Murmurs of Sagan


“This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, out thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.” – a message from Jimmy Carter, on the Voyager Golden Record

On August 20th, 1977, when the Voyager 1 spacecraft left the Earth for an everlasting adventure, Carl Sagan made sure it had our personality attached to it. After almost thirty-seven years and two Cosmos television series later, this little-spacecraft-that-could has left our solar system and entered uncharted territory, or interstellar space.

With Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey bringing us up to date with what Cosmos discussed, one can hear Carl Sagan’s name getting bounced around once again. After all, the host of the new television series, Neil Degrasse Tyson, was greatly influenced by Sagan when, at seventeen, he visited the Cornell campus, where Sagan was teaching. Tyson never forgot how generous Sagan—a pretty big deal by that point—was with his time. At that time, Sagan was less than two years away from organizing a committee to launch what will no doubt be his most enduring legacy: The Voyager Golden Record. Mentioned briefly in the first episode of the new Cosmos series, the close up of the record is a reminder of how far it has traveled in the last three decades.

Although Sagan wrote numerous books that have remained in print long after his passing in 1996, his work on the twelve-inch Golden Record will be how his name lasts with each new century. In the 1978 book, Murmurs of Earth, Sagan, along with Ann Druyan, who was an executive producer and head writer of the Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, described in detail the process of creating the Golden Record.

After extensive meetings and hours of discussions, Sagan decided, among others, on four pieces of American music: A Navajo night chant, Louis Armstrong’s  “Melancholy Blues”, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, and “Dark Was the Night,” by Blind Willie Johnson—a song with lyrics described as a wordless moan, and, according to Timothy Ferris, a producer of the Voyager record, “one of the most fundamentally moving pieces of music ever recorded.”

Sagan and the team were searching for a sense of “cosmic loneliness” in their sound. They did consider the Beatles, however the world famous band did not own the copyright to “Here Comes the Sun”, their favorite among the quartet’s songs, and were moved aside. “…the legal status of the piece seemed too murky to risk,” Sagan wrote.

There is of course a wide variety of music on the record. Three Bach compositions made it on. In fact, if an alien race were to obtain the record and play the music side first, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F, First Movement, would be the first sounds they hear. Other highlights on the Record include a Japanese Shakuhachi—a bamboo flute—first played by a samurai named Kinko Kurosawa, the song titled “Cranes in Their Nest.” Ferris described the song as a “birdlike cry appropriate to Voyager’s lonely flight through space.”

And what a lonely flight it is. In Murmurs of Earth, Sagan predicted that there might be a chance, in tens of thousands of years, that the two Voyager messengers could be relatively close to a star called AC +79 3888, where the chances of meeting something, anything, will increase a minuscule. During that trip, the outer side of the Golden Record, protected by an aluminum cover, will be damaged by tiny micrometeorites (around 2% of damage, to be more specific). On that riskier, outer side of the record rests all of the music mentioned above, except good ol’ Bach. The inner side of the record will, according to Sagan, “survive essentially forever”.

And what did Sagan imagine the aliens would think of us after analyzing the Golden Record?

They would wonder about us. They would know that 60,000 years is a long period of time in the history of civilizations. They would recognize the tentativeness of our society, its tenuous acquaintance with technology and wisdom together. Had we destroyed ourselves or had we gone on to greater things?

Through new television shows, his books, a highly protected record that is set to breach the Milky Way, there are murmurs of Carl Sagan all around us. We could not have had a fairer, more considerate representative of the human race. 

The Ellensburg Writing Group

Winter, 2008

There I was, surrounded by five other writers in a D&M coffee shop on a Wednesday night. They had all read my short story and were deciding who should speak first. We’d been meeting each Wednesday for the last few months, and I’d already given them a few short stories that had been put through the wringer.

