Unheard Murmurs: Lyric Nonfiction in Space

Carl Sagan’s Voyager Record and Anthony Michael Morena’s The Voyager Record

“This ring in which you are but a grain will glitter afresh forever.” — Nietzsche

First, you see a circle. Next, the location of our sun as measured via pulsars, depicted in binary code. A legend explaining the units of measurement / length used. The sun. The surface of the moon. Several slides later, you see the Earth; more precisely, you can see the Horn of Africa and the Fertile Crescent, the ancient site of the origin of the story being told by these images and their accompanying soundtrack, a story that is a history, a record.

More slides and then you get the partial portraits of a human body, the type I remember from the encyclopedia, which you could add layers to by turning transparent pages — muscles, organs, skin — to overlay the skeletal base. There are two images of sperm entering an egg, and an image then of cellular division. Next, images of a fetus — alone and then in the womb — and finally an image of a boy being born.

I was born in the lame duck presidency of Jimmy Carter, just after America elected Ronald Reagan, a celebrity who campaigned on “Let’s make America Great Again.” I was born between the first and final episode of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Carl Sagan’s famous TV show, which began with him intoning, “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be,” the story of which he says is also “a story about us.”

“The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be,” the story of which he says is also “a story about us.”

I was born between the end of the solar system mission of the Voyager I probe — four days after its flyby of Saturn, in fact — and the beginning of its extended mission, its long trip out of our solar system, out and out, far past the famous pale blue dot, to drift forever or until found.

My discovery of the Voyager Golden Record was by chance, and (it turns out) late. I came across it via research on Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” which I was listening to as I read that his song (a sort of wordless dirge) was one of 27 selected to be sent to interstellar space as an emissary of humanity to any alien audience.

I tracked down Sagan’s Murmurs of Earth, the 1978 history of the making of the records, at the library of the college where I teach. It hadn’t been checked out in seventeen years, since I graduated high school. The book is a cultural artifact, like the Golden Record it describes: a glimpse of humanity sent out across space and time with the unlikely hope of reaching some future consciousness — or as Sagan himself wrote, “…receipt of the message by an extraterrestrial civilization was chancy at best, while its receipt by the inhabitants of Earth was guaranteed: the public would eventually have access to the message contents, as is in fact accomplished by this book.”

What struck me as I read Murmurs of Earth, especially Sagan’s brief history of the endeavor in the first chapter, was the profound hopefulness that drove the whole effort. Beyond the hope for contact inherent in sending a gold LP into space, the contents of the record (or records, since there are two copies, one affixed to each Voyager probe) illustrate a pluralistic and open vision of a global society. Some of the images and sounds are explanatory; some are banal (a woman in a grocery store); some — the 27 musical tracks — are emotive.

Beyond the hope for contact inherent in sending a gold LP into space, the contents of the record illustrate a pluralistic and open vision of a global society.

What it depicts is the world circa my birth, which felt deeply important to me, looking back, discovering this book’s record of the record, from our contemporary moment. Part of this is our current political environment — “Make America Great Again” again — and maybe part of it relates to the fact that my wife and I are expecting our second child, a boy, this fall, right around my birthday in fact, more or less on the date Murmurs of Earth is due to be returned to the library.

As I said, my discovery of it was in a sense late. I came across the record and immediately then found I was not the only one it had recently reached. A 2015 episode of Drunk History detailed the story of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan falling in love as they discussed the music to include, the music that moved them; Atlas Obscura published an essay by Cara Giaimo in May 2016 focused on the embarrassing and dated contents of the record, a sine qua non of all time capsules; and, in that same month, Anthony Michael Morena published his slim, smart Voyager: A Transmission, a book-length essay in fragments that is at once an exploration of the record, a response to receiving its (and Sagan’s book’s) message, and an ekphrastic project dedicated to the act of sending the record out.

