Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction

Essay by H. P. Lovecraft. Written in 1934. Published in Marginalia1944 and Miscellaneous Writings, ed. S. T. Joshi1995.

Despite the current flood of stories dealing with other worlds and universes, and with intrepid flights to and from them through cosmic space, it is probably no exaggeration to say that not more than a half-dozen of these things, including the novels of H. G. Wells, have even the slightest shadow of a claim to artistic seriousness or literary rank. Insincerity, conventionality, triteness, artificiality, false emotion, and puerile extravagance reign triumphant throughout this overcrowded genre, so that none but its rarest products can possibly claim a truly adult status. And the spectacle of such persistent hollowness has led many to ask whether, indeed, any fabric of real literature can ever grow out of the given subject-matter.

The present commentator does not believe that the idea of space-travel and other worlds is inherently unsuited to literary use. It is, rather, his opinion that the omnipresent cheapening and misuse of that idea is the result of a widespread misconception; a misconception which extends to other departments of weird and science fiction as well. This fallacy is the notion that any account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena can be successfully presented as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions in the ordinary tone and manner of popular romance. Such a presentation will often “get by” with immature readers, but it will never approach even remotely the field of aesthetic merit.

Inconceivable events and conditions form a class apart from all other story elements, and cannot be made convincing by any mere process of casual narration. They have the handicap of incredibility to overcome; and this can be accomplished only through a careful realism in every other phase of the story, plus a gradual atmospheric or emotional building-up of the utmost subtlety. The emphasis, too, must be kept right—hovering always over the wonder of the central abnormality itself. It must be remembered that any violation of what we know as natural law is in itself a far more tremendous thing than any other event or feeling which could possibly affect a human being. Therefore in a story dealing with such a thing we cannot expect to create any sense of life or illusion of reality if we treat the wonder casually and have the characters moving about under ordinary motivations. The characters, though they must be natural, should be subordinated to the central marvel around which they are grouped. The true “hero” of a marvel tale is not any human being, but simply a set of phenomena.

Over and above everything else should tower the stark, outrageous monstrousness of the one chosen departure from Nature. The characters should react to it as real people would react to such a thing if it were suddenly to confront them in daily life; displaying the almost soul-shattering amazement which anyone would naturally display instead of the mild, tame, quickly-passed-over emotions prescribed by cheap popular convention. Even when the wonder is one to which the characters are assumed to be used, the sense of awe, marvel, and strangeness which the reader would feel in the presence of such a thing must somehow be suggested by the author. When an account of a marvellous trip is presented without the colouring of appropriate emotion, we never feel the least degree of vividness in it. We do not get the spine-tickling illusion that such a thing might possibly have happened, but merely feel that somebody has uttered some extravagant words. In general, we should forget all about the popular hack conventions of cheap writing and try to make our story a perfect slice of actual life except where the one chosen marvel is concerned. We should work as if we were staging a hoax and trying to get our extravagant lie accepted as literal truth.

Atmosphere, not action, is the thing to cultivate in the wonder story. We cannot put stress on the bare events, since the unnatural extravagance of these events makes them sound hollow and absurd when thrown into too high relief. Such events, even when theoretically possible or conceivable in the future, have no counterpart or basis in existing life and human experience, hence can never form the groundwork of an adult tale. All that a marvel story can ever be, in a serious way, is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood. The moment it tries to be anything else it becomes cheap, puerile, and unconvincing. Therefore, a fantastic author should see that his prime emphasis goes into subtle suggestion—the imperceptible hints and touches of selective and associative detail which express shadings of moods and build up a vague illusion of the strange reality of the unreal—instead of into bald catalogues of incredible happenings which can have no substance or meaning apart from a sustaining cloud of colour and mood-symbolism. A serious adult story must be true to something in life. Since marvel tales cannot be true to the events of life, they must shift their emphasis toward something to which they can be true; namely, certain wistful or restless moods of the human spirit, wherein it seeks to weave gossamer ladders of escape from the galling tyranny of time, space, and natural law.

And how are these general principles of adult wonder fiction to be applied to the interplanetary tale in particular? That they can be applied, we have no reason to doubt; the important factors being here, as elsewhere, an adequate sense of wonder, adequate emotions in the characters, realism in the setting and supplementary incidents, care in the choice of significant detail, and a studious avoidance of the hackneyed artificial characters and stupid conventional events and situations which at once destroy a story’s vitality by proclaiming it a product of weary mass mechanics. It is an ironic truth that no artistic story of this kind, honestly, sincerely, and unconventionally written, would be likely to have any chance of acceptance among professional editors of the common pulp school. This, however, will not influence the really determined artist bent on creating something of mature worth. Better to write honestly for a non-remunerative magazine than to concoct worthless tinsel and be paid for it. Some day, perhaps, the conventions of editors will be less flagrantly absurd in their anti-artistic rigidity.

The events of an interplanetary story—aside from such tales as involve sheer poetic fantasy—are best laid in the present, or represented as having occurred secretly or prehistorically in the past. The future is a ticklish period to deal with; since it is virtually impossible to escape grotesqueness and absurdity in depicting its mode of life, while there is always an immense emotional loss in representing characters as familiar with the marvels depicted. The characters of a story are essentially projections of ourselves; and unless they can share our own ignorance and wonder concerning what occurs, there is an inevitable handicap. This is not to say that tales of the future cannot be artistic, but merely that it is harder to make them so.

