and omissions on the records. On its own, the record is funny. For example, in greeting potential extraterrestrial recipients, one delegate speaking in Amoy “extends an invitation, but only after asking if the aliens have eaten first.” Morena’s record of the record often amplifies the humor, though he also uses scientific and psychological registers to dramatize this pivotal moment in space exploration. Morena’s intimate blips of biography for the record’s principal curator, Carl Sagan, are especially affecting.

After seeing Anthony Michael Morena read from this debut book in Los Angeles, I reached out to him with some questions about THE VOYAGER RECORD. He sent the following answers from his home in Tel Aviv, where he lived during the writing of the book.

BRAZOS BOOKSTORE: You seem as obsessed with the things that are included on the Golden Record as the things that are missing. Some examples: there aren’t any images of fat people or gay people or war; there’s no hip hop nor is there Middle Eastern music; and none of the 55 greetings are in Pashto. What do these “missing elements” have in common? To what extent do you think this is accidental? Or is it by design?

ANTHONY MICHAEL MORENA: They aren’t all missing for the same reasons, and those are the details I like to look at. They’re different types of omission. The images of war, death, disease, pain, and suffering were a purposefully left out by Sagan and the record selection team. It’s a good choice. Besides presenting us at our best—don’t we want to live in a peaceful world without guns or bombs—they theorized that anything else might be interpreted as a threat. An alien race may think the record was a declaration of war. Not including hip hop wasn’t their fault—it was just being invented the summer Voyager launched. I can’t explain the lack of Middle Eastern music. Obviously there were space constraints, but for such a large part of the world, with such a rich musical heritage, there must have been tracks that they listened to and then passed on. When the greetings fall short in most cases it’s because no native speaker turned up and that’s probably the issue with Pashto. These are just a few choice examples though. There’s more on Earth than there is on the record. I don’t need there to be a commonality to the missing pieces more than this: They incomplete us.

BB: One of the recurring motifs is NASA’s erasure of the woman’s vulva on the Pioneer Plaque on the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts. Why do you repeatedly return to this one? Is this an especially significant thread with respect to the cultural criticism in this book?

AMM: It’s a puritanical move, erasing that line of the drawing, if it was ever there; and as an act of erasure it seems especially directed at shaming women’s bodies. It’s easier for people to accept the story that this was an edit that NASA bureaucrats forced on Sagan, versus his explanation that the woman was drawn the way she is because that’s the way Greek statues look. I had to confront the Pioneer plaque to get to the Voyager record. There were a few precursors to the record but the Pioneer plaque looms the largest; the record is the plaque’s sequel. Most people conflate the two when they only have passing knowledge of the record. I feel like the couple would have been on the record’s outer seal if there hadn’t been as much controversy when Pioneer launched. It’s iconic now. When Shatner brushes away the grit from V’Ger—née Voyager 6—he doesn’t see a record, he sees the couple. But the couple failure is really what motivates the entire Voyager record project. Because so many people were offended by the couple, this idea of representation, the selection team tries to find more diverse images: and they do. There are pictures of families, and old people, and children, and people living different ways around the planet. What you don’t see is another naked couple, even though this was planned. Following through with the erasure of the vulva on Pioneer, the act becomes a complete denial of the photographed unclothed human form on Voyager. All genitals disappear, except in anatomical cut out.

BB: At some point, you start making your own “revised” playlist. Of the tracks you propose, there’s a Girl Talk mashup since he samples 9 or 10 artists and “O’ Giglio e Paradiso” as an act of self-indulgence. Is this an alternative playlist (a way of saying ‘If I were in Sagan’s shoes’) or a supplemental playlist that builds from the base that Sagan and Lomax developed? Another way of asking this: Are you a collaborator or your own curator?

AMM: When you read MURMURS OF EARTH, it becomes so clear that none of the music choices that went into the Voyager record were arbitrary. But as a mixtape it is still highly subjective and personal. Read: unscientific, but only because there is no way to quantify human culture. In THE VOYAGER RECORD, the choices I made for new songs or musical traditions to include were mostly wherever I found the existing selection on Voyager to be lacking: either because a song was not available for inclusion, or because there was no room for it, or because that style of music did not exist in 1977. But also, some of the songs I chose were added because those songs offer something about humanity that the songs on Voyager fail to express. For example, “Paranauê”—the capoeira fight song in the movie Only the Strong—is an example of this, and also “O’ Giglio e Paradisio.” The Giglio song is sung in Brooklyn on the feast day for an Italian saint, where a hundred men carry a thirty-foot tall decorated steel frame obelisk towards another group of men carrying a huge boat, also with the saint on it. Both songs are tied to a physicality that an audio recording can’t capture, but also sonically carry on cultural traditions that made a transformative leap from one hemisphere of this planet to another. I mean, picking “Paranauê” is kind of a joke because it’s from a really campy movie from the 90s. But picking the Giglio song is about growing up in Brooklyn for me, a place where it seems everyone lives now, and yet is completely alien to them.

BB: Some sections read like snippets from Carl Sagan’s biography. Are you reconstructing scenes from journals or interviews? To what extent are these scenes fabricated? I’m thinking here of the oddly specific breakfast scene or Sagan standing before a wall of cereal at the supermarket.

