The Milk of Space
Some notes on Edwin Morgan's science fiction poems (written before his last voyage out)
Among Edwin Morgan's favourite authors in his 1920s and 1930s childhood and teenage years (conveniently, for us, listed in his Letts Pocket Diary for 1933) were Jules Verne, Rider Haggard, H.G. Wells, G.A. Henty, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle. He couldn't get enough of their tales of adventure, fantasy and exploration, so much so that he persuaded his parents to join several different libraries in addition to the ones he was a member of. Books were one thing, magazines another. EM lapped up imports like Amazing Stories and home-grown publications like Scoops, but mother and father did not approve, going as far as to throw them on the fire. Morgan resorted to the time-honoured device of torch under the bedclothes. When he was fourteen he would buy copies of Scoops (2d weekly) from a wee shop near Rutherglen Academy (where he was a pupil) and smuggle them into the house.
But along with science fiction was science fact—the list also contains books like The Wonder Book of Science, The Wonder Book of Why and What, The Pictorial Cabinet of Marvels, The Book of the Heavens. He was fascinated by biology and astronomy as well as the strange and fantastic. Like most boys he was both hungry for knowledge and souped-up on superheroes. The cinema too, with films like Metropolis (1926)—a mechanistic vision of the future—fed his imagination. 'Practical knowledge and exuberant fantasy', as Kevin McCarra put it.1
Without going into a history of science fiction (and I confess here to writing out of relative ignorance), it is clear that writers like Poe, Verne and Wells set the scenarios for much of what was to follow: imagined exploration of time, of space, of the earth itself, surface and depths, interaction between humans and alien beings. The genre flourished particularly after World War II, with the establishment of the United Nations and the growth of a space industry: possible future societies were described, the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere, of other worlds, was explored; space travel, time travel; and more recently, ramifications of machines, computers, artificial intelligence; cyber fiction.
Edwin Morgan's science fiction poems roughly follow the trajectory of the history of the genre. His early poems and prose pieces (such as 'Hypnophantas', 1937) show a strong fantasy streak, but they were more what Poe called 'grotesque and arabesque'. Science added its richness to the work after EM had a kind of Damascus experience when he heard that Russia had sent up its second sputnik:
There was an impetus in what was happening in other sciences too—biology and biochemistry: Morgan felt that science was catching up with science fiction.
'The Creator and the Computer' appeared in 1958, 'French Rocket Cat' and 'The Computer's First Christmas Card' in 1963, and then in 1964 and 1965, the first two of his great science fiction poems, 'In Sobieski's Shield' and 'From the Domain of Arnheim' (the others being 'The First Men on Mercury', 1971; 'Memories of Earth', 1973; and the Star Gate poems of 1979). He was still writing about Sputnik fifty years after its orbit ('The Sputnik's Tale' from Planet Wave in A Book of Lives 2007).
Most of the standard science fiction fare is covered in the poems: space exploration to other planets ('The Moons of Jupiter'), encounters with extra-terrestrial life ('The First Men on Mercury'), time travel ('From the Domain of Arnheim)', teleporting ('In Sobieski's Shield'), but despite Morgan's interest and delight in the genre and in science itself, there are other factors at work—the freedom of the form enables him to explore in different ways his abiding concerns: belief in the future, belief in the resilience of human beings, the cruciality of change and the importance of optimism; allowing access to other worlds, giving a voice to outsiders, even inanimate objects; telling a story. As he said in an interview, 'it's not so much the science or the scientific ideas that are important; these just set something off which really in the end is talking about human beings and how they would react.'2 Science fiction became an important strand through all of Edwin Morgan's work, especially from the mid 1960s, through the miraculous blend of science fiction and history in Sonnets from Scotland (1984) and Planet Wave (1997), to the flyting of two cancer cells in Gorgo and Beau (2003), and often reflected themes and concerns being worked out in other kinds of poems.
'In Sobieski's Shield' comes from what was perhaps the most creative and innovative decade of Morgan's writing life, the 1960s, and the birth of what became his continuing mantra of 'the second life' (or sometimes 'Change Rules'). Morgan discovered that in his early forties life began again, both personally—he met his great love John Scott—and in his work—he realised that he could write about anything, from the streets of Glasgow to Marilyn Monroe or Saturn. 'In Sobieski's Shield' appears in the collection titled The Second Life (1968). Told by the father, it's about a family escaping earth as the sun dies—they are dematerialised and reappear in another constellation. They are the same family but different—one of the differences is that the father has acquired a tattoo that seems to have come from the arm of a soldier who died in the First World War. They look at the strange new planet: the father says, 'let's take our second / like our first life ... it's hard to go / let's go'. We carry the past with us but we change, we go forward: human survival and human resilience. For what it's worth, 'let's go' are the final words of Beckett's Waiting for Godot and also the call to arms that runs through Peckinpah's film The Wild Bunch (1969). [...]
1 Robert Crawford and Hamish Whyte eds., About Edwin Morgan (Edinburgh University Press, 1990) p.2
2 Edwin Morgan, Nothing Not Giving Messages: reflections on his work and life (Polygon, 1990) p. 32