Time is what clocks measure.


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In The Terminator you cannot travel through time with your clothes; the motivation for this rule is clearly aesthetic and cinematic rather than scientific.

When it comes to plots involving time travel, the general rule is a plain-stated one: do not ask questions. The writer expects, perhaps unfairly, that the audience approach any plot that meddles with chronology as ordinarily experienced by humans with a more-than-usually sturdy sense of the suspension of disbelief. Time travel can be encountered on its own terms, being the focus of a story, a novel, a film, or even a series; or, it can be encountered as an occasional feature in a science fiction series, something that creates a plot that is resolved within the ensuing forty-five minutes of television. Time travel is also a favourite theme for two-parter episodes, however, given the scope it can afford show writers; Star Trek two-parters that deal with time travel occur at least once per series excepting The Original Series (which had no two-parters): The Next Generation had ‘Time’s Arrow’ and even its final episode (‘All Good Things…’), Deep Space Nine had ‘Past Tense’, Voyager had ‘Future’s End’ and ‘Year of Hell’, and Enterprise had whole ‘seasons’ devoted to story arcs caused by a ridiculously conceived and poorly implemented ‘Temporal Cold War’ (don’t ask). This does not count the movies, of which 4 feature time travel as a primary plot device (ST:IV, Generations, First Contact, and JJ Abrams 2009 film), nor single-hour episodes utilizing this writer’s trope. All in all, time travel appears in fifty-two ST episodes and films!

Since our protagonists are already regularly in the habit of transiting the vastness of space by various improbable means, the writers tend not to be worried about abusing physics further; indeed, even when time travel is the focus of a feature, questions are not invited. Each incarnation of time travel applies new rules designed to provide precisely the level of flexibility and dramatic tension that the plot requires, or sometimes that the creators simply thought would be ‘cool’. The best fictional forays into this theme do so self-consciously, testing the rules that govern a universe in which time travel is possible; a common remark made is that if time travel were eventually to become possible, then we ought to be surprised by the absence of an inundation of time travellers in our present and in our history, especially at key events. At the very least, we ought to be surprised by these time travellers’ apparent commitment to secrecy whilst amongst us and their flawless competence in maintaining it. Most examples infer great difficulty and cost associated with time travel, or more commonly implement a system of state regulation where time travel is illegal or restricted. HG Wells surely picks the former, since the inventor in The Time Traveller does not encounter other temporal sojourners in any of the pasts or futures he visits, implying his relative singularity in his achievement. HG Wells also does not have to deal with any of the effects of relativity, and does not treat time as spacetime but as a separate entity, as evident by the way a traveller can ‘see’ the passage of the days (albeit as a blur) as he travels in an accelerated fashion without ever moving.

Before employing further example, it’s worth pointing out that it is difficult to discuss time travel problems and the merit or drawbacks of a particular plot without also spoiling it, so elect not to read if you are precious about having plots ruined.

Disclaimer thus given, I would immediately like to spoil the plot of Robert A. Heinstein’s clever short story “-All You Zombies-”, which takes advantage of the potential for paradox, predestination, and questions of determinism inherent in time travel. A young man, speaking to a bartender, has the nom de plume ‘Unmarried Mother’ and keeps a column in confession magazines; he reveals that he began his life a female, grew up in an orphanage, became impregnated by a lover who then abandoned her, and consequently discovered she had an intersex condition. Complications from birth resulted in her undertaking an operation that resulted in her becoming nominatively male, and his baby was abducted, never to be recovered. The bartender offers him the opportunity to travel back in time to when she was seduced and the emotional trauma of having this child began.

