The world has never been so cosmically horrific.
Thematic aspects of a work can become twee as they age, the concerns of the age becoming irrelevant to successive generations and contemporary views or made irrelevant by academic research and technological and social progress. Despite roughly a hundred years having passed, Lovecraft’s relevance in the modern era shouldn’t come as a surprise. The core underlying themes of his cosmic horror are no less relevant today than they were at the start of the 20th century. If anything, far from decreasing in significance, our civilisational advance into the unknown has only given us more proof of their concrete pertinence as we run up against our limitations and find new terrifying perspectives on our place in the cosmos.
Back when Lovecraft was writing his short stories we were only just starting to grapple with the implications of technology and mass industrial mechanisation. It may have been a mercy that Lovecraft did not live to see World War II, who knows how he would have handled the unleashing of the atom bomb?
Since then, humanity has voyaged far from its placid island of ignorance. What we have discovered is simply that our estimations of our cosmic significance, small as we knew we were in the 20s, were still violently presumptuous against reality. That scale is so incomprehensibly vast that with modern instruments that can measure all things in all directions, from unfathomable minutia to mind-shattering immensity, we are still no closer to a totality of any quantification.
Scientific advancements in the 21st century are fractal. At each new discovery they split and branch out in new directions, in new variants. The pace of progress is accelerating, the impact of new discoveries can send shockwaves through tangled clusters of research fields and branches of industry. Some people complain that there are no great breakthroughs anymore, but those people are wrong. The seeming absence of breakthroughs stems from the difficulty of communication: In order to convey the appropriate information about many of the technological and informational progresses of the contemporary world, in any meaningful sense, you often need to condense intensely nuanced field-specific information and theory into something that billions of laymen might vaguely understand. You can’t pitch that in a 2-minute corporate news bulletin in the same way that you can pitch ‘spaceship lands on space rock’ or similar.
We are currently employing technology, in scientific research, that makes the imaginings of Star Trek seem banal and unambitious. Consider, for a moment, the kind of hoops you need to jump through, in order to arrive at something like CRISPR genome-editing technology, and the entire ecosystem of alternative technologies around it. Lovecraft’s Mi-Go aliens crossed the void between stars by storing brains in jars. In the modern day that looks nothing less than quaint as we consider the possibilities of simply rendering ourselves down into ones and zeroes, and uploading ourselves to some future iteration of the cloud. If you’re a hyper-advanced civilisation, why even bother with the limitations of what is now termed ‘wetware’? We have the Internet of Things now. Need we say anything about subjects like modern quantum theory, quarks, Higgs Bosons and an array of other theories and fields that are now commonly accepted? These are current ideas based on current realities that you wouldn’t have been able to write in Lovecraft’s day even if you could envision them – it would have been too outlandish. Most readers wouldn’t have been able to connect.
On the other end of the scale, at the macro level, our fear of the unknown can only be greater than ever. In true Lovecraftian fashion we continue to cross boundaries of knowledge and understanding on all fronts. Is there anything quite as Lovecraftian as a black hole? We didn’t get our first published material about them until the late fifties, long after the father of cosmic horror had gone on his final dream quest, but if Lovecraft could see what we have since discovered by staring through telescopes, satellite dish arrays, and running simulations, the notoriously sensitive man might well have found it too much. At their most inconceivably colossal, supermassive black holes sit at the centre of entire galaxies, indifferent and unknowing, consuming them one solar system at a time. I put it to you that Lovecraft’s nuclear chaos sitting at the centre of creation, Azathoth, is very real.
Despite his antiquated linguistics (and his antiquated views), Lovecraft, whether he intended it or not, was ahead of his day. Focussing in on cosmic-scale human insignificance at the start of the 20th century was relatively ambiguous. It was abstract. We had a lot of maths, but we did not have anything like the concrete observations and hard data that we have now. That data has made that sense of being very small very real.
Ignore the rich talking heads. We do not know where we are going. Currently, we are just hoping that the Great Filter doesn’t annihilate us before we can either figure out how we can live in space after we desolate planet Earth, or figure out a way to sustainably harvest enough resources to create enough energy to maintain human progress without desolating planet Earth before we can figure out how we can live in space. Through neural networking and machine learning, our computers are already writing their own code and we have no way of deciphering it. The wealth gap is murdering poor people in the Western world, let alone less fortunate places, and the current political climate – even without the pandemic – is creating the social equivalent of a nuclear explosion seemingly across the globe. If we don’t have nuclear explosions. All across the globe. Things are incoherent and uncertain.
These are all simultaneously instances of, and birthing points for, the multiplicitous fractals of the fear of the unknown. It is currently at a high point. We are currently staring into complexity stretching beyond the horizon and into a seeming infinite gulf. We can’t even press on just bullheadedly reassuring ourselves all the while that some deity or another will look out for us, as we typically have throughout history up until this point. Where gods gave us concrete answers, often enough, science is forced to spread its hands and wearily sigh, “we don’t know”. Not the most reassuring answer, but ultimately true. Ultimately real. We have never been so acutely aware of the cosmic indifference. There is nobody there. We are on our own. For all our grandstanding, the universe hasn’t even noticed our existence. If we die, nobody will notice we are gone. Our ever-increasing knowledge and progress, though it is both a benefit and a necessity, is stripping us of our species’ conceited juvenile egotism, and as is the way with ego death, our response is to flee into a burst of delirious insanity, as we grapple with our potential limitations in a reality beyond our comprehension.