It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

The journey is the metaphor, not the spaceship


Most science fiction treats space travel like air travel or sea travel. This is hardly surprising, since only a handful of authors of sf novels have actually experienced space travel (Buzz Aldrin, Edward Gibson, Mike Mullane, Scott Carpenter… I think that’s it). And back in the early days of the genre, of course, no one had. A couple of rocket scientists – Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley, for example – had a bash at sf; but most early sf authors simply adapted what they knew.

So there was the spaceship as ocean liner, requiring a dock (space station), with cabins for passengers, a bridge, and a bloke who sat in a comfy chair and just gave orders. Or there were the spaceships based on the barnstormers, small aircraft that people kept in their backyards, that required only a couple of hundred feet to take off, so they could jump in them, take to the air and fly off somewhere.

Of course, we now know space travel is nothing like either of the above. To get into orbit, an expensive task in terms of both energy and hardware, travellers are crammed into a tiny module. And everything is controlled by computer. If Skylon or the X-37B is any indication, future spacecraft won’t even have crew. And yet sf continues to use those old metaphors: the ocean liner in space, the barnstormer of the stars.

These metaphors completely ignore the basic realities of space travel. Not just the vast distances involved, distances that pretty much make it impossible to map any kind of human story onto an interstellar setting. But the whole metaphor of space as “the final frontier” breaks down as soon as you realise how hazardous simply being in space actually is.

The problem is not so much that these metaphors for space travel exist, but that they have become so embedded in science fiction that no one bothers to question them any more. They’re picked up and slotted into stories as if they’re part of the background. It’s a bit like writing contemporary fiction, only the trains in the story still run on steam. We have more than fifty years of actual space travel. Necessary practicalities and the history of space exploration have given us a tradition we can use in sf – and I don’t mean cosmonauts peeing on the back wheel of the bus that takes them to the launchpad, not that sort of tradition.

But sf is wedded to those patterns first laid down back in the 1930s, and all that’s been done in the years since is a gradual refining of them. Not only do I think it’s time we ditched those metaphors for space travel and came up with something inspired by post-1950 history, but I also think we need to look carefully at every metaphor and trope currently in use in sf. Because metaphors are narrative tools, not plug-in modules for story settings. We need to go through all those tropes and strike through the ones which are based on models that no longer hold true and haven’t done for almost a century. I chose space travel as my example as it’s a topic that both interests me and which I’ve researched for my own fiction. But there are plenty of others – robots, cyberspace, aliens, etc…

This is where the interesting science fiction is going to be, in the stories that re-engineer the tropes, that relate them to the real world. Slotting together identikit tropes only results in identikit fiction, and I don’t want the genre to be defined by such stories.


6 thoughts on “The journey is the metaphor, not the spaceship

  1. I mostly agree…

    Wait for it…

    BUT I wonder to what extent the ‘reality’ of space-travel right now is because we’re still in the very early stages. If it’s ever going to happen on the large scale (and despite the nay-sayers I don’t see why it shouldn’t) then won’t it have to become a lot more comfortable, and thus more akin to previous types of travel? Whenever we create structures for long duration travel, we seem to recreate ‘comfortable buildings’, floating palaces or hotels (or prisons, if the occupants aren’t paying to be transported). So, when envisioning the future of such travel, maybe there is some truth to assuming that it will gradually become more like previous models.

    Also, I’ve got some stories where I envisage more ‘realistic’ experiences of long-duration travel. They haven’t sold. This could be down to other factors, (like terrible writing or flat characterization) but perhaps it’s because people don’t feel that realistic spaceflight has the eyeball-kicks they’re looking for when they come to the genre (except when something goes wrong). I know this is flying dangerously close to the old saw that ‘When people come to fantasy, they want fantasy’ but maybe people don’t go for a crew that is mostly asleep in caskets or who lead a miserable existence on tight rations and anti-radiation pills? Maybe they want a comfortable, glitzy environment and fashionable skin-tight spacesuits or uniforms, and a big comfy captains chair, and warp drive rather than decades of bordom or sleep?