Though the record (debatably, as Morena notes) left our solar system in 2012, you can easily find the images online. The greetings, sounds, and music included can now be streamed on Sound Cloud. NASA also released a CD of the Golden Record in the 90s, though it didn’t include the 90 minutes of music. (An Amazon reviewer named David B gave the CD version three stars, writing an alien reply — signed “Zorg” from “the sombrero galaxy” — less witty than Steve Martin’s [“Send more Chuck Berry”] and focused mainly on the criticism that any audience might well not be able to make sense of the messages even once decoded, i.e. “To the representative of [Nigeria]: you say your country is ‘as you know, located in West Africa, a land mass more or less shaped like a question mark’…btw: what’s a question mark?”)

Morena’s project is inspired by David Markson’s employment of fractured narrative where facts arise and are later revisited or echoed, while section by section there is some amount of disconnect. Using this Marksonian art of bricolage, Morena goes on to survey the project itself but also to respond to it and expand upon it, offering suggestions for what music he would include — a Philip Glass piece, a GirlTalk mashup, early hip-hop — noting along the way that he used to make mixtapes, thus imagining himself into the problematic position of Sagan et al. trying to select what music to send that would represent the world, all of humanity.

What the record contains is the story of us, a sort of origin story, told chronologically via sounds (and, as Morena points out, language: the “55 greetings begin with Sumerian…so did writing”). He notes the evolutionary perspective conveyed in the order of abstracted sounds, especially the “The Sounds of Earth” collection, “[which follows] the same trajectory as evolution, from a human point of view.” Meaning the first sounds are meant to convey the music of the universe, and from there they proceed through the first tools, fire and speech, mud pots, a horse and cart, a train, a car, etc. (This portion ends with “EEG patterns of brainwave activity, specifically Ann Druyan’s…thoughts about Carl Sagan, with whom she’d fallen in love,” suggesting perhaps that love is the ultimate point of human development.) The music, however, does not bother with this chronological story of us. As Morena notes, a listener may well not know Chuck Berry is the most recent addition but instead hear Bach and assume “that his music is the latest development, disembodied aesthetics, endpoint in humanity’s linear progress from simple to complex.”

The first sounds are meant to convey the music of the universe, and from there they proceed through the first tools, fire and speech, mud pots, a horse and cart, a train, a car, etc.

Elsewhere Morena comments on this idea of linear progress, considering the robotic nature of Voyager versus a manned mission like the “difference between a linear narrative and a cyclical one,”

We want people to come back to the circling world, like a record, so we can start again. From scratch. A cycle’s humanity is its finality: it has to end somewhere; it has to begin again. Voyager, on the other hand, may never stop.

Like David B’s Zorg from the Sombrero Galaxy, Morena envisions and re-envisions what the receipt might look like: space-junk scavengers who indifferently destroy the record in collecting it; always-aflame aliens who melt the record on contact; earless aliens; corporate aliens (a joke on the contemporary American view, e.g., “Corporations are people, my friend”); a paranoid military culture; an advanced race that makes the record sentient and sets it searching for its maker, “S’gan” (a reference to the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture where V’Ger, a fictitious successor to the probes, has become sentient and returns to Earth to find its creator); aliens with “testicle-shaped heads”; aliens confused by the need to communicate a common greeting in 55 different languages (elsewhere, Morena asks, “what does it say about a planet if the people there don’t know how to say hello to one another?”); a form of life so small the record crushes one of their cities; a society so impressed they reverse engineer the technology and ultimately create a Borgesian mirror-world, an “Alien United States of America,” that sends its own exact replica of the Golden Record, and thus, “We are confused when it returns to us, apparently untouched.”

In one instance, written in second person, he envisions not its receipt but “your destruction” in the Oort cloud, “by a thousand micro-impacts spread out over time in the empty regions of space.”

At the very end of the book, he again addresses the record directly, “You are getting so far away now. Does your distance mean your irrelevance?” But, to me, this is the wrong question.

