Alien signals

I have mem­o­ries of long-ago Sun­day nights on the road, my sis­ter and I drowsing in the back seat, our parents driving us home from a visit to our grandpar­ents, all ears turned in the dark­ness toward a pub­lic radio show called Hearts of Space.

Usually it played against the flash­ing lights of I-696, a Death Star trench of a high­way near Detroit; otherworldly. The host intro­duced each episode basso profundo, lips against the mic. An hour of droning, chim­ing ambi­ent music followed. I’m not sure I ever under­stood exactly what I was hearing. It was an alien signal.

More or less contemporaneously, I subscribed to a zine about video games called Next Generation. (There’s no rela­tion­ship to the mag­a­zine of the same name.) I became aware of its pub­lish­ers in the forums on Prodigy, a crusty AOL competitor. They were a lit­tle older than me; high school kids. I think I only ever got two issues — black and white, stapled, clearly a Kinko’s production — and they, too, were alien sig­nals. I read them and reread them, reduced them to tatters. It was ado­les­cent stuff, noth­ing radical, but full of strange names and strange voices. The zines came from far away (California) and the only way to learn more about this group, this scene, was to wait for another issue.

A while ago, I interviewed the writer and musi­cian John Darnielle in San Francisco. His novel Wolf in White Van is full of the plea­sure and mystery of send­ing away for things, and that feel­ing is drawn from Darnielle’s life. In person, he speaks vividly about the era dur­ing which indie music was all tapes in the mail. If you wanted to hear some­thing new and weird and great, you sent away for it. Time passed; a tape arrived. I mean, that is straight-up magic. The delay, the distance, the mys­tery.

I’m no nostalgist, and even if I was, there’s no going back, but I do won­der what sort of expe­ri­ence might pro­vide that alien-signal feel­ing for sub­ur­ban kids today? Sub­ur­ban grown-ups, too. Has the inter­net sim­ply anni­hi­lated it? I mean, Hearts of Space has a web­site. It’s really good! Today, if you dis­cover the show on a Sun­day night, you can pull out your phone and access the entire archive instantly.

I don’t want it to die out, this feel­ing. How might we send new sig­nals to be received by new kids in new back seats, fer­ried home by new par­ents on new nights, all ears turned in dark­ness, as always, towards the mys­tery?

January 2015, Berkeley