Friday, 23 September 2011

Fifty years

I wrote Pushing Ice in 2005, setting the main action in 2057 - a little over fifty years from the time of writing. When I started developing the book, mid way through 2004, the story took place a good century further into the future. But I quickly got bogged down in stuff that, while interesting, was a sideline to the main event - this rapidly moving tale of space exploration and first contact. By moving the action much closer to the present, I was free to assume that a lot of stuff had not changed greatly in the intervening years. Spacesuits were still more or less as we know them. Medicine had progressed, but it was not magically advanced compared to our own time. Computers were squishier, but there was no AI or matter-transforming nanotech. People still listened to rock music, played poker and watched global news channels. I was happy with these choices, as they allowed me to present the protagonists as being people much like ourselves. If I could have set it even earlier, I would have.

I did get (and continue to receive) criticism, though, for presuming that there would be huge nuclear powered mining ships scooting around the solar system a mere 50 years from now. Here's a recent example:

"I found Reynolds' timeline a bit absurd, though. I'll be impressed if we've managed a manned mission to Mars by 2057 - for humans to be mining comets on an industrial scale by then would require an incredible revolution in space travel."

Now, I have no problem with that criticism - it's a perfectly valid point of debate. And yes, from the standpoint of 2011, I'm markedly less sanguine about our chances of establishing an extensive human presence off-Earth by the middle of the century. Blue Remembered Earth is purposefully vague about the next couple of decades, but I do state that there will have been one hundred people on Mars by the year 2059 (and despite the similarity of those two dates, it's not remotely the same future).

But really - 50 years. That's a long old time. It's enough to go from:


To this:

Which, when you think about it, is pretty astonishing. Even more so when you appreciate that many of the key technologies of the Apollo program were essentially mature by the start of the 1960s. The Saturn F1 main engines were part of a program that originated in 1955, a full 14 years before the Moon landings - and a mere 36 after Alcock and Brown made the first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic in a Vickers Vimy.

So you can do quite a lot in 50 years, if you put your mind to it.


  1. i think the problem is that our minds wandered collectively right of that course... we haven't been back to the moon in... well longer than i even live. (wiki says 1972) space shuttle, gone.
    I heard today the chinese plan to attempt tugging and parking a small asteroid in earth orbit. for study and as a proof of concept... we still send robot drones here and there but the amount of people that are interested is diminishing. Just as the amount of people who believe in deities is diminishing. I guess real adventure, frontier science and fear of the unknown is making slowly way for more instant cognitive action like video games and facebook... with the oversaturation of the modern mind by hollywood, games and media (!) the reality of space travel seems pretty boring. And why make reality less boring when the remote already is sitting right there?


    sorry for that.
    guess i spend too much time getting irritated by people on facebook myself.
    time i had a beer and a smoke. i am sombre tonight


  2. Al, I want you to be right. And it might even happen but if it does it will probably be led by China or India. They are ascending now and willing to put the effort into this kind of project. I wouldn't put money on ESA or NASA leading the next steps of this revolution.

  3. I guess the current consensus is that commercial space flight is where the future lies - and why shouldn't it? That a sole (and poorly funded) government agency would take us to far flung corners of the solar system does seem mildly unlikely at the best of times when you come to think of it.

    I am wondering what your thoughts are on the current revelations as to speed of light restrictions, or apparent lack of, Alastair. Maybe your less 'hard' novels are now also less unlikely.

  4. According to Baxter in his afterword to his book Voyage, he states that we could have potentially reached Mars by as early as the early to mid 80's by just tweaking the then current space technology. So I have no problem that if the right minds are in place, along with the funding and resources, that we apes could just reach the moons of Jupiter and beyond. But the current financial climate will hinder any venture in that regard.

  5. I think 50 years could be enough. The breakthrough is fusion and i can't see us not having in 50 years.

  6. Let's be honest putting man on mars is achievable now. It's sustaining that life or returning it home that's the issue to solve.

    It'll happen.

  7. The dice could fall either way, I think. We could make some stupendous advances in crewed deep solar system exploration, or basically still be where we are today - locked in low-orbit. Or worse, with no permanent human space presence at all. The optimist in me says we'll get to Mars within my lifetime, but I'm realistic enough to accept the possibility that this may not happen. However, I think we can all agree that the primary issue is not technology, but motivation.

  8. Re: FTL neutrinos. I'm skeptical, if only because it would be quite difficult to reconcile these results with other neutrino detections, such as the ones from Supernova 1987A. But, the guys behind this experiment have had three years to find an obvious bug in their analysis, and you have to assume they've been diligent.

    When I was at ESA, though, we struggled with systematic timing errors far in excess of the 10 nanosecond sigma they're claiming here.

  9. i am very tempted to bet a lot of people at once 100€ that say this wont pan out. light stays fastest thing around.

  10. It's interesting how the quoted commenter feels mining comets on an industrial scale by 2057 is "absurd" while vast alien megastructures and Fountainheads apparently are not. :) .. I think demanding too high a level of realism from sf literature is contrary to what it does best: being a vehicle for concepts and ideas. If 2057 in itself is considered a plothole in Pushing Ice, it'd be like not being able to appreciate the existential challenges in Blade Runner because it isn't plausible we'll have hovercars in 2019.

  11. I find the time-line in Pushing Ice fine. I was surprised by it, but it's a pleasant surprise. It's easy to come up with a much less prosperous future, especially in today's financial climate. There has to be room for both in sci-fi literature, so I really don't understand the critique.

  12. Why get overly bogged down and concerned in possible or not time frames.?Science Fiction is, after all, fiction. Nothing wrong with taking some of it seriously and base it on known physics or our observations of the universe but not at the cost of sneering at someone else's attempts to write what is basically entertainment.
    42 years ago we first got to the moon, wandered around a bit, left a few footprints and a few tonnes of metal and plastic behind. I hope to goodness any planned Mars expedition would have a more concrete and viable purpose than just getting there.
    Re. Rogue sub-atomic particles. Wouldn,t it be great if this were true and we found out, on a quantum mechanic level at least, that the sun does actually shine out of our collective arses? Humans eh? You gotta laugh...

  13. Well, Bear wrote a novel called "Moving Mars" where the first people do not go to Mars until 2070 or so and human space settlement in the late 22nd century is limited to a few million on the Moon, Mars, and the asteroid belt. He does, however, have fancy biotechnologies and nanotechnologies in the same novel. It seems its easier to do small things (biotech, nanotech, semiconductors) than it is to do big things (space colonization).

  14. Oh who knows what leaps in technology we'll see in the next fifty years let alone the next ten. Critics be damned. I think they fall in the "Those who can't write..." category. (jealousy)

    I still recommend Pushing Ice to anyone interested. Great First Contact novel in my opinion. Looking forward to Blue Remembered Earth

  15. With regards to the future Charles Stross said something on his blog in recent months that I found interesting. It was something like "the near future is 90% exactly the same, 9% predictably different and 1% totally different". I think it's a good observation. 99% of what the future is likely to be like may preclude a significant manned presence throughout the system in the next 50 years but there's always the chance that some freak, unpredictable event (which could be technological, social, political, economic etc) causes a revolutionary paradigm shift.

  16. The jump from the first aeroplanes to the first rockets was accelerated by the technological demands of WWI and WWII.

    Unless a proportionally sized war started between now and 2050, I don't believe history will repeat itself and leapfrog both technology and motivation when it comes to space-faring.

    Even if such a global conflict were to occur, it would probably last hours, not years...