Unmarried Mother takes the opportunity, goes back to 1963, falls for a young woman and impregnates her; meanwhile the bartender leaves Unmarried Mother to travel forward 11 months, kidnaps the child and takes it back to an orphanage in 1945. The bartender returns to 1963 to collect the Unmarried Mother, saying, ‘Now you know who he is—and after you think it over you’ll know who you are . . . and if you think hard enough, you’ll figure out who the baby is . . . and who I am.’ This presents a thoroughly enjoyable exercise in causality. Considering the biology first of all, it is certainly possible to create a sexually produced clone from one set of biological material; the generation of gametes discards half of the host’s genetic material, so it is possible that a gamete could encounter another with precisely the genetic material that is missing from the first. I am assured by those more expert than I that this sort of likelihood is on the remotest end of a spectrum of probability, but of course the fact that the child must be born in order for it to travel back and experience the sexual encounter means that the impregnation is 100% likely to create a sexual clone whilst at the same time being a thoroughly improbable occurrence.

This is arguably time travel at its most thought-provoking, if also at its most outrageous. 2012’s film Looper posits a potentially fun and altogether more accessible use for time travel; it is explained within the first 5 minutes of film time that, in the future, time travel will exist, but will be illegal, and furthermore the disposal of bodies will become almost impossible thanks to advanced forensics, so organized crime syndicates will carry out hits by kidnapping targets and sending them to the past (a past which is nonetheless in the future relative to the audience) to be killed by a network of assassins known as ‘loopers’. Mostly fine, at this point, relative to credibility: if time travel were possible, this is entirely the kind of thing that would seem plausible once you had made that initial leap in accepting time travel’s reality. It also exhibits a rather chaotic notion of consequentiality: whereas inevitability is vital to the plot in Heinstein, it is made plain that in Looper the past is alterable, thus creating the dramatic tension necessary to drive the plot – inevitability in this film would perhaps render it a tragedy, in a completely technical sense, with the ultimate downfall of the characters being the result of their attempts to prevent that very downfall.

What happens, then, if, when visiting the past, you effect your younger self’s death? This is an example of the ‘Grandfather Paradox’, a phrase that ought to induce groans of pronounced lethargy from audiences these days, so often is it used to explain ‘how’ time travel works and yet with very little explanation of how exactly it produces a genuine paradox. In Looper physical injury to the younger self impacts the elder time traveller, but apparently does not interfere with memory (odd, if memory and consciousness derive from physical tissue, chemicals, and energy as we assume they do), since a time traveller is surprised when his fingers disappear. More unlikely still is what happens when a time traveller kills a younger self (be quiet, I warned you to stop reading if you were worried about plots), id est, he simply vanishes, yet his impact on the world seems to remain. The medium of film and the diachronic (although helped at times by anachronic ‘flashforwards’, which are flashbacks relative to the traveller) nature of the narrative means that all that the protagonist does did happen, and yet he simultaneously, by the end of the film, did not do it. Like I said, rule number one is not to ask questions.

I was gifted the audiobook of John Scalzi’s sci-fi spoof Redshirts last year, in which the infinite flexibility of time travel is lampooned. Having travelled back in time, the protagonists only have a certain number of days before they cease to exist due to the fact that their atoms are forced to ‘choose’ where to exist; the protagonists draw attention to the bizarre and nonsensical nature of this rule about time travel by asking why this should be so, remarking that all their knowledge of physics gave them no reason to think that this would be the case, with the obvious conclusion that the number of days they had was precisely the amount of time the plot needed to resolve itself in the way the writer wants and add the dramatic tension of their objectives being time-sensitive. The book itself, I felt, suffered in some stylistic ways that seemed more painful for being read to me aloud (the repetition of the word ‘said’ became as the throbbing of a distant headache, and the sarcastic tone came off as affected purely because of overuse – like an Aaron Sorkin script, the jokes and ironic remarks were too practised); yet nonetheless it was a pleasure to encounter parodies of the non-science and convenient demands placed upon the characters by these plots. The observations made were clearly originating in fondness for a genre, and likewise here, but there is an accompanying element of lament that more sophisticated things cannot be done.

