Opportunity Knocks

Sarah Cave – Persistence Valley (Knives, Forks & Spoons Press, 2020)

Up on Mars, the Curiosity Rover is still trundling along. As I write this, it has just taken a series of selfies, updating its social media feed with pictures from the surface of Mars.

The Curiosity follows in the footprints, or rather the tyre-tracks, of the more primitive Rovers that came before it. Among these were Spirit, active from 2004 to 2010, and Opportunity, active from 2004 to 2018.

Where Curiosity’s viral moment came with its arrival on Mars and the live footage it broadcast back to Earth, Opportunity is famous for its (admittedly apocryphal) last words. Before finally signing off, the story goes, it sent a last message down to its creators on Earth: “my battery is low and it’s getting dark”.

The final journey of Opportunity is the subject of Sarah Cave’s new book-length poetry cycle Persistence Valley. It is a work of poignance, creativity, and visual ingenuity. Not science-fictional so much as science-poetical, it brings a weight of meaning to a subject that should, by rights, be sublime and yet is so often lost in the dry technicalities.

The space race is over. We don’t have the satisfaction of beating other countries to things. But quietly, in the background, our horizons are expanding. Our vision as the human race is opening to the universe.

This is not enough, it seems. It’s enough for a moment of quiet reflection, yes, but to really ruminate on, to build epic sagas, myth cycles and quests on, it somehow seems too thin, too small. The more contemporary sci-fi I read, the more saddened I become at its disinterest with actual science.

Persistence Valley poses a solution to this imaginative deficit. She doesn’t so much humanize the Opportunity Rover as textualise it. It is a character, Jim, but not as we know it.

The pages of Persistence Valley are all full-colour prints. We read the journey of the Rover through a green holographic viewport. Onto the viewport float words, fragmented in a way that recalls systems operations running, but is in fact the fractured surface of contemporary post-concrete poetry.

The presentation places the poetry in an ambiguous relationship to the reader. We suspect this to be a first-person narrative, read from a viewport as it is, and yet, if this is so, Opportunity is referring to itself in the third-person throughout. Instead, we realise, this is a computer running reports for itself. We are watching, outsiders, like ground control, not being addressed directly but receiving readouts.

As the poem progresses, Cave introduces us to the servo-arms that accompany Opportunity – Mario and Luigi – technically operated from afar and so not part of its core functioning. We also establish a relationship with Spirit, only for her to tragically power down and leave Opportunity wandering on alone.

Cave is not anthropomorphizing Opportunity so much as feeling human sentiments for her. We get no sense that Opportunity feels and thinks, but we are encouraged to think of it as a her, and to feel for her. Cave recognizes the poetry that humans can find in the inanimate. Objects don’t need minds to become characters. And we care about characters.

When the book comes to its inevitable conclusion, battery draining and darkness falling, the poignancy of Opportunity’s loss, its sacrifice, is deeply felt.

Persistence Valley is a book that blends science and the new post-concrete poetics in a truly meaningful way. KF&S Press have done a wonderful job with the presentation, the extra expense of colour printing makes this book feel particularly special.

I’d highly recommend taking the opportunity to get hold of this excellent book today.

– Joe Darlington

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