Carl Sagan’s Vision

Toward a Science Fiction Epic


“The first thing you picked up from us was that Hitler broadcast. Why did you make contact?”
“The picture, of course, was alarming. We could tell you were in deep trouble. But the music told us something else. The Beethoven told us there was hope.” (Contact 359)

Throughout his life, the great Renaissance artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci kept notebooks of his scientific observations and inventions, reflections on life, and his artistic studies. Leonardo connects his views on, what he called, “true science” — which he bases on experience of the world, reason and contemplation, logic and mathematics, and experimentation — with a knowledge of classical aesthetic tradition which Renaissance artists, like Petrarch and Boccaccio, rediscovered and renewed from Greece and Rome. Leonardo believes that through an understanding of “true science,” the artist might obtain power through observable truth and create new and beautiful works for the benefit of the community. Leonardo’s blending of his modern scientific method with the artistic tradition of the ancients epitomized the Renaissance project: a rebirth of the human spirit.

This rebirth sparked the rise of Renaissance humanism, and with it, changes in education. No longer were scholars cloistered in hermetic isolation—one became free to explore rediscovered, new, and developing areas of human knowledge in politics, philosophy, philology, art, theology, and science because of a greater and more equal dissemination of knowledge. No longer was the politician just the politician, the painter just the painter, but each became an individual explorer in the greater community of humanity.

Carl Sagan, in his career as humanist, has encouraged and assisted his community begin to rediscover what it means to be human by bridging those gaps that separate us from each other. By employing Leonardo’s “true science” with an artistic sensitivity to tradition, Sagan envisions a present where our “intelligence and our technology have given us the power to affect the climate” of humanity and offers moral guidance on how we might use that power (Sagan 83). In his rocketship of the imagination, Sagan helps us (many of us non-scientists) discover a cosmos of knowledge as well as explore our own inner beings. His work, from Cosmos to Contact, remain a testament of his devotion to knowledge and education in a unique spirit of exploration that reaches for the stars and into our souls. One of Carl Sagan’s final projects was the cinematic realization of his novel Contact, and with another storyteller, Robert Zameckis, his vision continues to ask us questions about ourselves and our place in the cosmos.

Robert Zemeckis’ film Contact opens with a spacecraft’s view of earth. Slowly, even while still looking at our blue planet, the spacecraft begins to pull away, accompanying a heteroglossia of radio waves that constantly leave the earth. Travelling through the solar system, we quickly leave home behind, as Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto rush by replaced by nebulae and other gaseous lights — all the while revisiting sounds from our past. Our cinematic craft accelerates passing now through the rim of the galaxy; faster and faster we speed through other galaxies, flashing by the edge of the universe to emerge through a child’s curious eye.

The opening sequence of Zemeckis’ Contact

Sagan, in his book Cosmos, writes that “Human beings, born ultimately of the stars and now for a while inhabiting a world called Earth, have begun their long voyage home” (5). Like Odysseus, humanity perpetually quests for home — for our origins — for a place that has the answers to our questions and gives repose to our restlessness. Yet humanity’s Ithaca has so far remained illusive. This eternal Ithaca, whether represented in religious terms, like Heaven, Nirvana, or Moksha, or in literary terms, like Latium, Utopia, or Eden, remains the ultimate goal of a questing humanity, even, I would argue, to postmodern critics and feminists who argue against essentialist or natural configurations. Literary epics have illustrated this quest for over 2500 years — a quest that has not died or even waned, but has only changed forms as humanity begins to venture into the heavens. I propose that epic literature continues to influence a contemporary audience through science fiction, and that through the study of SF, we can begin to better understand the epic tradition and ourselves as humans.

The tradition of the epic was born to tell of humanity’s ostensibly intrinsic desire to transcend — to travel beyond the boundaries allotted to humanity on this earth. The epic entails a quest, telling of adventurers and pioneers struggling in an attempt to go beyond their present situation for whatever noble reason: Gilgamesh and Beowulf sought immortality; Aeneas fulfilled his destiny and perpetuated his culture by founding a new empire in Latium; Achilles fought for fraternity — to avenge the death of his friend Patrocylus; and Odysseus attempted to sail beyond the sunset all the while dreaming of home.

