We Have Always Dreamed of Other Worlds
Gabrielle Bellot on Literary Stargazing and Reckoning with the Infinite
Just before the summer of 1835 could come to an end, The New York Sun announced that the astronomer John Herschel had found life on the moon. In the previous century, Herschel’s father William, another famed astronomer who had discovered Uranus and suggested the universe was inconceivably vast, had famously, if somewhat playfully, proposed not only that our lunar satellite might contain life, but that the sun, which he believed was hollow, contained beings inside it; now, the newspaper article proclaimed, the son had proved one of the father’s extraordinary theories by observing a veritable menagerie of wondrous creatures through an unprecedentedly powerful telescope in South Africa.
For days the paper increased its circulation and generated a mixture of hysteria and bemusement from the general public as it described the moon’s putative personages in increasingly explicit detail through a six-part series: blood-red poppies, blue unicorns, amphibious blobs that rolled precipitously across pebbly beaches, and, most shockingly, simians with batlike wings (“Vespertilio-homo, or man-bat”). The moon, it appeared, not only hosted life; its life was positively, bombastically thriving in an extraterrestrial Eden.
It was all an elaborate hoax. The story, which was published under Herschel’s name and intended to satirize absurdly specific claims about the universe (most notably those of Scottish reverend Thomas Dick), was ludic and lucrative science-fiction, and it would be just over a century before a piece of sci-fi caused such a mass uproar again, with Orson Welles’ notorious 1938 radio rendition of The War of the Worlds on Halloween night (which engendered both hysteria and heart failure in those listeners who thought it a real broadcast about Martian invasion.)
By the time it was revealed as a hoax, however, an American minister had already readied crates filled with Bibles to be shipped up to the moon to convert the extraterrestrial heathens, and a rankled Edgar Allan Poe claimed that the sensationalist newspaper had simply plagiarized one of his own short stories about a voyage to the moon, “Hans Phaall—A Tale,” published just before the Sun’s series. Herschel placidly dismissed the articles as “incoherent ravings,” but his wife Margaret was amused by the “clever” fraud. “It is only a pity that is not true,” she sighed to William Herschel’s sister, Caroline, herself renowned for discovering new nebulae and comets.
The idea that life might exist elsewhere in our universe has a long history, and from our discovery of the first exoplanet—a planet outside our solar system—in 1995 to today, that notion remains scientifically intriguing, if unresolved. But before scientists observed exoplanets, many writers and philosophers turned to our solar system’s own humble retinue for speculations—and, sometimes, explicit assertions—about life beyond Earth. These musings and, in the case of the mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, entire spiritual travel guides to other planets, helped shape a particular literary genre: the “plurality of worlds” or “cosmic pluralism” debate, which was intimately connected to certain forms of what we would later call science-fiction. (Sci-fi has a lengthy history; these texts are both ancestors and oft-unacknowledged elders of the genre.) Those who believed in a plurality of worlds claimed that other planets, if not an infinity of undiscovered “worlds,” were inhabited. This little genre, ergo, had large aims: no less than to explain whether life on Earth was unique, the answer to which held profound theological and philosophical implications. Are we special? the debate asked. And can we really handle it, if we aren’t?
In 2017, near the anniversary of when the astronomer Shannon Lucid returned to Earth in 1996 and took the title of most hours in orbit for a woman (188 days, later exceeded in 2007 by Sunita Williams), it’s interesting, if unnerving, to reflect on this literature of other worlds in space, given that our own planet lies under the subtle yet lethiferous glare of a changing climate many politicians refuse to acknowledge is real. That we are aiding in the possible eradication of life (except, perhaps, for the cute, near-indestructible tardigrades) on the only planet known to harbor it tempers the charm and comedy of revisiting these writers’ projections. Yet for all their naïveté of imagining all our planets, moons, and even suns could support life, the genre still has something to teach us today. How we envision alien life, even in fiction, often reflects us in turn, often betrays our own limitations and assumptions. How we portray the Other is a sundial of the self.
We may not be able to tesser time, slipping through temporal wrinkles to a better elsewhere, but the assumptions in these plurality-of-worlds texts can teach us a little for present and future, all the same.