Morena and I are coevals, but in his framing, “Carter’s message was meant to speak for all Americans, so, by extension, it’s my message too.” As with the Atlas Obscura piece, I think this mistakes “the recipients” (as Jon Lomberg suggested the hoped-for audience be called) for the senders: the message is not ours. We can look back at the time that sent it as recipients and be reminded of — better: connected to our own histories. I don’t give a shit about aliens discovering it and the message contained being mine; they won’t; it isn’t. But I’ve received the message sent up as a hopeful statement that there was something somewhere out there and a believer’s vision in the good of humanity.

I don’t give a shit about aliens discovering it and the message contained being mine; they won’t; it isn’t.

As noted above, Morena made mixtapes and he mentions offhandedly a time when a girl he was dating mistakenly assumed a mixtape he’d made was made for her, “That romantic cliché of guys making mixtapes for girls.” She may have understood his evident care in making it as his feelings for her; she may have received a message he never intended to send, or sent subconsciously to no particular audience. Where Morena identifies with the makers of mixtapes (he calls his book “a transmission” after all), I identify with the girl who announced her misheard intimacy to the car, “Anthony made this for me.” To me, this is the power of the Golden Record. It’s the personal contact in the universal signal; an interstellar mixtape that feels like Carl Sagan made this for me.

Because here’s the thing: I feel fully confident the Golden Record will never be played. It will never be heard, never be found. There is nothing anywhere out there for it to connect with. What animates the effort of sending it is not, I don’t think, any confidence in its being received (Sagan admits as much: “Perhaps the Voyagers would never be recovered by some extraterrestrial society”) but rather something else, something along the lines of Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, who would believe “nevertheless” that the record will be received, decoded, played, “in virtue…of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.”

I feel fully confident the Golden Record will never be played. It will never be heard, never be found.

Because the gesture of sending Beethoven and Bach and Blind Willie Johnson out to the unimaginable vastness beyond us is a spiritual one; it is an act of faith, not only in us (the better angels of our nature) but in the possibility of a universe that contains some Other, whatever form that other might take. As Roland Barthes writes in “Jet-man,”

In fact, and in spite of the scientific garb…there has merely been a displacement of the sacred….as if even today men could conceive the heavens only as populated with semi-objects.

Though it is a physical object, borne on the side of a probe that reflects the outer limits of our science and technology, shot into space on a rocket, it may as well be an orison murmured to the vastness we hope — we believe — to be populated, an offering we hope and believe will be heard.

It is a truly stupefying act to try conceiving of the long drift of the gilt LP before it approaches the nearest star, a length of time equal though in the opposite direction from us, in 2016, back to the arrival (OOA) of homo sapiens in Europe, back to the makers of the earliest cave art, the hand stencils and clay-red disks found in Cueva de El Castillo: 40,000 years before it even nears a possible receiver, which would of course be a crazy bullseye if the first star it approaches happens to have a life form capable of scouring the emptiness for sounds of “footsteps, heartbeat, laughter.”

In the letter he included, Jimmy Carter wrote to the imagined audience, “We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” Of course, we will not live into the time of the record’s putative recipients. As Sagan concludes his chapter in Murmurs of Earth, “Billions of years from now our sun, then a distended red giant star, will have reduced Earth to a charred cinder.” The Golden Record, however, will indeed survive our time, will outlast us, “will still be largely intact,” as Sagan continues, “in some other remote region of the Milky Way galaxy, preserving a murmur of an ancient civilization that once flourished.” The Golden Record is thus, in a very real sense, like Keats’ urn, which when those billions of years “shall this generation waste…shalt remain, in midst of other woe,” lasting out there long beyond our lives, our deaths, beyond our whole history. It will be our whole history, and its message could well be summed up, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all / [we knew] on Earth, and all ye need to know.”

The Golden Record is thus, in a very real sense, like Keats’ urn.

