Earlier in July, I attended the Kansas University Campbell Conference, the annual event at which the Campbell and Sturgeon Awards are given out (Little Brother was one of the Campbell winners this year). One of the honorees at the awards ceremony was Paul Carter, the historian and science fiction scholar. Paul was absolutely charming all weekend, a clever, twinkle-eyed presence in the room at all the various discussions, and then, at the very end of the event, he took the podium and delivered the closing lecture.
Called "The Enormous Absurdity of Nature," Carter's essay was one of the most beautiful, lyrical and thought-provoking pieces of writing I had encoutered; it examined the mythic, religious and scientific history of humanity's relationship to the Earth, to space, and to the moon. It epitomized everything great about scholarly writing -- the ability to show the unexpected connections between seemingly disparate subjects and to illuminate them in so doing.
Paul's son Bruce was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the manuscript for "The Enormous Absurdity of Nature" and to pass on Paul's consent to publish it here. I only regret that there isn't video of Paul's delivery, which was magnificent, practically a sermon (turns out Paul's father was a Methodist minister).
So here it is; posting it here is one of my most exciting Boing Boing moments for the year. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
During the week in the hot summer of 1994 when we celebrated
the 25th anniversary of the first human visit to Earth's moon,
broken chunks of Comet Shoemaker-Levy, carefully labeled from
A to W by watchers on Earth, crashed into the back side of
Jupiter. When the big planet rotated sufficiently to show Earth
observers the extent of the damage, Jupiter quite to their surprise
displayed visible blemishes, some of them more than Earth-sized,
on its colorful cloud-banded face. They shared space with the
long-extant Great Red Spot, which Jupiter watchers had had under
continuous observation for two centuries and more.
Jupiter's diameter is ten times Earth's. A comet hurtling
into that roiling gas ball, unless perchance it were to stir up
organic processes out of that primal soup, must be less than a
pinprick. But a similar solid body smiting the Earth would be
quite another case. Conceivably it could send the current lord
of creation, homo sapiens, to join his august predecessor the
Dinosaurs, from the innocuous children's purple friend
Barney to the frightful raptors portrayed in Jurassic Park and
its sequels, have in the modern imagination to a great extent
displaced the dragon. What fascinates us about them is precisely
that they came, lived, flourished and died without any human
referent whatsoever. To one 19th century Victorian clerical
gentleman, that utter absence of human context posed a troublesome
question for traditional faith: "Who can think that a being
of unbounded power, wisdom, and goodness should create a world
(Thanks, Paul and Bruce!)