Cosmic pluralism dates back millennia. Some of the ancient Greeks, like Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus, proposed that our cosmos contained “infinite worlds” or aperoi kosmoi; from here emerged the now-quotidian idea of extraterrestrial life. An unknown author designated pseudo-Plutarch described the 5th-century B.C.E. Pythagorean belief that “the moon is terraneous, inhabited as our earth is, and contains animals of a larger size and plants of a rarer beauty than our globe affords.”
Still, the basic idea of other worlds was far from unique to ancient Greece. In various forms, such speculations appeared across time and place; it’s only natural, after all, to wonder what secrets the night, with its curious stars and stelliferous storms, may hold. Multiple tales in One Thousand and One Nights, for instance, feature trips across the cosmos and even discussions of inhabited planets beyond Earth. With the rise of Christian orthodoxy, texts that spoke explicitly about the “plurality of worlds” were suppressed in the Middle Ages. From the 17th century onwards, there emerged a particularly notable outburst of such texts with the development of improved telescopes; the literature of a plurality of worlds is largely a literature reflecting the science of its day. Some of their authors, however, faced draconian consequences for voicing their ideas, most notably Galileo and Giordano Bruno, the latter of whom, after suggesting a pantheistic cosmos in which infinite planets existed, was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1600.
These texts abounded. Pierre Borel, a physician and compatriot of Descartes, published in 1657 A New Discourse Proving the Plurality of Worlds, the title of which indicates both ongoing debate and firm conviction. Borel claimed that “many of the most subtle minds in France” believed in the plurality of worlds “but keep [their beliefs] secret for fear of being ridiculed by the vulgar ignorant.” A highly influential book appeared in Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (1686) by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, which detailed a series of conversations between the narrator and a beautiful marquise, in which the narrator speculates, seriously and jocularly, on the existence of other inhabited planets. In his preface, Fontenelle claimed that “religion simply has nothing to do with this system, in which I fill an infinity of worlds with inhabitants…When I say to you that the Moon is inhabited, you picture to yourself men made like us, and then, if you’re a bit of a theologian, you’re instantly full of qualms.”
The moon was indeed a popular and controversial place to imagine other people in this genre, thanks largely to Galileo’s unprecedented descriptions of it as “not unlike the Earth” after observing it through his powerful lens (though literature on lunarians predated this, as Lucian of Samosata had satirically described a voyage to an inhabited moon in his True History, a progenitor of sci-fi, in the 2nd
Before Galileo, Ludovico Ariosto had sent his character Astolfo to the moon on a hippogriff in his 1532 mock-epic, Orlando Furioso; the following century, the Anglican bishop Francis Godwin composed The Man in the Moone, in which a man rides geese up to the moon and encounters Protestant Christians named “the Lunars.” John Wilkins and Cyrano de Bergerac added to this genre, in 1638 and 1657 respectively, of literature about lunar civilizations. So infectious was the idea of an earthlike moon that the cartographer Michael van Langren produced an astonishing map of the moon in 1645—the world’s first recorded lunar map—in which he named mountains and craters after “great men” to secure his patronage. The moon, it seemed, was quite profitable for sublunary Earthlings.
After William Herschel discovered Uranus and began suggesting the cosmos was terrifyingly immense, Romantic writers—who, contrary to stereotype, often held some interest in science—began including such imagery in their work. The lone figure, like the iconic ancient mariner or the men standing alone against vast natural landscapes in Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, animated Romantic work, and scientists sometimes became those solitary symbols: William Wordsworth described Newton in The Prelude as a Romantic mariner himself, “voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.” Percy Shelley was particularly intrigued by the seemingly blasphemous implications of a plurality of worlds, threading images of “those million worlds” with “inhabitants” in lines and footnotes through Prometheus Unbound and Queen Mab. In “Essay on the Devil and Devils,” he mused, with vulpine glee, whether or not hell might exist on fiery comets (or even in the sun) and whether “Earthlings or Jupetrians [sic] [are] more worthy of visitations by the Devil.” Influenced by revolutionary astronomical observations and before a figure like Jules Verne was even born, many a writer was imagining worlds twenty thousand fathoms—or more—from our own.
