Sometimes I want to be awestruck. It’s a feeling that I seek out. And so, usually late at night, I’ll open my laptop and type into a YouTube search bar: “s-c-a-l-e o-f t-h-e u-n-i-v-e-r-s-e.” I load a video at random; they all perform the same basic gesture: zooming out to incomprehensibility.
Then come the numbers. Twenty-five trillion miles to reach the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. At least one hundred billion stars and one hundred billion planets in our Milky Way galaxy alone. More than two trillion galaxies in the Observable Universe, and that’s just what we can see. Physical reality extends and expands far beyond our speed-of-light-limited view.
From our earthbound perspective we refer to all of this cosmic immensity with a modestly geocentric name: “outer space.” To me, this seems like a compartmentalization of epic proportions. On the one hand, there is the world as we know it, the ground-level of human life and everything it entails: the whole arc of history, the transformation of our natural environment, nervous first dates over coffee. On the other hand, there is the remaining 99.999…% of material reality that exists beyond the stratosphere, always there but rarely acknowledged.
Strictly speaking, “outer space” refers to the vast expanses between celestial objects, the near-perfect vacuum of space once thought to be filled with aether, the fifth element. In practice, though, we imagine outer space in much the same way that we do the ocean, so that far-flung material bodies (dusty asteroids, murky trenches) are implied within the whole. Outer space is a metonym for the great “out there.”
But I can’t swim in outer space. It’s out of sight and out of mind. Even the best images—heroically gathered from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Voyager space probes, and the Mars rovers—bespeak something uncanny, something unearthly. When I consider the bare fact of two trillion galaxies (as when Whitman “heard the learn’d astronomer”), I experience a jarring dissonance between what I know and what I feel to be true.
Is it really all out there? If so, can it be written?
In his recent collection of short meditative essays, Winter, Karl Ove Knausgaard takes up the problem of outer space in a piece called “The Local”:
The first time I saw photographs of a planet taken at ground level, I was shaken. The photos were from Mars, they showed a plain of sand and rock extending towards a mountain that towered up in the distance, the light pale grey as it is on certain autumn mornings. What was so astounding about it? I suddenly realised that it was a place, as concrete and physically real as the frost-covered garden where I have just been standing, gazing at the sky. I understood that it was local. That the spirit of place, what the Romans called genui loci, existed there too. And perhaps that is how we should imagine the universe, not as something alien and abstract, all those dizzying numbers and vast distances, but as something nearby and familiar. The wind whipping up a snowdrift beneath an outcrop somewhere in the Pleiades, the air full of swirling snowflakes which in the faint gleam of the moon resemble veils, and the sound of the wind forcing its way through the gulch, wailing, almost whining. A door banging in a house on a desert-like plain near Achernar, a circular lake in a forest on the outskirts of Castor. It is a pleasing thought.
Knausgaard is rightly lauded for his psychological realism, his ability to represent the affective nature of lived experience. As Toril Moi writes of his six-part autobiographical novel, which is both praised and criticized for its sheer abundance of the human real, “My Struggle is one man’s attempt to tell us how it is to be here, now.”
In outer space, though, there is no “here” and “now,” not for us anyway. The universe cannot be imagined as “nearby” or “familiar” because it is neither. In “The Local,” Knausgaard gives us romantic descriptions of faraway sights and sounds (“swirling snowflakes,” “a circular lake in a forest”): mere setting, in other words, which is the lowest element in the holy trinity of narrative structure: character, plot, and setting.
Because outer space precludes character (we cannot exist there) and plot (as far as we know, nothing worth telling ever happens), literary realism suffocates in the vacuum as quickly as any person would. David Shields argued in Reality Hunger that much of what we crave in the experience of reading is an encounter with reality. “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art,” Shields writes in the book’s opening sentence. If by reality we mean all that exists, then there’s plenty to be smuggled from the cosmos, or, for that matter, from the damp corners of a glacier cave, the parched pavement of an Australian desert, or the worn interior of my left shoe.
