Lovecraft and Sagan; two sides of the same coin

“Each star system is an island in space, quarantined from its neighbors by light-years.  I can imagine creatures evolving into glimmerings of knowledge on innumerable worlds, every one of them assuming at first their puny planet and paltry few suns to be all that is.  We grow up in isolation.  Only slowly do we teach ourselves the Cosmos.” – Carl Sagan, Cosmos 1980.

“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.  The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” – H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu, 1928.

Growing up in the later part of the 1970’s and 1980’s two people really influenced my “path” in life: H.P. Lovecraft and Carl Sagan.  And I did not realize how similar their philosophies were until very recently.

Science and curiosity was extremely important in the development of both of their lives.  Lovecraft was an excellent writer of fiction who would have made a good scientist and Sagan was an excellent scientist who would have made a good (at least decent) writer of fiction (which he occasionally dabbled in).   Both recognized how small and insignificant the human race and our planet is relative to the Universe as a whole.  However, while Lovecraft saw this as a source of fear and dread to use in his stories, Sagan embraced it with a sense of awe and wonder.

While Lovecraft may have given the impression that using science would only lead to our undoing this was more of a plot device for his stories than a philosophical viewpoint.  Lovecraft’s inherent interest in science and general curiosity came through in his stories such as At the Mountains of Madness, which is filled with various scientific hypotheses and theories.

In turn, Sagan may give the impression that science would be the “cure all” for everything that ails humanity, he clearly understood how our science and technology could destroy us.  Sagan constantly warned how nuclear proliferation and our anthropomorphic impacts on the Earth’s ecosystems and climate could be the ruin of all of us as a species.

In any event, I continue to find interesting parallels between Lovecraft and Sagan, while at the same time being on opposite sides of the same coin.

– Fred

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9 thoughts on “Lovecraft and Sagan; two sides of the same coin

  1. Hi Fred,
    Some nice posts here.
    I was also a great follower of Mr Sagan in the 70s and 80s: the Viking landings and then the TV shows he hosted.
    It was about this time I discovered Lovecraft in the local library in my hometown.
    The covers always fascinated me, and being a budding artists I borrowed the books to copy the “Panther” covers. However, it didn’t take long until the cover opened and the mysterious world of Mr Lovecraft took hold of me.

    It always struck me that his fiction always had a well-crafted scientific angle to it. It left me wondering about his background and life. Unfortunately, apart from the two paragraphs (if you were lucky!) on the inside pages, there were few sources for finding out about the man himself and his influences. I often wondered if – beyond the tales of ancient Greece and other myths as obvious influences – he was of the scientific ilk?

    I suppose with the coming of Stephen King, Clive Barker, and many others, not to mention the horror films of the 80s, a renewal of his legacy started to take root in a whole new generation.
    I myself was an avid reader of Starlog, Future and their UK equivalent, Starburst. There were often reviews of his books and there was even, as I recall, a mention of a Cthulhu film using a mixture of live action and stop-motion animation. I’ll have to dig out the back issues. I wonder what happened to that one? Perhaps you know?

    Phil

    1. Hey Phil

      Thank you for the comment. Yes, a lot more is known about HPL now than when we were kids. A lot of this is thanks to S.T. Joshi, Necronomicon Press and others. As a writer and artist, HPL was certainly well educated in the scientific activities and research of the early part of the 20th century. At the Mountains of Madness (one of my favorite stories) is full of a variety of scientific hypotheses and theories; some are well established (e.g. evolution), others were cutting edge and emerging at the time (e.g. quantum mechanics), and others were just flat wrong (e.g. concept of ether in space). I do enjoy HPL’s early and Dream Cycle tales but I love this stuff the best.

      I remember Starlog! Use to buy it all the time. I also remember the Cthulhu film that was suppose to be made. There was some great conceptual art on the proposed movie in the magazine. It looks like it would have been great but I don’t think it was ever made. The BEST “Call of Cthulhu” film is from the HPL Historical Society – it is done as a black and white silent film and it is fantastic. If you have not seen it, I would highly recommend getting it on DVD.

