Wednesday, March 13, 2013

New Maps Of Heaven

So now Mercury, the last unmapped planet, has been completely surveyed by the Messenger robot spacecraft (how I love being able to type those last two words in a nonfiction sentence). Mercury’s geology is rich and varied, and there are unexpected caches of water ice in permanently shadowed polar craters, but there are no traces of ancient civilisation, no monoliths, no monsters. There are still plenty of places that haven’t been surveyed - most of the asteroid belt and all of the Kuiper belt, for instance, and the Pluto system (although New Horizons is on course for a flyby in 2015) - but the known is inexorably rolling out across what were once blank spaces where monsters of the imagination could freely roam. The canals of Mars are no more. There are no dripping wet jungles on Venus; no dinosaurs. What is a science-fiction writer to do?

Well, you can refuse reality, of course. You can cast your story into the dark backward and abyss of time, as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett did, on ancient diluvian Mars. You can transplant them onto exotic exoplanets. Or you can simply ignore the facts of the case, as I’ve just done for my contribution to an anthology of stories about the Old Venus, for editors George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois. Or you can try to square up to reality, and deal with the real Solar System, which turns out to be far more dynamic and varied than we once thought. There are volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io; methane rain, rivers and lakes, and vast dunes of frozen hydrocarbons, on Saturn’s Titan. Geysers of water ice erupting from the south pole of Saturn’s Enceladus, and geysers of nitrogen snow on Neptune’s Triton.

And there are also places in the Solar System that resist mapping: the pocket seas that power Enceladus’s geysers, or the world-girdling oceans beneath the surfaces of Europa, Callisto, Titan, Triton, and perhaps even Pluto. Where monsters weirder than anything we can imagine might plough the dark currents. Or where some strange microbial ecosystem might flourish, as in the caves beneath the Nullarbor Plain of Australia, or perhaps in sealed Antarctic lakes.

For where once we dreamed of intelligences greater than ours scrutinizing our affairs, or of ethereal crystalline cities, we now can only hope for some pocket of extremophile bacteria in a warm damp stratum of Martian rock. But while reality has overwritten the old tropes, there new kinds of stories than can be told. Stories that make use of the actual maps, the actual landscapes. What would it be like to stand on a wrinkle ridge on Saturn’s ice-clad moon Dione? What would it mean, to introduce a human scale, a human perspective? If you place a person in such a landscape, you must ask all kinds of questions. Who is she? How did she get there, and what is she doing? If she has made her home there, if she is not a Robinson Crusoe on Dione or Enceledus or Titan, you also have to ask questions about the society she inhabits, the way the people she lives amongst organise themselves. How do they survive in such inhospitable conditions. How does living there affect them? What are their dreams, their ambitions? What is ordinary life like, out there? What do we mean by ordinary, anyway? There’s something still unmapped.


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