The 2017 eclipse was a unique point in the American consciousness. Large amounts of people simultaneously pondered their existence relative to the cosmos. It was a singular moment given that people usually only confront their size in proportion to a mundane scale: a shelf they’re trying to reach or a six-foot height preference on Tinder. I was struck by the fragile self-importance of my problems in comparison to the universe beyond, and I think others were too. But the only serious discussion of our relative size I saw was in a flat-earther Facebook group. They were more concerned with how NASA managed to fake such a large-scale event.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Bringing it up at the water cooler isn’t natural and probably won’t do anything to quell the existential anxiety.
Literature is a better place to discuss such matters. Its longform nature allows us to explore concepts that would be too difficult otherwise. But what exactly makes the universe scary, and how should literature respond? Our insect-like proportions to outer space can be daunting, but I don’t think size alone can explain the fear. There’s something about the vast, uncaring emptiness that makes humans feel insignificant. And with good reason.
What do even the best pieces of writing signify when held up next to the vast expanse of nothing around us? Thinking about such things only makes the stories we tell each other seem less relevant. These anxieties are easy to ignore when engrossed in a good story — we’re usually thinking about our characters existing in a specific setting, not about the oblivion surrounding that environment.
Moreover, space implies limits for fully controlling our own experiences. The earth is part of a large and uncaring universe, and we can’t completely control our own environment. Asteroids are one manifestation of this anxiety. Even the small things humans can build will be ripped apart by each other, or a decaying earth, or, ultimately, heat death. Can we just ignore this? People walk indoors, and the outside world feels like a different reality entirely, separated by more than just walls. It’s easy to have a similar feeling about our place in the universe. Maybe this is good. We can focus on solving the problems we have control over. But there has to be some way to adapt our stories to respond healthily.
One typical response in literature is fantasies of new colonialism. It’s comforting to some to grid and map the intergalactic space, and then to colonize it. The Cold War pushed American manifest destiny upward. Perhaps if we build enough floating space Walmarts, we can fill up the vast unknown with something we understand. Spending your entire free time imagining a Chili’s in the Kuiper belt has some negative implications, believe it or not. For one, it’s now easier to imagine geo-engineering a new environment on Mars, as in Andy Weir’s “The Martian,” than saving our own.
Other stories in literature try to focus on the horror. For many, this means aliens. Other writers fill the dark void ineffably giant H.P.-Lovecraftian monsters. This makes sense: When presented with nothing, we’re constantly scanning and looking for something we can understand. Like being a kid and running to the bed after turning out the lights, there’s something we don’t trust about blank nothingness. But this may not confront space’s void directly. Humans can understand the horror of monsters. We’re programmed to fear animals that can kill us. Understanding our hypothetical relationship to these monsters does not truly explore why we’re afraid of nothingness, and what we can do about it.
Our fears about space aren’t tangible. Translating those fears to identifiable monsters means we can’t honestly face less concrete horrors. Comedy is another fallback. Books like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” laugh off the absurdity of the void. This may be just another type of deflection. Imaging the answer to life as 42 is simply a way of short-circuiting thinking about the terror of meaninglessness.
Even if most literature isn’t genuinely looking in the face of our reality, does that matter? We only have so much time on this earth, and there’s more than enough to worry about without trying to confront large existential problems. Most people are just worrying about how to make ends meet.
Perhaps there is no right answer. Facing absurdity shouldn’t come at the cost of happiness. Some terrors aren’t worth considering under certain circumstances, even if they’re right. If you found evidence for heaven not existing, you wouldn’t present it to a mom at her son’s funeral. Ignoring existential absurdity you have no control over isn’t necessarily cowardly. Picking your battles is just one part of coping with the human experience.