“Outer Space is a concept, not a place” – the importance of wanting what we can’t have and a poem by C. S. Lewis

I’ve been reading Science Fiction for more than fifty years now.

The first science fiction book I remember reading was “Blast Off At Woomera” by Hugh Walters. I borrowed it from my local public library which, fortunately for me, had a Children’s Library that thought reading should be fun.

The book, like myself, was ten years old when I read it. It was a ripping yarn about a British mission, launched from Australia and involving a teen pilot (needed because he was less than five feet tall) to investigate a possible Russian presence on the moon. It was written when Sputnik was the bleeding edge and no one was certain if people could survive passing through the Van Allen Belt. It had science and espionage and most of all irrepressible optimism.

I knew I didn’t understand all of it but I didn’t care. It was a call from my homeland, the place out there, far away from here, where anything was possible with science a little pluck.

As I grew older and my tastes in Science Fiction evolved, I moved on from the puzzles and challenges offered me by Issac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein and John Wyndham to the social speculations of Ursula Le Guin, Vonda N. McIntyre and Sherri Tepper.

I’ve come to understand that it wasn’t the science in Science Fiction that had been calling to me, or even the logical problem-solving so much of my early reading had contained, it was that sense of being somewhere where I could see more clearly, where I took nothing for granted, where patterns became visible and choices mattered. That land, the land of the outsider, the introvert, the person who looks at the here and now and asks, “Am I the only one seeing how crazy this is?” was the home that Science Fiction offered me.

NASA’s Mars Rover

Now I’m in my sixties. The moon is mapped. NASA has a rover on Mars that transmits live video and which seldom makes the news. The International Space Station is visible in the night sky and the Hubble Telescope photographs wonders of the galaxy that end up as digital wallpaper for nerds but I have no sense of coming home to the future my ten-year-old self thought I was hungry for.

Science Fiction or Speculative Fiction, still calls to me. These days the truths it offers me are as desperate as the times I live in but they provide room for my imagination to breathe and sustain itself. They encourage me to want what I’m told I can’t have, to question the things I’m supposed to take for granted and to hope that tomorrow will be different from today.

The Children’s Library that took me to the stars in “Blast Off At Woomera” years later took me to Narnia. When I finally reached “The Last Battle”, the book never made it to my house. I sat in the Reading Room and devoured it.

It seemed to me that Lewis was writing a kind of Science Fiction. He was offering a world, different on the surface but the same as ours underneath, where truth had to be discovered and choices mattered. The real world, the one I live in every day, has so much noise in it that I often can’t see the patterns and choices get made that I only understand when I feel their effects. Science Fiction is like a holiday from all that noise.

I rather like C. S. Lewis’s poem “Science-Fiction Cradlesong” as a view on what Science Fiction means. In it, Lewis says that:

“Outer Space is a concept, not a place”.

I read his poem as saying that it is our spirit, our need for meaning, our drive to be more and better, that summons up Outer Space. Those infected with that spirit will find Outer Space in their daily lives. Those immune to that spirit can travel the stars and never leave home. Take a look at his poem below and see what you think.

One thought on ““Outer Space is a concept, not a place” – the importance of wanting what we can’t have and a poem by C. S. Lewis

  1. I like your interpretation of Lewis’s poem. He believed that what we long for is Heaven, which cannot be realized here on Earth. I suspect that’s what he meant by this poem (depending on when exactly he wrote it). But that doesn’t invalidate your interpretation, and as a Pagan, I vastly prefer your interpretation.

    I also agree that science fiction isn’t really about the future, it’s about a hypothetical change to the parameters of the here and now, and using alternative visions of the world to comment on the world as it is.My first SF story was Semley’s Necklace by Ursula le Guin, when I was about 11 or 12.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s