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Life on Other Worlds

Entry updated 12 August 2018. Tagged: Theme.

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Early interplanetary travellers invariably discovered worlds which were markedly akin to Earth. Without a theory of Evolution for a guide, let alone any but the most primitive awareness of Ecology, the imaginative creation of other-worldly life was inevitably a haphazard and arbitrary process. One notable exception is Johannes Kepler's attempt to imagine lunar life in the last pages of Somnium (1634). There is little in most other pre-twentieth-century accounts to distinguish other worlds from the strange Earthly lands featured in many travellers' tales and romances (see Anthropology; Fantastic Voyages; Lost Worlds). Camille Flammarion was the first writer to apply Lamarckian and Darwinian ideas to the construction of hypothetical Alien worlds, in Les mondes imaginaires et les mondes réels (1864; trans as Real and Imaginary Worlds 1865) and Lumen (1887; trans anon 1892) [for further publication details see Flammarion]; and his later romance of other-worldly reincarnation, Urania (1890), offers a description, albeit relatively undetailed, of the Martian biosphere. Flammarion's contemporary, C I Defontenay, gave a comprehensive description of life on another world in Star, ou Psi de Cassiopée (1854; trans as Star 1975), but biological speculation was muted. Most late-nineteenth-century interplanetary romances similarly feature pseudo-human races and are vehicles for political and sociological rather than biological hypothesis. Exotic milieux are used merely to provide local colour for interplanetary tourists, as in George Griffith's A Honeymoon in Space (January-July 1900 Pearson's as "Stories of Other Worlds"; exp 1901). Edgar Fawcett's The Ghost of Guy Thyrle (1895) takes some trouble to convey an impression of the multifariousness of life on other worlds, but does not pause for detailed description. Even H G Wells, a writer whose biological training qualified him to take on the job of designing an alien life-system, shirked the task; the Selenite society in The First Men in the Moon (1901) is given only the most cursory supportive Ecology. Wells's French contemporary J-H Rosny aîné was similarly shy until 1922, when he included a fairly elaborate description of an alien life-system in his Lost-World story L'étonnant voyage de Hareton Ironcastle (1922; rewritten rather than trans by Philip José Farmer as Ironcastle, 1976).

