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“Nothingness in All Directions”: Modernism, Science Fiction, and Bountiful Space

The ghost of philosophical nihilism lingered over the modernist landscape like a dank fog that refused to lift.[1] Literary figures of the time observed this nihilistic atmosphere, with Elliot Paul declaring in his essay “The New Nihilism” (1927) that after the Great War, “old values had become meaningless” and in his introduction to “A War Diary” (1915–1918), Herbert Read recalling that “nihilism—nothingness, despair” was literary modernism’s “universal state of mind.”[2] This disintegration of values seeped into spheres of faith as well, with Olaf Stapledon writing in Last and First Men (1930) that “an outworn religious dogma was championed with the intolerant optimism of youth” in America and Europe.[3] Despite—or perhaps because of—this pathos, modernists and modernist science fiction authors construct images, ranging from limitless voids to absolute darkness, that simultaneously represent the sublimity and hopefulness inherent in empty spaces.

Modernists and SF authors recognized the sublime potency of absence.[4] In The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay uses facets of both the Kantian and Burkean sublime to show the connection between darkness and emptiness. He states, “Sublime-generating phenomena . . . are all, in their own ways, abysses. Primary among these privations are vacuity [and] powerful light and even more so darkness.”[5] For W. B. Yeats, however, the sublime connection between darkness and emptiness is a symbol of rich opportunity. In “Anima Hominis” (1918), he positions the black of the void as a riddle that needs to be unlocked, and the key is discovering the utility of nothingness: “I shall find the dark grow luminous, the void fruitful when I understand I have nothing, that the ringers in the tower have appointed for the hymen of the soul a passing bell.”[6] For Yeats, a reduction to nothingness offers a mystical experience and an understanding of reality. Similarly, Wallace Stevens ends “Sunday Morning” (1923) with a multifaceted image of emptiness that casts this space as unknown but enticing. He writes, “In the isolation of the sky, / At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make / Ambiguous undulations as they sink, / Downward to darkness, on extended wings.”[7] The pigeons—a nearly globally ubiquitous bird species in urban areas—are undeterred by the darkness toward which they descend. Indeed, they appear attracted to this unknown, empty space as they descend lower in the sky. The final image of “extended wings” negates the previous line’s ambiguity as the pigeons actively seek the darkness, reaching out their appendages to embrace it.

Similarly, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), S. Fowler Wright’s The World Below (1930), and Doc Smith’s The Skylark of Space (1928) capture the ethos reflected in the modernist pieces above, but they employ motifs of interstellar space and time travel to do so. These novels represent early SF successes that confront a philosophical disquiet of the time: that is, nihilism. Like Paul and Read, Finn J. D. John blames the Great War for this attitude. Because of the lingering ramifications of the war’s savagery, “it is often that you see a dark core of philosophical nihilism at the heart of the classical pulp literature of the 1920s and 1930s.”[8] Pioneers of the genre also react against the atmosphere of nihilism, and, like their modernist counterparts, these writers draw wisdom from images of empty space that enlightens the obscured nature of existence.

Roughly equating the sense of wonder with “awe at the vastness of space and time,” David Hartwell locates an aspect of SF’s emotional resonance at the “root of all excitement” of the genre.[9] Associating the term with mystery and the thrill of the unknown, Alexei and Cory Panshin claim that this sense of wonder is crucial to the “transcendence” they reverentially describe as the true goal of science fiction.[10] In the wake of violence and war, the confluence of modernist and SF texts demonstrates that through a direct confrontation with emptiness—such as drawing “inspiration” from “nothingness”—destruction’s aftermath and accompanying anxiety is overcome by a determined interest in seeing potential in emptiness. Through a comparison of seemingly disparate genres, I show that modernism and science fiction converge through their interest in empty spaces, sublime images that evolve on a continuum from curiously terrifying to the purveyors of illumination.

