Venus, Seen Unclearly
I had a Venus epiphany yesterday.
I’ve been so busy writing about the great Martian dust storm of 1971 – one that covered the entire surface of Mars, upsetting the Mariner 9 mission – that I’d paid less attention to our other planetary neighbor. While the Martian storm was transient, lasting a few months before dissipating, Venus retains its dense cloud cover always. Made mostly of carbon dioxide, the clouds create a mega-greenhouse effect on the planet’s surface, with temperatures 400 – 700 degrees F. If there ever were water on the planet’s surface, it would have long since evaporated. In short, Venus is quite an inhospitable place.
I’d named my character Venus after Lowell Observatory’s beloved cow, but the harsh conditions on the planet also fit her. Like a lot of young people back in the seventies, she’s trying to “find herself,” but struggling and failing in her efforts. She’s a loner, keeping even her mother at arms’ length, engaging in transient sexual encounters she finds unsatisfying; her road trip in the story that parallels Mariner 9’s trip to Mars seems to be her ultimate effort at self-discovery – now reinforced by her inheritance of her Great Aunt Lulu’s journal.
In 1971, earlier Mariner missions had already sent spaceships flying by Venus, their cameras transmitting photos not of the planet, but of the clouds covering it. There was nothing there to see. Maybe my character Venus is similarly structured – so much covering her true self that there’s nothing to be seen, or known.
When she first goes to work at JPL, she’s pressured by male co-workers to enter the “Miss Solar System” contest (an event that actually used to take place there), mostly because of her name. “Put on some makeup, hike up your miniskirt, tame that hair and you’ll win for sure,” one of the men tells her. He’s only looking at the surface, but it’s not totally his fault – that’s all she shows him, or anyone.
This makes Venus a difficult character to write, as her true self is hidden even from her and all her efforts at self-discovery will end in failure. She will carry her “cloud cover” with her forever.