The favourite abode of other-worldly life in early sf was Mars, and an approximate consensus image of the Martian biosphere slowly grew up, much encouraged by Mars as the Abode of Life (1908) by the eccentric US astronomer Percival Lowell. The red deserts and the canals became Clichés but, whether Mars was seen as a decadent world or as a primitive one, its biosphere tended to be somewhat stripped down. A lush Mars is featured in Edwin Lester Arnold's daydream fantasy Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (1905; vt Gulliver of Mars), the first of many novels to use the red planet as a backcloth for a swashbuckling adventure story, but Arnold and his successor in this vein, Edgar Rice Burroughs, were understandably uninterested in serious biosphere-design. A similar blithe disregard for matters of rational plausibility is exhibited not only by the great legion of Burroughs imitators – Otis Adelbert Kline, Ralph Milne Farley, J U Giesy, Lin Carter, Gardner F Fox, Alan Burt Akers (Kenneth Bulmer) et al. – but also by less derivative sf writers who adapted the underlying philosophy to their own purposes. Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury and C L Moore have helped to maintain a calculatedly nonrealistic image of Mars long beyond its natural lifespan, and Bradbury's curious amalgam of impossible romanticism and heavy nostalgia, exhibited in The Martian Chronicles (coll of linked stories 1950; rev vt The Silver Locusts 1951), remains so powerful that it still affects contemporary works like Ian McDonald's Desolation Road (1988). Indeed, the influence of this romantic image has been so great that it has had quite a marked influence upon supposedly realistic treatments of the planet, such as Arthur C Clarke's The Sands of Mars (1951) and James Blish's Welcome to Mars (July-September 1966 If as "The Hour Before Earthrise"; 1967). Some early Genre-SF writers did make an effort to introduce more variety and a greater degree of plausibility into their accounts of extraterrestrial life. Laurence Manning's "The Wreck of the Asteroid" (December 1932-February 1933 Wonder Stories), Jack Williamson's "The Moon Era" (February 1932 Wonder Stories) and Leslie F Stone's "The Hell Planet" (June 1932 Wonder Stories) all show enterprise in this regard, but the story most remembered today as a crucial turning-point in the sophistication of other-worldly melodrama is "A Martian Odyssey" (July 1934 Wonder Stories) by Stanley G Weinbaum. Weinbaum went on to write a whole series of adventure stories set against the backgrounds of various weird alien ecologies, but no one seemed able to take up where he left off. John W Campbell Jr's Penton and Blake series (stories December 1936-October 1938 Thrilling Wonder; coll of linked stories as The Planeteers 1966) is imitative of Weinbaum but much weaker. In 1939 Clifford D Simak began a series intended to deal in a realistic manner with conditions on each of the planets in turn; of the four stories he completed the last, "Tools" (July 1942 Astounding), is the most notable. Eric Frank Russell, in the course of his own series of exploration stories – collected in Men, Martians, and Machines Men, Martians and Machines (May 1941-October 1943 Astounding; exp as coll of linked stories 1955) – produced the memorable "Symbiotica" (October 1943 Astounding), but did little more in this line. Outside genre sf, very few writers tackled the problem of describing life on worlds unlike Earth. Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker (1937) is admirably wide-ranging but short on detail, save for one long description of a very Earthlike world. The fullest descriptions of other-worldly life offered by non-genre writers are to be found, oddly enough, in allegories inspired by the religious imagination: David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) and C S Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and Perelandra (1943; vt Voyage to Venus 1953).

The sophistication of post-World War Two sf encouraged attempts to tackle the problem of constructing strange alien life-systems more realistically. "Grandpa" (February 1955 Astounding) by James H Schmitz is a notable study of a complex marine lifecycle on an Earth-type planet. Conscientious attempts to design ecologies for unearthly physical circumstances were regularly made by Hal Clement, most notably in Mission of Gravity (April-July 1953 Astounding; cut 1954; text restored with additions and one added story, as coll 1978), Cycle of Fire (1957) and Close to Critical (May-July 1958 Astounding; 1964), and by Poul Anderson, especially in "Call Me Joe" (April 1957 Astounding), War of the Wing-Men (1958; with restored text vt The Man Who Counts 1978) and Three Worlds to Conquer (1964). Anderson also produced a nonfiction work, Is There Life on Other Worlds? (1963), an early popularization of the speculative science of Xenobiology – the study of extraterrestrial life. Isaac Asimov wrote essays on this subject, and one of its leading exponents, Carl Sagan, also wrote sf. One of the most intriguing nonfictions in the field is Extraterrestrial Encounter (1979) by Chris Boyce, another sf writer. One writer of the post-World War Two period whose name is particularly associated with the detailed presentation of alien worlds is Jack Vance, whose interest in alien ecology is linked to a strong concern for cultural Anthropology. His alien worlds usually have human populations cleverly adapted to and integrated into the native ecology, and his works carefully combine romanticism and earnest speculation (see also Planetary Romance); outstanding among his many novels in this vein are Son of the Tree (June 1951 Thrilling Wonder; 1964), Big Planet (September 1952 Startling; 1957), The Houses of Iszm (Spring 1954 Startling; 1964), The Languages of Pao (1958), The Dragon Masters (August 1962 Galaxy; 1963 dos), The Blue World (July 1964 Fantastic as "The Kragen"; exp 1966) and Emphyrio (1969). There also grew up in this post-World War Two period, in calculated opposition to the romantic school of other-worldly adventures, a school of fiction which represented human life on other worlds as a grim and terrible battle against implacably hostile circumstances (see Colonization of Other Worlds).

