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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.

T.H.L.
August 2012

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