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Shaping New Language

Russian cosmism, acaia seeds and volcanic poetry

I.

Tsiolkovsky is a large lunar impact crater that is located on the far side of Earth’s Moon, in the southern hemisphere. It is named after Russian self-taught rocket scientist and pioneer of astronautic theory, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935). The crater is one of the most prominent features on the far side of the Moon. It has high, terraced inner walls and a central peak, that rises over 3200 m above the floor of the crater. The floor is unusual for a crater on the far side, as it is covered by the dark-hued mare that is characteristic of the maria found on the near side of the moon. The lunar maria are large, dark, basaltic plains on our Moon, formed by ancient volcanic eruptions. They were dubbed maria, Latin for seas, by early astronomers who mistook them for actual seas. They are less reflective than the highlands as a result of their iron-rich composition, and hence appear dark to the naked eye. 

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky is widely regarded a prophet for space exploration. In his youth, he spent three years attending a Moscow library where Russian cosmism proponent Nikolai Fyodorov worked. The Russian Cosmism entailed a broad theory of natural philosophy, combining elements of religion and ethics with a history and philosophy of the origin, evolution, and future existence of the cosmos and humankind. It combined elements from both Eastern and Western philosophic traditions as well as from the Russian Orthodox Church. Young Tsiolkovsky was affected by Fyodorov’s thinking and writings, and later came to believe that colonising space would lead to the perfection of the human species, with immortality and a carefree existence.

Tsiolkovsky has written many works, some genius, some absurd. Some scientific, some fictional. All of them about theoretical space travel and some 50 years before Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957 as the first artificial Earth satellite. At his time, he was regarded a dreamer more than a scientist, but many of the details from his works has been disturbingly accurate.

One of his books called The Will of the Universe. The Unknown Intelligence from 1928 shares his believes that humans will eventually colonise the Milky Way. He believed in a cosmic being that governed humans as »marionettes, mechanical puppets, machines, movie characters«, thereby subscribing to a mechanical view of the universe, which he believed would be controlled in the millennia to come through the power of human science and industry.


II.

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The mystique and beauty of the lunar crater that is named after Tsiolkovsky is similar to that of any other celestial body examined from afar. The accuracy and affection humans are studying space with is perhaps saying something about our obsession with understanding why we are here.  

The properties of the crater are intriguing because we cannot visit or understand it fully. And in the russian cosmism, the properties of this particular crater, or a black hole devouring neutron star for that matter, is equally important. Also to humans, stone or bacteria according to Tsiolkovsky. In his work Theorems of Life (as an Addendum and Clarification on Monism), he presents sixteen theorems of life. In the first, he writes that that »all matter is alive at its core«. That it is impossible to doubt, that animals and plants, even single-celled organisms, have feelings. The second truth is named No atom in the universe can avoid a complicated life, and begins like this:

»Planets and suns are destroyed, mixed, created again; all matter (the elements) transforms. Therefore, there is no single particle of matter that wouldn’t have been a part of something living and already participated in life an infinite number of times.«

Tsiolkovsky is looking at life from the height of cosmic space. One of his tools for doing this was fiction novels. Art and science likely have things to learn from each other, but not at the time where Tsiolkovsky lived and worked, at least not in his case according to the real scientists.


III.

Ursula K. Le Guin was an American author best known for her speculative fiction. In her short work The Author of Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts from the Journal of Therolinguistics. The first of the three short texts, titled MS Found in an Anthill revolves around attempts to decipher messages left by ants on degerminated acacia seeds. 

The second entry, Announcement of an Expedition, has Dr. D.Petri seeking qualified personnel to embark on an Antarctic expedition to study the language of Emperor penguins, a social poetry borne out of a shared solitude on the ice, and is conveyed through fluctuations of feathers and body temperature, as inaccessible as the frozen heart of Antarctica.

The last piece is an editorial by the President of the Therolinguistics Association. In a world where animal languages are widely accepted and discussed, the president writes that plant languages remain largely unexplored and believes this to be a failure of imagination. The president challenges fellow therolinguists to look deeper and broader, both to the past when people were ignorant to the tongues of fish, penguins and ants, and to the future when later generations may be geolinguists understanding the »wholly atemporal, cold, volcanic poetry of the rock«, even words pronounced by earth »in its immense solitude, within the immenser community of space«.

The Author of Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts from the Journal of Therolinguistics, can be read in many ways. It expands our moral horizon, it teaches about kinship to other beings, it is poetic and discusses language. And exactly that is what fiction can offer: Multiple parallel lines running across the structures of cosmos - space for interpretation, reception and for imagination. Our understanding of the future is structured in the language of the present. The future remains distant simply due to the limitations of our imagination. 

Resurrecting a dead poet