Maybe Common Assumptions Are Wrong

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 10, 2019

We make a lot of assumptions that we believe are true. That life will get better. That our children will have more than we did. That every kid should go to college and achieve all their dreams. That technology will solve our ecological problems. That humanity is destined to spread across space and colonize the galaxy. Overall, we think positive and assume we have unlimited potential. But what if these are false assumptions?

Today on Mike Brotherton’s Facebook page he linked to “Humans will not ‘migrate’ to other planets, Nobel winner says.” Brotherton is a professor of science and a science fiction author and he didn’t like what Michel Mayor said about our chances of interstellar travel. Whenever scientists, including some science fiction fans, question our final frontier destiny, many science fiction fans will quote Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Three Laws:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It’s their trump card to play against any skepticism about an unlimited future. The common assumption among science fiction fans is we’re destined to colonize the galaxy and we’ll overcome all the obstacles of physics to do so. There are no limits to our hubris. I had faith in that space travel destiny when I was young but I’m losing it in my old age.

What if belief in a Star Trek destiny is delusional? What if our species is destined to always live on Earth, or maybe colonize Mars, a few moons, and build some space habitats? Why is it so important to believe we’ll eventually create a galactic civilization? Why is it so important to believe humans have unlimited potential when everything in this reality has limitations? Are science fiction fans behaving like the faithful believing in miracles?

The more we study the problems of space travel the more it seems an unlikely enterprise for biological creatures. However, space seems perfect for robots with artificial intelligence. Maybe our children won’t colonize space, but our digital descendants will.

If you study history it’s obvious that things constantly change. Even in my life much has changed. It’s hard to predict anything. I replied to Brotherton that I thought the odds are 99.99999% we won’t colonize exoplanets. He said, show my work. I wish I could. I’m not like Mayor, I’m not saying it won’t happen, but my hunch is it’s very unlikely. I’m not good at math, but I think my reply suggests 1 chance in 100,000,000. One in a hundred million events happen. It’s like winning a big lottery. So maybe, I was being overly optimistic. I probably should have added two or three more nines. All I can say is after a lifetime of reading about how hard interstellar travel will be, and how hard it is for the human body to adapt to an environment that it wasn’t designed for, my gut hunch is our species is destined to live out its entire existence on Earth. That means most space opera is no more scientific than Tolkien.

I feel that’s a crushing thought to science fiction fans. I assume it’s like Christians hearing from atheists that God and heaven don’t exist. I didn’t take to Christianity when growing up but embraced science fiction as my religion. I’m now becoming an atheist to my religion. However, I am getting old, and skepticism clouds my thoughts. I no longer believe free-market capitalism is sustainable. I no longer believe every kid should go to college. I no longer believe our children should be bigger consumers than we were. Our species is very adaptable. I think whatever changes increased CO2 brings we’ll adapt. I also believe our human nature doesn’t change, so I also expect we’ll keep consuming everything in sight even though it will lead to our self-destruction.

We’re about to reach the limits of growth by our current methods of growing. That doesn’t mean we won’t adapt to a new way of growing. If the world doesn’t need seven billion people with college degrees we’ll find out what it does need. If Earth can’t handle seven billion people all living the American standard of living, we’ll adapt to something new too. Humans might even adapt to living in microgravity or in lower and higher 1G gravity. We might even create life extension or cold sleep allowing for slow travel to the stars. It’s technically possible to get humans to another star system, but the odds are going to be tremendous. It’s not a given. I don’t think Mike Brotherton realized a 99.99999% chance is like a person winning a billion-dollar Lotto jackpot. It has happened.

Quoting Clarke’s Third law is no more valid than saying “Believing in Jesus will get you to heaven.” Faith does not change reality. Clarke’s laws aren’t science, but hunches, like my figure of doubt. From everything we know now, migrating to other planets is an extreme long shot. We can’t calculate the odds, but any figure we give should be daunting. Anyone assuming it’s 100% to happen is in just as much scientific statistical trouble as saying it’s a 100% chance it won’t happen.

I’m just a doubter. In my old age, I realize now that if science fiction wanted to be more positive, more enlightened, and more encouraging, it should imagine how our species could live on Earth without going anywhere. Even if a few of us go to the stars, most of us will stay here. Dreaming of greener pastures on the far side of Orion might not be our ultimate destiny. Maybe our final frontier is figuring out how to live on Earth.

JWH

 

Retelling Space History in 1080i

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 9, 2019

50th anniversaries are big deals. This month is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s trip to the Moon. I started following NASA’s space program on May 5, 1961, when my 4th-grade class listened to Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight broadcast over the classroom speaker. I was living Hollywood, Florida, just down the coast from Cape Canaveral. After that, I convinced my parents to let me stay home from school whenever there was a space launch so I could watch it on TV. I watched all the Project Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launches with Walter Cronkite – except for Apollo 8. That I got to see live.

