Speculations on Speculative Fiction: Dave Hutchinson’s Acadie – Genetic Conflict as Genre Conversation?

Acadie_coverSpeculative Fiction and Literary Fiction are two parts of the same organism. Go far enough back and you find that they share a common ancestry (the cornerstones of the traditional western canon – be that the gods of The Odyssey or the ghosts and witches of Shakespeare – are all dependent on elements of Fantasy). Project yourself far enough into the future and you can imagine them becoming the same thing once again (‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ might as well be ‘any sufficiently imaginative Literary Fiction is indistinguishable from Fantasy’). In the present, of course, critics differentiate between them by – if I may generalise – the way one depicts the realistic (or close to it) and the other proposes its own reality entirely, by looking at their rhetorical strategies, by considering their publication contexts, and so on. Readers in turn are guided by personal tastes, by how these books are marketed, and by a whole cultural and commercial architecture which surrounds them. Many people enjoy both Literary Fiction and Fantasy, though often readers tend towards one or the other. The resulting discussions over what a particular book is or isn’t, or about what kind of writing does or does not have merit (ugh) are a facet of not just genre mutability but of how genre itself is disputed territory. I’ve been thinking about this since I read Dave Hutchinson’s excellent Acadie (Tor, 2017) and here I’m going to propose a reading of that text (a reading I might someday expand into a conference paper or something) as a commentary on the fruitlessness of inter-genre squabbling…

Please note: this post contains SPOILERS from here on out…

Acadie centres on Duke, the ‘Mayor’ of a hidden colony in a distant solar system. Presented initially as a kind of Utopian ‘hippie paradise’, the colony was founded by a scientist who wished to explore human potential without regulation or restriction (the inhabitants call themselves ‘The Writers’ on account of their penchant for genetically rewriting themselves  into ‘elves and dwarfs and hobbits and goblins’). Hunting for this secret society is the Earth-based Bureau of Colonization. The Bureau is depicted as a conservative organisation with rules and uniforms and a philosophy based on conformance and good order and doing things by the book. Thus from a certain perspective it is as though the conflict underpinning Acadie is less about genetics than it is about genre; it is as though the author has pitted Fantasy’s impatience with Literary Fiction’s straight-laced realism against LitFic’s exasperation with what they perceive to be Fantasy’s outlandishness. Read in this fashion, Acadie becomes a most curious thing: a Science Fiction novella about the antagonism between Fantasy and Literary Fiction, a story about how disputes over the primacy of one or the other are not just irrelevant but are to the betterment of absolutely no one.

The key to reading Acadie in this way lies with the character who sets the story into motion, a woman who – with shades of JK Rowling, perhaps – provokes ferocious levels of devotion from her acolytes and encourages them to follow in her fantastical ways. The Rowling comparison might seem farfetched but the novella seems to invite the identification by pointedly naming this character ‘Professor Potter’. In Acadie, Potter’s followers become the next generation of ‘Writers’ who, as mentioned, are defined by their obsession with fantasy creatures. Yes there is an occasional Klingon in the mix, along with a Wolverine (‘There’s always one’) and some cartoon characters (their choices emphasising the youth of The Writers, it seems), but for the most part these Writers have remade themselves as creatures straight out of the Fantasy genre: ‘werewolves, orcs, vampires, ghouls, zombies’. The Writers develop technology which is repeatedly described as ‘magic’ and eventually give rise to the ‘Kids’, a further generation who endlessly discuss everything and who, in the end, are revealed to have become grotesque and deformed parodies of their creators’ intentions. Were one inclined, one might see these ‘Kids’ as a comment on fandom’s tendencies towards negativity and toxicity.

By contrast, the Bureau of Colonisation is much more in keeping with Literary Fiction (which, despite protestations form some quarters, is as much a genre as any other kind of writing). The Bureau are all about rules and propriety and cataloguing. Their technology develops slowly and methodically. They don’t do magic, they do ‘lists’ (something which creates a sense of canon). Where the ‘Writers saw the promised land’ in Fantasy Fiction, the Bureau only ‘saw junk’. Nonetheless, it would be incorrect to accuse the Bureau of being unimaginative. A better word might be (despite their mission statement) unadventurous. Their most advanced technology, in a direct literary reference, is a spaceship named Gregor Samsa which appears late in Acadie’s storyline. Here Hutchinson makes overt (by way of another novella) the connection between his story’s fictional tech and what we might think of as literary technology. The Gregor Samsa is capable of manoeuvres other Bureau craft are not. It does so by utilising not a ‘magic’ hyperdrive but something that ‘might be related’ (my emphasis). It is as though the Bureau has made advancements by experimenting – even if only in limited fashion – with aspects of the Colony’s imaginative toys in the same way that Kafka, by transforming his protagonist into a giant insect, prefigured Literary Fiction’s renewed appreciation for the power of the Fantastical.

