Sometimes I want to be awestruck. It’s a feeling that I seek out. And so, usually late at night, I’ll open my laptop and type into a YouTube search bar: “s-c-a-l-e o-f t-h-e u-n-i-v-e-r-s-e.” I load a video at random; they all perform the same basic gesture: zooming out to incomprehensibility.
Then come the numbers. Twenty-five trillion miles to reach the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. At least one hundred billion stars and one hundred billion planets in our Milky Way galaxy alone. More than two trillion galaxies in the Observable Universe, and that’s just what we can see. Physical reality extends and expands far beyond our speed-of-light-limited view.
From our earthbound perspective we refer to all of this cosmic immensity with a modestly geocentric name: “outer space.” To me, this seems like a compartmentalization of epic proportions. On the one hand, there is the world as we know it, the ground-level of human life and everything it entails: the whole arc of history, the transformation of our natural environment, nervous first dates over coffee. On the other hand, there is the remaining 99.999 percent of material reality that exists beyond the stratosphere, always there but rarely acknowledged.
Strictly speaking, “outer space” refers to the vast expanses between celestial objects, the near-perfect vacuum of space once thought to be filled with aether, the fifth element. In practice, though, we imagine outer space in much the same way that we do the ocean, so that far-flung material bodies (dusty asteroids, murky trenches) are implied within the whole. Outer space is a metonym for the great “out there.”
But I can’t swim in outer space. It’s out of sight and out of mind. Even the best images—heroically gathered from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Voyager space probes, and the Mars rovers—bespeak something uncanny, something unearthly. When I consider the bare fact of two trillion galaxies (as when Whitman “heard the learn’d astronomer”), I experience a jarring dissonance between what I know and what I feel to be true.
Is it really all out there? If so, can it be written?
In his recent collection of short meditative essays, Winter, Karl Ove Knausgaard takes up the problem of outer space in a piece called “The Local”:
The first time I saw photographs of a planet taken at ground level, I was shaken. The photos were from Mars, they showed a plain of sand and rock extending towards a mountain that towered up in the distance, the light pale grey as it is on certain autumn mornings. What was so astounding about it? I suddenly realised that it was a place, as concrete and physically real as the frost-covered garden where I have just been standing, gazing at the sky. I understood that it was local. That the spirit of place, what the Romans called genui loci, existed there too. And perhaps that is how we should imagine the universe, not as something alien and abstract, all those dizzying numbers and vast distances, but as something nearby and familiar. The wind whipping up a snowdrift beneath an outcrop somewhere in the Pleiades, the air full of swirling snowflakes which in the faint gleam of the moon resemble veils, and the sound of the wind forcing its way through the gulch, wailing, almost whining. A door banging in a house on a desert-like plain near Achernar, a circular lake in a forest on the outskirts of Castor. It is a pleasing thought.
Knausgaard is rightly lauded for his psychological realism, his ability to represent the affective nature of lived experience. As Toril Moi writes of his six-part autobiographical novel, which is both praised and criticized for its sheer abundance of the human real, “My Struggle is one man’s attempt to tell us how it is to be here, now.”
In outer space, though, there is no “here” and “now,” not for us anyway. The universe cannot be imagined as “nearby” or “familiar” because it is neither. In “The Local,” Knausgaard gives us romantic descriptions of faraway sights and sounds (“swirling snowflakes,” “a circular lake in a forest”): mere setting, in other words, which is the lowest element in the holy trinity of narrative structure: character, plot, and setting.
Because outer space precludes character (we cannot exist there) and plot (as far as we know, nothing worth telling ever happens), literary realism suffocates in the vacuum as quickly as any person would. David Shields argued in Reality Hunger that much of what we crave in the experience of reading is an encounter with reality. “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art,” Shields writes in the book’s opening sentence. If by reality we mean all that exists, then there’s plenty to be smuggled from the cosmos, or, for that matter, from the damp corners of a glacier cave, the parched pavement of an Australian desert, or the worn interior of my left shoe.
