Sunday, February 15, 2009

Experiencing space: a 1938 account

This week has had its share of cosmic coincidences .... on Friday I decided I needed something to read on the way home and pulled another old favourite, Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, off the shelf. I've always loved his description of Ransom's response to finding himself in space, but this time I read it in a whole new way.

What's extraordinary about this book (or one of the many things) is that Lewis wrote it in 1938, and back then, when it really wasn't clear if life could survive in space at all (as in another remarkable piece of writing, Cordwainer Smith's Scanners live in vain), he attempted a description of the sensations and emotions that would accompany such an experience. In this account, cosmic rays and other high energy particles aren't the destructive nasties we now know them to be; instead they create a sense of well-being and euphoria.

Lewis imagines what it is like to see the heavens without the murk of the atmosphere to obscure them:
Pulsating with brightness as with some unbearable pain or pleasure, clustered in pathless and countless multitudes, dreamlike in clarity, blazing in perfect blackness, the stars seized all his attention, troubled him, excited him ....
In Lewis's trilogy, the experience of space is hyperreal, more real than we experience life on earth.

He also describes the noise of the spacecraft:
The room was floored and walled with metal, and was in a state of continuous faint vibration - a silent vibration with a strangely lifelike and unmechanical quality about it. But if the vibration was silent, there was plenty of noise going on - a series of musical raps or percussions at quite irregular intervals which seemed to come from the ceiling. It was if the metal chamber in which he found himself was being bombarded with small tinkling missiles.
And of course it was, a rain of meteroids, as he found out later.

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