“They All Go into the Dark”

As we see in Yeats’s statement, “darkness” and “emptiness” share an intimate connection, and it is through this illuminated darkness that the void gains potency. In modernist SF, it is unsurprising that a similar relationship exists. For instance, we can imagine the dark, endless oblivion of outer space as concurrently threatening and alluring, a sublime, perilous terrain that offers endless potential. In A Voyage to Arcturus, David Lindsay posits a complex emptiness that is reflected in the vacancy of the byzantine worlds visited by Maskull, the novel’s protagonist. In what Kathryn Hume calls Lindsay’s “negative-vitalist” philosophy, through the new lands that Maskull explores, Lindsay offers his critique of the philosophical systems—and the humans who follow them—that dominate the post–First World War atmosphere.[11]  The images of emptiness in this novel serve dualistic functions. Lindsay characterizes this concept initially as sinister, threatening, and all-consuming. After witnessing the violent, shocking disappearance of a large portion of forest due to an earthquake, Maskull reveals:

When I saw that landslip, everything I have heard about the last destruction of the world came into my mind. It seemed to me as if I were actually witnessing it, and that the world were really falling to pieces. Then, where the land was, we now have this empty, awful gulf—that’s to say, nothing—and it seems to me as if our life will come to the same condition, where there was something there will be nothing.[12]

With this catastrophe, Lindsay transforms empty space from a literal object to a rhetorical device that explains the inevitable fate of the universe. Maskull’s observation here is ominous: the gulf that the earthquake leaves behind is not only empty, but awful—the inescapable “horror” at the core of existence. Lindsay’s use of the collective “our life” elicits feelings of gravity and reveals the inexorable truth that nothingness awaits everyone: Maskull, the planet Tormance, and by extension, the reading audience. The duality of emptiness, however, manifests most clearly near the novel’s close, directly before Maskull experiences his epiphany: that “truth” can be extracted from nothingness. Lindsay characterizes the darkness that envelopes Maskull during this event as “grinning,” as if to portend the upcoming revelatory event.

A similar tension characterizes Wright’s The World Below, whose narrative complicates the notion of objectivity and “the other” when the narrator, referred to as the Time-Traveler, recognizes his limited experience and automatic assumptions juxtaposed against his “alien” counterparts’ perspectives. Everett Bleiler calls it the “major work of genre science fiction between the early Wells and the moderns” and an “expressionistic” metaphor for contemporaneous events.[13] Wright begins the Time-Traveler’s journey in utter dark emptiness and uses “absolute” to characterize the darkness that the Time-Traveler initially experiences as he enters the realm of far-future Earth. This darkness is so gripping that the protagonist equates it to a “nothing,” an “absolute vacuity” that causes him to momentarily question his sanity.[14] However, as the Time-Traveler fumbles through the darkness, he can faintly discern the three stars of Orion’s belt dimly shining through the foggy blackness, a reassuring familiarity in his strange, foreign environment. Without the darkness to surround and emphasize the pale stars, this hopeful expectation becomes impossibly obscured.

In a rhetorical inversion of its conventional connotation, Wright positions light—particularly synthetic light—as an instrument of torture, an artificiality that is deployed to determine defects rather than offer illumination. A Dweller, one of the humanoid species that the Time-Traveler encounters, uses artificial light to confirm the ultimate death of Templeton, a fellow explorer. The Time-Traveler witnesses a recording of Templeton’s lifeless body “plunged into a globe of light of a white intensity, against which its body showed transparent, every organ . . . being clearly indicated” after being subjected to a series of experiments (244). The synthetic light that penetrates Templeton’s body heralds his demise, as his lifeless body is thus “thrown carelessly into a mesh-sided tray upon the floor” in an image of ultimate and absolute finality. To contrast, the images of dark emptiness in this novel offer growth and enlightenment: as the Time-Traveler’s companion observes, “When there is no light whatever . . . it is my whole body that perceives what is around it. I do not see, but I know” (168).

The tension between empty space and potency in The Skylark of Space adopts a more consistently optimistic tone than the previous novels. This optimism, as Finn John articulates, allows readers to recapture the “innocent spirit” that preceded the First World War, a spirit that philosophical nihilism complicated (“Foreword,” x). Smith begins the space opera with images of smashed glass bottles and spilled chemicals: the result of a laboratory experiment gone awry as chemist Seaton must watch his cutting-edge but volatile serum “disappear through an open window . . . grow smaller and smaller, and in a few moments, disappear utterly” (Skylark, 1). This disappearance, however, leads to an adventure through the vastness of outer space and a metaphorical confrontation with the dark abyss of space that shows the triumph of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming odds.

