Sunday, April 10, 2016
Exploration narrative, magic, and the Thing
So, "And Then We ate the Dogs" -- some thoughts triggered by the panel discussion at ICFA, and by reading Locating the Thing: the Antarctic as Alien space in John W. Campbell's "Who goes there?" an article by Elizabeth Leane, published in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Jul., 2005), pp. 225-239.
Without delving into exploration as a human endeavor and the reasons behind it, let us just assume as a default that at least some societies were, are, and will foster the enterprise of exploration and at least some people in all societies will be exploring whatever they can get to explore, either on their own or as part of an organized enterprise. What I want to discuss instead is why an exploration narrative invites, more so, can't help being perfused with the fantastic, which let it readily colonize science fiction when the latter came along as a genre.
Here is what I think may be the answer. All starts with the capacity of a human mind to generate ideas of the fantastic, wondrous, and miraculous. I believe it is innate, something of a side effect of a highly developed consciousness. Our minds are figment generators as well as consumers, and this ongoing "magical thinking" may be a just another part of a healthy relationship with the world and reality, as important as its opposite -- the operational assumption that the world is regular, understood, predictable, and mundane. The fantastic is brain's sugar, the mundane is its oxygen. And the fantastic, in this context, needn't be a fully developed Narnia or Skyrim, it can also be all kinds of small, everyday, sometimes deeply personal "magical" associations, explanations, fables that we generate spontaneously. It can be something as trifle as "crows carefully swap plant tags in my vegetable garden" or "rocks self-generate underground in wintertime and then work their way to the surface".
If so, it is not surprising that the fantastic needs a legitimate place, a safe harbor where it can dwell unmolested and unquestioned by the mundane and regular; and what better place than the terra incognita beyond the boundary of the well-known world? Thus Coleridge uses a sea voyage to the South Pole, and before him, Mandeville needs a journey to the Arctic to introduce strange creatures and occurrences; let's also not forget Gulliver's travels.
As the world became more and more explored, mapped, and regularized, and the terra incognita shrank, new dwellings for the fantastic had to be found. Mars became one of these places in the 19th century, boosted by the notorious discovery of the martian "canals". And the space, of course, the cosmos, has proved the best of them all. It is practically infinite. It can accommodate endless output of our figment machines. As if the Universe was not big enough, however, we are already claiming a multitude of parallel Universes for the same purpose. Not to mention rounding up virtual realities, refurbishing the past through time travel, and carving out new caverns of terra incognita in zones of urban decay or natural disaster.
There are, I will argue, a couple of more reasons other than simply territorial, that solidify the union of exploration and fantasy, and these reasons may have to do with mental, physical, even biological effects the endeavor of exploration appears to have on an explorer. The unknown world both fosters conditions where fantastic becomes more prominent on the brain, and forces on a human something that rightfully belongs to the realm of the fantastic: the metamorphosis.
To venture into new and strange environs is first and foremost to loosen or lose altogether one's frame of reference, one's model of the world. To fix that (because he cannot go completely without one) an explorer hastily stitches together new variables and puzzling phenomena with cause-effect shortcuts that can sidestep into miraculous. The mind of an explorer can't help but model the new world, as yet undifferentiated by knowledge, as a contiguous thing, agent, entity -- aware, wary, unified, and usually adversarial. A glacier groans, a forest watches with a thousand eyes. These are not metaphors, although they are helpful as such, these are actual feelings an exploring human can't help but have, when dropped into an unknown world like onto Lem's Solaris. Just recall the spiritual effect space flight has on astronauts!
Furthermore, the trope of an explorer who is changed profoundly and irreversibly by the time she is done exploring, is not incidental. The physical change of an explorer is profound, molecular. It harks back to the very basics of life, where an expanding, exploring animal species evolves into another species en route. From microbiotic to epigenetic changes deep down, to interconnected with that, mental changes up on top, the explorer comes out of his quest with a proverbial albatross wound around his neck, and does not even notice it, only proving that his original wariness of that thing, the new world, invading his being and causing a metamorphosis, was spot on.
And that is why, for as long as humans explore and tell tales about it, there will always be the fantastic lurking in them. The fantastic is truly the Thing that lies in wait in an unknown corner of the Earth, or the Galaxy, or the Cyberspace; the Thing that will invade you and turn you into something else.
That's what I think.