Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (2)

At first, when death appeared improbable, because it had never visited him before, Knight could think of no future, nor of anything connected with his past. He could only look sternly at Nature's treacherous attempt to put an end to him, and strive to thwart her.

From the fact that the cliff formed the inner face of the segment of a huge cylinder, having the sky for a top and the sea for a bottom, which enclosed the cove to the extent of more than a semicircle, he could see the vertical face curving round on each side of him. He looked far down the facade, and realized more thoroughly how it threatened him. Grimness was in every feature, and to its very bowels the inimical shape was desolation.

By one of those familiar conjunctions of things wherewith the inanimate world baits the mind of man when he pauses in moments of suspense, opposite Knight's eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him. It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated by millions of years in their lives, Knight and this underling seemed to have met in their death. It was the single instance within reach of his vision of anything that had ever been alive and had had a body to save, as he himself had now.
In this scene from Thomas Hardy’s third published novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, Knight, a geologist, has just saved the woman he loves and now finds himself hanging from a precarious ledge high on a Cornish seacliff. It's not only the prototypical cliffhanger, dutifully replicated in just about every Hollywood action film; it's also an early instance of another kind of vertiginous thrill: the abrupt contrast between ordinary human life and deep time that creates the famous 'sense of wonder' science fictional affect.

Hardy is best known for his Wessex novels, which mythologise a large swathe of south and south-west England where rural life embedded in landscape and its rhythms and seasons is undergoing changes forced by industrialisation. But at the time of writing A Pair of Blue Eyes, the early 1870s, Britain was in the throes of a scientific revolution too. Darwin's evolutionary theories threatened to displace mankind from the centre of creation; and geology and paleontology were opening up vast backward and abyssal vistas of time. Confronted by the dead gaze of the trilobite, Knight is immediately plunged into a vivid vision of scenes from the history of life on Earth that wouldn't be out of place in an SF novel:
Time closed up like a fan before him. He saw himself at one extremity of the years, face to face with the beginning and all the intermediate centuries simultaneously. Fierce men, clothed in the hides of beasts, and carrying, for defence and attack, huge clubs and pointed spears, rose from the rock, like the phantoms before the doomed Macbeth. They lived in hollows, woods, and mud huts--perhaps in caves of the neighbouring rocks. Behind them stood an earlier band. No man was there. Huge elephantine forms, the mastodon, the hippopotamus, the tapir, antelopes of monstrous size, the megatherium, and the myledon--all, for the moment, in juxtaposition. Further back, and overlapped by these, were perched huge-billed birds and swinish creatures as large as horses. Still more shadowy were the sinister crocodilian outlines--alligators and other uncouth shapes, culminating in the colossal lizard, the iguanodon. Folded behind were dragon forms and clouds of flying reptiles: still underneath were fishy beings of lower development; and so on, till the lifetime scenes of the fossil confronting him were a present and modern condition of things.
Hardy and other late Victorian novelists were concerned with both human individuality and the problems thrown up by industrialisation, urbanisation and scientific revolution. But after modernism overwhelmed the realists, and rejected the authority of science along with that of God and government, SF moved in to take up arguments and themes that have only just been rediscovered by the mainstream.


Blogger PeteY said...

According to Richard Fortey, in his book Trilobite! (I think, though I can't quite find the book right now), the trilobite is not possible in the location as described. It's a metamorphic slate, or something similar. I should look it out.
I'd love to see more SF that takes the fossil record seriously. Have you got a book to write?

October 28, 2009 11:30 pm  
Blogger PeteY said...

Also, just in case you're interested and don't already know it, you might like The Olaf Stapledon Archive (also linked through my blog, linked from my name above. I don't really blog, it's just a place for SF links and my own fossil-heavy writings).

October 28, 2009 11:44 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Pete, If those cliffs actually are fossil-free slate, I assume Hardy exercised good old artistic license. The novel is a roman a clef: as a young architect he worked to restore a parish church in that part of Cornwall, and that's where he met his wife.

SF and the fossil record? Have you tried Stephen Baxter's Evolution. I'm sure there must be other examples...

October 29, 2009 9:30 am  
Blogger George Berger said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

October 29, 2009 11:05 am  
Blogger PeteY said...

Thanks for the Baxter tip. I'll keep a look out for it.

October 29, 2009 2:04 pm  
Blogger RFYork said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

October 29, 2009 10:59 pm  
Blogger RFYork said...

You really didn't have to go back to the 19th century or, even the 1930's. Just pull a quote from Margaret Atwood's "The Year of the Flood".

Oh, sorry. Ms. Atwood has already stated, quite vigorously, that she does not write Science Fiction.

Thanks for the education Paul.

October 29, 2009 11:02 pm  
Blogger Keith Ferrell said...

Well-said -- and well-quoted!

Interestingly, it was a deeply post-modernist writer, John Fowles (who also possessed a great sense of the virtues of narrative) who revisited some of these ideas, and the nature of naturalism (or natural history-ism, as it were) in his French Lieutenant's Woman right in the midst of the mod post-mod 60s.

October 30, 2009 12:09 am  
Blogger ~M said...

PeteY, Paul himself makes use of Ediacara fossils in 'Interstitial'.

October 30, 2009 10:57 am  
Blogger PeteY said...

Thanks ~M, that's a good one.

November 03, 2009 2:23 am  

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