Time travel risks cliché more than perhaps any trope in sci-fi. Few people recall the series Quantum Leap (probably a good thing), in which each episode involves visiting an historically or culturally significant period, place, or event in the past. This series demonstrated of one of the main reasons sci-fi gets re-used so much: perspective. Just like travel writing, its true value was not to be found in factuality but in polemic. Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes afforded the writer the disclaimer that he was merely reporting how people from other lands saw Europe, all the while levelling a cultural and political criticism at an establishment prepared to mete out severe responses to criticism. Likewise, time travel episodes of series that deal with humanity in a time period before the show’s enlightened future involve almost without exception a collection of remarks about the barbarous nature of the time period, and this provides much opportunity for comic effect, with eccentric fashion and music often making an appearance. The importance of money in our present constantly bemuses future travellers; by contrast, in an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that playfully suggests some characters from that series were the culprits of the rumours of aliens crash-landing at Roswell, the financially motivated Ferengi fall in love with the consumer culture of 1950s America.

Time travel is clearly highly adaptable as a plot element. When HG Wells used it, it represented the sense of wonder and trepidation towards the future that technological advancement created, and continues to create; in Star Trek it was often little more than convenient for a 45 or 90 minute plot. In the Terminator series it was simply ‘cool’, and the degree to which it engaged with a warning about nuclear holocaust and the removal of human decision in war was foiled significantly by the protagonists’ indulgence in high performance weaponry. In Dr Who it is treated with reverence and enough wanton playfulness that we hold it to no accountability. In all cases that I’ve considered it is difficult to obtain genuine gravity, genuine peril; the elegance of time travel as a plot device is also its essential drawback: if the past can be changed, then really very little is of lasting consequence. Most incarnations tend to struggle to produce genuine do-or-die situations, since it is perennially transparent that the constraints put upon our heroes are not constraints demanded by a sense of realism or even aesthetic constraints, but are demands required by the plot.

In this way, time travel risks being pornographic in its implementation when it is at its laziest. Because of this, I enjoyed Looper for its relative freshness, its change of setting compared to many other examples of time travel, such that I was able to respect this despite uncompelling character motives and shallow romances that mar the finished product. For a truly class act I cannot help but feel that we have to return to the written word, however, since few filmed scripts have matched the imagination of Heinstein and Philip K. Dick (whose A Little Something for Us Tempunauts (1975) deals directly with time travellers, and whose Martian Time-Slip reflects on the relationship between consciousness, thought, mental health, and the progress of time in a more philosophical way). Written word has an ability to accommodate time travel’s lack of intuitive sense that the rigidity of a film reel struggles to recreate because of its linear presentation; for that very reason, I welcome attempts that challenge this notion of mine and hoped to be proved wrong.



Xenological improbabilities, part I.


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ImageWhere no man has gone before? Probably not.

Perhaps the single most attractive objective of space travel for most people is the search for aliens. The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence is today concerned largely with devoting computing power to the deciphering of background radio noise in the hope that a non-random pattern can be discerned, which would indicate purposeful transmissions from another technologically advanced intelligence; exciting as the project is, it is a passive effort. Arrays of large satellite dishes scour the heavens, but it is a sedentary activity by the definition provided by today’s technology. Star Trek’s infinitive-splitting slogan makes it plain that waiting for intelligent life to pop by is not an option: ‘To boldly go where no man has gone before’ (or ‘no one’ since The Next Generation, which I think suffers from having two vowels meet and gains nothing from its gesture at being ‘PC’). Also, most science fiction considerations of the consequences of an intelligence advanced enough to come to Earth doing so possess overtones of the apocalyptic: when Independence Day came out whilst I still lived in the USA as a young child, I remained convinced for some years that the 4th of July celebrations we attended were in deed an attempt to ward off potential alien invaders. At least several mediocre television series have been produced on a similar basis that visitors would have sinister intentions; Philip K. Dick had Palmer Eldritch return hosting non-human intelligence that procreated in human minds through the reality-altering drug Chew-Z (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, 1965); Klaatu came to our planet with a message of peace, but becomes convinced by his treatment by mankind and by what he witnesses of the species’ small-mindedness that ‘elimination’ is the only appropriate response (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951; a narrative recently needlessly revisited by Keanu Reeves in 2008).

