Monday, January 30, 2012

A Massive Failure of Science Fiction's Imagination


I've been looking for an article or video clip that would, in a sensible and nonpartisan way, examine Newt Gingrich's proposal for a permanent moon base which would evolve into a lunar colony.  The clip above of Neile deGrasse Tyson does a pretty good job.

There's also an interview with Warren Ellis which (no surprise) does get a little hard on Mr. Gingrich.  But I include it because Ellis goes into the nuts-and-bolts about the difficulties, and mentions the Outer Space Treaty, which makes Luna becoming the 51st state unlikely.  You can find it here.

Here's the short take on a moon colony:

Could we do it?  Yes, if we really wanted to.

Is it likely to happen anytime soon?  No, because there's not the enthusiasm for it.

I don't want to bash Mr. Gingrich here, and I don't want to go into the politics of the proposal.  What interests is the fact that I didn't feel even a twinge of enthusiasm for the idea.  That caught me by surprise.  So I examined the idea and realized that it was because the vision being offered up for our consideration was straight out of Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Heinlein's book was published in 1966.  Only four years short of half a century ago.

Now, Heinlein put a great deal of his career into plotting a plausible path for humanity's emergence into outer space.  But he never meant it to be the last word.  And there's been a lot of technological and scientific growth since then.  Yet when a space enthusiast, running for president, reaches for a workable vision to inspire the electorate, he has to go four and a half decades into the past for it.

This is a massive failure of imagination on the part of science fiction.

I understand how this came about.  After Heinlein's book appeared, NASA was roaring into the future by itself and it only made sense to let them do it, while writing fiction set after the deed was already done.  Even Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books, which demonstrate, step by step how to terraform that planet, assume the hard work of moving large numbers of people into interplanetary space has already been accomplished.

But now that the space program has lagged and only a few diehard holdouts -- most of them specifically fans of Heinlein -- believe in the dream anymore, that gap has become more and more obvious.

Somebody really ought to do something about that.

And since you ask . . .

Why not me?  Because that's not where my talents lie.  But, for what little it's worth, here's my own admittedly sketchy and not at all inspiring synopsis of how it could be done.

1.  Start with John Barnes's idea of sending hundreds of cheap probes everywhere in the Solar System.  "Build a big enough database," he said, "and it will tell you what to do.

2.  Send robots first to construct whatever colonies the database tells you to build.

3.  Learn enough about ecosystems to have self-contained farms producing food and oxygen before the human being arrives.

4.  (And this is implicit in the previous three items.)  Accept that the first permanent Moonbase or Marsbase of Whereverbase is probably not going to happen in our lifetimes.

That last doesn't have to be true.  But it will be unless somebody comes up with a viable and inspiring alternative.

And speaking of limericks . . .

The Blue Ribbon And Not At All Nepotistic Jury of Family will be announcing the winner of the low-rent SF and/or Isaac Asimov limerick contest on Wednesday.  Brilliant writers of light poetics have only today and tomorrow in which to pull off a last minute upset.



David Stone said...

I think another question worth asking is, why does America have to do this alone? Beyond the dubious fact that it sounds good when Newt says it like that at a press conference, I mean.

SpeakerToManagers said...

There have been several long and occasionally rancorous debates about the practicality, in terms of both technology and economics of near-future space travel in the solar system on Charlie Stross' blog. Charlie is of the opinion that not only is there not the will to get out there now, but that it won't happen for quite a long time (as in, maybe not in this century) because we have no real economic incentive to build the infrastructure required to make going into space cheap. Political incentives may get us more operations in Earth orbit, and possibly some additional landings on the moon, but trips to Mars and permanent bases on the moon will require major research on technologies we haven't got much experience in. Those include long-term closed-loop life support systems and radiation shielding capable of dealing with X-class solar flares.

I mostly agree with Charlie, though I believe there's an outside chance that some nation or large corporation is going to be willing to build an advanced launch system that's cheaper than rockets to bootstrap an interplanetary space program. The big risk is that any system we've been able to think up, including laser launchers, space elevators, and rotovators, would look to the nations who weren't building it very much like a very large and powerful offensive weapons system.

Going further than Mars is going to require something faster than low-energy economy orbits, probably something other than chemical rockets; there are choices other than nuclear rockets (which have serious political problems), but no one seems to be willing to bet on anything but rockets.

So I think the imagination is there, it's just more evenly distributed among the readers than among the writers.

hakkensack said...

America desn't have to do it alone. And aside technology capabilties which are probably given, one among other questions is, how can financial resources be provided by for instance America, Europe, China and GUS to do that. Times have been changing since 1969. Results of Research and Development caused by this project must reach people in their daily life - moren than Apple etc. does today *ähm*.

It's a long way to Tipperary.

"From Europe With Love"