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Entry updated 13 April 2015. Tagged: Theme.

This thematic topic is closely linked with the broader subject of Invention (which see), since the discovery of a new principle is usually followed – often in sf, with implausible speed – by the invention of a means of exploiting it. The discovery of new places is dealt with various other entries including Colonization of Other Worlds, Lost Worlds (very often containing Lost Races) and those devoted to more specific locations such as Counter-Earth, Hollow Earth, Underground and Under the Sea.

Many famous sf discoveries have been made through a process of Conceptual Breakthrough, and about 40 of them are discussed under that rubric. One in particular is worthy of attention here: "Noise Level" (December 1952 Astounding) by Raymond F Jones. In this tale, which in its emphasis on the potential power of the human mind sums up the whole ethos of Campbell's Astounding, a counterfeit invention is the occasion of conceptual breakthrough. A group of scientists are shown an apparently bona fide film of an Antigravity device, the inventor of which has been killed. In their attempt to duplicate it they break through to a new understanding of Physics, only to discover that the original was a fraud, the stratagem having been devised to exert psychological pressure on them to rethink their worldviews.

One of the most interesting subthemes, which has persisted strongly into the 1990s, is found in stories relating the discoveries of Alien artefacts, very often with a subsequent desire to exploit them. Some, such as A E van Vogt's "A Can of Paint" (September 1944 Astounding) and Robert Sheckley's "One Man's Poison" (December 1953 Galaxy; vt "Untouched by Human Hands" in Untouched by Human Hands, coll 1954) and "Hands Off" (April 1954 Galaxy), are basically comedies about the dangers of the incomprehensible ("One Man's Poison" contains the line "I don't eat anything that giggles"). But the theme has serious ramifications, too. Such stories often create a tension between the longing and wonder aroused by the thought that we are not alone, together with a sense of despair at the ambiguity of such objects and the doubt whether they will ever be understood. Such is Arthur C Clarke's "Sentinel of Eternity" (Spring 1951 10 Story Fantasy; vt "The Sentinel" in Expedition to Earth, coll 1953), the basis for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); the story tells of the discovery of a strange monolith on the Moon. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (1973) is entirely devoted to the exploration of, and failure to fully comprehend, a vast, apparently unmanned spaceship which enters the solar system (see World Ships). The psychological repercussions of Man's inability to comprehend the alien are well explored in Frederik Pohl's Gateway (1977), where abandoned alien spaceships are discovered and used, but not understood; the reaching out so symbolized is obsessive, seductive and murderous.

Gateway and the subsequent novels in Pohl's Heechee series are sociologically almost the reverse of the Astounding stories discussed under Invention, perhaps reflecting the lowering of self-esteem and morale in the West from the late 1960s onward. Whereas Astounding published tales of human ingenuity conquering the unknown, Pohl's stories envisage humanity as bewildered by the discovery of superior technology in much the same way as Bushmen in our own world might be baffled by the products of the industrial West. The metaphor for this in Arkady and Boris Strugatski's novella "Piknik na obochine" (1972 Avrora; trans as Roadside Picnic in Roadside Picnic/Tale of the Troika, coll 1977) is of humans discovering enigma as they scrabble like rats through trash left by alien picnickers. The theme, not always so pessimistically expressed, is common in the sophisticated new wave of 1980s space opera as represented by authors like Greg Bear and Paul J McAuley, and also by Charles Sheffield's Divergence (1991). A Gothic-SF variant of the theme appears in the malign consequences of the discovery of a long-buried alien spacecraft on Earth in Stephen King's The Tommyknockers (1987). The scavenger-hunt for deadly alien technology in M John Harrison's Nova Swing (2006) pays explicit homage to Roadside Picnic and its movie adaptation Stalker (1979). [PN/DRL]

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