David Bowie asked if there was Life on Mars? not because of an interest in aliens or the unknown, but because of a dissatisfaction with life on earth. The entire song depicts a girl who has seen the worst of life ‘ten times or more’, who considers this planet a ‘sunken dream’ in contrast to what awakened existence could be, who sees a film that is a montage of injustice and through this all holds the single overbearing thought ‘is there life on Mars?’ A desire for a world out in the heavens, another place we might visit in the stars, is not necessarily indicative of a whimsical wish for adventure, but conversely a taunt of a utopia that could physically exist.
It is entirely within the realm of possibility that there is another world out there where all that socially isolates us on Earth could be valued in a different society. If there exist not billions but trillions upon quadrillions of life forms, isn’t it far more likely we might find someone perfect to love us than if we are merely trapped on Earth? It was Star Trek that gave birth to fanfiction as a genre, a series that presents in part the fantasy of space as a series of brief romances between Captain Kirk and endless fascinating and unique alien women. The universe is a world of possibility, and that can be possibility for the grandest cause of furthering understanding of science and the human condition, to possibility for filling the deep insecurities of our own hearts.
Unpopular opinion though it may be, Doctor Who series 5, with the introduction of Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor has always resonated the most with out of the whole show. In the opening episode the Doctor first meets companion Amy as a lonely child and promises to take her on a trip through space if she would just wait five minutes for him to come back. He accidentally takes twelve years to return, but Amy has had a suitcase packed for outer space and has been waiting the entire time, ready to abandon her life in a heartbeat for the promises of another life travelling the stars. Science fiction is filled with souls who would leave earth behind at a moment’s notice, and I know I would.
This isn’t a phenomenon that has only existed since the birth of popular sci-fi ushered in by Star Trek – Lord Byron expressed in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage that the stars were one of the few sources of hope left for someone who felt nothing but a death of feeling in every country he visited. He asks the stars, the ‘poetry of heaven’, to forgive him for when ‘our destinies o’erleap their mortal state and claim a kindred’ with them. The misanthropic narrator of the poem isn’t completely devoid of a feeling of purpose – it is only unfortunate that this purpose lies beyond someone confined to Earth could ever reach. W. H. Auden gives Byron what he couldn’t achieve in life in Letter to Lord Byron by placing Byron in a cosmic ‘abode’ in the stars where he perpetually watches over other poets and intercedes when poetry needs saving, and defines Byron’s constant influencing of new artists as proof he is up in the heavens, reading others’ poems like fan-mail. Auden doesn’t allow poets to die – upon the death of W. B. Yeats, Auden wrote in his Ode to Yeats ‘he became his admirers.’ Instead, they are somewhere out there in the galaxy, watching out for the other poets below on Earth.
Now that the Tesla car has been launched into the Earth’s orbit, pieces of media have been chosen seemingly by Elon Musk himself to represent humanity to the rest of this universe. Elon Musk was not the best choice as Earth’s ambassador, but for better or worse there is now a car perpetually playing Bowie’s other extraterrestrial song Space Oddity. As a representation for humanity we could certainly do a lot worse. Taken without Ashes to Ashes this is a song about an astronaut slowly coming to terms with his own death in space, but it is upbeat through the helplessness. Major Tom is guided by his spaceship which ‘knows which way to go’, while ‘planet earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do’, and so there is a sense of total loss of direction and agency – but there are simultaneously images of Major Tom saying his final goodbyes to his wife (‘Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows’), the people revering him, and him being in a position where he will surely go down in history as one of an unhappy few to die in space.
It is a gradual song about drifting peacefully away to a sublime death that will never be forgotten. It is the calm fading away of someone who departed this planet in search of the beautiful, and thus is an anthem of the driven nature of humanity, and hardly the worst ambassador to the galaxy. Since the advent of astrology space has been believed to hold some of the secrets to the universal issues humans puzzle over, and for every laser battle, there are vast times of contemplation and reflection in Science Fiction. From thousands of years of cryogenic freezing, to the chilling 10-minute ‘Star Gate’ sequence of Kubrick’s 2001 as Dave struggles and fails to comprehend the universe with his human brain, space is more empty and incomprehensible than it is anything else.
The concept that when we look to space we are trying to escape the flaws of this earth doesn’t merely exist within media, but of course has found a place in ‘political theory’. A group of Trotskyist conspiracy theorists in the 60’s attempted to fuse communism and ufology, and came up with Posadism (named after their leader Juan Posadas). Opening branches in dozens of countries, the Fourth International Posadist ideology essentially boiled down to the belief that an alien race with the technology to travel through space to visit Earth would inevitably have come from a more socially advanced world where communism was embraced and class struggle ended. Thus, to install communism across the world, one should not seek to change world politics or even incite revolution, but seek the means to discover aliens willing to invade us, colonise us, and make us communists. For those wishing to see posadism mocked or rebel against the Terrestrials, I would recommend the Facebook page Intergalactic Workers’ League.
Conventionally, when we think of space in the media, we might think of disaster movies about alien invasion, and most people would likely not welcome a first contact happening in their lifetime. This is hardly recent – the first work of science fiction could be said to be Lucian’s A True Story written in Greek in the second century A. D., where the armies of the Sun seek to cloud out the Moon. But behind that there is a sense of the wondrous impossible as Lucian’s characters eat the cheese of the moon, drink from its milky lakes and ride its resident emus. The greatest reason we have to fear a First Contact war is because of humanity’s track record with civilisations encountering one another for the first time. The violence we ascribe imagined space cultures with is our own, whereas the wonder we seek in space comes from a lack of stimulation from our own world. However, I would suggest that the latter is a crueller thought – it is easy to sleep at night being grateful that violent aliens haven’t come to our planet, less so to think there are trillions of dazzling sights and individuals out there in this universe we will forever miss out on seeing.