Tuesday 20 November 2012

Space travel's in my blood

If SF has lost its collective faith in the future, what does that say about those stories that take place predominantly in space, or on other worlds? Is this no more than the twitching tail of a dying wish-fulfillment dream better consigned to the garbage heap of the twentieth century, a fantasy that has nothing useful to tell us about the real future, that thing that our descendants are going to be living in whether they like it or not? There are many that seem to think so, judging by my own entirely subjective experience of internet discussions and the like. As far back as the late and not very lamented Mundane SF movement, we were being told in no uncertain terms that merely to speculate about the possibility of leaving the solar system was a dangerous abdication of responsibility, a tacit acceptance that, having trashed one planet, we were at liberty to do the same to the others. More recently, in the discussions revolving around the purported exhaustion of SF, I have seen similar sentiments expressed - a perception that this space stuff is all very well as undemanding entertainment, but it really is a bit beneath us now.

It's not hard to see why people might think that way. SF has always presented many Janus faces to the world, but there are some faces it feels more comfortable about than others. SF is very pleased with its Earthbound dystopias, its grimly forbidding ecocatastrophes and other such dire warnings of times to come on our own planet. It is rather less happy with all the stuff about rocket ships and alien planets, as if that was now all a bit juvenile, best locked away in the attic room of the imagination while the visitors are around. The fact that, fifty years into the human space age, we have yet to venture further than the Moon, is seen as damning evidence that it was all a bit silly and unrealistic to begin with. Dream on, girls and boys. The space age is over.

This has always struck me as a slightly odd position, but in addition it also strikes me as a two-pronged oddness. The first prong of oddness is that SF has never really been in the predictive or extrapolative business. That's a mug's game. So what does it honestly matter if, here and now, we are in the spacefaring doldrums? SF should not concern itself with writing about the most probable future, it should concern itself with what is the most fictionally interesting - be that probable, possible or downright unlikely. Did Philip K Dick consider the future of Do Androids Dream as likely to happen - or did it just strike him as fictionally rich territory, worth treating as if it were probable? (Which is not at all the same thing as believing in it). I'll leave you to answer that one, but I know where I'd come down.

The second prong of oddness is that: hang on - we're only fifty years into the human space age. That's fifty years behind us, counterbalanced by hundreds, thousands, even millions of years ahead. Really, I'd argue, we are in no fit position to debate the likelihood or otherwise of our having a significant destiny in space. It is simply much, much too soon to rule anything out. Still, having said that, I think anyone would agree that there are only two possible futures at stake here: one in which most of us never leave the Earth, or do much more in space than we have already done, and one in which most of us do. And whether "we" means us, or our robots, or our distant posthuman cybernetic offspring, really need not concern us. The point is that there are two futures open to science fiction  - one in which we remain on Earth, one in which we break out in the solar system/galaxy/universe/sevagram - take your pick.

Both strike me as equally fascinating, offering equally rich imaginative scope. It also strikes me that it is absurd to privilege one over the other, to say that this branch of SF is intrinsically more worthy of serious consideration than this other one.


  1. Great post Al, couldn't agree with you more. Surely both futures are equally deserving of exploration and speculation.

  2. And may you never lose it!

  3. I've always thought of SF as speculative anthropology. Throwing out the so-called implausible is like throwing out half the knobs and dials an author can tweak to make interesting things happen.

  4. Well said, Al. I agree with every word.

  5. It amazes me how some people can live in the time of a space station, rovers on Mars, privatized space travel and then show such paucity of imagination.

  6. Broadly speaking, I'm more optimistic about the chances for human spaceflight beyond Low Earth orbit than I have been for years, but as I say, it's almost besides the point. All I ask of SF is that it be interesting, not that it be "relevant" or "likely to come true". Couldn't think of anything less interesting, actually.

  7. Hello, Mr.Reynolds,

    The romanian translations of your blog articles had been posted:

    „Exhaust Gases”:

    „On Mediocrity”:
    Thank you very much.

    With kind regards,
    Cristian Tamas

  8. I've always considered "mundane" sf as dealing with immediate time and issues, but that doesn't obviate other forms, such as yours. I enjoy both. Puzzling that some would want to limit sf.

  9. i expect the worst from you writers, the worst. PKD just brushed the surface of how fucking awful Nixon & absolute control was. you guys could give a 3 lidded nictating camo-acid bath membrane wink on that future.