In the midst of a campaign driven by woe, the desire to project an incomplete catalogue of the best of us into the future — to send a message of hope out to the unknown audience of the future, to try to survive my time so that I may live on into my son’s, my daughter’s — resonates. The launch of the Voyager Golden Record seems, to me, profound in a way: a golden text striving to shape the culture of tomorrow, of the world we’ll never meet. Its most important message is not in the contents but in the fact that it was sent at all, and not to any alien audience, but to us. Its central message not the contents, however dated, and not to any alien recipients but much more meaningfully to us, to a culture in the shadow of its launch that has forgotten the strident hope that propelled it into interstellar space; this message is closer to that which Sagan recalls from the 1939 NY World’s Fair, “there were other cultures and there would be future times.” Of that edge-of-WWII World’s Fair and its time capsule, he adds, “Because there was something graceful and very human in the gesture, hands across the centuries, an embrace of our descendants and our posterity.”

I feel this embrace, reading Murmurs of Earth, playing the greetings, hearing the haunting hour and a half of world music, and it makes me feel nearer to myself, nearer to my history. It restores not an aspirational upward-looking desire to map the skyways but rather a sort of horizontal awareness of my present, of the sometimes invisible asterisms of its nearest context. It is an argument that there is something here worth recording, worth remembering, worth projecting out to the greatest plane imaginable. The reach of the probe connects us to far distant space and time; it also connects us to ourselves, nearly 40 years back, and instead of something unfamiliar, something alien, what begins to play are images like our own childhood memories, our own dimly understood first moments on Earth.

It is an argument that there is something here worth recording, worth remembering, worth projecting out to the greatest plane imaginable.

Morena ends his book with a litany echoing and extending Steve Martin’s joke, using “Send more” as a refrain. This seems to be at once from the imagined alien recipients and from Morena himself. It articulates the desire for connection, for communication, that is at the heart of the record’s creation as much as the heart of its receipt. The Golden Records are far from us, and within a decade will go silent, no longer capable of contacting us back here at home. But it is not the probe — nor even the glittering object on its side — that matters. Sagan’s desire to communicate informs our desire for more. It inspires a little shiver like the one I get reading Whitman’s “On Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” i.e. “What is the count of the scores or hundreds” or tens of thousands or billions “of years between us? // Whatever it is, it avails not — distance avails not” and later, “Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?”

Before that litany, Morena imagines Sagan at the launch and, later,

[that] night, in a darkly lit room of a motel, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan had sex…they were in love. They didn’t care that they were being loud….In the next room, someone turned the volume of their television set all the way up. It was the late movie: Ronald Reagan being screeched at by an ape.

After this, Morena describes Sagan years later seeing the famous pale blue dot: as opposed to the more familiar images from space — showing “Africa, more or less in the shape of a question mark” — he thinks, “There was no way to tell anything about humanity from this picture.” This is what it looks like to truly get outside of our limited perspective, to briefly glimpse what an alien observer would see of us: nothing like what the Golden Record holds, but merely a faint blur of blue, which in no way suggested we were here, that we existed, that we ate, drank, laughed, and were, fundamentally, lonely, yes, but also filled with the capacity to imagine someone to satisfy that existential loneliness.

Sagan himself describes the scene of the launch by evoking both joy and mourning, a hope whose contrail is quickly fading into the early-morning sky; he writes, “We kissed and embraced, and many of us cried.”

More Like This

9 Books About Alaska for People with Iditarod Fever

Caroline Van Hemert, author of “The Sun is a Compass,” recommends books by Alaskans about the Last Frontier

Mar 18 - Caroline Van Hemert

Melville House Published the Climate Report Because Trump Didn’t Want To

Proving we should have more overlap between trade and academic publishing

Feb 8 - Carrie V. Mullins

When the Land That Made You Goes Up in Smoke

Reading David Malouf’s “An Imaginary Life” amid disaster in the state where I was born and where my father died

Dec 11 - Lise Saffran