A Sense of Belonging

Nowhere to call your own.  This edition published by Penguin Books 1981.  Cover illustration by Tom Stimpson.

Nowhere to call your own. This edition published by Penguin Books 1981. Cover illustration by Tom Stimpson.

We are all Earthlings.  So we know where we belong.  Everyone reading this, except perhaps a few in need of some psychiatric help, will have no doubt that he or she is an inhabitant of the planet Earth.  There may be intelligent beings elsewhere who do not fall into that category, but only time will tell whether they really exist.

The recognition of where “home” may be is inbuilt in many animals, as often shown by a strong homing instinct.  One only need think of the homing ability of the salmon, which migrate large distances yet return to the same river where they were born in order to spawn, probably based on their ability to discriminate minor chemical characteristics of the water.  Or green turtles, feeding off the coast of Brazil, who find their way back to tiny Ascension Island, 1500 kilometres away in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, to lay their eggs.

Not having a sense of belonging to a particular place and time can be upsetting for any animal, including humans, as those who have spent most of their lives travelling around distant lands on our planet have found in the past.  People tend to cling to what they know.  Writing very much in the manner and conceptions of the time in 1873, the German botanist Georg Schweinfurth commented regarding his explorations in Africa that a “solitary European, as he proceeds farther and farther from his home, may see his old associations shrink to a minimum; but so much the more, with pertinacious conservatism, will he cling to the surviving remnants of his own superiority.”

It could be much more concerning – possibly even devastating – in future to someone who travels between worlds, with apparently nowhere to call “home”.  The science fiction author Clifford Simak expressed it well in his 1967 novel The Werewolf Principle: “As a man from Earth, one stood for something, possessed identity; but the man of the universe was lost among the stars.”

Robert Heinlein’s 1957 novel Citizen of the Galaxy takes us to a strangely medieval society spanning many star systems.  Thorby, a young boy, is sold as a slave and commences a career as a licensed beggar, but his background and home planet are unknown, even to him.  He encounters many strange cultures on his travels, including a starship run on a tribal caste basis with primitive rituals and another on strict military lines, along with planetary civilizations from the anarchic to the bureaucratic and aristocratic.  But he doesn’t seem to belong permanently in any of them.

It has often been said that there are clear indications that the novel was influenced by Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, published in 1901, where a young boy has a range of adventures set against the background of late-nineteenth century British India and the political conflict between Britain and Russia at the time.  He is an English orphan in the Punjab, looked after by a half-caste woman, consorting with beggars and fakirs, and living “in a life wild as that of the Arabian Nights”.

Thorby, like Kim, seems to have no clear roots.  Another character in Heinlein’s book sympathises, and “wondered what it was like to have no frame to your picture.”  The quest to find where Thorby belongs becomes all-important – perhaps even to give a meaning to his life.

But let’s not get too starry-eyed about any yearning for home.  Being elsewhere may produce a feeling of absence and a wish to be back where one “belongs”, but people need new experiences and challenges in order to develop.  Remaining in the same place can seriously inhibit that.  Perhaps Samuel Beckett got it right in a line from his 1957 radio play All That Fall: “It is suicide to be abroad.  But what is it to be at home, Mr Tyler, what is it to be at home?  A lingering dissolution.”

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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