I may have just destroyed my credibility by borrowing the title for this post from The Carpenters, but it does seem to fit the topic perfectly. To be fair, the song was written and originally recorded by Klaatu… and you can’t get more science-fictional a band-name than that. But, onwards…
There’s an excellent article on the New Scientist website Why space is the impossible frontier, which makes clear quite how hostile an environment outer space is. Space travellers can expect to suffer from atrophy of the heart (one week in space is quivalent to six weeks bed-ridden), loss of muscle volumne (six months in space leads to a loss of 32 percent of leg muscle power), and bone loss (about 1 to 2 percent per month). About one in ten space travellers can expect to develop cancer.
There are other hazards: micrometeroid strikes, solar flares, the fact that humans can only survive in a manufactured environment… And, to make matters worse, getting out of a gravity well is expensive, which means those environments must be as light as possible. The walls of the Apollo LM were famously thin – an engineer dropped a pencil in one while it was still at the Grumman factory; the pencil went straight through the wall. The entire craft weighed only 30,000 lb. That’s about as much as three African elephants. And two of those elephants were left behind on the Moon.
Charlie Stross has written in the past (see here; as have I here) how this shows the inappropriatness of the pioneer mentality when applied to outer space. Space is a new frontier; but it bears no resemblance to the old New Frontier of the Wild West. At present, the only means we have of colonising it is with our imaginations.
And sometimes those imaginations run a little too free. A lot of science fiction is set in outer space, or on worlds which orbit other stars. Or, indeed, other types of celestial objects, both natural and artificial. In these stories, much of the difficulties associated with space travel are blithely ignored. Spaceships magically travel out of gravity wells. Spaceships magically provide interior gravity. Spaceship hulls magically protect occupants from all manner of spaceborne hazards. And, of course, spaceships magically travel unimaginable distances within days or weeks.
Yet look here. It seems Panspermia as a theory has a serious hole in it. While life in some form, such as hardy microbes, may be able to survive months or years in space, they’re not going to get very far in such timeframes. To travel between star systems could take millions of years. Not even a kevlar-coated microbe with an atomic pile for a nucleus is going to survive that journey. But its corpse might. And, providing radiation, etc, has not garbled too much of the information embedded in it, the microbe could be used as a template for life. So… zombie microbes. Zombie space travellers.
Some sf novels have suggested that only information – carefully safeguarded, of course – may be the only way to colonise the stars. The Orphans of Earth trilogy by Sean Williams and Shane Dix springs to mind. In it, AI constructs based on real people are sent to various stars with exoplanets, and they then use robot bodies on arrival. Then there’s William Barton’s Dark Sky Legion, in which the protagonist travels dead from star to star, and is resurrected at each destination.
These are ways of dealing with the distances. Because the distances are vast. Sf writers and readers often lose sight of that. Take, for example, the heliopause, the point where the solar wind is too weak to push against the stellar winds of others stars. It’s approximately 100 AU from the Sun. That’s nearly fifteen billion kilometres. Voyager 1 is not expected to reach the heliopause until 2015, and it’s been travelling at around 67,000 km/h since 1977. Interstellar distances are orders of magnitude greater. Intergalactic distances are simply mind-boggling. There is a wall-shaped structure of galaxies some 400 million light-years from Earth called the Sculptor Wall. It is 370 million light years long, 230 million light years wide and 45 million light years deep. Try and picture that. It can’t be done. It’s impossible to imagine how long it would take just to travel its length. Yes, space is big, as Douglas Adams famously wrote. Human beings cannot travel to other planetary systems – space is too big. It’s also lethal. Human beings cannot survive in it unaided. At least, living human beings cannot survive. Perhaps the only well-travelled human is a dead human.
But, however humanity makes it to the stars, imagination will lead the way, and I think there’s plenty of room in the noosphere for stories which explore such futures with a more-realistic bent. Not Mundane science fiction; just “less magical” science fiction. I can’t think of a single sf novel which does not trivialise that first difficult step out of a gravity well. Perhaps the rocket, the brute force approach, is the most effective means of throwing something into orbit. Perhaps weight will be the most important limiting factor in interplanetary or interstellar travel – assuming all journeys start and end at the bottoms of gravity wells, of course… Well, living in space is untenable over the long term.
Instead of fighting aliens, or other interstellar empires of humans, it’s a battle for survival. The only enemy is the universe. And it’s a common enemy. If there are aliens out there, then they too will be fighting the same war. Why can’t we have more science fiction that reflects this? As Sir Arthur Eddington, an astronomer, said, “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine”. And yet sf writers seem content to refight historical wars in some sanitised and romanticised and safe imaginery place which is supposed to resemble the universe around us. They’re ignoring the unimaginable strangeness and the mind-boggling vastness of it all. They turned the Orion Arm into a shopping mall, and the Milky Way into Smallville. They’ve taken the wonder out of the real universe.
It’s time to put it back. Please.