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Only the Astronauts by Ceridwen Dovey review – playful and deeply moving close encounters
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Only the Astronauts by Ceridwen Dovey review – playful and deeply moving close encounters

Telling stories from the perspectives of dead animals was, Ceridwen Dovey admits, “a tiny bit nutty”. Only the Astronauts – a “sequel of sorts” to her book Only the Animals – is a bolder and madder venture again. This time Dovey’s first-person narrators are inanimate objects which have been launched into outer space, including the International Space Station; the Voyager 1 space probe; a mannequin by the name of Starman; a sculpture on the moon (containing Neil Armstrong’s spirit); and a tampon that once belonged to Sally Ride.

The “tamponaut” declares that if anyone considers her ridiculous, then they “clearly don’t understand that most space missions are performative and symbolic above all else”. She could be defending Dovey here, who is troubled by the “spectre of ridiculousness” haunting books like hers.

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Dovey’s object-astronauts cannot communicate with humans but they study them with anthropological curiosity. Toothpaste, unlike food, is spat out; the “funny soft tubes” at the end of human legs turn out not to be permanently attached. The narrators lament humans’ grandiosity, hierarchies and belief in their own exceptionality. Ivan Ivanovich, the mannequin used for testing Vostok spacecraft, is disappointed that, after his “great service to humankind”, Yuri Gagarin took all the credit. The space station, who regards itself as a home, is hurt when some of its human inhabitants coldly describe their departure as ‘“deorbiting” or “end-of-life disposal”. Space exploration’s official history may be one of heroism and conquest but the objects’ omniscient gaze exposes another hidden reality of human scale: rifts over personal space and personal hygiene; heartache, longing and pretence.

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The object-narrators are particularly attuned to human language; its blind spots and shortcomings. Once upon a time, Armstrong’s spirit reminds us, there were no words to describe oceans or forests but gradually humans found them. In turn, he grapples to describe the moonscape; to capture in words the quality of its light; its highlands and rilles. The narrators also point out gaps in the (human) astronauts’ emotional vocabularies. These people are sometimes conscious of “a blank space where there should be new words for new feelings”, but, tending to be practical, obedient sorts, are “not necessarily the type to dwell on this absence”.

“But what does it say about humans,” asks the space station, “that, in thirty years, they never got around to sending me the people who might properly put this way of life into words, and thus into perspective?”

For all its imaginative flights, Only the Astronauts is grounded in actual space history, lending the book a strange veracity. Some facts feel invented: Ivanovich’s body was stuffed with mice and a recipe for cabbage soup; the Voyager’s Golden Record, sent into space as a message from humanity to aliens, contained sound recordings of thunder, whale song and laughter. Space tourism, toxic space junk, international rivalries and protocols: all are integrated into Dovey’s narrative, as are references to various personalities (Buzz, Yuri, Musk) and spacecraft (Zvezda; Cupola). As with the writerly history underpinning Only the Animals, these details are woven in convincingly and seamlessly.

As well as being a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction, Dovey is a science writer. Only the Astronauts draws on this expertise but the reader never suspects an agenda. To provide but one example: in her journalism, Dovey has criticised the “overview effect”, and how it serves the commercial interests of space industry entrepreneurs. She doesn’t employ that term here but does make reference to the feelings of “transcendent oneness with all creatures on the planet” that some astronauts experience on seeing the Earth from afar. One astronaut questions what use this is if the “terrible reality” of life for many people can’t be seen. What if, she asks, we are not “all in this together”?

In its wild inventiveness, and its deft marriage of the playful and the profound, Only the Astronauts brings to mind the work of Max Porter’s Lanny. His Dead Papa Toothwort is an ancient shape-shifting spirit who watches and listens to humanity, loving the “creaturely” child Lanny with the sort of tenderness Dovey’s objects feel for their humans.

And, like Porter, Dovey is stylistically innovative. One passage consists of a girl emailing chunks of her freshly written screenplay to her grandmother (who is actually a tampon salvaged from a trip into space). In short, aspects of this collection really shouldn’t work. But in Dovey’s sure hands they do. For a book filled with metal objects, Only the Astronauts is suffused with immense feeling. Dovey wouldn’t see this as a contradiction: in literature, she observes, it’s generally when there’s an overload of feeling that writers will turn to narrators of the non-human kind.

As with any kind of travel to an unfamiliar location, entering Dovey’s world requires a degree of adjustment. But, once acclimatised, readers will fall under the spell of her voices, and have the sense, on finishing, of having ventured into a place of unusual and unearthly beauty.

  • Only the Astronauts by Ceridwen Dovey is published by Penguin Random House

Source: theguardian.com