Smith’s use of “dark” imagery strengthens the hopeful expectation that the novel espouses. For instance, the “black heavens” that the crew of the Skylark spend much of their time spiraling through are “studded with multitudes of brilliant and unfamiliar stars,” and the characters often find themselves gazing toward these luminous celestial bodies (128). If the setting were illuminated or devoid of emptiness rather than existing in darkness, the stars’ magnificence would be lost amidst the excess, thus erasing their perceptible beauty. The combination of “dark” and “empty” forms a rhetorical double negative of sorts: a scenario in which the characters are not terrified but rather captivated by the beauty that such dark emptiness nurtures. This demonstrates an optimism that does not ignore the darkness, and by extension, the philosophical nihilism that modernism contends with. Rather, it shows Smith’s awareness of a potent emptiness: an idea that does not destroy but offers a neutral, generative space for growth.

The Plentitude of Sublime Vacancy

Each of these texts includes a confrontation with a literal or metaphorical abyss not unlike Friedrich Nietzsche’s abyss in Beyond Good and Evil (1886), which serves to threaten and enlighten: “If thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”[15] The abyss is consistently sublime, a mixture of terror and beauty that moves the characters to action in these modernist SF texts. An abyss is something that is bottomless, and likewise, there is no end to the search for truth and illumination. For Lindsay, this truth is that nothingness represents a desirable state of existence that holds the capacity for authentic existence. Near the novel’s close, Lindsay transforms nothingness from terrifying—the fated consequence of all things—into a desirable outcome that erases the concept’s negativity. In a moment of rapture as he perishes, Maskull reaches the “mystic state of ego negation” and pronounces “I am nothing! . . . Then nothing can hurt me. . . . I understand nothing, except that I have no self anymore” (Hume, “Visionary Allegory,” 82). As Nightspore, he attains what Hume calls “a negative nothing”: Maskull imagined that he would discover a tangible truth at the end of his journey, but instead, “There was nothing” (Hume, “Visionary Allegory,” 85). Akin to Yeats’s sublime dark growing luminous—the “nothing” that offers a revelation—Lindsay positions nothing as the catalyst for ultimate enlightenment. Through a dissolution of ego, Maskull undergoes a sort of mystical experience and thus realizes the definitive reality of the universe: that in nothingness, one can find a truth.

Wright positions the image of “the abyss” as simultaneously menacing and essential, a visceral hazard that holds within its depths the key to a surmounting. The Time-Traveler’s encounter with a deep, dark gorge threatens to halt his expedition before it truly begins. It is necessary for the Time-Traveler to plunge headlong into the abyss so that his journey can progress:

Then came the abyss. The cliff-wall ended, and ran back in a black and barren hill, immense and desolate in the daylight. The forest ended abruptly on the edge of a chasm so deep that, though it must have been nearly a quarter of a mile to the further side, the great depth made it look narrow. (World Below, 25)

Wright’s use of “abyss” to describe such an existential threat harkens to the philosophical nihilism that concerned modernism. Like in A Visit to Arcturus, the visage of Nietzsche’s sublime abyss again presents a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to the Time-Traveler. This chasm is a space of paradox: its depth is so unfathomable that the way across appears slight in comparison. Sunlight, furthermore, does little to combat the abyss’s danger; rather than banishing the threat, the light source amplifies its enormity and only serves to reinforce the existential threat it poses. Thus, the only way that the abyss can be conquered is through direct confrontation, even if accidently, as the Time-Traveler does: “I stood upon the edge, which sank like a wall, and I saw no possible way to go forward . . . but I was overbalanced . . . I fell forward” (25).

For Smith, however, the perceived unlimited, sublime emptiness of the abyss is not as much threatening as it is, perhaps counterintuitively, the purveyor of sanguinity. This is most evident through the recurrent captivation that the Skylark’s crew experience when they peer out of their ship’s windows and stare into the emptiness of outer space. In one instance, this emptiness presents an inarticulable feeling that underscores the “insignificance of human beings and their works” (Skylark, 153). Smith’s use of “insignificance” here, however, is more neutral than critical or pessimistic. It imbues the text with a feeling of impermanence; that is, humans’ actions—positive or negative—are impermeant when juxtaposed against such enormity. We see this in the statement, “Awed by the immensity of the universe, the two at the window were silent, not with the silence of embarrassment but with that of two friends in the presence of something beyond the reach of words” (146).

