Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Uncanny in Science Fiction

Quatermass and the Pit
Special Collections (Uni of Leeds)
The relationship between science fiction and the supernatural provides the basis of Quatermass and the Pit, the 1959 TV series that is one of scriptwriter Nigel Kneale's best-known works. The plot deals with the origins of the human conception of evil and society's creation of the 'horned devil' as the embodiment of that evil. Throughout the story, instances of what can be termed the 'uncanny' are revealed to be simply knowledge hitherto unknown to human understanding.

The definition of the uncanny as that which is 'weird' or 'beyond what is normal' (OED), applies to the story's premise. Quatermass and the Pit begins with the discovery of strange skeletal remains during the construction of a London Underground station. The skeletons are at first assumed to be evidence of the missing link in human evolution, but the further discovery of a large cylindrical object arouses suspicions of an unexploded WWII bomb. However, this theory is soon disregarded once it is found the object is not made of any metal known to man. Kneale shrouds the excavation in a layer of urban folklore: the station is being developed at a place named 'Hobbs Lane', 'hob' being another name for the devil, while the scientist Quatermass's investigations reveal that many of the houses in the area have been empty for years. There is also a long history of ghost sightings, poltergiest activity, and rioting, all connected to disturbances of the ground. 

The use of the pentagram, found inside what is revealed to be a spaceship, further develops this link between the uncanny and the unknown: the human association of the pentagram with evil is ultimately revealed to be a race memory, implanted by the dying Martian race at the beginning of man's evolution - the pentagram being a Martian symbol. The physical appearance of the Martians, after the discovery of some of their remains within the spaceship, shows them to be an insect-like race, complete with horns, thus giving rise to the notion of the horned devil as a figure of evil and fear. Indeed, it is the apparent sighting of such creatures that gave rise to the naming of the area as Hobbs Lane. The revelation that these sightings are the result of genetic intervention in human evolution is ultimately shown to be the cause of the supernatural phenomena, and this accounts for certain humans responding to the psychic power remnant in the spaceship.

The mass psychosis that follows from the excavation is eventually defeated by making a connection between folklore and science: the knowledge that demons have an aversion to iron prompts the protagonists to assume that the way to defeat the mass of energy consuming the populace, the nucleus of which is a giant image of a horned Martian, is to throw an iron chain into the image, thus dispersing the energy into the earth. Consequently, the energy ceases to consume the population. 

Quatermass and the Pit bridges the gap between science fiction and the uncanny by seeking to rationalise the unknown and give a face to nameless fears. In so doing, Kneale seems to be arguing that it is only by facing what is in the 'pit' of our collective fears that we can begin to reason with and overcome that which we regard as uncanny.

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