This essay is a lyric and a guess—thoughts about Wilma Deering and space opera and sound, because composer Pauline Oliveros said she loved Buck Rogers on the radio as a child—and so I want to begin with two facts about myself. Two things I already know connect. One: I didn’t know Pauline personally, but that’s not because we never met in person. I was Coordinator at the Naropa Summer Writing Program during Pauline’s last performance there, in 2016, and friends: Pauline and her wife IONE were the most clear, direct, smart folks to work with. Their only extra request was a vegan meal, of any kind. They were quick to laugh. Pauline was 84 and I remember she wore a purple sequined baseball cap both days, which made its own kind of music on the walls as it caught the light. “Sending you all best,” IONE emailed before the couple arrived. “Sounds just fine. Sounds like we’ll be fine. We’ll see you soon.”
The second fact is that I grew up around Seattle so know Fort Worden, where Deep Listening, one of Pauline’s legacy recordings and states of being, was recorded in 1989. Twenty years later we went on a high school retreat there, and I walked around in the dark with Deep Listening on my cheap drugstore headphones. The sound was poor, though I didn’t know that then, but I felt it—the sound—in my body in that space, and this seems important. I remember freaking out because the first noise was silence, which felt like death because I didn’t know anything about silence. Silence requires stillness, and I didn’t know how to be still. It is not a stretch to say Pauline helped me learn how.
I never asked Pauline about Wilma Deering, and of course Wilma is not some kind of cosmic cipher for Pauline. Pauline is her own, and I am not trying to explain her (or to write a biography). But we all know Pauline listened—she reminded herself to listen—and time and again she cited the Buck Rogers radio show as an important listening experience in her childhood. I wish I knew how Pauline sat by the radio—was she sitting in chairs like we are. Did she sit up straight or did she flop a little. Did she already have between-the-knee-space for the accordion. Was she lying prone. We know the body’s position is just as important as its shape—eardrums, fat, bones, all affect how we hear but so does their juxtaposition. Their unit. In this way, learning to listen from someone else is like learning to dance. I sat in the back of the room during Pauline’s SWP lectures, and consequently watched the purple sequin hat light more than her face.
“Most people don’t remember Wilma Deering,” Pauline told Steve Smith of the New York Times in 2012. “Wilma Deering was Buck Rogers’s co-pilot,” she said. “She was not only a woman in a co-pilot situation, but she was a lieutenant and then a colonel. This was a very advanced idea for 1932.” Pauline was born in 1932 too—I’m not sure how much Buck Rogers a baby could track, but that doesn’t really matter. What does is: we know Pauline listened to the sci-fi radio show, which first aired in fifteen-minute episodes Monday through Thursday, and that she loved Wilma Deering, who was voiced by Adele Ronson. “My process,” Pauline often said, “always begins with listening,” and so it isn’t nuts to think something began with Wilma too. Certainly Wilma had a humor to her that I don’t think is always represented in academic work about Pauline. I could hear her laugh across an auditorium.
Pauline was born in Houston 1932, Buck Rogers in August 1928 and Armageddon 2419 A.D., a novella written by Philip Francis Nowlan and published in Amazing Stories magazine. A second novella starring Rogers, The Airlord of Han, was published the following March. In these stories, Buck founds the American Radioactive Gas Corporation when he returns from World War One. But on December 15th, 1927, a mine shaft expodes in Pennsylvania, trapping Buck in “suspended animation” for 500 years. When he wakes up, he freaks out and roams the forest, setting traps, smacking rodents with clubs, and trying to survive this “psychic crisis.” Then he meets Wilma.
Keep that meeting in your mind—Buck and Wilma, and Pauline—while we switch to science fiction and space opera, which are the genre and subgenre of Buck Rogers. Science fiction, to quote Chip Delany, is anti-utopian. Which is different from the utopia/distopia binary—science fiction doesn’t waste time thinking about perfect cities, perfect wilderness, even perfect post-apocalyptic landscapes. Rather, it integrates. It imagines relationships, polyphony, dialogue, multiple perspectives—much like Pauline and her work do, and ask us to do too. Instead of imagining one perfect world, science fiction imagines how multiple worlds work together in harmony or dischord. It is, like Pauline’s work, about range and richness. Science is from the Latin: “to know.” Fiction, as we know, is truth too.
Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction, though it is linked more immediately to soap operas, which are called soap operas because they used to be sponsored by soap companies. One cool thing about space opera is that it does not include origin stories—it just dives in. It is. We don’t need to know how space travel happened, we just know we’re here, on Mars, right now. I look at the pictures—there are so many—of Pauline as the only woman in a room and think about space opera. We’re here, on Mars, right now. What’s next.
