I’m kind of a space nerd (you have probably realized this by now, given all my mentions of science fiction novels and films). Yes, OK, maybe my PhD in Scandinavian Studies and my dissertation on Viking poetry about pictures on shields are not going to get me a job at NASA (not until we meet the Space Vikings, anyway), but growing up I got pretty much an equivalent kick out of reading about old myths and reading Arthur C Clarke or watching Star Wars (please note though, I am NOT a Campbellian, even if I just mentioned Star Wars and myth in the same sentence…), and even now I get a similar thrill from both my own profession and the world of space exploration. Both have to do with expanding the world we live in, expanding our vision of reality at the same time that we realize how impossible it is to visualize it all. There is something in common between the experience of being confronted with an alien semantic universe and the experience of grasping, finally, the fact that the moon really is a whole other WORLD, hanging up there in the blue, an experience I had shortly after reading Gene Wolfe‘s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which exaggerates this situation by having twin planets circle each other at a relatively close distance. I still have occasional moments when I can “get it” once more, but even then it’s only partial. Who really has room for a universe large enough to let the moon be a world, rather than just a bit of scenery? (though I do certainly appreciate it as scenery too…) This is more of a process, a movement, than a goal. If we thought there were an end-point we were somehow aimed at in this process of understanding Others or the Universe, then we’ve missed the point–then it has become more about grasping, controlling, owning, rather than about being transformed, engaging someone or something “on its own terms,” insofar as that is possible. The “subject-object” paradigm is probably impossible to entirely do away with when it comes to the sort of “scientific understanding” that we find in everything from mythology and anthropology to astronomy and physics, but I think it is also productive to destabilize this binary a bit–in fact, we might say that that is essential in the act of science itself. Studying something may inherently mean objectivizing it, but unless we are going to just let the object be a screen onto which we project our own meanings, we have to be open to hearing it “speak”–we have to grant some degree of subjectivity to the “object,” allow it to subvert our expectations, to challenge our attempts to sort meaning out of the data we find–even to challenge our ideas about what constitutes “data.” Incidentally, I first encountered this idea in this book, though I hear it shows up in archaeological theory too.
OK, all that (it was more than I meant to say) to set up THIS COOL NEW DISCOVERY!!!!
Earth sized!! Well, OK, it’s too close to the star to actually be “earth-LIKE,” but it is nevertheless exciting to get the first evidence that the nearest stellar system has planets! And OK, it may be close, but it is still too far to get right now–but it’s a pretty awesome find when there is so much in the news right now the possibilities of interstellar flight, like this, and this! It certainly gets the imagination going– Alpha Centauri has featured in a TON of science fiction– while still impossibly distant, it is relatively close and so allows writers and readers to entertain the illusion of realism in an otherwise very unrealistic genre. In the late sequels to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series Alpha Centauri showed up as a planet encountered so far in the distant past of the galaxy that it had been forgotten–but more often it shows up as a first stop in the early exploration of interstellar space, as with the film Avatar (which I STILL haven’t seen– I was too busy when it came out).
Gosh, I have lots of other interesting things to say about this– but I’ve got a ton of work to do, so it’ll have to wait. This article in particular is an interesting analysis of domestic space, with reference to (of course) SPACESHIPS, which I ran across while researching a project of my own. Never expected my work in Old Norse literature to give me the opportunity to read about Serenity from the show Firefly! I first heard about that show in Latin class too… hm… apparently science fiction and ancient literature go together better than even I suspected…