March 24, 2014 Sombrio Beach, Vancouver Island
Part Fifteen – The Ocean in Science Fiction (1)
Question: So here we are on magnificent Sombrio Beach, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Today we are accompanied by our friend and geophysical consultant (and sometimes impromptu Fringe Theatre performer), Marvin Klafner. Marvin is a former exploration geophysicist, and we want to talk to him later about “Geophysics in Science Fiction”. But for now, with the surf pounding against the nearby shore, it seems more appropriate to talk about the ocean in Science Fiction. As usual we also have Helena Puumala, author of the Kati of Terra series, and yours truly, the Dodecahedron Books blogger and data analyst.
Helena Puumala, you have featured the ocean and ocean imagery fairly prominently in your writing, particularly in the Kati of Terra series. What is it about the ocean that intrigues you, especially in Science Fiction terms?
Answer (Helena): It’s hard not to be intrigued by the ocean, in general and as a Science Fiction writer. After all, in literary and psychological terms, the ocean is considered to be a powerful symbol of the subconscious, and therefore of creativity itself. And according to current evolutionary theory, we came from the ocean, so it is our mother, in a way. Plus, the ocean and waterways in general are the conduits of transportation on inhabitable planets, the connective tissue and bloodstream of the planet, so to speak. So, the ocean is both very real and very mythical at the same time. Both of those aspects are of great value to a Science Fiction writer.
Question: You packed a lot of ideas into those comments. I hope we can give them all their due. What you said about the ocean being the mother of life is backed up by NASA, in its program for the search for extra-terrestrial life. Their policy is “go where the water is”.
Answer (Helena): And Science Fiction is all about going where the life is, at least in one’s imagination.
Question: What do you think about the idea of the ocean in SF, Marvin, as a former exploration geophysicist?
Answer (Marvin): An exploration geophysicist is always concerned about discovering or uncovering the unknown. The ocean is full of unknowns, like space is, so I suppose the ocean also represents that concept in science and in Science Fiction. The ocean, or water really, is also a great agent of change on Earth via its role in erosion and plate tectonics. So, the ocean also represents the power to change and transform things.Answer (Helena): And change is at the heart of story, especially Science Fiction stories.
Answer (Marvin): One might also add that the ocean is a frontier, as is space. In both cases, those are physical facts, as well as psychological. Frontiers attract explorers, and Science Fiction is intimately bound up with idea of exploration.Question: So let’s try to unpack some of those ideas with some examples from well-known Science Fiction works. We noted that the ocean is a barrier. I would nominate H.G. Wells novel “The Island of Doctor Moreau”. I am thinking of the scientific idea of the ocean being a barrier to movement, and that islands therefore become isolated in evolutionary terms. I think Wells was using that idea when he had his mad biologist set up shop on an island.
Answer (Helena): I guess that works, though it’s a bit abstract. In “Kati of Terra Book 1: Escape from the Drowned Planet”, I used the ocean barrier in a much more concrete sense – Kati and Mikal had to cross an ocean to get to the beacon that would help them to escape from that planet and the slavers that were pursuing them.Question: The ocean is seen as the source of life in a scientific sense. The fossil evidence indicates that life moved from the ocean to the land.
Answer (Marvin): Though there is now some thought that life might have started in the deep Earth, as simple bacteria or bacteria-like forms.Question: That’s true. And now there is also speculation about life arising in deep oceans on other planets or moons, cut off from solar radiation by thick layers of ice, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa. But in any case, on Earth more complex life started in the ocean before moving onto the land. That brings up the question of the centrality of oceans to life in Science Fiction and the extent of oceans on other planets.
Answer (Helena): Such as water-worlds. In the Kati series, I have a planet that is mostly a water-world, Tarangay. And of course, Macros 3, the Drowned Planet of Book 1 has had calamitous flooding due to a global warming event.Answer (Marvin): Though most worlds that we know of are dry worlds, with either no water or water bound up in ice or rock. So, unlocking that water to form oceans is a central part of SF books that deal with the notion of terra-forming.
Answer (Helena): True. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy comes to mind. In fact, one book is even called “Blue Mars”, which refers to the creation of the Martian oceans.Question: Moving on, let’s look at the idea of the ocean as the unknown, especially as the threatening unknown. One obvious way that the ocean can represent the unknown is via the presence of alien life, especially the potential threat posed by intelligent aliens.
Answer (Marvin): Having just been on a whale watching trip, one is reminded of how ocean bound “alien intelligence” may already exist on Earth. Didn’t “Star Trek IV – The Voyage Home” use something about whales?Answer (Helena): Yes, it was a sort of “save the whales” in order to save humanity idea. In that case the whales were both of Earth and alien simultaneously.
Answer (Marvin): Star Trek Enterprise also had a cetacean aspect to the Xindi world, if I recall correctly. They were also a threat to Earth, though they saw their aggression as pre-emptive self-defence.Answer (Helena): When it comes to the relationship between Star Trek and whales, I suppose you could say “it’s complicated”.
Question: Doctor Who also features some sea-based aliens who had complicated relationships with humanity – the Sea Devils and the Silurians. Plus, they had an episode with the Loch Ness Monster.Answer (Helena): Yes, let us not forget about the good old sea monster. I suppose the grand-daddy of all ocean based SF is Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”. That certainly featured a sea-monster or two, though not technically alien.
Answer (Marvin): Giant squids, I think. The movie might have even had a fight between a giant squid and a whale. Or maybe that was Moby Dick. And just as a point of interest, the 20,000 leagues isn’t how deep they go, but how far they travel while submerged.Question: Interesting. Anyway, we touched upon the fact that the ocean is often a stand-in for the subconscious mind. At least that’s what our English profs all said. How’s that work in Science Fiction?
Answer (Helena): I find the character of Odo in Star Trek Deep Space Nine to be quite fascinating that way. He literally is a liquid, and has to return to that state sometimes to stay sane and alive. And he eventually re-joins the great link, a sort of merged and submerged entity, composed of many minds that are also one, in a great sea. What could be more indicative of the ocean as consciousness in SF than that?Question: That’s a hard one to top, but I will put in a pitch for Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris”. In that book, humans have to deal with an intelligent living ocean planet, but can’t really communicate with it. The two types of existence are just too far apart. My take on it was that Solaris was actually a sort of reified human consciousness, thoughts made solid, as the ocean wasn’t made of water but some type of matter that held incredibly complex solid forms for a while, then returned back to the more primal liquid state. Human scientists study it, but they can’t really make sense of it.
Answer (Marvin): Which is a pretty good description of how much scientists have been able to understand about the human mind and human consciousness itself.Question: True. Well, we can leave it at that for now, and have our lunch here on the beach, as we sit on these huge driftwood logs. Perhaps next time we can discuss the ocean as it is portrayed in Helena Puumala’s Science Fiction, at a nice pub near the ocean. Then we can enjoy that other liquid essential to intelligent life, craft beer.
Answer (Helena): But not too much, if we want to remain intelligent.