The object of obtaining space travel, then, is to meet new life on an equal footing, since the technology that enables the distant transit required would presumably afford appropriately advanced defensive equipment. The value of finding life elsewhere that is capable of communicating in a meaningful and culturally significant way is, I venture, incalculable (nevertheless, the SETI Foundation receives no public funding), and it is no surprise that much of sci-fi concerns itself with finding astounding new permutations of life in a dazzling array of forms. Except, of course, that this is not quite the case, particularly on the television screen. Perhaps the ‘reptilian’ Gorn and the green-skinned Orion slave girls were the best that the 1960s’ special effects, costume, and make-up departments could cobble together, but there are surely two influencing factors at play in the conceptual process of developing an alien character.

One is this practical consideration just alluded to: with a tight budget, limited production time, and the constraints of technology (CGI can create anything you like, but it does not necessarily look realistic, and it costs money to ensure that it does), it is easy to understand why Spock merely has pointy ears and green blood. The unexpected alteration to the facial structure of Klingons in Star Trek identifies the problem quite accurately: when the brow ridges were added in 1984 (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock), the budget had swelled considerably and cosmetics had advanced to the point of affordability. There is a second motivation behind Spock’s very human appearance, and it is not merely his human mother (that is a wholly separate score of improbability); Spock, as the second-most important character on the cast, must attract empathy, the audience must be able to recognise their own motivations and values within his actions and his speech. Were Vulcans floating, faceless orbs who communicated with shrieks that had to be subtitled, the producers would be setting themselves far too great a challenge in terms of making the character relatable. Thus there is an artistic motivation as well as a practical one behind the essential familiarity (is there a better antonym for “alien”?) of many television E.T.s.

From a perspective of realism these creatures are plainly anatomically suspect. In a marriage of easily relatable characters and the desire to have real actors play the roles, we are rarely faced with an intelligence that does not have a precisely human physiognomy: two eyes, two ears, a nose, and a mouth that is capable of managing the vowels, consonants, and diphthongs of American English despite its origins on a world where it was not necessarily evolutionary advantageous. Forget the universal translator: when they introduced the Klingon language in Star Trek III it could not have become so well known amongst sci-fi fans without the quality of reproducibility by the human speech apparatus. This makes sense when using actors, since the surgery for the relocation of sight organs is a little beyond even Hollywood’s resources; yet it is hardly exotic, and leaves something to be desire on the originality front. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Kirk kicks an attacking alien in the knee, which, to his and the audience’s surprise, completely disables him, and the humorous quip is duly supplied: ‘Not everyone keeps their genitals in the same place, Captain’.

Perhaps not; perhaps the prime-time, non-HBO slot of Star Trek has prevented us from witnessing a plethora of alien sex organs; but everyone does seem to keep their eyes in the same place. The eyes seem the most important thing to retain; noses and ears are the most often altered, and sometimes mouths are too, but eyes are vital to generate that sense of empathy with a character. Just think of the Na’vi (why the apostrophe?) in Avatar, with those large, Disney-esque eyes, inviting us to appreciate their innocence and naïveté. Hey, that last word looks a bit like Na’vi…. The Stargate film and series dealt with these problems quite well: humans are the single most populous species in the show’s universe, and the primary antagonists operate by parasitically controlling humans. They are, however, subject to that sin beholden of all writers seeking to establish the non-Englishness credentials of a word by introducing unnecessary apostrophes: “Goa’uld”. Amongst the more adventurous portrayals of foreign intelligence we have received is in the Mass Effect series of video games, which boast a touch of the cinematic to rival any Hollywood action film, and which makes effective usage of the fact that every character is computer generated, permitting possibilities unavailable on a regular basis to television producers. The Hanar are hexapod (I cannot decide if I prefer “sextupedal”) jellyfish that refer to themselves in the third person, the Elcor possess similar speech-based curiosities and, like the Hanar, seem to lack the ability to manipulate objects with any ease. But neither of these species is anything except a side attraction, a notional gesture at the possibilities awaiting us in space; certainly neither of these species is available as a romance option, which is reserved exclusively for bipedals with breasts.

