Whale song seemed to belong as much to a forgotten Earth in need of conservation, a quiet age of sail living only in the annals of human memory, as it did to Cold War technoscience, the search for extraterrestrial life, and a future in which we would be remembered by alien listeners long after we were gone. It came from elsewhere and was destined still elsewhere—haunted, distant, endangered, prehistoric, futuristic, transient, astro-nautical, exiled, extra terrestrial, a sound at the very edge of personhood, speech, music, life, habitat, “Earth,” but squarely in the sweet spot of longing.
People have been painting celestial bodies for thousands of years, but only after World War II, as space programs flourished, did the field evolve into a thriving subgenre, and an occupation in its own right; with new technology came a new lust for imagery. NASA, founded in 1958, has commissioned space art since its inception, and along with the European Space Agency it’s sponsored artists’ residencies over the years. “It could be argued that NASA owes its very existence to space artists,” Jon Ramer, president of the International Association of Astronomical Artists, told me in an email. The IAAA currently stands at 120 members worldwide, and serves as a sort of hub connecting the community.
Childress, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, has performed a remarkable feat of investigative reporting, interviewing dozens of writers, editors, and readers, and even embedding himself for a time as an intern at an indie publishing house, to follow the tortuous path of Cornelia Nixonâs 2009 historical novel Jarrettsville from inspiration to publication and beyond. Unfortunately, because Childress is a social scientist and Under the Cover is part of the Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology series, readers have to drill through layers of academic framing and insider jargon to find the nuggets Childress has mined from his years of research.
This is a shame because, whatever his gifts as a sociologist, Childress is a first-rate shoe-leather reporter.
At times, the moralizing about the environment and humans’ role in global warming can come across a bit heavy-handedly. But increasing awareness of the earth’s fraught future, in the end, is not the main thing the novel is trying to do. Instead, it wants you to consider what it is you feel deeply about—whether that’s achieving fame, standing by traditions, or protecting your family—and then consider whether you would sacrifice those things for the greater good.