“Why, once, did moths singe the tapestries of their wings in candle flames? Why, once, did the cinder-laden parachutes of fireworks so excite us? And, again, why did certain crazies—fools or saints—sometimes steep themselves in petrol and torch themselves to carbon?
Why, in short, do we long to blaze?
Ever since I turned twelve, I've known. Only a minuscule fraction of the stuff of our universe glows. The rest, the bulk, drifts in darkness, unmoored or rudely tugged. The cold vast black of interstellar night cloaks it from our eyes, our telescopes, our roachlike searchings. We belong to the part that does not glow, to the swallowing dark.
Why wonder, then, that a yearning to leap into the furnace, to god-fashion ourselves in fire, drives us starward on the engines of a mute cri de coeur?” (1)
Such is the brilliance upon which Michael Bishop’s 1994 novella Cri de Coeur (roughly translated to Cry of the Heart) opens. A presentation of life onboard a generation starship and the hope for humans beyond the solart system, the poetic prose continues throughout, giving the story a rich flavor.
Cri de Coeur is the story of Abel Gwiazda, a Tanzanian adopted to Polish parents (his last name means ‘star’ in Polish), and his time on the Annie Jump Cannon in its 100 year flight to New Home. The planet thought to be able to support life based on astronomics research on Earth, Gwiazda, the soil scientist, hurtles through the blackness of space spending most of his time in the bioracks, woken one month of the year in cycles with the 1,500 other crew members to carry out the necessary tasks of life aboard the massive wheelship. Desiring a child in flight, he contracts Lily Aliosi-Stark, and together the two give birth to a boy with Down’s Syndrome named Dean. Life aboard the thirty-three mile long ship anything but utpoic, Gwiazda must deal with fellow crew members, the fear of space, and the uncertainty of their destination if he is to survive with heart and mind intact.
I have read several summaries/reviews of Cri de Coeur and none agree on the main thrust of the novella. Given the opening quote above, it would seem there is a strong parallel to Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars; life is dynamic, part of which includes man’s physical and ideological pursuit of the great unknown, the universe. But I can also see it would be easy to look in other directions. Bishop using chunks of story to highlight different aspects of life aboard Annie Jump Cannon, there are sections relating to unexpected tragedy, healing broken relationships, playing the cards life deals you, remembering the past, the relativity of failure, and, having to say goodbye.
Underlining this dynamism is the inclusion of several poems. Each of vastly different tone and structure (save the haiku contest), their inclusion enriches the narrative, as well as providing additive digressions from what is otherwise a straight-forward narrative. Bishop an accomplished poet (if the opening quote is not enough of an indication…), the pieces complement and enhance the story.
In the end, Cri de Coeur is the story of a man’s trip aboard a generation starship and the life experiences he has along the way. Bishop floating the story along like a raft on a river, there are moments of peace and pleasantness, others where decisions are required, and still others where all a person can do is stand and watch as powers larger than life take control. A quietly optimistic story, readers may not find the story to be Bishop’s best, but an engaging narrative nevertheless.