SSoP Podcast Episode 60 — Outer Space: We Are All Made of Stars

SSoP Podcast Episode 60 — Outer Space: We Are All Made of Stars

Friday, 5 July, 2024

This is a transcription of Outer Space: We Are All Made of Stars

David: Hello. Welcome to Strong Sense of Place.

Melissa: In each episode, we focus on one destination and discuss what makes it different than any other place on Earth.

David: Then we recommend five books we love that took us there on the page.

Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan.

David: I’m David Humphreys.

David: We’re going around the world one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.

[cheerful music]

David: Welcome to Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about Space. If you are listening to this on release day, we are a mere two weeks from the 55th anniversary of the first landing on the moon. In two truths and a lie, I’ll be talking a little bit about the profound change that Michael Collins, the capsule commander on that mission, took home from that trip. Then we’ll talk about five books we love. I’ve got a book that’s narrated by the Milky Way. But first, Mel’s going to bring us up to speed with the Outer Space 101.

Melissa: When we announced our Season 6 destinations, I shared a poem I love about space. I’m gonna to do it again! because it kind of frames everything I’m about to tell you.

  • You… are a ghost
  • driving a meat covered skeleton made from stardust.
  • Riding a rock — floating through space.
  • Fear nothing.

Melissa: I’m going to elaborate on that ‘riding a rock in space’ bit. And apologies in advance for all the numbers that are coming. There’s no way to do this without them. Science!

Melissa: We’re currently riding on a ball that’s about 8000 miles across — that’s 13,000 km. It’s made mostly of molten rock and metal, and it’s dancing around the sun at about 67,000 mph — 107,000 km/h.

Melissa: Our Sun is about 93 million miles or 150 million km away. And it’s shooting us with subatomic particles. I mean, probably not maliciously, but who knows? The sun might be a trickster. It’s also filling our solar system with light so we can see all the other planets, comets, asteroids, dwarf planets, and moons in orbit.

Melissa: Farthest from the sun is Neptune.

Melissa: And beyond that is the Kuiper Belt. That’s a doughnut-shaped area filled with icy objects, comets, and the dwarf planet Pluto. According to NASA, there may be millions of other icy worlds in the Kuiper Belt left over from the formation of our solar system.

Melissa: Beyond all of that is the Oort Cloud. It’s like a massive bubble made of icy stuff that surrounds our entire solar system. It might contain Billions or even TRillions of objects, including comets.

Melissa: On the other side of the Oort Cloud is interstellar space, an area between the stars, that’s beyond the gravitational pull of our sun.

Melissa: And all of that — the planets, stars, comets, ice chunks, star dust — all of it is found in OUR cosmic neighborhood. The Milky Way. The Milky Way is 13.6 billion years old and has a black hole at its center and —

Melissa: This is where I have to note that #1: we humans are very silly with our everyday worries when we’re just these itty-bitty little specks on one smallish rock amidst all this stuff. I haven’t even mentioned yet that the visible universe is 90 billion light years across and EXPANDING. Into what? Where is it expanding?

Melissa: And #2: Right about here is where I need close my eyes, breathe deeply, and meditate for a while. Because phew. The universe is vast and mysterious and icy. But also storytelling! french fries! all the dogs! black Doc Martens! Bach’s Air on the G String!

Melissa: As humans it’s nearly impossible to not put ourselves at the center of the world. Right? We all have main character energy. For millions of years, puny humans have looked up at the sky and tried to understand just what the devil is going on and where we belong in the whole situation.

Melissa: Way, way back in the BCEs, ancient astronomers figured out how to use the celestial bodies they could see to navigate and track time. That’s probably how we ended up with Stonehenge in England and Machu Picchu in Peru and the Callanish Stones in Scotland.

Melissa: I learned about AMAZING artifacts from 1200 BCE China called oracle bones. In the city of Anyang, scribes carved records of eclipses onto the bones of oxen and tortoise shells. One of them says, ‘The Sun has been eaten.’

Melissa: In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe underwent a Scientific Revolution. Shout-out to all the big names from 3rd grade science class. Like Nicolaus Copernicus! In 1542, he made the crazy-for-the-time statement that the Sun was at the center of the Universe.

Melissa: A handful of decades later, Galileo made discoveries about the moons of Jupiter, Venus, and our Moon that confirmed Copernicus’ theory. Which officially welcomed everyone to the heliocentric solar system!

