Poetry often confines itself to the ‘real’ world, the world of nature or the city, relationships or the inner life. It is a counterpart to the novels of literary fiction which deal with these themes. But what about the themes covered by so-called genre fiction, speculation about the future, or life beyond the Earth?
There are three things that fascinate me the most in science fiction: other planets (and their alien inhabitants), artificial life forms, and ideal societies. They also happen to be the three themes of my upcoming course, which explores how poets who have probed those boundaries follow the trajectory they have charted where no poem has gone before…
Edwin Morgan’s poem ‘The First Men on Mercury’ stages an encounter between human astronauts and the native life of Mercury. At first, the humans speak English, while the Mercurians speak sound-poem-like nonsense. However, gradually English words emerge in the Mercurians’ dialogue, while the Earthlings’ language begins to fall apart. In just 24 lines, their linguistic positions have switched. ‘You’ll remember Mercury,’ says the Mercurian in the final line.
This poem figures the encounter with aliens so beautifully because, as much science fiction explores, any encounter we have with a truly alien world or culture would have to change us as much as we changed it. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (which even feature excerpts of some ‘fictional’ poetry by Martian colonists), the colonists realise that as they terraform Mars (make it Earth-like), Mars is ‘areoforming’ them. This idea of reciprocal transformation is perhaps what poets, at the forefront of changing language, would have to offer to any alien encounter.
It’s sometimes commented that there is little popular culture in the universe of Star Trek. The crews of the Enterprise-D and Voyager spend most of their recreation time in imaginary depictions of Earth’s past on the holodeck – in the world of Sherlock Holmes, the hardboiled detective novels of Dixon Hill, and Captain Janeway hangs out in an off-brand version of Jane Eyre. The question arises: is there no popular culture in the future? The only real original ‘holonovel’ we see is written by Voyager’s Doctor, a hologram himself, and the only 24th-century poet we meet is Data, the robot, who authors some truly terrible verses dedicated to his cat, Spot.
Imagine a world where robots have been programmed to read and write poetry. What would they need humans for? And what would that poetry look like, written and read by scientifically optimised brains?
A utopia is a perfect world, an ideal designed society, and many science fiction stories outline them – they range from the Federation of Star Trek, whose replicators free its citizens from hunger and want, to the hardscrabble anarchist world of Annares in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Poets have not always got on well in utopias; Plato, in The Republic, famously banned poets from his perfect society because we are, with our metaphors and rhetoric, basically just liars. But will there be a place for poems in the perfect future after all?
As we’ve seen, in Star Trek only artificial life forms seem interested in creating new works of art – everyone else seems too assured of their humanity to need to explore it any longer, and are content to reread and relive the more imperfect past. This is the ultimate irony: our science-fictional heroes fantasise about being us!
Meanwhile, in The Dispossessed, the anarchist inhabitants of Annares speak a designed language, Pravic, developed to help the first settlers think their way into utopian living. In this society without personal possessions, there are no possessive pronouns – you don’t say ‘my blanket’, ‘my toothbrush’, or even ‘my mother’ – you say ‘the mother’, ‘this blanket’, or ‘the toothbrush that I use’. Metaphors in Pravic don’t use words like ‘higher’ or ‘bigger’ to mean ‘better’ or ‘more important’, but instead ‘more central’, reflecting this society of cooperation which lacks hierarchies. What would poetry look like in such a language, when things as basic and grammar and metaphor are recognised as inherently political? (The only writer we meet in the book is a playwright, whose controversial creations get him locked up in a mental institution.)
The anarchist writer Marie-Louise Berneri once said: ‘Utopias have often been plans of societies functioning mechanically, dead structures conceived by economists, politicians and moralists; but they have also been the living dreams of poets.’
In the 1997 film Contact based on the novel by Carl Sagan, Jodie Foster’s character Ellie Arroway is an astronomer who travels to meet the aliens who have been communicating with Earth. Her first reaction to interstellar travel is to say, astonished, ‘Poetry! They should have sent a poet!’ In order to face the future we’re hurtling into, we have to be not only scientists, engineers, and politicians, but poets, too. In this course, we will explore the visions of the future and of other worlds both of our favourite science fiction and of our own imaginations, and go beyond the mechanical and economic to bring them into existence as living dreams.
Explore distant planets, future cities, and the furthest reaches of human imagination on Callie Gardner’s new online course, Where No Poem Has Gone Before: Science Fiction Studio. Call 0207 582 1679 or book online.