The World Is a Strange Planet

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In July of 2015, NASA announced the discovery of Kepler 452b, known as Super-Earth—and sometimes simply as the Other Earth. It is the planet most similar to ours in the known universe, only 60% bigger, a few degrees warmer, with a brighter and slightly older sun, slightly reddish skies (the size of the sun along with the density of its clouds so compel it), and years with 385 days. If we could live anywhere else in space, it would be there. But mind you: it is 1400 light years away from home. It would be a 24.8 million year journey, traveling on the fastest man-made probe to date.

 

Kepler 452b: how intimate a planet, and how strange at the same time. To know of its existence fills us with a kind of saudade for the unlived, a melancholy for the future that we will not reach. Eugenio Montejo said it better in his poem “Islandia” [Iceland]:

 

Nunca iré a Islandia. Está muy lejos.
A muchos grados bajo cero.
Voy a plegar el mapa para acercarla.
Voy a cubrir sus fiordos con bosques de palmeras.[1]

 

We shall have to fold the star map into a wormhole to bring Kepler 452b closer, to cloak its reddish skies with our blue oceans.

 

And yet, despite its discouraging remoteness, it is inevitable to dream about that world and imagine what it would be like to live in it. But let us now leave Kepler 452b alone   —we shall return to it, but let us first lose ourselves a little in space, to gravitate a little between science and fiction.

 

 

There is a term called «terraforming». It refers to making any planet where man intends to stay similar to Earth. Earth is such a rare planet that, so far, the only other planet that more or less resembles it is 1400 light-years away; the universe is otherwise plagued by gaseous giants (like Jupiter or Neptune) or arid, rocky planets like Mars—most of them too hot (like Mercury) or lost in a frozen corner of space (like Pluto). So, the first thing would be preparing the ground in order to raise a house; to give earthly shape to the extraterrestrial. For we are only able to deal—and with great difficulty—with our own strangeness, while that of others is unbearable, hostile, and unlivable for us. The theme of the strange world turned into identical home to the one we left light years ago is recurrent in good science fiction—that which is nothing but an excuse to end up talking about ourselves through others. Otherness is thus the way to end up pointing fingers at ourselves. And, boy, are we questionable. And some very strange people, besides.

 

Most times, this issue of forcing another planet to become Earth is approached from the obvious take of the colonizer: even if I have to annihilate you, even if I have to steal your essence, you will wind up being my home and all your previous inhabitants being subdued, converted, or eradicated. In such case, humans behave like a space plague of locusts, or as a virus—just as we have proved to know how to do here on Earth: we excel at sickening and devastating worlds.

 

However, in a chameleonic variation of the above, at other times it is the strange world that voluntarily becomes like Earth. It does so as a defensive mechanism of camouflage and trap: such is the case of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, masterfully shot by Andrei Tarkovski, and of ‘The Third Expedition’ (one of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles). In both cases, the metaphor is essentially the same: space travelers enter a planet with mimetic capacity where they find their own houses, their relatives, their most intimate and significant memories of the good old days. Mom has cooked breakfast and it is there, warm on the kitchen table. It smells like freshly brewed coffee. The bed is made and the morning light that sneaks through the window of our room—each cushion and each little ornament in its place—warmly illuminates the walls. Your teenage crush walks again seductively across the garden, knowing that you are staring at her. How beautiful she is, as never before, as always. We have traveled so far and for such a long time to get home, to the most longed for version of home. But, as with people, it also applies to planets: distrust whatever seems exaggeratedly good, because it is obviously lying to you. And if one was to believe the cover, only two alternatives would remain: madness or death.

 

Fotograma Solaris (1972), de Andréi Tarkovski.
Still from «Solaris» (1972), by Andréi Tarkovski.

A third variation of the theme presents us with an identical but reverse dynamic: sometimes we are the victims and ours the house invaded by aliens. And these invaders, for the most unusual reasons, always end up frustrated, repelled, and come a cropper      —either by influenza (as in H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds), or by boredom (Fredric Brown’s Martians, Go Home), or by love (Ana María Shua’s Octavio the Invader).

 

In all these case, it is the aliens who cannot stand the process of «terraforming»; that is, adapting to this world is madness in such proportions that, sometimes, not even we humans manage to overcome it. It is now the outer space visitors who must earn with one hand their right to become earthlings—something we inhabitants of this Earth have earned after millions of years of evolution and adaptation to the environment. In a Darwinian metaphor: we are the best-adapted species for surviving in this environment, and if you—however large, powerful and overwhelmingly advanced you might be—cannot withstand a common cold or do not have the defenses to survive the virus that we are, you better refrain from coming. Or stick to the consequences.

 

In The War of the Worlds, humanity gets a disproportionate beating and when all is lost, when all the weapons and defense strategies have spectacularly failed and all that remains is surrender or extermination at the hands of the invaders, the Martians suddenly get sick with the flu. They succumb before a sea of phlegm and mucus. What fire, bombs and bullets cannot achieve, a common cold more than makes up for.

