Stars

Tagged: Theme

The stars have always exerted a powerful imaginative fascination upon the human mind. When they were thought to be mere points of light in the panoply of heaven, it was believed by astrologers that the secrets of the future were written there, and various cultures wove their Mythology into the patterns of various constellations. Not until 1718 did Edmond Halley (1656-1742) demonstrate that the stars were not "fixed", and not until the late 1830s were the distances of the nearer stars realistically calculated.

It was the religious imagination which first despatched imaginary voyagers so far from Earth. The notion of the stars as suns circled by other worlds was first popularized by Bernard le Bovyer de Fontenelle in Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes habités (1686; trans J Glanvill as A Plurality of Worlds 1929). In the eighteenth century Emanuel Swedenborg's visions took him voyaging throughout the cosmos, and other religious mystics followed. C I Defontenay, presumably influenced by Fontenelle, undertook to describe another stellar system in some detail in Star (1854; trans 1975), but the first work which took the scientific imagination out into the greater cosmos was Camille Flammarion's Lumen (1887; trans anon 1892) [for further publication details see Flammarion]. The Pythagorean notion that the Universe revolves around a single central sun is extrapolated in an oddly allegorical manner in William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland (1908).

An early Scientific Romance of interstellar adventure was Robert W Cole's The Struggle for Empire (1900), but it was not until the establishment of the SF Magazines that the interstellar adventure playground was extensively exploited by such writers as E E "Doc" Smith, Edmond Hamilton and John W Campbell Jr. Hamilton became especially fascinated by the ultimate melodramatic flourish of exploding stars, and was still exploiting its potential in the 1950s. This new familiarity with the stars did not breed overmuch contempt: in all stories where stars were confronted directly, rather than being used simply as coloured lamps to light imaginary worlds, they remained awe-inspiring entities. Their sustained power of fascination is evident in Fredric Brown's The Lights in the Sky are Stars (1953; vt Project Jupiter 1954), Robert F Young's "The Stars are Calling, Mr Keats" (June 1959 Amazing) and Dean McLaughlin's The Man Who Wanted Stars (fixup 1965), and nowhere more so than in Isaac Asimov's classic story of Conceptual Breakthrough, "Nightfall" (September 1941 Astounding), which contradicts Emerson's allegation that "if the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would Man believe and adore and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!". Relatively few sf stories make significant use of scientific knowledge concerning stars in general and their nature (but for the closest known example, see Sun). An exception is Hal Clement's "Cold Front" (July 1946 Astounding), which links the behaviour of an odd star to the meteorology of one of its planets. An even odder star, shaped like a doughnut, is featured in Donald Malcolm's "Beyond the Reach of Storms" (April 1964 New Worlds); odder still, and no doubt physically impossible, are the two linked doughnut-shaped suns in The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) by Terry Pratchett (see Macrostructures).

It is, however, quite common to find stars invested with some kind of transcendental significance (see Metaphysics; Religion). Stars are credited with godlike life and Intelligence in Starchild (1965) and Rogue Star (1969) by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson, and a collective quasisupernatural influence is spiced with sf jargon in The Power of Stars (1972) by Louise Lawrence. Such metaphysical mysticism is carried to extremes in the first section of If the Stars are Gods (in Universe 4, anth 1974, ed Terry Carr; fixup 1977) by Gordon Eklund and Gregory Benford, and the inspiration of sun-worship also plays a minor part in The Mote in God's Eye (1974) by Larry Niven and Jerry E Pournelle. Even Hard-SF stories based on astronomical discoveries are not entirely immunized against residual mysticism; a proper sense of awe is evident in Poul Anderson's The Enemy Stars (1959), the most notable sf novel featuring a "dead star", and in his "Starfog" (August 1967 Analog) and World without Stars (June-July 1966 Analog as "The Ancient Gods"; 1967). Work done in Astronomy to clarify the life-cycles of stars helped to popularize both giant and dwarf stars in post-World War Two sf; later in the twentieth century it led to a good deal of sf being written about pulsars (see Neutron Stars) as well as, of course, Black Holes, to the extent that both these forms of collapsar ("collapsed star") became standard implements in the sf writer's toolbox.

The fairly frequent sf conceit of living, intelligent stars is discussed in the entry for Living Worlds. [BS/DRL]

see also: Cosmology; Linguistics.

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