Melissa: Then there was Tycho Brahe. Oh, Tycho!

Melissa: He was a Danish nobleman and astronomer who made very accurate observations of the stars and planets. His data and the work of his protege Johannes Kepler led to the development of Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion. In a nutshell, that proved that the planets move around the sun in elliptical orbits.

Melissa: But I mostly wanted to talk about Tycho Brahe because he is legend-ary. He wore a metal nose made of either gold, silver, or brass — experts aren’t sure which. But they do know that he needed a prosthetic nose his was cut off during a duel in his 20s. A duel over a mathematical formula.

Melissa: Brahe also kept a pet elk that drank beer and a jester with dwarfism named Jepp. Jepp also reportedly had psychic abilities. But no one could have predicted how Tycho Brahe would die.

Melissa: In 1601, he was invited to Prague, to the court of the Bohemian nobleman, the Count of Rosenberg. He attended a banquet. The dinner of rich food and lots of drinking lasted for hours. It was considered rude to leave the table, so Tycho just… held it. For 11 days, Brahe hallucinated and was in great pain, then died of a burst bladder. Reportedly his last words were, ‘Have I not lived in vain?’

Melissa: No Tycho, you did not.

Melissa: Thanks to Brahe and Kepler, Isaac Newton had all he needed to formulate HIS laws of motion and gravity. We also have him to thank — or curse — for the development of calculus. Ending on a high note, he also discovered that all the colors of the rainbow are contained in white light. Heck, yeah, prisms and pride flags.

Melissa: In the modern age, Albert Einstein blew everyone’s mind with his theory of relativity. That says that Newton’s gravity? Gravity is a curving or warping of space. The more massive an object is, the more it warps the space around it. And oh, BTW, time is relative. The rate at which time passes depends on your frame of reference. So yes, time does pass more slowly when you’re waiting for your popcorn to pop.

Melissa: Soon I will need to check out and curl up in the fetal position under my desk until the Earth feels solid under my feet again.

Melissa: But I need to tell you about two more people and their discoveries: You probably recognize the name Hubble from the famous telescope. The Hubble Telescope is super powerful and hangs out in low Earth orbit — that’s 621 miles or 1000 km above the earth. It explores the universe 24/7. It was named to honor the American astronomer Edwin Hubble. He known as ‘the man who discovered the cosmos’ because he determined there are other galaxies in the universe beyond our Milky Way.

Melissa: He famously said, ‘We do now know why we are born into the world but we can try to find out what sort of world it is.’ He also had a cat named Copernicus. There’s a really lovely illustrated children’s book about him called ‘The Boy Whose Head Was Filled with Stars.’ I’ll put a link in show notes to that.

Melissa: Finally, we come to a Belgian priest and cosmologist named George Lemaître. He was the first to talk about the Big Bang theory. The Big Bang says that 13.8 billion years ago, all the forces in the universe that exist — and ever will exist — were at an infinitely hot, dense single point. Seconds after the Big Bang, the first particles began to form. And that first point has been expanding and stretching ever since to become the cosmos we know today. Lemaître’s theory and Hubble’s work together proved that whole universe-expanding-thing. And bam! The Big Bang theory got traction.

Melissa: And now we will end as we began. With information that reinforces the feeling that we are both infinitesimely small and also that we should fear nothing.

Melissa: When the Universe was born, all the matter and energy currently visible was somewhere between the size of a medium pizza and a city block. It now stretches 46.1 billion light years in all directions around us. And it continues to expand. That means the moon, our good friend the moon, who watches over us every night, is slowly moving away from us every day. At the rate of about 4 M&Ms per year.

Melissa: Every day, multiple tons of space material falls to the Earth. There might be something dramatic like a meteorite, but most of it is space dust that’s invisible to us. Itty-bitty shards of rock and metal been chipped off asteroids and comets as they fly around in space. Most of it comes from around Jupiter. Every time you step outside and look up at the sky, you’re catching stardust on your eyelashes.

Melissa: Embrace your stardust, my friends. Fear nothing. That’s the space 101.

David: I’m about to say three statements. Two are true, but Mel doesn’t know which one is a lie. Here on Earth, water is plentiful. It’s considered one of the cornerstones of life. Here’s the statement:

  • As far as we can tell, the scarcity of water in space limits the likelihood of finding life.

  • Space smells funny.

  • According to doctors who have studied them, people who return from space frequently come back with a profound psychological effect.

