In The West Wing episode “The Warfare of Genghis Kahn,” Josh Lyman, the president’s Chief of Staff, meets with a bunch of NASA scientists about a funding request. Josh kind of dismisses NASA as a bunch of geeks and career fuck-ups and shows them the door. But later in his office, one of the NASA scientists, who just happens to be a sexy brunette, asks him to reconsider. And tells him about a lot of cool stuff that NASA has done. Then they go on a date and look through a telescope. In Josh’s car, she pitches what NASA wants: they want to send people to Mars.
The next day, Josh calls his assistant, Donna, into his office so he can tell her that Voyager just passed the termination shock, making it the first man-made object to leave the solar system. Donna is kind of jealous of the hot scientist so she’s all like whatever. Then Josh says he wants to run a scenario by her. Donna sits down. Everyone hates America, says Josh, because we’re so rich and powerful and such a bully, but America has a chance to do something special for humanity—we could send the first humans to walk on another planet. Donna’s still like, nah, it’s not doing it for me.
So Josh is like OK, listen to this: Voyager has a collection of pictures and greetings and music on it in case aliens ever find it. The 1920s bluesman Blind Willie Johnson, Josh tells Donna, was seven years old when his stepmother threw lye in his face and blinded him after her husband beat her up for sleeping with another man. Blind Willie died, Josh says, after he got pneumonia from sleeping in wet newspaper blankets after his house burned down. One of his songs, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” just left the solar system.
OK, Donna says, that got her.
The main plot of the episode is about the build-up to an Israeli airstrike on possible nuclear facilities in Iran. There is a scene where the Prime Minister of Israel tells the President Martin Sheen that Iran will have weapons-grade uranium enriched in a year. In an episode that aired in 2004.
It’s a pretty good episode, even though Aaron Sorkin didn’t write it.
The musical sample of Australian aboriginal music on the Voyager record is a two-part track listed as “Morning Star and Devil Bird.” Unfortunately, “Devil Bird” and “Morning Star” are not the songs that appear on the Golden Record as “Morning Star and Devil Bird.”
A few seconds of the clapsticks and didgeridoo of “Morning Star” play, but they fade out before the song is finished. The track is mixed not with “Devil Bird,” but with another song called “Moikoi.”
“Moikoi” warns of the dangerous morkoi spirits who wish to lead the souls of the recently dead far away from their ancestral lands. To someplace they will be lost. Where they will not find their way back home.
I don’t know when it was that people stopped liking the mixtapes I was making.
The aliens who find the Voyager record are comparatively very small. They live simply, using technology only for that which they cannot accomplish with their own hands, in their own soil. They breed responsibly, so there are never very many of them, and being so small, their planet is never very densely populated. They have no way to play the record, the record being the size of an entire city to these people. To read the inscription on the Golden Record, multiple aerial shots are taken from gyroscopes, mere mosquitoes to us. The grooves on the record itself are wider than the body of a full-grown adult on that planet. The aliens are not so concerned for the meaning of the record as they are concerned for the survivors who may still be alive in the city underneath the colossal disc.
Back home, in Ithaca, Carl Sagan eyed a row of breakfast cereals at the supermarket. There were three types of Cap’n Crunch. Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch, Cap’n Crunch, and Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries. There were two types of Life. There were three types of Cheerios. There were three types of Rice Krispies. It was, Carl Sagan realized, an amazing abundance of cereal. Carl Sagan wondered if there was any difference between them. Count Chocula, Frankenberry, and Boo Berry, despite their superficial variation in color, could all be the same cereal based on the same ingredients. There used to be another one of these monster cereals, Fruit Brute. Nick, Carl Sagan’s son, used to like that one. Nick had recorded the greeting in English. “Hello from the children of the planet Earth.” His son, almost 20 now, was still a child somewhere out in space. Speaking for the children of Earth. Well, his son and Linda’s. Carl Sagan supposed that made the two of them representatives for all parents on the planet.
“Well, what can you do?” Carl Sagan said as he took a box of Special K off of the shelf and put it in his cart.
Anthony Michael Morena is a writer from New York who lives in Tel Aviv. His writing has appeared in The Normal School, Flapperhouse, and Queen Mob's Teahouse. Find him on Twitter @anphimimor.