Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Contemporary Cosmic Context

Although we differentiate contemporary fiction about personal and social relationships from science fiction about the impact of future technology, alien contact, interplanetary spaces, other planets etc, these fictions are set in one universe and a single word in a contemporary novel can remind us of that wider context.

For instance, in Poul Anderson's detective novel, Perish By The Sword (New York, 1959), as Michael Stefanik walks through a cold wind:

"A glance overhead, between flapping leaves, showed him a few stars. They were dim, unbelievably remote, and flickered as if some gale through their own spaces were about to blow them out and lay darkness upon their planets." (p. 145)

Stars seen in the night sky are a permanent feature of humanity's perennial environment so it does not feel like any sort of intrusion when a character in a novel looks up at them. Quite the contrary. However, a reference to their "planets" goes beyond what can be seen with the naked eye and reminds us of modern scientific knowledge with its future implications of maybe traveling to some of those planets.

But Anderson does more here. The projection of Earthly weather into space, the idea of a wind blowing out the stars as if they were candles and darkening their planets, suggests a story set in an alternative, magical universe. In fact, the novel seems to become fantasy when Stefanik hears what he thinks is a whispering ghost or headless body wielding what, according to the legend, is a murderous sword. But then when Stefanik is alone in hearing this and when, further, the police apprehend him with the sword, a wounded companion and no one else present, then we start to think that we have after all been reading about his states of mind. And finally the detective explains the mystery and solves the crime.

Thus, Anderson has taken us through a mundane windy night, the stellar universe, a fantastic realm, a possible ghost story and a possible psychological story to the resolution of a detective story and, at five minutes past midnight, I am once again ready to turn in.

No comments: