One Day, Maybe

Longer Boats
Cat Stevens

One Day, Maybe

Pebble in the Sky Cover
Isaac Asimov

I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, my father was an aerospace engineer and I grew up with the space program. I also grew up with science fiction and the belief that very shortly, probably in my lifetime, we would be visiting other planets with an eye turned to other galaxies. Many thought that before long we would be seeing photographs resembling this cover illustration from one of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction novels. But somewhere between then and now other things began to occupy the culture’s interests. The song Longer Boats enjoyed a bit of popularity in the early 70’s and it is, as the singer tells us, about space ships. But the space ships never arrived, except in the movies.

In the movies the space ships brought two kinds of folks. There were those like ET who looked frightening to us (as we looked frightening to him) and the alien with his robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still who were either just curious and met us no harm or were actively committed to our welfare and saving us from ourselves. On the other hand there were those, like the folks in the Twilight Zone episode “How to Serve Man” or The Invaders from Mars that were committed to our destruction. There were also creatures like The Blob who were just hungry and had no real thoughts for us at all.

Martian Sunset Spirit Rover
NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD)

This photograph probably comes as close as any to resembling the cover art found on the science fiction novels of my youth. It is of the sunset on Mars and was taken by one of the Martian “rovers” that have spent quite a long time exploring the surface of this planet. It takes my breath away every time I see it. This is not a painting but the actual surface of another planet as it looked on a certain day. There are no people there to share in this experience only the machines we have sent in our place, but this is the real dirt and dust and mist of Mars. There are some for whom the spirit of exploration has not died who would like to see this story taken a step further and to see people walk this land. But I am not sure that there are any longer enough who are committed to making this happen. Our budgets are smaller and our interests closer to home.

There were a couple of articles recently, one in the Los Angeles Times on the science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson (“Kim Stanley Robinson maps the future’s gray areas”) and one in the Washington Post on “New science fiction and fantasy novels” that remind us that science fiction as a genre has not gone away even if the desire to make it fact has somewhat abated. These writers often focus on this planet and how life on it might be different in the future or, in the case of Robinson in the past in ways that affect the future. Science fiction writers have always enjoyed imagining a future earth that has been transformed by human misbehavior. There is one story I particularly enjoy about a man working on his doctoral dissertation who is coaxed through an opening in the wall of his apartment to a parallel universe. What fascinates me about this story is that nearly every character in it is the man writing his dissertation at different points in time. But it was Ray Bradbury’s journey to Mars that awakened my imagination to the possibility of one day doing on Mars what the Martian Rover is doing now.

Galaxy Photograph (Crossfield/Beletsky)
NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD)

The image above is a photograph taken of a distant galaxy. I think it was taken from the Hubble telescope orbiting in space, but I am not sure. But it, and others like it, resembles paintings made by Jackson Pollack, or at least these photographs suggest Pollack’s paintings to me. I do not know if Pollack had an interest in science fiction or astronomy but this resemblance interests me. Is the universe, like a Pollack painting, somewhat chaotic in its organization or do the kaleidoscopic displays of colors and patterns in both the painting and the universe suggest creative imaginations that think alike. The resemblance certainly suggests that art does not need to be representational to be beautiful.

Perhaps the imagination that sees beauty in random placements of color on canvas is not unlike the imagination that sees stories in the stars. We look at the stars and see bits of color on a dark night sky but our ancient ancestors saw bears and hunters and creatures of various kinds going about their business. Perhaps what we call mythology was a kind of ancient science fiction. That those that told these stories got the same thrill from them that I got from Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein. I am told, and what I have read of the mythology suggest this is true, that the classical mythmakers believed the stories they told, that they were not merely the products of vivid imaginations but a kind of history. Plato believed (or suggested he believed) that those that told the stories of Homer and the other classical writers of myth were possessed, were not in their right minds, but a bit mad. Many think the same thing about Pollack and painters like him. Perhaps his is a mythic madness as well.