    • If we run out oil but still have coal left (unlikely, I know, but bear with me), then steam trains may make a comeback,… but they won’t be like the steam trains of yore – 14% efficiency? They’ll find ways to improve that, for certain.

      So if there ever is a need for spacecraft to carry large numbers of passengers for journey lengths measured in days or weeks, it may well be possible they’d look to sea travel as inspiration… Except, there’ll no doubt be several centuries worth of space travel leading up to that point, and a derivation of that is more likely. And besides, sea travel doesn’t map very well on space travel anyway. For example, a century of computer-controlled space flight and they decide to ditch that in favour of a captain on a bridge? Unlikely.

  2. Colum has a point. The Skylon publicity for the man-rated transport module talks about “shirtsleeve environments” precisely because of trying to sell the idea to punters (or those going out looking for punters). And the man-rated versions even have a space for a pilot, though whether his role is reduced to pushing a big green button to start and a big red one to stop is open to debate. I think it’ll be a long time before anyone leaving the Earth’s surface would be comfortable with a remote-controlled or (semi?) autonomous vessel, be that aeroplane or spacecraft.

    But on reflection, that trope is present in sf, just not really mentioned much. Most of the Culture ships in Banks’ novels are controlled by Minds, and they have no physical presence; and even in ‘Dune’, the Guild Heighliners, although in some ways partly adhering to the ‘ocean liner’ model, have crews that the passengers never see and *again) don’t really have a presence related to the vessel as such.

    Steam locomotive development – now there’s a neglected area of alternate universe technology that’s been generally ignored… The Swiss have continued to build steam engines for tourist mountain railways; they tend to be oil-fired and have a lot of gizmos (the driver can pre-heat the engine electrically by telephone command, so by the time he’s showered and shaved and had breakfast, the engine’s fully warmed up and ready to roll), they sound like lawnmowers rather than proper steam engines (some would say they have about as much personality), but overall efficiency hasn’t increased much – and the usually-quoted figure is nearer 7%. There were a number of innovative projects in the 1930s, looking at steam turbines and high-pressure steam, but mostly these were not adopted because (in the UK at least) they didn’t fit an employment model where you had a large workforce with low technical skills, abundant coal and a large industrial base devoted to the low-tech end of the market. Continental practice was looking down these routes, but World War 2 brought a lot of these lines of research to a close. And in the USA, development of steam technology ended as the industrial complex found it easier to promote diesel engines as the way forward.

    One project, though, saw a future for steam. This was Hitler’s proposal for giant, high-speed, broad-gauge (3 metres, roughly twice that which we use today) railways connecting the far-flung corners of the Greater German Reich together. Just as with his grandiose architectural fantasies, his future plans for the railways of the Reich attracted quite a deal of interest from the railway industry at the timne (though this was probably lip service to keep in Berlin’s good books). The designs produced included electric, gas turbine, diesel and steam designs, many of the latter utilizing high-pressure condensing boilers and new designs of the reciprocating gear to increase engine speed and efficiency. How efficient any of these would be can be only speculation.

    There is, of course, a book: “Broader than broad” by Robin Barnes ( Incidentally, the author makes the best comment I’ve ever heard over the interest that Third Reich tech has for people – “Please do not confuse fascination for admiration”.

  3. I deliberately used the metaphor of a space ship as an ocean going liner in “A Son of the Rock” as it suited my purposes exactly. (It probably doesn’t meet your objections but the technology I adduced was sufficiently far advanced to allow for luxury. However, that technology was about to be superseded….. (a development explored further in my short story SHIFT. )
    One of Ian Jack’s columns in The Guardian – last Saturday or the one before – talked about steam nostalgia and implied steam engine efficiency was much better these days.

  4. I agree with everything you say, Ian. I would only add that we want to attract readers who may not know a thing about science or science fiction tropes. So, while its important for us to research, to avoid cliche, and to write ‘real’ worlds, these things aren’t enough in themselves.

    Typical readers will be familiar with tension, adventure, conflict, mystery, anger, romance, doubt, pain, etc. If we pull them in with such as this, then we can feed them our interesting science and visions of tomorrow.


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