But this isn’t what we mean—what most artists mean—when framing “reality,” a term that Nabokov once suggested means nothing without quotation marks. To represent reality, to engage in what the ancient Greeks called mimesis, always involves some degree of exclusion, and, without the spark of consciousness, both the pebble and the quasar occupy the fast track to irrelevance. There are subjects worthy of representation and subjects unworthy, ranging on a wide scale with the human and the nonhuman as its poles, so that a person is vastly more interesting than a house which is vastly more interesting than a mountain. Raw nature is unnarratable, open to all our parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives…) but closed for storytelling. Among other things, outer space is a grand reminder that realism is a humanism: if we’re not around, what’s there to represent?
For these reasons, realist narrative, with its close ties to literary fiction, cannot survive in outer space. What, then, is possible on a “desert-like plain near Achernar?” Knausgaard flirts with the obvious answer when he conjures up a “door banging in a house” on an distant planet. With that sole detail (how could there be a house?), he, if only for a moment, slips into the realm of science fiction, the genre of “what-if?” With its strong claim to outer space, science fiction enjoys by far the most real estate of any literary genre.
To set a story in outer space means to frame that narrative in the future (if not a long time ago in a galaxy far away…) because, as things currently stand, we, as human beings, are simply not there, barring a few brave astronauts on the ISS. Then, as the writer of outer space painfully knows, an explanation must be given as to how a puny human character is able to survive beyond his ecological home and traverse the light years between the raging stars. And thus the tropes and technologies of science fiction pour into the story and render it generic: spaceships, FTL drives, and wormholes; terraformed planets and Big Dumb Objects (BDOs); alien interventions and monsters-in-the-Jefferies-tube.
Setting aside surreal fantasy or magical realism, it is impossible to narrativize outer space without reference to (1) the future and (2) technology, and the foregrounded presence of either concept will always signal “sci-fi” to contemporary readers. The association of outer space with science fiction stretches back to the space-bound works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires, which were described as “scientific romances” rather than science fiction proper, involved the use of exciting technologies to reach the plains of Antarctica, the depths of the ocean, the center of the earth, or, indeed, the orbit of the moon. Written in the late 1860s, From Earth to the Moon and its sequel Around the Moon tell the story of three men who are projected by a massive cannon on a daring lunar voyage. These novels are somewhat dated today, but they proved influential for decades to come, inspiring the popular silent film A Trip to the Moon (1902) and providing a model for Wells to react against when he—in 1901—published The First Men in the Moon. Wells’s moon voyage (like much of his early bibliography) is filled with remarkable ideas, from anti-gravity propulsion to insectoid aliens, and it remains an intellectually stimulating read even after more than a century of Wells’s sci-fi progeny.
Verne, for his part, was critical of Wells’s intermixing of the scientifically plausible with the speculatively fantastic, making his position clear:
I do not see the possibility of comparison between his work and mine. we do not proceed in the same manner. It occurs to me that his stories do not repose on a very scientific basis. No, there is no rapport between his work and mine. I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon-ball discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars [sic] in an air-ship, which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ca, c’est tres joli, but show me this metal. Let him produce it.
Of course, it was precisely Wells’s spirit of invention that made him the principle founder of modern science fiction and brought the vast expanses of outer space under the genre’s wing. As science fiction scholar James Gunn puts it, “Verne was writing an ‘if-this-goes-on’ kind of story and Wells, a ‘what-if’ kind.” It was Wells who introduced the term “outer space” into the popular lexicon, and it was he who first defined the cosmos as a properly science fictional space, a space of what-if.
Verne and Wells, then, set the rules of the game: science fiction would be the wrench that opens up new arenas of space and time. Following Edwin Hubble’s revolutionary discovery of a profusion of “island universes” (what astronomers now call galaxies) in 1924, the next serious writer of outer space was Olaf Stapledon. Star Maker (1937) explicitly grapples with a universe that is incalculably large and incomprehensibly old. Stapledon understood the de-centering significance of Darwin, Hubble, and the deep time of modern geology, and so he wrote a narrative that spans billions of years, with an everyman narrator who becomes capable (through an act of sheer imagination) of traversing time and space in a disembodied form. During his long voyage out and back home again, the traveler encounters a number of alien intelligences, astronomical phenomena, and even the universe’s creator, the eponymous Starmaker. In full view, the novel—revered by many illustrious writers of the day, including Virginia Woolf and Jorge Luis Borges—is a strange achievement, predictably thin on plot and characterization but bursting with ideas in typical high-concept fashion. With his other great novel, Last and First Men, written in 1930, Stapledon exerted massive influence on the development of twentieth-century genre fictions, cited glowingly by authors like H.P Lovecraft, C.S. Lewis, Arthur C. Clarke, and James Blish, among others.