Perhaps the most extraordinary entry into the plurality-of-worlds literature came from Swedenborg. A controversial Christian mystic, Swedenborg alleged that the Lord had appointed him the religion’s savior, allowing him to travel freely, in “astral” form, between Heaven and Hell. Putting this handy ability to use, he published a remarkable book in 1758, The Earths in Our Solar System Which are called Planets and the Earths in the Starry Heaven, and Their Inhabitants; Also the Spirits and Angels There From Things Heard and Seen, detailing what he claimed were visits, in spirit, to Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, and more—all of which, of course, were inhabited. Astonishingly, Swedenborg united anthropocentrism and Copernicanism: there are many inhabited earths, he alleged, but because “the Divine created the universe for no other end than that the human race may exist… wherever there is an earth, there are men.” Humanity, the angels conveniently revealed to the Swedish mystic, is central, everywhere.
Here is the crux of a deeper problem. Swedenborg’s “quest” to speak with “men” from other “earths” reveals a recurring issue with writers who imagined a plurality of worlds: that the very idea of “other earths” suggests how strongly they desired non-Earthlings to be, for all intents and purposes, human.
Many of these texts indeed proffered aliens who seemed curiously, conservatively like us. Sometimes, this was intentional, satirizing real-life figures; other times, it was not. The trend for some science fiction to imagine that alien life will resemble Earth’s inhabitants (human or otherwise) has long irked me: why should we think any other planet’s life would have eyes in the places we do, if they possess eyes at all? (The worst, to me, are aliens that wear human clothing, like t-shirts, yet possess anatomies that make such attire impractical at best, if not impossible for them to get on.) They also tended to be men, and male-dominated where women exist; imagining gender beyond a simple fixed binary, as in Ursula Le Guin’s masterful, much later novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, was rarer.
These are failures to imagine that which is truly, utterly alien. Yet there’s something human in this failure. It says much about us, after all, that we find it so much easier to imagine aliens resembling us, or organisms on our planet, than something definitively different. “Given the diversity of life on Earth,” the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote in NASA’s Astrobiology magazine in 2003, “one might expect a diversity of life exhibited among Hollywood aliens. But I am consistently amazed by the film industry’s lack of creativity. With a few notable exceptions,” he continues,
such as life forms in The Blob (1958) and in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Hollywood aliens look remarkably humanoid. No matter how ugly (or cute) they are, nearly all of them have two eyes, a nose, a mouth, two ears, a head, a neck, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, a torso, two legs, two feet—and they can walk. From an anatomical view, these creatures are practically indistinguishable from humans, yet they are supposed to have come from another planet. If anything is certain, it is that life elsewhere in the universe, intelligent or otherwise, will look at least as exotic as some of Earth’s own life forms.
This trend makes me occasionally cringe at planet-hopping books and films I enjoy, from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time to the Saga comics. Their non-Earthlings may vary from the outré to the orthodox, but even in their oddest permutations, they often seem, at core, like us. To get around this, writers like Fontenelle, and, later, William Herschel cautioned that their aliens were “not like men in any way,” yet their writing, like so many others, still makes extraterrestrial life seem positively, well, terrestrial.
I was guilty of this as a younger writer, too. I imagined worlds at once fantastical and hewing to earthly imagery. Mauve deserts, sprinkled with brittle crystal flowers small and smaragdine. Halloween-themed planets, peopled with grinning upside-down-teardrop ghosts and witches with wisteria hair. As a teen I feverishly wrote juvenile novels this world will (hopefully) never see, in which other universes, known, simplistically, as dimensions existed, and in which grand subway trains in a rocky hub deep in our Earth—Grand Central, perhaps, with stalactites and interdimensional post offices—rattle-roared through subterranean tunnels to purple portals that led to other worlds.
Caribbean reality, as Junot Diaz says, can be quite sci-fi, and I embraced this. A group of my Dominican friends who were all atheists would sometimes get together in Roseau for beers and I transformed them, later, in a story into a Borgesian secret society that studied inter-universal libraries, searching, as they descended down shelves on jetpacks—these were quite formidable libraries—for clues about the gods of other realms. For years a staggering drunk with the glower of a gargoyle lumbered up the precipice side of the mountain road to my village, narrowly being missed by rushing buses and cars who laughed at him as they passed by, and I later placed a version of the man—who had by then vanished, perhaps down the precipice—in another universe.
