Last week was a good one for people who are into science, space exploration, and then by extension SF, because we got news about a distant planet that might be rather like Earth (except with double the gravity) and those amazing pictures of Pluto and a couple of its moons. I was personally rather astonished by the pictures sent back by the New Horizons probe (which I still think is a kind of unfortunate 8th grade social science-y textbook title of a name) because of how utterly, completely wrong they were.
To explain: In my mind, for as long as I can recall, Pluto has been green. A kind of blue-green teal sort of deal. Neptune, of course, is blue. Uranus is a deep violet. I’m not sure where I got these ideas from – perhaps there was, in some long-ago classroom, a Solar System wall chart that implanted the colours in my mind – but they have been consistent in my imagination for as long as I can recall.
Now of course we get actual pictures of Pluto and it isn’t green at all, it is various shades of brown. I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed by this, exactly. I mean the stuff we learned about Pluto is pretty damn cool. Nitrogen glaciers on a planet so cold the atmosphere may be freezing to its surface, with a moon shaped like a jelly bean, are all pretty amazing discoveries.
It’s just not how I had (for whatever reason) pictured it, how my mind somehow assured me it would be, and so when I first saw the New Horizons pictures, I did a bit of a ‘waaaait a minute’. It’s often this way, I think – we imagine events or people or places to be a particular way, sometimes quite intensely, and then when we go to the actual place or talk to the actual person or experience the event we have long pictured in our minds it isn’t quite how we thought it would be. Even if the real thing was pleasant or good or enjoyable, it’s different and that can end up being vaguely disappointing. It’s even worse if things are somehow not as good or as pleasant or as rewarding as we thought they’d be. You can’t go back to the dream, now. I suppose that’s really just life and generally you just get on with it but there’s generally a tiny part of me yelling ‘but Pluto was supposed to be greeeeen’ in the background.
I can only imagine this happening on a somewhat greater scale when the first hard data started coming back from Mars. The planet that had so often been imagined as a place of life (sometimes bug-eyed threatening life), of canals and golden-eyed aliens and tentacled horrors was, in truth, a barren, frozen desert. Not how we imagined it. I won’t say it isn’t a wonderful place (because a lot of what we’ve learned about the Real Mars is, again, pretty cool) but the loss of the idea of a Mars awash in life must have taken some digesting.
We’ve actually been very slow to let go of the idea of life on Mars – leaving aside the genuine science being done to see if there ever could have been basic forms of life in the past, there is still a good amount of fiction that gets created with the idea of ancient, extinct alien life on the planet. Sometimes it wakes up or gets dug up to dangerous effect. On some level, it seems like our imaginations really want there to have been Martians. And if I close my eyes, and think of Pluto, it’s still green.
To me there is now a divergence, between my imaginary Pluto and the real one, or the Pluto I have always pictured has now been nudged out of the (arguably) real universe into a purely imaginary one, along with the Mars that has the golden-eyed people on it and all the other places that never existed. Learning about the universe is fascinating, though it forces ever more things purely into the realms of the imagination, where perhaps writers (and readers) can rescue them from time to time. I guess I have a strange nostalgia, sometimes (if you can be nostalgic for things that never were) for my green Pluto and all the things that maybe could have been, all the places that were maybe out there, until we found out they were not.
Sorry, that was all very bizarre, even for me. More concretely, the New Horizons probe is (I guess, and I will be happy to be corrected) more or less the end of a period of discoveries about of Solar System that I have been fortunate to grow up during. I remember the Voyager probes sending back their astounding pictures of Jupiter and Saturn and then later, Neptune and Uranus (also not the colour I imagined). I don’t remember the Viking probes real well (although slightly) but we have had the various Mars rovers that have sent back a seemingly endless stream of fascinating stuff. We’ve found an ocean on Europa and Enceladus. We harpooned a comet, for f’s sake. It’s all very cool.
We’ve had a good look around our immediate neighbourhood (it seems to me? I’m sure there’s lots we don’t know about) and it has been wonderful to have a reasonably steady drip of exciting, and brand new, revelations about planets and moons coming out throughout my life to this point. I wonder whether that is at least in part why I love SF and speculative fiction as much as I do.
In any case, I’m very grateful to have experienced, ever so slightly, all of these discoveries. I’m grateful to the people who have poured so much of their heart and soul into making all these missions of exploration and curiosity happen. I hope, that in a society that seems to be ever more concerned about how things look on a balance sheet, that we aren’t entirely finished with this kind of endeavour.