After Stapledon came years of pulp-fiction, the Roswell incident, the space opera of sci-fi’s Golden Age, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and all the rest. Over the long and tumultuous century, writers of outer space dreamt up inspired places, scenarios, and species, and, in equal measure, recycled and re-recycled clichés, old and new. Looking backwards, I imagine each story, each discrete rendering of “what-if-the-stars-were-such,” as contributing to the sci-fi-ification of outer space. What we end up with is a massive swath of physical reality defined in the popular imagination by an artistic genre.
Outer space, in the end, becomes a giant projective surface for the dreams of tomorrow, more idea than place. I’m often reminded of George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnsen’s Metaphors We Live By, in which the authors argue that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” Lakoff and Johnsen describe the centrality of spatial metaphors, particularly the up/down metaphor: happy is up (“I’m feeling up” or “My spirits are high”) and sad is down (“I’m feeling down” or “My spirits sank”); conscious is up (“Wake up”) and unconscious is down (“He fell asleep”); more is up (“My income is up”) and less is down (“Profits are down”). There is an exception to the up-is-good-and-down-is-bad rule, however: unknown is up (“It’s up in the air”) and known is down (“The matter is settled”). Go up far enough, and you reach the greatest unknown—how far it all goes, we can only speculate. At some level, I suspect that outer space represents the unsayable, the unconscious, the undiscovered country of death, and so we don’t talk or think about it very much. For now, the bells and whistles of science fiction are the only way for the resistant cosmos to be narratively represented and emotionally encountered.
There’s finally, of course, the question of literary respectability: realist fiction is up, genre-fiction is down. In a short essay entitled “Margaret Atwood and the Hierarchy of Contempt,” Peter Watts, author of Blindsight, calls Atwood to task for her aversion to the science-fiction label: “Here is a woman so terrified of sf-cooties that she’ll happily redefine the entire genre for no other reason than to exclude herself from it.” Watts continues, “Atwood claims to write something entirely different: speculative fiction, she calls it, the difference being that it is based on rigorously-researched science, extrapolating real technological and social trends into the future (as opposed to that escapist nonsense about fictitious things like chemicals and rockets, presumably).” For Watts, “the literary credscape […] hold the realist novel to be the benchmark against which all else is judged.” Since Atwood strives for high art, she strives for realism, and science fiction must be discarded.
The whole exercise is silly. Within science-fiction (including those stories set in outer space), there is plenty of room for realism, if by realism we simply mean those moments of keen observation, getting at deep truths, reflecting the human condition, inspiring a head-nod and an internal murmur of “Yes, this speaks to me.” Of course it’s there in science fiction. My favorite sci-fi writers, including Watts, Atwood, Le Guin, Banks, and so many others, all use fantastic lies to tell the truth.
But, in any space-fi novel, it’s always yesterday or tomorrow because characters are a necessity. Without character, there is no plot, no representation beyond “the faint gleam of the moon.” This is why writing outer space as it actually exists now is unimaginable: no one is there. We can certainly wonder what-if, but we cannot represent what is.
Awestruck again, I’ll close my laptop. Falling asleep, I’ll picture the countless light years as an endless highway. All the empty systems are abandoned towns, and the stars are street lamps left on for eons. There is the promise of human presence, painted by more than a century of science fiction, but we’re not there yet. If we ever arrive, what stories will we tell?
Dreamers and readers have always been fascinated with the idea of the otherworldly, the extraterrestrial, the alien. So long as we have been telling stories, those stories have contained life beyond what is seen—be they gods, monsters, or, for the purposes of this essay, aliens.
