Space in culture; Science Fiction

Popular culture has embraced space in a variety of ways. From blockbuster movies to video and role-playing games, from UFO-shaped hamburger stands to 'face-on-Mars' websites, space images and themes are widespread in the cultural landscape.


Space in pop culture

It's hard to limit this to a few lines. The power of space imagery has attracted attention from many aspects of popular culture. The image of planet Earth as a fragile blue marble floating in a hostile void became an icon of the environmental movement. The Whole Earth Catalog, the great 1960s hippy guide to all things useful, featured space imagery on its cover. David Bowie and Neil Young - among many others - sang space songs in the 70s, some positive, some negative. Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001 depicted spaceflight fairly realistically, but it was far from the first space-themed movie (1902 - Le Voyage dans la Lune, by Georges Melies, is presumably the first). Space topics are a common theme on the cover of the Weekly World News, at your local supermarket checkout (and on professors' office doors, including mine). Buck Rogers... Flash Gordon... the "Space 1889" and "GURPS Terradyne" role-playing games - the themes and images are everywhere.
Le Voyage dans la Lune
Weekly World News - covers space like nobody else...
Space movies
Buck Rogers
Some space art.
More space art.
Music and space.

The Great Apollo Hoax?

Not all attention to space in popular culture is positive. A widespread urban legend promotes the notion that Apollo was a hoax, filmed in a movie studio. Much as we like to think we can really know things, it is very difficult to prove anything. Tiny doubts can be built up into complex webs of nonsense, leading to bizarre stories about (for instance) the Loch Ness Monster, the Bermuda Triangle, the sasquatch, ancient astronauts building the pyramids, crop circles and so on. The 'Apollo Hoax' hoax is just another example.
Debunking the bunk! (Let's start with the good stuff)
And now for something completely different...
The Face on Mars?
A 19th Century moon hoax

Science Fiction

Obviously a vast subject - I'm not going to discuss it in much detail. Its history can be taken as far back as Lucian of Samosata, nearly 2000 years ago. Jules Verne wrote about a trip to the moon in 1865, the "spacecraft" a huge shell shot from a cannon in Florida. Today, novels, TV series and movies make science fiction a major industry. Role-playing games and video games extend this in other directions. For our purposes it is interesting to think about science fiction from this perspective: to what extent does it reflect what was known about space when it was written? If you read fiction about Mars written over the last half century you can follow changing ideas - from canals and life (Edgar Rice Burroughs; C. S. Lewis; Ray Bradbury) to dusty deserts (Arthur C. Clarke), to terraforming (remaking Mars to be habitable) (Kim Stanley Robinson).
Lucian's story of a trip to the Moon.
science fiction

Future hope or future doom?

Some science fiction is positive - our technology will save us or let us do great things (maybe 2001 is a good example). Some is negative - like Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. Some seems to say that no matter how clever we are, the bad side of human nature is always ready to interfere (Red/Blue/Green Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson, maybe). One theme spilling out from positive fiction to form a justification for space travel is that of having a frontier, or needing room to grow. If we are shut in by a finite, overpopulated world, we need to move on. This echoes the American experience of the western frontier, but how realistic is it?
2001 - A Space Odyssey (see 'meanings' especially)
RGB Mars website
space as the frontier