While many would not argue the validity of the epic as a testament of humanity’s grandeur and spirit, few would acknowledge a living contemporary epic—at least in the genre’s traditional sense. Mikhail Bakhtin suggests that the epic poem, as a genre, has long since completed its development and has become antiquated, concerned only with the “reverent” past. This past, according to Bakhtin, is inaccessible and irrelevant to contemporary discourse; the epic is a “congealed and half-moribund genre . . . its completedness, its consistency and its absolute lack of artistic naïveté bespeak its old age as a genre and its lengthy past” (14). Bakhtin speaks of an absolute “epic past” that cannot be accessed by the contemporary reader’s mind — we, essentially, are cut off from epic times, and they remain but a memory, a perfect, complete past.

One would find it difficult to oppose Bakhtin’s assertion about the epic. Yet, instead of attempting to revive a tired discussion of genre, let’s admit to the epic genre’s death. The spirit of the epic, however, lives on in many contemporary artistic endeavors, but in none, I argue, as more than science fiction. SF, by its very nature, can put the human mind in touch with ideologies and events from an absolute past by looking at the technology and mystery of the future. It can revive the epic spirit as humanity leaves this planet and provide a link to Bakhtin’s (and our) epical past.

Already some work has been done relating SF to the epic. Thomas D. Clareson positions SF as a pastiche of accepted literary tradition beginning with the heroic epics (45). Clareson takes an historical view in teaching SF “to underscore that SF is not a type of literature originating in, and confined to, the last century either in terms of theme(s) or forms” (45). SF, Clareson argues, encompasses the ideas of the Romantics, Darwin, the Naturalists, Marx, and Freud. Poul Anderson agrees that SF incorporates a broad tradition, but he concentrates on SF that has a kinship with Homer (26). Using “saga” and “epic” interchangeably, Anderson posits the following criteria for SF of this sort:

  • It tells a story of “mighty feats done by persons who, whatever their mortal failings, are not mean spirited” (23)
  • It contains many wondrous things and events (23)
  • It is full of lofty, but not necessarily violent, deeds (23)
  • It displays a broad scope (24)
  • It accommodates a high seriousness (though not devoid of humor necessarily and not — as he says — “too civilized”) (24)
  • It embodies a refined style (24)

Both Anserson and Clareson suggest that the twentieth century’s penchant for intense psychological study of an isolated protagonist, while valid and insightful, cannot adequately express “the whole range of human experience” (Anderson 25). Patrick Parrinder sees many works of SF relating to the epic in that they are tales of speculative future history based on social choices and scientific discoveries made in the present. Working from Ezra Pound’s definition of the epic as a “poem including history,” Parrinder shows that epics concern themselves with either historical fact, like the Iliad and Odyssey, or profound religious and symbolic truth, like Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost (92). SF is related to the epic then, according to Parrinder, in that it attempts to combine history with speculation about the future. These three critics help define what I call epical SF.

Epical SF does not rely on traditional genre specifications, but on what may be related to what E. M. W. Tillyard calls the “epic spirit.” This spirit does not concern itself with the genre-driven, primary or secondary epic, but with a spirit that cannot remain rooted in an absolute epic past, being necessarily colored by contemporary thoughts. He derives the following criteria for the epic spirit:

  • high quality and seriousness
  • inclusiveness or amplitude
  • control and exactitude commensurate with exuberance
  • and an expression of the feelings of a large group of people (3-13).

To these he includes that the writer of an epic must be in contact with life and exert his/her will in order to produce the control and precision necessary to complete a holistic, epical work. The epic writer must be “at home in large areas of life, . . . centered in the normal, . . . measure the crooked by the straight, . . . and exemplify that sanity which has been claimed for true genius” (8). In other words, the author of the epic must reflect the current zeitgeist in order to portray effectively the feelings of the society represented. In this, Tillyard agrees with Bakhtin: the traditional epic poem (both primary and secondary) remains a part of the absolute past. However, unlike Bakhtin, Tillyard sees a thriving epic spirit.

