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This is another of my Cognitive Mapping columns. In this instance it first appeared in Vector 190 (November-December 1996).

The glowing gas shells were all around us, banishing the normal night of interstellar space. We were flying into the center of a cosmic bomb that had detonated millenia ago and whose incandescent fragments were still hurtling apart. The immense scale of the explosion, and the fact that the debris already covered a volume of space many billions of miles across, robbed the scene of any visible movement. It would take decades before the unaided eye could detect any motion in these tortured wisps and eddies of gas, yet the sense of turbulent expansion was overwhelming.

‘The Star’ (1955), Arthur C. Clarke

Over the years, decades, centuries and millenia that had followed, Phage had journeyed through the galaxy, wandering from system to system, concentrating on trading and manufacturing at first … It had been successively fitted with ever-more efficient and powerful drives and engines, until eventually it was able to maintain a perfectly respectable velocity either warping along the fabric of space-time or creating its own induced-singularity pathway through hyperspace beneath or above it.

Excession (1996), Iain M. Banks

More than 40 years separates these two extracts. In science fiction terms that is a matter of generations: the New Wave has come and gone, cyberpunk has flourished and faded. Clarke was one of the greats of science fiction’s golden age, Banks is one of the most upstart of the young turks, yet these passages could have come from the same sensitivity, the same outward urge. Oh, there are words here and there that can be used to tell them apart: “warping”, “singularity”, perhaps even “hyperspace” mark out the second extract as more recent. But in everything that counts, the two writers approach their subject in exactly the same way. Space, as Douglas Adams put it, is big: and both Clarke and Banks are doing what science fiction writers have always done when they venture out beyond the thin mantle of our atmosphere, they are celebrating the vastness, they are marvelling at the superlative.

Space is made up of incredible distance, immense size, astonishing speed. It may not be literally unimaginable, but it certainly stretches the very borders of our imagination. Space, in other words, is the embodiment (if that is an appropriate term in the circumstances) of that “sense of wonder” which is the spirit of science fiction.

Which is why, of all the features that define science fiction in the popular imagination, space travel is probably the most vivid. Graceful vessels and tumbling, wheel-shaped space stations perform a stately waltz in the film of 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968); insect-like ships dart and stab at the vast lumbering death star in Star Wars (1977); the USS Enterprise boldly goes where no-one has gone before. From the confines of our busy, crowded, workaday world, space is the magic of our future, and it is the business of science fiction to take us there.

Since earliest man looked up from his campfires into a starry sky, it has been the place where we find heaven, the home of wonders and mystery. Gods sit unreachable above the clouds, heroes are taken up in glory to the heavens; there is in man an imaginative yearning for space which science fiction rides.

Though it has not always done so. During the 16th and 17th centuries, when travellers tales combined with utopian fiction and satire to form their own distinctive type of fantastic fiction, it became commonplace for writers like Kepler (Dream, 1634) and Cyrano de Bergerac (Selenarchia, 1657) to send their voyagers to the sun or the moon; though what they found there was not unlike the world they left behind. These fantastic journeys soon faded from the literature, and by the time science fiction began to assume the form we know today, space travel played little part in it. Beyond the curious excursions of Verne (From the Earth to the Moon, 1865) and Wells (First Men in the Moon, 1901), most early science fiction was resolutely Earthbound.

Only with the pulp sf adventures of Hugo Gernsback’s magazines in the 1920s did space flight become one of the central subjects of science fiction. In part this was an extension of the American frontier into space, the “manifest destiny” that guided 19th century man into the wide open spaces of the American West would guide 21st century man into the wide open spaces of … space. Many of the stories that resulted repeated the moral simplicity, the mythic grandeur and even the structure of the original pulp adventures, the dime novel cowboy stories of the end of the 19th century. This notion of space being a transplanted American frontier is still common in many space adventure stories, and is specifically recognised in the opening sentences of Star Trek: “Space, the final frontier …”.

But if the plots were old, the settings were new. And one thing space provided was a vision of the infinite possibilities of our technological future. With such a vast canvas, almost anything was possible, from life in a puddle in James Blish’s “Surface Tension” (1952) to entire cities threading the galaxies in the same author’s Cities in Flight sequence beginning with Earthman, Come Home (1958), from the weird environment of Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity (1954) to the weird environment of Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970). Whatever the curious situation available through space, it was an excuse for the competent man – the abiding symbollic figure who bestrides (particularly American) science fiction – to succeed through ingenuity and invention. In so far as the science fiction engendered by Gernsback was a didactic celebration of Yankee competence and the possibilities of science, space provided a perfect backcloth against which to show it off.

Of course, even during the outward-bound “Golden Age” of science fiction (which, for the sake of argument, we’ll consider as co-extant with John W. Campbell’s reign at Astounding/Analog (1937-1964)) most of these “space operas” paid as much attention to space as the average commuter does to the road or rail track. It was to be crossed on the way from one planet to another where the main adventure would occur, or, if the story was set in space, it would be enclosed within an hermetically-sealed generation starship. Some writers, such as E.E. “Doc” Smith who opened the first volume of his Lensman series (Triplanetary, 1948) with the archetypal space-operatic image of two galaxies colliding, did attempt to show the scale of space. But for most it was too big, too empty, to provide genuine dramatic possibilities. For a while it was only those writers – such as Arthur C. Clarke in “The Star” and 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968), or Poul Anderson in “Kyrie” (1969) – who were attempting to convey a religious, or at least mystical image, who used space itself as a setting.

Others used it to provide aliens of such a scale that they could be both incomprehensible to and uncomprehending of mankind. These, whether it takes the form of Fred Hoyle’s nebulous The Black Cloud (1957) or the interstellar being of James Tiptree Jr’s Up the Walls of the World (1978), use the gigantic scale of their creation (only possible in the vastness of space) to emphasise the tiny scale of humanity. Again this is an almost religious impulse: the heavens once more house god-like beings whose very vastness renders them mysterious to man.

Against this sort of background, Iain Banks’s science fiction, which can seem so conventional in setting, is actually quite radical. His novels, most notably Excession, are full of space opera paraphernalia. “Doc” Smith found he had to go for bigger and bigger effects in each volume of his Lensman series simply in order to continue the spectacular character; Banks’s novels too are filled with ever bigger effects. The descriptions harp constantly on the size, the speed, the extent of his General Service Vehicles, his galaxy-hopping planetoids. Here the scale of space is placed at centre stage – yet the intent is never to reduce the human, or to marvel at the majesty of the infinite. Though they are ever bigger, faster, further reaching, the guiding characteristic is always the human intellect. Though we could not comfortably take in the size of a GSV, we could talk to it person to person. What abides in Banks’s novels is humanity, though we may have been dwarfed it is our patterns of thought and behaviour that guide every massive artefact through ever greater regions of space. In this he is perhaps closer to the impulse of the Gernsbackian writers extolling the competent man, come what may – but for Banks the competent man may not be a man, but a planet, or a planet-sized ship, a being adjusted to the scale of space itself.