‘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 deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.’
The above passage is from the opening paragraph of H.P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu, published in 1928. The ‘frightful position’ of man was a subject of great interest to Lovecraft and other science-fiction writers from past to present.
When evaluating man’s presence within the vast and mysterious cosmos, one cannot deny that we are small. Some may argue that we are unimportant in the face of our own universe’s secrets. This was the conclusion that H.P. Lovecraft came to as he wrote short-stories for pulp-fiction magazines to make a living. An enthusiast of astronomy and horror fiction, he successfully wrote about strange tales of monstrosities from across the stars. In doing so, he devised an intricate philosophical attitude that paralleled Nihilism, namely Cosmicism.
The philosophy itself is rather obscure and some would find it deeply controversial. However, the concept is of crucial significance to science-fiction literature
Cosmicism is the philosophical realisation of, and indifference towards, the insignificance of man. It is the acceptance of the natural world’s imperfect ways and a rejection of all belief in recognisable divine presences. Lovecraft proposed that man was prey to the vast complexity and emptiness of the cosmos, and that we are all doomed to be forgotten because we are, by nature, weak and trivial. However, he did not define Cosmicism as a pessimistic outlook, but rather a practical and progressive one.
The philosophy itself is rather obscure and some would find it deeply controversial. However, the concept is of crucial significance to science-fiction literature. An exemplary image of Cosmicism is that of an extraterrestrial threat far more powerful than Earth. Lovecraft began deploying such images in his short-stories and eventually created the Cthulhu mythos: a shared fictional universe of short stories where Earth is constantly tormented by the ‘Great Old Ones’. The Cthulhu Mythos is a collection of Lovecraft’s stories featuring beings that lived on Earth, before mankind, until they became trapped in death-like sleeps. While hiding away in slumber, the beings begin to manipulate and haunt human characters into worship and madness, with the intention to return to Earth and rule once again.
The most famous story in this mythos is The Call of Cthulhu. The extraterrestrial threat in the story is Cthulhu, which comprises ‘an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature’. It follows the narrator’s journey to discover what Cthulhu is, which also results in his discovery of man’s tragic worthlessness beneath an intergalactic scheme. Lovecraft describes the Great Old Ones as belonging ‘to something horribly remote and distinct from mankind as we know it’ and notes that ‘our world and our conceptions have no part.’ Humanity lacks the capacity to counter the Great Old Ones; by cosmic law, we are like insects to the greater intergalactic forces, which lie beyond our understanding. Cthulhu is Lovecraft’s perfect symbol for Cosmicism: a force that is natural yet will destroy man as part of a wider cosmic occurrence that we cannot understand or stop.
The superiority of the Martians over mankind, and philosophical thoughts about humanity’s stance are frequently emphasised
Lovecraft may have constructed Cosmicism, but the themes involved in the philosophy can be found in work that predates The Call of Cthulhu – man’s insignificance in the face of intergalactic horrors has been explored for years. H.G. Wells was curious about what lied beyond Earth and was very sceptical of religion. Themes associated with Cosmicism featured heavily in his infamous The War of Worlds, published in 1898. The narrator of the novel offers a first-person account in a fashion similar to The Call of Cthulhu. The intergalactic terrors are described but the narrator is still quite uncertain about the alien nature of the threat. The superiority of the Martians over mankind, and philosophical thoughts about humanity’s stance are frequently emphasised – ‘And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us.’
The narrator even sympathises with the cosmic threat, believing that their invasion is an act of survival rather than evil – ‘before we judge them too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought’ – and lists humanity’s attacks on inferior creatures, such as the dodo. The narrator makes it clear that we are akin to animals when we encounter superior forces, and that our destruction before these cosmic horrors would be natural rather than immoral.
Another important piece of sci-fi literature is Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, published in 1937. This novel was respected by H.P. Lovecraft and H.G. Wells, who both saw it as a masterpiece. The narrator flies through space to interact with alien worlds. Throughout his journey, he contemplates humanity and considers mankind’s purpose in relation to the wide and lively cosmos – ‘was man indeed, as he sometimes desired to be, the growing point of the cosmical spirit, in its temporal aspect at least? […] Or was mankind of no more importance in the universal view than rats in a cathedral?’ This passage contemplates mankind’s potential insignificance. Humans are likened to ‘rats’ and the idea that we are a ‘meaningless’ presence in the face of the infinite universe is entertained, demonstrating that Stapledon was aware of the basic principles of Cosmicism even before they were devised by Lovecraft.
Cosmicism as we understand it does not have to be applied in reality, but it can certainly serve as a gateway to developing bold new characters and expanding our horizons through literature – a worthy aim of any genre
The principles of Cosmicism existed long before Lovecraft decanted them into a single philosophy, and they endure today. Consider any form of science-fiction – be it Star Wars, where cosmic events occur ‘far far away’, or Doctor Who, wherein mankind is constantly threatened on Earth – and one would realise that the themes of Cosmicism are present. Man’s potential insignificance plays a large role in all forms of science-fiction involving extraterrestrials. Cosmicism is therefore crucial to the sci-fi genre, and should be respected perhaps not as a way of life, but as a way of building fictional worlds and stories to their full potential. As a writer of both fantasy and sci-fi, I would certainly refer to the principles of Cosmicism when trying to create a Horror beyond the mundane, and would certainly recommend that other writers of speculative fiction do the same. Cosmicism as we understand it does not have to be applied in reality, but it can certainly serve as a gateway to developing bold new characters and expanding our horizons through literature – a worthy aim of any genre.