Between the Colony and the Bureau we have Acadie’s narrator, Duke. Disillusioned with the literary Bureau and reluctantly recruited by the speculative Colony, Duke complicates this reading of the novella by displaying aspects of both in the same way that, say, commercial fiction might (his full name, John Wayne Faraday, evokes the image of electrifying mainstream entertainment for all). Acadie calls him a ‘mundane’, a term still sometimes heard in the spec-fic community to describe someone with no interest in either Science Fiction or Fantasy. When not briefing hobbits and elves about the evacuation of the Colony, Duke is partaking in the stereotypical literary activities of drowning his sorrows in a bar and having flashbacks to the fallout from quitting his job in spectacular style (Duke’s former profession as a lawyer is mentioned several times and, though it has little purpose story-wise, it would not be out of place in a mainstream novel). Nevertheless, Duke’s limitations see him trapped in an endless cycle of destroying himself, repeating himself, and destroying himself again (a comment on the repetitious nature of much commercial fiction, maybe?). Though of course a last-minute reveal (which I won’t spoil) directly rooting this mainstream character in the same imaginative soil as the speculative material around him is a sharp reminder of the novella’s central argumentative thrust: that framing different kinds of stories as being in competition with each other only diminishes all.

Stressing that point, Hutchinson appears unwilling to play favourites. Potter’s children may have broken away from the restrictions of ordinary life on Earth (the bread and butter of literary realism, say) but they have changed too quickly. Their work has become ‘painfully thin’ or ‘grey and listless’ the way subsequent generations of Harry Potter clones fail to replicate the original’s spark. The Bureau, on the other hand, has changed too slowly, and in its reluctance risks stagnation and failure despite the considerable financial support they have received from the government (one might think of the patronage afforded to Literary Fiction even as it suffers from declining readership). What’s more, the climax of Acadie is, figuratively at least, the representatives of different genres arguing that their opponents are not real. Though given that, as in reality, these genres have become muddied and overlapping in the course of the story – literary fiction having undergone a metamorphosis *cough*Kafka*cough* by taking on characteristics of the fantastic, Fantasy having acknowledged the need to recruit ‘new blood, new talent, new perspectives’ from the literary – is there really any difference worth contesting for these characters? Note the intentional similarity in names between the Colony and the Bureau of Colonisation: they might as well be the same thing. Continued discord between them accomplishes nothing even as the conflict between them has flared up ‘fifty times in the past three hundred years or so’. Should one wish to apply the same timeframe to arguments about the respective primacy of Fantasy and Literary writing, one would find this almost precisely delineates a period from the publication of Acadie back to when Daniel Defoe arguably inaugurated the era of the realistic fiction novel in English with Robinson Crusoe in 1719. A coincidence, perhaps, but this entertaining and engaging novella has too many coincidences to be able to discount them all.


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Milford Writers’ Conference 2015

Last month I attended the week-long Milford Writers’ Conference for Science Fiction and Fantasy writers in beautiful north Wales. I was asked to write a reflection on it for the Milford website which I’m reposting here…

Milford Group, September 2015 L - R: Kari Sperring; Ben Jeapes, Jacey Bedford, Liz Williams, Dave Clements, David Turnbull, Val Nolan, Jackie Hatton, Tiffani Angus, Chris Butler, Sue Oke, Matt Colborn, Pauline Morgan (writing as Pauline Dungate), Heather Lindsley, Gus Smith.

Milford Group, September 2015 L – R: Kari Sperring; Ben Jeapes, Jacey Bedford, Liz Williams, Dave Clements, David Turnbull, Val Nolan, Jackie Hatton, Tiffani Angus, Chris Butler, Sue Oke, Matt Colborn, Pauline Morgan (writing as Pauline Dungate), Heather Lindsley, Gus Smith.

I gave serious thought to withdrawing from the Milford Writers’ Conference this year. I had, only ten days or so before the workshop was to begin, been appointed to a new job as lecturer in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. Thus I was in the middle of organising my move across the Irish Sea, wrapping-up prior commitments back in Ireland, and getting to grips with the requirements and responsibilities which the new position entailed. I thought that perhaps a week at Milford would be too much considering everything else that was going on but, standing outside the Trigonos centre after the first day, watching satellites and meteors crisscross the north Welsh sky and already feeling the benefits of the intensive critiquing sessions, I knew I had made the correct decision to attend.