David: Let’s take them one at a time. ‘As far as we can tell, the scarcity of water in space limits the likelihood of finding life.’

David: According to space.com, we’ve found water all over the place. Venus might have been lush with oceans at one point – although now it’s a victim of a runaway greenhouse effect. The surface of Venus will now melt lead. Mars has water ice at its poles. Saturn’s moons have water ice. One of its moons, Enceladus is thought to have an ocean beneath its icy shell. The moons of Jupiter, Neptune, and Uranus might all have hidden seas. There’s a moon of Jupiter that might have twice as much water as all of Earth’s oceans combined. Pluto is thought to be about 30 percent water ice – just a giant, dark, rocky snowball out there.

David: But the largest bunch of water in space that we know of is about 12 billion light-years away. There’s a black hole out there, a huge one. And it’s surrounded by a water cloud, a vast expanse of water vapor that covers hundreds of light-years. This cloud is estimated to contain at least 140 trillion times more water than Earth — making it the largest foam party in the universe.

David: Further, the idea that life depends on water is a remnant of old thinking. We’ve found life in some very inhospitable places here on Earth. Life might be stranger than we think, and it might also be more common. We don’t know, but it’s exhilarating.

David: Statement 2: Space smells funny.

David: We don’t have anyone who’s smelled space directly – because of that whole “taking off your helmet in space is a bad idea” thing. Although, contrary to movie mythology, you could survive in space without a suit for about 90 seconds before the asphyxiation would catch up with you.

David: However, we have had people return from space, remove their suits, and notice an odor. It smells burnt, a little acrid, and metallic. Astronauts have described it as smelling like charred meat or welding fumes. Scientists say it’s from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—or, as we would say, the stench from the sun’s nuclear reactions.

David: However, different places in space may smell differently. For instance, there’s a dust cloud in the middle of the Milky Way that contains large amounts of ethyl formate. Ethyl formate is what gives raspberries their flavor. So there might be a part of space that smells like homemade jam.

David: Third statement: According to doctors who have studied them, people who return from space frequently come back with a profound psychological effect.

David: One of the Apollo 8 astronauts was Bill Anders. He took a photo that you’ve probably seen. It’s a color shot of the Earth rising over the moon’s surface. That shot was taken on Christmas Eve, 1968. It was the first time that anyone had seen anything like that. It went on to be a magazine cover and a U.S. postage stamp. Anders said later, “When I looked up and saw the Earth coming up on this very stark, beat-up Moon horizon, I was immediately almost overcome with the thought, ‘Here we came all this way to the Moon, and yet the most significant thing we’re seeing is our own home planet.”

David: Seeing the Earth from space has been a profoundly awesome experience for many people. They describe being blown away by the beauty of the Earth, by feeling deeply connected to other people, and by experiencing the sensation that we are all in this together. It is the opposite of trauma. Maybe an enlightenment. It’s called the Overview Effect.

David: A group of doctors who studied it said that it can cause changes in the observer’s concept of self and their value system, and is sometimes transformative and lasting. The expression of the change is sometimes referred to in religious ways, but frequently not.

David: It only hits some. But there’s a list of people who’ve reported experiencing the Overview Effect online. These are not a bunch of groovy hippies with tarot decks and tickets to Bangladesh. These are straight-talking military men and women, the best of show at the Pentagon Humans Club. And you can hear them trying to use their words to describe something that would stump our best poets.

David: Michael Collins was the guy who flew the command module in 1969 when his crewmates, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, walked the moon. He said, “the thing that really surprised me was that [the Earth] projected an air of fragility. And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this day. I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile”.

David: If you want to try to trigger your own Overview effect, there’s a 16-minute movie about it on Vimeo. You’ll see many beautiful shots of Earth from space and hear from people who’ve experienced the effect.

David: A few software projects will let you zoom around the Earth and then out through the galaxy and beyond. You can see the earth rise from the moon, land on a different planet, or even create your own solar system. There’s a game that will let you develop your own space program. The results for all of them are surprisingly beautiful. We’ll have links to those in the show notes.

David: That’s two truths and a lie.

Melissa: My first recommendation is ‘Record of a Spaceborn Few’ by Becky Chambers. She’s one of the authors in the hopepunk sci-fi movement. The idea of hopepunk is this: Hope is an act, not just a feeling. It’s a resistance against cynicism. It’s a force to fight for other people. One writer said that hopepunk is the recognitions that it takes bravery and strength to sincerely care about something.

