Teahouse on the Tracks (Alastair Reynolds)
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Sunday, 19 October 2008
Space is Gonna Do Me Good
Now Playing: Frank Black

 One of the things I've occasionally harped on about in talks and essays is the notion of SF as a tool for mapping the space of possible futures. As is often remarked, SF is not a predictive medium (or at least not a strikingly successful one) on the level of individual stories and novels. In fact, SF's record of direct predictive hits is rather dreadful. We aren't living in giant wheels in space; we aren't required to distinguish between aircars and groundcars; we don't commute to work on rolling roads or eschew elevators for the convenience of the antigravity drop-shaft. We don't live under the benign will of a single World Government or obey the edicts of a "just machine" programmed by fellows with compassion and vision (spot the Fagen reference, pop pickers). Psi-powers and teleportation don't appear to work; aliens haven't appeared in vast ships over our cities and we aren't fighting killer cyborgs from the future. On the other hand, lots of things that do loom large in our lives - instantaneous, ubiquitous communication, the massively networked world, the coming energy crisis - conspicuously failed to be anticipated by SF as a whole; they were not part of the default future that we imagined we were heading towards for much of the twentieth century. And yet, there were individual "hits" - SF writers did occasionally get it right, even if what they anticipated did not necessarily become part of SF's common currency of ideas. I won't labour the point, but while (for instance) SF exhibited a massive blindspot about the possibility of the mass-produced home computer, Murray Leinster got it sort of right in "A Logic Named Joe" (1946). The idea was right, or at least not as wrong as the prevailing notion of the single, world-governing Asimovian supercomputer - but it didn't catch on. Nonetheless, there was that one "hit". It's a bit like Rutherford's scattering experiment, in which only a tiny fraction of the alpha particles fired at the gold screen actually rebounded: SF was the collective enterprise firing predictions at the gold screen of the future, and (in this instance) only Leinster's alpha particle actually scored a hit. Looked at on the scale of individual stories, it's obviously a dismally low success rate - but if we take a step back and look a SF as a kind of collaborative experiment, then maybe it took all those misses before the numbers stacked up enough to make one hit likely. The best strategy for ramping up the hit rate, it seems to me, would be to encourage SF writers to shoot their alpha-particle predictions into the gold screen on as many different trajectories as possible. Not, in other words, to think in lock-step, marching to the same conceptual beat. Of course, why you might care about SF's collective ability to hit the predictive mark is another question entirely - one I'm tempted to gloss over, other than to suggest that if you've imagined something, even only fleetingly, you will at least not be totally surprised when the real thing arrives. SF anticipated human cloning; to some extent we already had an intellectual toolkit to deal with the issue when it showed up.

What on Earth does any of this have to do with space, as intimated by the title of this entry? Well, maybe nothing, but when I'm writing a story in which space travel plays a significant role, I try to be honest with myself about the kind of game I'm playing. Am I indulging in a purely literary exercise, using spaceships to facilitate a story I couldn't otherwise tell? Or am I indulging - or attempting to indulge in - genuine speculation about where we might be headed a hundred or a thousand years from now? Zima Blue, for instance, has space travel in it; it's set in a teeming colonised galaxy somewhere in the early fourth millennium. I don't, however, seriously think that our future is going to look anything like the background in that story. It's a colourful, fun construct, with FTL travel and spaceships so huge they have sky-generators on their bellies so they don't cast massive shadows when they're hovering over planets. Great fun - a future I'd love to live in - but not one supported by anything much resembling physics. On the other hand - pause while Reynolds searches his brain for something in his back catalogue approximating a hard SF story - something like "Great Wall of Mars" or "Glacial" is me trying to play semi-fair with the laws of physics, and not get too carried away with the space operatics. I don't think we'll be zipping out of the solar system in 4 kilometer-long Conjoiner drive ships any time soon, but I still earnestly believe that we will extend a human presence beyond this solar system, and that we'll find a way to do it with living, breathing people, not just DNA smears or uploaded personalities. All that other stuff might happen as well, but I'm convinced that there will be actual, honest-to-god starships. They might bear little or no resemblence to anything SF's dreamed up - or about as much resem blence to a real ship as Leonardo's sketch of a helicopter does to a Cobra gunship - but they will still be something we can call starships. They'll travel at slower than the speed of light (how much slower I wouldn't like to guess) and they'll carry pioneers and explorers to other solar systems, systems we will already have studied via telescopes and robotic envoys. I believe this, although I don't expect anyone else to.

It seems to me, though, that SF might be on the verge of exhibiting a collective loss of faith in the old dream of space travel beyond our solar system. Maybe it's already happened. On his blog, that excellent writer Ian McDonald has stated his position very clearly - he doesn't feel that he's engaging with anything real when he writes about spaceships. I can't argue with that; I feel differently but it's that personal response that's precisely the issue here. Writers should go with their hearts and minds, and not follow the pack. If you believe in something, write about it with conviction and sincerity. If you don't, don't.

Maybe I'm just on a space buzz because I've recently come back from visiting the Kennedy Space Center, fired up with the grandeur of Apollo and my continued love affair with the space shuttle, compromised and inefficient thing that it is. I don't think so, though: I've felt this way about space for years, decades. Perhaps I'm just in denial, unable to process the demoralising truth that the dream is dead and gone. That may be the case; I'm the last person you should ask. Certainly, public enthusiam for space travel couldn't be at a lower ebb. But I've a hunch things are going to change. The shuttle fleet retires in 2010; five or six years later NASA will debut its new manned launcher, which in many ways is a return to Apollo-era technology (precious little wrong with that; the 747 is Apollo-era tech and they still seem to work pretty well). By the end of the decade - 2020-ish, maybe as early as 2019 (there's the small matter of honoring a fifty year anniversary), NASA wants to go back to the Moon, using the same kit of parts that will ultimately give it access to Mars and beyond. I can't help but be excited by this; I really do feel that we could see a renewed surge of excitement and inspiration when the Constellation program takes wing.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, even if SF turns its back on space, I'm still going to be holding a candle.  I know I won't be the only one. But I don't demand or expect anyone else to do so. This is not a manifesto. Space is gonna do me good, but it might not work for you. That's the beauty of SF when it's at its richest and most kaleidoscope - it's not just one alpha particle being shot into the gold screen, it's thousands, each carrying its own specific injection energy and angle, its own unique scattering cross sections. Some of those visions will be intensely pessimistic, some otherwise, some will resist analysis on those terms. There will be hits and misses. Mostly misses, in all likelihood - but that's how it has to happen...




Posted by voxish at 10:16 PM MEST

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