Some have argued that the scientist Johannes Kepler’s work of fiction—Somnium—published in 1634 is the first work of science fiction that features an alien. In it, a boy named Duracotus is magically transported to the moon by a demon. There is life on the moon and it is described in a scientific manner (apparently—I haven’t read the book). My earliest encounter with an otherworldly lifeform was in The Man in the Moone or the Discovrse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales by the bishop Francis Godwin, published 1638. Godwin begins his tale with a suggestion that a voyage to the moon would be the equivalent of the early explorations into what is now the U.S. A man of means gains favor with a Spanish Duke by committing robbery and murder. A series of unfortunate events leads him to create a flying machine powered by creatures bred to counter the earth’s magnetic field and he finds himself on the moon. The moon people are true aliens—giants.
Micromégas by Voltaire, published in 1752, has pretty much no plot but almost certainly features the first aliens from beyond the moon; indeed, the solar system. They are also the narrators. Micromégas is the main character and an inhabitant of a planet orbiting Sirius. This planet is, Voltaire describes, 21.6 million times greater in circumference than the Earth. Micromégas is, therefore, “twenty-four thousand paces from tip to toe,” or about 20,000 feet tall. Science fiction isn’t about predicting the future, but maybe laying down warnings. However, Voltaire notes, for example, that Mars has 2 moons. Astronomers did not discover Phobos and Deimos until 1877. In this short story, there are also giant aliens on Saturn. The aliens have a better rationale for the direct questioning human philosophy, and Voltaire has a few digs at those who would not live a rational life along the way too, as the aliens debate science and philosophy (bickering over size and distance, for example).
1847 saw the publication fo the intriguing Orrin Lindsay’s Plan Of Aerial Navigation, Edited by J. L. Riddell. M.D. Riddell was American doctor, and this was a story published in a pamphlet that claimed to collect letters received by Riddell from a former student. Despite getting to the moon, Lindsay reports that there aren’t any aliens to be found; the story concludes with a letter again from Lindsay to Riddell suggesting a voyage to Mars. The hunt for aliens is not always successful, but the idea of finding life on other worlds, planets beyond the gaze of humanity, was gaining traction by that time. It wasn’t until The War Of The Worlds (1897) and H.G. Wells that non-humanoid aliens finally made contact. We all know the story. Martians invade earth, or rather, the southeast of England. We all know the subtext: British colonialism. But what Wells did was extraordinary. He thought about the evolution of intelligent creatures on the red planet. As a species, Homo sapiens tends to revolt against real animals that don’t operate in the expected manner: spiders, crabs, octopus. Wells used that to instill additional horror into the alien invasion. Would “the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind” have occurred of the Martians looked like you and me?
Meanwhile, Mars was the planet of choice for many new science-fiction authors, and Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs populated his planet with a range of different aliens. Norman Bean published a serial story from February 1912 through to July that same year. Called Under the Moons of Mars, it was printed in The All-Story. It was later revealed to be A Princess of Mars (1912). Burroughs was addressing race via the use of aliens on Mars: there are green Tharks—a nomadic warrior tribe; the princess is a red Martian; there are brutal, mindless white apes.
A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay features a made-up planet (Tormance) orbiting the real Arcturus, which is a double star system, consisting of stars Branchspell and Alppain
Olaf Stapledon created an entire universe in Star Maker, published in 1937. In it, the narrator is transported out of his body and tours the universe, exploring alien civilizations. One key alien concept explored is a non-humanoid symbiotic species. He pitched his aliens to have evolved in the same manner as life on Earth. Concepts such as collective consciousness are explored, maybe taking the concept of the insect hive-mind to its logical conclusion. Writers make up new species of intelligent life, why not make up who new planets?
It is alleged that C.S. Lewis decided to write Out of the Silent Planet (1938) after reading Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, but must surely also owe a debt Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars. Lewis describes a convoluted process in which the protagonist ends up on a planet known as Malacandra. Lewis introduces three distinct intelligent species: the sorns are slender and humanoid and are the scientists and thinkers; the hrossa resemble overstretched otters—and have their love of water—they are poets and musicians; and the pfifltriggi are the builders, looking like insectile frogs. Lewis split characteristics into species in a similar manner to Burrourghs, but like Stapledon made some of them non-humanoid. By then, the idea that human-shaped creatures were the pinnacle of evolution was waning within science fiction. As science and understanding of the natural world advanced and Homo sapiens were accepted as just animals, science-fiction writers seemed to feel more freedom of imagination. Lewis was of course very religious and, as with Stapledon, the question of aliens as religious figures is addressed. A species called Eldila control life in the universe, and appear as vague shafts of light. They are Lewis’s angels.
