Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Ferromagnetic sentient beings?

by Salman Hameed

Couple of weeks ago, the New Yorker published its first-ever special issue on science fiction (yes, I'm catching up on reading). It has some fascinating essays including personal reflections from authors like Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, and Anthony Burgess (actually, if you have access to it, do check out the fascinating essay by Anthony Burgess on rebellion against the conformity of state and how these views have changed over time).

One of the article traces the origins of earliest depictions of aliens in literature. Each year in my Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind class, we talk about two important developments of late 19th century:  the discovery of spectroscopy (the fact that not only can we figure out the composition of stars, but know that they are made up of similar material as our Sun) and evolution via natural selection (the fact that not only life can develop, but natural processes can lead to complex lifeforms, including intelligence) on our thinking about aliens. Indeed, these two developments are key to changing our perceptions about aliens and subsequent science fiction.

The New Yorker article talks about these changes as well:

Before the nineteenth century, if authors depicted the inhabitants of other planets the aliens were essentially human. The suave Saturnian described by Voltaire in a satirical 1752 story, “Micromégas,” looks like an earthling, except that he’s six thousand feet tall. (And he has a Continental spirit, keeping a mistress—a “pretty little brunette, barely six hundred and sixty fathoms high.”) The Saturnian’s primary fictional purpose, as he visits our planet, is to marvel at the relative puniness of humankind, whom he examines with a very large microscope. 
It was only after Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s and Charles Darwin’s theories of adaptation and natural selection gained wider acceptance, in the nineteenth century, that writers began to speculate in earnest about the sorts of creatures that might flourish in environments beyond Earth. According to Brian Stableford, writing in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, the definitive reference on the genre, Camille Flammarion was the first author to present a popular fictional portrait of truly alien life-forms. Flammarion was a French astronomer whose metaphysical interests, if he were pursuing them today, would be labelled New Age. (These beliefs damaged his scientific reputation, but they did lead to a friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle, who shared a fascination with spiritualism.) In 1864, Flammarion wrote a nonfiction book, “Real and Imaginary Worlds,” expressing his conviction that there was life on other planets, and eight years later he produced “Lumen,” a peculiar fictional work in which the title character, a scholar, relates the myriad wonders of the universe to a disciple. 
“Lumen” belongs to the least congenial of literary genres: the philosophical dialogue. Vast swaths of it are given over to explanations of how Lumen, having died, has become a being of pure soul who is able to witness events in the past. Not only can he zoom in on choice historical figures and incidents on Earth; he can also see life on other worlds.
But it was fascinating to read about Rosny: 
Although the idea of aliens allowed writers like Flammarion to construct utopian fantasies, in others it prompted dark visions. In the nineteenth century, the thrilling possibility that we have company in the universe was, for most people, overshadowed by an existential crisis. It now seemed that, rather than being created by God, we probably just happened. With a slight change of circumstances, we could just as easily unhappen. 
In France, this less comforting view of a universe filled with alien life was adopted by an enigmatic Belgian who wrote under the pseudonym J.-H. Rosny. Born Joseph Henri Honoré Boëx in 1856, he shared the Rosny pen name with his younger brother. The elder Rosny—a protégé of the writer and publisher Edmond de Goncourt—also wrote naturalistic novels, published a manifesto in Le Figaro attacking Émile Zola, and otherwise inhabited the role of fiery saloniste. 
Rosny’s “scientific romances”—as the genre was called until the nineteen-thirties—won him the esteem of some French scientists, according to Danièle Chatelain and George Slosser, the translators of the recently published “Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind” (Wesleyan). Today, Rosny is best known as the author of the novel that is the basis for the 1981 film “Quest for Fire.” In the new collection’s bold introduction, Chatelain and Slosser champion the relatively obscure Rosny, over Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, as the true “father of hard science fiction”—a term used to describe narratives in which science, not human concerns, determines how the story unfolds. Rosny, they assert, was the first to attempt fiction in this “neutral, ahumanistic manner.”
And here is the bit about Rosny's ferromagnetic beings: 
In a story that he published two decades later, “The Death of the Earth,” the beleaguered remnants of humanity confront an even stranger species. In the distant future, Earth is racked by massive earthquakes and water shortages. In the wastelands beyond the few surviving settlements, a new life-form emerges: the ferromagnetics, sentient metallic beings that glow in the dark. (Rosny was big on bioluminescence.) Although the creatures are not manifestly hostile, they will vampirically leach the iron from the blood of any human who spends too much time around them. The hero, at the story’s conclusion, is the last human alive, and he decides to lie down among ferromagnetics so that a trace of his own species will be preserved in Earth’s inheritors.
This is an awesome! I have always been fascinated by "last human" narratives (be it on the world, or on an island), and this seems to be such a fantastic ending. 

Natural selection, of course, plays an important role in War of the Worlds. But the book, like all good science fiction, is a scathing commentary on the existing society: 
The narrator of “The War of the Worlds” calls the arrival of the Martians “the great disillusionment,” an interplanetary bulletin delivering the bad news of humanity’s fragility and inconsequence. A “philosophical writer,” he has the misfortune of getting stuck for eight days in a claustrophobic hideout with a mentally disintegrating curate. This useless spokesman of religion can only wail over the betrayal of his faith. He asks, “Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done? What are these Martians?” The narrator pointedly responds, “What are we?” 
Whether your preferred variety of exceptionalism is religious, ethnic, or species-based, the Martians are here to tear it down. The aliens feed on human blood, but after the narrator discovers this ghastly fact he muses that “an intelligent rabbit” would surely find our own carnivorous appetites equally appalling. Are the aliens really any worse than the imperial power they’ve chosen to attack? The Tasmanians, the narrator notes, “were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants.” There is a heavy, if unspoken, sense that the British are getting a taste of their own medicine. 
Wells was a socialist and, for a while, a member of the Fabian Society—which is to say, a kind of optimist. But in this work, and in scientific romances to come, he offered little hope that humanity could peaceably coexist with extraterrestrials. According to Stableford, early British science-fiction writers were more prone than the French to picture the encounter between humans and aliens as a brutal clash from which only the fittest would emerge alive. This was, he implies, how Britons saw most social relations. Margaret Thatcher’s remark about there being no such thing as society comes to mind. 
At the end of Wells’s novel, Britain is saved not by military prowess but by natural selection: the Martians succumb to a bacterial infection. They lack the resistance that humanity has acquired over millennia, an immunity that we have paid for with “the toll of a billion deaths.” 
The narrator of Wells’s novel may describe the Martians as “the most unearthly creatures it is possible to conceive,” but he comes to suspect that they have descended from a species that was a lot like human beings. In other words, they aren’t doing anything to us that we haven’t done countless times to one another. Why should we anticipate anything different? 
Read the full article here

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