One of the specialties of science fiction—and to some extent fantasy—is to evoke a sense of strangeness.  In dealing with the alien, the cosmic, that which is far away in space or time, SF can make us feel we are encountering something that passes the limits of our knowledge or understanding.

This isn’t as easy as it looks.

The Used and the Unusual

Since at least the original Star Wars (1977), it’s been good practice to portray a “Used Future.”  Star Wars gave us a world full of beaten-up, grimy equipment that looked as if it had been duct-taped together.  This is generally a good technique.  It adds realism.  We feel at home in a world where everything is not perfectly cleaned and aligned; it’s like where we actually live.  There’s a sense of familiarity.

One opposite to the “used future,” of course, is the kind of earlier SF movie that was full of shiny, spotless spaceships and immaculate gizmos.  But the sense of familiarity also has its own opposite:  the thrill of unfamiliarity.

One way the challenge arises is with extraterrestrials.  Suppose a story has us meeting intelligent aliens.  If they seem just like us—“rubber-forehead aliens”—they won’t be convincing.  We expect something from another world to be different.  The writer or director has to show creatures, technologies, behaviors that are unlike anything we’ve seen on Earth.

Escher: Wallpaper CaveYet these things must also be believable.  Something that simply looks random or arbitrary, like an abstract swirl of colors, won’t convince us we’re seeing a real thing at all.  How do we thread the needle between the too-familiar and the unintelligible?

Just Alien Enough

Natural laws do enforce certain constraints on physical objects.  But other characteristics are a matter of custom, design choices, or aesthetics.  To show something convincingly alien, we need to know the difference.

Alien ship from movie ArrivalSometimes a single feature can be odd enough to alert us that we’re “not in Kansas any more.”  The alien ship that appears in the movie Arrival looks strange at once, because it’s smaller at the bottom than at the top.  It looks as if it’s upside-down or sideways. Not the way we’d build, yes.  But is it physically impossible?  Nope.  The ship isn’t on the ground, balanced implausibly on a narrow end.  It’s floating in the air.  This not only frees the ship from the usual need for wheels or other supports; it also introduces a second, subtler strangeness.  When we humans land somewhere, we expect to land, to set ourselves down securely on a surface.  These folks seem quite comfortable floating just above the ground.

A classic example is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.  A massive spacecraft—a spinning O’Neill cylinder—enters the solar system, apparently inert.  A human crew matches course to explore it before its hyperbolic orbit takes it out into interstellar space again.  The ship begins to “come alive” around them—but there’s no sign of intelligent life aboard.  The explorers find one strange and amazing feature after another.  The purpose of some becomes clear:  the long, shallow rectangular valleys turn out to be immense lights that illuminate the interior.  But they never find out the reasons for many other objects.  In the end they have to cut loose from the vessel, letting it go on its mysterious way.

Rendezvous with Rama interior illustrationClarke’s mastery of clear detail—how the airlock doors open, for instance—gives us the necessary sense of realism.  But leaving many things mysterious evokes the sense of mystery and wonder that is among the most distinctive experiences in science fiction.  The unfamiliar is clearly and concretely depicted, but the purpose remains obscure.

(Parenthetically, I advise paying no attention at all to the dreadful sequels Gentry Lee wrote to Rama under Clarke’s direction.  They make the classic mistake of erasing the mystery without replacing it with anything at all interesting.  As with certain other sequels, the only thing for a conscientious reader to do is declare them non-canonical and pretend they never happened.)

For another Clarke treatment, remember 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  The mundane and even humdrum character of the long space voyage makes the psychedelic sequence at the end feel even weirder than it is in itself.

Sufficiently Advanced Technology

Extraterrestrials need not be involved.  Distance in time or space, and the concurrent advances in technology, can also provide a good foundation for the sense of strangeness.  (It was, after all, Clarke’s Third Law that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

Among the numerous virtues of David Brin’s Hugo-winning novel Startide Rising is that sense of entering a new and unaccountable world.  His Earthly spaceship crew of “uplifted” dolphins, with their small group of human companions, use advanced techniques that are still recognizable to us.  But they’re dealing with galactic cultures that draw on hundreds of millions of years of accumulated science.  The results can be mind-boggling.  One species, for example, travels by using a captive creature that creates portals “by the adamant power of its ego—by its refusal to concede anything at all to Reality.”  This isn’t your grandmother’s hyperdrive.