  10. I find your lack of faith disturbing - erm, scratch that; I mean I find it depressing that SF fans (of all people) should feel the way you describe. This is profoundly short sighted. I'm too lazy to look up the exact quote, but to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, "if humanity is to survive, then for most of our history, the word 'ship' will have to be synonymous with 'spaceship'". There's nothing juvenile or silly about that, nor of wanting to write (or read) about it.

  11. Well. I've never read anything that self-identifies with "Mundane," and I'm pretty sure I don't want to.

    But seems to me (with all due respect and humility towards the brilliant commenters here--I myself self-identify as a schmuck) that if any science fiction writers have decided that they no longer wish to focus on the external universe, our current science and our current entrepreneurs are very glad to do so in their stead.

    The first thing I thought of when I heard that we now know Alpha Centauri has a planet was simple. We've *got* to send a probe. And that's not just me, again some schmuck, making light of the engineering and of the relativistic nature of things. A quick Google will show that some very heavy people are talking about exactly that. Much closer to home, there is now in existence a company that has stated its desire to mine the asteroids. And never mind what Virgin Galactic may end up being.

    Basically, I say, fie on this Mundane science fiction thing. If it wishes to abdicate sci-fi's traditional visionary role, so be it. There are now not only dreamers but *doers* who are better able to drag us into our inevitable interplanetary or interstellar future, anyway.

    We've found nearly 1000 exoplanets, and reading the news today I suspect Curiosity has found amino acids on Mars. Who the hell wants to make the case that we're stuck here forever?

  12. It was perhaps a bit naughty of me to drag up the Mundane SF movement again because they also had some good and useful things to say. But since they staked out their position so clearly, they made a useful point of comparison. Really, though, that pony's galloped away.

  13. Thank you.

    Lord am I ever sick of the Mundanes. I was sick of them the moment they were mentioned.

    S. F. Murphy
    On the Outer Marches

  14. Hi Alastair, as both a SF fan and someone who has more than a passing interest in space exploration and interstellar travel, I've often thought that the SF community could do a lot more to support space exploration, from everything from robotic probes visiting the planets in the Solar System to those scientists in the interstellar community who dream of pushing the envelope and developing forms of propulsion that could take us to the stars. SF drives many of those interstellar dreams and I think the ties could be much tighter. At the same time, I'm aghast when I hear people who are interested in spaceflight scoff at SF. Do you think there is more that the SF community – both authors and fans – could do to support real life space exploration, and vice versa?

  15. Okay, so this brings up something I'd love to see someone expand upon: the current obsession with the near future dystopia. I'm putting together a SciFi class for my high school next year, and I can explain (I think) most of the major movements and changes in SciFi over the years. But I really don't understand the current preoccupation with dystopias. Is it because I'm not as cynical about our near future as others? Not that I'm complaining because I love most of the dystopia stuff, I just don't understand it. Anyone wanna toss out some thoughts?

  16. Keith - I'm not sure that SF could or should do more than it does. I have a slightly unusual position in that I have my ties to ESA and to a much lesser extent NASA, so to that extent I am happy to advocate for space exploration. But I don't see that as SF's larger mission. To go back to what I said in the original post, all I really ask of SF is that it provide stimulating fiction. If someone wrote a stunningly brilliant SF work that functioned as an argument against space exploration, I'd be happy to read it.

    Neil - no idea, really, other than a suspicion that if you took Young Adult fiction out of the equation, the genre might not look quite so strongly skewed toward the dystopic.

  17. By the way, thank you Cristian, for the Romanian translations.

  18. Nice Only Ones reference in the title Alastair, you can never have too much of them around.

    Hey Neil, I've thought for a few years now that the overwhelmingly gloomy tone of American SF is due to their relative decline as a global superpower, British SF seemed to go through a similar dystopian phase in the 60s and 70s. Countries that are doing very well seem to produce more optimistic SF, I bet if we could read Chinese SF it would be full of heroic tales of space colonisation and technicolour Space Operas.

  19. For all its speculative intentions SF tends to mirror the prevailing concerns and aspirations at the time it was written. The optimism of the 50's and 60's reflected in the space-based SF at the time gave way to the over-population fears of the 70's and eventually to the climate change hand-wringing now: we shouldn't have fun - we're destroying the planet.

    I read SF to be entertained (after all, like all literature it is only entertainment) and for escapism. What better way than to be transported away from this planet into the solar system and beyond (another girl, another planet!)? I accept it's not everyone's cup of tea, but it's no less valid than any other SF trope.

  20. Except that the version of the future where we're stuck on this single planet has a much shorter expiration date than the version where we spread out, even if the basket with all our the eggs in it doesn't succumb to any nasty surprises.

