- The Palgrave Handbook of Society, Culture, and Outer Space ed. by Peter Dickens and James S. Ormrod
"Outer space" is a curious dialectical zone—on the one hand, it consists of a number of elements (stars, planets, moons, meteors, comets, dust, actual empty space) defined as being distinct from the Earth; on the other hand, it has a repeated, daily impact on the Earth (navigation, radiation, light, tides). The apparent emptiness of much of outer space—the space of space—suggests a literalization of the ou-topia, the no place, an inky black blank in which technology would be required for human survival. But that void can be converted into a tool—especially in the location of the geostationary orbit for satellites. Equally, the rest of space offers resources that may facilitate the creation of a new society with a new set of rules—a utopian good place—or lead to the continuation of human politics off-planet with dystopian consequences. This collection brings together fifteen excellent chapters and an introduction and conclusion that map out ideas of outer space from the perspectives of geography, law, economics, film studies, cultural studies, politics, utopian studies, and more.
Outer space has an ongoing cultural impact on Earth, including what we would call inner space, and, equally, Earth (and inner space) culturally constructs outer space. As Jason Beery and Lionel Sims note in their chapters, almost all creation myths have a set of cosmological signifiers, with supernatural forces connected to the Sun, the Moon, other planets, and the stars. Religious architecture is more often constructed [End Page 348] according to astronomical alignments than cartographic ones: sunrise, sunset, particular stars, or (imagined) constellations. Religious festivals are tied to solstices or equinoxes or phases of the Moon. The astronomical factors give meaning to the celebration; the celebration constructs the astronomy as significant.
Sims examines some of the indigenous astronomies using the critical tools of Lévi-Strauss, in particular his assertion of an invariant grammar of Sun-snare myths across eight hundred versions. Sims describes Lévi-Strauss's meta-myth in which "in a state of nature, women ruled by dominating men and all was chaos through their inability to synchronise their cycles with those of the heavens. Men as heroes had to step in to bring order to this world" (297–98). These are tales of blaming women for the faults of the world but also of a sense of a paradise lost when there was order. Sims notes the lack of female agency within Lévi-Strauss's kinship structures, which focus on men exchanging women rather than the opposite or a mutual exchange, and locates a deeper meta-myth, a utopia where females had indeed been able to synchronize their menstrual cycles with the Moon. Astronomical narratives thus have their roots in gendered accounts that may not have been overcome in the era of scientific measurement and observation.
Felicity Mellor takes up the notion of narrativization in her account of science writing and the history of the universe. Narratives not only assign causality to individual events but also bring in notions of agency, intention, character, motivation, and so on; she notes how elsewhere she has examined how "asteroid researchers in the 1980s and 1990s transformed asteroids from historical objects into agents of catastrophe" (221) that could wipe out humanity, presumably just as the dinosaurs had been wiped out. In response, scientists who were proposing defenses, usually military in nature, against objects in space cast themselves as heroic. (Several sf novels from the 1970s about meteors and asteroids threatening the Earth spring to mind, and Mellor acknowledges these in her 2007 journal article "Colliding Worlds: Asteroid Research and the Legitimization of War in Space" in Social Studies of Science, although not in the chapter, but surely borrowing existing disaster narratives of the 1970s is distinct from narrativizing for the first time in the 1980s. That article also mentions Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, co...