If you haven't read the Spanish writer Javier Marías, you're really missing out. His three-volume Your Face Tomorrow is a stunning literary achievement, may be the best book of the past decade. Just to get a taste of his work, though, check out his short piece, "Airships," in the newly released anthology The Best Technology Writing 2010. The story, which first appeared in Granta, is a bouncy riff on the odd relationships we develop with different kinds of technologies.
Marías begins with his own fear of flying, detailing his need to act as an imaginary co-pilot, who must remain "attentive not only to any possible changes of mood in the engines, or to the plane's recognizable or unexpected noises, or to its scheduled or unscheduled ups and downs." Apparently, the only way he's gotten over his phobia is to carry and caress a wooden plane figurine given to him by a stewardess.
"And that same air hostess, as well as recounting a few anecdotes from her long experience in the air, made me think of planes, for the first time, as relatively 'humanizable' objects, which one could, in a way, and depending on the circumstances, mentally direct," Marías writes. "Not that there's anything very remarkable about that. Indeed, it's perfectly normal. She told me in her letter that whenever the plane she was on lurched or bumped about a bit or jolted, she would issue a silent order: 'Down, boy!' Yes, an order, an exorcism, a persuasive word."
He then delves into a gorgeous historical treatment of the way we treated ships, the ones that ply the seas. They got prominent names, respect, and even a gendered pronoun in English ("She was a good catamaran.") He quotes Joseph Conrad: Ships are "not exactly what men make them. They have their own nature; they can of themselves minister to our self-esteem by the demand their qualities make upon our skill and their shortcomings upon our hardiness and endurance."
Airplanes, airships, deserve that kind of love and admiration, Marías argues. "In fact, given how often we travel in planes, the odd thing about our relationship with them - those complex machines endowed with movement to which we surrender ourselves and that transport us through the air - is that it isn't more 'personal', or more 'animal', or more 'sailor-like', if you prefer."
Our planes need names and histories befitting a vessel humans use to knit civilization across the globe. Marías requests that the airlines give their planes "a little more literature or - which comes to the same thing - a little uniqueness; a little history and background; a little life."
One day soon, he imagines, you'll be sitting in a plane and hear this coming from the cockpit or nearby flight attendant:
'This plane, the Pierre Ménard, has had an amazing life so far. It was born ten years ago, has made five hundred flights and crossed the Atlantic on sixty-three previous occasions. It has always responded well to us, even in the most unfavourable of circumstances. It's a docile plane by nature, but very sensitive as well. Why, I remember once...'
I loved Marías' story and attitude to technology so much that I decided to take up his call to action. I got in touch with Katie Baynes, who does publicity for Virgin America, and demanded to know the names of all their planes. She sent over the list at the bottom of this post. The name should be painted near the door of the plane, so you can often spot it as you're boarding.