Bakhtin favors the novel over the epic for its plastic, still-developing heroes, its life-like poetic prose, and its ability to realistically delineate the real world and its cultural concerns (10). The novel, unlike the epic, is accessible to the contemporary reader because it allows a personal evaluation, rather than the sacrosanct, commonly held point of view about the epic. The epic is a genre of tradition, whereas the novel is fluid and open ended allowing new insights stemming from personal initiative (Bakhtin 16, 17). These new insights are predictions of what might come in the future, a future that has not been written like the epic prophecy; the latter’s prophecy has already been written at a point in the absolute past, is part of cultural myth, and is known by everyone (Bakhtin 31). Georg Lukács agrees: he states that the epic addresses the totality of life from within a social order, and that the novel seeks to construct this totality from a position that is “visible and immanent only in the beyond” (60). Lukács’ idea of novel looks toward a vision of totality that a present society seeks — or at least yearns for if it cannot have — not a conclusive totality from an epical, distant past.

So, I can now summarize some of my criteria for epical SF: it must contain Tillyard’s “epic spirit”; i.e. it must be of high quality and seriousness, expansive, illustrate artistic control, and remark on the concerns, feelings, and developments of the author’s society, presaging those in the form of a future history. In addition, the epic must not only be cyclical as far as thematic concerns and relevant to a particular point in time, but must also be inclusive enough to transcend temporal and spatial boundaries and encompass the universal human condition. Finally, if the novel form is inclusive, as Bakhtin and Lukács suggests, then it can include the epic spirit and represents an excellent idiom for epical SF.

Todd H. Sammons discusses the practicality of the epic and how it relates to popular SF film, particularly George Lucas’ conclusion to his Star Wars Trilogy: Return of the Jedi. Jedi, Sammons concludes, is not an epic, but has distinct epical qualities that are an appropriate conclusion to the trilogy; he calls Lucas’ use of epic conventions epic graffiti (366).

Sammons suggests that Lucas practices a graffiti aesthetic; i.e. his films are “public, corporate, and expressive of his own personality: his films have been seen by millions; contain images, ideas, and motifs borrowed from many different people; and bear the impress of their creator” (Sammons 366). Can Lucas, therefore, fit into the role of the epical SF writer? His aesthetic sensibilities are a product of his culture and a rich mythic tradition in Western Literature. He has combined in Jedi those mythical aspects and present cultural concerns that Tillyard states are necessary in the modern writer of epics. Isn’t the modern epic a work of the graffiti of the times and our cultural heritage? Yet, Sammons points out, Jedi does not meet Tillyard’s four criteria for an epic. It does, however, contain thematic elements of the epic and illustrate how a mélange of social concerns influence epical SF (Sammons 366). By considering Sammons’ look at Jedi, it seems that film may also provide a forum for epical SF (maybe even more so since it recalls an oral tradition or secondary orality?).

Instead of belaboring the point by explicating a text or texts that I believe fit the category of epical SF, I will leave that task to you. I have, however, provided a list of titles for you to examine and scrutinize, hopefully, from a unique, epical perspective. My major motivating factor behind this project is an attempt to present epics to undergraduates who might receive only cursory, bland exposure (or none at all) to the primary and secondary epics. Including SF as a starting point for an epic class might provide a more enthusiastic approach to the traditional genre and an impetus for individual student research into these important works.

Near the end of the film Contact, Ellie Arroway makes contact for the first time in years. In the prodigious presence of the Very Large Array of radio telescopes in New Mexico, Ellie discusses the universe with school children. Devoid of meaningful human contact for much of her life, Ellie has realized that in the absence of the empirical proof that she has ardently pursued in an effort to give her life meaning, all that each of us has is each other; even Sagan himself states in Cosmos that “there is much more to the world than we can see” (75). While ultimately insignificant and minute, humanity must cling to that one security we have in the immense universe: human community. Community makes us human and perpetuates our species; Gilgamesh, Achilles, Aeneas, and Beowulf (among others) learned this lesson in their times, and we continue to learn it today, linking our future to our epical past. Ellie’s teachings recall the grandeur of the opening of Contact: she engages the students in an honorable calling to “deal in splendors, marvels, and adventure, hold up the ideals of courage, intelligence and free will, [and] celebrate life’s magnificence in both joy and tragedy” (Anderson 34).


Published on Nov 10, 1998 @ 17:01. Somehow I’ve misplaced my works cited. I’ll try to find them.