Dreams of Other Worlds

Thinking about the roots of science fiction.  Published by Panther Books 1966.

Thinking about the roots of science fiction. Published by Panther Books 1966.

Whenever we think about the alien civilizations that may exist elsewhere in the universe, we are following a line of thought in which our ancestors have indulged for centuries.  In his 1979 book on the subject of the existence of life on other worlds, Extraterrestrial Civilizations, Isaac Asimov considered the history of fictional accounts of such alien societies.  Going back as far as Lucian of Samosata’s A True History from the second century AD – considered by some the first ever science fiction story – every world in the universe (as it was then perceived) was assumed to be inhabited.

To a large extent, it was thought wasteful if it was otherwise – it would be nonsensical for a deity, or deities, to have created other worlds and then left them empty.  Asimov refers to the ideas of the ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras in the fifth century BC that the Moon should be an Earth-like world, with the obvious assumption that there would be intelligent creatures there, probably much like human beings.  He followed this through to Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso, first published in 1516, where one of the characters travels to the Moon in a chariot on a whirlwind and finds it populated by people who are clearly civilized.

Similarly, the planet Mars has often been depicted in science fiction as occupied by intelligent races, quite possibly more technologically advanced than ourselves.  When what were supposed to be canals were detected on Mars in the late nineteenth century, it was a natural presumption that they had been built by a high civilization capable of such a feat.  Though it would not necessarily be superior to our own; as Asimov puts it, these fictional Martians might have had “a long history that dwarfed that of Earthly human beings” but were pictured “often as decadent and weary of life – in their old age as a species.”

In his 1966 anthology Science Fiction Through the Ages, the editor I O Evans traced the tradition of alien civilizations in fiction back to the idea of Atlantis, as described in two Dialogues of Plato, the Timaeus and the Critias, written in the fourth century BC.  As Evans explains: “Incredibly wealthy and powerful, it was at last destroyed by the gods because of its people’s overweening pride.”  Plato leaves no doubt that the rulers of Atlantis became immensely arrogant in their yearning for power and that, for all its transient glory, its civilization left much to be desired.

Evans suggests that a modern science fiction author, writing on similar lines, would probably describe how, say, a nation’s warriors insist, in spite of rational protests, on exploding some sort of nuclear weapon.  Disaster follows – pride comes before a fall.  In his later discussion of Jonathan Swift’s satirical Gulliver’s Travels of 1726, the intellectuals of the flying island of Laputa (probably a burlesque of the Royal Society) simply can’t relate to the suffering of ordinary people around them.

And the Victorian satire of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon of 1872 shows what might have been a utopia, but has serious drawbacks with its peculiar legal and moral codes and rejection of all machines.

Of course, at the same time there were plenty of descriptions of extraterrestrial civilizations unlike anything on Earth, from the demons and strange un-human Moon-folk of Johannes Kepler’s Somnium of 1634 to the insect-like Selenites in HG Wells’ 1901 novel The First Men in the Moon.  But where civilizations were described as similar to our own, whether for purposes of satire, moral instruction or merely exotic adventure, they were frequently flawed paradises.

These distinctions are important – other worlds might contain utopias, but might also fall far short of any ideal.  Alien civilizations might be impressive, but they could have their failings too, possibly leading to their inexorable demise.  It’s a thought which could perhaps allow those of us back here on Earth to feel a little better about ourselves, and even learn a few lessons for our own future.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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