Like the soaps, space operas include war, melodramatic adventure, chivalric romance, and risk taking. There is a lot of action and a lot of virtue—and their opposites, entrapment and evil. In many cases, especially in pulp magazines, space opera was understood as the purest form of science fiction. Many magazines—Galaxy, for example—made fun of authors who “automatically switched over from crime waves to Earth invasions.” Here is one spoof:
Jets blasting, Bat Durston came screeching down through the atmosphere of Bbllzznaj, a tiny planet seven billion light years from Sol. He cut out his super-hyper-drive for the landing… and at that point, a tall, lean spaceman stepped out of the tail assembly, proton and gun blaster in a space-tanned hand.
“Get back from those controls, Bat Durston,” the tall stranger lipped thinly. “You don’t know it, but this is your last space trip.”
So—this is science fiction, but it isn’t space opera because it borrows from pre-existing worlds. Here too I think about Pauline as a pioneer—like, an actual pioneer actively exploring new territory, not “just” a word in a magazine describing someone who’s been around a while. A “seminal composer.” Barf. Deep Listening (it’s a book, as well as an album and a daily practice) begins with a quote from composer and inventor Lucia Dlugoszewski:
The first concern of all music in one way or another is to shatter the indifference of hearing, the callousness of sensibility, to create that moment of solution we call poetry, our rigidity dissolved when we occur reborn—in a sense hearing for the first time.
“When we occur reborn”—when Buck woke up in the cave. That said, for all the noise space opera makes about separating itself from historical context, it didn’t try very hard—broadly speaking, there are always exceptions—to separate itself from prejudice. The villains in Buck Rogers are Mongols who, after “subjugating the Russians,” zapped and melted American stone and metal with disintegrator rays from the sky. After this the “Yellow Blight” took over America. This doesn’t have anything to do with Pauline, but it is an important part of Buck Rogers and so it keeps me, you, us from loving the story as much as we might otherwise.
Buck Rogers lived in comics, movies, radio, multiple television shows, at the Chicago World’s Fair, and in movie serials. As Pauline only ever spoke to Adele Ronson’s Wilma Deering—in the records I found, at least—to the 1930s radio Wilma Deering, to listening, I will focus on this Wilma too. The Wilma on the radio. Her voice is her voice, and you can find it in the archive, but I’d describe it as Judy Garland mixed with Billie Burke. As Dorothy mixed with Glinda—sweet but a few more cigarettes in. In the serial Wilma is frequently referred to by her rank—Lieutenant, or Colonel—which cuts the sweetness even more. While listening to the shows in preparation for this talk, I noticed the lack of a theme song—rather, the sound at the start of Buck Rogers is a rushing rocket noise, not unlike an analog loop.
When Buck Rogers first meets Wilma he thinks she’s a boy. Also, America is a wreck—I don’t know how he knows this, waking up alone in a cave after a five hundred year sleep, but he does and so we believe him:
I awoke to find the America I knew a total wreck—to find Americans a hunted race in their own land, hiding in the dense forests that covered the shattered and leveled ruins of their once magnificent cities, desperately preserving, and struggling to develop in their secret retreats, the remnants of their culture and science—and the undying flame of their sturdy independence.
This passage could be about Making America Great Again or the fall of capitalism, which is another example of how space opera radicalizes by asking folks to listen. To look, which will ideally create empathy, and then to ask questions. Ideally this makes the questions hopeful. I like thinking about baby Pauline listening to these sounds: wild forests, flaming independence, ruined cities. What do we do next.
When Buck meets Wilma, he doesn’t notice her face, and so he doesn’t describe it to the reader at all. Instead, he notices her attention, which is “centered tensely” on a particularly dense part of the forest. She is doing this because the villains are about to run out of the trees and shoot at her. Wilma is wearing “rather tight-fitting garments,” all green, and a green helmet. She has a gun, and a combination belt / backpack. She is “queer,” “cautious,” and able to jump fifty feet in the air. It is not until the calm after the shootout that Buck realizes Wilma “is very slender, and very pretty,” so she must be a girl. Of course we know that it is dumb to assume someone’s gender purely because you want to make out with them, perhaps especially if they are a green outer space athlete. But that’s outside the scope of this essay.
Next, while she is unconscious and able to give consent, Buck Rogers bathes Wilma’s face and battle wound. When she wakes up, Buck tells her his story—500 years in suspense, etc.—and, beautifully, she believes him. She acknowledges that it’s a hard thing to believe, but she does. In this way listening leads to companionship, not codependency, and ultimately this changes a world. Next Wilma asks if Buck’s married, and he says no, and she is relieved simply because that makes it easier to bring him back to camp. And so, we have Wilma Deering: a strong, smart ranking officer who can fire her own weapon and decide her own truth.