  21. And I - on the other hand - think the fascination with dystopian futures is pure marketing to angst ridden teens who think the end of the world is nigh because they have acne. Money. Who is buying this stuff?

    Unfortunately, the high-brow "adults" (translate: critics) in the conversation think that if you can anticipate the next word in a sentence you are passe. I'm currently reading a raved review uber-tome touted as the correct direction for SF by PK and, while it is certainly bewildering and llllooooonnnnnggggg, it is also incomprehensibly boring.

    Give me a good old, hunker down with a single malt, out-there space opera with ships, discoveries, bizarre-ness and alien schtick any day!

    There is room for all. The saddest part is the publishing industry that caters to children with angst and an adult audience too concerned with not looking childish. I say tell the critics to write a decent SF novel and stop telling readers what is decent, and the rest of us should disallow our children from buying SF unless they buy one for us that matches our tastes. One-to-one ratio. Give the publishers a headache.

    Rant over. Give me space!

  22. James Davis Nicoll22 November 2012 at 09:54

    The optimism of the 50's and 60's reflected in the space-based SF at the time gave way to the over-population fears of the 70's and eventually to the climate change hand-wringing now

    Malthusapocalypse in SF goes back farther than the 1970s. Heinlein was including it in his juvies in the 1950s and Make Room! Make Room! was published in 1966. Panshin's Rite of Passage had unrestricted breeding as the Unforgivable Crime and it's from 1968. Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar is also from 1968.

    [added while trying to post: the captcha is a picture of a house?]

  23. James Davis Nicoll22 November 2012 at 10:08

    Global investment in space exploration shows slow but steady long term growth. Lifted from a Doug Muir post on The Power and the Money:

    Global space budget in 1975 (constant 2007 dollars, billions)

    NASA ~11
    USSR ~5

    1975 total: about $16 billion

    Global space budget in 2011 (constant 2007 dollars, billions)

    NASA ~19
    E.U. ~4.5
    Russia ~3.9
    China ~2.0
    India ~1.0
    Japan ~0.4
    Brazil ~0.3
    Others (Iran, Pakistan, Israel, Korea, Indonesia) ~0.6
    2011 total: about $31.7 billion

    These are rough numbers, but the trend is clear: over the last 35 years, global spending on space exploration has roughly doubled.

    The number of nations doing interesting in space is also much larger than it was two generations ago.

  24. I find the main problem with SF is that it's spent too long trying to crawl up the arses of the Booker types. SF critics try to posture by looking down their noses at SF in the same way that Literary types have been doing for years. Too much sneering going on. SF hasn't 'lost its way', and it never had a mission, except in the minds of the deluded and the self-important. Has Romance lost its way because it's still involved in portraying relationships? As you say Al, it's all about fiction that people want to read.

    The question should really be - do people not want to read about Space anymore?

    Agree with Lyndon that the growth of Dystopias has a lot to do with the relative decline of the US and a subsequent loss of confidence in the (US) future. But that's just the market. It is what it is. It's not SF's 'job' to change that, or to double down on confident future speculation in order to make up for the lack of it elsewhere. Genres have no control over the market (i.e. people) and the fads of today will be replaced by the fads of tomorrow.

    Writers on the other hand do have a job - and that is to publish and be damned. We answer to readers, not critics.

    Rant over. ;-)

  25. The thing is SF can be limitless if the knowledge is there. For example Im halfway thru Mission of Gravity, a fascinating study of what life might be like on a planet that is completely different to what we think of as a planet, yet imminently possible.
    This was written in the 1950s but because the subject matter, a disk like planet with super high gravity at the poles, is so out there it could be written now!

  26. James Davis Nicoll25 November 2012 at 09:00

    The publishing industry caters to people who buy books so if you want more books of a certain sort, make sure you buy the example of that sort that are published.

    (Although I broke this rule with McAuley's A Boot Stamping on Human Faces Forever IN SPACE series because while I was really keen on reading something hard SFish in the Solar System, it turns out there's a limit to how much I want to read about oppressive, highly stratified societies murdering their neighbors)

    Anyway, we seem to in something of a minor golden age for interplanetary adventures. In the last few years, I have seen Pirates of Mars, The Quiet War, The Moon Maze Game, The Highest Frontier, Rocket Girls, Rocket Girls: the Last Planet, The Next Continent, The Ouroboros Wave, Platinum Moon, Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War, Back to the Moon, The Quantum Thief, Gardens of the Sun, Up Against It, Usurper of the Sun, Winning Mars, Threshold, Blue Remembered Earth, 2312 and Cage of Zeus. I may have forgot one or two in there (A bunch of Ben Bova Grand Tour books, for example).

