First Japan, then Mars: Percival Lowell’s fascination with alterity

I have written in the past about the relation between my passion for science-fiction and my career in anthropology. I stated that as I was growing up, I often challenged myself to imagine how aliens would look like if they were drastically different from humans. I also expressed my feeling that science-fiction authors, despite trying to imaging extreme otherness in the form of aliens, rarely create something that differs from the Western conceptions of what sentient beings are (or should be).

In many cases, it seems that authors find inspiration in various Earth cultures to create aliens. In some cases, this is more obvious than in others. In Stargate, of course, most of the human societies encountered by SG-1 where initially taken from Earth, which is how authors explain the fact that their culture is so similar to that of an Earth society. Beyond this, however, some aliens in science-fiction bare sticking resembles to the most cliché representations of indigenous peoples, often from North or South America.

My impression that the creation of aliens and curiosity for alterity among humans are linked is further reinforced by Percival Lowell’s life work. Lowell is best known for being an astronomer who founded his own observatory. Through his life, he worked on mapping what he thought were artificial canals of Mars and Mercury, inspired by the work of Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli.

Historical map of planet mars from Gi...

Lowell also spent more than a decade searching for a planet on the outskirts of the Solar system: it was only after his death that Pluto was discovered, in Lowell’s observatory, by Clyde Tombaugh. You can learn more about Lowell’s work and watch short videos on this BBC page.

What is less know about Lowell is that, before he dedicated his life to the study of astronomy, he spent many years living in the Far East, mainly in Japan. He wrote books about his experiences there, such as The Soul of the Far East, (1888), Noto: An Unexplored Corner of Japan (1891) and Occult Japan, or the Way of the Gods (1894). In a sense, he went from alien place to another. His fascination for the strange, the different and the exotic first led him to Japan. After reading the work of Giovanni Schiaparelli and Camille Flammarion, respectively italian and french astronomers, he moved on to the study of an even more alien environment: Mars. Convinced that the lines he saw as he observed Mars were artificial canals, he popularized the idea of artificial life on Mars. His work brought the almost immediate apparition of Martians in science-fiction.

Lowell was passionate about discovering the exotic, the alien. He literally went from the study of the most alien country to his own, Japan, and moved on to study was he thought was intelligent life forms on Mars. Furthermore, while reading the various books he wrote about Japanese people and Martians, one notices a strong resemblance in the vocabulary or tone he used to describe them both. His life’s work indicates, I believe, that the creation of science-fiction and curiosity about alien life-forms, is powered by the same taste for the exotic that encourages the study of alterity, or otherness, in humans.

You can read more about Percival Lowell’s on Boston.com. This website offers a complete biography and many images. For the francophone readers, this page give more details about the study of canals on Mars by Schiaparelli and many other astronomers.

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About Marie-Pierre Renaud

I am an anthropologist living in Quebec city, Canada. I specialize in native studies and anthropology of health. I am a geek. I founded and now co-manage The Geek Anthropologist blog. I am working on transforming my memoir into a book and journal articles. I like to knit while watching Star Trek. Reach out to me for collaborations! https://mariepierrerenaud.co/

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