As her story continues—again, because this is a space opera we receive facts and fully-developed worlds, not epic histories—we learn that Wilma is an unmarried orphan who lives with seven other girls. She works in military and police scouting, and factory work. Her main tools at both these gigs are rockets and cloth. She is elegant on the battlefield, leaping around and protecting her friends, but kind of a klutz off it. At one point she just dives headlong into a wall and knocks herself unconscious. I laughed out loud at these moments. I think about Pauline taking herself towards the moon.
Wilma and Buck do “make love” (Buck’s phrase), but they do not really court each other, and anyway Buck talks about Wilma’s brain much more than he does her body, which is always just “slender.” However her brain is “studious,” “reflective,” sincere. I imagine myself hearing this story as a child and just feeling relieved about the relationship. I knew what a “smart brain” was, specifically. I didn’t know specifically about “making love” but I didn’t really want to. I wanted to leap around and protect my friends.
So instead of being sexy (though of course she was, especially later on in the television shows and a satin rainbow of bodysuits), Wilma is an ideal companion because she protects, and she is brave and smart. And autonomous. In fact, one night on a mission in the forest, Wilma is the one who propositions Buck. As the two fall asleep together, cuddled up because it’s cold, she “makes some sleepy remark about our mating… as though the matter were all settled.” Buck remembers “my surprise at my own instant acceptance of the idea, for I had not consciously thought of her that way before.” Do we trust him? Maybe. Though in the morning, “we found little time for love making. The practical problem facing us was too great.” The two seem to have a connection that doesn’t need words but doesn’t really need sex either. I know there have been times in my life, particularly in my youth, when this was a dreamboat situation. If I could have also worn shiny tangerine onesies and jumped higher than trees, I would have been so happy. I am not talking about being squicked-out by sex, or not. I am talking about knowing what you want and need, so immediately, that you have words for it, and then you can say these words aloud, and your companion understands them.
I believe in the wisdom of this kind of clarity, this kind of childishness, and have learned that it’s wise not because it’s naïve but because it’s essential. Companionship, texture, height: done. Pauline’s writing contains this kind of essence too—Deep Listening is almost completely without purple passages, and I think the reviews of it that do are often missing the point. The wisdom. Again, Wilma and Pauline are always listening and acting, not projecting. Wilma doesn’t ask Buck if he wants to come back to camp with her, she asks him if she’s married. Pauline doesn’t write about how people feel, she writes how the brain works. She asks people to imagine. She asks them to imagine heart energies traveling out into the universe as a healing for all victims and toward the end of violence. This sounds incredibly complicated, but when I look at the sentence structure I realize I’m just being asked to try. I don’t have to solve it alone. We’re here, on Mars, right now. What’s next.
Wilma knocks herself unconscious in multiple episodes, and she is often adventuring alone, but she is never out of communication with Buck. This is an active state. When Buck tells Wilma he might die on a solo mission, she just looks at him, says she’s proud, and asks for details. At one point, she leaps through the air and stabs an enemy in the neck. Wilma is a listener, a protector, but she also acts.
At the end of Airlords of Han—I’m not spoiling anything here, and yes the book is deeply connected to the radio show—America is reclaimed, and “the most glorious and noble era of scientific civilization in the history of the American race [sic] begins.” Because this beginning is largely thanks to Buck and Wilma, and because Buck is alive because of Wilma, it is not a stretch to say that Wilma saves the world because of deep listening.
Towards the end of Deep Listening, Pauline responds to a question about how she instills creativity—art, making, action. “The most important thing for me,” she writes, “is facilitating a community of creative interest. Creativity is inborn—a birthright that is often suppressed by social imperatives”—or, say, disintegrator rays falling from the sky—“so it is not about instilling. That would not be free. I don’t think energy can be designed.
“I believe that facilitating a listening, caring, and sharing environment is an invitation to creative work.” Indeed, in all versions of the Buck Rogers story, there is an abstract period of peace after the war is over and before the deaths of Buck and Wilma, “courageous mates of bloody days.” I like to think that they spent some of this time listening in chairs or on the floor, prone, between-the-knee-space for the accordion—however baby Pauline listened to the Buck Rogers radio show. In this way our bodies become echoes, curves, sinusoids, laps. Like IONE said, Pauline is in the music. When you miss her, listen. We’re here, on Mars, right now. What’s next.
This essay was first written for Legacies of Pauline Oliveros, a symposium at Brooklyn College in November 2017. Thanks to Doug Geers, David Grubbs, and Daphne Carr.