Lavender Mist
Jackson Pollack

The stories change us though or at least they changed me. The myths from antiquity suggest we live in a universe populated by many strange and wonderful beings. The science fiction I read as a child and as a young adult and still read to this very day, suggest the same thing about the universe, that it is inhabited by strange and wonderful beings and if some of the beings that inhabit these stories are not kind or benevolent, well, the same was true of many of the beings that inhabited the popular myths of the ancient world.

But what makes a storyteller. As I have grown up I have seen film become the avenue of modern storytelling. I have seen its special effects grow from the sparks that propelled Flash Gordon’s space ship to the warp speeds of starships and the grace and elegance with which these starships moved. But it also seems that as the ability to make magic with special effects increased these effects started to replace the stories. Aristotle acknowledged the place of spectacle in story telling but he believed that spectacle oughtn’t to become the story but should always serve the story.

James Cameron TED Talk

James Cameron talks here about his love of science fiction and of how that love helped to shape him into a storyteller. Like many skillful storytellers he has been accused of borrowing his stories from others. There is probably some truth to this; there are only so many stories to tell, after all. But he creates worlds where wonderful and at times terrifying things happen. Do his stories exploit their special effects, does the spectacle over shadow the stories his films tell? Some think so. But even if they have their limitations they are powerful. Personally I have been more troubled by the limitations of some of his actors than by the inadequacy of his stories.

Three Suns (JPL)
NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD)

It probably does not matter that much of what happens in a good science fiction story uses flawed science, they are exercises in what might be and perhaps in the worlds they travel different rules apply. How would we be different if we orbited three different suns that appeared at different places against the sky? The three sunned landscape of this illustration has a kind of beauty and I wonder what kind of life could develop on such a planet. But how does imagining such things make life better on a planet with one sun?

There is something in the human character that is curious and wants to know even if there is no practical value to knowing a thing or in speculating about an outcome. Stories often help us to entertain this curious bent of the imagination. And it has often happened that in entertaining the mind with such nonsense great things have been accomplished. The space program may not have solved the world’s problems but it did give us Tang, microwave cooking, and the laptop computer. Jonathan Swift ridiculed the speculative scientists of his day by accusing them of attempting to pull sunlight out of cucumbers. Science may not have succeeded in pulling sunlight out of cucumbers, but they have given us ethanol, something not very different.

Is the object of science to make our lives better, to make us more comfortable, or to understand how to use our resources more effectively and to understand the forces of nature that have created those resources. If the former, science only has value if it can solve our problems. It must produce practical results or it is not worth the investment. If the latter the results are somewhat superfluous because the study of science is not about what it can do for us, but the knowledge it gives and the insights it provides into the universe we occupy. It has usually happened that this knowledge has brought with it practical applications that have solved many problems, but this is just a by-product and not a purpose. So, is the joke on Swift or on us? Perhaps it depends on whether we view science as an end or as a means to an end, as spectacle without much in the way of a story to tell or the intelligence, or an aspect of that intelligence, behind the scenes that drives the story.

Of Wonders and Goodly Creatures and the Worlds Where They Are Found

The Planets, Op. 32, H 125 – 1. “Mars, The Bringer Of War”
Gustav Holst

Of Wonders and Goodly Creatures and the Worlds Where They Are Found

Cover Illustration for Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land Cover

Science fiction is a literary genre that has always struggled to earn a bit of respect. I remember reading H. G. Wells and Jules Verne when in High School. I was asked by one of my English teachers why I read such awful stuff, or words to that effect suggesting that science fiction does not qualify as literature. When I suggested that 1984 and Brave New World (books that friends of mine were reading in honors English) were science fiction he said they were too well written to be science fiction. This definition is of course in orbit around itself but it represents a method often used to maintain a pejorative fiction about what is and is not art, literary or otherwise. Science fiction, though, has a long and “storied” history, especially if we, as many bookstores do, identify fantasy as a branch of science fiction.