Toy stack of ringsThe body of another species, the Jophur, consists of a stack of distinct rings, like a child’s toy.  The Brothers of the Ebony Shadows employ a probability weapon that sends out “waves of uncertainty.”  The fact that these species are nonhuman is incidental to the fact that their immense background of far-advanced science lets them use techniques that seem to surpass our understanding.

For a purely human example, let’s look at Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars.  (Clarke really had the knack for this sort of thing.)  The main character, who bears the pedestrian name of Alvin, lives in Diaspar, the last city on Earth, billions of years in our future.  The city’s structure does not erode or decay; it’s maintained by “eternity circuits” according to the model held in its master computers.  The people do not die in a conventional sense.  After living for a thousand years, each individual walks back into the Hall of Creation and is dissolved—but is also retained in the memory circuits, to be rematerialized eons later.  Thus the population of the city is always changing, but the individuals continue.  And that’s only the beginning . . .

The City and the Stars, illustration

Exotic Ways of Life

Technology is one thing; behavior is another.  The City and the Stars does a terrific job of imagining how the society of Diaspar is shaped by the extraordinary conditions under which its people live.

When I read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, it was billed as ‘military science fiction’—but it’s nothing like the general run of military SF.  The six factions in the story make use of technologies that create real-world effects based on “formations” of people and their consensus beliefs.  Much of the plot revolves around a revolt based on “calendrical heresy”—which is just what it sounds like:  deviation from the standard calendars.  In Lee’s world, calendrical uniformity isn’t just a matter of convenience, but of crucial importance.  The resulting society is correspondingly peculiar.  Reading the story makes you feel as if you’re constantly being knocked sideways.

Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time combines present-day characters with those living in a city one hundred trillion years in the future.  The far-future people consist of “noötic” or virtual mass, are defended by “reality generators,” and are trying to fight a cosmic entity that’s trying to destroy the universe by disintegrating its history, acting backward through time.  The present-day people in mundane Seattle keep us grounded, but trying to understand the end-of-time characters and what they are doing requires a constant stretching of the imagination.

Strangeness and Wonder

The sense of strangeness or mystery is one form of the “sense of wonder” often used to characterize science fiction.  It takes us out of the mundane, makes us strain to conceive the inconceivable.  We’re often told that world travel expands our horizons by exposing us to different places and cultures.  Science fiction goes further:  it exposes us to ideas and places and people that don’t exist in the world at all.  At its limits, SF seeks to show us more than we can even comprehend.  The lack of reality is compensated by the greater impetus to go beyond our mental limitations.

To achieve that experience, we seem to need the right combination of the familiar and the exotic.  The weird stuff at the end of 2001 isn’t entirely successful, in my view:  it’s too strange.  Not only do we not understand what’s happening; we don’t quite feel there is anything to understand.  You have to read the book to figure out what’s going on.

But when we have enough groundedness to effect the “willing suspension of disbelief,” yet enough mystery to defeat (in part) our attempt to understand, the combination is uniquely fascinating.  As I noted at the beginning, this isn’t an easy balance to strike.  But the payoff makes it worth attempting.

The Backyard Spaceship

When I was little, my father told me he had a spaceship of his own, hidden back in the woods.  As an ardent space fan, I was wildly enthusiastic.  It was when he told me it was propelled by a hamster running in a wheel that I began to suspect he was putting me on.

But I wanted to believe it.

There’s a certain SF tradition of spacecraft built, more or less, in one’s backyard.  Of course, “backyard” may not be literal.  I’m thinking of spaceships constructed on an amateur basis, privately, and usually—though not always—by young people.Cover, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet

This was the appeal of a childhood favorite of mine, Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (1954).  Two boys (“between the ages of eight and eleven”) are recruited by a newspaper ad to put together a small rocket ship for the mysterious Mr. Tyco Bass, a small wispy man who turns out to be a “spore person.”  They fly the ship to a previously unknown miniature moon, “Basidium,” inhabited by other spore-based mushroom people.

