It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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Who dares eventually finds it

In my post on Dan Dare last week (see here), I mentioned I owned a copy of Dare by Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes, but seemed to have lost it. If you’ve seen my flat, this probably isn’t much of a surprise. Fortunately, while digging out some books for a post on bandes dessinées – which will appear later today – I stumbled across it. The cat hadn’t sold it on eBay, after all.

Anyway, here it is:

Dare was originally published in Revolver, from 1990 to 1991, but the comic folded before the last installment, so it was completed in Crisis, a 2000 AD spin-off. The trade paperback edition was published in 1991. Copies are not especially hard to find these days, and it’s worth getting.


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.