Melissa: In storytelling, that translates into plots that put feelings front and center. The characters are diverse, and they’re on a journey to be better, happier, smarter. And they help other people along the way.

Melissa: The website Vox called hopepunk ‘weaponized optimism. That’s a compliment. And Wired magazine asked, ‘Is Becky Chambers the ultimate hope for science fiction?’ In that piece, Chambers said this about her philosophy: ‘You’re looking at the world exactly as it is, with all of its grimness and all of its tragedy, and you say, No, I believe this can be better. That to me is punk as hell.’ I love this approach in general and in sci-fi specifically.

Melissa: Which brings me to the Wayfarer series. The series is four books that form a universe of stories, rather than novels meant to be read sequentially. It’s like the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by Carlo Ruiz Zafón in that way — they’re a cycle that connects and can be read in any order.

Melissa: In the world of Wayfarers, humans have destroyed the Earth. The remaining humans boarded massive ships called the Exodus Fleet and headed into space. Some of their descendents live on the ships permanently, always orbiting. Others have settled among the different species who live on other planets in the Milky Way. The former Earth people are called Exodans.

Melissa: In this book, ‘Record of a Spaceborn Few,’ it’s been centuries since the last humans fled Earth. And the Exodus Fleet is not the bright, shiny habitat it once was. This story follows a handful of characters as they live their lives and make decisions about where they belong, physically and emotionally. The chapters alternate among the different characters points of view.

Melissa: I liked these characters a lot. There’s an archivist who lives and works on a ship. Among other things, it’s her job to welcome newborns to the world with a speech that says, in part, ‘We are those that wandered, that wander still. We are the homesteaders that shelter our families. We are the explorers who carry our names. We are the parents who lead the way. We are the children who continue on.’

Melissa: There’s a young man from planet-side who’s curious about what it’s like aboard a ship, so he emigrates to the Fleet. As he tries to parse out this strange place, we get to experience it along with him and empathize with his feelings of curiosity and excitement and loneliness.

Melissa: Another character is called a caretaker — essentially a mortician. It’s her job to reverently transform the dead into compost. Which is then used to grow the food that feeds everyone aboard the ships.

Melissa: There’s also an alien from an organization called the Reskit Institute of Interstellar Migration. Its species is powerful, wealthy, and intelligent. They’re also a sort of a shapeless blob the size of a dog, speckled yellow, with wet skin, tentacles, and a pair of retracting eyestalks. This particular alien is an ethnographer who visits the fleet to conduct research on the Exodans.

Melissa: Each section of the story begins with a report from the pages of the alien’s research. I loved that! A lot of this book feels playful, like wandering around in Becky Chamber’s imagination. There’s a shuttle ride that’s like a roller coaster, and a raucous family dinner attended by the visiting alien.

Melissa: The dinner takes place in the hex — that’s what they call the living spaces aboard the Fleet. A hex is shared among multiple families, and they eat meals communally, taking turns cooking. Here’s how the dinner is described:

‘Dinner had been chaos, as per usual, and at one time in Isabel’s life, this would have aggravated her. She would’ve wanted to put on a good face for an academic guest, particularly an alien one. But Isabel loved the nightly feeding frenzy, and… she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way… There had been kids running around everywhere, a misunderstanding about how gravy worked (namely: not as a drink), a broken dish, a few translation errors, a bombardment of questions in both directions, and three dozen people tripping over themselves to look good in front of a fancy visitor. It was real. It was honest. It was so very Exodan.’

Melissa: One of the lovely utopian aspects of life aboard the Fleet is that — citizen or not — everyone is given air, water, food, lodging, and complete health care. There’s no compensation for work. Everyone simply does what they’re good at and is provided with everything they need to live.

Melissa: This is a gentle, mostly quiet book — although there are a few very dramatic, surprising things that happen. It was a treat to go on this flight of fancy. It’s nice to imagine a future that recognizes the real problems caused by messy humans, but is infused with kindness and good intentions anyway. It’s ‘Record of a Spaceborn Few’ by Becky Chambers.

David: My first book is, “The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowell. This story starts with a disaster—two, really. It’s 1952, and a giant comet hits the earth in Chesapeake Bay, just off of Maryland. It has a large enough impact that it immediately destroys Washington, D.C. Most of the U.S. national politicians are killed immediately. The Secretary of Agriculture becomes President because he’s in Kansas at the time. The rest of the Eastern seaboard is — bad. Let’s go with bad.