  27. James Davis Nicoll26 November 2012 at 11:44

    By the way, you have my gratitude for writing an SF novel in which Africa is not portrayed as a hopeless basket case for all eternity. This is in stark contrast with such SF novels as 2312, where Africa is singled out for particular disparagement.

  28. Just like cell phones, it will happen, but no one will believe it because it smacks of Star Trek.


  29. James: I think the new wave of solar system SF must be due to the amazing number of awesome images we've been getting lately. I already have quite a few photo album type books of planetary landscapes and so on, and it really is great stimulus for the imagination.

    I love 2312, for what it's worth, but my view of Africa was an entirely emotional one borne out of an enthusiasm for the music, particularly that of Malian and west African origin, although that's not the focus of the book.

  30. Bruce: don't hold your breath! I'd be interested to know if this new work on the Alcubierre metric gets around the *other* problem, other than the insurmountable energy requirements, in that you can't turn the damned thing on and off or steer it.

  31. BTW, thanks for comments, all. Plenty of food for thought...

  32. James Davis Nicoll27 November 2012 at 09:21

    Part of it is that Nick Mamatas at Haikasaru is drawing from years of Japanese SF (and esp the Seiun); the Rocket Girls books, for example, are from the 1990s (which becomes very clear in the Mir subplot in the first book) and The Next Continent* is from, I think, about a decade ago. They're new to North America, though. Of the books I named above, Rocket Girls, Rocket Girls: the Last Planet, The Next Continent, The Ouroboros Wave, Usurper of the Sun, and Cage of Zeus are from Haikasaru. I will say first contact in their books tends to go very badly, as though the model they use isn't of Perry opening Japan as seen from the American pov but rather Perry opening Japan as seen from the Japanese (and really, closer to the Shinmiyangyo as seen by a Korean than to either of the above but I don't think the Shinmiyangyo has a high place in Japanese consciousness).

    There's no need to reply on mere emotion where Africa is concerned. Africa has as a whole posted quite reasonable growth rates for the last decade despite some high-profile regions of unpleasantness and there is no reason to think the same sort of economic convergence that, for example, turned South Korea from one of the poorest nations on Earth to a first tier one will not also work for the nations in Africa.


    * Which won me over when I flipped a copy open to "As Sohya gazed out on the sparkling waters, he was struck by how bright the future seemed. Yes, life was good."

  33. BTW Im about to start Diamond Dogs, Turqoise Days. Ive yet to read any Revelation Space books, but these 2 novellas are part of that universe right?

  34. Larry - yes, part of the sequence, but can be read independently.

  35. Thanks Alastair. I hope to find the RS books sometime as hard SF and space opera is my thing. I did enjoy one of your RS stories in Deathray magazine before it went belly up a few years ago!

  36. I must commend you on such a well written post Al. I believe SF does exactly what is states and provides Fiction in varying intensities. What more could one ask for? To be told that to "speculate about the possibility of leaving the solar system was a dangerous abdication of responsibility", then I'll happily call myself Mr Irresponsible. With Voyager 1 about to leave our solar system, who knows what will happen and if it will return as V'Ger and try to re-contact us!

    SF will go on thanks to writers like you who continue to open the minds of readers, and as images of deeper exploration will eventually reach our eyes, I hope it will influence future generations to push their imagination.

  37. James Davis Nicoll2 December 2012 at 10:23

    Can one open an warp from the outside? That would at least allow using it to transfer payloads from one facility to another, like a slow teleporter. It would limit travel to places where appropriate facilities had already been built.

    Some models seem to suggest the warp bubble is effectively cut off from the rest of the universe except for a very small connection, which suggests to me getting rid of heat while in transit may be next to impossible.

  38. Although we are fifty years into the "space age" and have only ventured as far as the moon (for manned missions), I am very optimistic. Given a little time, I think private space exploration will put a human on Mars in less than fifty years - or perhaps an asteroid.

    Humans will eventually venture beyond the solar system. They really have no choice, IMHO.

  39. Am I the only person who has noticed the great punk reference in the title of this article?
    What a great song: Another Girl, Another Planet by The Only Ones.

    Space travel's in my blood.
    There ain't nothing I can do about it.
    Long journeys wear me out
    But I know I can't live without it.

    Thankyou Alastair, you rock.