Woo woo!! Let’s hear it for plucky little Philae – because how can we resist anthropomorphising such a frankly cute little thing with gangly legs. This week’s landing of an extremely mobile science laboratory on a comet hurtling around some unimaginable distance from here is a moment to bask in some reflected glory and think, you know, we humans aren’t entirely a pointless waste of space after all. If only more of us could work harmoniously together over long stretches of time to achieve positive goals with no plan to make loads of money out of it or appear on a (using the term loosely) reality programme. Call me naïve, but I don’t think there is even some dark sinister military purpose lurking in the shadows behind the Rosetta mission. No, the whole thing is inspiring and educational and makes me want to think outside the planet (but first, of course, I must pause for a quick re-read of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s wonderful Le Petit Prince, which this week looks more prophetic than fantastic).
We have long tried to imagine ourselves onto a different rock. Once Galileo Galilei looked through his telescope and, crucially, published what he saw, our place in what Douglas Adams christened the Total Perspective Vortex shifted and we became a much, much smaller dot on the ‘You Are Here’ map. (Incidentally, if for some mysterious reason you have not encountered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy … but no, you can’t not be familiar with it. Just in case, let me urge you to listen to it rather than read it. And certainly don’t watch it. The pictures are rubbish). I still mourn my failure to see Ian McDiarmid in the RSC production of Brecht’s A Life of Galileo last year.. Mark Ravenhill translated Brecht’s original Leben DesGalilei for this, and, quite apart from all the other reasons for kicking myself for missing it, I would have been fascinated to see and hear the differences between that pre-war text and Brecht’s own post-war version which he wrote in English with and for Charles Laughton. It is this version that we Anglophones know, not least because it is the text published by Methuen.
Galileo’s discoveries put rocket-boosters under the dramatic and poetic visions of his contemporaries. Ben Jonson’s masque, News From the New World Discovered in the Moon, written for the Court of King James in 1620, pictures a lunar landscape of fields and meadows, rivers and mountains, different mostly from our own world because the people there do not speak. Being Jonson, the play is a satire, with lawyers and the newly-emerging crocodiles of the journalistic trade in its sights; and being a masque, it is full of dances, spectacular costumes and over-the-top praise of the royal audience. Think of it as plush pantomime mercifully bereft of nonentities from television.
At the same time as Jonson was entertaining the Court, John Donne was fizzing with new metaphors from astronomy and the new science. Not just stars, comets and moons, but compasses, telescopes and sextants gave him his startling material for his urgent, compelling poems. Oh, if you happen not to have read any Donne, I envy you for the moment of first encounter you are about to experience. Switch off your computer and your phone, tell the world you’re out, and curl up with Donne’s poems. Be warned: you are about to lose your heart.
A surprising amount of science fiction seems to deny the possibility of metaphor in favour of a rather plonking alternative reality. Terry Pratchett’s first books were very straightforward science fiction of the kind that, were you to change the Slartibartfast-type names to Gerald or Marjorie, would stand revealed in all its suburban mediocrity. But then – o joy! – he lit upon the glorious wheeze of the Discworld, a planet of enormous improbabilities and resonating familiarities that has enabled him, through about a trillion volumes, to satirise our life here on earth, showing it to be hugely peculiar: often hilariously, and sometimes heart-breakingly so. Pratchett’s great precursor was HG Wells, who is perhaps more remembered now for the legend of Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds to a credulous America than he is actually read. His novel, and Welles’s 1938 dramatisation, signal the very depressing tendency of the twentieth century to drop the wonder and excitement when contemplating the possibility of other cultures out there in favour of all-out paranoia. It does seem a shame and a mystery that the century that saw extraordinary scientific and social advances, including access to rational
education for more people than ever before, should have opted so merrily and clung so fiercely to a fear-haunted ‘burn them! Burn them!’ mentality that has kept us out of the inter-galactic Good Places to Stay guide to this day. We the people who can look up into the night sky (especially here in the Dark Sky Park of Northumberland) with an intelligent and informed eye can find more than enough to enthral us without needing to invent little green men (no, I don’t know how they came to be little, or green, or particularly associated with Mars). If I want something to frighten myself with, I can read about the behaviour of jihadists or bankers. No, tonight, as I peek out between the clouds to a far-distant universe, I shall be a watcher of the skies seeing a new comet: not like Keats, using astronomy as a metaphor for the marvelling wonder to be found in books, but really, looking up and out. Little Philae, sweet dreams and goodnight.