Astronomy

Tagged: Theme

Astronomers played the key role in developing the cosmic perspective that lies at the heart of sf. Their science gave birth (not without difficulty, given the public reluctance of the Medieval Church to accept non-geocentric cosmologies) to an understanding of the true size and nature of the universe. To the 1640 edition of his astronomical treatise The Discovery of a World in the Moone (1638; exp vt The Discovery of a New World 1640) John Wilkins appended a "Discourse Concerning the Possibility of a Passage Thither", and took the notion of lunar travel out of the realms of pure fantasy into those of legitimate speculation. Johannes Kepler's Somnium (1634) was developed from an essay intended to popularize the Copernican theory. The literary image of the astronomer as it developed in the eighteenth century was, however, by no means entirely complimentary. "The Elephant in the Moon" (in The Genuine Remains in Verse and Prose of Mr Samuel Butler, coll 1759, ed Robert Thyer) by Samuel "Hudibras" Butler (1613-1680) is a comic poem with a group of observers witnessing what they take to be tremendous events on the Moon, but which subsequently turn out to be the activities of a mouse and a swarm of insects on the objective lens of their telescope. Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735) includes a sharply parodic account of the astronomers of Laputa. Samuel Johnson's Rasselas (1759) features a comically mad astronomer.

The revelations of astronomy inspired nineteenth-century writers, including Edgar Allan Poe, whose rhapsodic "poem" Eureka (1848) draws heavily upon contemporary work. They also encouraged hoaxers like Richard Adams Locke, who foisted his imaginary descriptions of lunar life on the unwary readers of the New York Sun in 1835. The development of sf in France was led by the nation's foremost astronomer, Camille Flammarion, who was also one of the first popularizers of the science. His Lumen (1887; trans anon 1892) [for further publication details see Flammarion] is a remarkable semi-fictional vehicle for conveying the astronomer's particular sense of wonder and awe. One of the first popularizers of astronomy in the USA, Garrett P Serviss – author of Curiosities of the Sky (1909) – also became an early writer of scientific romances; his most notable was A Columbus of Space (January-June 1909 All-Story; rev 1911). The affinity between astronomy and sf is eloquently identified by Serviss in Curiosities of the Sky: "What Froude says of history is true also of astronomy: it is the most impressive when it transcends explanation. It is not the mathematics, but the wonder and mystery that seize upon the imagination ... All [of the things described in the book] possess the fascination of whatever is strange, marvellous, obscure or mysterious, magnified, in this case, by the portentous scale of the phenomena." Sf is the ideal medium for the communication of this kind of feeling, but it can also accommodate cautionary tales against the hubris that may come from the illusion of close acquaintance with cosmic mysteries.

Astronomical discoveries concerning the Moon were rapidly adopted into sf – Jules Verne's Autour de la lune (1870; trans 1873) is particularly rich in astronomical detail – and observations of Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910) and Percival Lowell, which seemed to reveal the notorious "canals", were a powerful stimulus to the sf imagination. Many twentieth-century discoveries in astronomy have been inconvenient for sf writers, revealing as they do the awful inhospitability of our nearest neighbours in space. It was astronomers who banished Earth-clone worlds (see Counter-Earth) to other solar systems and made much early pulp melodrama seem ludicrous. Intriguing and momentous discoveries in the universe beyond the solar system have, however, provided rich imaginative compensation (see Cosmology). One of the best-known and least theoretically orthodox contemporary astronomers, Sir Fred Hoyle, has written a good deal of sf drawing on his expertise, including the classic The Black Cloud (1957) and, in collaboration with his son Geoffrey, The Inferno (1973); unkind critics remark that Hoyle's later speculative nonfiction, written in collaboration with Chandra Wickramasinghe – including Lifecloud (1978), Diseases from Space (1979) and Evolution from Space (1981) – seems even more fanciful than his fiction. The US astronomer Robert S Richardson has also been an occasional contributor to sf magazines under the name Philip Latham, and some of his stories are particularly clever in dramatizing the work of the astronomer and its imaginative implications. Examples include "To Explain Mrs Thompson" (November 1951 Astounding), "Disturbing Sun" (May 1959 Astounding) and "The Dimple in Draco" (in Orbit 2, anth 1967, ed Damon Knight).

New forms of telescope and quasi-telescope with unprecedented observational powers are occasionally deployed as sf Inventions. The titular device of Piers Anthony's Macroscope (1969; cut 1972) is the best-known of these; like the supertelescope of Jean Delaire's Around a Distant Star (1904), it can double as a Time Viewer by observing ancient light. Further examples appear as the central sf device in Eric C Williams's To End All Telescopes (1969), and fleetingly in Philip E High's Sold – For a Spaceship (1973).

Modern observational astronomy has become far more abstruse as it has diversified into radio, X-ray and other frequencies, and its visionary implications have become increasingly peculiar as its practitioners have found explanations for such enigmatic discoveries as quasars and empirical evidence for the existence of theoretically predicted entities like Black Holes and Neutron Stars. Notable sf stories featuring peculiar discoveries by astronomers include Gregory Benford's Timescape (1980) and Robert L Forward's Dragon's Egg (1980). The advent of radio astronomy has made a considerable impact on post-World War Two sf in connection with the possibility of picking up signals from an Alien intelligence (see Communications), a theme developed in sf novels ranging from Eden Phillpotts's cautionary Address Unknown (1949) through James E Gunn's enthusiastic The Listeners (fixup 1972) to Carl Sagan's over-the-top Contact (1985) and Jack McDevitt's The Hercules Text (1986). In the real world, various projects connected with SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) have been mounted or mooted, and many stories have proposed that the receipt of such a message would be the crucial event in the history of mankind. A satirical dissent from this view can be found in Stanisław Lem's novel Glos pana (1968; trans as His Master's Voice 1983), and there is also a Paranoid school of thought which suggests that aliens whose own SETI discovers us might easily turn out to be very unfriendly; our radio telescopes nearly become the agents of our destruction in Frank Crisp's The Ape of London (1959) and the television serial A for Andromeda (1961).

Astronomy is sometimes confused by the ignorant with astrology. Although sf has been remarkably tolerant of some other Pseudosciences, it has rarely tolerated astrology. An exception is Piers Anthony's Macroscope (1969), which combines hard-science devices (including a hypothetical remote viewer of awesome power) with astrological analysis. Two writers outside the genre have, however, written satirical novels based on the hypothesis that astrology might be made absolutely accurate: Edward Hyams with The Astrologer (1950) and John Cameron with (again) The Astrologer (1972). [BS]

see also: Jupiter; Mercury; Outer Planets; Stars; Sun; Venus.

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