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?

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Science Fiction and Fantasy Are Fundamentally Different

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 12, 2016

I’m endlessly annoyed that science fiction and fantasy are linked together in the public’s mind. Philosophically, they are polar opposites, Science fiction is the enemy of magic, and magic is the foundation of fantasy. These two forms of literature parallel two opposing philosophies of reality: science and religion. We all exist in one reality, but we have chosen to explain reality in two contradictory ways: evolution and magic. Religious fundamentalists understand this distinction, which is why they are so fervently opposed to evolution and science. If you understand evolution there is no need for God. If you understand the Christian theology, there is no need for evolution.

Most people try to incorporate both belief systems into their world view, but that only shows they don’t understand the profound and complete differences between the two. You can’t have God and Evolution as the primary creator of life on Earth. You can’t have Science and Magic. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart is an excellent example of science fiction. Because Randall Flagg is a driving force in The Stand by Stephen King, it makes that book a fantasy novel, even though it follows in Earth Abides footsteps. Once you add the supernatural (magic) to a story it can’t be science fiction, even if it’s using a standard science fiction concept and setting. I bring up these two books because they are both nominated in polls for the best science fiction books of all time. (And yes, I know many writers want to create hybrids, like All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.)

Earth AbidesThe Stand

Even though I don’t like that science fiction and fantasy are always lumped together, I can understand why. Most people want to believe in magic, but they accept science. That’s why they pray when they fly in an airplane. Most people are clueless to how their smartphone works, but they accept technology as magical. When folks go in for surgery they ask their friends to talk to God for them, even though the outcome depends on the surgeons’ scientific knowledge and evolutionary biology of the patient.

Magic is based on the power of the word. Magicians work by incantation. They learn their spells through study of arcane knowledge. God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. God creates with the power of words.  The person who wrote The Gospel of John understood that when he said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  When primitive people tried to understand how reality worked they came up with the logic of magic, and the power of words. That’s why magical spells are so important to magicians, they are imitating the power of God. It’s also why most religions disavow magic.

Science, which came very late in human development, assumes there is no magic, and words don’t create but describe. Science assumes everything can be explained through observing reality. Technology is applied science. Science assumes there are no magical beings, no magical forces, and no magic itself. For any story to be truly science fiction it must assume magic does not exist. For any story to be fantasy, magic is an integral part of its reality. That’s why Star Wars is fantasy, and not science fiction.

Stranger in a Strange LandStranger in a Strange Land Avon

Science fiction is far from perfect, and far from scientific. Probably one reason the public lumps science fiction and fantasy together, is all to often science fiction claims magical concepts can be scientific. A great example is Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. There were many science fiction writers in the 1950s that desperately wanted to believe in extrasensory powers. Writers and editors like John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, or Theodore Sturgeon, believed humans could evolve to have god-like powers, or possessed untapped psychic potential that could be developed. Heinlein proposed that Valentine Michael Smith was raised by ancient beings on Martians that taught him to use such powers. But is that science fiction or fantasy?  Mike essentially works miracles. Stranger in a Strange Land is an anti-science fiction novel. Heinlein even melds religion and God into his story. Some have claimed Heinlein was being satirical, but Heinlein also wrote essays about his beliefs in ESP, and even predicted science would prove the existence of the afterlife one day.

Childhood's End

I am working on the fourth edition of the Classics of Science Fiction and I’ve come up against a problem. The Stand by Stephen King is often cited in polls where fans vote for their all-time favorite science fiction novels. But how can a novel with a character like Randall Flagg be science fiction? But then, how can Stranger in a Strange Land or Childhood’s End be science fiction? One point in Heinlein and Clarke’s favor, is back then they believed ESP type powers would be scientifically provable in the future. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s there were theories about ESP, and scientists conducted experiments to detect latent psychic powers in humans. Others theorized that future species of mankind might evolve such powers. In the years since, science has not found a shred of evidence to support such theories, and we have to assume such wild talents are only fantasy. Yet many people still want to believe. Nearly all the powers of super-hero characters represent a desire for magic. We don’t like being ordinary and powerless, so we love stories with characters who have powers. Unfortunately, science fiction writers aren’t immune to such desires for magic.

Should I delete any novel from the Classics of Science Fiction list whose theories have been shot down by science since they were written? I doubt even Stephen King thought The Stand was science fiction when he wrote it. King is an exceptional storyteller, and uses whatever ideas are useful to forward a story, but I doubt if he’s concerned with their scientific validity. And probably many science fiction writers, if not most, choose story over science. But for me, I’ve always thought the essential quality of science fiction was theorizing about the scientifically possible. I want science fiction to be anti-magic. I read science fiction to imagine what’s possible for humans to create with science, and not with magic. But all too often, science fiction is corrupted by our desires, and we ignore our understanding of science.

Many of the stories from The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Star Trek in the 1950s and 1960s dealt with ideas we thought were science fictional back then, but after a half-century of scientific advances, should be seen as fantasy today. Isn’t it about time we begin discerning magic from science?

