Brian W. Aldiss
Kepler's Error: The Polar Bear Theory of Pluripresence
My hope is to help resolve a question puzzling us all, and to show why it is that, for all its commercial success, sf has failed to be accepted, or indeed even seriously considered, in literary circles.
Supposing there are other planets in our galaxy which are hospitable to life. Supposing that life evolves and develops intelligence. Are we to suppose that other species will also reason?
I have a cat who possesses intelligence. I doubt whether Macramé also has reason. Reason, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a statement of a fact (real or alleged) employed as an argument to justify or condemn some act, prove or disprove some assertion, idea, or belief. Consciousness of a kind Macramé has, but no ratiocination. Most of Earth's creatures get by without our powers of reasoning. Still they get from A to Z, doing what comes naturally.
We might have trouble in a court of law justifying our belief that sf, that stormy ocean of miscellaneous work, has reason. Defendant might argue that sf seeks something beyond reason; that reason is merely a cultural limitation inherited from Plato and the early philosophers, and that what is commonly called madness is a more fertile way of life. It is a view which intermittently holds our sympathy, as it did in the sixties for a while, under the influence of R.D. Laing and Timothy Leary.
Reason is to be preferred to madness because it requires a higher degree of organisation, as a symphony excels over tribal drumming. It may be there are planets full of stark raving mad people who spend their lives turning cartwheels and tattooing each other's big toes, but I do not wish to go there— except for a day trip, perhaps, to gratify my curiosity.
However, this essay is not about the pleasures of travel, but the unexamined preoccupation with aliens and alien life, their general hobgoblin role in sf, and whether that preoccupation is at all reasonable, under the meaning of the act.
It will be agreed that aliens play a considerable role in sf. Since firstly miraculous machinery and then space travel itself faded out as major topics, monsters in various guise have become an over-riding theme. This trend is echoed in sf movies, from Alien to Species, and ever onwards.
Moreover, monsterishness tends more steeply towards the horrific than formerly, especially on the visual side of sf. Contrast the two versions of The Fly, 1958 and 1986.
Nor can we claim that monsters as such occupy as high an intellectual bracket as the potentials of space travel, or even as marvellous machinery, which, even in its extreme guise as nuclear weapons, does represent in part man's attempt to master and reorganise the elements.
Mary Shelley confined her attentions to terrestrial affairs, as, in the main, did Jules Verne. It was H.G. Wells who unleashed the Martians and the Selenites upon us: or rather, those unpleasant beings were unleashed by their immediate popularity. Wells presented his aliens in fictional form, as works of imagination. In one respect, this followed a patchy tradition, a broken track, which leads back to Lucian of Samosata, Syria, in the second century CE, and probably before that.
In Lucian's True History, we meet with lunar populations. “We suddenly encountered creatures which the people of the new country call Horse-griffins. They are men riding on huge griffins, employing the birds as horses. These griffins are very large and three-headed.” So the principle is established whereby aliens are mainly unlike humans but not too unlike. When Sigourney Weaver finally blows the horrific Alien from her lifeboat, we can see (to our disappointment) that it is just another man in a monkey suit.
Long before Wells, before even the satirical Lucian, serious men had speculated about the feasibility of sensible beings elsewhere in the universe. These serious men were under the impression they were employing reason to harness imagination.
For centuries, the Moon served as a convenient harbour into which such imagination could sail. The Sun is our taskmaster, second only to the government; men and women labour under it. At night, we are at ease, and then the Moon is mistress of our fancy, unless we now watch TV. Hence our understanding that she influences sexual life.
Plutarch's Facies in Orbe Lunare (Of the Face in the Moon's Orb) takes the form of a discussion between friends on the nature of the Moon. Plutarch (AD 46-120) puts poetry into the mouth of one of the friends, Sextius Sylla. Sylla relates what happens to humans after death.
