Monday 15 March 2010

Reading Fiction is Like ... Translunar Flight. Part I

The fortieth anniversary of the landing of the Apollo 11 spacecraft on the moon occasioned a number of book publications, including astronaut biographies and detailed depictions of the aeronautical engineering, hardware, software, systems engineering, and training that went into the feat. Reading a number of these offerings convinces me that it’s worthwhile to add yet another analogy to the list of activities that reading a novel is like, e.g., looking through a lens at oneself (Proust, 1913-1927/1987-1989), running software on one’s mind (Oatley, 1999), being in a trance (Nell, 1980), mindreading (Zunshine, 2006), among others. Reading a novel is, I believe, like riding a Saturn rocket to the moon and back. I know, it sounds a little strange, perhaps a little too specific to assume a place among the elegant analogies others have offered. But reading a novel isn’t like an ordinary flight from New York to Sydney, nor is it like coasting along in Earth orbit, even in a rather high one of 500 or 600 kilometers, which is what we have achieved since the last translunar Apollo flight in 1972 (Woods, 2009). No. Reading a novel is like riding a rocket to the moon and back, and I’ll share some thoughts on why I think this is so in this post and in Thursday’s post.

Humans cannot fly rockets. Our reflexes are not fast enough to guide a spacecraft at 25,000 miles per hour without significant help from a computer (Mindell, 2008). Astronauts and readers of novels (Oatley, 1999) must rely on the “program” on which their trajectory depends. So, the phrase from the one-time ubiquitous Sinatra tune “fly me to the moon” turns out to be rather accurate – one does not fly oneself to the moon, one is flown to the moon by someone or something else. And unlike other modes of travel, only a very small percentage of the time in a translunar rocket is spent accelerating; the vast majority of the trip is coasting, but that coasting must be properly aimed (Woods, 2009). Similarly, readers imaginatively participate in the world created by the writer. If readers were to begin to override what the text says the characters are doing, for example, they are no longer reading a novel, but daydreaming, which is okay, as long as it’s clear which is which.

We can choose to read a novel or not, as astronauts could choose whether to sign on to the moon program. We can choose to continue reading the novel or not, as astronauts could choose whether to abort at any moment (Woods, 2009). Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin experienced five master alarms going off during the lunar landing sequence of Apollo 11 in 1969, which distracted them from the task at hand. Armstrong later explained his hesitance to abort, “In simulations we have a large number of failures and we are usually spring-loaded to the abort position. And in this case in the real flight, we are spring-loaded to the land position” (Mindell, 2008, p. 3). Readers are, perhaps, “spring-loaded” to continue reading long past the vivacity of their interest or their emotional tolerance, but they may lay the book down at any moment, never to pick it up again, if they so choose (see an earlier post on this idea). We can even skip parts of the novel, much as flight commander Frank Borman called off several scheduled tasks for his extremely sleep-deprived crew on the first-ever orbit of the moon in 1968 to insure that they would be well-rested for a human error-free return home (Woods, 2009, p. 217). What readers and astronauts cannot do, however, is change the trajectory as it has been laid out by another source – the writer of the story in one case and engineers and mission control in the other.

The trajectory to the moon and back is like that of the structure of a novel: the relatively quick exit from Earth’s atmosphere (like the quick exit from one’s own daily concerns into the story environment); an Earth orbit to prepare for the journey (the first few pages of a story in which one gets one’s bearings); “injection” away from the gravitational influence of Earth toward the moon (the pulling away from the self and toward the otherness of characters and their concerns); a slowing of speed to enter moon orbit (a reflective moment that begins to wear away at one’s current beliefs); the descent of the lunar lander (think of Hagar’s physical descent toward the old cannery in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel, and indeed of other figurative descents into otherness to rediscover the self); exploration (of self, the meaning of life), ascent from the lunar surface, rendezvous with the orbiting command module (the individual reuniting with society after a life-changing event or realization), and “injection” back toward the Earth, fiery re-entry (a coming to terms with this new insight) and splashdown into the ocean (dénouement). If one were to read any of the Apollo mission transcripts (available on two excellent websites: Apollo Flight Journal and Apollo Lunar Surface Journal) of dialogue among the astronauts and down to mission control in Houston, and then to map the concatenation of emotions (what Tan [1994, p. 179] has called the “affect structure”) from the space trajectory described above to those in one’s favorite novel, the match would, I suspect, be intriguing. Mode of displacement between these emotion episodes also maps convincingly between the two experiences. In the vacuum of space, a small engine ignition (“burn”) increases or decreases speed exponentially, depending on which way the thruster is pointing, for there is no atmosphere against which to accelerate. Thus small accelerations have large effects over time. In the novel, too, a small incident or a barely-perceived ongoing state of affairs, can have great effects.

All stages of the Saturn rocket ascent, and all major maneuvers in space were counted down by a digital display for the astronauts (Woods, 2009). Thus the crew knew exactly when these events would occur, building and dissipating suspense on occasion after occasion. Arguably the most suspenseful moment of the Apollo 11 mission occurred when the two crew members aboard the lunar module, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, fired their ascent engine to leave the moon’s surface and return to the command and service module orbiting the moon (Woods, 2009). If the ascent engine had failed, Michael Collins, the command module pilot, would have had to leave his colleagues to perish. Collins explained, “...I have never sweated out any flight like I am sweating out the LM [lunar module] now. My secret terror for the last 6 months has been leaving them on the moon and returning to Earth alone; now I am within minutes of finding out the truth of the matter. If they fail to rise from the surface, or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it” (cited in Woods, 2009, p. 287). Collins’ words expressing his post-LM-ascent relief are poignant: “Now my rendezvous worries can forever be laid to rest. I can throw away the book of emergency rendezvous plans clipped to the front of my pressure suit. God knows we are still a long way from home, but for the first time I feel we are going to carry this whole thing off. I can see it all out my window now, our beautiful home planet and my two compatriots, successfully returned to me. From here on it should be all downhill – for there they are!” (Collins, 1988, p. 10).

