Why Do We Dream of Interstellar Travel When It’s Probably an Impossible Dream?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 4, 2018

I’ve always loved science fiction. Dreams of science fiction have felt like our species greatest ambitions. I’m not the only one that feels that way, because space travel enchanted many in the twentieth century. Humans have been imagining how to voyage across space for as long as they’ve known there were destinations to set sail across the sky. Landing on the Moon in 1969 made us believe we could go anywhere in the galaxy. But next year, the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing will only remind us we haven’t.

From the Earth to the Moon

When I bring up this subject to science fiction fans, most express a firm faith technology will find a way. I have doubts. Reading science books, rather than science fiction, gives a whole different perspective. My faith fades, and I assume humanity will never go far from Earth. At best, we might put outposts on the Moon and Mars, like those in Antarctica. It will probably never be healthy living off Earth. The more we study living in space, the more we learn that Earth is where our biological bodies are designed to dwell. Shouldn’t science fiction be exploring all these things our species could do in the next million years while stuck on Earth?

Because I’m an atheist I’ve always wondered why people waste their lives in anticipation of heaven. Now I wonder if science fiction’s hope of space travel is equally unrealistic. Strangely, we have far more books and movies about living on other worlds than fantasies about life after death. Is that a shift in faith to something we thought could be actually possible? And what if we find out that dream is just as unreal?

Or am I completely wrong? I’ve always had trouble enjoying fantasy stories because what’s the point of imagining things that can’t happen? Do most science fiction readers see their genre no different from fantasy? I read science fiction because I believe it could come true. Years ago I stopped enjoying stories about faster-than-light travel. Now I’m doubting any story about interstellar travel. I wonder if doubt is happening to science fiction writers too. Just read Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I’ve always considered Star Wars fantasy but believed Star Trek attempted to be practical science fiction. Yet, when I study the details, Star Trek is no more realistic than Marvel comics. Are all these genres stories for the child that never died in us? When do we grow up and read stories for adults? Isn’t a large portion of TV/movie content aimed at a kind of permanent arrested development in our souls?

When I was a kid I was savvy enough to distrust religion, so why did I buy into science fiction? We have a hunger for the fantastic. We want reality to be more than it is. Is it healthy to justify fantasy as only pretending? We want to aim high in imagining future possibilities, but when is ambition delusion? Why do we reject the mundane for the fantastic?

The Skylark of Space

What if our fantasies are a kind of reality? What if our fantasies are a new dimension we’re creating? A spin-off of this reality. What if all art is creation? Our conscious minds are the accidental byproduct of this universe. We have woken up becoming conscious of reality and said, “I wish it was different.” Maybe all art is fantasy, our blueprints to how we would have designed creation. What if our real desire is to put our conscious minds into our art, our self-created reality?

That philosophy would explain the drive to create VR software or the science fictional hope of downloading our brains into virtual worlds. There are folks who already believe this universe is such a construct.

I don’t know if this is good. Are we not destroying this planet by pursuing our fantasies? Should we not accept the physical reality in which we evolved? We are proud to be an evolved species with high intelligence, but what if we’re really a species with evolved fantasies? Is that creative or delusional?

Can we live in both reality and fantasy while respecting the rules of each?








13 thoughts on “Why Do We Dream of Interstellar Travel When It’s Probably an Impossible Dream?”

  1. We love the idea of interstellar travel just as we love the idea of time travel. They are cool concepts. Who knows, maybe they’re possible with worm holes and Dark Matter and multi-dimensional jiggering. There was a time when people flying around was considered impossible. The same with Space Travel (limited as it is now). In many Science Fiction stories, I’m willing to suspend my beliefs and put Reality on hold in order to be entertained.

  2. I feel like you do. I use to think definitely we’d eventually get into space travel and colonization. I no longer feel that way. Two things work against it…money for sure and time. I’m not so sure our civilization will last long enough to prosper and grow in a healthy way for humanity and our planet and if there are to many social and economic problems, the will and the money won’t ever be there.

    It’s quite sad I think…a golden dream of the future being dismantled by reality. And the really sad thing is that it is unnecessary. It didn’t have to be this way. Man is certainly capable and smart enough, but greed, politicians and divisiveness have gotten in the way.

    My favorite Star Trek NG episode was when Moriarty and a lady got loose from the holodeck and the crew ended up creating a virtual reality for them that they could upload into them and it would last for a long long time…maybe infinity… and as I recall, to the crew it seemed like a few seconds, but to them forever..

