Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk was of course based on Gene Roddenberry’s beaming of the 18th Century explorer Captain James Cook into the world of science fiction. For those of us living in the Pacific Northwest, including Tacoma, the teleportation is a fairly recent example of how our part of the planet has been seen as an alien world, astronomically distant, with atmospheric conditions and strange creatures that test the most vivid imagination. In Star Trek terms, a destination for those seeking “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before”.
Maybe we were once the epitome of outer space because the surroundings we are so familiar with today were at the outer edge of the known world as the age of reason and scientific curiosity took hold in the 1700’s. Maybe it’s because the Northwest frontier was an obvious metaphor for outer space as writers reached further into the scientific distance in the 1800’s.
And maybe it’s also because science fiction just follows us around, like an orbiting moon.
Fifty years before Captain Cook’s third voyage into the North Pacific in the late 1770’s, the English satirist Jonathan Swift sent his sea Captain hero Lemuel Gulliver to a land of 70 foot tall giants just north of the Straits of Annian (Straits of Juan De Fuca, thought at the time to be the elusive Northwest Passage). Gulliver’s second voyage, to Brobdingnag, finds him fighting a terrifying giant wasp, living in a tiny house in the court of the North American king and eventually being swooped down upon and carried away by a giant eagle and dropped into the sea. Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726, and while he was using wild fantasy to disguise current day political commentary and satire, it’s recognized by many as the beginnings of science fiction.(Like Star Trek didn’t hide a little social and political criticism once in awhile).
By the time Captain James Cook sailed into the North Pacific on his third voyage, the American revolution was under way but he was so revered as an global explorer that Benjamin Franklin himself made sure he could sail into the uncharted Northwest coast without be molested. In England, Cook’s first two voyages to the lands of the Pacific and Australia were like returning moonshots with unimaginable encounters with unearthly civilizations, celestial voyages of exploration over distances measured in years, and the use of closely guarded navigational technology so accurate that some scientists attributed it to magic. Cook’s second and third voyages carried the almost mythic Harrison chronometer, a time machine that Albert Einstein would marvel at in the mid 20th Century.
The third Voyage brought Cook’s ship along our coast and the things he saw, recorded and collected were brought back to England along with the dark news that the great Captain had lost his life in an encounter with beings from another world. The story was illustrated with objects of puzzling meaning and beauty, specimens of bizarre creatures and drawings and images of places that could only exist in another dimension or universe. What made it all so unbelievable and spellbinding for 18th Century Europeans was that the science Cook brought back from our part of the world was not fiction. George Vancouver followed Cook and brought back more scientific anomalies from the Puget Sound region in 1792 and it was not an accident that when America finally launched a full scientific exploring expedition in 1840 it came here. The First United States Exploring Expedition began its mapping and collecting of Puget Sound at a place they named Commencement Bay and the maps, collections and documents they assembled were the first items in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution cataloged in a system that today includes the first moon rocks and the spacecraft in the Air and Space Museum.
By the later half of the 1800’s science fiction was on its
own trajectory and the most notable writer in the genre was Jules Verne who wrote Journey to the Center of the Earth(1864), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea(1870) and his most popular book Around the World in Eighty Days(1873). Oddly, and I really mean odd, the central character in Verne’s book about traveling around the world, Phineas Fogg, is thought to be based on a real guy who in 1870 went around the world in exactly 80 days. Then in 1890, he did it a second time in only 67 days beginning and ending in Tacoma. His name was George Francis Train and in all likelihood he was crazy for at least most of his life. He ran for president in 1872 and after losing legally stood for the self invented office of dictator of the United States, which he also apparently did not win. He would not shake hands with anyone but himself due to the loss of inner electricity, lived on a diet of fruit and chocolate and for one extended period of his life he spoke only to people beneath the age of adulthood. He is also largely credited with giving Tacoma the moto “City of Destiny.
But not all of the fictionalizing of the Pacific Northwest was done by writers. In the days before photography, painters and illustrators were sometimes prone to exaggeration if not complete fiction. In the same way the railroads promoted George Train’s publicity stunt, they also commissioned artists to romanticize the scenery and marvels of the far west. Exocticism and even a visual sense of other-worldliness was part of the dreamy aesthetic and lure.
Artists like Thomas Moran and particularly Albert Bierstadt painted monumental portraits of landscapes that can only be termed science fiction. They interpreted the Pacific Northwest’s natural world in supernatural, almost psychedelic terms creating worlds of pure imagination. The most fantastic game worlds, sci fi magazine covers and movie sets today barely compete with the luminous phantasms created by Bierstadt and other railroad era painters. For people who had never been to the Northwest and only seen it through the eyes of the artists, people living in Tacoma and the Puget Sound region were like spacemen on another planet.
And then there is the 20th Century, where science fiction gets more cinematic and suspicious and the Pacific Northwest gets more familiar and tame. But then comes June 27, 1947 and a former military pilot, Kenneth Arnold flying his small private plane in the airspace between Tacoma and Mt. Rainier. According to his story he was passed by a tight group of very fast moving silver objects traveling at about 1200 miles per hour. It was a fantastic story he was more than happy to repeat-more than 800 times in just a few days for the press-and each time he referred to the flying objects as saucers. In the popular paranoia of post war America “Flying Saucers” were coming and science fiction was back again in the Northwest. Maybe it never left.
Maybe the fantastic becomes normal when you live with it every day and maybe science fiction is just part of our history.
There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”
― Frank Herbert