David: The meteor strike also creates a climate catastrophe—which is even worse. Eventually, the earth will be uninhabitable to humans. And when I say ‘eventually,’ I mean in about 50 years. All the water in the air will create a miniature Ice Age. Then, there will be a sharp increase in temperature due to the greenhouse effect. Eventually, oceans will boil, and most life will go extinct. It’s a bleak opening.

David: One of the magic tricks in this book is that, although it starts with that boom! -end-of-the-world opening, this is a primarily hopeful character-driven story about a woman. Her name is Elma York. She’s a mathematician and a pilot. She’s Jewish. She’s married to a man named Nathaniel. He’s also quite bright. He worked on the Manhattan Project.

David: The book opens on them in bed in a cabin in the Catskills. They’re in bed and flirting around when the flash happens. Before the sonic wave hits them fifteen minutes later, they’ve figured out the disaster they’re in. It also quickly established that they’re a charming couple — someone you’d want to spend time with, even if it wasn’t the end of the world as we know it.

David: Together, they figure out the upcoming climate catastrophe. They use the husband’s notoriety in the science community to get in front of the now-President and show their findings. Together, they get involved in a plan to get people off the planet. The meteor disaster starts a space race.

David: The other magic trick in this book is, from what I understand, it’s accurate. It’s historically accurate. There are bits of non-fiction that are tied very neatly into the story. The Secretary of Agriculture, who became the President, was actually the Secretary of Agriculture in 1952. The book is scientifically accurate. You get glimpses of rocket science in 1952, and hear about the leaps they made there, and how they made them. And it’s socially accurate. Our lead, Elma York, wants to be an astronaut. But there’s a whole lot of sexism and bigotry standing between her and that goal.

David: I don’t want to give away the book, but I will say that most of the action is here on Earth as Elma tries to become an astronaut. But it’s very space-forward. It reminded me a lot of Apollo 13, the Tom Hanks movie from 1995. It feels like you could make this movie using their sets and actors.

David: And the emotional ride is good. It’s hard not to be in Elma’s corner as she tries to fight past her demons. There’s a lot of hope in this book.

David: I thought this was a great story, well-told, and a bunch of other people agree. It won the Nebula, Locus, and Hugo awards for Best Novel in 2019. I wanted to call out the book’s author, Mary Robinette Kowell. Mary Robinette Kowell is the kind of person who makes me wonder what I’ve been doing with my time.

David: She started her professional career as a puppeteer. She worked with Jim Henson Productions. She also went to Iceland and worked on a children’s show there. She did 20 years of puppet work. She was once Oscar the Grouch’s right hand.

David: Then, she started her writing career. She began as a short story author and eventually got into novels. She won many awards. She’s a four-time Hugo winner. She became President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for two years.

David: She has picked up side jobs along the way. She’s recorded audiobooks for John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow. She also translated a novel from Icelandic into English, based on the Icelandic she learned when she was a puppeteer there. She co-hosts a podcast, Writing Excuses, which discusses writing-related issues.

David: And she has a YouTube channel. Some of her videos are work-related. For instance, there’s a conversation between her and Wil Wheaton about narrating audiobooks. But most of the recent ones are about her training her dog and cat to use a button board. – Those boards with buttons that say things. The dog presses ‘food’ when he’s hungry. She claims she’s gotten her dog and cat to speak to each other. I’ve watched a couple of those videos. I’m skeptical. But still. Big props to the puppeteer / writer / Icelandic translator / friend of Wil Wheaton who got her dog to speak broken English.

David: Her latest book, ‘The Spare Man,’ came out last year. It also sounds interesting. It’s a science-fiction mystery starring a smart, witty couple and their dog. They like to drink. They’re on a giant space cruise ship, celebrating their honeymoon. It’s a locked-room mystery. Reviewers called it ‘The Thin Man in Space.’ I would happily read that right now.

David: But this book. It’s book two in a trilogy of works. It stands on its own, but there’s more to explore if you like it. It’s “The Calculating Stars” by Mary Robinette Kowell.

Melissa: My second recommendation is ‘The Mars House’ by Natasha Pulley. I’m a Natasha Pulley completist. I’ve read all of her books and will read whatever she comes up with next. She’s like a master chef who blends different genres into something new and delicious every time. Her world-building is completely immersive, and her characters are the kind that sink their hooks into your heart and just.. stay there. She’s very, very good at writing slow-burn love stories where the romance is happening alongside a big adventure.

