The limits of cosmic indifference if science is real
The hidden conflict in all science fiction stories
Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear. The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.
-- H.P. Lovecraft, "Notes on Writing Weird Fiction"
This newsletter bills itself as themed around space opera and synthwave.
That's a half-truth. While Your Host is fascinated by spaceships and the aesthetics of 80's neon and art-deco, around here we're also keen on weird tales, dark fantasy, and what Lovecraft summed up as a brand of cosmic horror.
That horror at strangeness, at that great conflict with time, fits hand in glove with the speculations of the best science fiction and fantastical tales.
Any remotely plausible take on space travel will bring the readers into direct appreciation of the mind-boggling scales of time and space confronting the interstellar traveler.
Horror at the conflict with time, indeed.
Set aside the ray-guns and rocketships. Set aside the swords and the sorcery. There's a deeper, persistent, and fertile conflict behind all of these speculative "genre" tales.
A fundamental conflict between two competing and equally compelling principles.
First, this horror at the unknown which drives our fears. And not just fear. Animals can experience fear. Humans experience formless, undirected dread at the very idea of our own existence.
Second, our existential terror is tempered by our justified faith in the power of the mind to understand and the will to overcome these unknown terrors through science and technology.
If nature is intelligible – and it seems the natural order must be comprehensible in no small measure – then there are limits to the terrors of howling "outside" lurking just beyond the fringe of twilight.
The outside may be terrible and indifferent to our existence, but it need not be a nest of writing tentacle-monsters. That's a subtle difference which makes all the difference.
Hidden at the heart of science fiction is a conflict between the attitudes of optimistic certainty in scientific knowledge and pessimistic skepticism about what lies hidden in the infinite spaces opened up by those same scientific possibilities.
Dramatic explorations of either side can make for excellent SFF stories.
But I wonder what stories we might see from bringing these assumptions into the light and dramatizing that conflict.
Instead of defending realism and rejecting skepticism, or the other way around, what kinds of stories could we tell by bringing certainty and skepticism into direct conflict?
PS – If you enjoy these posts, why not subscribe? That way you can receive them directly in your inbox... and you'll get the members-only posts.
There's no charge (yet) to subscribe as a free member, so click here and join now.