  3. Robert Heinlein was noted for his fluent style.Olaf Stapleton wrote mythologies of the future.Ray Bradbury was acclaimed for his eloquent prose.Later authors wrote about inner space.They all wrote about space travel in their shorter fiction,but the brilliance of their ideas and literary styles,transcended it.It doesn’t have to be feasible in this case.That’s why it has survived.

    1. But Richard, when you were growing up, didn’t you hope the future would be like the science fiction you read? Not the exact way it was in fiction, but colonies on Mars, mining the asteroids, building interstellar spaceships?

    1. George, you are among the many that keep waiting for the flying car. I used to fantasize that cars could fly as a kid. But after growing up and learning how other people drive, I’m not sure I’d want to be in the air with all those other drivers.

  4. I think you’re spot on: our visions of the future have sailed beyond the limits of what physics and reality can provide in any practical way. I guess it’s because our idea of what ‘feels real’ is defined by the mundane world around us: we cannot touch or perceive relativistic distortion, for example, by our own senses; or electromagnetic radiation much beyond the one octave of light and aspects of infra-red. So it becomes easy to imagine that ‘out there’ is more an extension of the ‘reality’ we perceive down on Earth. Such vision has a ‘truth feel’ to it that the actual reality of space travel and the way physics limit propulsion and other things does not. And so we want to believe – well, if not Star Wars, then certainly Trek, as the repeated effort to claim that they ‘predicted’ the future reveals. Even now, I suspect quantum mechanics is being given far more credence and effect than it actually has, as a device to realise the dreams that Einstein (among others) dashed when it came to the determinist world. All that said, of course, I do enjoy sci-fi – to me (as Heinlein, Clarke and others revealed) it is really about us, and about our societies.

    1. In a way, science fiction’s enthusiasm for space travel is a holdover from colonial exploration/exploitation in the 19th century. It assumes there are places to claim, take, annex, conquer, without considering that the existing life, whether intelligent or not, has a prior ethical claim. We assumed it would be as easy as sailing across an ocean. It’s not. But even if interstellar travel was easy, we did not consider if we had any right to colonize the galaxy. Why should we take any planet that’s evolving life? We don’t know where that future potential might lead. The Prime Directive should extend way beyond intelligent life.

  5. Indeed, it’s the idealism and aspiration the leads to the quest for the impossible, in which the possible is achieved along the way. In other words: it is an impetus for technological innovation.

  6. I wouldn’t be completely pessimistic about space travel though, oddly, I’ve never felt the enthusiasm for the subject that you have. We could settle the solar system, but it might require a lot more biological engineering of us than we thought.

    I’m not sure the desire for space exploration has anything to do with colonialism. Humans are an exploring and settling species. Look at the Polynesians settling the Pacific or the rate that humanity expanded (whether it was truly an “out of Africa” affair or something more complicated that we’re uncovering through genetic anthropology).

    However, I don’t think it a coincidence that the idea of space travel was warmly embraced in American sf shortly after the frontier of the West closed.

  7. I like the way you linked space fiction with religion. Another area worth exploring that’s similar is the speculation about alien civilizations. Years ago I remember thinking when Carl Sagan would enthuse about contacting such a civilization, with all the potential advances they could offer us, that it seemed a materialistic substitute for a religious faith that would save us from ourselves. Like you, the more I studied the so-called Drake equation and the mediocrity assumption that lies behind it, the more I realized — along with Sagan’s erstwhile collaborator Shklovskii — that the equation was useless, and that, as far as we can tell now, the probability we aren’t alone equals the probability that we are.

    Underlying all of these issues — the false analogizing of terrestrial sea travel with space travel, the enormity of the challenges to interstellar travel, and, last but not least, that nagging Fermi Paradox — is an ongoing lack of appreciation for the scale of the yawning abyss that surrounds us on Earth. A true appreciation of what is, for all practical purposes, the infinitude of space surrounding us, will either inspire fear or liberating awe. We can imagine that space to be more “homey” by imagining us tooling around it like ships on Earth, and wondering why the aliens next door don’t say hello. How arrogant is it of us to think, and deride those who think otherwise, that human expansion is without limits! How blind we may be in not recognizing, in our environmental issues as well as in space travel, that we may be bumping up against those limits!

    Last thought: If it is difficult to imagine how big space is, maybe we should change our perspective. Maybe we can imagine space to be “smaller” if we realize how tiny humanity is.

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