By now, science-fiction books contained a plethora of alien species, all exploring similar ideas of evolution, religion, consciousness, and humanity’s place in the universe. As humans use and abuse our planet, would superior alien species use and abuse us?
E.E. “Doc” Smith’s The Skylark of Space (1946) features a hyper-intelligence with no material existence. Childhood’s End (1953) from the great Arthur C. Clarke features aliens that have benevolently overseen human evolution but have the appearance of Satan. Humans are at war with an intelligent insect species with a super-intelligent queen in Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein.
Science fiction is a common disguise for philosophy. Solaris, published in 1961 by Stanisław Lem, is a treatise on memory and communication. Lem, picking up on some of the ideas of his predecessors that aliens need not be human-shaped or have minds like ours, developed the idea of a sentient ocean. The planet Solaris is studied by scientists, but the planet is studying them back. In less than a century, aliens have evolved from Wells’s trilateral brains to intelligent planets. Whereas the likes of Lewis extrapolated what science knew of biology and evolution, Lem let his imagination run riot; science be damned; they adhere to their own internal logic, even if it is beyond what we believe is possible today.
Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert features giant sandworms and the complex ecology of a desert planet. The aliens, from Gethen, in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. LeGuin are “ambisexual;” having no fixed sex. From the same year, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain sees the aliens as crystalline micro-organisms with no DNA.
Ringworld (1970) by Larry Niven takes imagination and biology to a new level. By now, aliens are all over popular culture, from so-called “real-life” alien abductions to classic science-fiction films such as Children of the Damned and TV series such as Dr. Who. Over the course of the Ringworld novels, Niven develops very definite biology, sociology, political life, and, of course, appearance of his aliens. The Pierson’s Puppeteers are 3-legged and 2-headed creatures. The brain isn’t in the heads, however. Meanwhile, the kzin are cat-like humanoids with a rich warrior-based history.
In the majority of science fiction, aliens and humans interact. The aliens in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) are almost beyond comprehension. Known as Tralfamadorians, they exist out of time, witnessing time the way we witness distance. They also keep humans in a zoo. In Roadside Picnic (1971) by the Russians Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, we don’t meet the aliens, only their detritus. They visited the Earth some time ago and left behind objects that have had a curious effect on anyone who goes into the Zones. The intelligent aliens in Rendezvous with Rama (1973) by Arthur C. Clarke are so unknowable, they don’t even feature—only their space craft and a few non-sentient species and some plants are featured. Meanwhile, the alien Vogons in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) by Douglas Adams are patently so dumb it is hard to imagine them developing space flight in the first place. Contrast them with Adams’s mice, the hyper-intelligent superbeings that built Earth in the first place.
By the late 1970s, once Star Wars entered popular culture, aliens had truly exploded into the cultural consciousness. They continued to work as robust allegories for issues such as cultural suppression, the understanding of language, capitalism, food production, anything the author wanted to tackle. In Doris Lessing’s Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta (1979), empire and evolution are the topics: a benevolent galactic empire accelerates the evolution of a humanoid species. Lessing plots the story so that the natives have a degenerative disease, giving her licence to examine religion, power, and imperialism. Hyperion (1989) by Dan Simmons has similar themes, only with humans as the galactic dominant species. Simmons introduces the time-traveling Shrike, a fierce half-mechanical, half-organic, four-armed alien. It is both an object of fear and worship.
Mary Doria Russell has two intelligent species and a religious expedition in her remarkable The Sparrow (1996)—cultural and religious clashes are examined and their consequences are brutal. The aliens in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin (2000) look like humans and live in Scotland. However, they pick up hitchhikers so they can be processed and sent back to their home world for a huge meat-producing corporation. Matt Haig’s The Humans (2013) also has an alien that takes on human form so he can work in an English university.
From Haig’s “human,” to Becky Chambers’s multi-species crew of the spaceship Wayfarer in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015) to Nnedi Okorafor’s jellyfish-like aliens in her Binti series, extra-terrestrials—be they energy, gaseous, insectoids, planetoids, immaterial or microscopic—tackle every aspect of science fiction in every conceivable way. The aliens are here to stay.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.