moon landing

Humanity’s Greatest Achievement – and How it Relates to Science Fiction

I did a double take and had to look at the phrase again. I was sure I’d read it wrong. But no, there it was:

“…that exercise in futility.”

I almost threw the book away.

You see, this particular phrase was referring to the moon landings. It was calling the friggin’ moon landings an exercise in futility (and how sad is it that Apollo XIII is a more popular Google search than Apollo XI?). And this wasn’t a tract in some misguided critique about government spending, created by people with limited intellect for other people with limited intellect. It occurred in a book of collected speculative fiction, in a science fiction story of all things.

Moon landing Astronaut

I had to lay the book aside and think a little. When I was growing up, science fiction fans were absolutely convinced that there was no future for humanity other than one which took place among the stars. There were technical difficulties, of course – FTL travel being the main hurdle, and generation ships being the response – but there were no doubts. Humanity would continue to explore, continue to expand, as it had always done. Just ask Asimov.

And then, at some point, seemingly in the nineties although adults might have been infected earlier, attitudes changed. Suddenly the moon landings were no longer considered mankind’s greatest achievement, and many people failed to see them as the first step in the colonization of the solar system. Of course, most of these people were irrelevant. They were people with their “feet firmly planted on the ground” (as they themselves would admit with pride). To the SF world, that simply meant that they were just another unit in the plodding herd of sheeple, a group completely devoid of both intelligence and imagination.

But sheeple, like other cud-chewers, are good for one thing: breeding. And by processes both biological and philosophical, the mindset which holds that we should focus on earth and forget “useless, expensive adventures, whose cost would be better spent on practical things” is spreading. NASA is an emasculated joke. ESA and the Russians are trying, but they’re strapped for cash as well as short-sighted.  The Euros are clipping spending (after decades of utopian spending in other areas caught up with them), and private space exploration is just getting started.

Fortunately the Chinese seem determined to become the world’s most important nation (and they seem to be smart enough to realize that space exploration is an important part of that primacy, much more than the social reform the west insists on).

It has gotten to the point where even Stephen Hawking, arguably the world’s smartest man, feels he has to intervene directly in order to nudge wayward humanity back onto the correct path.

So how does all of this relate to science fiction literature?  And, more to the point, what would I say to other SF writers out there?

In answer to the first question, I’d have to say pretty directly, in fact. Probably the easiest way to get humanity back on the ball is to bypass the parents directly and restore the fascination with spaceflight in the teens and children, who are naturally attracted to it anyway. We can safely ignore the whining that says that SF literature is dying (read any of Dozois’ Summaries, and you’ll see that a hell of a lot of stuff is being printed in the genre), but what we do need to do is move the genre back to its roots.

Let’s explore the future once again, and get those kids away from sparkly vampires and steam-powered airships (if anything is an exercise in futility, it is the sparkly vampire story). I also don’t feel that many media tie-ins are doing their bit, despite their popularity. Alastair Reynolds has already taught us that there is extremely good money in deep space stories, so what are we waiting for? There are agents and publishers waiting for your take on the genre.

We tend to minimize the power our words have to change society’s conception. But great literature has always shaped the world we live in. Cinema is already dominated by the speculative genres – now all we have to do is to turn this into a tool for good. It’s our turn to herd the sheeple, so let’s get to it!

 

This post was originally published – in a different form – in the Apex blog in 2010.

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The Pale, Small, Blue Dot

Pale Blue Dot

If anyone asks what the most important words ever spoken by mankind are, you have our permission to use the following four: “Houston, Tranquility Base here.”

We are assuming here that they will limit you to around four or five words.  If you have more, you can continue the phrase, but it kind of ruins the subsequent argument, because part of the fun is seeing if the recipient knows what you’re referring to.

Pause for those still trying to figure it out…

The next words are, of course, “The Eagle has landed”, which concludes the first non-technical phrase spoken by men on the moon (it seems the first actual words were “contact light”, which was an instrument reading and nowhere near as fun).

Eight words, and easily the most important ever spoken by a human.

Many people will disagree with this.  And those people will fall into many groups, but mostly, they are people with a serious lack of a sense of proportion, created by various subjective readings of the world.