A good interplanetary story must have realistic human characters; not the stock scientists, villainous assistants, invincible heroes, and lovely scientist’s-daughter heroines of the usual trash of this sort. Indeed, there is no reason why there should be any “villain”, “hero”, or “heroine” at all. These artificial character-types belong wholly to artificial plot-forms, and have no place in serious fiction of any kind. The function of the story is to express a certain human mood of wonder and liberation, and any tawdry dragging-in of dime-novel theatricalism is both out of place and injurious. No stock romance is wanted. We must select only such characters (not necessarily stalwart or dashing or youthful or beautiful or picturesque characters) as would naturally be involved in the events to be depicted, and they must behave exactly as real persons would behave if confronted with the given marvels. The tone of the whole thing must be realism, not romance.

The crucial and delicate matter of getting the characters off the earth must be very carefully managed. Indeed, it probably forms the greatest single problem of the story. The departure must be plausibly accounted for and impressively described. If the period is not prehistoric, it is better to have the means of departure a secret invention. The characters must react to this invention with a proper sense of utter, almost paralysing wonder, avoiding the cheap fictional tendency of having such things half taken for granted. To avoid errors in complex problems of physics, it is well not to attempt too much detail in describing the invention.

Scarcely less delicate is the problem of describing the voyage through space and the landing on another world. Here we must lay primary stress on the stupendous emotions—the unconquerable sense of astonishment—felt by the voyagers as they realise they are actually off their native earth, in cosmic gulfs or on an alien world. Needless to say, a strict following of scientific fact in representing the mechanical, astronomical, and other aspects of the trip is absolutely essential. Not all readers are ignorant of the sciences, and a flagrant contravention of truth ruins a tale for anyone able to detect it.

Equal scientific care must be given to our representation of events on the alien planet. Everything must be in strict accord with the known or assumed nature of the orb in question—surface gravity, axial inclination, length of day and year, aspect of sky, etc.—and the atmosphere must be built up with significant details conducing to verisimilitude and realism. Hoary stock devices connected with the reception of the voyagers by the planet’s inhabitants ought to be ruled rigidly out. Thus we should have no over-facile language-learning; no telepathic communication; no worship of the travellers as deities; no participation in the affairs of pseudo-human kingdoms, or in conventional wars between factions of inhabitants; no weddings with beautiful anthropomorphic princesses; no stereotyped Armageddons with ray-guns and space-ships; no court intrigues and jealous magicians; no peril from hairy ape-men of the polar caps; and so on, and so on. Social and political satire is always undesirable, since such intellectual and ulterior objects detract from the story’s power as a crystallisation of a mood. What must always be present in superlative degree is a deep, pervasive sense of strangeness—the utter, incomprehensible strangeness of a world holding nothing in common with ours.

It is not necessary that the alien planet be inhabited—or inhabited at the period of the voyage—at all. If it is, the denizens must be definitely non-human in aspect, mentality, emotions, and nomenclature, unless they are assumed to be descendants of a prehistoric colonising expedition from our earth. The human-like aspect, psychology, and proper names commonly attributed to other-planetarians by the bulk of cheap authors is at once hilarious and pathetic. Another absurd habit of conventional hacks is having the major denizens of other planets always more advanced scientifically and mechanically than ourselves; always indulging in spectacular rites against a background of cubistic temples and palaces, and always menaced by some monstrous and dramatic peril. This kind of pap should be replaced by an adult realism, with the races of other-planetarians represented, according to the artistic demands of each separate case, as in every stage of development—sometimes high, sometimes low, and sometimes unpicturesquely middling. Royal and religious pageantry should not be conventionally overemphasised; indeed, it is not at all likely that more than a fraction of the exotic races would have lit upon the especial folk-customs of royalty and religion. It must be remembered that non-human beings would be wholly apart from human motives and perspectives.

But the real nucleus of the story ought to be something far removed from the specific aspect and customs of any hypothetical outside race—ought, indeed, to be nothing less than the simple sensation of wonder at being off the earth. Interest had better be sustained through accounts of bizarre and unterrestrial natural conditions, rather than through any artificially dramatic actions of the characters, either human or exotic. Adventures may well be introduced, but they should be properly subordinated to realism—made inevitable outgrowths of the conditions instead of synthetic thrills concocted for their own sake.

The climax and ending must be managed very carefully to avoid extravagance or artificiality. It is preferable, in the interest of convincingness, to represent the fact of the voyage as remaining hidden from the public—or to have the voyage a prehistoric affair, forgotten by mankind and with its rediscovery remaining a secret. The idea of any general revelation implying a widespread change in human thoughts, history, or orientation tends to contradict surrounding events and clash with actual future probabilities too radically to give the reader a sense of naturalness. It is far more potent not to make the truth of the story dependent on any condition visibly contradicting what we know—for the reader may pleasantly toy with the notion that perhaps these marvels may have happened after all!

Meanwhile the deluge of inept interplanetary tosh continues. Whether a qualitative upturn will ever occur on anything like a large scale, this commentator cannot venture to prophesy; but at any rate, he has had his say regarding what he deems the main aspects of the problem. There are, without doubt, great possibilities in the serious exploitation of the astronomical tale; as a few semi-classics like The War of the Worlds, The Last and First Men, Station X, “The Red Brain”, and Clark Ashton Smith’s best work prove. But the pioneers must be prepared to labour without financial return, professional recognition, or the encouragement of a reading majority whose taste has been seriously warped by the rubbish it has devoured. Fortunately sincere artistic creation is its own incentive and reward, so that despite all obstacles we need not despair of the future of a fresh literary form whose present lack of development leaves all the more room for brilliant and fruitful experimentation.