Cosmology

Tagged: Theme

Cosmology is the study of the Universe as a whole, its nature and its origins. It is a speculative science (there being little opportunity for experiment) and in discussing past writings on the subject it is occasionally difficult to distinguish essays and fictions. Johannes Kepler's Somnium (1634) is basically an essay inspired by the heliocentric theory of the Universe, opposing the Aristotelian system then favoured by the Church (> Proto SF). Works of a similar nature include Gabriel Daniel's Voyage du monde de Descartes (1690; trans as A Voyage to the World of Cartesius 1692), which popularized the cosmological (and other) theories of René Descartes (1596-1650), and Bernard le Bovyer de Fontenelle's Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes habités (1686; trans as The Plurality of Worlds 1929). An early attempt to describe an infinite Universe with habitable worlds surrounding all the stars was presented as a revelation by Emanuel Swedenborg in De Telluribus (1758; trans as (short title) The Earths in Our Solar System and the Earths in the Starry Heavens 1787). There are several important nineteenth-century works belonging to this tradition of "semi-fiction". Edgar Allan Poe's Eureka (1848), elaborating ideas first laid out in "Mesmeric Revelation" (August 1844 Columbian Magazine), is a poetic vision embodying intuitive hypotheses about the nature and origins of the Universe; Camille Flammarion's Lumen (1887; trans anon 1892) [for further publication details see Flammarion] combines religious notions with a powerful scientifically inspired imagination, and J-H Rosny aîné's La légende sceptique ["The Sceptical Legend"] (1889) belongs to the same class of works. Edgar Fawcett's The Ghost of Guy Thyrle (1895) includes a cosmic vision, and H G Wells offered a brief – and somewhat ironic – account of a cosmic vision in "Under the Knife" (January 1896 The New Review as "Slip Under the Knife"; vt in The Plattner Story and Others, coll 1897).

In the twentieth century this tradition petered out. William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland (1908) is better regarded as a late addition to the nineteenth-century corpus, combining a curious moral allegory with a spectacular vision of the End of the World. R Kennedy's curious philosophical fantasia, The Triuneverse (1912), introduced the microcosm and the macrocosm to speculative fiction (> Great and Small) but is far too absurd to be taken seriously. There is only one cosmic-vision story comparable in scope and ambition to Eureka and La légende sceptique: Olaf Stapledon's classic Star Maker (1937; part of discarded first draft published as Nebula Maker, 1976). The Transcendent climax of this story prefigures the concept of the Omega Point (which see).

The early Genre-SF sf writers were highly ambitious in the scope and scale of their fantasies, but their attitude was conspicuously different from that of the cosmic visionaries. They were interested in adventure, and the viewpoints of their stories remained tied to the experience of their characters. Protagonists sometimes caught brief visionary glimpses of the cosmos, but these were rarely extrapolated at any length. There is a curious narrowness about the tales of the infinite Universe pioneered by E E "Doc" Smith's Skylark of Space (August-October 1928 Amazing; 1946), and even such macrocosmic romances as Donald Wandrei's "Colossus" (January 1934 Astounding). The bathetic quality of attempts by pulp writers to tune in to the infinite is amply illustrated by the first pulp sf story to develop the idea of the expanding Universe: Edmond Hamilton's "The Accursed Galaxy" (July 1935 Astounding). Hamilton "explained" the expansion by proposing that all the other galaxies might be fleeing in horror from our own (> Fermi Paradox), because ours is afflicted with a terrible disease: life. A E van Vogt's "The Seesaw" (July 1941 Astounding; incorporated into The Weapon Shops of Isher, fixup 1951), in which the formation of the solar system results from an unfortunate accident whereby a man is caught in a temporal "seesaw" swinging across hundreds of billions of years, is another example of the tendency of sf writers to trivialize the issues of cosmology; ironically, a parodic version of this in Earthdoom! (1987) by David Langford and John Grant, in which the Big Bang is "triggered" by an unwitting time traveller, has a rather more plausible scientific grounding. The kind of joke embodied in L Ron Hubbard's "Beyond the Black Nebula" (September 1949 Startling) as by René Lafayette, in which it is discovered that our Universe is somewhere in the alimentary tract of a macrocosmic worm, is echoed in several other works, including Damon Knight's "God's Nose" (March 1964 Rogue) and Robert Rankin's Armageddon – The Musical (1990).

