We are born into small worlds, naked and screaming and conscious of nothing but a small circle of light and love that crowds close and drives out the darkness. Our eyes open, our ears listen. And the world slowly and unnoticeably gets bigger. Everything we learn, everything we know, drives back that wall of darkness a little further.
Do you remember being a kid and thinking that the world was unimaginably big? When you would stand in the silent chatter of the unknown woods or stare at the depths of the night sky and feel your own smallness in the face of infinity? Stephen King once noted that what we forget about being a kid from the comfortable nostalgia of adulthood is the fear that pervaded every part of our lives. He didn’t mean the adult fear borne of thinking from experience that bad things would happen, but the same fear that the theologians mean when they say that a holy man fears god. It’s the fear birthed in the awe and terror in the face of something so much more than you, that your own smallness is the only relevant fact left. It’s staring into the abyss.
Most adults lose that. They grow and learn, and push back that surrounding circle of darkness, lighting their little campfires of explanation, until they reach a comfortable radius and turn their backs on the darkness, always looking into the center of the circle, where the fire burns the brightest. It’s made easier as civilization has grown, because most of us rarely light our fires on our own. We stand on the shoulders of giants, walk the same paths they have, and explore and re-explore the same terrain that they mapped. The tragedy of mortality is that every generation has to learn everything over and over again. And its miracle is that we have pushed the darkness back anyway.
Some sad people are happier living in fear, living in small worlds with the darkness hovering close. Scientists work their entire lives to reach the furthest extent of our fires, and to step beyond them into the darkness, to light one more candle guttering out in the inky depths where our demons still live.
I grew up in a fly speck town so small that it didn’t even have a stoplight. I was allowed to walk to the library by myself when I was five years old, and with my own library card was allowed to check out as many books as I wanted, even though the rule was supposed to be no more than two books per kid. That’s where I discovered science fiction, in that one-room Carnegie library when I was still young enough that the night held terrors. I remember it as a massive place, all dark-polished wood and book cases towering far beyond my reach.
I was a weird kid. One of those quiet ones who was always smarter than everyone else, but doesn’t really know what that means other than being harassed by the dull and violent ones. And it’s always the weird kids who love science fiction, the odd ones and the misfits. The ones who are always alone, even in a crowd. But it’s a weird thing, the correlation of science fiction with intelligence, with those odd little nerds. Because it’s easy from their perspective to argue that they like the things they do because they’re smarter and said things are superior. But it’s not quite that. It’s more like the way that medieval peasants believed in heaven and hell not because of either truth or some cost benefit analysis, but because it was something bigger than the dirt they lived in. You can’t tell a man who lives in hell that heaven doesn’t exist.
Through a combination of being told that their kind isn’t welcome near the fire, and an inherent weirdness that keeps turning and looking at the darkness, some of those odd kids become scientists. And even the ones who don’t, they dream of that darkness. They dream that the world is bigger than it is and never forget the fear of looking into the infinite.
Science fiction is the literature of those people. It’s the literature of the ones who would push back the darkness.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.