The connection of “awe” with the sublime further underscores the magnitude of this emptiness. Smith again uses “awed” to describe the “silence” that “fell upon the little group”: “For the blackness of the interstellar void was not the dark of an earthly night, but the absolute black of the absence of all light” (146). This is a scene of unqualified nothingness: not only is the darkness absolute but the crew are also in a “void,” a space between planetary systems that lacks all description. In its presence, the crew are simultaneously captivated and terrified. The void of space even amplifies the stars’ magnificence, which Smith describes as “gems thrown upon darkness they shone in multi-colored beauty” and formed a sight that none of the Skylark’s passengers have ever seen or imagined. Because of the darkness and vacuity that surround them, the stars’ colors appear magnificently vibrant. The stars are not monochromatic, but instead represent an entire spectrum of color that would be obscured or imperceptible without the dark, empty space. This casts emptiness as a necessity that highlights the otherwise concealed potential that the stars represent. Thus, the seemingly limitless emptiness of space forms a void that holds within it a “truth” about existence: that potency and even beauty can exist in complete vacuity. The double-edged empty space that Lindsay posits in The World Below becomes a symbol of limitless possibility in The Skylark of Space as the darkness of space is illuminated by countless stars, showing an optimistic expectation that encapsulates this novel’s ethos. Smith began writing Skylark in 1915, only one year after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Two years later, Yeats declares that he “shall find the dark grow luminous” (Mythologies, 334).

Two world wars and the resulting spiritual, social, and cultural upheaval deeply changed the landscape of early- to mid-twentieth-century western society, and the consequential atmosphere of philosophical nihilism and value-loss posed an intense existential threat. As a response to this loss, both modernism and modernist SF contain images of empty space that represent not hopelessness but opportunity. A determination thus exists to discover growth and potential in empty space. The moment when grinning darkness surrounds Lindsay’s Maskull and the point at which Wright’s Time-Traveler enters a landscape so black that it appears absolutely vacuous meet their counterpart in Stevens’s pigeons plunging assertively into the dark abyss below. The climactic scene in which Maskull realizes that, in being “nothing,” he accesses the highest truth of existence underscores the brilliant stars that captivate the Skylark’s crew, made even more striking because of the emptiness of space. Their deliberate actions show a collective willingness to confront the unknown, the uncertain changing value systems that were problematized by cultural upheaval.



[1] For further reading on the relationship between modernism and philosophical nihilism, see Shane Weller, Modernism and Nihilism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

[2] Elliot Paul, “The New Nihilism.” transition (May 1927): 166; Herbert Read, The Contrary Experience (New York: Horizon Press, 1974), 69.

[3] Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men, & Star Maker: Two Science-fiction Novels (New York: Dover Publications, 1968), 33.

[4] For a thorough discussion of the ways in which emerging science and popular science writing influenced modernism and modernist SF, particularly from the perspective of quantum mechanics, see Michael H. Whitworth’s Einstein's Wake: Relativity, Metaphor, and Modernist Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[5] Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 151.

[6] W. B. Yeats, Mythologies (New York: Macmillan, 1959), 334.

[7] Wallace Stevens, Selected Poems, ed. John N. Serio (New York: Random House, 2011), 45.

[8] Finn J. D. John, Foreword to E. E. “Doc” Smith and Lee Hawkins Garby, The Skylark of Space (Corvallis, OR: Pulp-Lit Productions, 2016), ix.

[9] David Hartwell and Kathern Cramer, eds., The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF (New York: TOR/Dom Doherty Associates, 1994), 42.

[10] Alexei Panshin and Cory Panshin, The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1989).

[11] Kathryn Hume, “Visionary Allegory in David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 77, no. 1 (1978): 72–91, 72.

[12] David Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015), 47.

[13] Everett Bleiler, Science Fiction: The Early Years (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1990), 831.

[14] S. Fowler Wright, The World Below (San Bernardino, CA: The Borgo Press, 2010), 13.

[15] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (Newburyport, MA: Open Road Media, 2014), 117.