More earnest cosmological visions have been inserted into a number of sf novels, sometimes by means of unusual literary devices. Examples include James Blish's The Triumph of Time (1958; vt A Clash of Cymbals 1959), Poul Anderson's Tau Zero (June-August 1967 Galaxy as "To Outlive Eternity"; exp 1970) and the final episode in Bob Shaw's Ship of Strangers (fixup 1978). Ian Watson's The Jonah Kit (1975) casually suggests that the actual cosmos might be a mere shadowy echo of the original creation, while dramatic and symbolic use of the Steady State Universe theory is made in The Ring of Ritornel (1968) by Charles L Harness (> Continuous Creation). Eccentric cosmological speculations are used to good effect in Philip José Farmer's The Unreasoning Mask (1981) and in several novels by Barrington J Bayley, including The Pillars of Eternity (1982) and The Zen Gun (1983); the latter adopts and rationalizes the favourite Pseudoscience notion that Gravity is not a pull but a push.

Among cosmologists who have dabbled in sf are George Gamow, who included some cosmological fantasies in his book of didactic fictions Mr Tompkins in Wonderland (1939), and Fred Hoyle, who incorporated visionary moments into The Black Cloud (1957) and The Inferno (1973, with Geoffrey Hoyle).

An avant-garde story featuring a juxtaposition between the minutiae of everyday existence and cosmological notions is Pamela Zoline's "The Heat Death of the Universe" (July 1967 New Worlds). Italo Calvino produced several eccentric cosmological fantasies, some of which are in Le Cosmicomiche (coll of linked stories 1965; trans as Cosmicomics 1968). Surreal exercises in "alternative cosmology" include Lester del Rey's The Sky is Falling (1963), which deals with a pseudo-Aristotelian closed Universe, and two stories in which the Universe is mostly solid, with habitable lacunae: Barrington J Bayley's "Me and My Antronoscope" (in New Worlds Quarterly 5, anth 1973, ed Michael Moorcock) and David J Lake's The Ring of Truth (1982). See also Hollow Earth.

Twentieth-century Astronomy has, of course, gradually revealed the true strangeness of the cosmos; it has popularized such notions as Entropy and the Big Bang, and has produced such curious images as that of a hyperspherical Universe which is finite in dimension but infinite in extent. The idea that the Universe may contain vast numbers of Black Holes which themselves may contain universes-in-miniature has lent a new respectability to microcosmic romance, while the notion of Parallel Worlds is thought by some modern physicists to be a likely consequence of quantum theory. The kind of visionary extravagance found in Poe's and Flammarion's cosmological essays pales into insignificance beside such modern popular essays on cosmology as Steven Weinberg's The First Three Minutes (1977), Paul Davies's Other Worlds (1980) and Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time (1988). The discoveries and speculations reported in such books as these have posed a challenge to contemporary sf writers, several of whom have made interesting attempts to devise fantasies which can contain and do justice to a distinctively modern cosmic perspective. Worthy attempts include George Zebrowski's Macrolife (1979), Charles Sheffield's Between the Strokes of Night (1985) and Greg Bear's Eternity (1988). The inspiration provided by modern cosmology has been adequate to bring about something of a renaissance in the cosmic-vision story; further examples include Michael Bishop's "Close Encounter with the Deity" (1986), the visionary sequences in Brian M Stableford's The Centre Cannot Hold (1990) and The Angel of Pain (1991) and David Langford's "Waiting for the Iron Age" (in Tales of the Wandering Jew, anth 1991, ed Brian Stableford). [BS]

see also: Eschatology; Faster Than Light; Metaphysics; Physics.

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