Some of this year’s participants I knew well (Tiffani Angus and I attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop together in 2009; Heather Lindsley and I have knew each other through conventions for several years) while other such as Jacey Bedford and Susan Oke I had met briefly at cons and so forth. The majority of participants were new to me but, regardless, everyone here shared the experience of being a published Science Fiction or Fantasy writer, as well as the desire to further hone their creative practice via peer feedback and constructive criticism. No surprise so that friendships and professional contacts were quickly made during our week workshopping each other’s writing, dining together on the wonderful Trigonos food (yes, its reputation is well deserved!), and sharing a few drinks in the library each evening.

I am therefore pleased to report that my first Milford experience lived up to the conference’s reputation. Participants were not just excellent writers but highly perceptive readers of the work of others. The group functioned as a microcosm of our potential audience and was often illustrative of the different kinds of readers which one’s work will ultimately encounter (particular distinctions were evident between, say, those who want overt connections made for them in a story and those wishing to piece things together themselves, or those who prioritise scientific realism over poetic licence and vice versa). Many of the observations made have stayed with me in the weeks since the conference concluded. For instance, when our discussion wasn’t orbiting lagrangian points (which appeared in three stories, including mine; and luckily Dave Clements was on hand to address issues of physics) we often found ourselves on the topic of trees and their symbolism for writers of Fantasy and Science Fiction. As Kari Sperring put it, in what is perhaps my favourite remark from Milford 2015: “Trees bind time together. They run between the past and the future”.

For indeed, just as important as the critiquing workshops were these kinds of meandering group conversations over lunch or dinner. On any given day there was intellectual stimulation to be found in everything from the histories of Catastrophism and Uniformitarianism (thanks, Matt Colborn) to the fact that “cows got really, really big in the 1700s” (that one was Tiffani, fresh off four years of horticultural and agricultural research for her PhD). The informal stretches of Milford thus offered opportunities for the knowledge (and, for that matter, the particular nerdishness) of individual participants to shine through and, in many cases, spark ideas in others. Among the new-to-me information unspooled over the course of the week was an explanation of the mechanism whereby cannibalism basically leads to the same problems as BSE and the fact that the machine for making Pringles was invented by author Gene Wolfe.


While I missed the Wednesday sessions (on account of a staff meeting at my new job some two hours down the coast), I was back in time for the Milford AGM that evening. I found this to be a mature and meaningful discussion of just how the conference intends to go forward, how it aims to attract participants from a wider range of backgrounds, and how the organisers take care to ensure that the event always ring-fences slots for new attendees.

Equally, the “Marketing Evening” – a discussion of what venues the participants thought the pieces workshopped throughout the week might be best submitted to – served to underline one of the great selling points of Milford: the pooling of knowledge and experience from a variety of published authors at various stages of their careers. The discussion of agents and editors was frank and beneficial, as was our discourse about both the “hot new markets” and the shifting moods of more established publications. The Marketing Evening was followed the next day by a group field trip to nearby Portmeirion, famous (as I’m sure you all know!) as the setting for the classic 1960s TV seriesThe Prisoner. This was a delight (I’ve always wanted to visit) even if it wasn’t strictly part of the workshop (!).

Of course Milford is not for everybody (I’m thinking of the kind of author – and we all know one – who reacts poorly to, for instance, a bad review; which is to say the unprofessional author). While robust Milford critiques are softened with an apologetic offering of sorts (a so-called “chocolate review”) they are also to be expected because the point of the exercise is to dismantle stories and make them better. If Milford was nothing more than a dozen people telling you that you are already great then it would be worthless. Instead it is a serious undertaking for authors who wish to improve their craft. As a writer and, for that matter, as a third level writing instructor, I found it an extremely valuable experience (and, if nothing else, it introduced me to the term “anti-ditto” which I have already begun using in my own workshops!).

I will definitely go back to Milford. Hopefully I will be more prepared for the heavy reading load on the next occasion (you know, by virtue of not moving my entire life to another country at the same time!) but, for now, I have returned with a wealth of meaningful feedback to fuel the revision of my submitted story. I imagine my fellow participants are all hunkered down in similar rewrites at present. I can’t wait to see where the work which they shared eventually appears in print.


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We’re all Folk’d now…

Completely Folk’d
Laurence Donaghy
Blackstaff Press; £7.99
Review: Val Nolan

Endings are difficult. For the reader it means saying goodbye to familiar characters and worlds while for the writer, especially a series writer, it brings the challenges of crafting a capstone which is true to what has come before. Popular culture is littered with finales which have lost what made their originals distinctive but, thankfully, this final part of Laurence Donaghy’s Irish fantasy series is not one of them.

The conclusion to the story begun in Folk’d (2013) and continued by Folk’d Up (2014), Completely Folk’d is an energetic culmination sure to entertain a YA audience and to please those readers who have accompanied the characters thus far. Run through with the author’s distinctive irreverence, and nerdishly garnished with references to films and TV shows, the book successfully integrates a new widescreen perspective into the established story while nonetheless being entirely consistent with its existing supernatural family drama.