But this isn’t what we mean—what most artists mean—when framing “reality,” a term that Nabokov once suggested means nothing without quotation marks. To represent reality, to engage in what the ancient Greeks called mimesis, always involves some degree of exclusion, and, without the spark of consciousness, both the pebble and the quasar occupy the fast track to irrelevance. There are subjects worthy of representation and subjects unworthy, ranging on a wide scale with the human and the nonhuman as its poles, so that a person is vastly more interesting than a house which is vastly more interesting than a mountain. Raw nature is unnarratable, open to all our parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives…) but closed for storytelling. Among other things, outer space is a grand reminder that realism is a humanism: if we’re not around, what’s there to represent?
For these reasons, realist narrative, with its close ties to literary fiction, cannot survive in outer space. What, then, is possible on a “desert-like plain near Achernar?” Knausgaard flirts with the obvious answer when he conjures up a “door banging in a house” on an distant planet. With that sole detail (how could there be a house?), he, if only for a moment, slips into the realm of science fiction, the genre of “what-if?” With its strong claim to outer space, science fiction enjoys by far the most real estate of any literary genre.
To set a story in outer space means to frame that narrative in the future (if not a long time ago in a galaxy far away…) because, as things currently stand, we, as human beings, are simply not there, barring a few brave astronauts on the ISS. Then, as the writer of outer space painfully knows, an explanation must be given as to how a puny human character is able to survive beyond his ecological home and traverse the light years between the raging stars. And thus the tropes and technologies of science fiction pour into the story and render it generic: spaceships, FTL drives, and wormholes; terraformed planets and Big Dumb Objects (BDOs); alien interventions and monsters-in-the-Jefferies-tube.
Setting aside surreal fantasy or magical realism, it is impossible to narrativize outer space without reference to (1) the future and (2) technology, and the foregrounded presence of either concept will always signal “sci-fi” to contemporary readers. The association of outer space with science fiction stretches back to the space-bound works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires, which were described as “scientific romances” rather than science fiction proper, involved the use of exciting technologies to reach the plains of Antarctica, the depths of the ocean, the center of the earth, or, indeed, the orbit of the moon. Written in the late 1860s, From Earth to the Moon and its sequel Around the Moon tell the story of three men who are projected by a massive cannon on a daring lunar voyage. These novels are somewhat dated today, but they proved influential for decades to come, inspiring the popular silent film A Trip to the Moon (1902) and providing a model for Wells to react against when he—in 1901—published The First Men in the Moon. Wells’s moon voyage (like much of his early bibliography) is filled with remarkable ideas, from anti-gravity propulsion to insectoid aliens, and it remains an intellectually stimulating read even after more than a century of Wells’ sci-fi progeny.
Verne, for his part, was critical of Wells’ intermixing of the scientifically plausible with the speculatively fantastic, making his position clear:
I do not see the possibility of comparison between his work and mine. we do not proceed in the same manner. It occurs to me that his stories do not repose on a very scientific basis. No, there is no rapport between his work and mine. I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon-ball discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars [sic] in an air-ship, which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ca, c’est tres joli, but show me this metal. Let him produce it.
Of course, it was precisely Wells’ spirit of invention that made him the principle founder of modern science fiction and brought the vast expanses of outer space under the genre’s wing. As science fiction scholar James Gunn puts it, “Verne was writing an ‘if-this-goes-on’ kind of story and Wells, a ‘what-if’ kind.” It was Wells who introduced the term “outer space” into the popular lexicon, and it was he who first defined the cosmos as a properly science fictional space, a space of what-if.