Over the years and decades, I have read countless books and watched countless documentaries about the space program, and the history of rocketry. Last night, PBS began a 3-part series commemorating the first moon landing called Chasing the Moon. I almost didn’t watch it because I figured I had seen and heard everything. But, boy am I glad I did tune in.

PBS has dug up films and facts I hadn’t seen or heard. And it was spectacular seeing these old film clips on my 65″ Sony high definition TV. I know the Apollo 11 event was filmed by dozens of news outlets, so why shouldn’t they have different films to show? But I could swear the take-off of Apollo 11 from the NASA’s cameras seemed new to me. I’m sure they had cameras from every angle possible, so why shouldn’t there be a unique one for the 50th anniversary? However, I wondered if the launch shot was from a later Saturn 5.

Chasing the Book - bookI also wonder if after 50 years I’ve just forgotten most of what I once saw? And maybe seeing the launch sequence in 1080i on a 65″ HDTV made it look different from all the small CRT screens I used over most of those years.

There were also some facts presented that I don’t remember ever knowing before either. For instance, NASA had trained a black astronaut, Ed Dwight Jr. at the request of the JFK White House, but for political reasons was left out of the second cohort of astronauts, the one that included Neil Armstrong. Dwight was sent to be trained by Chuck Yeager as a test pilot, but Yaeger told all the other pilots to give him the cold shoulder.

Another surprising story was the JFK tried twice to get Nikita Khrushchev to make the space race a joint expedition to the Moon. I knew that Kennedy wasn’t interested in space and only promoted the idea to compete with the Russians, but I don’t remember ever reading about him trying to reduce the cost of the mission by co-opting the Russians. Wouldn’t history have been amazingly different if Nikita had agreed?

Chasing the Moon covers all the history I remember, but with slightly different details and film clips. It starts with Werner von Braun and Sputnik. However, the book that goes with the documentary starts back in 1903 and covers earlier rocket pioneers and the influence of science fiction. I wished the documentary had started there too.

Be sure and tune in tonight for part two. Many stations will be repeating part one, so fire up your DVRs. And the PBS streaming app should have it too. Wednesday, NOVA will be about the future of Moon exploration and colonization.

There is another reason to watch these 50th-anniversary celebrations. I’m starting to see the shaping of history. Sure it was great to be a 17-year-old kid watching the first Moon landing, but it’s also been great to see its history unfold over fifty years. I realize so much has been left out of the story. We always get the gung-ho glamor version, but the PBS documentary hints at much more. Besides covering the lost story of a black astronaut, they show clips of African Americans at the launch protesting. They came there on a mule-drawn wagon. The documentary also hints at the dirty pork-barrelling politics behind the scenes or how hard we worked to cover up the fact that our space program originated with Nazis. I didn’t know this, but the Russians eventually sent all their captured Nazis back to Germany. Of course, I knew about von Braun, since I have read biographies about him, but even those I expect were cleaned up.

There are still two parts to go and I wonder if they will try to answer the really big question that we always avoid. If going to the Moon was so great, why didn’t we keep going, why didn’t we go to Mars? We went to the Moon in nine years, but we haven’t gone beyond low Earth’s orbit since 1972. That 50th anniversary is only three years away. Was the final frontier just a cold-war political stunt? Are the plans to return to the Moon just another political keeping up with the Jones?

JWH

As a Kid, Where Did Science Fiction Make You Want to Go?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 20, 2019

Growing up, I wanted to go to Mars. I assume the original seed of that desire came from watching science fiction movies as a little kid in the 1950s before I learned to read. When I could read, I loved reading about humans colonizing Mars. Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein was the first SF novel I can remember reading about humans living on Mars. After that, I discovered Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But the allure of Mars came way before reading science fiction. I believe I saw a copy of The Exploration of Mars by Willy Ley, Wernher von Braun, and illustrated by Chesley Bonestell before I started reading science fiction. I began searching nonfiction books about space travel when I was in the fourth grade, right after Alan Shepard’s first ride into space.

Knowing what Mars is like now, I don’t want to travel there anymore. I’m old and hate the cold, and Mars is a very frigid place. Although my agoraphobic ways would make me perfectly suitable for living in a tiny Martian habitat, and its low gravity would probably ease the pains in my back. And I love the idea of being stranded alone on Mars like the old film Robinson Crusoe on Mars or the book and film The Martian by Andy Weir.

robinson-crusoe-on-mars

The unfortunate reality is there’s not much on Mars beside radiation, rocks, and robots. I suppose visiting the landing site of Viking 1 might make a great tourist destination, but there’s not a whole lot on Mars to see unless you’re a geologist.  Of course, sometimes the appeal of getting away from this planet makes the utopian nowhere of Ares seem very attractive.