Let’s dismiss the easiest group first.  The lunatics (in an ironic turn of phrase).  This is the group composed of people who insist that mankind hasn’t walked on the moon, that it was all faked in a Hollywood basement.  This same group will also tell you that astrology is a science, just like math*, that a bunch of Templar-influenced Illuminati run the world (see here for our other thoughts about this), and that you should really stop limiting yourself to what science says is correct, as there are so many things science just can’t explain.  Then they’ll recommend a homeopathic doctor.

Lunar Footprint

While you’ll never be able to make thinking beings out of this group, you can at least make them think a little by asking them why the Soviet Union never denied the moon landings.  If that doesn’t work, just send them here; with any luck they’ll spend so much time attempting to refute the overwhelming evidence that they won’t annoy you again.

The other group are more insidious.  They are articulate, educated people who have lived their entire lives under the mistaken assumption that there are more important things to do with public funds than explore space.  These people will, with perfectly straight faces, and a look of concern, point out that there have been many more important words spoken in history.

“There have been declarations of war,” they will say.  “Declarations of peace.  Announcements of the curing of a disease.  Even Bell’s ‘Mr. Watson – Come here – I want to see you,’ changed the world more thoroughly. Hell,” they will say, “have you forgotten Churchill’s speech about the many and the few?  Or the founding sparks of the French revolution? Civil rights announcements!  Friends, Romans, Countrymen! Are you actually serious?”  They are likely quie agitated at this point.

Sadly, many intellectuals feel this way.  That’s bad enough, but so do a lot of people who aren’t intellectuals, which in this case is worse.  You see, the great mass of voters are basically the group that has kept humanity on the ground.  Do you really see the people supporting space exploration when the alternative is more health benefits?  Neither do I…  the solid salt of the Earth isn’t noted for being particularly far-sighted.  This doesn’t stop governments with billions of dollars to spend from listening to them.

And yet, what all of these people are forgetting is that every single one of the “acceptable” candidates for “humanity’s most important words” have one thing in common.  They were all spoken on one single planet far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy which orbits a small unregarded yellow sun.  It is where most of human history has transpired, but it is also the prison of humanity until we can break the chains.

Just by being spoken on a different world, Armstrong’s phrase immediately overcomes them.  Look at it from a wider angle, and it becomes clear: the universe is huge, Earth is inconsequential, and the occurrences on its surface are clearly less important than those in a wider area.  Anyone who feels that humanity’s future is on the planet needs to get an urgent transfusion of ambition and the capacity to dream.

Fortunately, for the first time in decades, the future of meaningful human exploration is actually looking up.  China, of course, is planning to go to the moon, to follow its unmanned rover with manned missions, and to do it soon.  They don’t really have to worry about popular opinion, fortunately, plus, the program seems to actually have plenty of support.  Hopefully they’ll ignite the west, the Russians and the Indians.

But things are also looking up in the West.  The Russian space agency has recently completed it’s first craft built with no Soviet technology, and space tourism is still booming.  Getting humanity into space means getting people into space… and space tourism programs are doing that in relatively good numbers.

Martian Surface

Virgin Galactic is another venture that is definitely going to help.  As private companies take more people into space, costs will go down (strange that governments never seem to manage that), and more people will go into space.  It’s exciting to see this starting, and all the spaceports being built… with places as unlikely as Scotland leading the charge.

Even the US, primary culprit in the stumble on the road to space, is developing a better spaceflight roadmap.  Not only has it contracted out many lift operations to private rockets (SpaceX and Orbital Sciences currently fly to the International Space Station – and both are developing manned vehicles), but even the NASA itself is developing a new manned program, wonder of wonders.  They seem to want to harness an asteroid, bring it a bit closer to earth and send people out to have a look.  Seeing how dormant NASA has been since the shuttle era, it’s nice to see something that ambitious being seriously developed.  The launcher and capsules are in advanced testing stage and are BIG.

The ultimate prize for having perspective, however, must go to Mars One.  This Dutch company has understood that, while humanity as a group will always have to succumb to the whims of its most plodding members, there will always exist individual humans who have a bit more vision.  This company is planning to start sending humans on one way trips to Mars in 2024. They had 200,000 volunteers for the first call – and they are pretty realistic about how to fund the efforts.  One can only hope they succeed.

Perhaps, with all this private activity in space, we can soon hear words that are more important, on an objective scale, than Armstrong’s.  After all, staying on one planet simply dooms us to insignificance on any valid scale.

*This was an exact phrase said to the editor of this site.