Space: really very very big

Paul Raven @ 14-02-2011

This Lee Billings guest post at BoingBoing sums up the possibilities – given our current understanding of the laws of physics – of travelling to other star systems. Probably won’t be news to many readers here, but even unmanned missions beyond the heliopause will be technologically challenging, hideously expensive and incredibly slow to deliver results. None of which are reasons to write the idea off, though, at least not in my book.

I just wanted to pull out this paragraph, though:

… space is vast, and even the distance to the nearest star is mind-boggling. Let’s say the Sun is the size of a large orange, 10 centimeters in diameter. Place the orange on the ground, walk a bit more than 10 meters away, and you’re in Earth’s orbit. Finding our planet might prove challenging—it would be the size of a millimeter grain of sand. The walk out to Pluto, a speck of dust ten times smaller than our sand-grain Earth, would be nearly a half-kilometer, and along the way you’d be lucky to encounter any of the planets: Even the largest, Jupiter, would be no bigger than a small marble.

That pretty much sums up the sensawunda kick for me. So much space out there… and we’re still arguing over patches of ground and bits of coloured cloth down here at the bottom of the gravity well.


Science, science fiction and the real world: some perspectives

Paul Raven @ 23-11-2010

OK, here are three interesting essays about science fiction and its relationship to reality we inhabit. I’ve got a lot of other stuff cluttering up my brain today, so I’ll leave it to you lot to do your own synthesis…

First of all, Roz Kaveney at The Guardian:

One problem with being a long-term reader of science fiction and fantasy is that you get blase about science itself because you have seen it all before. My sense of wonder was overloaded by the time I was 16; I am never going to get that rush again. Even major breakthroughs make me go ‘Whatever!’.

[…]

Another part of the problem is that we do, in fact, live in a world that is a collage of a lot of sci fi tropes – but, as the writer Neil Gaiman’s Second Law tells us: “All scientifically possible technology and social change predicted in science fiction will come to pass, but none of it will work properly.” It’s amazing that we have tiny mobile phones with which we can send photographs of masturbating walruses to our friends on the other side of the world, but less fabulous that you lose signal in a five-yard patch on the Hackney Road just as someone is telling you something important. One of the reasons why Dick and Ballard speak to our condition so well is that they saw the future and it was pretty rubbish.

Secondly, Damien Walter, also at The Guardian:

Looking at the television screen, and the surrounding mediasphere, it seems difficult to deny that much of what might once have been real has been displaced by fiction. Fictional conflicts stand at the heart of dramas that help us ignore the truth. Coke and Pepsi have been fighting it out for decades, but if one ever won would we notice that both are just fizzy brown water with sugar in? The neocons are going to save us from the Taliban – or is it the other way round … Every day it’s getting harder to tell one group of religious fundamentalists from another. Kate and Pete and Brad and Jen are in and out of love – but how’s your own marriage doing? The ConDem coalition is squaring off against old New Labour. No one believes this is representative democracy for a second but, gosh darn it, the theatre is so good we just can’t help watching, even while the real power is snatched by corporate actors behind the scenes.

[…]

For the last few centuries the realist novel has done little more than find ever more obsessive ways to reflect back at us the comforting fictions we accept as reality, making the contemporary literary novelist merely a second idiot, retelling the tale the first idiot already told. Realist fiction’s unquestioning acceptance of modern life makes it difficult for the contemporary literary novel to find anything resembling the truth when it tackles issues of poverty, race, gender, politics, society or philosophy. The easy cop-out of post-modernist relativism beckons.

If the outer world is flooded with fictions, then perhaps Ballard is right when he claims that “the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads”. Maybe our inner world of dreams and imagination offers not merely escape, but our best way of finding truth in the confusing fictional landscape of modern reality.

And thirdly, Athena Andreadis, not at The Guardian:

I could point out that the sense of wonder so extolled in Leaden Era SF contained (un)healthy doses of Manifesty Destiny. But having said that, I’ll add that a true sense of wonder is a real requirement for humans, and not that high up in the hierarchy of needs, either. We don’t do well if we cannot dream the paths before us and, by dreaming, help shape them.

I know this sense of wonder in my marrow.  I felt it when I read off the nucleotides of the human gene I cloned and sequenced by hand. I feel it whenever I see pictures sent by the Voyagers, photos of Sojourner leaving its human-proxy steps on Mars. I feel it whenever they unearth a brittle parchment that might help us decipher Linear A. This burning desire to know, to discover, to explore, drives the astrogators: the scientists, the engineers, the artists, the creators. The real thing is addictive, once you’ve experienced it. And like the extended orgasm it resembles, it cannot be faked unless you do such faking for a living.

This sense of wonder, which I deem as crucial in speculative fiction as basic scientific literacy and good writing, is not tied to nuts and bolts. It’s tied to how we view the world. We can stride out to meet and greet it in all its danger, complexity and glory. Or we can hunker in our bunkers, like Gollum in his dank cave and hiss how those nasty hobbitses stole our preciouss.

What are you thinking?


A bearing on magnetic north growing farther away all the time

Tom James @ 17-09-2009

compassScience writer Quinn Norton tests a new sense, that of always knowing what direction North is via an ankle-attached bracelet that indicates true north using vibrations from eight internal buzzers:

The Northpaw is based on the Feelspace, a project organized by the Cognitive Psychology department of Universität Osnabrück in Germany. The principle is simple and elegant. The buzzers signal north to the wearer. The wearer gets used to it, often forgetting it’s there. They just start getting a better idea of where they are through a kind of subconscious dead reckoning.

Quinn has written about similar direction-sensing enabling technologies before.

I recall something like this in Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett. PTerry gifts his elves with “poise” – the ability always to know where they are.

[via Slashdot, from h+ Magazine][image from ★lex on flickr]


Scale

Paul Raven @ 11-07-2009

Here’s a bit of sensawunda for your Saturday. Spend ten minutes and think about the size of universe, starting at the home base of our own Sun and moving on out into mind-boggling infinities…

Most of this stuff will be familiar to Futurismic readers, I imagine, but the images are good, and I still get that sf-nal kick from being reminded of the incredible and momentary insignificance of our own existence. [via MetaFilter]


Has science fiction’s sensawunda lost its sense of wonder?

Paul Raven @ 22-11-2008

Tomorrow, The Stars - old science fiction anthology coverEveryone looks for something a little different from their fiction fix, science fiction readers included. But science fiction is also a special case, because it has been traditionally tied to the “sense of wonder” – that gosh-wow feeling engendered by reading about something previously inconceivable. Indeed, sensawunda used to be described by some writers and critics (whether correctly or not) as the core differential between science fiction and ‘regular’ fiction. [image uploaded by Jim Linwood]

But is that still the case? For example, the Mundane SF manifesto would appear to argue against sensawunda’s necessity and relevance to modern readers. And here’s Nancy Kress musing on the Somalian pirates’ tanker hijack:

Maybe the world has gotten too grubby and jaded for “awe.” Or I have. At any rate, a “sense of wonder” is no longer what I look for in fiction, including SF. I don’t want to be dazzled by things I never thought of before, even though often that seems to be what SF values. I want to be emotionally moved, involved at a visceral level with the characters and the situation, not with novelty or landscapes or gadgets or derring-do.

Speaking personally, I’ve no objection to sensawunda in my science fiction, but the older I get and the more I read (fiction or otherwise) the more my tastes seem to align with Nancy’s – I want stories about people first and foremost. Sensawunda is an extra – a side-dish, if you like, or a piquant sauce.

What about you lot? Has reality and endless CGI movies jaded you, too, or do starships and rayguns still flick your switches?