I committed an error of terminology just now that Star Trek is serially guilty of perpetrating: the Hanar are obviously not jellyfish. Jellyfish are native to Earth and are members of the phylum Cnidaria. Obviously I used “jellyfish” as a convenient metaphor to describe the Hanar’s outward appearance; the supposed scientists who crew the USS Enterprise seem incapable, however, of equipping themselves with appropriate taxonomic terminology. Amongst the most common of misnomers applied to creatures that patently did not evolve within terran taxonomy is ‘reptilian’, but an entire series of Star Trek: Enterprise drearily devoted itself to interaction with a civilization whose unique selling point was that its sentient constituents were divided into the phyla and orders of the family animalia: avians, insectoids, primates, and reptilians, with only the ‘aquatics’ and ‘arboreals’ not explicitly being so assigned. Many aliens are what I want to term ‘Neelixes’: extra make-up to the point of bizarreness and unattractiveness, often humorous in appearance, and with special attention paid to their hairstyles; but they are beneath all the embellishments an archetype. This archetype is summed up by the chief adjective applied to ‘life signs’ in any Star Trek outing: ‘humanoid’. As Spock responded to Kirk’s adage, ‘Everybody’s human’, ‘I find that remark… insulting.’ (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country)

The meaning is clear behind Kirk’s remark: Star Trek is deeply concerned with what it means to be human, and it translates our petty concerns into the future and abstracts aspects of human existence into extreme examples: the emotional nature of the Klingons, the unfeeling cruelty of the Cardassians, the cerebral qualities of Vulcans, the greed of the Ferengi. Incidentally, it needs to be pointed out that the Ferengi are not capitalists, as they are intended to be, they are mercantilists: individuals do not have the right to earn profit in Ferengi society, that is a privilege granted by the state, the very opposite of a free market. It is not merely a convenience of make-up and SFX that humans are so present in Star Trek, since it is humans who act as a median amongst the extremes of disposition residing in the alien species they encounter. Further in Star Trek’s defence, there is something credible in the idea that any potential intelligence capable of communicating with us to a substantive degree might resemble us. Star Trek briefly and somewhat weakly dealt with the similarity of appearance amongst the ‘humanoid’ races of the Alpha Quadrant in an episode that explains they are all the spawn of genetic seeds planted by a precursor race, (‘The Chase’, Star Trek: The Next Generation) but such contrivances are perhaps unnecessary. It seems unlikely that a technologically capable species would not have some form of manipulative appendage, and that such an appendage would be analogous to hands; also that it would have sight, and the usefulness of stereoscopic vision is evidenced in more than one unique instance of evolutionary development on Earth; even that it would be bipedal is not unlikely. But I think that if you are going to make the effort to tread between stars, we ought not to stop until we find something truly remarkable, and I cannot believe that the inventiveness of the writers that proposed a language composed of metaphor (‘Darmok’, Star Trek: The Next Generation) could not stretch the conceptual boundaries further still, indeed I think it is a duty.

August 2012

Given the sheer size of the subject matter, I am keen to return to it again from another direction sometime, hence ‘part I’: I think I have expressed my take on Star Trek-type interpretation of alien life adequately and I think I have shown that I appreciate the portrayal of aliens in those series as being particular to the artistic objectives of Star Trek. I want to continue my own stellar journey, however, and see what can be discovered amongst the annals produced in the realm of sci-fi, and see what avenues have been taken already.

Ex Astris Tedium


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Micromégas carefully lifts the travelling philosophers’ ship whilst
his companion from Saturn looks on.


I suspect that if the reference behind the name of this weblog is not readily apparent to you, there might be little here for you. On the chance that the case might be otherwise, however, I will state that Ex Astris Scientia is the motto of Star Trek’s Starfleet Academy: with hope, that has set the tone appropriately. Yes, this page is the location for my ill-considered opinions on a matter very close to my heart: science fiction. Space has appeared upon our television screens for as long as many can remember, and both space and our conceptions about how we might travel across it have experienced many reincarnations. Some have attempted realism, others have avoided it for obvious editorial reasons (exempli gratia: space is very big), and many settle for a middle ground, in which the illusion that what we are seeing is credible enough one day to exist but in which also the writers are not constrained by physics, that great obstacle to ratings, that annoying (and vocal, if you listen to a certain demographic of fandom) objector to non-sensical but spectacular special effects.

