Posts Tagged ‘Poul Anderson’

Did SF Writer Poul Anderson Invent the Gaia Concept Before James Lovelock?

December 26, 2022

Here’s another instance where you wonder if an SF writer got there first in creating a scientific or philosophical concept before the people who are usually associated or credited with it. One of the stories collected in the SF anthology Born of the Sun is ‘Garden in the Asteroids’, published by Poul Anderson in 1952. In this story, a team of husband and wife prospectors land on an asteroid that, amazingly, has plant life growing on its surface, exposed to space. Landing on the tiny worldlet, they examine the plants and meet their gardener, another prospector, who has been marooned there for 20 years. Although they’re of different individual types and varieties, the plants have established a symbiotic relationship with each other and so act as a single organism. Gronauer, the castaway, has himself become part of this ecology through caring for the plants. In exchange for his help, they supply him with food and oxygen. Vines not only trail up and across his spacesuit, but they also wrap themselves around his body, feeding on his blood and providing him with vitamins in return.

This sounds more than a little similar to the Gaia hypothesis proposed by James Lovelock. This holds that the Earth as a planet is alive as it and the creatures that inhabit it are a huge, self-regulating system and so form a kind of superorganism. It has been particularly influential in the New Age milieu in the 1980s and ’90s, quite apart from being discussed in the science literature. It did contribute to the wave of interest in earth mother, ecofeminist spirituality. I also remember that it also inspired one of the earliest New X-Men stories, in which the mutant superheroes had to fight against an island that achieved such group consciousness due to the radiation from a nuclear blast.

Obviously there are differences between Anderson’s story and Lovelock’s theory. In Anderson’s story, the asteroid is exceptional and its plants may even have come from outside the solar system. It is definitely not Earth. I don’t know when Lovelock proposed the Gaia hypothesis, but I think it might have been later than Anderson’s story by a few decades. And so this might be another instance where an SF author through up an idea independently of later writers, or it could be that Lovelock took an idea that was already around and simply applied it to Earth.

Poul Anderson and Ideas about Terraforming Venus Before Carl Sagan

December 21, 2022

This might appeal to readers of this blog, who aren’t fans of the late astronomer, Sceptic and presenter of the blockbusting TV science series, Cosmos. I put up a drawing I’d done of Sagan a week or so ago along with a piece explaining why I thought he was a great TV personality. While Sagan was a brilliant astronomer and space scientist, some of the readers of this blog were less impressed by his attitude towards the UFO crowd. Sagan was a fervent rationalist, who saw it as his mission to attack ideas he thought were irrational, and particularly the paranormal. He was one of the founders of the Sceptical organisation, CSICOP, or the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, along with the stage magician James Randi and the mathematician Martin Gardner. One of Sagan’s last works was The Demon-Haunted World in which he worried about the tide of irrationality creeping over America and the world and foresaw a time in which the New Age would have taken over completely, leading to a new Dark Age and people earnestly consulting their horoscopes each morning.

Some commenters remembered how Sagan had been wheeled on TV in the 1960s to debunk UFO encounters. They didn’t like his superior and condescending attitude towards the experiencers. Now I’ll admit that I don’t regard UFOs as nuts and bolts alien spacecraft. Much of the imagery and the basic plot of UFO encounters seems to come from science fiction and supernatural encounters with gods, demons and fairies before then. One of the alternative views of the UFO phenomenon is the psycho-social hypothesis, which sees it as an internal psychological experience which uses the imagery of contemporary culture. In previous centuries this was of fairies. Now, as belief in the supernatural has declined in the West, the imagery is from science fiction. But both the imagery of fairies and alien spacecraft represent the same theme of encounter with a cosmic other. Some UFO writers and researchers like John Keel and Jacques Vallee believe that there is a genuine paranormal phenomenon at work, and that the force that was previously responsible for encounters with fairies and so on has simply now changed to using that of space craft as society has changed. See Keel’s Operation Trojan Horse, for example. Many UFO encounters can be explained as misidentification, hoaxes, and sightings of top secret military aircraft. I’m also convinced that some are due to the intelligence community deliberately messing with people for their own purposes. In one of his books, Vallee suggests that the Cergy-Pontoise abduction in France may have been faked by French intelligence as an experiment to see how people would react to a real alien encounter. And then there’s the case of Paul Bennewitz, a defence contractor in the US who was driven out of his mind by a pair of intelligence agents at a nearby USAF base. Bennewitz thought he had got in touch with an alien held captive at the base. The pair claimed to be whistleblowers and fed Bennewitz a whole load of spurious documents apparently confirming it, and then told him that it was all fake. It’s a tactic apparently known as the ‘double-bubble’ used by the intelligence services to destabilise their enemies. It worked on Bennewitz, who I think was driven to a nervous breakdown.

Even with the hoaxers, the top secret aircraft and the misidentified objects, there are still some UFO encounters that are very difficult to explain. I think the best explanations are probably the paranormal and psycho-social rather than the Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re any the less puzzling nor that genuine people, who have had a truly inexplicable experience, should be sneered or condescended to.

But back to Sagan. One of Sagan’s achievements was to suggest a way Venus could be terraformed. This involved planting genetically-engineered bacteria in the Venusian atmosphere. These would consume the carbon dioxide and exhale breathable oxygen. But Sagan wasn’t the first person to suggest ways of terraforming the planet, and he didn’t invent the concept of terraforming. You can find the idea, but not the name, in the Martian books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, in which the Martians have built giant machines to replenish the atmosphere on their dying world. The great SF writer Poul Anderson wrote a story in which a similar technology is used to terraform the Venusian atmosphere.

This is mentioned by Mike Ashley, the editor of the anthology of classic SF stories about the worlds of the solar system, Born of the Sun, published by the British Library. In the introduction to the story about Venus, Ashley writes

‘The 1950s saw some authors taking note of recent research which suggested Venus was far from a watery world. Leading the way was Poul Anderson. In ‘The Big Rain’ (1954) he describes a harsh, sweltering Venus that, when it does rain, rains formaldehyde. The story considers how Venus might be terraformed, using the formaldehyde locked in Venus’ clouds. Airmaker machines, spread all over Venus, accelerate a reaction with the formaldehyde, ammonia and methane to produce hydrocarbons and oxygen, whilst bombs reinvigorate volcanos so that in time it starts to rain – and rains for over a hundred years, by which time Venus starts to be more Earth–like’. (p. 93).

To me, this is an example of one the instances where informed Science Fiction, even if wrong in the details, has advanced scientific thinking. And there are plenty of other examples in some of the other stories Ashley discusses in some of the other books in the same series.

Sagan, for all his faults, was a brilliant scientist and he did much to make people aware of the environmental crisis and opposed the threat of nuclear war and the New Cold War Reagan and Thatcher started ramping up in the 1980s. But in this case, while his ideas about terraforming Venus are most likely to be correct, he wasn’t the first to invent the idea.

Sometimes SF writers get there first.