Escape Velocity Girl


Sci-fi Naked Eye
August 22, 2010, 8:53 pm
Filed under: Fictional Worlds, Real Worlds, Uncategorized

Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System, which is currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum, purports to show the planets as they appear “in reality,” the photos reverse-engineered from the black-and-white or partial images beamed back from our kino-eye mechanical surrogates: Galileo, Pathfinder, Viking, et. al. The exhibit is an implicit rejection of the Technicolor trickery of Hubble images, in which the universe appears a pirate’s chest overflowing with gas-giant gems, Impressionistic swirls of color ready-made for the dorm room walls of an undergrad punning on the de rigueur decorative “Starry Night.” In a counter-intuitive way, the toned-down colors and simplicity of composition of the photos makes the “beyond” seem even more alien; while I would bet the Horsehead Nebula holds pride of place on countless desktops, Benson’s minimalist Uranus, a powder blue circle in a square of black, represents an existentially threatening, visually minimalistic view of the universe, which is, after all, approximately 96% empty to the naked eye.

The photos at the exhibit that generate the most awe or attention, however, seem to be those of Earth; during my visit, a mid-western mother enthused to her red-headed brood over images of the Great Lakes, while Japanese tourists sat apathetic and unseeing in front of a photo of golden Io’s four hundred flaws – mosquito stings in the myth, volcanic eruptions in reality. Their reactions seemed a confirmation of the provincial cast of the human brain; though we’re told as children that our imaginations have “wings,” Icarus-like we can only fly so high. The familiar-made-strange is more wondrous to most than the merely strange.

Viktor Shklovsky coined the term остранение (defamiliarization) to describe this artistic effect, writing,

The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception, because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.

Michael Benson’s photos zoom out kilometers from the quotidian waves and motorboats, discarded beer cans and tadpole hatcheries, turning the Great Lakes into a cluster of  terrestrial tears; the alien-view makes viewers see anew. This, of course, has implications for science fiction, begging the question: are all the wormholes, crinkly-forehead-ed humanoids and handwavium tech really just window-dressing meant to “defamiliarize” or de-cliche love, hate and threadbare narrative scaffolding? Does setting our human dramas against against inhuman backdrops lend them a sheen of grandeur? Or, perhaps, through a reverse-остранение,  does Google-mapping  an imaginary universe with plot points make the empty expanses of the real deal somehow more pedestrian or comprehensible? The stars are no longer ginormous super-really-hot spheres of gas billions of years old scattered across a three-four-twelve dimensional stretch of infinity, but depots of futuristic truck fuel, garbage dumps for Cylon fleets, oversized lightbulbs to be switched on or off with nuclear circuitry, way-stations during the TV hero’s journey of whats-his-name, who, after all, isn’t all that different from you or me.

One novel that deftly sidesteps Shklovsky’s theory is Consider Phlebas by Iain Banks, which is often labeled “space opera,” a genre admirably honest about its use of ray guns to tart up Australopithecine-ancient themes of lust and revenge. During the first 95% of the book, Bora Horza Gobuchul, the shape-shifting protagonist, is set up as proof positive of the Great Man theory of history – the one person in the galaxy with the skills and background to infiltrate a Planet of the Dead, retrieve a brilliant, dimension-hopping Mind, bring an end to a conflict so mind-bogglingly bloody it must be surely be the War to End All Wars, and grant the Idirans victory over the machine-led Culture, which doubtless is mere years away from eliminating all biological life. Except…Horza fails and dies, it turns out the Mind was relatively inconsequential, the Culture not only wins but fails to perpetrate indiscriminate genocide, and the war itself turns out to have been no more than a minor blip in galactic history. Despite Consider Phlebas‘s post-Singularity, interstellar setting, Banks is relentlessly realistic, undermining any attempts to correlate the vastness of the novel’s geography, the sophistication of the characters’ ray guns, with any significance of plot: a man tries to do something, fails or succeeds, and dies, none of which ultimately matters – science fiction as backdrop for the most quotidian story possible, belonging, as it does, to all of us.

photo credit: NASA

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