Creative writing Science Fiction

Space archaeology: how to make the future look alive

Space archaeology is a real job, but how did it combine with the sci-fi classic Alien to help me write better characters?

Next time you’re watching a film or TV show set in the future, see how many personal items you can find. I’ll wager it’s very few.

Real life isn’t like that. Our cars, desks, truck cabs, workshops and living spaces are plastered with cute puppy calendars, furry dice, mugs with funny slogans, religious symbols, family photos and other tchotchkes that turn the impersonal into the personal.

Sci-fi frequently puts its characters into places where they’ll be living for months or even years, but they often look like they’ve just moved into a minimalist nightmare. Maybe some of these worlds are digital environments where videos and images are stored in personal devices that have replaced framed prints, but people would surely still display art or collect memorabilia and keepsakes.

A picture of Jonesy the cat, as a kitten, beside a monitor on the Nostromo in 1979's Alien.
Redditor u/Jumboat spotted this blink-and-you’ll miss it photo of ship’s cat Jonesy as a kitten in Alien.

The Alien exception

Alien is a great example of culture working to build character. The creepy opening sequence shows off dipping bird toys in the mess, weird bouncing things called Hoptimists on the bridge consoles, dangling toys, and photos including one of Jonesey the ship’s cat as a kitten.

We haven’t even met the crew, but we know that their lives extend beyond their space truckin’ day jobs. These days, Alien is credited with introducing a dirty ‘industrial’ science fiction, but its personal details are a design note that many creators still ignore.

Cultural deserts are less common in contemporary, historical or alt-history fiction, because people have expectations of how the world should look and it’s easy to find the props. Once you notice the lack of personality in SF and fantasy environments, it’s hard to ignore. It feels like film and TV producers can’t be bothered to develop the extra detail or pay the art department to show it. But in written SF and fantasy, there’s no excuse not add colour to the palette of your world, and it can bring new opportunities for vibrant storytelling.

Space archaeology

You might argue that astronauts are serious professionals who don’t need this desk toys crowding their workspaces, but a research paper in the journal Current Anthropology demonstrates that humans take our culture everywhere we go.

For “Visual Displays in Space Station Culture: An Archaeological Analysis”, the authors studied pictures and videos from the Russian Zvezda module of the International Space Station. Zvezda was one of the first modules of the ISS when it became operational in 2000. It was the only permanent crew quarters until 2008, hosting Russian, US and international guests. Cosmonauts and astronauts ate, slept, exercised and relaxed here when they weren’t conducting experiments and building the space station.

Using imagery from NASA archives, Justin St. P. Walsh, Alice C. Gorman and Wendy Salmond focused on 78 items in the module from 2000 to 2014. One of the first observations they make is that science fiction often fails to acknowledge the people within its stories:

“Under the influence of science fiction, space culture is often conceived in the popular imagination as a realm of disembodied science where the messiness of earlier human cultures is sublimated by machines and smoothed by clean plastic and metallic surfaces, which symbolize the future.

The reality is that life in space, although constrained, is every bit as materially entangled as at any terrestrial archaeological site from the past and is shaped by entanglements with contemporary social and political events.”

It’s quickly apparent that the designers of the ISS modules didn’t notice that previous Russian and Soviet space stations had featured cultural displays. Amidst all the equipment and controls, no room was set aside for photo frames or display areas, so the cosmonauts and astronauts stuck items wherever it made sense.

From left to right, NASA astronaut Michael Barratt, Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, and Hungarian American space tourist Charles Simonyi (Expedition 19, March 28, 2009) are shown in front of the aft wall of Zvezda. On the wall are, clockwise from top center, a gold cross and Russian flag, a mission patch for the Soyuz TMA-13 vehicle, a patch for the Russian cosmonaut corps, a photo of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, an icon of the Mother of God of Kazan, a toy spacecraft based on the Russian Kliper prototype, a small landscape painting, a photo of Yuri Gagarin, another photo of Tsiolkovsky, a miniature painting of the Troitse-Sergieva Lavra church, and icons of Saint Sergius of Radonezh and Christ. Another icon of the Mother of God of the Sign with saints is visible over the crew quarter door in the far upper right corner. Photograph courtesy of NASA, used with permission.
An international culture: American, Japanese and Hungarian American inthe Russian Zvezda modukle on the ISS in 2009. The module’s display of religious icons, Russian spaceflight heroes and other items is above them. Credit: NASA.

Icons of spirit and spaceflight

The Russian module also interested the researchers because it juxtaposes contemporary items with heroic space imagery of the Soviet era, and Orthodox Christian religious symbols that have returned to popularity since the fall of communism.

A small religious icon appeared in the galley of Zvezda during Expedition 1 almost as soon as the ISS was permanently occupied, where it was most visible to crew entering the module. This area became the main point of cultural display over the next 14 years, but the items were regularly moved or replaced.

Religious symbols in this area included icons of Saint Sergius of Radonezh, Saint Nicholas, and the Mother of God of the Sign with saints. They’re placed in ways that mirror their use in Russian homes and Orthodox churches.

Secular heroes included Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Russian scientist who first theorized life in space and conceived of multistage rocketry, and Sergei Korolev, the original director of the Soviet space program. These were sometimes placed in a different location, but they’re rarely separated because the three are considered a holy trinity of Soviet and Russian spaceflight.

