Not that long ago, science fiction was replete with fantastic, whimsical stories about space aliens in our solar backyard. Mars was a funhouse of tentacle monsters, Venus was a swampy, dinosaur wonderland, and the moon was a hollowed-out shell of a spaceship for the highly-advanced moon men. These seem laughable in today’s overflowing sea of knowledge, but around the turn of the previous century, these weren’t just theories, they were accepted scientific facts. But what happened? Where did these stories go?
The 1800s saw the rise of dinosaurs, with the first acknowledged dinosaur discovery in 1822, the term “dinosaur” coined in 1842, and a flurry of discoveries during the First Great Dinosaur Rush in the 1870s. The “terrible lizards” were new, exciting imagination fuel just waiting to be explored. So how did people come to conclude that dinosaurs were on Venus? Well, the surface of Venus is hard to observe through a telescope because its atmosphere is basically one giant cloud. Logically, people thought—thick clouds means lots of water, and lots of water means swamps and ferns, and that means dinosaurs! As crazy as that sounds, this idea lasted from the late 1890s through the 1950s, even after scientists in 1922 analyzed the light reflected off Venus and found no signs of water or oxygen. It wasn’t until 1962 that the first Venutian probe, Mariner 2, would fly by the Morning Star and put those ideas to rest.
Mars experienced a similar phenomenon. In 1877, an Italian astronomer observed lines on the surface of the Red Planet, which he called “canali.” In Italian, “canali” means “channels,” but the word was incorrectly translated to “canals.” This implied intelligence and intent behind their existence, and with the recent completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, the idea of intelligent life on Mars captured imaginations, most notably that of amateur astronomer Percival Lowell, who wrote three books on the subject from 1895 to 1908 and built an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona to study the Red Planet. The idea of Martian canals survived for decades, with people defending the theory as late as 1964, twelve years after the first attempt at measuring Mars’ atmospheric composition. Finally, in 1971, Mars 2 landed on the surface of Mars and dispelled all thoughts of a wet Mars.
Thus, the march of scientific progress brought down our lofty, imaginative space paradise. Stories founded on unlimited potential collapsed as new scientific knowledge bounded what was possible. The challenge for today’s sci-fi writers, then, is finding that last remaining bastion of untapped creativity in space, be it through alternate universes, higher dimensions, or in galaxies far, far away.
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