The music is from Gustav Holst’s suite for orchestra The Planets. At the beginning of Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land Valentine Michael Smith comes to Earth from the planet Mars, where he, though an earthling, was raised by Martians. His representative insists that Mr. Smith be treated as a “head of state”, or the official representative of the Martian Government (read the novel if you want to find out why) and that the Martian national anthem be played when he enters the room. Because Mars does not have an official national anthem it is agreed that the “Mars” section of Holst’s The Planets be played in lieu of a national anthem. The music begins with the soft martial beat of a drum that grows louder as the music proceeds and is joined by the rest of the orchestra suggesting Mars’ affiliation with the god of war. However, Mr. Smith’s first name identifies him with Mars’ wife Venus, the goddess of love. A deliciously ironic touch to a novel about a character from a planet identified with war who argues for the peaceful resolution of conflict.

Cover Illutstration for The Martian Chronicles

This is the front book cover art for the book The Martian Chronicles by the author(s) Ray Bradbury. The book cover art copyright is believed to belong to the publisher, Doubleday or the cover artist.

Ray Bradbury’s book The Martian Chronicles takes a somewhat different view of Mars. The story has less to do with space travel and the colonization of planets than it does with issues of censorship, human kindness (and its absence), and the nature of difference. In one scene a young boy raised on the planet Mars asks his father to describe what Martians look like. The father takes the boy to a riverbank and tells the boy to look into the water. The boy looks into the water and sees his Martian reflection. The boy was after all born on Mars. There is, of course, a Martian culture and an indigenous people. They are never really seen by those from earth, but manifestations of their presence are seen. You will of course have to read the book to discover the actual content of their characters.

Forbidden Planet – The Short Version

The film Forbidden Planet is a science fiction retelling of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. The clip above is a significantly abbreviated form of the film and omits all the Shakespearean plot elements, but if viewed in its entirety Morbius’ daughter Altaira bears a striking resemblance to Prospero’s daughter Miranda and many of the same issues arise in the film as are found in Shakespeare’s play. Vladimir Nabokov, one of the 20th century’s more venerated writers, believed that Shakespeare’s play would be classified as science fiction by anyone who took the working definition of science fiction seriously. This is especially true when fantasy fiction is considered a branch of science fiction. Caliban, for example, is not unlike the house elves in the Harry Potter stories and is certainly not treated much better. Prospero is a wizard not unlike Dumbledore in many ways, though with some darker aspects to his personality.

In this weekend’s New York Times Book Review section there is a review of a new book by Marjorie Garber Shakespeare and Modern Culture that addresses other modern elements of Shakespeare’s plays for the modern audience. It does not mention science fiction but points out that the aspect of Shakespeare that transcends time is how he captures the way people think and the consequences of that thinking (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the way we think Shakespeare’s characters think like us and the consequences of that thinking for us). Each culture that reads Shakespeare can find themselves in the plays and interpret those plays in light of its own cultural experience and point of view. Shakespeare is working with the inner life of his characters that often resemble the inner lives of a more modern people. Science fiction, at its best, speculates on the consequences of our thinking for the future.

This sci-fi/fantasy aspect to story telling can be found in the most ancient story telling. Leaving aside myth and mythic elements in the epic literature there is still a wealth of literary examples of the fabulous in literature. Lucian in his “True History” has a sailing ship blown significantly off course by a powerful storm that sends the tiny ship to the moon. The Thousand and One Arabian Nights is full of fabulous creatures and events that would feel right at home in modern stories of fantasy and science fiction. For those that are interested this weekend’s book section of The Guardian has a review of a new translation of The Arabian Nights. One of my favorites comes from Orlando Furioso, an epic poem by the Italian Renaissance writer Ariosto, where one of Orlando’s friends goes to the moon on a flying horse to recover Orlando’s wits (the moon being the final resting place of lost wits). The wits are found on the moon in an appropriately labeled jar and returned to Orlando.

I think the first science fiction story is Gulliver’s third voyage, “The Voyage to Laputa” from Gulliver’s Travels. This observation has been made by others and dismissed by others as well. It is the earliest attempt I have encountered where the author of the story has tried to provide a scientific explanation for how a bit of technological magic works. The Floating Island of Laputa hovers over the surface of the earth. Swift explains the island’s ability to hover, rise, and descend as the result of magnetic forces that have been harnessed by the island’s inhabitants. The plausibility of this explanation could be called into question by scientists, especially scientists today who have, perhaps, a deeper understanding of how magnets work, but for the writer of fiction it is only necessary to produce an explanation with a large enough grain of verisimilitude to give an aura of believability. It is certainly a more scientifically sound explanation than H. G. Wells’ Cavorite, an early relative of Flubber.