Melissa: Having said all of that, it always makes me nervous to share a one-liner about her books because the descriptions are TECHNICALLY accurate but not EXPERIENTIALLY accurate. Based on the flap copy, I should not love these books.

Melissa: So, my favorites in case anyone else wants to go all in. ‘The Bedlam Stacks’ is historical fantasy fiction set in Peru. I gushed about it in our Peru episode. ‘The Kingdoms’ is a time-travel story set in an alternate version of the UK. I raved about that one in our Secret Passages episode, even though I generally don’t enjoy time-travel tales. Her last book ‘The Half Life of Valery K’ flirted with science fiction in a historial setting, and this new one is full-on sci-fi. Sort of.

Melissa: In an interview, she said that it is science fiction, but it’s not a serious forecast of what the future might look like. She uses sci-fi tropes as a launching point into something whimsical and playful — closer to fantasy than hard sci-fi. To me, this book is a love story masquerading as a sci-fi novel and fantasy cosplaying as speculative fiction. Whatever you call it, it all works like gang-busters.

Melissa: Here’s the premise: In a not-too-distant future, London has become a drowned city. Our hero January Stirling was the principal dancer in London’s Royal Ballet. He’s handsome, incredibly fit, and quote, ‘has an endless pig-headed a catastrophic flood surge makes London inhabitable, he seeks asylum in a terraformed colony on Mars.

Melissa: Here’s the thing about Mars: Its gravity is lower than Earth’s. Which means people like January have supernatural strength in comparison to the people naturalized to live on Mars. Even a gentle bump on the street could break someone’s bones. So people from Earth — they’re called Earthstrongers — are required to wear metal exoskeletons that keep them from injuring the Naturals who live on Mars.

Melissa: January is a gentle soul. He’s horrified by the idea of accidentally hurting someone, but he’s also starting to chafe against the idea that he’s dangerous. That Earthstrongers are bad because of how and where they were made.

Melissa: Then he has a run-in with Aubrey Gale. She’s a politician verging on being a fascist. Aubrey is pushing for all the Earthstrong to undergo a medical procedure of Naturaliztion. On the upside, it weakens the Earthstrong so they’re not a threat. On the down side, it’s physically debilitating and it might be deadly.

Melissa: When a big event for the press goes horribly wrong, Aubrey and January are thrown together. And Aubrey makes January an lousy offer that he can’t really refuse: The the two of them will get married to boost Aubrey’s political career and make January’s future more secure. What could possibly go wrong?

Melissa: Obviously, I can’t tell you anything else about the plot.

Melissa: Natasha Pulley has created two fully-rendered fantastical worlds. When the story opens, London is underwater, and I could see it so clearly. Cruise ships float through the city and knock the fancy bits off the Houses of Parliament. January commutes to the ballet by a ferry that picks him up outside his upper-story bedroom window. Dolphins swim past. The descriptions are beautifully rendered and convey the weird magical and horrific quality of what’s happening. Those bits in the book reminded me of during the lockdowns when foxes and monkeys were running around empty city streets. It was, like, Oh! That’s fun. And also, the world is turned upside down!

Melissa: The rest of the book takes place in the Mars colony, and it’s fantastical. Because of the low gravity, everything is super-sized and soars into the sky. Even the people are tall and thin — they’re around seven feet tall — and they have long, glossy hair and wear flowing colorful robes. They’re very majestic. Genders have been abolished, and people speak Mandarin, Russian, and English. Implants connect the language center of the brain to the internet so you immediately understand other languages.

Melissa: Water is made in a factory, but there are indoor gardens and waterfalls. There’s a very spirited AI who lives in a tower. I don’t want to give away any of the delightful plot twists, but I will say this: I did not have wooly mammoths, polar bears, parakeets, or giant dogs on my bingo card, but it was a gleeful pleasure to find them here.

Melissa: The plot has things to say about issues like climate change, immigration, gender, and politics. But all that smart stuff unfolds through a story that includes powerful twins, a deadly dust storm, a love triangle, forays into linguistics, a mysterious disappearance that might be murder, and maybe a haunting. How all of that plays out and gets resolved is surprising and immensely satisfying. I’ve read it twice so far and would do it again. Right now. It’s ‘The Mars House’ by Natasha Pulley.