The soul remains on the Moon, retaining traces and dreams of the former life. Not at first, and not when it is quit of the body does this happen to it, but only later, when it becomes deserted and solitary, set free from mind. The self of us is not courage, nor fear, nor desire, any more than it is a parcel of flesh. It is that whereby we understand and think. The soul being shaped by the mind and itself shaping the body, stamps its form upon it so that even if it is separated from both for a long time, it still possesses the likeness and the stamp, and is rightly called the image. Of these, the Moon is the element, for they are resolved into her just as are the bodies of the dead into the earth.
This is interesting, and sounds as if an Attic Jung were talking about dreaming states. It does not, however, tell us a great deal about the astronomical state of the body upon which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were later to walk.
If not by reason, many earlier fictional travellers among the reaches of space were prompted by moral conviction. One example is Consolations in Travel; or, The Last Days of a Philosopher, by Sir Humphry Davy, the inventor of the miner's safety lamp. (I have the Third Edition, 1831.) Rather as in Olaf Stapledon's later work, Star Maker, a spirit carries the authorial Davy away from Earth towards other planets. Moving above the atmosphere of Saturn, the human observes a scene of great beauty where “streams of the richest tint of rose-colour or purple burst forth and flowed into basins, forming lakes or seas of the same colour.”
The inhabitants of this globe are also beautiful, also rose-coloured. And, says the guiding spirit, “They have many modes of perception of which you are wholly ignorant, at the same time that their sphere of vision is infinitely more extended than yours, and their organs of touch far more perfect and exquisite.”
The horrific events of this century have inevitably clouded our outlook. Yesterday's alien beings were in general pleasant, as in the dying Davy's vision. In our century, mirroring an escalation in global destruction and threatened destruction, they have become generally unpleasant. Since they are subjective phenomena and nothing more, this tendency towards the dark is scarcely a cause for surprise.
An outsider, plunged helplessly into the floods of sf, would see that Davy's peaceable planet-dwellers have surrendered their “perfect and exquisite” organs of touch for claws, tentacles, and super-weapons; from which he might conclude that these things are projections of our own troubled limbic brains, as unamenable to reason as the sting of the medusa.
Would those celebrated actual lunar walkers, Armstrong and Aldrin, have performed their stroll without the groundwork of centuries of fantasy behind them? What is not in question is that fantasy finally developed into reasoning, and to the sort of expertise which launched the hardware of the Apollo programme. To take a dissimilar example of submerged things materialising, racist prejudices can erupt from fantasy into action. The dream precedes the act.
Even the title of the NASA programme, Apollo, refers us back to Greek myth and fantasy: Apollo, god of light, son of Zeus. Writers whose FTL ships venture out into the galaxy may be aware—or maybe not—that the term galaxy derives from the legend of the bathukolpian goddess Hera's milk, spilt across the heavens from her bosom. Science tugs myth behind it, myth precedes science.
Attempts more serious than Lucian's to populate other heavenly bodies have met with indifferent fortunes in the light of scientific day. The mistranslation of Schiaparelli's Italian word canali as canals led, as we know, to the hopeful books of Lowell and the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But the fantasy of finding inhabitants on the Red Planet was eroded by scientific advance. By the time Philip K. Dick came to write Martian Time-Slip in the sixties, any credence given to autochthons was waning. The Martians have faded into the cold sands of their hypothetical world.
Nor have intelligent occupants of other planets enjoyed better fortune. Mercurians? Venusians? Alles Kaput.
An intellectual curiosity regarding all life and its ability to adapt remains a part of every sf aficionado's make-up. In my boyhood, I was more interested in the question of what the future might bring than in invasions of Earth, or terrestrial aggression against things unknown. Before the virus of sf had properly infiltrated my veins, I read all the books on astronomy I could find. Robert Ball and Sir James Jeans were my chief tutors, driving me to stare up in wonder at the night sky and the remaining traces of Hera's milk glittering far above our heads.
In their pages, one could imagine oneself voyaging away from the Sun, past the procession of unfriendly gas giants of our system, silent, remote, immense, garbed in their chadors of cold. It was stirring, with that frisson of the sublime which Shelley encapsulates in a line of his poem on the Medusa:
“'Tis the tempestuous loveliness of terror.”