Verne and Wells, then, set the rules of the game: science fiction would be the wrench that opens up new arenas of space and time. Following Edwin Hubble’s revolutionary discovery of a profusion of “island universes” (what astronomers now call galaxies) in 1924, the next serious writer of outer space was Olaf Stapledon. Starmaker (1937) explicitly grapples with a universe that is incalculably large and incomprehensibly old. Stapledon understood the de-centering significance of Darwin, Hubble, and the deep time of modern geology, and so he wrote a narrative that spans billions of years, with an everyman narrator who becomes capable (through an act of sheer imagination) of traversing time and space in a disembodied form. During his long voyage out and back home again, the traveler encounters a number of alien intelligences, astronomical phenomena, and even the universe’s creator, the eponymous Starmaker. In full view, the novel—revered by many illustrious writers of the day, including Virginia Woolf and Jorge Luis Borges—is a strange achievement, predictably thin on plot and characterization but bursting with ideas in typical high-concept fashion. With his other great novel, Last and First Men, written in 1930, Stapledon exerted massive influence on the development of twentieth-century genre fictions, cited glowingly by authors like H.P Lovecraft, C.S. Lewis, Arthur C. Clarke, and James Blish, among others.
After Stapledon came years of pulp-fiction, the Roswell incident, the space opera of sci-fi’s Golden Age, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and all the rest. Over the long and tumultuous century, writers of outer space dreamt up inspired places, scenarios, and species, and, in equal measure, recycled and re-recycled clichés, old and new. Looking backwards, I imagine each story, each discrete rendering of “what-if-the-stars-were-such,” as contributing to the sci-fi-ification of outer space. What we end up with is a massive swath of physical reality defined in the popular imagination by an artistic genre.
Outer space, in the end, becomes a giant projective surface for the dreams of tomorrow, more idea than place. I’m often reminded of George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnsen’s Metaphors We Live By, in which the authors argue that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” Lakoff and Johnsen describe the centrality of spatial metaphors, particularly the up/down metaphor: happy is up (“I’m feeling up” or “My spirits are high”) and sad is down (“I’m feeling down” or “My spirits sank”); conscious is up (“Wake up”) and unconscious is down (“He fell asleep”); more is up (“My income is up”) and less is down (“Profits are down”). There is an exception to the up-is-good-and-down-is-bad rule, however: unknown is up (“It’s up in the air”) and known is down (“The matter is settled”). Go up far enough, and you reach the greatest unknown—how far it all goes, we can only speculate. At some level, I suspect that outer space represents the unsayable, the unconscious, the undiscovered country of death, and so we don’t talk or think about it very much. For now, the bells and whistles of science fiction are the only way for the resistant cosmos to be narratively represented and emotionally encountered.
There’s finally, of course, the question of literary respectability: realist fiction is up, genre-fiction is down. In a short essay entitled “Margaret Atwood and the Hierarchy of Contempt,” Peter Watts, author of Blindsight, calls Atwood to task for her aversion to the science-fiction label: “Here is a woman so terrified of sf-cooties that she’ll happily redefine the entire genre for no other reason than to exclude herself from it.” Watts continues, “Atwood claims to write something entirely different: speculative fiction, she calls it, the difference being that it is based on rigorously-researched science, extrapolating real technological and social trends into the future (as opposed to that escapist nonsense about fictitious things like chemicals and rockets, presumably).” For Watts, “the literary credscape […] hold the realist novel to be the benchmark against which all else is judged.” Since Atwood strives for high art, she strives for realism, and science fiction must be discarded.
The whole exercise is silly. Within science-fiction (including those stories set in outer space), there is plenty of room for realism, if by realism we simply mean those moments of keen observation, getting at deep truths, reflecting the human condition, inspiring a head-nod and an internal murmur of “Yes, this speaks to me.” Of course it’s there in science fiction. My favorite sci-fi writers, including Watts, Atwood, Le Guin, Banks, and so many others, all use fantastic lies to tell the truth.
But, in any space-fi novel, it’s always yesterday or tomorrow because characters are a necessity. Without character, there is no plot, no representation beyond “the faint gleam of the moon.” This is why writing outer space as it actually exists now is unimaginable: no one is there. We can certainly wonder what-if, but we cannot represent what is.
Awestruck again, I’ll close my laptop. Falling asleep, I’ll picture the countless light years as an endless highway. All the empty systems are abandoned towns, and the stars are street lamps left on for eons. There is the promise of human presence, painted by more than a century of science fiction, but we’re not there yet. If we ever arrive, what stories will we tell?
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