Carrying on from the short post about Arthur C Clarke...some of us were watching Superman II on TV a few weeks ago, and during the scene where General Zod and his villainous associates make their way towards Earth (a glowing blue-green orb suspended in space), we joked about how cool it would be if spatial relationships altered when a person went into outer space – so that the earth turned out to be only, say, three or four times bigger than a basketball while we retained our original dimensions. Then we would be giants, effectively Gods: we could reach out and touch the globe, maybe spin it around, stick a finger into one of the oceans and imagine a cluster of tiny whales nibbling ineffectually at it; or poke about the land mass that represents the US of A (it wouldn't be labeled of course, so one would have to be careful not to mess up Canada or Mexico) and enjoy the feel of a superpower trembling beneath our hands.
I thought about these fancies again when I heard about the passing of Clarke. Some people who haven't experienced science-fiction think it must be solemn and academic, full of complicated jargon; equally, some people I know think it’s flippant and irrelevant. This is a pity, because the best work in the genre mixes playfulness of form with some very weighty ideas - ideas that are very relevant indeed if you believe that it's important to keep questioning conventional wisdom. Much like good fiction can help us step outside of ourselves and see through the eyes of people who are very different from us, good sci-fi can depict the world itself in a new light, exposing the triviality of some of the "grand" ideas that govern our lives (more than one astronaut has pointed out that once you've seen the blue-green orb from a spaceship, it becomes difficult to take artificial borders between countries seriously). There's a nicely symbolic quality to the movie image where an astronaut in space appears to be nearly the same size as the planet he is reaching out to.
Thinking of the mind-expanding qualities of sci-fi reminds me about the other unquestioning assumptions we make about our planet. I remember first realising (on a conscious level at least) that the manmade concepts of "north" and "south" are arbitrary and irrelevant only when I read about it in Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. On this link, there are "upside down" maps that have Australia and New Zealand on top and Scandinavia in the southern hemisphere. According to this model, Kanyakumari is at the head of India while Kashmir lies in the extreme south (what would this do to the north Indian condescension towards "southies"!). These maps seem bizarre and wrong at first glance, and even when you accept that they are just as valid as the ones we have grown up with, they aren’t as aesthetically appealing (this probably has to do with our conditioning) - but they provide a fascinating new way to look at the world, and a much-needed mental shakeup for all of us. I want to order one of them now.
(Click to enlarge)