Nodding towards Stephen King, the Langolierish opening of Completely Folk’d follows directly from the conclusion of Folk’d Up where the entire island of Ireland was excised from the face of the Earth:

“The Irish Sea had been halted, as if by the hand of God in an irregular line. The waters swirled and rebounded off an invisible wall, preventing tens of millions of gallons of seawater from rushing in and filling a great nothingness – a vast void where the island of Ireland had been.
Ireland was gone. Lock, stock, and barrel it was gone.”

This is the first stage of “The Merging” whereby Ireland and the “Otherworld” will be brought together by the faerie witch-queen Carman. And this on top of the alternate timelines and supernatural incursions which have already defined the series.

The fluid nature of such a reality is reflected in Donaghy’s unconstrained prose. After all, the crises facing the novel’s characters calls not for fine speeches (though there are a share of those on offer) but for a raw, immediate narrative style, for expletive-filled dialogue, and for literal smash-cuts between scenes. Linguistically so, this is not dainty, elven High Fantasy; it is instead the smash-bang-wallop vernacular of a Saturday night in Belfast.

Danny Morrigan, “one of the Morrigans”, is still reeling from the revelations and the “insane vision quest” of the first two books. Now it is time for him to embrace his responsibilities as “part of an ancient bloodline charged with protecting Ireland from being overrun by a race of beings who had come to be known as – ha! – faeries”. Reunited with Ellie after their separation by the last book’s parallel reality, Danny’s mission is not simply to save Ireland, it is to regain the family that was stolen from him. Though of course, in mythological resonant fashion, he and Ellie are about to discover that their son Luke is no longer the eight-month old innocent who was taken from them.

Like the prior volumes, this is a carefully structured book and its pacey plotline nicely balances the present day events with relevant flashbacks to strengthen both character motivation and the Folk’d mythology. Moreover, linking the stories of the Tuatha Dé Danann to the often seemingly magical internet age grants Donaghy’s faerie threat a contemporary insidiousness. They may be supernatural but, by “harvesting the fear of the humans” via smartphones, the scariest aspect of the faeries is again their embodiment of corporate skulduggery, even a touch of state surveillance.

It is interesting too to see an author who has lived in the Northern Irish capital all his life portray a city overrun by literal demons. Otherworld Belfast “looked like a city during wartime, besieged and aflame”. The first indication of its translocation “had been the screams […] upsetting to hear but not exactly uncommon in Belfast in the wee hours”. Tellingly though, guns do not work in the Otherworld. Combat there is closer, more primal, and this gives Donaghy a lot to work with in the fight scenes which make up the majority of the novel.

This is not to say that Completely Folk’d is weighted towards action at the expense of its protagonists’ development. After all, the convergence of battles ancient and modern to decide “the fate of Ireland” would matter very little if Donaghy’s expansive cast did not flex and grow to the degree that they do. Thus the completion of Danny’s Hero’s Journey is complimented by solid roles for his friend Steve and his father Tony Morrigan. Yet it is perhaps Ellie who is best served here vis-à-vis the previous books (her confrontation with a faerie’s human puppet is a particular delight).

A surprisingly generous conclusion follows these figures into their transformed lives, and, for that matter, their response to the world’s fearful reaction when Ireland is snatched away and then magically returned to Earth. It’s not exactly ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ but, in allowing the surviving characters to take charge of and defend their changed world, this extended goodbye fulfils a similar narrative role and, more than that, it allows Donaghy to end his outlandish tale on very human terms.

A Belfast Buffy by way of Star Wars (the fact that Danny’s son is named Luke leaves one tempted to read a key sequence here as an inversion of a legendary scene from that film franchise), Completely Folk’d is to be commended for going all in to wrap up the series and its storylines in rousing fashion. The fact that one finds oneself reaching repeatedly for screen analogies in discussing the book further leads to the belief that the Folk’d trilogy would readily translate to, say, a TV miniseries or the like. Perhaps when Game of Thrones eventually frees up Belfast’s production resources, someone might fancy tackling the project…? Until such a time, however, fans of the first two books will not be disappointed to read how it all ends.


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All Folk’d Up in Belfast

Folk'd UpFolk’d Up
Laurence Donaghy
Blackstaff Press; £7.99
Review: Val Nolan

Folk’d, the first part of Laurence Donaghy’s Belfast-set fantasy trilogy, offered readers a contemporary, Joseph Campbell style Hero’s Journey sprinkled with amusing pop-cultural references and an irreverent tone. Strong domestic scenes served to ground the more fantastic aspects of a novel focused on Danny Morrigan, a young man with “a genial manner which made everyone surmise (correctly) that he was harmless and (incorrectly) that he was not all that sharp”. The book combined a casual writing style with relatable concerns and an IT fluency which made it an ideal read for a teenage audience in particular.

