For Joyce, in Ulysses, the night sky was ''The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.'' Dante completed each book of The Divine Comedy with a reference to them. Some of the most poetical passages of the Bible are about stars, for example in Job: ''Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?''
Stars are a metaphor for the transcendent, and ever since I was a child I have been in love with the night sky - though not without an occasional tremor of unease. Pascal confessed his terror at the silence of infinite space. Those points of light, hung in space, remind us of the transience, insignificance, of the Earth to which we seem so strongly drawn. And the freedom they promise is not without fear: for most of us are afraid of freedom, and hug the chains which tie us to the earth.
And yet we are drawn irresistibly upwards, fascinated by the vistas promised by the night sky which outweigh the terror and vertigo which assail those who attempt to shuck off earthbinding shackles. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the protagonist enters a new stage of evolution, becomes a little child again - a starchild with the earth as a toy.
Science fiction is a means of saying things it might be difficult to say otherwise. The classic Soviet s/f movie Solaris was the vehicle for a form of metaphysical speculation that would have been difficult to accomplish in more orthodox ways. The planet, Solaris, has the capacity to probe the consciousness of those who land on it so that guilt-ridden memories of friends and relatives become externalized as ''people,'' made of neutrinos. Such a reversal of traditional materialist ways of viewing the world would be unthinkable in Soviet philosophy - but possible in film. Another Tarkovsky film, Stalker, has explicitly Christian overtones of spiritual growth which many Western filmmakers would shy away from in embarrassment.
Even such movies as the overrated Close Encounters of the Third Kind can be seen as a means of expressing a longing for the transcendent - for a divine mother-love perhaps (the mother-ship in Close Encounters). Such sentiments are strong within all of us. Yet they cannot easily be expressed otherwise in our self-censoring society. The sky is a metaphor.
Why do the stars fascinate us so much? For aeons we have looked out at them, at their inexplicable vastness, and now for the first time the prospect is dawning to transcend the limitations of this ball of water and mud which has for so long bound us. And it may be that whatever tremendous outward journeys await us are, in a strange sense, but the symbol of a far vaster and more portentous inner journey - that voyage of transcendence over fear and guilt and limitation which science fiction (and perhaps even science fact) whether Russian or American, ultimately represents. We are, whatever our petty earthbound differences, all siblings in that voyage.