Olaf Stapledon's two great books have that same aloof astronomical quality. Burke's sublime at two degrees Kelvin.
James Jeans was firm on the subject of alien life. I have Arnold Toynbee's copy of his The Mysterious Universe, in which Jeans says,
We find the universe terrifying because it appears to be indifferent to life like our own; emotion, ambition and achievement, art and religion, all seem equally foreign to its plan. Perhaps indeed we ought to say it appears to be actively hostile to life like our own. For the most part, empty space is so cold that all life in it would be frozen; most of the matter in space is so hot as to make life on it impossible; space is traversed, and astronomical bodies continually bombarded, by radiation of a variety of kinds, much of which is probably inimical to, or even destructive of, life.
The discovery of Pluto, orbiting the Sun on the very rim of the heliopause, came in 1930. I heard the news over the BBC. A friend doubts that I would have been interested at the age of five. Yet I recall clearly the sunlight on our patterned carpet, and the door open onto our flat roof, and, as I listened, my thought—accompanied by a sort of delicious chill—that that sunlight would never stretch as far as the ambiguous globe just claimed and christened.
Pluto inhabited did not stir my imagination. Its isolation, its inaccessibility—those were the qualities which held the greater attraction. Much later, I used Pluto as a battleground in The Dark Light Years. By then, I had come to take for granted the validity of aliens, along with everyone else in the profession. In “Sunrise on Pluto,” Robert Silverberg ingeniously invents a kind of life on that remote iceball: crablike creatures which operate by superconductivity in temperatures of two degrees Kelvin.
The fun of it nowadays is to invent lifeforms.
A recent and sophisticated example of exo-extrapolation in a somewhat similar vein to Silverberg's is Coti Mundi, which began in published form in July 1993. Coti Mundi is an cooperative project, edited by Martyn Fogg and Greg Barr, to design—in the words of the editors—“a planet and its creatures that really could be” (their emphasis). The project hatched a vibrant biomass of living forms, some of which were avian sophonts. It was certainly no excuse for another bogeyman outing; rather, a fine example of sf's constructive ingenuity.
The most distinguished of early designers in the Coti Mundi mode is Johannes Kepler. His Somnium, or The Dream, was published after the astronomer's death. His son had the complete work printed four years later, in Frankfurt in 1634, in the midst of the miseries of the Thirty Years War. Using the form of a dream, Kepler presents many of his astronomical discoveries regarding the revolutions of Earth and Moon which still remain valid.
However, when it comes to talking of life on the Moon, Kepler becomes a little less than scientific, a little more like Robert Sheckley.
Whatever is born on the land or moves about on the land attains a monstrous size. Growth is very rapid. Everything has a short life, since it develops such an immensely massive body. The Privolvans have no fixed abode, no established domicile. In the course of one of their days they roam in crowds over their whole sphere, each according to his own nature: some use their legs, which far surpass those of our camels; some resort to wings; and some follow the receding water in boats; or if a delay of several more days is necessary, then they crawl into caves.
Kepler lacked one fact. He did not know—how could he?—that there was no atmosphere on the Moon. If there was air on Earth, ergo there was air on the Moon. . . . He was exo-extrapolating from a unisample position.
Most past speculators on alien life lack a fact or two. Or three. Here is a description of “Jovians”: “Like blind men who have been deprived of their canes, the giant figures move about without direction, sometimes coming into collision with one another—at which time they crumble, emitting an appalling roar, and drop their vast fragments into the sea.”
It appears that these figures are formed out of frozen gases. The date of this fantasy is 1951, from Kenneth Heuer's Men of Other Planets.
If Heuer's voice comes to us from somewhere beyond reason, then we must wonder about all the myriad imaginary beings, not on other planets, but of this Earth, with which we are supposedly surrounded.