It is not my goal to complain, though my natural love for expressing dissatisfaction, I hope, will shine through. Despite my constantly furrowed brow, prompted by perplexing plot developments, curious set designs, and unimaginative extra-terrestrials (they’re not extra their own terra, though, are they?), I have a deep and enduring love for science fiction. Since watching The Next Generation as a young child in the early ’90s with my father, I have enjoyed writing and film-making that considers life in an age of space travel, civilization in a time when that final frontier was being crossed. I think sci-fi is a very special type of fiction: like its cousin, fantasy writing, it holds the advantage of removing itself, or better, elevating itself, from the distracting politics and worries of the present day. I am prepared to qualify and justify that statement; I have not tried to define precisely what science fiction is, because I think we know it when we see it, but even so, the project of science fiction seems to me to be reminding us that our world is very small (in measurements of geometric space, but also time), and our present-day worries are proportionally small. It has the effect of setting our trials in context and affording us the opportunity to reflect upon them as an outside observer. I intend to discuss many aspects of science fiction, drawing upon my own meagre yet passionate experience with the subject matter.

Star Trek is where it started for me, but although those shows will undoubtedly feature here, I fancy turning to an earlier kind of science fiction to really explain what I enjoy about it. If you are thinking of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, you’re a century out; I want to talk about one of Voltaire’s short stories, Micromégas. Quotations are my own translations, from the Pléiade edition of Voltaire’s Romans et contes. I like it as a starting point because it embodies some ideas and ideals that have remained with the genre. Voltaire’s love of science and of the rational interfaced perfectly with his assault on human vanities. A tool he used often to apply to his plots was travel, and his best-known of works to English-speakers features it heavily: it is the principal mechanism for plot progression in Candide, and the plot’s developments consistently require the eponymous character to undertake a journey. From Westphalia to Iberia to the New World and back again, Candide and his companions put France, and Europe, into a broader context of a world in which Europe is one of many civilized places, or rather, equally uncivilized. So too does travel function in Micromégas, but on the predictably larger interplanetary scale.

When I first beheld this remarkable short story, I marvelled at the undertaking of writing about space, about sentient non-human beings, about the proportions of other planets, and how physics might affect life differently on planets of greater scale, with beings possessing different senses, and all of it in the 1750s, a time in which we would now perhaps consider our knowledge of the heavens minuscule, woefully so compared to today. Yet Voltaire does not merely delve into this tricky subject, but does so with agility, demonstrating appreciation of accurate measurements of distances between and sizes of planets, yet also sensitivity towards the limits of human certainty and the reliability of knowledge accrued about laws of physics. All of it accomplished with a subtle wit. Our protagonist, Micromégas, departs from his own home, exasperated with the prejudices of the religious power establishment, echoing with some force aspects of Voltaire’s own life. He comes to our own solar system, and visits Saturn, meets a philosopher of the civilization there, and becoming fast friends, they journey onwards, finally arriving at our planet, which is so small to them (Saturn’s traveller being very much bigger, and Micromégas of yet greater scale) that they cannot believe anything lives on it:

As the strangers attain a fair pace, they had walked a full circle around the planet in thirty-six hours; the sun, in truth, or rather the Earth, makes a similar voyage in one day; but you have to imagine that the going is a lot easier when one spins on one’s axis rather than walking on foot.

The point about scale is a recurring theme, since Voltaire is at pains to emphasize the smallness of both Earth and its inhabitants, and since our protagonist is not human, but is nonetheless very much personalized, featuring admirable human traits of curiosity and kindness, it emphasizes the insigificance of humans, since there are surely creatures living amongst the stars, reasons Voltaire, who are wiser than we.

[A]t first they saw nothing by their efforts […]. Finally, the inhabitant of Saturn saw something elusive that moved through the shallow waters of the Baltic Sea; it was a whale.