Danny, who suffers from synaesthesia, worked in a call centre run by a successful Irish telecommunications company about to launch a “super-duper-ethernet project” marketed as “a gateway to a better world”. Living with his girlfriend Ellie and their son Luke, Folk’d followed Danny’s coming to terms with the existence of “Faeries” or “The Low Folk”. In its biggest gamble, and what was also its most intriguing  twist, the second half of that book turned the story on its head by offering not just a parallel timeline altered by the magical erasing of Danny and Ellie’s relationship but, intriguingly, the concept of a course-correcting universe with characters gradually growing aware that things were not as they were meant to be.

This second volume, Folk’d Up, resumes the story with an immediately apparent stylistic tightening. It is a more confident novel, a book less beholden to Campbell’s narrative template (though that is still present) and one eager to wed Donaghy’s loosey-goosey prose with a more intricate structure than that offered by the first book. Folk’d Up also builds on the initial novel’s hints of corporate skulduggery, arguable as unsettling as the accompanying giant spiders, and so solidifies the link between its very modern story of mysterious, eerie signals heard on mobile phones and its backdrop of old-school Irish superstitions about faeries and the dangers of disturbing raths.

Folk’d Up begins with a short recap before diving into the underworld alongside Danny, who is taken into the care of the war goddess Ériu, matron of the island and a deity who seeks to prepare him for his role in the coming battle against The Low Folk. Ériu provides Danny with whistle-stop survey of Irish supernatural history from the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann (a race who don’t see magic as magical, instead “that was how the world worked”) through to the bloody uprising of the United Irishmen and onward to the Ireland of today. It is weighty backstory, though with Danny often an observer rather than a participant, it does give a touch of the Tour-of-the-Museum to the first half of Folk’d Up. That said, Donoghy’s battle scenes are otherwise engagingly and energetically described. Moreover, Danny gains in agency once he realizes that “this is no fairy tale” and involves himself more heavily in the proceedings. It will be interesting to see this new assurance play out in the promised third volume, Completely Folk’d.

One is curious too to see how the mythology of Ireland further connects to Danny’s family history. His father, especially, is granted a greater depth by Folk’d Up, emerging here as a proud but tragic figure. Indeed, he proves to be the sequel’s breakout character and his flashback action sequences, filled with terrifying “wolf-faeries” and the like, serve to contextualise the saga’s magical conflicts against more familiar struggles: “Up and down and across this miserable wee island, chasing shadows and shades and worst things besides. He’d fought changelings in castle ruins, battled faerie soldiers in back alleys while the British fought the IRA mere streets away.”

Unlike soldiers, however, the faeries of Folk’d Up operate more like something out of a gangster movie. Their leader wields a sword which can remake reality and, as CEO of the company Danny worked for, is about to unveil his “super advanced, top secret, only within Ireland’ network, a kind of twenty-first century update and exploitation of the ley-line concept: “Hundreds of thousands of thoughts – human thoughts – travelling across lines”, a commodification of the subconscious ready to be drawn upon by dark forces.

Though it is a darker outing than Folk’d – very much The Empire Strikes Back to the initial volume’s Star Wars (exactly the kind of reference Danny would appreciate) – Folk’d Up does preserve the first book’s sense of humour (along with Donaghy’s love of obscenity, again seemingly designed to appeal to the YA market). There is an increased and successful use of the saga’s supporting cast here too, not just Danny’s father but also his best friend Steve, who takes up the mantle of hero in the mortal world in Danny’s absence while simultaneously coping with the breakdown of everything he and Ellie (the parallel timeline having retconned them into a relationship) have believed to be true.

Handsomely produced by Blackstaff Press, Folk’d and Folk’d Up both display Donaghy’s genuine fondness for SF/F material and his lively approach to long-form storytelling. Wry observations about Northern Irish life (“Expert linguists have agreed that the Belfast ‘so’ is unique among all retorts contained in all dialects of the world’s languages. There exists no counter-move.”) compete for space with twists, turns, and Donaghy’s willingness to take the story in unexpected directions. Specifically, Folk’d Up’s excellent cliffhanger leaves the reader genuinely curious as to how Danny Morrigan’s story will conclude in the final volume.


