Last month I visited Amsterdam to take part in Sonic Acts, an art festival with a keen love of the scientific. Amid music woven out of the electromagnetic ether and artists painting geomagnetic storms, I took part in a panel convened by Arc editor Simon Ings to discuss the ‘futures of science and science fiction’.
Not being a scientist or a science fiction author, I opted to look at how one influenced the other. The theme of the festival was the dark universe – all that lies unknown and obscured. During the age of empires, Dutch cartographers were regarded as the best in the world, their maps shedding a closely-guarded light on the darkest corners of the globe. So Sonic Acts seemed like the perfect place to examine how those maps, and more since, helped to shape our imagination and our relationship with the unknown.
In 1869, American inventor and physician Cyrus Teed was experimenting with some electrical apparatus when he was hit with a bolt of energy, knocking him out cold. On awaking, he proclaimed that he had communed with the angels, who told him the secrets to the universe. Teed changed his name to Koresh and started preaching his gospel, forming the Koreshanites movement. As well as celibacy and reincarnation, the tenets of Koreshanity held that the Earth was in fact a hollow sphere, with people living on the inside. In this “Cellular Cosmology” model, the heavens above were really the heavens within, an intricate machinery of prisms and light. After founding his utopian settlement in Estero, Florida, Teed set out to prove that the world really was hollow.
But how could you measure the shape of the world? With a really big ruler, of course. So that’s what they built.
On a nearby beach, locals watched as a strange wooden rail began to inch along the sand. The “rectilineators” were eight feet long, made up of wooden beams braced with steel crossbars. Each fitted snugly via brass fittings to the last, ensuring that the line continued in a perfectly level fashion. When all the rectilineators were placed, the last was unfastened and connected to the first, and so the device gradually snaked down the beach, tended to by the conscientious Koreshanites. Along the way, regular measurements were made to compare the height of the ruler to the water’s surface. And sure enough, as the measuring rule stretched out, it began to dip lower and lower. Or rather, the concave surface of the Earth rose up to meet it. Of course, it was a mistake, but that doesn’t matter. It was imperative that the device failed to be accurate. If it had worked, there would have been no world for the Koreshanites beliefs to inhabit. And so, refusing to bend himself to the reality of the world, Teed bent the world in accordance with his fiction.
He wasn’t the first to be stymied by the world’s refusal to entertain our fictions. The fantasies that we filled the mysterious lands with were extinguished by the approaching light of the cartographer. The Garden of Eden was once a place on Earth, painted into the inhospitable Middle Eastern desert by hopeful European monks who’d never left their own city. Heaven, too, was a physical location, just out of reach in the sky (although Alexander the Great was able to travel to the fringes by riding on the back of a gryphon). But as our maps spread out to encompass the world and the celestial bodies above us, these places devolved into metaphorical locations – an idea instead of a place.
Similarly, the best minds in Europe once conjectured that if you travelled far enough north, you could get above the freezing North wind, and find a paradise known as Hyperborea. Here, the inhabitants basked in the tropical glow of a slowly rotating sun, living on an island surrounded by warm water. They lived so long, and so blissfully, that on reaching the age of 1,000, they would dress in flowers and drown themselves out of sheer boredom. The mythical master race of Hyperboreans, the perfect people who gave rise to the Europeans, was so seductive that it lasted long enough to make into the Nazi’s Aryan ideology. But of course, once Amundsen reached the North Pole, it was obvious that no paradise awaited his exhausted men there. Hyperborea was a convenient fiction painted into a blind spot on our maps.
A recurrent theme of science fiction is the way that it inhabits the unmapped spaces in our universe. Take, for example, the works of Jules Verne. Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Five Weeks in a Balloon, From the Earth to the Moon, Sphinx of the Ice Fields, all of these stories took place at the fringes of Verne’s known world. The last of those books describes a navigable channel runs from Australia to South America, through the South Pole. Just fifteen years after that story was published, Amundsen’s expedition would plant a flag where Verne’s story fantasized a liquid ocean. The empire of fact expanded and extinguished another hiding place for fiction. Even now, authors must place their earthbound stories in fantastic locations: just like the Garden of Eden, Hogwarts cannot exist in a physical location. It lies behind some fold in the map, of Earth but not on Earth. It can’t exist in any physical location, because a quick check of Google Maps would cut the thread suspending disbelief. Similarly, The Hunger Games’ Panem is American but not America, at least not the one we know. It lies in the future, that comfortable zone of the unknown which acts as convenient repository for so much science fiction. (and yet, any daring enough to locate their stories to a fixed date - 2001, Terminator, Metropolis - predestine themselves to be undone by the relentless advance of time).
As Paintwork author Tim Maughan pointed out to me, science fiction risks being collapsed into fantasy by the advance of our maps. Once we were able to fill distant lands with the creatures of our imagination – the Argonauts’ cyclops, Gulliver’s Lilliputians – but now we’re forced to push these stories into more distant unknown worlds. What is Star Trek except a continuation of this practice, boldly going where no man has gone before, and enjoying the freedom of artistic license that comes with that territory? Will the relentless advance of our maps leave no place for our imagination? Perhaps we ought to be worried that our maps are still spreading their sinuous lines across the universe. Because we want to know which way the universe curves. And how do you measure the shape of the universe? With a really big ruler, of course.
A satellite with cartographic aspirations named WMAP currently sits in a gravitational eddy one and a half million kilometres behind the Earth. It is staring into the far distance – right back to the dawn of the universe. It measures the distance between tiny fluctuations in the microwave “echo” of the Big Bang, acting as a gigantic set square with its crook buried on Earth and its flat edge presented to the stars. And surely enough, our maps are spreading out so far now that the borders run up against the very edges of the universe.
But there is a sting in this tale: WMAP told us that everything we can see, every tiny flicker of starlight in every galaxy, is less than 5% of what’s out there. The rest remains hidden in darkness. It seems that the unknown is not an endangered resource just yet.