I lament the waning of the days this time of year, but the consolation is...the return of night, which, being an early riser, I almost manage to avoid altogether June through August at this latitude. But the premature dusks of September rouse me out of what is, after all, a kind of solar solipsism, and offer a reminder of the great Absence--largely empty and without obvious succor--that is the rest of the visible universe.
But what if Absence were to become Presence? Gazing at the stars more clearly in the cooler, drier air, I think of some great science fiction, supreme among which in the genre I'm thinking of, alien contact, are 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris. Both novels are excellent, but the films, unusually, are even better (I'm thinking of the luminous Russian version of Solaris by Tarkovsky, not the execrable Soderbergh remake). I like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact as well, but these have an element of kitsch compared to the former exemplars.
In 2001 and Solaris the "aliens" in question (I use quotes because in the former work the aliens can only be inferred, not perceived, and in the latter story it is never clear whether the planet Solaris really counts as alive) are neither menacing nor cuddly; rather they are transcendently inscrutable (the utterly blank obelisks of 2001, like the planet Solaris, do not disclose their secrets). And yet they do engage with human beings in most exceptional ways.
In a paper perhaps never to be written, I would someday like to discuss how 2001 and Solaris offer a most compelling vision of alien contact as a truly religious experience. For those who find most earthly deities "human, all too human," these aliens are what one might expect a God to be, that is, truly beyond our understanding; "It" does not look like us in the least or deign to speak our language. And yet these alien forces are not merely strange--they do interact with human beings. In the case of 2001, this takes the form of the metamorphosis of humanity into something other (we know not what); in Solaris, the (living?) planet disturbingly yet wondrously reflects elements of the human mind, a process which in itself offers self-understanding and change.
I would argue that these are manifestations of basic religious experience, in which a transcendent power beyond our ability to grasp nonetheless "speaks" to us, finding us worthy, or potentially worthy if not actually so (idealization/mirroring for the self-psychological fans out there). What if God arrived and not only didn't look like a man (or even a little green one), but took a form we couldn't even recognize? True religious experience, however it may be found, combines an acceptance of the human with an impatience with the merely human. This verges on the logically incoherent, which may be why spirituality runs the risk of being crazy-making. Wallace Stevens put it better:
And they said to him, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."
Okay, time for some earthly pursuits--run a few errands, catch a little NFL. Maybe get the telescope out later...