Much like a certain Star Trek film, these aliens assume at first that the whale must be Earth’s dominant life form. Yet even possessing such scale (the Saturnian measures “a thousand fathoms” in height, Micromégas is one hundred and twenty thousand imperial feet, and both can wade into the Baltic Sea and have the water not even come up to their waist), Micromégas insists in turn that his kind are still unremarkable set against the sheer size of the universe:

For on our planet we have close enough a thousand senses, and we always have that vague feeling, that sort of anxiety, that we are insignificant creatures, and that there must be much more perfect beings in existence. I have travelled around a bit; I have seen mortals far beyond our level; I have seen some who are even more superior than that; but none of them desired only that which they needed, and none needed only what they indulged in. I will arrive perhaps one day in a country that lacks nothing, but so far no one has presented any positive evidence that such a land exists.

Voltaire is not a pessimist, however, and as much as he enjoys damaging human pride, he is sure to add a dash of hope for modern man. Indeed, all the traits of wisdom that we admire in Micromégas (the native of Saturn acts slightly as a foil to Micromégas, acting brashly such that Micromégas can correct him) are human traits, but he is an ideal human. Like Candide, his travel edifies him, and perhaps makes the adjective ‘cosmopolitan’ more literally precise applied to him than to most. The humans that these aliens encounter, it is no surprise, are themselves travelling, on a ship: its passengers are philosophers, a species that Voltaire is wont to mock throughout his oeuvre, and most of them make quite ridiculous claims about the nature of the Universe, with one quoting St Aquinas:

[T]here was, unfortunately, a little animal wearing a square hat, who cut off the other philosophical little animals’ words; he said that he knew the greatest secret of all, which was to be found in the Summa of St Thomas; he looked the two celestial inhabitants up and down; he suggested that their people, their worlds, their suns, their stars, all of it had been made for man. In response to this speech, our two travellers nearly fell over with inextinguishable laughter….

But there is one, whose philosophical stance Voltaire describes as Lockean, who does not attempt to conjure absurd analogies to explain the nature of the universe, nor attempt to propound baseless claims, but admits that he does not know what the nature of the human soul is:

“I affirm nothing, I content myself with believing that more things are possible than are thought possible.” The Sirian smiled: he did not find this one the least wise….

 Voltaire is satisfied with doubt, that underpinning tool of rational enquiry, in a clear expression of what space travel supplies as a subject matter in terms of thematic substance. The geneticist JBS Haldane remarked that, ‘I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine.’ This proposes itself well as an essential source of excitement in space: it offers the truly unknown and puts our mean and base certainties about existence into question, demonstrating that enquiry is more valuable than meaningless proposition. This is also a skill that humans can learn, it is not privileged wisdom, and in that sense it is democratic. I like this story as a starting point to explain why we look to the stars to dramatize our fiction, uncluttered by what is known today as sci-fi, and I get the impression that Voltaire would have appreciated Star Trek, at least the earlier series, given his disdain for war and Roddenberry’s somewhat naive pacifism. Voltaire characterized the politics of war thus, and I think it an appropriately belittling thing to end on:

We possess more matter than we need,” he said, “In order to realize a great amount of evil, if evil comes from matter, and more mental capacity, if evil comes from the mind. Were you aware, for example, that at this very moment our species includes a hundred thousand fools, wearing hats, who are killing a hundred thousand animals of the same species wearing turbans, or conversely who are being killed by them, and that, the world over, this is how we have spent our days since time immemorial?” The Sirian shuddered and asked what the subject of such terrible quarrels possibly could be between such puny animals. “It amounts,” said the philosopher, “To some fleck of mud about as big as your heel. It is not the case that any of the men slitting one another’s throats care for this fleck of mud. It concerns determining whether a certain man known as a Sultan owns the land, or whether it belongs to one called, I don’t know why, Caesar. Neither one has seen nor ever will see the land in question, and almost none of the animals who slit one another’s throats have seen the animal in whose honour they do murder.

August 2012