Wednesday, February 12, 2014

You Suck at Romance, and Here's Why

In honor of Valentine's day, I present to you a couple of quick links to stories that have somehow penetrated my gruff, jaded exterior to find the tender-hearted boy within and wake him up with a mighty slap across the face. (Which of course reminds the little weenie why he built the scabrous shell in the first place, but I guess it's nice to know that he's still breathing in there.) Here are two stories touching enough to get even to me:

When I think of a template for the world's most romantically devoted men--Romeo, Orpheus, McLovin--about the very last person to come to mind would be Carl Sagan. Yes, I am talking about the popular astronomer, the man who drawled Cosmos on tv when I was an impressionable kid, the professional skeptic and rationalist who, on his deathbed, refused to accept any faith at all. That guy. I could imagine an academic sort of passion from a person like that, a bookish devotion to knowledge, but to another human being? It seems so unlikely, and yet there it is.

Sagan worked on the famous Voyager message, the gold record that was sent along with the craft. During that time, he was close, as friends, to his collaborator on the project, Ann Druyan. While exchanging phone messages about one of the musical entries, they discovered something more compelling than their work and stronger than their friendship. With the clichéd suddenness of Cupid's archery, they both realized they were deeply, impulsively, and irrevocably in love. [It worked out so sweetly for Carl and Ann, but what his wife at the time came to think of all this is not part of the story.] There is certainly a rare power in discovering chemistry with someone, but that is not even the part of the story that makes my inner romantic get misty-eyed. What Sagan and Druyan proceeded to do was to put an audio translation of her brain patterns onto the record, and the human biological noises that were added were also hers. The idea of pitching a doomed probe eternally into the void is sad and sweet and hopeless enough all by itself. In the infinitesimal chance it's discovered by alien civilizations, if they manage to decode it (if they even even get so far as to put together that we odd beings perceived the universe with gestalt images of narrow-band scattered light and linear mechanical vibrations), then it will happen millions of years after our species has guttered out and gulped its last. And if these hypothetical intelligences do get the LP turning properly, then what they will hear is the heartbeat of a woman who is newly and crazily in love.

[I first heard this on an NPR story a year or two ago, and it made me cry while driving into work.]

We humans lack the span of billions and billions, but hidden messages seep forward even from our meager past. Some 900 years ago, people in Norse cultures (when they weren't sailing away to massacre my ancestors) would write messages to each other, and remnants of carved notes on wood or bone are found occasionally in archaeological digs. Although Norse writing is known and can be translated today, these small totems can be hard to decipher, sometimes because they were copies of messages chiseled in by illiterates, but the carvers would also tend to get playful with the writing, using phonetic codes or decoratively bastardized script, which were pretty accessible then, but can be hard to pull from context when you don't happen to live in medieval Scandinavia. When one of these "Norse rune codes" was cracked last week (link via), it was a big deal.

What does the message say? What was important enough to painstakingly gouge out of a plank and pass on? 

"Kiss me."

Awww. Now go get my insulin.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Review: Replay, by Ken Grimwood

Replay is a book that is well-regarded among science fiction circles, one of those perfect-length novels that doesn't say anything more than it needs to say, that takes a simple speculative concept and spins it out into a meaningful comment about life. You can almost pull the story synopsis right out of the title. On an otherwise uneventful morning in an otherwise dull mid-life, Jeff Winston suffers a massive heart attack. In his own experience, he dies, but then immediately comes to in his 18-year-old body, the whole of history reset to exactly where it was 25 years before, with the exception of Jeff's intact memories. For inexplicable reasons, he's been given his life to start over again. And, as it painfully turns out, again and again and again.

Does the novel deserve the praise it gets? On page one, I thought I was in for something very special indeed. It opens with this guy dropping dead in the middle of a sad, dull, and strangely sweet conversation, and I thought that Grimwood captured something brilliant there, showing us the banality of life and death at once. As the story goes forward, however, the effect becomes rapidly less impressive--the unelaborate evocation is just Grimwood's writing style--but while I think the story succeeds overall in a related way, and is a rewarding read, it didn't blow me away with its genius. Each time Jeff goes back, he tries things a little differently, and the author walks us through his attempts (which we slowly learn are shortening). Jeff is successful in that he sets up his replayed lives with more in less time, and, as almost anyone would, he puts some effort in to change the broad course of things, and to seek out the deep meaning of life, and the point of his unusual experience of it. But it takes him as much work as ever to get better at living, and all he ever really manages to figure out is what's valuable to him, over which he has limited ultimate control. There are no answers, and the only lesson in the end is the one that is offered to any of us.

[A short novel? With a simple, elegant concept? That doesn't rely much on the depth of prose? It would probably make a great movie, and it's too bad that Groundhog Day went and happened in between.]

It's fun to imagine what you'd do if you got your own clock turned back like that. Speaking for myself, I am sure I'd handle Round One differently than Jeff Winston did. Twenty-five years ago today would put me as a junior in high school, which would be awful, but just around the corner was a college experience that I loved. I am not sure I remember world events (and certainly not sporting events) with enough precision to fund me in 1989, but it's nice to imagine that I'd enjoy the whole span a great deal more with some useful people experience and self-understanding under my belt. Moving on, I could see myself obsessing on those points where I wish I chose differently, and on a replay, I'd look forward to being sure I'd zig where last time I regrettably zagged. If I were writing this story, my version would have the character going back, determined to set right a couple of those long-brooded-upon wrongs, only to find that on a second try that he's still the same schmuck he always was. Ah fuck it, I tried.

Wondering what else he may have written, I looked up Ken Grimwood on Wikipedia, and learned that he died of a heart attack ten years ago at the age of 59, a bit before his time. There can be no news on whether he went back. I won't hold it against him if he did; he seemed like a decent enough guy.