Popularization in the 1960s of the notion of impending ecological crisis in the real world brought about a significant change in emphasis in sf. The notion of "conquering" other worlds and mastering harsh environments by hard work and sheer determination – which reached its peak in such novels as Tom Godwin's The Survivors (1958; vt Space Prison 1960) and Harry Harrison's Deathworld (1960) – found new ideological opposition in many stories emphasizing the notion of harmonious order (see Ecology). Alien ecospheres possessing such perfection are often depicted, with mankind featuring either as an unthinking destroyer or as a candidate for membership whose case has yet to be judged. Such stories often embody a strong element of mysticism (see Religion; Mythology). The representation of alien ecospheres as problematic Gardens of Eden has since become so commonplace as to be almost ritual; notable examples of the careful extension of this metaphor include Mark Clifton's Eight Keys to Eden (1960), Richard M McKenna's "Hunter, Come Home" (March 1963 F&SF), John Boyd's ironic The Pollinators of Eden (1969), Ursula K Le Guin's The Word for World Is Forest (in Again, Dangerous Visions, anth 1972, ed Harlan Ellison; 1976), Neal Barrett's Highwood (1972), Brian Stableford's The Paradise Game (1974) and The Gates of Eden (1983), Stanisław Lem's Edem (1959; trans as Eden 1989) and Mike Resnick's Paradise (1989). Many of these works echo the forest fantasies of the great pioneer of ecological mysticism, W H Hudson. The 1960s also produced two thorough and detailed accounts of human populations in alien environments which are particularly impressive: Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965), with its description of life on the desert world Arrakis, and Ursula K Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which describes the life of hermaphroditic humans on the world of Winter. The scope which sf offered for much more detailed and considered modelling of alien environments was increased considerably during this period by virtue of the popularity of series novels, and, although interest remained focused almost exclusively on life-systems native to planets habitable by humankind, the foundations of various notable exercises in long-term "worldbuilding" were laid down. Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series and Anne McCaffrey's Pern series provided models for various subsequent endeavours on a smaller scale. Much of this work is so heavily romanticized that it exists on the borderline between sf and Fantasy, being little more realistic in its speculative components than the Burroughsian romances which it has largely replaced, but the most competent writers in this vein of planetary romance bring considerable intelligence to bear on their work; one who has been consistently ambitious is C J Cherryh, whose descriptions of other-worldly life in such works as The Faded Sun sequence – opening with The Faded Sun: Kesrith (February-May 1978 Galaxy; 1978) – and Serpent's Reach (1980) are outstanding.

The depiction of authentically alien life-systems has always been handicapped by the problems involved in using such systems as backgrounds to entertaining stories. An enormous amount of work goes into the design of an entire alien world, and it is not easy to blend that kind of artistry with the less esoteric creation of sensitive characterization and well-made plots. The most conscientious efforts of writers like Hal Clement and those who have followed in his footsteps – including Robert L Forward in The Flight of the Dragonfly (1984; exp vt Rocheworld 1990) and Larry Niven in The Integral Trees (1984) and The Smoke Ring (1987) – run into acute problems in trying to integrate the enormous amounts of information they must get across with some kind of suspenseful narrative; Forward's novel was drastically cut for its first publication in the interests of finding a reasonable balance; its later reissue, restoring the additional information for the benefit of purists, required appendices full of graphs and diagrams. Novels which attempt to present an image of everyday life on alien worlds, without the benefit of human observers – notable examples include John Brunner's The Crucible of Time (1984), Brian Herbert's Sudanna, Sudanna (1985) and Charles L Harness's Redworld (1986) – suffer inevitable problems of reader-identification, and tend to take on an ironic, if not outrightly satirical, edge even if that was not the author's primary intention. Given these difficulties, it is not entirely surprising that the most memorable images of other-worldly life are often highly artificial, contained in stylized narratives whose main purpose is allegorical. [BS]

see also: Biology; Hive Minds; Living Worlds.

further reading


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