We were all men between the ages of twenty-two and forty. John and I taught English as a Second Language at the local university in Ellensburg, Washington and both leaned toward a literary style. Dave wrote fantasy and taught at a community college. There was also Ben, who called himself a graduate student, but his non-fiction suggested that he mostly roamed free like a drifter. Matt and Jeremy were the other two, both being students at the university and wrote in multiple genres. Before this group, we were all writers working in isolation, free to write anything we wanted without direction. That kind of freedom is nice in moderation, but there is always that uncomfortable moment when you know you’ve taken your work as far as you can take it, and it was now time for it to get sliced, diced, tossed around, and, inevitably, judged.

“I’ll go first,” Ben said, plopping the story down on the table. “Is this true?”

I stayed quiet, because that was the only unspoken rule when getting critiqued: Don’t answer any questions or try and defend your work in any way. It was a good rule. That way the discussion about your story happens naturally, without interference from the creator. Still, what Ben said was music to my ears, because I had built the short story, about a strange ritual at the top of a volcano, to sound like non-fiction.

“The first paragraph is like one giant hook,” Dave chipped in. “It really works…but…”

Oh no. There it was. The dreaded three-letter word. B U T. It had found its way into rejection letters from agents, magazine editors, and publishers. The moment that word is spoken or read, that perfect crystal cage I’ve placed my story inside is shattered into a thousand pieces. I’d been conditioned to expect it, but (oh there it is again!) it always contained a tingle of pain, as if my story had just lost its innocence.

“It doesn’t feel like a story. It just feels like a bunch of scenes that fit together, but…I don’t know.”

“It’s a story,” John said to Dave, as I took a sip of coffee. “But it’s broken apart. Maybe on purpose?” John looked at me, but I shrugged and tried to keep a straight face.

“I kind of liked that,” Matt said, however I knew not to get hopeful again. Matt loved anything experimental or non-linear. “If it was just a conventional, A to B story, the ending would kind of lose its impact.”

“Yeah, about that ending…” Jeremy said, smiling. He threw the comment up like a softball waiting to get crushed by someone else.

Dave cracked it over the fence. “So does the main character want to kill himself, or is he trying to change?”

There was division on this answer. I’d left the ending ambiguous on purpose, so I’d expected there to be different opinions. What concerned me more was the general question that I’d asked almost everyone who had read a story I’d written: Were they satisfied? And so, I violated the unspoken rule just for a moment and asked them.

Their responses were No, No, kind of, yes and no, and Yeah, sure.

Not exactly what I was hoping for.

Each person had written comments, along with line edits, and at the end of the meeting, I took home five copies of a short story that had lost its newborn glow. I set it aside for a few weeks, too unconfident to mold it into something else entirely. I worked on other projects, and we continued to meet each Wednesday for the next three months. We learned each other’s styles, we saw stories transform and find new perspectives, and, most importantly, we enjoyed talking about this incredibly lonely profession. When summer came, life jumped in and broke up the group. Dave and his wife and two children moved to Minnesota, Matt graduated and moved west over the mountains, John got a job in Pennsylvania, Jeremy moved to Idaho, and Ben backpacked, somewhere.

Three years later, my wife and I found ourselves in Leysin, Switzerland. I’d written the story in 2007, the writing group edits happened in 2008, and after making a couple of my own changes, I’d submitted it to over twenty magazines. Unanimously rejected, of course. So in August of 2011, I found myself lazily going through a box of stories I’d gathered over the years, and, lo and behold, there were the five copies, paper clipped together. I had a free weekend, so I decided to take a deep breath and re-read all of their comments, this time with a clear mind.

I relived those Wednesday nights—the good times, the advice, the hours of conversation. I thought about Dave, John, Matt, Ben, and Jeremy, and I took pieces of all of their feedback and retooled the story (The title? Mihara...which you can read by going to the 'Stories' section on this site). I sent the new story off to a magazine, and three months later, after years of rejection, it was accepted for publication. The longest story I had ever had published at the time. And it all happened because six guys decided to sit in a coffee shop every Wednesday and talk about fiction.