“They [Gargarin, Tsiolkovsky and Korolev] most frequently appear in a niche directly over a portal that leads to the docking adapter for Soyuz and Progress vehicles—in a sense, they are located over one of the station’s front doors. The Russian crew visually lay claim to a significant space heritage by their display of these portraits in such a prominent position.”

Other cultural items came and went, but they grew in number when the ISS crew facilities expanded in 2008, and Zvezda was occupied almost exclusively by Russian crew.

The most common objects were photographs, followed by icons, other pictures such as landscape paintings, mission and agency patches, flags, and other religious items, such as Orthodox crosses, relics, and books. There was even (briefly) a model of Russia’s never-launched Kliper spaceplane.

On April 25, 2001, cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov holds an image of Yuri Gagarin with a dove presented to him by the Bulgarian Young Pioneers during a postflight visit to Sofia on May 7, 1961. This image was later (at least by the middle of 2002) placed on Zvezda’s aft wall, where it remains to the day of this publication. Photograph courtesy of NASA, used with permission.
Cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov holds an image of Yuri Gagarin with a dove. Credit: NASA

Gargarin on the go

One artefact that moved around but was never taken away is a famous photograph of Gagarin holding a dove, a popular symbol of peace in the former Eastern bloc. It was still on display when the research paper was published in 2021.

The Soviet Union flew Salyut space stations almost continually from 1971 until its break-up in 1990. The researchers noticed from historical images that Gargarin was visible on almost every station. Tsiolkovsky, Korolev and religious icons only began to appear aboard the Mir station in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union had dissolved.

However, religious items have been far less visible since 2017, with the exception of a gold cross in 2019. The research predates Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, so it’s not clear what changes that has brought to the cultural display, if any.

Hatch and hatch door of the Columbus module, looking into the Node 2 and Kibō modules. An artwork by Invader and a geocaching tag are visible on the door to the left of the directional sign reading “OVHD” (overhead). Photograph by Paolo Nespoli and Roland Miller, courtesy of NASA and Agenzia Spaziale Italiana.
Artwork at the entrance to the European Columbus module aboard the ISS. Credit: NASA and Agenzia Spaziale Italiana

Space archaeology in the international ISS

NASA manages the ‘international’ side of the ISS, which includes modules from the American, European and Japanese space agencies. It’s also been given a cultural makeover, in spite of its functional design:

“In the US Node 1 module, on the door of the hatch leading to the Quest air lock, crew members created an expedient memorial to deceased colleagues, including photographs, name and mission patches, and even a nameplate from a terrestrial office door.

In the European Columbus module, on the door of the hatch leading to the US Node 2, a variety of items, including ESA mission stickers, an artwork by the French contemporary artist known as Invader, and a geocaching tag, are displayed.”

NASA, the ESA, JAXA and other international partners come from cultures with a separation of church and state. Their orbital cultures reflect this secular heritage, and the available imagery contained no religious symbols. Astronauts also have personal spaces that don’t appear in public images and might reflect their individual beliefs.

Culture grounds fiction

This research reveals something that’s often lacking: a sense that culture permeates the lives of every character. It gets everywhere, popping up in spaces that haven’t been designed for it, from desktops to doorways. People cannot survive in a vacuum, and that’s as true for an absence of art as it is for oxygen.

I’d hope that every writer wants their work to feel plausible and consistent to its setting, story and characters. But hard SF, in particular, tends to focus on scientific realism at the expense of cultural realism, often leading to sterile environments populated by shallow characters.

Popular SF is more relaxed in its attitude to science, but it tends to assume that human culture peaked sometime between the mid-20th century and early 21st century. So we end up with a Star Trek that features endless jazz combos and classical recitals in the 23rd century, bar the occasional refrain of a Vulcan harp or Klingon opera. Older SF fans will remember Daft Punk’s inspiration of a disco future from Buck Rogers In The 25th Century. We can all admit that that there’s way too much contemporary US rock in SF.

Space rockers Andromeda from Buck Rogers In The 25th Century
Space disco from Buck Rogers In The 25th Century (1979).
Who knows what the future will bring?

Digging for detail

Space archaeology has inspired me to think about ways that culture can populate my stories and inform readers about the attitudes, loyalties and histories of my characters. If you want to make them interesting, it should also be as true for non-humans as it is for ape-descended primates. If they’re sentient, they’ll develop culture, whether they’re made of silicon or space jelly.

Generating those cultures is an act of creative play. Near future and alt-history SF can draw on contemporary cultures to throw forward, mixing them together as the socio-economic forces of your universe dictate. Fantasy cultures often draw on human settings, which can provide inspiration to mix with their own histories. Non-human and far future cultures might driven by similar ideas, but with evolutionary pressures replacing human history.

Cultural artefacts that are relevant to your story may graduate from set dressing to become their own characters, but they’re equally justified as enrichment that enables writers to show their world instead of telling it. An absence of culture can also reveal a lot about a character or their society, if you choose to hang a lamp on it.

The best authors don’t just use culture to enrich their worlds, they make it central to their stories in fascinating ways.

Iain M Banks must be mentioned, not only for The Culture but also for the Antagonistic Undecagonstring – a unplayable musical instrument that’s crucial to The Hydrogen Sonata’s plot. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy features music, fashion and food cultures that play important roles in her plot and far future universe. James SA Corey used Belter music to reflect the signals being received from its enigmatic aliens in The Expanse.

They’re far from the only ones — let me know your favourite depictions of SF and fantasy culture in the comments.

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