Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #38 of 107: “The Astronaut” by Valentina Zhuravlyova
The thing about getting old is running down. I have good days and bad days. Actually, I have good hours and bad hours. This morning started off nice. I woke up early this morning to the sound Messenger makes to notify me of a new message. It was still dark outside, just a bit after six. Piet Nel has sent me a link to John O’Neill’s review of Modern Classic Novels of Short Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois. That’s an anthology I’ve wished the group would pick to read, especially because it has my all-time favorite science fiction novella in it, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delaney. Reading O’Neill’s review and comments put me in the mood to read science fiction.
Ozzy the cat was sleeping soundly on my legs, so I decided not to bother him. Instead of getting up to start my day, I tapped on the Kindle app to read “The Astronaut” by Valentina Zhuravlyova. The VanderMeers introduction got me interested in the story right away when they gave away the part about the astronauts having to reduce the weight of the spaceship to make the return voyage back to Earth. That same idea is used in Destination Moon (1950). I’ve always used that idea about jettison mass to minimize the weight to take off as a metaphor for succeeding at efforts in life. Often I’m weighted down by too many desires, so to get something done I have to toss out everything but the one thing I want to accomplish.
As soon as I started reading the story I liked it. The narrative was simple and engaging. I often write about why we like or dislike a story. In our group discussions, I’m amused by how some of us praise a story while others dismiss it. It’s so easy to get annoyed by a story, to fail at enjoying it. This morning while still snug under my covers and cat, and having just finished an upbeat essay about the joys of great science fiction, and still fresh from a night’s sleep, I got into this story in a big way.
“The Astronaut” is the kind of story I wanted to find when we voted to read The Big Book of Science Fiction. I hoped to find stories I loved as much as the stories I loved in the classic anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. I wanted to read stories I had never read and were unknown to all the famous SF anthologists. I have no memory of Valentina Zhuravlyova, and I’m quite certain I will soon forget her name. And I’ll probably even forget the name of this story, but I will remember three things about this tale.
I will remember a story about astronauts needing to throw out equipment so they could take off because I often remember Destination Moon. I now will remember two stories that used that idea.
I will remember I’ve read a story where the space administration decided it was important for astronauts to have hobbies for their long space voyages. I’m surprised I haven’t seen this idea before.
And I will remember I read a story about a lone stranded astronaut who put his soul into two paintings. Valentina Zhuravlyova has put a bit of her soul into “The Astronaut.” She is dead now, but she coded part of herself into this story.
I have another metaphor I often use to explain the limitations of communication. I compare all our efforts to speak across the void between conscious minds as throwing a message in a bottle upon the ocean hoping someone will find it. The astronaut Zarubin threw two paintings upon the void hoping to express himself, and “The Astronaut” is Valentina’s message in a bottle to us.
This is the second time I tried to write this essay. After I read “The Astronaut” I drained away the rest of my night’s store of energy by doing the exercises that keep my aches and pains away. I tried to write this later this morning, but I was too weary. I had to even nap to feel like eating lunch. And then I had to nap again. But that gave me time to think about this story and what to write. Getting old means running out of energy. I have to jettison many things I want to do just to accomplish one thing during my day. This was it. For the rest of the day, I will store up energy by napping or listening to books.
I’m alternating between two novels right now, To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis and Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen. Both provide psychic food that gives me the energy to think. Exercise and proper eating give me physical energy. The thing about being old is my batteries drain so damn quickly. Napping and reading are my ways of recharging. But I need a quality reading diet to generate psychic energy. “The Astronaut” gave me that.
James Wallace Harris, 11/2/21