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Tolkien on Titan: Fantasy Fiction and Solar System Nomenclature

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien

As the Second World War closed in around Britain and the V2 rockets fell from the skies, an avuncular Oxford don sat in his study and scribbled out stories of goblins and elves and hairy-footed analogues of the rustic English country-folk. It was a fiction derived from his own experience of total war some two decades earlier but one which in retrospect, and despite the author’s efforts, assumed an allegorical relationship to the European conflagration igniting all around him. Almost sixty years later, an interdisciplinary fellowship of some 200 scientists and engineers, some of them operating out of Oxfordshire’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, watched the launch of a Titan IV heavy-lift vehicle – ploughshare to von Braun’s first swords – as it carried the last of the great interplanetary exploration craft away from Cape Canaveral in Florida. That probe, Cassini-Huygens, would travel billions of miles into the Outer Solar System where, after seven years of space flight, it eventually arrived high above JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

Or at least high above Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, where the mountains and mountain ranges are named after those in Tolkien’s genre-defining novels The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954, 1955). Discovered by the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens in 1655, the tantalizing Titan, which is larger by volume than the planet Mercury, was one of the Cassini probe’s key targets in the realm of the ringed world, as well as the final destination of the European Huygens lander which the NASA mother-craft bore like a hobbit upon a man’s back. Yet for all its currently recognised promise, the moon attracted little scientific interest until a second Dutchman, this time Gerard Kuiper (he of the Kuiper Belt), used spectroscopy to identify the presence of methane and nitrogen in its atmosphere in 1944, just as the pipe-smoking Tolkien began to “tackle the journey of Frodo to Mordor”. Further analysis revealed the moon’s atmosphere to be a dense soup of organic molecules, most likely similar to the primeval, pre-biotic atmosphere of Earth some four billion years ago. It is a blessing which obscures all surface detail in a foul orange smog and, though the Pioneer and Voyager missions passed through the Saturn system in the early 1980s, the geological character of Titan was virtually unknown before the arrival of Cassini’s cloud-penetrating radar in 2004.

At five-and-a-half tons, the Cassini spacecraft is one of the largest and most complex interplanetary probes ever devised. This heavily instrumented robotic platform required 13,000 work-years by US and European scientists to construct, which, for comparison, is about half of what it took to build Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Cheops. Like Tolkien’s Ring of Power it is also a poisoned chalice of sorts. With solar cells all but useless at a distance ten times further from the Sun than that at which Earth orbits, the great potential of Cassini was realized only at the cost of a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. Plutonium, in other words (and just imagine what Tolkien’s Sauroman, the industrializer of green valleys with “a mind of metal and wheels”, might have done with a pellet of red-hot Plutonium-238). Environmentalists went to court to halt the launch on account of the risk that the probe could explode on take-off or crash into Earth on its gravity assist flyby, scattering toxic fuel into the upper atmosphere and threatening hundreds of thousands of people with radiation poisoning. NASA deemed this “scaremongering” given how the craft’s 32.6 kilograms of plutonium dioxide were housed in an iridium and graphite-encased module – a casing insoluble in water and almost impervious to heat – which would, in the case of an accident, simply fall to Earth unbroken for later recovery. The court agreed, the launch went ahead, and two years later, in August 1999, Cassini blasted past Earth for the last time at an altitude of 700 miles to gain a much needed 12,000 miles-an-hour boost in its velocity.

On July 1st 2004, just 28 days short of the 50th anniversary of Tolkien’s masterpiece, Cassini completed its Saturn insertion burn, arching between two of the giant world’s majestic hoops of dust and ice as its main engine ignited for 96 minutes to place it into orbit of the sixth world from the sun. Its objective, in the words of Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Charles Elachi, was “to allow us to rewrite the story of the Lord of the Rings”. It was an obvious joke to make given the Saturn system’s defining characteristic but, nonetheless, is one which betrays how the fantasy epic was very much on the mind of the Cassini mission’s primary investigators. No surprise so that, on December 5th, 2011, the Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN) announced the following six Tolkien-inspired names for Titan features discovered by Cassini’s radar: Angmar Montes, named for Ângmâr, the home of the Witch-King and the leader of the Ringwraiths; Dolmed Montes, named for Dolmed in the Blue Mountains, beneath which two of the Dwarf Fathers are said to have awoken; Echoriath Montes, in honour of the Encircling Mountains; Gram Montes, after a Misty Mountains peak adjoining the Shire; Merlock Montes, commemorating a summit mentioned in an eerie Hobbit nonsense poem; and Rerir Montes, named for a mountain fortress abandoned after the War of Wrath in Middle-earth’s Second Age.

