Space is Deep

A.R. Yngve’s comment below set me thinking about the deepness of space, and a writer who’s dealt with its profoundly dislocating emptiness more successfully than most – A. E. Van Vogt.

Van Vogt’s ‘Voyage of the Space Beagle’ (or ‘Space Bagel’, as it’s known round these parts) couldn’t really exist without that awareness. Its protagonist, Dr. Elliott Grosvenor, is a Nexialist. That is, he uses a variety of disciplines (psychology, hypnosis, etc) to maintain the sanity of a crew faced with an overwhelming external blankness.

The need for Nexialism is established partially by the action of the book itself; Elliott spends much effort managing relationships between different political factions on-board ship, eventually having to stave off disaster by taking it over entirely.

It’s also justified by some disarmingly bleak, off-hand comments about how many spaceships just disappear in the void. Their crews are assumed to have had collective nervous breakdowns, either crippling / destroying their ships as political battles get out of hand and turn into real conflicts, or just vanishing on crackpot, unachievable missions.

For Van Vogt, Nexialism is humanity’s response to the problem of the void. On exposure, he sees us as either dissolving into it or fleeing into cataclysmic claustrophobia. To my knowledge, he’s the only SF writer to not only acknowledge the void issue, but also make its solution a key plot component.

There’s also an interesting broader point to be made. Nexialism is a response to a very real existential shock – there’s nothing out there! It exists as a kind of conscious / subconscious protector and lubricant, forcing spaceship crews to work constructively together rather than collapse into anarchy.

It’s administered by someone who’s effectively an elite priest figure, synthesising all human knowledge for the benefit of the less enlightened. Van Vogt’s description of it points on one level to a politics that despairs of human nature; incapable of dealing constructively with the harsh truths of life, we need to be coerced into ignoring them in order to achieve anything at all by manipulative, all powerful leaders.

That’s unsettlingly close to the Straussian philosophy that – as I understand it – lies behind current Neo-Con thinking. I find that kind of worldview pretty repugnant, and I don’t know anything about Van Vogt’s politics, so perhaps after all I’m being unfair to him.

Maybe he wasn’t trying to do anything more complex than make that point that humanity evolved to live locally on planets – and that stepping out of that into space is such a huge change in scale that we can’t help but risk breakdown by doing it.

Oh, and today’s entry title is a nod to one of my favourite every song titles – ‘Space is Deep’, by the mighty Hawkwind. So, to help you go in search of space, here’s a link to the song, plus a niftily cosmic set of images to go with it.


4 thoughts on “Space is Deep

  1. Yeah, “Nightflight To Venus”! I listened to it a lot in the 70s and early 80s.

    It’s funny how the success of STAR WARS triggered the brief “sci-fi disco” fad.
    I’d expect the present drive for private commercial spaceflight, plus the new Moon program, to set off a new wave of “space pop”…

  2. Now that would be something! Tho’ set back a bit by the Virgin rocket blowing up on the launchpad the other day. Yup, grew up listening to the Nightflight to Venus album – tho’ come to think of it disco culture fed back into sf as well, I love cheesy 70s / early 80s disco visions of the future. Lots of that on Buck Rogers, as I remember.

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