Science fiction writers arguing about space exploration is a bit like fantasy writers arguing about which sword to use in a melee. The nearest the latter will have got to an edged-weapon is rolling a D20, and the former likely don’t know Max-Q from LOR. And there’s no reason why they should. Many sf writers, in fact, have no interest in the science and engineering of space exploration – by humans or by robots. It has no bearing on the stories they tell.
Some sf writers, of course, are actual working space scientists and engineers. Like Gregory Benford, who is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. Or Geoffrey A Landis, who works for NASA, and has presented his idea for living in dirigibles high in Venus’s atmosphere both on television and in fiction (in a recent issue of Asimov’s).
Myself, I’m no rocket scientist, but I’m interested in the subject and have read a number of books on it – see my other blog, A Space About Books About Space. Admittedly, I’m particularly interested in the hardware and engineering of the Apollo programme, which is pretty much a historical subject. Fascinating as the engineering solutions used by NASA were, progress has rendered many of them obsolete. Except for launch vehicles. The rocket engine has not substantially changed since the days of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt. Nonetheless, you can’t help pick up some of the relevant science when reading books by the likes of Tom Stafford (Gemini 6A, Gemini 9A, Apollo 10, ASTP), Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17), or Michael Collins (Gemini 10, Apollo 11). Not to mention books about individual missions, or various aspects of human space exploration.
Sf writer Charles Stross recently posted an interesting piece about colonising space on his blog here. He argued that “space colonization is implicitly incompatible with both libertarian ideology and the myth of the American frontier”. The dream, he explained, is driven by nostalgia. And there’s an impedance mismatch between aspirations fuelled by the achievements of wild West pioneers and the reality of the inimical environment found outside the Earth’s atmosphere. In ye olde days, you could run away from what you felt was unwarranted interference in your affairs – sod society, I want to do what I want – and head out into the blue yonder. There was hardship and danger, but the environment those Randian pioneers were entering was an environment for which the human organism was adapted. That’s not true of space, or of worlds other than Earth.
S Andrew Swann, a libertarian sf writer, whose books I admit I’ve not read, took exception to this – see here. He counter-argued that the collective effort required to colonise space is not incompatible with libertarian ideology, “as long as the colony is a privately run enterprise and the inhabitants were all there by their own choice, and aren’t living off the threat of force to appropriate the resources needed for their survival”. Rubbish. In a privately-run enterprise, the inhabitants will not be there by choice, they will be there because they can afford to be there. And if they can no longer pay for the environment which keeps them alive, then… It’s a bit like health care. Can’t afford it? Whoops, sorry: you die. Unless, of course, you have a national health service.
The Apollo programme was a socialist programme, and deliberately so. James Webb spread throughout the country the money provided by the US Administration to meet Kennedy’s goal. By distributing the billions of dollars required to reach the Moon, he improved industry, education, and general standards of living in many parts of the US. Of course, there was a lot of wheeling and dealing taking place in Washington, such that some areas were chosen in preference to others.
Space is not an environment fit for human beings. You have to carry everything you need for life with you. One in ten space travellers is likely to catch cancer from cosmic radiation. If anything breaks down, you’re stuffed. The Apollo Lunar Module was one of the most reliable vehicles ever built. If it hadn’t worked, the astronauts it carried would have been stranded on the Moon; they could not be rescued.
But if libertarian politics are incompatible with the realities of space exploration and colonisation, they’re not apparently incompatible with space opera. But then most science fiction set in the Solar system, or on other planets, is essentially fantasy in that regard. It features magical drives which allow ships to travel faster than the speed of light, and magical devices to create a gravitic field inside the ship. Not to mention magical technology to create hulls which are not susceptible to meteoroids and space debris, magical closed-loop environment systems which function without any apparent maintenance or reprovisioning, magical navigation systems which can take a ship across distances measuring hundreds of light years with phenomenal accuracy… In science fiction, Clarke’s dictum would be better recast as “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from wish fulfillment”.
There is little or no sf which engages realistically with the realities of living and working outside the sustaining envelope of Earth’s atmosphere. New Space Opera allegedly introduced some hard sf to space opera, but that chiefly seemed to be a recognition that the universe is a very big place. It’s possible technological quantum leaps in our future may make interstellar – or even interplanetary – travel a reality, but we have a fairly good understanding of the universe right now and there’s very little room to maneouvre in what we know.
There are those sf novels which describe a near-future in which humanity – well, the US – has spread out among the planets and moons of the Solar system. Even they skate over the difficulties of living and working in space; and they’re also predicated on the same sort of libertarian claptrap espoused by the likes of S Andrew Swann – “there’s gold in them thar ast’roids!”
That may well be why most sf – space opera or hard sf – uses magical wish-fulfillment technology to create an environment in which a story can be set. That environment need not be realistic – or rather, it need only create a sufficiently earth-like environment in which realistic stories can be set. The universe is, after all, the biggest canvas of all. Science and technology and engineering and politics and economics prevent us from writing on it. So we must use our imaginations. And if we must imagine away those hurdles in order to use that canvas, then why shouldn’t we?
But I’d still like to see some sf that makes a serious effort to depict humans in space realistically…