Sunday, August 26, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: The Sea of Air

The September Fortean Times (already superseded at the website; I'm always a month or more behind the English newsstand) has a feature article that describes a killer, underused science fiction setting: Earth's atmosphere.

The theory set out by Scott Deschaine in "The Sky is Alive" is attractively elegant. Many UFO sightings, "star jelly," "angel hair," flesh falls, and other Fortean phenomena would make perfect sense if the atmosphere has life-forms adapted to it analogous to the life-forms of the ocean. Because the upper layer of the ocean and the lower layer of air are porous, engaged in a continual exchange of life and nutrients, there could even be creatures adapted to the ocean and the air at different stages of their lives. Many UFOs, after all, are reported to behave just like curious animals, and many of them even look like jellyfish.

These creatures would necessarily be light and difficult to see, but given the astounding diversity and resilience of life in our ecosystem, the possibility cannot be written off.

This idea has of course been used at least once in fiction, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His "Horror of the Heights," however, only scratches the surface of the possibilities for the setting, suggesting an aerial jungle in which live fierce invisible predators among whom pilots go at their peril.

The rousing exploration adventure is not currently fashionable in science fiction. A modern reader expects more plot, character angst, and social commentary than anybody ever expected of Doyle or even Heinlein and Asimov. You can't just take off into the sky and record discoveries of flocks of aerial jellyfish, sentient clouds, semi-intelligent sprites living in thunderclouds. But the story of the first exploratory mission, centering on a crew variously eager to explore the upper atmosphere or disappointed not to be going to the moon, a Mission Control plagued by budget cuts and political posturing, and an intrusive subculture of UFOologists convinced that this is one more cover-up by the Great Conspiracy would be complex enough for any hard SF reader.

As long as you worked the science angle hard enough, and didn't let it turn into the same old plot as the last ten blockbuster movies you saw.

1 comment:

  1. One of the first questions, of course, is what the aerial critters are made of. Spider Robinson had them be plasmids, which isn't bad.

    I wonder if the reason we haven't gotten to know the life forms of the air is that airplanes simply repel and/or kill them, while balloons don't stay in one place for long enough to notice the aerial jellies and so on. The first tethered balloon to hang out in one part of the tropopause might be the one that finally makes the breakthrough (one which the backers seriously did not expect).
    And then there is that package of Peeps which vanished during an instrument-package ascent . . . .