A further sitting of the WGPSN authorised the following seven names on November 13th 2012, just as the first part of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit was about to hit cinemas: Erebor Mons, in honour of the Lonely Mountain where Bilbo Baggins first found adventure; Irensaga Montes, an equatorial range named after one of the White Mountains; Mindolluin Montes, just west of the landing site of the Huygens probe and named for a peak overlooking Minas Tirith, the City of the Kings; Misty Montes, whose name requires no explanation for Tolkien fans; Mithrim Montes, honouring the place where the High Kings of the Noldor, the Elves of the second clan, raised their halls; Taniquetil Montes after the Holy Mountain in Tolkien’s Undying Lands, the highest peak in all of his imagined world’s history; and finally Doom Mons, named for the great volcano where the Ring of Power was forged by Sauron and where, at the climax of The Lord of the Rings, it is ultimately destroyed.

Formed at the 1973 Sydney meeting of the International Astronomical Union, the WGPSN typically assigns names in Latin, a policy designed to foster linguistic neutrality but one which has, inadvertently, fermented a certain distance between the general public and the places in question. Henrik Hargitai and Kira Shingareva’s excellent discussion of the WGPSN’s history defines two major functions of the current planetary nomenclature system: one is a “cultural function” commemorating individuals from across human history; the second, the so-called descriptor element of the name, is to represent “the true nature of the geographic (landscape) feature”, its morphology, and in some cases, its geological origin.

Titan in false color

Titan in false color

Yet in Titan’s case, the realities of the surface features belie the grandeur of the names attached to them. Information from the Cassini and Huygens craft tell us that the moon’s mountains are little more than 1.25 miles from base to peak – comparable to the taller summits of the Appalachians – and are most likely made of water ice. They are, in other words, a far cry from the rocky, soaring ranges of Middle-earth. Then again, given that the correlation is an arbitrary one by any objective measure, this is to be expected and, more thought-provoking than a mere geological compare-and-contrast, is the manner by which the WGPSN’s choices speak very clearly about our relationship to Tolkien’s fiction. For instance, Doom Mons is Titan’s largest mountain by volume, and possibly its highest by height (that remains to be determined) but in Tolkien’s legendarium it is Taniquetil, not Mount Doom, which is the greatest mountain in the world. Because of its prominence in The Lord of the Rings however (and doubtlessly aided by its evocative depiction in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, released during Cassini’s “cruise phase”), it is Mount Doom, not distant Taniquetil, which looms largest in the public imagination – and so now on Titan – as the greatest mountain.

A further connection between Titan and Middle-earth exists in the fact that, though Tolkien occasionally described his creation as a secondary world, he most often figured Arda (that being what was generally considered to be Earth itself, the planet on which The Lord of the Rings is set) as a distant geological epoch of our world, the rolling hills and rich countryside of the prelapsarian Shire eventually becoming the familiar landscape of north-west Europe. In the same way, the organic chemistry of the pre-biotic Titan resembles a long-past chemical epoch of Earth’s history. It does not necessarily contain the same kind of ingredients (for example, Titan is oxygen-poor) but it allows us to observe the same kind of reactions which led to the appearance of the first organisms here on Earth.

Tolkien too shared a concern with the origins of life, albeit one which was less chemical than it was poetic. In his posthumous volume The Silmarillion (1977) he depicts the awakening of the Elves and, much later, the coming of men. In the case of the former, they gain awareness beneath the light of a familiar sky. Tolkien conceived of a solar system, or perhaps we should say the Solar System, in similar terms to how he figured Arda, portraying recognisable bodies as they might be perceived from the vantage of the real world. He called this cosmos the “Ilmen”, derived from a Finnish word for “air”, a “stellar kingdom” through which the stars and planets (the author did not distinguish between them) moved “like translucent lamps set quivering above the world”. For the most part, Tolkien portrayed identifiable constellations like Orion, “Swordsman of the Sky”, as created by Varda, one of the Valar, or the elemental world spirits who play such a part in The Silmarillion, and a being known the Queen of the Stars to the elves. Tolkien’s son and literary executor Christopher, who has done considerable work in making the early drafts of his father’s legendarium available via the twelve volume History of Middle-earth, conjectures that among the celestial bodies attributed to Valar, it is “Lumbar” – deriving from the Elvish “Lumbule”, meaning “clouds” – which represents Saturn, or at least did for a moment’s amusement. The name does not make its way into the texts published in his lifetime but appears, as part of a list of other lights in the night sky, among the pages of The Silmarillion.