Painting of the Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel
Pieter Brueghel the Elder

When in college I took a course through the physics department in science fiction. It was a fascinating course, I thought, and one in which I learned more about physics than from the physics course I was required to take as part of my basic studies requirement. We were given the opportunity to either take an exam or to write a science fiction story. Because I did not want to take a test I wrote a story. There was not much science in it and I don’t believe it received a very good grade but it took as its premise that mathematics constituted a kind of universal language, that equations could be understood by mathematicians in any country no matter what language they spoke at home.

In the story scientists gathered to watch the launch of a spacecraft designed by scientists the world over using the common language of mathematics and universally understood symbols that could be employed on the blueprints and designs of the rocket. It was a parody of sorts of the story of “The Tower of Babel” from the “Old Testament” of The Bible. At the end of the story the space ship is destroyed by a cataclysmic event of divine origins.

Though the story itself was contrived and did little to demonstrate a knowledge of physics it illustrates a role played by science fiction. Both the novel by Heinlein and the novel by Bradbury suggest how science fiction can comment on the possibilities and dangers of the human psyche and of human aspirations. Stranger in a Strange Land, for example, was published at the time of the Vietnam War and was seen, as was another science fiction novel of the time Slaughterhouse Five, to be an attack on that war and the attitudes that set that war in motion. It also addresses other issues of political and religious coercion.

Swift’s satire was an attack on the science of his day. Part of his criticism is aimed at the uselessness of many of the scientific pursuits of his day and is seen by many as the weakest link in the satiric chain. He attacks scientific inquiry where it seems to him to be pointless, serving no practical end. He describes machines that write essays and speculations on the ambiguity of language and how these ambiguities might be resolved. The results of these experiments are silly and justly ridiculed, though others might see these speculations as not being entirely without merit.

Other scientists try to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and food from human excrement. These experiments are shown to be equally ridiculous, but in a time that struggles with renewable sources of energy, there might be some value to figuring out how to get the sunbeams, the solar energy, out of cucumbers and other plants. Swift does not seem to be able to see that what often seems as pointless or useless experimentation does produce very useful products that benefit all mankind. I am typing this on a laptop computer. The technology that produced the laptop computer was initially created to serve the needs of the space program, a program that some people still question the value of funding. Following a question or an idea, though it may not seem to offer much of value initially can lead to other things that may have great worth. That is one of the reasons why it is important to question and to explore.

There is another target of Swift’s satire of science, though, that does resonate to this day and that is the ability of scientists to develop tools and technologies that are used to restrict individual liberties and to intimidate and oppress a people. Some of the tools of this oppression that Swift depicts in the novel are drawn for their comic effect and not intended to be taken very seriously, though the mindset that would devise these technologies is truly troubling and it is this mindset that is the object of the satire. Swift is trying to encourage his readers to consider where things are taking us, whether those things are new technologies or the attitudes we have towards those we find disagreeable.

Science fiction on one hand wants to help us imagine a future and the road that must be traveled to achieve that future. Though, when literature of any kind tries to imagine what the future will look like it often gets as much wrong as it gets right. The communications devices in the film clip, for example, look the way people in the 1950’s thought they would look in the 22nd century, but early in the 21st century we can see that they are already out of date.

On the other hand, science fiction can show us how our social institutions may evolve and how troubling these institutions could become if certain forces within those institutions were allowed to go unchecked. As Swift suggests some of the tools of oppression that might be developed have beneficial applications. It is the benefits of science that are often used to sell the science. It is the unintended consequences that often go ignored. The same technology that lets me talk to my brother in California could be used by a malicious government to listen to those conversations. Of course that same technology can help prevent criminal acts that could result in the deaths of many innocent people.

It may not be possible to escape the technologies we have created, nor may it be desirable. It is important, though, to consider where we are going and the tools and technologies that will take us there. It is perhaps unwise to try to retreat to a pre-technological age, but it is perhaps equally unwise to follow where the technology leads without taking the time to find out where we are going.