AMM: There is a lot of information that I got from MURMURS OF EARTH, the book about the making of the record. Some of the details come from the stories Ann Druyan has told over the years in different forms; a popular one is the one she did for Radiolab on NPR. There are a lot of details that I just made up. The breakfast scene is one of them, and so is the cereal selection at the supermarket. Thinking about it now, the two breakfasts scenes in that part of the book complement each other by offering competing versions of plenty, of material wealth. One is fresh cooked and served and the other is boxed up he has to pick up at the store.

BB: I was drawn to these moments of speculative fiction. “When the aliens find the Golden Record…” you write intermittently. In one case, you speculate that the aliens “have no ears, no auditory system of any kind.” In another, they totally absorb the Golden Record and it encourages them to create a duplicate culture. How do you think this unknowable audience affected Sagan’s compilation of the Golden Record?

AMM: I like how you phrased that “they totally absorb the Golden Record” because I don’t have any aliens who physically do that, try to understand the record through osmosis. That would have been good.

Frank Drake was the alien intelligence member of the team, and the message and its presentation was well thought out. They knew that the material may not be understandable for a lot of the reasons that I illustrate: aliens with no hearing, is pretty obvious. I don’t think they ever mention aliens who are so hot they melt the record, which is an outcome I imagine could be possible. These were some of my favorite parts of the book to write. In a way I felt that I wasn’t writing pure fiction, but that I was hypothesizing possible outcomes, which probably is a different genre.

BB: Were you in Israel during the entirety of your research and writing for this book? Aside from locating yourself on Earth beneath The Voyager, can you talk about what other role the Israel-Palestine Conflict played as a thread of this cyclical composition?

AMM: Yes, I was living in Tel Aviv while I wrote the book. I’m still here now. I didn’t think about the cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence as part of the book’s recurring structure or the record’s rpm, but the creation of the book was definitely caught up in the cycle. The three years I was here before I started writing the book were mostly peaceful. In March 2012 there were cross-border skirmishes inside Gaza and retaliatory rocket attacks but they didn’t hit Tel Aviv. The initial writing I did for the book started around that time. Then, when I was doing some edits before I sent the book out to publishers that fall, Operation Pillar of Defense took place, the 2012 Gaza war. I had the document open and was in the middle of revising when we had a missile siren in Tel Aviv. It was the first siren in the city since the Gulf War, 25 years ago. It took so long to acknowledge it was even real, I never made it to the basement with my wife and kid to take cover. There were a few more sirens during that exchange. I sent the book out. It wound up getting accepted a few months later. I was updating the book for some of the new science and making a few other changes when the war in 2014 started, and that wrecked me. Nothing that I had to go through could match what was happening in Gaza during any of that time. There’s no comparison between the trauma. Then in the fall of 2015, when the book was being edited for publication, the current wave of stabbings and hit and runs and shootings, kind of a third Intifada, started. It felt like whenever I had to work on the book, something awful would take place. I wasn’t just writing to escape the violence, it was just bad timing. It helped to distract me though, gave me something to focus on. It’s all been adjacent. Nothing has ever impacted me. The other day two guys opened fire on a café here in Tel Aviv and killed four people. A new settlement building just got approved in Silwan. It’s endless.

BB: You differentiate between a robotic and crewed mission: how the former is linear and the latter cyclical. What do you think about the impending crewed Mission to Mars, which could happen as early as 2032? How will this disrupt the nature of that trajectory?

AMM: I’m more impressed by what Stephen Hawkings and Yuri Milner are proposing: tiny nanorobotic probes propelled through space by lasers that could reach Alpha Centauri in just a few decades. This is amazing. A probe like that would slice past Voyager in a few hours and do something Voyager wouldn’t accomplish for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s all science fiction still, but it would be nice to see this come to fruition. It would put Voyager’s relevance even as a silent ambassador to bed. And maybe they will think to add a message to this nanorobot, maybe a tiny record. The Mars mission will be a huge deal, but the Mars mission is still cyclical: they want to put people there, set up permanent living space, but also bring them back. The relationship is still between the two places. I’m sure Mars colonists will be able to watch something on HBO like Game of Thrones with only a few-hour delay, and if they miss it they will be mad about spoilers they read on the internet, and they’ll write angry comments and we’ll hear about it. We’ll be in touch is the point. Voyager just moves forward, alone.

BB: You discuss The Voyager 1 (and thus the Golden Record) leaving our solar system in 2004 (and then again in 2012). In writing directly to the record in the second person, you say, “the further away you hurtle from Earth, the less you become about us.” Where is the Golden Record now: Physically? Culturally?

AMM: Physically there are copies now at ~19 light hours away and ~16 light hours away from the Earth, respectively. Personally, it’s with me all the time. But I think it’s with all of us, that’s why I address the record from the first person plural, from us. Culturally, I think it’s right in the corner of our eyes. We’ll keep going back to those movies and books that reference it. The Voyager news cycle has been quiet for a while, but eventually it will be back: Voyager 2 will probably enter interstellar space this year, the power will run out on both probes sometime in the mid 2020s. More people will read those stories and find out about the record and want to sing to it. Eventually, everyone will forget, like pop songs from the late 1800s, but not just yet.

Lawrence Lenhart studied writing at the University of Pittsburgh and holds an MFA from The University of Arizona. His essay collection, THE WELL-STOCKED AND GILDED CAGE, will be published in 2016 (Outpost19). His prose appears in Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Greensboro Review, Gulf Coast, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. He is a professor of fiction and nonfiction at Northern Arizona University and a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.

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