Why does science fiction make us want to leave Earth? Where did it make you want to go as a kid? Were they real places like Ganymede or Mars, or imaginary ones like Tatooine or Arrakis? Did you want to travel on interplanetary rockets or interstellar spaceships? Or maybe the past or future was your destination and you needed a time machine? Or was science fiction always just a cheap alternative to opium?

The book that describes my childhood mindset best is the 1958 Have Space Suit–Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. As a kid, I read it straight, but I’m sure it was a pastiche on science fiction. The story is about Clifford “Kip” Russell who is dying to go to the Moon. He hates that other people can, either because they are in the military, are top scientists, or just filthy rich. As a senior in high school, Kip determines that’s he’s going to get to the Moon one way or another. He hopes to win an all-expenses-paid trip but instead gets kidnapped by a flying saucer. Not only does Kip get to the Moon, but Pluto, a planet orbiting Vega and another planet somewhere in the lesser Magellanic cloud.

f&sf-sept-1958

I believe Heinlein wrote this book because he knew kids dreamed of leaving Earth. At the time, only a very small number of Baby Boomer had this psychological weirdo affliction. Decades later, millions do. What does that say about us? Is the desire to go into space really that different of hoping to get to heaven?

I look back over my life and see I wasted a lot of time on these fantasies. Some people really do go into space, but there’s a reality to how they live that allows that. I was never realistic enough to become an astronaut. As I got older I transferred my personal hopes to humanity in general. I thought it would be great if anybody went to Mars.

The other day I reread “The Million-Year Picnic” by Ray Bradbury. It’s the final story in The Martian Chronicles. In this lovely tale, a man and his wife, with their three sons escape to Mars as civilization collapses on Earth. They hope another family with four daughters will also make it in their rocket. The dad keeps telling his boys he will show them Martians, and in the end, he shows the kids their reflection in a Martian canal. I love this story. It was nostalgic when it was first published in Planet Stories in 1946, and it now encapsulates all my nostalgia for the science fiction I read as a kid. However, the reality is something quite different. If travelers from Earth could look into a Martian canal they would see the real Martians.

mars rover

I’m not even sure we need to send people to Mars anymore. Aren’t robots our true descendants who will colonize space?

Or do you still want to go?

JWH

We Need a New Frontier Because the Final Frontier is a Bust

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 10, 2018

Are you jaded with science fiction on television? Have you stopped seeing every new Sci-Fi flick at the theater? I have. On Wall Street, investors always assume a bull market won’t last. I’m wondering when the current science fiction bubble will burst?

During the pulp era, there were more western titles than any other genre. In the 1950s, there were more westerns on television than other types of shows. Then the genre all but disappeared. Could that happen to science fiction?

Westerns disappeared as western frontiers faded, and science fiction replaced westerns in popularity because it offered new frontiers.

Mars

If this observation is true, then science fiction won’t go away until a new genre offers an alternative frontier. Today, science fiction is often dystopian. The final frontier is tarnished by the reality of science. A few million still hope to run off to Mars to escape the looming apocalypses on Earth, but most know the Martian frontier is a destination only robots could love.

Science fiction has failed at convincing Earthlings to colonize other worlds. Instead, we stayed home and trashed the only sustainable planet for our species. Are there any frontiers left to offer new hope? Back when the Space Age was dawning, science fiction also envisioned colonizing the oceans. That idea never caught on and we’ve only sent our plastics to dwell there instead.

Oceans

Are there any frontiers left for our dreams? We need a new genre that inspires us to clean up the Earth. We need stories where a sustainable ecology/economy is the new frontier. We need fiction that depicts healing of the Earth. We need optimistic tales that aren’t fantasy. We need practical utopias.

And, this is very important, we need to stop using fiction to escape. Hasn’t fiction become the frontier that’s replaced science fiction? Aren’t we all trying to live in the imaginary worlds of books, movies, television shows, comics, computer games, and virtual reality? I have to wonder if we don’t all believe we’re passengers on the Titanic and fiction is our heroin.

JWH

Science Fiction Before NASA

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Did average Americans in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s believe that life, including intelligent beings, thrived on Venus and Mars, and maybe even the moons of Jupiter and Saturn? Folks of all ages read science fiction in the pulp magazines. Kids mostly enjoyed science fiction in newspaper strips and comic books, or watched science fiction serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon at the movies. The 1950s began with several television shows aimed at kids about space patrols which adults enjoyed too. And in the late 1940s, America went nuts for flying saucers. I would assume science fictional ideas were quite popular, and people did believe life existed throughout the solar system. Most science fiction stories assumed Venus was a steamy jungle world, and Mars a cold arid desert world.

Planet Stories 1939

However, in all the classic MGM and Warner Brothers movies from those decades, and all the classic TV shows from the 1950s, I don’t ever remember any character talking about science fiction or life on other planets. It’s as if science fiction existed as a small subculture totally isolated from the rest of American pop culture.