 

In a satirical wink that may disappoint followers of hard science fiction—but fascinate those who like science fiction that doesn’t seem so much like science fiction—, in Martians, Go Home, the invaders suddenly burst into Earth to overwhelm us with their folly, their noisy presence, their sidereal skills for sabotage. Martians pop up everywhere, even—literally—in soups: people can’t eat dinner because there is a Martian is inside the pot, pretending to be a fountain, vomiting and regurgitating liquid. And lovers can’t have sex because there is a Martian jumping on their bed. And children can’t sleep in their cribs because a monstrous green head is peeking in, sticking out its tongue and showing its sharp fangs. All this, until what always happens finally happens (and still, we never expect it): we humans get (ill-)accustomed to absolutely everything. So, after a while, humanity begins to drink their soup even if the Martians insists on bathing in it, couples start making love regardless of a Martian jumping over their naked bodies, and children cease to feel scared of the green monster that harasses them at night—they just laugh and fall asleep. The invasion is repelled by indifference, crushed under the weight of habit, because the saboteur, as always, is nothing but noise and provocation without substance. However extraterrestrial you are, you become some boring guy. So the Martians return home one day. Just as they arrived, they leave suddenly. Utterly sad, defeated, frustrated, dead disappointed that they no longer frighten anyone and no one thinks they are so disturbing.

 

«Martians, Go Home», de Frederik Brown.
«Martians, Go Home», by Frederik Brown.

Perhaps one of the wittiest and most endearing variations on the theme is found in Octavio the Invader, by Argentinian author Ana María Shua. In this case, the invasion is conceived from the mother’s womb. The idea is as simple as it is fascinating: we were all aliens once, but we forgot. We were programmed with a mission, for months we prepared and plotted, we struggled with all our force to make our way into this abominable world, to exterminate it… But something happens along the way that deviates and gradually softens us, something even more powerful than the desire to conquer the world and annihilate earthlings, an unsuspected power that leads to one of the most beautiful endings—I fancy it now, as I write these lines while my eleven-month-old daughter plays with the boots of my pants—one can come across with in life:

 

«And at last the word arrived. The first word. He used it successfully to summon the woman, who was outside the room at that moment, to his side. Octavio had clearly said “Mama.” He was now completely human. The millenary, infinite invasion had failed once again.»

 

On our journey back to Kepler 452b—which is still there, floating in space—, it occurs to me to connect the image of Octavio lowering his arms and accepting himself as human as he embraces his mother, once more with Bradbury and his story ‘The Million Year Picnic’ (the last of The Martian Chronicles), where, in a specular reflection, we learn that the Martians, in the end, are us.

 

«They reached the canal. It was long and straight and cool and wet and reflective in the night. ‘I’ve always wanted to see a Martian,’ said Michael. ‘Where are they, Dad? You promised.’ ‘There they are,’ said Dad, and he shifted Michael on his shoulder and pointed straight down. The Martians were there. Timothy began to shiver. The Martians were there—in the canal—reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad. The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water.»

 

«Crónicas marcianas», de Ray Bradbury.
«Martian Chronichles», by Ray Bradbury.

And on a final station heading towards the Cygnus (The Swan) constellation, where the blessed Super-Earth announced in 2015 is located, we stop at Another Earth, a film directed by Mike Cahill with screenplay and performance by Brit Marling. An unknown planet begins to advance towards Earth and, over time, we realize that the approaching planet is exactly like Earth. Another Earth, with the same continents, oceans, and cities, inhabited by people just like us. In a fascinating scene, the president of the United States establishes a first radio contact to greet her pair from the Other Earth and, after overcoming the interferences of cosmic noise, receives a response in her own voice—that of a woman with her same name and position.

 

It is clear then, that for each of us there is another ‘I’ on that Earth. Few things could be more vertiginous than to discover that the aliens are not only identical to us but that they are us. Yes, us, only that living the potential futures that we didn’t get; we are the same, but transiting a parallel life, different but remarkably similar at the same time       —one that we could just as well be living, had we made other choices and had we suffered other accidents (of the tragic and the sublime sort as well).

 

Let us return now, after these explorations through science fiction, to Kepler 452b. And let us think that, with the illusion of reaching and inhabiting that planet, it is now science that dreams of being fiction. It is no longer fiction that invites us, as we are used to, to imagine other worlds; it is the scientifically proven existence of another world that invites us to fantasize about a new life on it. Another reality, a new opportunity.

 

Who knows, maybe we need to project ourselves on another Earth because we can’t find comfort in this strange world anymore—and much to our regret, it is the only one we know and have. Just as in Solaris it was the strange planet that disguised itself as home, we are now the aliens that need to dress as locals on a new Earth. To dream that the aliens, as those in Another Earth, could be ourselves but with another life. Let’s hope  —and herein lies the great vertigo, the existential anguish that screams in the background although we’d like to be able to silence it—that after thousands of years of travel and having crossed half the universe, we don’t end up being exactly the same.

 

If we ever really manage to fold the star map and bring the two Earths closer, we might as well get a new (remote but likely) opportunity, and this idea makes us dream but also grief. Because we know ourselves: we have a long record as virus, plague and locust. May the stars will that, like Octavio the invader, we become transformed along the journey, thus guaranteeing not to replicate the same disaster we have been back home, 1400 light-years away from Earth.

 

 

[1] Translator’s version:

I will never go to Iceland. It is too far away.

Many degrees below zero.

I shall fold the map to bring it closer.

I shall cover its fjords with forests of palm trees.


 

About the Author:

José Urriola (Caracas, 1971) holds a degree in Mass Communications from Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. He has been a producer, scriptwriter, and audiovisual director. He is the author of the comic book Chupetes de Luna (Thule 2012), the novels Experimento a un perfecto extraño (Sudaquia 2012) and Santiago se va (Libros del Fuego 2015), and the book of short stories Cuentos a patadas (Ekaré 2014).

 

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