Seeing From Afar

Frédérique Aït-Touati

How would the phenomena that occur on our planet appear to an observer stationed on the moon? How would our present time appear to a historian of the next millennium? It seems that some questions regarding our common space and time can only be answered through a distance. At least, that is what is implied by two parallel usages of fictional distancing, in space and in time. From seventeenth-century cosmological fiction to contemporary ‘future histories,’ this essay will address questions raised by fictional remoteness within the context of scientific controversies.

Seventeenth-century astronomers were faced with the following problem: how could they make their work credible whilst claiming to refer to planets that were inaccessible? It is in this grey area of probability and hypothesis that controversy is always at its most heated. Copernicans had begun to use a new tool, the telescope, in order to defend their vision of a cosmos in which the Earth revolves around the Sun, and not vice versa. Skeptics of the time mocked these instruments of magnification: in the seventeenth century, instrumental proof was too new a concept to be convincing. Galileo’s telescope and Hooke’s microscope were subject to the most virulent of criticisms.

Certain scholars therefore had the idea of making use of another type of ‘proof’: the striking image created by fiction, also called ekphrasis, one of the traditional proofs of classical rhetoric. Once the astronomer Kepler had taken his readers on a lunar voyage in order to show them the Earth revolving around the Sun, the skeptics’ mutterings continued, but somehow they were no longer laughing. Little by little, this new vision of the cosmos began to take root in the general consciousness.1 Science is not just built on equations and demonstrations.

From Kepler onwards, the fictional cosmic narrative served as a test for, and to some extent a proof of, the Copernican hypothesis. The scenario of hypothetical moon travel allowed the writer to fictionally experiment with the proposition: how would the phenomena that occurred in the heavens appear to an observer stationed not on Earth, but on the moon? The narrative tested Kepler’s astronomical hypothesis by displacing the perspective. The desire to see the Earth or even all the planets from afar was a recurrent feature of all seventeenth-century cosmological literature, whether Copernican or not. Kircher’s Itinerarium Extaticum displayed in its famous frontispiece an impressive pictorial representation of such a remote perspective.

Similarly, in cosmological fictions of the seventeenth century, the adoption of the point of view of extraterrestrial inhabitants led to a “curious perspective,” indeed a cosmic anamorphosis. The word “anamorphosis” was invented in the seventeenth century to name this essential tool of geometrical distortion and re-composition.2 It precisely corresponds to the technique adopted by many astronomers of the time. In the external view they created through the spatial travel narrative, the Earth was seen from above and from afar. The stars and constellations were arranged in a reordered space, which provided an additional proof of the Copernican system.

Today, science is still trying to see into the distance, but ours is another kind of distance: rather than space, it is the future of our own planet that seems inaccessible, just like the stars of the seventeenth century. The climate model is a good analogy for Galileo’s telescope: it is a scientific instrument whose epistemological legitimacy is brought into question because it produces a new kind of proof. Climatology is a fairly new science, and it is still faced with the task of making its methods and proofs recognised and accepted: not just observation and experimentation, but complex models that allow scientists to give medium- or long-term projections.3 Climate models were developed relatively recently, and have tremendous potential for linking the past, present and future, and for sketching out new perspectives using our existing knowledge. They are the result of the work of thousands of researchers who collect, calibrate, compare and analyse data, then combine them to produce possible future scenarios.4

The question remains, however: How can we persuade those who have not taken part in this process, and who are expecting simple, clear and unquestionable results? This drama of misunderstood climatology reminds us that the concepts of observation, proof and objectivity have their own history. 5 Just as the instruments of natural philosophers were subject to ferocious criticism, climatologists today are working on models whose credibility is repeatedly questioned. The misunderstanding is a fundamental one. If scientists explain that they do not produce facts, but rather models, or probabilities – that they are concerned with the future, with risk, with the actions that must be taken if we are to avoid the worst possible outcomes – then they are told that their proofs are fragile and uncertain, and that their ‘facts’ are debatable: in short, that what they are doing is ‘not science’ at all.

It is this impasse that prompts another approach: the visualisation of the future. This technique is a way of creating a powerful image to accompany the new and oft-disregarded form of proof that is the climate model; and it is exactly the technique used by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their recent speculative history essay, The Collapse of Western Civilization.6 Their response to the dramatic inability of the public to grasp contemporary science is to offer – just as Kepler did in his time – a new form of discourse: to use fiction rather than argument. Scientists, nonetheless, continue their work, accumulating data, discussing the results, publishing detailed reports and summaries for politicians, for the public, for the media… and yet they are not listened to. At least, very little. How can they make us see, with our mind’s eye, that (worryingly close) ‘distant’ future of our ailing Earth? Fast-forward to the 24th century, after the period known as the Penumbral Age, and after the Great Collapse. We are presented with the story of our age, as seen by a Chinese historian writing in 2393.