Close your eyes and look around at a picture gallery of mad beliefs. We find ourselves knee-deep in a phantasmagorical population of goblins, elves, fairies, gnomes, trolls, leprechauns, persons with goat feet, werewolves, vampires, ghouls, demons, devils, angels, dragons, spirits, sprites, doppelgangers, sundry varieties of ghost, all the way down to Scooby Doo and other loony cartoon characters. . . . Every nation, every tribe, has its local thing. In Corsica, the mazzeri, or dream-hunters, hunt an animal with a human face. People die from such beliefs.
Heading this wacko cast of imaginary non-humans, swagger or stagger gods and goddesses. These are the rule-givers, all rebarbatively correct or grossly indecent. What a bizarre congregation they make, armed with lightning bolts, diseases, and impossible rules for human conduct! Adorned with skulls and snakes, some have monkey heads, some sprout long white beards, some are blue in the face, some take the form of bulls, or are presided over by cobras, and consort with scantily dressed hyenas or over-dressed white elephants. Multiple heads, arms, breasts, are almost commonplace. People are sacrificed to such beliefs.
Where have all these aliens come from? Where, indeed, but from the latest unique evolutionary exhibit, the human brain?
Ah, but the hypothesis that there are other intelligent beings in the galaxy—that is in another category; that is merely scientific and rational, is it not? To my mind, not. Aliens have become axiomatic in sf, but an axiom is not proof.
No doubt the polar bears in the Arctic believe that they live on a globe entirely populated by polar bears. From their point of view, the extrapolation is nothing but reasonable. They are the highest form of life in the Arctic, with the biggest brains. Therefore they have triumphed elsewhere.
The fallacy in polar bear reasoning lies in the fact that they have only one sample to go on, their own limited territory. They have no other grounds on which to base their assumptions. Thus, they are justified in believing in pluripresence, a religious term indicating a presence in more than one place at the same time. Their assumptions are reasonable. What is unreasonable is to believe that extrapolation from only one example can have scientific plausibility. This was Kepler's error.
My intention is not to criticise polar bears. No doubt the emperor penguins down in the Antarctic suffer a similar obsession: the notion that the whole world is populated by Emperor penguins. Hic ergo ibi.
Carl Sagan, an authority on such matters, admits to this defect in logic in his article in the Scientific American symposium, “Life in the Universe”: “It is dangerous to extrapolate from a single example.” Yet, as we know, alien beings have acquired almost religious status in sf circles.
There is a desperation about those who seek alien life. Sagan again, in that same article: “Although it is a long shot, searching for life in contemporary Martian oases might also be a productive endeavor.” Ha, shall we discuss Wittgenstein with it when we find it? Or even Mick Jagger? Or shall we bottle it and bring it to a laboratory in Cornell?
In a nutshell, Martians are not real in the way that, say, the fantastic Mandelbrot set is real. The Mandelbrot set was a discovery, not an invention of the human mind. Martians are an invention of the human mind, another creaking floorboard of the phylogenetic brain, and not a discovery.
In another nutshell, unisample exo-extrapolation is for the birds. Possibly the emperor penguins.
That creaking floorboard. . . . It is a puzzle where all the freaky creatures come from, and for me a puzzle of some vintage. As the writing years roll by, critics occasionally take a serious look at one's accumulating work. The most perceptive piece of criticism of my work—there's no long list of competition—is an essay by Philip E. Smith II on one of my story collections, entitled “Last Orders and First Principles for the Interpretation of Aldiss's Enigmas” (contained in Reflections on the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, edited by Michael R. Collings [Greenwood Press, 1986]). I was half-crazed when I put the collection together in 1976, and the cross-referencing between stories and other writings and arts is something Smith readily perceives.
Re-reading Smith, I come across this enlightened passage, referring at first to the title story:
The attraction of companionship, storytelling, stories, and their subjects (frustrated romance, works of art, the patterns of cracks in a ceiling, maps, an antique chest with a secret drawer in which a woman hid a secret diary) suggest that readers of the remaining stories should not expect science fiction's stock in trade, but should prepare for the interpretation of patterns, of maps, fissures, cracks, of the meaning of secret diaries in secret drawers, of the significance of art masterpeices such as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling (in Houston), and of copies of art....