Nonetheless there exists here a relationship whereby an author takes a real place and creates a fantasy version of it only to inspire his readership, a half century later, to recast elements of that real place after the fantastical mould. Perhaps it speaks to a human desire to reassure the imaginative aspects of ourselves that impossible worlds of wizards and magic might actually exist somewhere? Investigating this urge in the 1970s, Mary Lou Colbath, then a graduate student at the University of Maine, pointed out that the history of western civilization is embroidered with names and legends cherished – and often created – by this “great need of generations long past”. In “an age of space travel and instant communication,” she said, there have been “too few heroes created for children” in particular. Ironic so that it is space travel and (nearly) instant communication which have allowed us regain access to heroic and rousing landscapes, the type of vistas which inspire children to become astronauts or engineers or, dare it be said, even fantasy novelists. Just consider how the examples Colbath provides of names which “alone call forth an age” are now themselves scattered across the Solar System: Ulysses, a Martian volcano, approved in 1973 (and modified in 2007 to refer specifically to the mountain’s caldera); Achilles, a crater on Tethys, approved in 2008; Beowulf, a near-Earth Asteroid discovered in 1999; Charlemagne, a crater on Iapetus, approved in 1982; Arthur, a crater on Mimas, another Saturnian moon, approved in 1982; and Lancelot a main-belt asteroid discovered in 1960.

Thus the nomenclature associated with planets and small Solar System bodies is, as Hargitai and Shingareva put it, a representation of the culture of its creators. Names chosen are often with a distinct mythological connotation, yes, but more and more they also display a literary origin (apparent in how geological features on the Uranian moons Miranda, Titania, and Oberon are named after characters and places from Shakespeare’s plays). In Titan’s case, the WGPSN reconvened a little over a month after the naming of Doom Mons to approve the names of smaller features, principally hills (known as colles) along Titan’s equator. For these they chose to draw on Tolkien’s dramatis personae: Arwen Colles, after the daughter of Elrond and the lover of Aragorn, one of the most lovely of all the Elves and so in keeping with Titan nomenclature’s emphasis on deities of beauty; Nimloth Colles, after a distant ancestor of Arwen; Handir Colles, an honour granted to an ancient but minor king of men; Bilbo Colles, after Tolkien’s titular Hobbit; and Faramir Colles after a prince of Gondor who, among the vast cast of The Lord of the Rings, is said to most resemble the author himself, wary of war but “a captain that men would follow”, a fair man with a great pride in the achievements of his people and his land.

If that is true then Tolkien might well have smiled at the English involvement in what is probably humanity’s last trip to Saturn in our lifetimes. Beginning with a Science and Engineering Research Council contribution of £5 million towards the mission in 1991, scientists at the universities of Oxford, Kent, Sheffield, and Imperial College in London helped design and run six of Cassini’s twelve instruments, as well as building another two for the Titan probe. On-board software was provided by the computer consultancy Logica in London, while the crucial Huygens parachutes were crafted by the hard-working Hobbits at ejector-seat manufacturer Martin Baker in Uxbridge. Together they constructed a vast machine and, along with scientists from 16 other nations, sent it billions of miles to a literal fantasy world in what has turned out to be an astounding memorial to the author who has touched the lives of millions.

Readers respond to Middle-earth so powerfully because it is what Brian Bates, professor of psychology at the University of Brighton, called (in the year of Cassini’s arrive at Saturn) “the landscape of our deep imagination”. The Cassini-Huygens mission has provided a window into that landscape, into a world more breathtaking and dazzling than anything which prose, even writing as inventive as Tolkien’s, can conjure up. From its telemetry we have even been able to produce sketchy maps of Titan which, like those accompanying the old don’s novels, are simultaneously ill-defined and instantly intriguing. Because like Middle-earth, we still only have glimpses at parts of the moon’s surface. It is fitting so that, as with the writing of The Lord of the Rings, the exploration of Titan is a story which has grown with the telling and, in Tolkien’s words, includes “many glimpses of the yet more ancient history that preceded it”. Indeed, it is difficult not to wonder what the Eagles or the Uruk-hai would think if they knew that we were spying on them from high in the Ilmen where “the stars wheeled over”. What would the Orcs, who prized cunning devices, do if they discovered the remains of the lander we deployed to Middle-earth? Smelt it down, perhaps? Forge from it some martial artifice with a glint of magic to it like?

Cassini at Saturn

Cassini at Saturn

Such questions, of course, are among those that Cassini-Huygens is not equipped to answer. Worse, we must admit that all things, stories and spacecraft alike, have an ending. For the Ring of Power it was obliteration in the Cracks of Doom, deep inside the territories of the Dark Lord. For Cassini it will be an equally fiery plunge to destruction within the domain of the Lord of the Rings, a final mission scheduled for 2017 where the probe will be deliberately vaporised in Saturn’s atmosphere. The reasoning for both final acts is similar. Cassini, with its plutonium and its otherworldly origin, is too dangerous to simply be discarded or forgotten. Its destruction is necessary to prevent contamination of moons such as Enceladus and Titan which may harbour the conditions necessary for life. An impossibility? Maybe. But then again, not that long ago it seemed impossible that we could ever send a satellite to Middle-earth.


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