I wonder if Americans in the decades before NASA really believe there was life on other worlds because science fiction from that era took it for granted there was. I doubt astronomers and other scientists encouraged those ideas. For 2018 I’ve been reading the best science fiction from each year starting with 1939. I’m currently on 1943 in my systematic reading, but I’ve been jumping ahead occasionally in my random reading. There is a sharp difference between science fiction written before NASA and after. We now know all the other planets and moons in our solar system should only interest geologists. There are a few biologists hoping they will have something to research on a few moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

The robotic spacecraft Mariner IV flew by Mars on July 14, 1965, around 8pm EST. I have a memory of this event, but I don’t know the exact sequence of time, or if what I remembered was played out over days. I recall watching a special CBS news broadcast that interrupted regular television to show the flyby and first close-up photos of Mars. The grainy black and white pictures were devasting to my science fictional dreams because Mars looked just like the Moon, full of lifeless craters. There was no Old Ones living there (I had just read Stranger in a Strange Land and Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein).

Mariner IV

NASA had been established in 1958 but it was awhile before it began influencing science fiction. Sputnik (10/4/1957) and Explorer 1 (1/31/1958), the first satellites by Russia and the United States had made a tremendous cultural impact around the world. The Space Age had begun but it took a few years to begin gathering real data. Then in the early sixties, both countries sent up a series of space capsules. They were hardly the spaceships of science fiction. They were about the size of a VW Beetle, just large enough to cram one not-so-tall man inside.

I was 13 at the time of the Mariner IV flyby. I read a lot of science fiction, and I built Estes model rockets. I had been following NASA since Alan Shepard’s Project Mercury Freedom 7 flight on May 5, 1961. I grew up with a fantasy of space flight and the early reality.

Looking back now I can see how science fiction was changed by NASA. Before NASA science fiction fans, and maybe the public at large hoped the solar system was teaming with life. After NASA’s explorations in the 20th century, the solar system beyond Earth became a sterile bunch of rocks.

I now believe the pre-NASA science fiction era ran from April 1926 with the first issue of Amazing Stories and ended with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny in the November 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Although Zelazny’s story of Mars with intelligent beings wasn’t the last story to imagine such life on Mars, it’s how I like to remember pre-NASA science fiction ending. As the sixties progressed a New Wave of science fiction changed the genre. At the time we thought there was one new wave, but now I’m seeing two.

A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny cover for FSF November 1963

Yesterday I read “The Halfling” by Leigh Brackett in The Great SF Stories 5 (1943) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. “The Halfling” first appeared in Astonishing Stories February 1943 and sadly had no interior illustrations even though the tale was extremely colorful and dramatic. It read like it should have appeared in Planet Stories because the story was about an interplanetary circus full of exotic animals from all over the system, with geeks who were hybrids of humans and intelligent creatures from Mars, Venus, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn running the show. It’s strange that readers could accept so much diversity in space but not on Earth.

When I read old science fiction stories now, with the solar system teeming with lifeforms, it feels sad we’re all alone. I don’t know if the old science fiction writers invented all that colorful life because their plots needed it, or if they actually assumed life existed everywhere. I don’t think most folks want the NASA solar system. They want a Star Wars galaxy.

I often ask myself why do I keep reading the old science fiction? Hasn’t NASA invalidated those stories? I realize I’m like the faithful who hope for heaven living in a scientific world. Is waiting for The Day the Earth Stood Still to come true pretty much like waiting for The New Testament to come true? What if our respective dudes never show up?

I always choke up when I reread “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” because I still wish Mars had been like Edgar Rice Burroughs, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and Roger Zelazny imagined.

While I read old pre-NASA science fiction I admire the creative imaginations of the writers. I like to think they were speculating and extrapolating, but maybe all they were doing is playing at make-believe. Most classical art is representative. Modern art invented what nature never produced. For a while, we thought science fiction worked to be representational of possible futures. Now it seems science fiction has been modern art all along, and NASA is now making the art of science fiction realistic again.

But I have to consider another angle. Pre-NASA science fiction covered the Depression, WWII, and the Cold War. These were stressful times. I read science fiction in my teens because it was a refuge from alcoholic parents that fought constantly and dragged my sister and I all over the country constantly changing our schools.

NASA space probes today bring back dazzling views of the solar system. They might not have found alien life, but those planetary vistas are gorgeous. The Milky Way galaxy in 2018 is a far more happening place than in pre-NASA science fiction.

I’m enjoying a nostalgic visit to pre-NASA science fiction. Maybe it’s a refuge from Donald Trump, climate change, mass shootings, polarized politics, environmental collapse, and the sixth mass extinction. And that’s okay.

JWH

 

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