There’s an interesting article on the New Scientist blog pointing out that NASA’s workforce is greying. The average age of the organisation’s employees is now 47. During Project Apollo, most of the engineers and technicians were in their twenties. On 31 January 1971, when Alan Shepard walked on the Moon, he was, at 47, the oldest Apollo astronaut.
The greying of sf fandom is another established fact: the average age of people who attend sf conventions has risen each year.
I have to wonder if the two phenomena aren’t related. Of course, not all sf readers are rocket scientists and not all rocket scientists are sf readers. But both groups surely share a fascination with space exploration and space travel, with the universe out there. Away from planet Earth. The future, to both groups, lies in space, where humanity is no longer dependent upon a single fragile world.
Admittedly, space exploration is expensive and dangerous. But so is the War in Iraq. And many developed nations are happy to throw money into that. Of course, once – if – it’s all over, there’ll be vast profits to be made, rebuilding all the infrastructure destroyed by the invaders. But there are also huge profits to be made in space. The ROI on sending a M-type asteroid to Earth orbit from the Asteroid Belt would be phenomenal. And there’s all that real estate – not exactly habitable, it has to be said – waiting out there to be sold and tamed…
Is it that outward vision which society is slowly losing? There are no blank spaces left on maps of the Earth anymore – now we’re just dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. And thanks to Google Maps, you can see anywhere on the globe from the comfort of your own home. You would think that now the Earth now holds so few mysteries, we’d go hunting for more away from the planet.
But instead we appear to be looking in and at each other. Even the War on Terror is just more inward-turned gazing: our enemy is hiding in our midst; watch each other; be vigilant; trust no one. Perhaps that’s the problem – all this overt and covert surveillance is taking the mystery out of our daily lives. And without small mysteries to sustain us, we can’t engage with the bigger ones. Pioneer spirit is like a muscle, it needs regular exercise…
Is sf engaging with those big mysteries? Looking at this year’s BSFA Award shortlist (see here), it would seem not. Three novels set in the near-future (Black Man, Brasyl, The Execution Channel), one set in an alternate present (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union), and only one featuring an interstellar humanity (The Prefect). Oh, and a meta-fictional graphic novel (Alice in Sunderland). In fact, it appears these days that the most popular forms of sf with interstellar settings are military sf and space opera. And both chiefly involve war, both chiefly involve entrenched political systems falling apart or struggling to adapt to violent change.
It’s a cliché, albeit a true one, that sf inspired a great many young men and women to become rocket scientists. And it was those people who helped put men on the Moon. I don’t believe for a moment that sf’s role is inspirational or didactic – even if that’s what Hugo Gernsback intended when he first published Amazing Stories in 1926. Science fiction is a branch of literature, and it has no responsibilities other than those which attach to it as such. I’ll confess I liked the idea of Mundane SF as an antidote to increasingly right-wing military sf and shoddy space operas. But on reflection it’s only another call to look inwards, to ignore what’s out there. Writing about the possible is hardly engaging with the big mysteries. It’s giving small-minded solutions to small problems.
Sf needs to re-engage with the big mysteries. Maybe then we can start looking up and out again. Maybe then we’ll be allowed to look up and out again.