It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Calling occupants of interplanetary craft


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.

8 thoughts on “Calling occupants of interplanetary craft

  1. Interesting post Ian.

    Do you not think the problems of intersteller space travel, as suggested by Blish in his “Cities in Flight” series, effectively boil down to two things: 1) controlling gravity and 2) longevity and/or increasing speed? Not to trviialize either of these things but it’s not too unrealistic to envisage that they won’t one day be solved.

    Controlling gravity is key here I think. If we crack that nut, the problem of getting out of gravity wells and avoiding bone/mussel wasting problems disappear, right?

    • Speed cannot be increased past the speed of light, which still renders all distances vast.

      We can currently ape gravity using centrifuges, but even then that only prevents some problems. Anti-gravity may never be possible – not everything can be bent to humanity’s will, or is open to an engineering solution.

      But my point was that we need more sf which doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of getting into, and surviving in, space. Even space operas should be constrained by the laws of physics.

  2. I know what you’re saying Ian and I do agree but there is the necessity for story to be story.
    The best SF only plays mildly fast and loose with the laws of Physics but unless there is some element of newness, of flouted present knowledge, would the story be classifiable as SF?
    FTL is just a way of getting characters form A to B after all. (Aside:- In the age of the sailing ship using aeroplanes in fiction would have been regarded as breaking the then known physical laws.)
    Didn’t early SF (some A C Clarke stories as I recall) make a big point of the difficulties of getting out of gravity wells? The ability to do so has become a trope – part of the apparatus of SF; its authors maybe don’t feel the need to emphasise the problems associated with that.
    But the vastness of the universe…..
    Yeah, give me that.
    (Only don’t make getting from “here” to “there” tedious or I won’t enjoy reading it.)

  3. An excellent post, Ian. Most FTL travel in SF is there to avoid the issue, not to address it.

  4. There’s a non-sequitur here that adding interstellar travel to a setting takes the wonder out of the universe?

    Is science-fiction/fantasy really about the locations? Or is it about the plots and the drama and the characters? I can take MacBeth to the Interstellar Court where the Zanifraxians rule and the Darkness Syndicate seeks to destroy humanity before it can be accepted into the court, but at the end of the day, it’s still MacBeth.

    For some science-fantasy it may be important to be in a galaxy far far away but yes, these stories could be set nearer to home – but why restrict ourselves?

    My own writing is more about the interactions between a Earth human culture which is as alien to our 21st Century minds as anything I can conjure for interstellar aliens. That’s the sort of stuff that interests me and it’s why I enjoy reading Charlie Stross and Iain M Banks.

    Is there a difference between a science-fiction tale of a lone cosmonaut on a supralight scout ship meeting strange new species or a pulp-fantasy take of a Venusian farmboy deciding to join the AetherCorps? Not really. But all of these stories elicit wonder in this reader.

    Just because we cannot travel these distances, doesn’t mean we cannot dream these distances.

    • If you set Macbeth in an interstellar court, you haven’t got science fiction. Science fiction is more than just setting. It is science fiction if the story can only take place in the universe of the story.

      Which doesn’t actually address your comment about a non sequitur. My point was that the universe is being treated as trivial by sf when it is anything but. Zipping across the galaxy in a matter of weeks or days ignores everything that makes the galaxy what it is. Of course, this is not true for all science fiction because not all science fiction is set in space. But it certainly holds true for that which is.

      • I did say “science-fantasy” a lot more than science-fiction, 🙂

        But again, I think the Culture novels are set in a SFa universe where science-as-magic has rendered normal physics to be immaterial. Could you tell the same stories on a singular land mass on Earth, replicating the FTL with jet planes? Sure. Could you replace the Minds with human functionaries? Probably. But then it won’t be science-fiction and it won’t be science-fantasy.

        It’s easy to get lost in the whys and wherefores of FTL but at some point you have to have a “gimme” in the universe or it’s just science-realism.

        And science-realism, although gripping for the Apollo astronauts and fans of that their stories, bores the nipples off me.

        In some stories, in some dreams, the universe is trivial. That’s part of the wonder – Star Trek wouldn’t be Star Trek if they were limited to the solar system, if it was less “planet of the week” rather than “travel for six months to the next planet where there’s nothing to see and then be unable to get home”. That sort of science realism doesn’t create the stories I want to read.

        Thanks for replying.

  5. Pingback: The Final Frontier. No, really. « lategaming

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