David: My second book is ‘The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy’ by Moiya McTier. This is a non-fiction book with one little fictional detail. The wrinkle is that the narrator is the Milky Way. The Milky Way is here to tell you her life story.

David: She talks about her birth 13 billion years ago. She talks about how she gets along with her neighbors, the galaxy we call Andromeda and the galaxy Sagittarius, which she tore to pieces a few hundred million years ago. The Milky Way talks about how she makes stars – in batches, and probably faster than you might think. There are at least five new stars a year. Readers are introduced to dark matter, and the enormous black hole at the galaxy’s center that she calls Sarge.

David: The Milky Way has a strong personality. She’s imperious and a little haughty. In my head, she kind of leans towards Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, but younger. She seems to like humans, but mostly as a diversion. The author said that when she was writing for the Milky Way, she imagined the voice of her own cat.

David: There are a lot of mind-blowing ideas in this book. This bit, for instance, is from page two. The Milky Way is answering the question, ‘How can the Milky Way talk?’ — and she gets onto the topic of consciousness:

‘… your philosophers have postulated that consciousness isn’t a quality inherent to humans, or even living animals. According to them, consciousness, or sentience or awareness or whatever you want to call it, is the result of how a system functions, not a consequence of what it’s made of. Some of your philosophers are even starting to believe that consciousness is an inherent quality of the universe, something that every amount of matter possesses in different quantities. In other words, I can think and communicate even though I don’t have what you would consider a brain. So if you’re imagining I’m anything like one of you, cease immediately! It’s insulting, and that human-centric mindset will just make it harder for you to understand all that I am going to deign to teach you. If your question was more like, “How can the Milky Way talk to me,” well, it’s not like human language is that hard to learn. You’re such simple creatures.

David: I read that, and I thought, does any system have some form of consciousness? A cactus? A desert? The NYU Alumni Association? And why is it that, the deeper we get into science, the more it sounds like super-groovy yoga talk?

David: One of the other things that struck me as remarkable about this book was the idea that one human lifetime is just way too short to understand much about the galaxy. And, of course, that’s true. I knew that. But this book is very clear about how human science – on this scale – is an ongoing conversation. Many of the participants are already dead. There’s a highly reductionist view of the life of Copernicus that he wrote a book that said, “Hey, I’m pretty sure the earth revolves around the sun. Here are my notes. Good luck figuring out everything else! - C.”

David: And there’s something really nice about that idea. What makes humanity great might be our ability to write things down and then tell somebody, to get our story right and share it, and to hope that the listener hears what we’re saying.

David: This book also introduced me to the author, another amazing woman. Moiya McTier is a person of color raised in a log cabin in Pennsylvania. Not during the Civil War. Probably after 2000. This is a quote from her website:

‘I grew up in a log cabin in the middle of the woods in rural Pennsylvania. I didn’t have TV, a heating system, or running water. My chores included carrying buckets of water from our outdoor pump and chopping firewood to fuel our wood-burning stove. The nearest Confederate flag was flying much closer than the nearest Black person. It was an interesting place and way to grow up.’

David: Somehow, she managed to make it from there to Harvard. She was the first person at that establishment to study both astronomy and mythology. This unique blend of The disciplines gives her a distinct perspective, which she brings to her work. She would go on to get her PhD in Astrophysics from Columbia University. Now she works with companies like Disney and PBS on the science of fictional worlds.

David: She also has a podcast. It’s called ‘Exolore: Fictional world building through the lens of science.’ There, she does things like take her guests through building fictional worlds from scratch.

David: But this book! The best thing I can say about it is that it combines the wonder I imagine the author had when she was growing up with the understanding of an astrophysicist. It’s a great introduction to the mysteries of our galaxy and beyond, sparking awe and curiosity. Publishers Weekly said it was one of the best books of 2022. If you’re interested, there’s also a really good audiobook narrated by the author. It’s ‘The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy’ by Moiya McTie.

Melissa: My final recommendation is ‘Beautyland’ by Marie-Helene Bertolino. This is another favorite author, even though I’ve only read one of her books: ‘2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas.’ That’s the story of an extraordinary little girl in Philadelphia whose heart’s desire is sing at the jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas. The story unfolds over one day and night, right before Christmas, and it’s infused with magic. Literally. It’s our world, but magical things happen. Also, one of the chapters is told from a dog’s point of view. It’s delightful.

