Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Stars my Destination

First post.

Don't want to waste a lot of time with a lot of "here I am, this is why I write my blog" stuff. As with any fiction writer, I hope that will be reavealed as the plot develops.

I want to start with a response to this Charles Stross post about interstellar explanation.

I haven't read any of Stross' work yet, and I'm really looking forward to it. He seems to be somewhere between Ken McLeod and Alistair Reynolds, which if it's true would put him right in my neighborhood.

The Stross post I'm responding to is in the well-traveled genre of raining on would-be interstellar travelers' parade. If you're familiar with this type of article, you probably know the steps. First, you point out just how astronomically far away the nearest star is–and that's the _nearest_ star, not necessarily one that has a planet that anyone could live on. Go over the outrageous amount of energy necessary to send even the tiniest capsule that distance, let alone slow it down at the other end, and don't forget the weight of the fuel, and that's assuming we convert 100% of mass to energy, which we're not even close to now! Oh, yeah, don't forget osteoporosis from low-gravity, cancer from the cosmic rays, and mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids, in fact it's cold as hell...

By the time you're finished reading a piece of writing like this, it's hard to blame an aspiring scifi writer for wanting to switch to fantasy. Sure, you could do cyberpunk, or a post-apocalyptic dystopia. But for many of us, without the stars, the gleam just kind of goes off sci-fi.

So do we give up on space opera? I say no, and here's why. I'm not debating any of Stross' science. It seems completely solid.
What I would point out instead is that a similarly convincing piece of writing could have been done in, say, 1700, about the plausibility of an intercontinental jetliner– let alone landing on the moon. For that matter, imagine how easily one could dismiss the likelihood of the internet as it is today knowing what they knew in 1950. Stross' point is that we are not going to colonize the stars without what he calls "a magic wand."

But what Stross calls magic wands are really only what the rest of us would call technological advances. Let's narrow this down. The problem here is entirely an energy problem. If we have enough energy, we can reach relativistic velocities that will allow space travelers to get to other stars in their lifetimes. Lack of gravity will not be a problem- if anything, the problem will be in the other direction; the effective gravity a person can live under puts an upper limit on the possible acceleration of a ship. Cosmic rays can be shielded using a magnetic field, just as they are on Earth, again if you have enough energy.

By narrowing the problem I am not minimizing it. Our energy production will have to expand exponentially before interstellar travel becomes plausible. But then our energy production has expanded exponentially before. It's true, it's more or less leveled off over the last few decades. The point is that it's _plausible_ that we could discover some new source of energy in the next, let's say, few centuries.

But what is that source of energy? Don't I have to know for sure before I start talking about a colony on Tau Ceti? The answer is no. To think otherwise is to be confused about what the job of a science fiction writer is. There is entirely too much concern about plausibility in the science fiction community recently, which is probably why so few people read it. It's true, a science fiction author has to devote some energy to scientific plausibility in order not to stretch the disbelief suspension muscles of the geeks who read it too far.

But, I propose, it is not primarily the job of a science fiction author to figure out how we will make interstellar starships. That's NASA's job. It's the job of a science fiction author to figure out how interstellar starships will affect humanity, if that's what they choose to write about. It's the job a science fiction author to figure out how people would react to any technological advance, whether it happens or not. That's because, regardless of the genre or style or anything else, fiction is about people.

A commenter on Stross' column wrote "Ah, for the days of Niven's World of the Ptavvs, when fusion-powered torchships accelerating to Neptune at one G seemed plausible..." But in truth much of the problems with interstellar travel we know about now they knew about in Niven's days too. It's just that Niven wrote _on the assumption that those problems would be overcome_. He didn't have to know how to overcome each one. John Gardner, in discussion the idea of a fable, explains that the role of the author is to say "If x were true [a man turns into a cockroach, a scientist creates a human out of spare parts of corpses, etc.], then what would happen?" The Alfred Bester novel after which this blog is named (originally "Tiger, Tiger") has as its basis the idea of "jaunting", or teleportation. Apparently, a scientist, under a circumstance of danger, accidentally discovers humans have the ability to reappear elsewhere. And why has this ability not happened over the last hundred millenia of human's existence, during which plenty of people have been in danger before? As Scotty might say, "Keptin, the suspension o' disbelief ken't take anymerr." But who cares why? Instead of wasting his time justifying it, Bester does a brilliant job of imagining what the world would be like _on the assumption_ that teleportation is possible. That's why the novel is repeatedly cited as a seminal work of the genre by science fiction author after science fiction author.

I am not by any means saying that it's certain that we will travel to other stars. In fact, I would say it's far more likely that we won't than that we will. We're going to have to keep the basket our eggs are in now tidy long before we're going to have any other baskets to move them to. There are plenty of great scifi books to write if you want to assume we will never achieve that kind of energy.

But the fun of scifi is imagining what _could_ happen, not predicting what will. Or as Bester wrote,

Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation
Deep space is my dwelling place
The stars my destionation.

1 comment:

Denni said...

Amen to that!

The the Stross essay caused me a lot of disillusionment at first, but then the author is a master at writing about Lovecroftian horrors in a post-singularity universe. I guess he just wanted to make us think.

I'm writing a space opera regardless. But it doesn't have rockets, or generation ships or any of that nonsense in it. And the interstellar part is about exploration, as opposed to the economic motivation for colonising the solar system (I think there could be some). As for designing spaceships or bases, the Nasa Institute for Advanced Concepts' (now sadly defunct, apparently) studies are a good kick-start for the imagination.