      Again, thank you for the comment. Look forward to talking to you again.

      Fred

      1. Hi Fred,

        At the Mountains of Madness is also one of my faves. I suppose this stems from my appreciation for the older works of SF. When a writer puts some “science” into SF it’s always interesting to contemplate the theories they propose even if they are based on the assumptions of their time or just flights of fantasy.

        Thanks for the tips in regard to the film.
        I’m quite new to blogging, so it’ll take me some time to get through the vast amount of info that has accumulated on the net and from the various blogs. I followed a link to you from David Haden’s site (http://tentaclii.wordpress.com/).

        Going back to “At the Mountains of Madness” , it is such a pity that Director Guillermo del Toro gave up the film project due to Prometheus (such a dismally disappointing film – and this is coming from a huge fan of Alien and Alien)
        I’m sure, especially in view of his prior exploits, including the “Hellboy” films, that Guillermo del Toro would have given us a true adaptation of this classic.

        Who knows perhaps screenplays have changed hands and as we “speak” the corporate wheels are turning for a possible release of this classic.

        Are you a fan of Quatermass? Nigel Kneale was the writier.

        Talk soon

        Phil

  2. I agree – del Toro would have made an incredible ATMoM movie and Prometheus should not dissuade him to make it. Unfortunately, he is onto other projects but maybe someday he will make one. Prometheus was a beautiful film to look at; probably only one of two movies I thought was worth seeing in 3D (this and Avatar). However, the story was embarrassing. They had some good ideas but the script was bad – such a shame. Like you I enjoy the Alien movies. The first one is one of my all time favorite movies. And the Hellboy movies rock! Never read the comic but love the movies.

    Also, love the Quatermass movies. They have a Quatermass and the Pit DVD (from the BBC TV series) on Amazon that I know one of these days I will pick up. There is a movie or TV show / movie from I think the BBC called the Stone Tapes that is suppose to be Lovecraftian. Hard to find; do you know it?

    1. “There is a movie or TV show / movie from I think the BBC called the Stone Tapes that is suppose to be Lovecraftian. Hard to find; do you know it?”

      Yes I have it. It was made for the BBC not as a feature film, but as a one-off play for TV: we would have called it “Play for Today” back then.
      It is early 70s, but the story is typical Kneale. I would be hard pressed to say it’s Lovecraftian; The basic premise has more to do with comparing the advent of cassette tapes (magnetic tape recordings) to memories (in this case ghosts) being stored in the stone work of a very old house. Ancient burial ground story. I don’t really want to spoil it for you; but it’s a good story but the acting, as I’ve already mentioned is dated, but worth watching.

      One of the best Nigel Kneale stories or series was “Beasts”. Check out this episode: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=thDx6RXqVSM
      This is quintessential 70s Brit TV.
      Enjoy.

      Phil

      1. Thanks Phil. I will check it out. I always enjoyed British horror, scifi and fantasy. Big fan of Hammer stuff.
        Fred

  3. Hi Phil,
    I’m new to blogging so I hope this reaches you. Carl Sagan was and still is such a positive influence in my life and my son has been trying to get me to read Lovecraft since he learned to talk, so now I’m compelled. I’m going to check out all the links mentioned here, and just wanted to say great post! Oh how I miss Carl Sagan. Thanks.

    1. Same with me – Sagan had such a big impact on my life – one of the reasons I became a scientist myself. I am enjoying the New Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson but I really miss Sagan as well!
      Fred

    2. Hi Jayn,

      Yep, got your message. Carl Sagan had this fantastic way of grabbing the audience’s attention.
      Lovecraft is an acquired taste I must admit. I always try to reread his work. I suppose for me his books were part of my teenage years, discovering new fictions, etc.

      Talk soon

      Phil

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