Melissa: This book is — I’m going to call it literary sci-fi. There are aliens and Carl Sagan and communiques to space, and/but it’s about a special girl and how we experience our humanity. From here, I can tell you that this will be one of my favorite books of the year. For sure.

Melissa: So… 1977 was a big year for space exploration. That’s the year NASA launched Voyager 1. Voyager 1 is a space probe sent into interstellar space to study the outer planets of the Solar System. Just in case it runs into life forms out there, it carries a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk that stores sounds and images of life on Earth. The American astronomer Carl Sagan led the team that put the collection together. There are photos of a beautiful island and people from around the world. There’s a picture of a house that looks the Brady Bunch and a girl licking an ice cream cone. There’s a Bach Brandenburg Concerto, Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry, panpipes from Peru, and a chorus from the Republic of Georgia. It includes the sounds made by crickets, elephants, footsteps, heartbeats, and a kiss. And there are greetings in 55 languages that say different variations of ‘hello’ and ‘we wish you peace.’

Melissa: In this book, at the exact moment that Voyager 1 was launched, a baby girl named Adina was born prematurely to a single mother in Philadelphia. The baby is tiny and a little weird looking. I responded to this bit SO HARD because I was born a month early. I weighed three and a half pounds, and my skin was translucent.

Melissa: Adina’s mom thinks her baby looks, quote, ‘other than human. Plant or marine life, maybe. An orchid or otter. A shrimp.’ It turns out, Adina IS something else — she’s an alien. She’s an alien sent to go undercover as a human to take notes on the human race.

Melissa: As she grows up in the 1980s and ’90s, Adina, like most teenagers, feels like an outsider. She diligently takes notes on human life which she sends to her alien relatives via a fax machine her mom found in the trash. And the aliens write back. The transmissions between this odd, adorable girl and her far-away family are a delight.

Early on, Adina sends them a fax that reads:

‘Carl Sagan is a polarizing astronomer who wears natty turtleneck-blazer combos and has been denied Harvard tenure for being too Hollywood. He says human civilization is so far behind that if extraterrestrials were to make contact, they’d have to speak slowly… He says Voyager 1 launched a cosmic message in a bottle into the universe. He is looking for us!’

Melissa: When she realizes that statement isn’t conveying enough joy, she adds, ‘He believes in me.’ The response from space is written in all caps: YES WE KNOW ABOUT HIM AND HIS TURTLENECKS.’ The story follows Adina through her childhood and into young adulthood. She moves to New York City. She experiences heartbreak and deep friendship. She accidentally finds fame. Some of it is rough. The scenes of single motherhood will break your heart, and Adina’s experience in junior high rang so true for me. Teenage girls can be so mean, especially to kids who are a little bit weird. [DAVE]

Melissa: But it also made me laugh out. Adina’s messages to the aliens light years away are silly and sweet, melancholy, wistful. She NOTICES things. Her observations are a record of the mundane and brilliant things that humans do. All of our contradictions. And beautiful hearts. And meanness. And possibilities. The final two chapters had me full-on crying. The last thing in my notes is one word all in caps. It says, WRECKED.

Melissa: This would be a fantastic book for a book club or a buddy read because there’s so much to discuss. Throughout, you’re kind of wondering if Adina is really an alien. Is she truly a spy for an alien race? Or, like so many of us, does she simply FEEL like an alien. Here’s a little peek in to my psyche: One of the reasons I like living abroad is because I spent most of my life feeling like an outsider. At least in Prague, I should feel like an outsider. So I fully related to Adina.

Melissa: To me, whether or not Adina is an alien is 100% NOT ambiguous. But I’m curious what other readers will think. If you read it, I’d love to know where you come down on that. This book is a love letter to messy humans everywhere — and aliens, too. It’s ‘Beautyland’ by Marie-Helene Bertolino.

David: Those are five books we love, set in outer space.

Melissa: Before we go, I want to share one more space poem. Adler Planetarium in Chicago in invited staff to write space poems. This is a good one:

  • Sunrise is red
  • Comets are blue
  • Keep looking up
  • Whatever you do.

David: Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for links and details. You’re definitely going to want to see that video on the Overview Effect.

David: Where are we going for our next episode?

Melissa: The land of Chinggis Khan: Mongolia

David: We’ll talk to yo then.

[cheerful music]

Top image courtesy of Josh Gordon/Unsplash.

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