As Smith says, I concentrate on “the mutually reflexive relationship of artifice and reality”—a good description of how to regard the best science fiction. It should concern something which has not happened, and perhaps could never happen. I do not see it as a predictive form; that function is for others. The sophisticated reader will be aware of the juggling act between artifice and reality, enjoying the conjunction.
If something could never happen, then perhaps it does happen—in those fissures Smith mentions, in dreams, in imagination, and of course in our fictional constructs. We know that the monstrous does occur in dreams, in imagination.
Smith draws attention to the final story in “Last Orders,” where a woman having trouble with her love life is told, “Maybe your trouble is that you are pursuing archetypes, not real people.”
Archetypes subtly prevail over many aspects of our lives. An archetype is less an idea than a semi-autonomous organism existing somewhere in the central nervous system, operating beyond ontogeny the sequence of events involving the development of the individual—in the phylogenetic regions of the brain—where the sequence of events of the species is stored. The world of archetypes is timeless, rather as in Thomas Hardy's poem “Heredity,” which begins
I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on,
Projecting trait and trace
Through time to times anon.
Being mothered, investigating our environment, forming friendships, being initiated, courting, marrying, hunting, fighting, rearing children, participating in religious or other rituals, preparing for death: these are part of a natural life-cycle for our species, administered by the archetypal endowment. Flesh perishes, the endowment lives on.
Here I paraphrase the authority on such matters, Anthony Stevens, whose book, Archetype (1982) is a treasure. As Stevens puts it, “The human being is...a psychophysical system with a built-in `biological clock': its structure and life-cycle is predetermined by the evolutionary history of its genes.”
And it is here that the legion of monsters comes in. They are a sort of ghostly inheritance. They emerge from the primordial fogs of evolutionary time, when things-not-quite-human went in fear—a fear of being eaten, of witchcraft, of death in many cunning forms. Today's city-dwellers who never visited a prairie nevertheless fear snakes, not cars, though cars are a far more likely threat to their lives. That's inheritance. Aliens, far from being some extraordinary feat of invention cooked up by avant-garde writers, have come up through the floorboards of the distant past—to run amok in our stories. We project what is interior on the blackboard of interstellar space.
As a general rule, aliens are gunned down or blown up. Would not sf become more . . . er, enlightened, if more frequently we came to terms with our demons? Could we not retreat from xenophobic violence? Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End was one giant step backward in the right direction. Clifford Simak became an exponent of friendly contacts. You could dicker with his demons. One of his UK publications was actually entitled Aliens for Neighbours. (I know because I entitled it for Faber & Faber, in 1961.) Isaac Asimov managed to scrape a living without introducing aliens into his universe.
It was Asimov, with his three laws of robotics, who brought order to the hordes of fictional robots which had previously run amok so egregiously. Those laws were in fact directed at other sf writers, not at any species of walking hardware.
Now we need three Laws of Aliens:
1) They are unlike humans physically and mentally
2) They have their problems too
3) There aren't many of them about
But just as the derisive term sci-fi has taken over from sf, so the damaging idea of aliens as a) external to us and b) almost invariably hostile has greatly prevailed. This tendency implies an inability to come to terms with the Shadow side of our human natures: and in consequence an unwillingness to mature.
There was a period in the late sixties to mid-seventies when it seemed as if a more adult sf might prevail, less rooted in alien-swatting, more concerned with life style and less bound by the rigidities of realist or mock-realist story-telling—the time, he said slyly, of Last Orders and Barry Malzberg's Beyond Apollo. A respect for sf was then apparent among the general reading public, at least in England. Dons at the University of Oxford read it in preference to detective novels.
That brief spell of fair weather has blown over. Now we are among the thunderstorms and—to quote one of my favourite titles—the Demons at Rainbow Bridge. With the great commercial success of sf/fantasy, not least on video, where it is out-sold only by comedy, the genre has taken a slide towards the comforts of mass popularity, away from enquiry. Of course we have good writers still, our Connie Willises and Bruce Sterlings and many more, but they become lost in the madding crowd.
