Culture Vulture

Have science fiction, will explore space

A man takes a selfie at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory on July 14, 2015, in Laurel, Maryland.
A man takes a selfie at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory on July 14, 2015, in Laurel, Maryland. PHOTO: AFP

The voyages in science and fantasy fiction have inspired real-life explorations

I now know where the loathsome land of Mordor is and where the fearsome fictional monster Cthulhu sleeps. Both are on Pluto and its moon Charon, according to scientists who are using these words to refer to newly discovered geographical features on the former planet and its satellite that were photographed by the New Horizons spacecraft earlier this month.

If the International Astronomical Union takes up these informal nicknames in reality, it will only acknowledge the obvious, that the voyages of science fiction and fantasy have inspired real-life explorations.

Indeed, Nasa's open call on April 21 for members of the public to suggest in advance names for the landforms New Horizons would spot on the tail-end of its nine-year voyage, had on its list of rules of acceptable nomenclature: "Destinations and milestones of fictional space and other exploration; fictional and mythological vessels of space and other exploration; fictional and mythological voyagers, travellers and explorers."

So we now have Mordor, the stronghold of the evil king Sauron from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings, and also a dark spot on the north pole of Pluto's moon, while one of the mountains on the former planet could be named after Cthulhu, the part-octopus, part-dragon beast H.P. Lovecraft imagined would one day rise from the depths of the sea to engulf the world.

These cheerfully catchy names are perfectly in keeping with the theme of the Kuiper Belt objects being observed, as they were named after the Graeco-Roman ruler of the underworld (Pluto) and the deadly ferryman who takes the dead to their new home on his boat (Charon).

Over the centuries, our stories about the stars evolved from fanciful description to actual reflection and even prediction of even closer interaction with these objects in space.''

Space exploration and stories are inextricably tangled. Ever since humans began forming thoughts, we made up stories to explain what could be observed of the bright spots in the night sky. In one Indian myth, the lunar cycle comes about because the Moon wastes away out of love for the bright star Rohini, known in the English-speaking world as Aldebaran. Sailors in ancient Greece invoked seven inseparable sisters, the Pleiades, to describe a tight grouping of seven bright stars.

Over the centuries, our stories about the stars evolved from fanciful description to actual reflection and even prediction of even closer interaction with these objects in space. Several major lights - yes, pun - of the speculative fiction world say they were inspired by Robert A. Heinlein's 1958 novel Have Space Suit-Will Travel. The story of a young teen who battles evil aliens is set partly on a base on Pluto and, in turn, fired the imagination of speculative fiction writers and thought leaders such as critically acclaimed British writer and social satirist Adam Roberts, as well as pop cult figure Neal Stephenson.

Stephenson, an American writer, predicted the popularity of massively multiplayer online role-playing games in his 1992 novel Snow Crash; predicted an Internet-based currency and economy in Cryptonomicon (1999), years before BitCoins; and he also spent years investigating alternatives to conventional rockets as ways of getting into space for Blue Origin, a space company founded by Amazon pioneer Jeff Bezos.

Stephenson's inspiration, Heinlein's Have Space Suit - Will Travel, is one of the relatively few iconic science-fiction novels to feature Pluto. Perhaps this is because, until this month, little could truly be visualised about the most distant heavenly body once considered the last planet in our solar system.

Of greater interest to writers were Venus, often the brightest spot in the sky, and Mars, with a reddish glow that earned it a name after the Roman god of war. Both fired the imagination of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, though his Venus series of the 1930s is a pale imitation of the older and longer-running books set on Mars or Barsoom.

The 2012 Disney film adaptation of Burroughs' first Mars book came out exactly a century after A Princess Of Mars and sadly echoes the wooden characterisation of the original. It is a pity there may be no movie sequels because a decade later, Burroughs had found his feet in books such as The Chessmen Of Mars, which features a female protagonist as temperamental as Shakespeare's Kate but in no way tamed by the end.

Then there is The Master Mind Of Mars (1928), which eschews bodice-ripping romance between a well-endowed maiden and well-muscled man for a delightful love story about two people who literally have to see beneath the surface to appreciate each other's qualities - the woman is trapped in an aged and wrinkled body.

The Barsoom books blend scientific data and fantasy. Burroughs reflected what was known at the time about Mars, writing of it as a planet thin on oxygen and light on gravity, and had corresponding physiological adaptations in his characters. His curiosity and interest in the planet surely fuelled the imaginations of at least one or more young people who grew up to become the scientists behind Nasa's Mars Rover, which is deepening our understanding of the planet.

And the data coming in oddly echoes Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, written in the 1990s. The "hard science-fiction" books extrapolate from existing technology to imagine a future when humans would begin terraforming the red planet, or making it habitable. One step is melting Mars' polar ice cap and the Mars Rover in April found evidence of water on the planet. Robinson's theories do not seem far-fetched now and his most recent book, 2312, released three years ago, has equally intriguing ideas on how humans might colonise Venus.

Perhaps it will now be Pluto's turn in the science-fiction spotlight, thanks to the stunning images and data beamed back by New Horizons. Early studies have led Nasa to report that Pluto has ice mountains as tall as 3,000m and a surprisingly hot thermal core, currently inexplicable.

It will not be long, I think, before these facts are explained in fiction. Writers are imaginauts, often the first explorers and voyagers into new territories. Where they go, readers follow. Often in spaceships.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2015, with the headline 'Have science fiction, will explore space'. Print Edition | Subscribe