My fantastical images were not “real,” yet they were not that alien, ultimately. They were combinations of parts, recolors, reskins, refractions, through the prism of a muse, of motifs from books, videogames, anime, reality, my walks on lonely nights through the star-dusted orchard of the self. There’s nothing wrong with this. I loved writing these stories. But it reveals how difficult it is, even in art, to escape our humanness.
Yet there’s a darker side to this fixation, through history, with depicting the colossal cosmos as essentially human or alien worlds as similar to Earth. “Could we reach the moon, we should think of reducing it to a province of some European kingdom,” the gothic novelist Horace Walpole pooh-poohed the rise of hot-air ballooning in 1783. Walpole may have somewhat overestimated the aerial capabilities of balloons, but his larger point was accurate. We speak so often conceptually of “colonizing”—a telling word—the moon or Mars to save our species, and perhaps our fictional proliferation of humans across a plurality of worlds symbolizes, more broadly, our seeming inability to discard our worst aspects, our most fearful symmetries, even when we leave a planet.
Imagine, on a clear night, that every star is a planet exactly like our own, with people imagining just like us. It makes us seem quite infinitesimal. “In cosmic terms, we are subatomic particles in a grain of sand on an infinite beach,” Calvin tells Hobbes. It’s difficult to envision large numbers, so many of us don’t realize how vast the universe truly is, or how minuscule we are—enough that, in a map of the cosmos, we might as well not even exist.
Yet we do. For all our tininess, what we do matters.
Thomas Hardy understood it well for his time, as Two on a Tower, his underrated 1882 novel of astronomy and romance—love set against a terrifyingly, monstrously vast universe—indicates. Its universe is enormous and uncaring, yet even as subatomic specks on an endless beach, its characters’ star-crossed romance matters. Our love matters. We make our own meaning in a likely meaningless cosmos. We sail on, even if there is no port on our map, because of the sheer love that animates our sailing. When we stop creating our story, like Scheherazade, we may die. And sometimes we love the things that bring us closest to Death, love the songs that pull us into rocks flecked with foam and bone, love the books that take us to the cold smoking edge of the world.
Yet we are in danger of losing the seas we know, their salt-breath, the familiar ports we sail to on so many green nights. Things are falling apart—but slowly enough that we can tell ourselves all is well. Ninety-nine of life on our planet since its genesis is extinct, and it is only within the last few centuries that we have lost some of them—due either to wanton hunting, as with Steller’s sea cow or the iconically nonexistent dodo, or to the unexpectedly catastrophic results of mundane events, like the erasure of a rare flightless wren in New Zealand’s Stephen’s Island in the 1890s, which met its end at the paws of a lighthouse keeper’s cat (alongside copious, concupiscent feral cats that had escaped from their owners into the forest) that kept bringing its owner its avian corpses, until there were none left for the cat to display. Perhaps our familiar things won’t entirely vanish as the climate changes, but they will colossally, fatally transform—and with them, if we survive, so will our art. So will we. It all sounds alarmist, even silly. I wish it was.
Cosmic pluralism reads with a vespertine poignancy to me today. But even as a pessimist, I see something in the plurality-of-worlds genre, and sci-fi more broadly, that may save us yet: our curiosity. Cosmic pluralism bloomed out of wonder about the “big” questions, a wonder that won’t ever fully leave us—I hope—even if we think we’ve answered some of them. We’ve made it this far; perhaps that will save us, somehow, in the end.
It’s lovely to dream of other worlds, to listen to the music of a mapless place. That’s what fiction, in all forms, does. I cherish seeing the world from a rarer angle: the small-vastness of things before skydiving, the way scuba-diving at night feels like spacewalking on Earth, the way our own mundane-sublime planet may seem an alien landscape from the right angles. But we cannot forget this world when we wake from those dreams. If I have children, I want them, one day, to be able to enjoy the Earth as I did, its little and big wonders—as well as those of the vast cosmos. We need to harbor, if we do not, a caring, earthly, life-affirming perspective, even as we also require a more humbling cosmic one, lest we think ourselves the grand owners of the universe, with domain over its contents.
Perhaps we cannot tesser away to a less dire future, but we can try to better the future we do have, all the same.