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May 21, 2015

Book Notes - Margaret Lazarus Dean "Leaving Orbit"

Leaving Orbit

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, Margaret Lazarus Dean's Leaving Orbit is a thoughtful and rewarding discourse on American manned spaceflight.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Beguiled at an early age by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Dean (English/Univ. of Tennessee; The Time It Takes to Fall, 2007) deftly chronicles the history of American spaceflight and what the end of the space program means for American culture."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Margaret Lazarus Dean's Book Notes music playlist for her book Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight:


While I was writing Leaving Orbit, I thought I might write a Book Notes about the music I was listening to during the events chronicled here—mostly whatever was on Top 40 radio: Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Lady Gaga. But then I wrote about these artists and the strange effects of their songs within the book, and a Book Notes about them would have seemed redundant. So instead I want to reach back to the space-inflected songs of the past, distant and recent, that have some connection with the topic of the book: our emotional connections to the history of American spaceflight.


David Bowie, "Space Oddity" (1969)
A list of great space music could conceivably consist of just this song. Listen to it, right now, knowing that it was released less than two weeks before the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969. This song is about that achievement but also noticeably not about it at all; it constructs its own science fiction universe and then openly asks us to compare Bowie's fantasy with the bewildering reality. It sounds older than Apollo yet also much younger, both fresher and more cynical. It's simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and heartrendingly sincere, and, it must be pointed out, it’s a deathless masterpiece of mope rock.

Commander Chris Hadfield, "Space Oddity" (2013)
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield brought a guitar with him into space. He could have made this cover lighthearted—it's the obvious thing to do when recording a song about a late-sixties fantasy of spaceflight from within an actual orbiting space station in the 21st century. Instead, Hadfield seizes on the sincerity in Bowie's original and leans right into it, slowing it down and simplifying the instrumentation (including his own guitar and voice recorded on ISS). He has rewritten the lyrics (again avoiding the temptation to make this a goof) and in his revisions makes the song an elegy to Major Tom's voyage, now over, as indeed Hadfield's nearly was. "Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing left to do."

I happened to see a link to this on social media within a few minutes after it was posted, and I'm so glad I did. I clicked on it having no idea what I was going to see, and so was able to place the opening chords for myself. Those chords play over an establishing shot of the International Space Station in orbit, followed by the opening shot of Hadfield: in a long take over the opening instrumental, Hadfield gazes out the window at the Earth rotating below him, turns to us, and sings the first line with utter sincerity, looking as though he is losing something he loves. If you can resist that, we have nothing in common. Nothing.

Spiritualized, "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space" (1997)
Yes, the lyrics have almost nothing to do with anything related to space; it's a vague love cry like so much of Spiritualized and Spacemen 3. But I always think of this song when I think of music about spaceflight because of those little transmission beeps throughout the distorted vocals. Gorgeous and perfect.

The Billy Nayer Show, The American Astronaut soundtrack (2001)
I went to see The American Astronaut without knowing what it would be: the poster showed an astronaut in full space suit carrying a pressurized kitty carrier. The film was billed as a "space western musical," and, my friends, that's precisely what it is. The American Astronaut is a strange black-and-white masterpiece about an astronaut stuck in the wrong time—but what time is he from? The film and its songs invoke the strange, mostly unspoken relationship between the space program an the American fantasy of the frontier. I'd go anywhere to see it again.

The Orb, "Supernova at the End of the Universe" (1991)
If you ever hit a dance floor in the early nineties, you will remember The Orb's breakout hit "Little Fluffy Clouds," a rambling interview of a young woman about her childhood over relentless house beats. The track that follows on the album is "Supernova at the End of the Universe," a techno concoction that mixes the sounds of Apollo 11 (mostly rocket burn and ground-to-crew transmissions) with a driving dance beat. Certain lines are picked out and spoken over and over: "Go ahead with the translunar injection burn." "Astronauts report it feels good." "You can go ahead with the TV now." And in the unmistakable voice of Buzz Aldrin: "absolutely fantastic." It's a bit sad to remember that by the late-nineties, club kids had no connection to these sounds whatsoever, and most probably had no idea what they were hearing any more than they knew that "Little Fluffy Clouds" featured the voice of Rickie Lee Jones.

Lastly, listen to all of these Bad Panda Records tracks, constructed completely from archival NASA recordings including rocket sounds, radio transmissions, and crew chatter.


Margaret Lazarus Dean and Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
The Riveter review

Deborah Kalb interview with the author
Houston Chronicle profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Time It Takes to Fall
The Riveter interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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