We know how comforting it is to believe that we are good and everything alien is bad. And that the alien is nothing to do with us, and could not possibly be an embodiment of autonomous workings in the unconscious mind. Under which delusions, we have no hesitation in shooting them down. Which kind of thing is happening among Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats at this very moment, as I write.
We can see how is it that our sf has gradually become over-run by aliens, really since John Campbell's day. And possibly how the concept of what is alien has decayed.
Wells's Martians are derived from human stock which has undergone evolutionary mutation. They are there not merely for purposes of shock but to accustom us to the extraordinary revelations of nineteenth century research, that we have ourselves come from near-monstrous, certainly alien, creatures—and that we are by no means the climax of an evolutionary line. ALIENS 'R' US.
The idea was out of the bag! Popular sf seized upon the alien without bothering with its philosophical implications.
Popular sf was born in the United States. It may be that the Bug Eyed Monster was snatched up like a banner by a rebellious section of the community, as a symbol, in reaction against the innate conservatism of large sectors of American society. Gernsbackian fandom knew instinctively that their parents would reject out of hand anything gross, green, and gruesome which regularly carried off scantily clad young ladies.
Aliens also reinforced a basic message common to High or Low Sf—that Things Go Wrong.
The monsters which gallumph across the covers of Startling Stories and DAW paperbacks are there to give everyone—if an oxymoron is permissible —a good fright.
E.E. “Doc” Smith's Arisians and Eddorians derive from more ancient tales, tales of the gods of Olympus, the purely good and contrasted purely bad power-barons. And, for all the silliness of Smith's slang, the increased connections between the two rival forces and the cosmos give the whole Lensman series a certain nobility.
A hodge-podge of clichés, stirred into a stew of action, constantly materialises on our computer screens. It owes much to Doc Smith and the rest of us, but never pays those debts.
Pluripresence has been universally adopted without that conceptual questioning which was once a hallmark of good sf. Unisample exo-extrapolation has conquered in an unscientific way.
We understand now the gulf which exists between what we may categorise as High and Low Sf, between the fictions of Shelley, Verne, Bellamy, Forster, Zamiatin, Huxley, Orwell, and Atwood on the one hand, and the fictions of the swarm of popular sf writers and computer hacks on the other: High Sf disclaims aliens, Low Sf embraces them.
Of course we love them, and love to hate them.
But their seriousness as archetypes has been trivialised. Their meaning has drained, in the way of the Martians, into the sands. Most of them have dwindled to groundless fantasy, and disbar sf from serious acceptance.
To all this must be added a personal rider.
Without subscribing to the belief that the first five years of life decide irrevocably all that is to follow, I certainly had a stamp put upon my life at the age of four. The incident perhaps holds as much significance for me as Descartes' Great Dream did for him. I coloured a picture. My artistry was much admired among doting aunts et al. The picture illustrated a fairy story, showing a child sitting by a hut, projecting a shadow of his hands on the wall of the hut. He held them so that they formed a shadow duck. But the duck flew away. The boy lost his shadow (traditionally understood to mean loss of soul).
He had to go on a world-wide search to recapture his shadow, finding it eventually in China. I felt that the story had been written for me. Ever since, my interest has been more in psychological quest than conquest.
The idea of alien life of course has a role in any personal psychodrama, since for most of us the mind remains almost terra incognita—to be explored rather than denied.
Becoming adult, I rethought my position on sf aliens Out There (as opposed to In There). As a boy in the thirties, when no one I knew believed in alien life forms, I was confident intelligent beings lived on other planets. I hoped for them. I outgrew James Jeans by reading Wells and Wonder Stories and Astounding.
Those illustrious sources converted me to a belief in intelligent beings which we could reach, and which could reach us. It was my creed. But now that everyone—including Carl Sagan and viewers of STAR TREK—appears to believe that there is alien life almost within shouting distance, that flying saucers have landed, and indeed that aliens are among us, I have changed my mind. I now hold such tenets of faith to be polar bear thinking, too facile, too acceptable.
And perhaps that is unreasonable too.