Interstellar Space Oddyseys: The Continuing Relevance of Walker Percy

Feast of Polycarp the Holy Martyr & Bishop of Smyrna

Interstellar_square.jpgWATCHING Christopher Nolan’s ambitious science-fiction film Interstellar this last fall reminded me that Walker Percy’s classic (and hilarious, and profound) self-help send-up, Lost in the Cosmos, is as relevant as ever. The last sixty pages of the book are dedicated to narrating two “Space Odysseys.” The commonalities between these and Interstellar are striking. Here is the premise of both:

1. The planet Earth is in trouble.

2. The human race receives a mysterious message indicating that someone or something is out there and would maybe like to help.

3. A highly elite group of astronauts is selected to (a) travel through space and investigate the signal, (b) represent humanity to whomever or whatever may be out there, and (c) seek out possibilities for human survival.

Though I wouldn’t describe myself as a science fiction aficionado, I’m familiar enough with the genre to know that this is a standard sci-fi trope. So perhaps saying the commonalities are striking is like saying the commonalities between two Greek epic poems are striking.

Percy’s aim in writing Lost in the Cosmos, and especially the Space Odyssey portions of the book, seems to have been to demonstrate that, often despite their stated intentions otherwise, these types of narratives are so baldly and earnestly religious that one can only respond by satirizing them.Lost_in_Cosmos_book_cover.jpg

And he ends up satirizing Interstellar too. Only he did it thirty years before the film was made. The difference between Nolan and somebody a generation or two ago like Carl Sagan is that Nolan doesn’t seem to be interested in sloughing off the sacred. One in fact gets the impression that he’s gunning hard for transcendence, that he’s actually trying to find it. But when the film approaches the sacred, it loses heart and veers into a kind of too-easy “love as transcendence” or “transcendence as love.” (There are interesting possibilities here, but the film doesn’t explore them.)

In any case, the plots of Interstellar and the Space Odysseys diverge once plot elements 1, 2, and 3 above have been established and come to pass. But the way they diverge is instructive, and it made me wish that Nolan’s visually splendid and narratively decent—but metaphysically sophomoric—film had a little bit more Percy in it. A film of this scope and beauty deserves more philosophical (and, let’s face it, theological) reflection.

Percy realizes, of course, that this type of narrative quest is at heart religious. We’re in trouble. We need help. And there’s a chance it might already have been given. What will we do in response? This is entertainingly distilled in a dialogue between several Earth astronauts (who are in trouble) orbiting “the third planet of [the star] Proxima Centauri” and an intelligent alien life form on the surface. The latter tells the astronauts that there are three types of consciousness—C1s, C2s, and C3s—and only certain types of conscious beings are allowed to land.

C1s possess “something like the consciousness of a child grown mature and sophisticated but maintaining its innocence permanently and avoiding the malformations of self-consciousness, enjoying the beauty of [their] planet and each other and [their] science and art without weariness, boredom, fear, guilt, or shame.”

A C2 consciousness has “fallen into the pit of itself.” “They are usually polite at first, but always turn hostile, deceptive, and end by attempting to screw [the aliens have consulted an “earth-slang dictionary”] . . . any creatures . . . which have an opening or a protuberance. . . . They [are] also sentimental and cruel—or rather sentimental, therefore cruel. One goes with the other. They are mainly interested in self-esteem.”

Finally, “a C3 consciousness is a C2 consciousness which has become aware of its predicament, sought help, and received it. . . . If a C1 meets with disaster, falls into the pit of itself, and becomes a C2, it must become aware of its sickness and seek a remedy in order to be restored to the preternaturality of C1.”

Guess which one we are?

Walker-Percy-Center-014.jpgSo what Percy does is to subtly craft a profoundly Christian narrative of creation, fall, and redemption. He imagines various beings in each of these three stages in terms of the self’s consciousness. Percy’s chastened, pessimistic understanding of human nature leads him to assume that if there are highly advanced alien civilizations somewhere out in the cosmos (i.e., C1s or C3s)—they certainly don’t want anything to do with us.

Though I’m still admittedly puzzling over how—or even whether—some of the plot details fit together, Nolan’s vision seems naive in comparison. There are, to be sure, some narrative subtleties to Interstellar. For instance, one of the film’s main villains, a character with the telling last name Mann, is lecturing his comrades, whom he has just betrayed, about the necessity of human progress no matter the cost when he is pulped mid-speech due to his own ineptitude and hubris. This bit acts as a strong counterpoint to the film’s more overtly optimistic tone. Nevertheless, the film’s hope for help from Outside closes in on itself in an infinite loop: “It’s love! We were talking to ourselves the whole time!” I think Nolan believes this is a beneficent humanism, but it sounds almost laughingly nihilistic. (The epigraph to Lost in the Cosmos is, significantly, by Nietzsche.) We C2s, remember, are “sentimental, therefore cruel.”

Lost in the Cosmos, a more truly hopeful book by far, closes on a haunting (or Christ-haunted), unsentimental note. A team of astronauts has returned to a desolate and devastated post–World War III earth after an ultimately unsuccessful voyage through space to investigate a “message” from what disappointingly turned out to be “a complex pulsar transmission in the radio frequencies” (i.e., not a message). However, these last remnants of the human race do in the end receive a message, “repeated many times,” from what turns out to be an “ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence).” The contents of the message (from God?) are the last lines of the book:

Repeat. Do you read? Do you read? Are you in trouble? How did you get in trouble? If you are in trouble, have you sought help? If you did, did help come? If it did, did you accept it? Are you out of trouble? What is the character of your consciousness? Are you conscious? Do you have a self? Do you know who you are? Do you know what you are doing? Do you love? Do you know how to love? Are you loved? Do you hate? Do you read me? Come back. Repeat. Come back. Come back. Come back.

So Interstellar reiterates, in a slightly altered form, the kind of story that Percy satirized thirty years ago. I don’t make this point so much to criticize the movie, which I in fact enjoyed very much, as just to say that I wish Nolan had read Percy, and learned from him. We might have had a wiser film, and a better one.

Jeff Reimer is a freelance writer and editor based in Newton, Kansas.

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