Cameron is pretty good with her scientific facts—which means she lampshades the impossibilities carefully.  A rocket built by two kids isn’t going to get off the ground without plentiful helpings of what TV Tropes calls “Applied Phlebotinum,” the unexplained stuff or device(s) necessary to make the plot work.  A classic example is the faster-than-light space drive needed by a Star Trek or Star Wars story.  If the authors could explain how it worked, they wouldn’t be writing a story; they’d be off to the patent office and rake in billions.  Instead, the author and reader tacitly agree to postulate the necessary gizmo or substance for purposes of the tale.  It might as well be magic, in the sense of Clarke’s Third Law—“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Here, Mr. Bass supplies several crucial “inventions” needed to make the boys’ ship spaceworthy.  He provides the rocket motor, the special fuel, the clear sealant that makes the hull airtight, and the “oxygen urn” that provides breathable air—not to mention the “Stroboscopic Polaroid Filter” that allows a telescope to detect the otherwise-invisible Mushroom Planet.  These “phlebotinum” features make the boys’ vessel a little more plausible than my dad’s Hamster Drive.Cover, Rocket Ship Galileo

A more believable example (once you’re out of the middle grades) is Robert A. Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo (1947).  The project here is a private enterprise, with the spacecraft modified from an existing transcontinental “freighter-rocket” by four teenage boys.  They are, however, accompanied by one adult, Dr. Donald Cargraves, an uncle of one of the boys.  Cargraves provides the engineering expertise and the atomic drive he’s just invented, which (to paraphrase Doc Brown) “makes space travel possible.”

Starting with an existing well-equipped vessel, and kids who are already experienced amateur rocket-builders, makes the setup immediately more plausible.  Realistically, it takes months of elbow grease to do the conversion.  The Galileo isn’t actually built in a backyard, but out in the desert.  Still, the idea that kids like you or me could help build the first rocket to the moon is front and center in this story, which formed part of the basis for the early SF movie “Destination Moon.”

The notion of private-sector spaceflight was a favorite of Heinlein’s.  That theme reappears in his novella The Man Who Sold the Moon (1951), which also contributed elements to “Destination Moon.”  In that tale, however, the participants were all adults, and the project was a large and highly-publicized corporate endeavor more like the work of today’s SpaceX or Blue Origin.

A fully grown-up version of the backyard spaceship can be found in the widely influential first novel by E.E. “Doc” Smith, The Skylark of Space (1928, originally written about a decade earlier).  When scientist Dick Seaton stumbles upon an unknown substance that can be used to produce immense energy, his wealthy friend Martin Crane underwrites the construction of a spherical spacecraft to harness that power.  The work is started on Crane’s extensive property—not exactly a backyard, but close—and continues secretly in an independent steel plant after skulduggery enters the picture.  No kids are involved, but the private, secret, and essentially amateur operation makes Skylark an ancestor of this space opera trope.cover, Red Thunder

We might consider this theme an artifact of the naïve early days of SF, but for its reappearance in John Varley’s 2003 novel Red Thunder.  The passage of time has made some differences.  The protagonists are young adults, though they compose a motley group that still reads like “kids” to me (or perhaps it’s just that I’m that much older myself).  Their goal is Mars, rather than the Moon.  The requisite adult supervision, or phlebotinum contribution, is supplied by Travis Broussard, a cashiered former astronaut, and his quasi-autistic genius brother Jubal, who has invented a “squeezer” force field that turns out to be a fabulous rocket drive (among other uses).  Varley’s methodical development of the funding, engineering, and planning for the homegrown spacecraft (built out of a railroad tank car) makes the amateur project believable even for a contemporary audience.  Wikipedia describes the resulting adventure as an homage to Heinlein’s juveniles—since it’s essentially a Rocket Ship Galileo for the 21st century.


Why are we so fond of the backyard spaceship?

This kind of plot enshrines the long American tradition of inspired tinkering, from the Wright brothers and Edison, to Tom Swift, to 1950s kids with hot rods, to space kids with hotter rods (Luke Skywalker asking to go into town for parts to soup up his landspeeder).  The clever gadgeteer is a permanent part of our mythology, right down to Bill Gates and Paul Allen in their garage.

More than that, the idea that ingenious amateurs could conquer space has a democratic, underdog quality that appeals to our mythmaking imaginations.  We love the idea that spaceflight could be easy and accessible to the ordinary person.  It’s a natural evolution of the way we root for the underdog in politics or war (the Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi”).  We cheer for the underdog just as much in personal life—for Cinderella, whose story exhibits, as Chesterton says, the lesson exaltavit humiles—“he shall lift up the humble.”

The backyard spaceship promises to lift the humble right off the earth, in the ancient dream of flight.  It makes for great inspiration, if dubious engineering.  And after all, the most sophisticated aeronautical engineer starts out as a wondering child and an aspiring teenager.  Our dreams rest among the stars; but the journey begins in our own backyard.