The final frontier?
For now, that searching question stands an unfortunate fact. We want to know more, of course, but there is no clear need for the revelations we may or may not gain from our desired endeavours, or none that we can easily see.
And so we wait, painfully aware that—even if the Powers That Be see reason—we are lamentably unlikely to see a man on Mars in our lifetimes.
Maybe our children will. I want that for them.
But neither you nor I nor they, in their day, will find out what awaits on the other side of the interstellar space NASA’s lonely Voyager probe is on track to chart; the odds are simply not in our favour, I’m afraid. But we can wonder, can’t we? We can imagine. We can read and write and damn it, we can dream.
So for the foreseeable future, space may indeed be the final frontier in fact, but fiction, by its very definition, need not be held back by what is. Instead, its pioneers ask: what if? And occasionally, incredibly, what if is what is.
Come to that, science fiction and science fact go way back. Speaking of space, here’s Dr. Marek Kukula, public astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, introducing The Lowest Heaven, a truly awesome anthology published in conjunction with the opening of the aforementioned Observatory’s “Visions of the Universe” exhibition:
By setting human stories within that immense canvas writers can help us to see ourselves as part of the wider cosmos, and perhaps give us an inkling of what that might actually mean. No wonder that many of today’s professional astronomers can trace their interest, at least in part, to an early encounter with science fiction.
The connection between science fact and science fiction has never been more pervasive than it is today. The visual language of astronomy is everywhere in contemporary science fiction, from book covers to the backdrops of films and television shows. Vistas from the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA’s Cassini probe have inspired the scenery for Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who, and with their enormous popularity these shows and movies bring astronomical imagery to a much wider audience. Artistic license even allows them to ignore the fact that that the original images have been enhanced and manipulated, and rarely show the Universe as it would appear to human eyes.
The connection works both ways. As yesterday’s science fiction becomes today’s science fact it can sometimes seem as though we live in a science fictional universe. Above our heads, Arthur C. Clarke’s geostationary satellites encircle the equator, while the imprints of human boots still mark the surface of the moon.
This back and forth between the actual and the fantastic underpins The Lowest Heaven’s exploration of space, both as we know it and as we can only imagine it. To wit, each of the seventeen stories presented by Pandemonium’s Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin over the course of this extraordinary ensemble is illustrated by a fitting image from the historical collection of the Royal Museums Greenwich.
Take the first fiction, for instance. ’Golden Apples’ by Sophia McDougall—an alt-history author most known for revising the Roman Empire of yesteryear into a present-day dystopia—is a bittersweet, surreal story about a couple who feed their dying daughter with solid sunlight stolen from a local laboratory. Like the hand-painted magic lantern slide of sunspots dating from the late 1800s which accompanies it, ’Golden Apples’ incorporates slivers of science into a fantastical canvas to tremendous effect.
The second short, ’A Map of Mercury’ by Alastair Reynolds, comes complete with a photograph of a ghostly glove puppet: a surprising image, initially, but its unsettling elements speak to the stark art at the heart of this disconcerting dialogue between man and machine. Similarly, an equatorial cross-section of the earth and its atmosphere appends ’The Krakatoan’ by Maria Dahvana Headley—a strange tale about a boy who visits a volcano in defiance of his absent father—while Archie Black’s unspeakably bleak ’Ashen Light’ is illustrated by an early negative of the Transit of Venus, which exposes the night as one of life’s white lies.
Short of systematically showing how each of The Lowest Heaven’s various visions relates to the accompanying artwork, suffice it to say that the plates are excellently selected, striking and suggestive. Most of the subsequent stories are equally inspiring, and though others are hard to parse—especially Adam Roberts’ chronicle of a voyage ’From World to World Again, By Way of the Moon, 1726’—even these reveal feeling, and accumulate meaning.
“They came at last, after the dust had settled; and in truth it sifted but slowly to the ground; for weight on the Moon is less than on our world. For it is the efficacy of the various worlds to cast their charm upon men in divers ways; such that to stand upon 1 planet is to be made from stone, and upon another into cork. It is accordingly a different matter entire to stand upon the Moon as it is upon the Earth; in the former place the substance of that world causeth the body to become buoyant almost to the current of floating into the ayr; yet to return again to Earth is to become heavy again, with a sense of sinkage of body and spirit both.”
Indeed, it is Roberts’ long short which brings the core focus of The Lowest Heaven home. Whilst wondering what may have happened if humanity had tomorrow’s technology at a point in the past, specifically during the golden age of exploration, the author of last year’s fantastic Jack Glass hits on an idea that this anthology features frequently: the tragedy of the “boldness, and purpose, and hunger to travel to places that are new to [us having] departed out of the breasts of humankind.”
The thought is voiced again in the next narrative, “WWBD”—which is to say “What Would Bradbury Do?”—by The Curve of the Earth’s Simon Morden, who reminds readers that though “we can send all the robots we like, it takes humanity to put the soul into exploration.” Later, in “Only Human,” World Fantasy Award winner Lavie Tidhar wonders about “what could have been, and of what didn’t,” before concluding that “to do that is, after all, only human” too.
Truth be told, I’m loathe to talk about very many more of these stories. To touch on the sparkling Saturn Trees of Kaaron Warren’s addiction allegory, the misunderstood beauty of “The Grand Tour” James Smythe gives us, or the inhuman horror of Kameron Hurley’s self-replicating spaceship. These are a few of The Lowest Heaven’s finest fictions, but better, certainly, that I let you mine its many treasures in your own time.
There can be no questioning the value of this artful anthology: it’s as inspiring as it is inspired. But The Lowest Heaven is also a timely and ultimately touching reminder of what we stand to lose by turning inwards as opposed to venturing again into the unknown. Granted, the universe is vast—and vastly dangerous, I dare say—but consider the wonders we stand to discover; the places, the races!
We cannot grasp what awaits us out there, but it behooves us, surely, to find out. So let us go once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our dead dreams.
The Lowest Heaven is published by Pandemonium. It is available June 13.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.