Scrupulous researcher that he is, Oreskes and Conway’s future historian focuses on a precise issue and a particular period, which we are meant to recognise as our present: “At the very time that the urgent need for an energy transition became palpable, world production of greenhouse gases increased. This fact is so hard to understand that it calls for a closer look at what we know about this crucial juncture” (9). Under the pen of this fictitious historian, we become the humans who knew “what happened to them and why” (1), and yet undertook no efforts to change, living through a troubled, tragic and paradoxical period which is of interest to history researchers of the future for this very reason. The feeling one has, on reading the history of our present, evaluated and analysed through the solitary narrative flourish of this imaginary historian, is a strange one: this is fiction, and yet not entirely. The reader is intrigued, worried and amused all at once.

Having already written a number of important and classic works on the history of science,7 Oreskes and Conway explore a new, under-exploited and promising approach for the social sciences: serious speculation, the distant heir of Lucian’s spoudogeloion (seriocomic) or of Plato’s ludus philosophicus (serious game). As readers, we smile, but it is a troubled smile. These are the principal periods of this history of our future:

1988-2093: the Penumbral Age
2005: bill permitting shale gas exploitation without the supervision of public authorities passes in the United States
2009: failure of the Copenhagen summit and denial of scientific consensus
2023: the year of perpetual summer
2041: unprecedented heatwaves and hunger riots
2073-2093: Mass migration

By presenting us with a history of our time and identifying key periods and dates of our collective present and near future, Oreskes and Conway drive home the idea that our era is a decisive one. The immense success of the book lies in its paradoxical and provocative use of scientific neutrality. On a subject such as this, the measured objectivity of academic discourse is chilling: the detached tone of the historian’s writing creates an emotional response through the very act of containing emotion. This is the powerful stylistic effect of this hybrid text that fuses history and science fiction. Thus, the work positions itself within a current of social science writing which is experimenting with new methods of analysis and comprehension, such as fiction, narrative and the creation of striking images.

Just like those seventeenth-century philosophers and scholars who imagined travelling away from the Earth in order to demonstrate its movement through fiction and transform the commonly accepted image of the world, Oreskes and Conway attempt to reclaim our perception of our present by embedding it in a longview extending into the future. Conjuring up new images, changing perspectives and altering our view of the world: this is the role – and the power – of fiction, when the most classical, yet least convincing, evidential tools have failed.

The book also raises questions on the writing of history, the role of the social sciences, and their profitable, explosive, and ultimately necessary association with art and literature. On reaching the end of his research, the historian of 2393 finally acquires an answer to his earlier conundrum: “It is difficult to understand why humans did not respond appropriately in the early Penumbral Period, when pre­ventive measures were still possible.”8 Denial and optimism were among the many factors that converged to cause the tragedy, future historians explain.

Whether through a displacement in space (the cosmological narrative) or a displacement in time (the future narrative), the technique of distancing creates an instrument out of fiction that extends the range of tools available, without replacing those already in existence. The lunar voyage radicalises and develops the possibilities of the telescope for the human imagination. The future narrative inscribes itself in the temporal logic of the climate model. By introducing a scenario that is primarily physical and environmental into a demographic, human, social, sensory, political or economic reality, this type of narrative combines a logical mode of functioning with a chronological one. In so doing, it creates a powerful picture of that which we cannot reach, or cannot let happen, borrowing from the literary codes of travel, discovery and exploratory narratives, in the case of cosmic fiction; or from those of dystopian and post-apocalyptic narratives, in the case of speculative fiction.

  1. Frédérique Aït-Touati, Fictions of the Cosmos : Science and Literature in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). 

  2. The term « anamorphosis » appeared in Gaspar Schott’s treatise on perspective (Magia universalis, 1657-59). Beforehand, this pictorial device was designated by various terms such as “curious perspective” (Niceron, 1638) and “multiple perspective.” See J. Baltrusaitis, Anamorphoses Ou Magie Artificielle Des Effets Merveilleux (Paris, 1969); and Simon Schaffer, “The Devices of Iconoclasm,” in Iconoclash, edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 498-515. 

  3. Valérie Masson-Delmotte, Climat: le vrai et le faux (Paris: Le Pommier, 2011). 

  4. Paul Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010). 

  5. Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck, ed. Histories of Scientific Observation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 2007). 

  6. Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014). 

  7. See in particular Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010). 

  8. Oreskes and Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization, 13-14. 

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