Space: awesome and inspiring, or an impossible dream?

Are science fiction authors are wasting their time writing about interplanetary travel, space colonisation and the spread of mankind across the universe, given everything science has taught us about the realities, possibilities and costs of doing so?

That question is the topic for a discussion panel at the Sci Fi London Oktoberfest this coming Friday, part of the London Planetarium’s celebration of International Year of Astronomy, and yours truly is appearing on said panel alongside Brit sf authors Paul McAuley, Jaine Fenn and Philip Palmer – if you’re in London on Friday, why not pop along? (There’s other stuff on besides the panel, including a screening of the new Star Trek movie, no less.)

Futurismic veterans will no doubt notice the echoes of the Mundane SF manifesto in the question… which probably explains my inclusion alongside three authors who very surely don’t believe they’re wasting their time writing science fiction set beyond the gravity well! It promises to be a lively discussion, even though I’ll be playing Devil’s advocate to some extent.

You see, Futurismic may be devoted specifically to near-future sf but – much as I have some sympathies with the Mundane Manifesto – I’d never go so far as to say that space-based sf is a waste of time. Space opera and hard sf (plus the Space Shuttle missions of my youth, and countless books on the early space programmes) were a huge influence on my thinking, and an inspiration for my opinions on the general awesomeness of the universe, not to mention the potential of humanity as a species. Hell, they still are – look at this:

The Keeler gaap in Saturn's A Ring

That’s a recently-received image from the Cassini probe showing the Keeler gap in Saturn’s A-ring; the ripples there are the result of the little embedded moon Daphnis churning up those layers of dust and rock as it passes through. Scenes like that can only be caught once every fifteen years or so, thanks to the right combinations of orbital position, light source angles and so on… and even then, you need to have a probe in place to take them. If you can look at that and not feel your heart thump from sheer sensawunda… well, you’re a tougher cookie than me, that’s for sure. [via MetaFilter; image courtesy NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute]

That said, we do have a lot of more immediate and pressing existential concerns facing us here on Mother Terra, and science fiction surely has a role to play in inspiring us to tackle them head on – which is one of the many reasons I consider myself a supporter of the Positive SF movement, too.

What do you people think – should science fiction keep its feet firmly on the ground, or should it have its head in the stars? If you’ve got some points you feel I should raise on Friday, drop ’em in the comments below!

3 thoughts on “Space: awesome and inspiring, or an impossible dream?”

  1. Statistics. The answer that will kill speculations that space is meaningless and not an option.

    Imagine – if we could have a thousand futures, and we could study these in different tinelines, in the natural state. If we would we’d see diverse outcomes all based on real natural and causal progression. How many future earths would we find where humanity had a strong presence in space by 2009?

    My guess is near to a hundred. We’d also find several hundred that by 2009 would be mostly void of humanity by now, reduced to radioactive rubbled.

    My curiosity is regarding those alternate timeline earths that had features completely unexpected – my guess is many of the very weird ones would involve either some sudden technological breakthrough – or permanent settlements in space.

  2. Tom nailed it. Wasn’t it Hawking who said words the effect “every animal has to break out of its egg” when referring to manned space efforts?

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