How can emotions experienced while reading a novel possibly be compared to such a sentiment? The real-life consequences, of course, are not comparable. When one reads the wonderfully rich literature on the Apollo program, and begins to fathom the number and extremity of risks that the Apollo astronauts were subject to, one might laugh at the comparison. It is true that we are physically safe within the cocoon of the story, but the kinds of emotions experienced, and their intensities, are very real (Oatley, 1999). The reality of these emotions may originate, in part, in our intuitive sense of the structure of the story (which kinds of events might follow others, which kind of emotions would likely follow others -- i.e., genre) which induces a whole range of forward-looking and backward-looking emotions. If Collins had been unaware of the risk associated with the lunar module ascent, his terror, but also his joy, would have been mitigated. I remember enjoying the first half of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance very much, reading it every moment I had the opportunity. Then at a certain point, I had the feeling that something bad was going to happen to the characters whose fates I cared about. That particular novel comes to mind because it is a lengthy one, and the suspense was drawn out over hundreds of pages. The longer the ominous feeling was drawn out, the worse the bad thing had to be, I suspected. I continued to enjoy scenes of the characters’ domestic contentment and small moments of joy, but it was always pressed upon by my belief that a moment of heartbreak was coming. The translunar flight analogy to reading fiction is apt because every detail of the trip is planned in advance, and such foreknowledge can lend itself to heightened emotion.

The multi-stage Saturn rocket left Earth a 3,000 ton behemoth, 110 meters tall and 10 meters wide, initially accelerating up to 8,500 kilometers per hour (Woods, 2009, p. 56). The crew returned to Earth in a 4-meter wide by 3-meter high capsule that weighed one fifth of one percent of the starting rocket’s weight. At re-entry, the capsule coasted at 13 times the speed of a rifle bullet, burning off the “two-inch-thick honeycomb of carbon fiber and ablation compound ... taking the heat with it” (Nelson, 2009, p. 300). Similarly, it could be said that we go into a novel with a sprawling mass of personal baggage, things that we never perceived or understood about ourselves and others, things that have for some time required an extraordinary amount of psychic energy to transport from one place to another, and, if we are lucky, experiencing the novel allows us to walk away significantly lighter than before, burnished, even cleansed. A nurse who worked with astronauts returning from space saw something similar in their faces: “They have something, a sort of wild look, I would say, as if they had fallen in love with a mystery up there, sort of as if they haven’t got their feet back on the ground, as if they regret having come back to us . . . As if up there they’re not only freed from weight, from the force of gravity, but from desires, affections, passions, ambitions, from the body” (quoted in Nelson, 2009, p. 308). On the return leg of Apollo 14’s journey, Edgar Mitchell experienced what he later called an “ecstasy of unity.... the sensation of physically and mentally extending out into the cosmos” (Mitchell, 2008, p. 75) and expressed his belief that “humankind was going into space primarily to discover itself” (p. 48.) Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon, later mused, “Perhaps going to the Moon and back in itself isn’t all that important. But it is a big enough step to give people a new dimension in their thinking – a sort of enlightenment” (quoted in Nelson, 2009, p. 327). Isn’t this just the sort of thing that reading a good novel can do for us?

Collins, M. (1988). Liftoff: The story of America’s adventure in space. New York: Grove Press.

Laurence, M. (1968). The stone angel. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Mindell, D. A. (2008). Digital Apollo: Human and machine in spaceflight. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Mistry, R. (1995). A fine balance. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Mitchell, E. (2008). The way of the explorer: An Apollo astronaut’s journey through the material and mystical worlds. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books.

Nell, V. (1980). Lost in a book: The psychology of reading for pleasure. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Nelson, C. (2009). Rocket men: The epic story of the first men on the moon. New York: Viking.

Oatley, K. (1999). Why fiction may be twice as true as fact: Fiction as cognitive and emotional simulation. Review of General Psychology, 3, 101-117.

Proust, M. (1913-1927/1987-1989). À la recherche du temps perdu: Le temps retrouvé (Vol. IV). [In search of lost time: Time regained]. Paris: Gallimard.

Tan, E. S. (1994). Story processing as an emotion episode. In H. van Oostendorp & R. A. Zwaan (Eds.), Naturalistic text comprehension, Volume LIII in the series Advances in Discourse Processes. (pp. 165-188). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Woods, W. D. (2009). How Apollo flew to the moon. Chichester, UK: Springer.

Zunshine, L. (2006). Why we read fiction: Theory of mind and the novel. Columbus: The Ohio State University.

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Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Rebecca, for this post on reading as a rocket trip to the moon. I am sorry, I have not been able to read it properly until now, having been rather completely taken up in pressing matters this week. But now that I have read it, I think it is a lovely and productive metaphor. The idea of taking part in a journey, very much taking part but not being able to steer, is extremely apt. And I especially like the part about Michael Collins, the command module pilot, waiting for his two colleagues to rejoin him after their landing on the moon, about Collins worrying about whether the lunar lander module would function properly, wondering whether it would take off. You've written it in a way that enables me to feel some of his anxiety and relief.

Rebecca Wells Jopling said...

Thanks, Keith, for your thoughts on this. Michael Collins is thought by several commentators on the Apollo program to be the most poetic of the astronauts. His two books, Carrying the Fire and Liftoff are very well written, in my opinion. He describes, for example, how it feels to maneuver carefully in weightlessness so as not to experience space sickness: "I slide around cautiously, as if I were wearing a sleeping poisonous snake as a collar." Both of these books are great reads.

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