Jeff Zentner is the recipient of the William C. Morris Award, the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award, and the International Literacy Association Award, among others, and has been twice nominated for the Carnegie Medal. He is the author of The Serpent King, a New York Times Notable Book and the highly acclaimed Goodbye Days. His latest novel is Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee.

 

“My battery is low, and it’s getting dark.”

– the last words of the Mars rover Opportunity

This month, NASA reported that the Mars rover Opportunity had made its final transmission. Word swept the Internet like the Martian dust storm that engulfed Opportunity, dooming it. In this news’ wake, people lined up to give anthropomorphized eulogies for Opportunity. I heard many express how emotional the story of the deceased machine made them, but also wondering why it touched them so profoundly. It was, after all, only a machine. I was one of them, and it got me thinking. Here’s why the news affected me:

There are vessels in which we pour our humanity, and they act as proxies for us, expressing human qualities. A shoe is not a foot. But when we put our foot into it, it becomes one. It becomes us.

So after the foot is gone from the shoe, and the shoe discarded by the roadside, perhaps we mourn the shoe’s aloneness and emptiness as the death of its ability to act as us. The death of its humanness-by-proxy. And so the death of a little piece of us.

Opportunity was a small, metal piece of our collective human heart, containing our best qualities as a species. Our curiosity. Our desire to understand the universe. Our restless drive to explore and expand our world and knowledge.

It acted as this vessel for these worthy human traits far from home and alone, on a desolate and forbidding planet where no human has ever stood. And so it embodied yet another human quality—courage.

It’s only natural to mourn the death of the light of curiosity and courage, even when those things find expression in machine form. We see in that dying vessel our own mortality. We remember that one day, we will all say, in our own way, My battery is low and it’s getting dark. We know that every attempt to bring us back from sleep will fail. We understand that our curiosity and courage can’t save us. They can only make our brief lives worth living.

I found it fitting to reflect on these things as I stand on the verge of launching my third book, Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee, into the world. Sometimes we send explorers to the new world. Sometimes we send the new world to the explorers. As authors, our stories and characters are the repositories into which we pour our humanity, our best selves. They are the habitations we build for the imaginary people who won’t let us rest until we’ve called them from the ether, into being. These stories, these characters become the emblems for those things we find beautiful and worthy.

Just as NASA with Opportunity, we have no guarantee that the tiny piece of our spirit we send out will accomplish what we hope it will accomplish, or reach who we hope it will reach. We know that someday it will be covered in dust, hidden from the light that sustains it. But we do this work anyway, because we have to. This is what makes us human: we send pieces of ourselves into the wilderness to flower and fade, to live and die. And in so doing, to make our universe and the possibilities it holds a little larger.

 

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