The Spaced Land (6)

Stephen Livesey Ashworth


  1. The purpose of the dash is to indicate where a strong beat in the rhythm of the line is to be passed over in silence. A breath can be taken at this point.

  2. The poem contains several obvious references to T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. It is not necessary to understand that poem or even recognise the references to appreciate the full meaning of this one.

    In the later stages of composing The Spaced Land, I became aware of Mr Eliot’s poem and of the considerable difference between his outlook and my own. I used this awareness to amuse myself by setting up points of creative tension between the two poems. But the original inspiration for The Spaced Land was independent of The Waste Land. My original working title was “The Wanderer”, and the intention, to which I have adhered, was to dramatise the discoveries of extrasolar planets of sunlike stars beginning in 1995.

    It is no reflection on Mr Eliot’s ability as a poet that he lived in an age before definite knowledge about conditions on other planets had begun to be obtained (he died in the same year that Mariner 4 returned the first close-up images of Mars).

  3. The First Vision describes a planetary system like that of 51 Pegasi, in which a gas giant has interacted with the accretion disc around its parent star in such a way as to spiral inwards. This “hot Jupiter” in the 51 Pegasi system is now in an orbit much smaller than that of our Mercury, with a radius of only 4.6 million miles, as against 36 million miles for Mercury itself and 93 million miles (= 1 astronomical unit) for Earth. It was the first extrasolar planet of a sunlike star to be discovered, by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland, in 1995. Many similar “hot Jupiters” have since been identified.

  4. The Second Vision describes a fictional but, I think, perfectly plausible situation. The red dwarf has no major planets, only an asteroid belt extending in a thin disc say 5 astronomical units (AU) from the star, but only a fraction of an AU thick. If its perihelion relative to the larger, sunlike star is between 5 and 6 AU and aphelion about half a light-year (30,000 AU), then its orbital period will be 1.75 million years. If at perihelion the asteroid belt overlaps with one thirtieth of the orbit of the earthlike world circling the sunlike primary star, then on most perihelion passages that world will be relatively safe. But once every 50 million years or so it will pass through the denser region of the asteroid belt, and receive a heavy bombardment. (Remember that the orbits of the earthlike planet, the red dwarf and the asteroids will most likely be in different planes.)

    So “Summer lasts a million years” should be read as poetic impressionism which in reality would be around 50 million years. This should be long enough for surviving organisms (including some multicellular marine animals) to re-evolve a land-based fauna which will supply the victims of the next mass extinction.

    I am assuming that the periodic bombardment did not interfere with the several-billion-year evolution period required (judging by terrestrial experience) to produce eucaryotic cells and an oxygen atmosphere. Alternatively, of course, the red dwarf’s perihelion may only have been lowered, by a close encounter near aphelion with a passing star, close enough to periodically catch our earthlike planet in its asteroid belt, after these evolutionary stages had been successfully completed. I am also assuming that the weathering and subduction of craters is less efficient than on Earth, where for example the 65-million-year-old Chicxulub crater is completely invisible without sophisticated geological probing techniques, and that the red dwarf’s direct gravitational disturbance of this and other surviving planets of the primary star is minor.

  5. The fossil-bearing planet in the Third Vision was formed in orbit around a close double (or binary) star. Life reaches an evolutionary stage which resembles our Cretaceous period, with dinosaur-like vertebrates at the top of the food chain on land. Some of these animals are bipedal, like our Dromaeosaurids and Ornithomimids, and live in social groups. They are evolving larger brains, and appear to be on the verge of human-level intelligence (thus having taken their mental evolution considerably further than our dinosaurs were able to).

    But meanwhile the twin suns have been spiraling closer to each other, as magnetic and tidal forces slowly dissipate their orbital energy. After a few billion years they are close enough that gas begins to spill off the larger star and accumulate in an extremely hot accretion disc around the smaller one. There is a sudden and fatal increase in radiation from the tempestuous merging of the two stars into one.

    Since the luminosity of a star is strongly leveraged by small changes in mass, the resulting single star is much more luminous than the binary star which gave birth to it (for a pair of solar-mass stars, by a factor of 7). The earthlike planet is no longer habitable.

    But the narrator of the poem is probably wrong to suppose that his fossil creature could have been present at that disaster. For the increase in solar heat would have destroyed the planet’s normal geological activity (by desiccating it) too quickly for the dead of that catastrophe to be buried and fossilise. His creature probably belongs to a much earlier time.

  6. “The quality of mercy” (Fourth Vision): Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, act 4, scene 1. The Oxford Theatre Guild was performing this play in an Oxford college garden as I was completing the poem.

  7. The metaphor of the Hive as a human-scale social organism (Fourth Vision) was, so far as I know, the creation of a 1990s sci-fi TV series called Dark Skies. This series was based on the plot idea of reinterpreting events of the 1960s (such as the Kennedy assassination) as the outcome of the creeping takeover of American society by a mysterious organisation of secretive but hostile alien beings, from some unspecified origin in space. Because of their highly coordinated activity, the aliens (together with their human slaves) were sometimes referred to collectively as the Hive.

    I think it is obvious that the Hive, like the Borg of Star Trek, is a metaphor for the high-tech species into which Homo sapiens is currently evolving (one in which biology and technology will achieve symbiosis). The scriptwriters of those TV shows saw this state as purely an object of fear, an insidious villain to fight against. The narrator of the poem seems not to share this pessimistic attitude.

  8. “I’ve got an angel in my satchel” (Fourth Vision): when I was at a convent primary school, we used to play a game, invented I think by a boy called Martin Dodd, which involved pretending that one had a martian in one’s satchel. (I was pretending, at any rate; his may have been real, for all I know.)

  9. “Dear Sir” (Fourth Vision): this exchange of letters is a general reflection on the short-sightedness of government and the public perception of space activism as a nerdish activity. I do not intend any criticism of my own MP, who has always been most courteous and diligent in answering correspondence from me on astronautical and other matters.

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