Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Songs of distant earth

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For a few months in the early seventies, a curious debate briefly raged about sex in space. In designing the aluminum plaques that would be carried by two of the Pioneer spacecraft in case they were ever recovered by extraterrestrials, Carl Sagan and Frank Drake had included line drawings of an anatomically correct man and woman, and the response was about what you’d expect. As Sagan recalled in The Cosmic Connection:

The principal feminine criticism is that the woman is drawn incomplete—that is, without any sign of external genitalia. The decision to omit a very short line in this diagram [for the pudendal cleft] was made partly because conventional representation in Greek statuary omits it. But there was another reason: Our desire to see the message successfully launched on Pioneer 10. In retrospect, we may have judged NASA’s scientific-political hierarchy as more puritanical than it is…

Yet it is clear that at least some individuals were offended even by the existing representation. The Chicago Sun-Times, for example, published three versions of the page in different editions all on the same day: In the first the man was represented whole; in the second, suffering from an awkward and botched airbrush castration; and in the final version—intended no doubt to reassure the family man dashing home—with no sexual apparatus at all…The Philadelphia Inquirer published on its front page an illustration of the plaque, but with the nipples of the woman and the genitalia of the man removed. The assistant managing editor was quoted as saying: “A family newspaper must uphold community standards.”

A few years later, when a team led by Sagan had a chance to include a much more elaborate message on the golden phonograph records on the Voyager spacecraft, an identical issue arose. Timothy Ferris, one of the producers of the project, reveals in the new book The Voyager Golden Record: “NASA vetoed a photograph of a naked man and pregnant woman holding hands, likely concerned about the same prudish reaction stirred up by the nude drawings on the Pioneer plaques.” In the end, the record included a pair of vague, unrevealing diagrams—on the level of a grade school sex education class—and a reduced variation of the Pioneer drawing. Any aliens who are curious about human sexual reproduction, which is probably the single most fundamental fact about our culture, will come away very confused. And this wasn’t the only instance in which the team felt political pressure. Ferris recounts of the process of choosing the music:

A few politically motivated requests did crop up, among them a strange plea that we include a third-rate Russian nightclub standard on grounds that it might please the rulers of the Soviet Union. (We listened politely, then passed.) When we arrived at the Kennedy Space Center for the first Voyager launch, a NASA official confronted me to complain, “Damn it, Tim, how could a good Irish boy like yourself not put an Irish song on the record, knowing that Tip O’Neill is speaker of the House?” I was sorry to disappoint him, but one seldom succeeds at anything by trying to please everybody.

And before we smile, let’s take a moment to reflect that if a similar project were attempted today—presumably with Neil DeGrasse Tyson in charge—it would be approximately a million times worse. Just imagining the think pieces, tweets, and cable news segments makes my head hurt.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve just received my copy of The Voyager Golden Record box set, a Kickstarter project that turned about as well as I could have hoped: three hefty records of translucent gold vinyl, beautiful packaging, and a fascinating book. Listening to the music is like playing the strangest, most moving mix tape ever made, although it still leaves me with the same response expressed in my favorite joke from Saturday Night Live: “Send more Chuck Berry.” But if it were compiled again right now, I doubt that Berry would even make the cut. His obituaries from earlier this year were filled with an uneasy tension between his unquestioned stature and his private misbehavior, and if we’ve never totally assimilated it, it’s mostly because we’ve never been forced to do so. If we were putting together the Voyager record today, we’d have no choice but to deal with it directly, and I have a hunch that Berry would be quietly vetoed for exactly the same reasons that Chuck Klosterman applauds his inclusion:

I suspect the main reason “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen [for the Voyager record] is that it just seemed like a reasonable track to select. But it was more than reasonable. It was, either deliberately or accidentally, the best possible artist for NASA to select…Rock music is preoccupied with sex. Berry was a sex addict whose only American No. 1 single was about playing with his penis. Rock music is lawless. Berry went to prison twice before he turned forty. Rock music is tied to myth and legend…Berry is the subject of multiple urban legends, several of which might actually be true and which often seem to involve cheapness, violence and sexual defecation.

In fact, “Johnny B. Goode” just barely made it onto the record, as Ferris recalls: “Carl initially called it ‘awful.’ But he soon came around on that one, going so far as to politely remind [Alan] Lomax, who derided Berry’s music as ‘adolescent,’ that Earth is home to many adolescents.”

If nothing else, the Voyager anniversary release reminds us that we should be grateful that it happened at all, since it occurred at perhaps the one moment in our history when such a notion was technologically, culturally, and politically possible. Ferris says that he and Sagan “backed into the concept” of a record in their attempt to encode more material in a limited amount of space, but the fact that it led them to focus on music was the happiest of accidents. (He also debunks a famous story that I’ve spread here before: “Rumors to the contrary, we did not strive to include the Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ only to be disappointed when we couldn’t clear the rights. We did consider that lovely track for a time but soon moved on. It’s not the Beatles’ strongest work, and the witticism of the title, if charming in the short run, seems unlikely to remain funny for a billion years.”) Ferris argues that even the phonograph format itself is charged with significance:

A diamond dances along the undulations of the groove; its intricate motions vibrate an attached crystal (in the case of ceramic phono cartridges, like the ones attached to the Voyager probes); the vibrations generate a flow of electricity that’s amplified and sent to the speakers. At no point in this process is it possible to say with assurance just how much information the record contains or how accurately a given stereo has translated it. You never know whether a record might sound even better if played with a different phono cartridge, or at a different stylus pressure, or through different equipment. The open-mindedness of the medium seemed akin to the grand gesture of sending a record to the stars—and, for that matter, to scientific research, where one is always aware that more can be learned.

I’m not sure that I entirely believe this, but I’ll buy it. The Voyager record stands as one shining instance in which the highest ideals of science fiction found an embodiment in the real world, and perhaps you need to be a teenager to be as entranced by it as I once was. But earth is home to many adolescents.

Written by nevalalee

September 15, 2017 at 8:56 am

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