I’ve been watching the new miniseries, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, based on the novel by Susanna Clarke. That’s what inspired this insight into what distinguishes science fiction from magic.  Like the immensely popular Harry Potter stories, we enjoy tales where magic exists. But I wonder how many fans of fantasy actually believe magic is possible? We do know that all believers in the various world religions do believe in magic. They don’t like to call their miracles magic, and often abhor talk of Earthly magic, or even claim it sinful, but all scriptures about miracles work in the same way as stories about magic.

We science fiction fans need to learn to spot the use of magic in science fiction stories. No matter how much we love The Demolished Man or The Stars My Destination, and claim they are classics of science fiction, they are fantasy. But so is the matter transmitter in Star Trek and the time machine in the classic H. G. Wells novel. The main reason the public lumps science fiction and fantasy together is because we all want to believe in magic. More than likely, faster-than-light travel will prove to a magical idea, and words like hyperspace travel, warp drives and wormhole travel are just magical incantations by writers.

Which brings me back to my problem. Should I list The Stand in the Classics of Science Fiction list? Or other books that fans routinely think of as science fiction. For example, I can’t see why so many vote for Animal Farm by George Orwell in a science fiction poll, or Alice in Wonderland. By the way, I’m only talking about polls specifically for science fiction, and not polls for science fiction and fantasy books. I can make an editorial decision and just leave them off the list. Or I could list them in red. I’ve thought of listing any book that was never meant to be science fiction in red, and books that were legitimate attempts to be science fiction in the past, but are now obviously fantasy, in blue.

JWH

Are Our Brains Being Fucked Over by Fantastic Tales?

While watching the previews of the new Spiderman movie I wondered how could Spiderman do all that swinging from building to building?  I don’t read comics, but is there some kind of theory as to why he can leap from location to location?  What propels him?  How does he have the strength to survive the G-forces pulling on his arms, or impacting on his legs?  What generates his webbing?  I know all of this is just for fun, but thinking about how it could ever be real hurts my brain.  It’s just so fucking unbelievable that I have to wonder about its psychological allure.

Why are we so entertained by fantastic tales?  Aren’t superhero movies just fairytales for adults?  And aren’t they getting out of hand?  Action movies are moving further and further from reality.  Is this good for our brains?  There’s a saying by old programmers, “Garbage in, garbage out.”  It meant if you input bad data into the computer, the machine will spit out bad data.  Couldn’t that also be true for our bio-computers?

Why do we so badly want to believe in magic?  From the earliest days as toddlers, we are told fantastic tales.  We watch TV that’s full of bullshit concepts.  We read comic books and real books based on fantastic concepts.  We teach our kids about the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, angels, witches, vampires, gods and God.  As children grow their fantasy inputs becomes more sophisticated, switching to Harry Potter, Star Wars and Spiderman.  They will tell you its not real, but what do they feel in their heart of hearts?

We let them watch old TV shows like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched where a crossing of the arms or a twitch of the nose can alter space and time.  Does anyone ever wonder what is the science behind the God of Genesis ability to create?  Is it a magic staff like Moses, or does he twitch his nose like Samantha?  We subtly embed the meme that magic exists, while saying it doesn’t.  Is it any wonder that some kids have a frail grasp on reality?

I’ve spent a lifetime reading science fiction, and bought into all kinds of crap that’s not supported by real science, or I did.  I’ve now become an atheist to my own religion – science fiction.  Once you question one bullshit theory, you question them all.

I know it’s supposed to be in fun, but how many people secretly wish for the fantastic?  Deep down, how many people wish their lives were like the movies?

And haven’t action movies gotten a little embarrassing?  Aren’t they really power porn?  Sex porn is the dream of unlimited sex.  Isn’t action movies and superhero movies just a desire to gorge on unlimited power?  To be able to kill you enemies with enormous force and ability?  Most people would never watch sex porn in public, but why aren’t people embarrassed to watch huge quantities of power porn in large groups?  And isn’t it hilarious that both sex porn and power porn are about carrying different kinds of big sticks?  Talk about your AK-47 envy.  Isn’t this all just power fantasy?

What is the underlying need for binge TV watching?  Is it any different from binge video gaming?

Isn’t it all about escaping reality – becoming one with fantasy?

What’s the exposure limit to fantasy before it becomes harmful?

JWH – 5/2/14

The Metaphors of Magic

 

The concept of magic has been around since the dawn of mankind.  Modern people associate the belief in magic with superstition, so the belief in real magic is waning.  However, the belief in fantasy magic is growing.  People love stories where magic is real.  Fictional magic can take many forms because the rules and intent of magic within a story has literary purpose.

A Great and Terrible Beauty coverI am listening to A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, and beautifully read by Josephine Bailey.  It is the first book of a trilogy about four girls in Victorian England that get seduced by the power of magic.  One metaphor for magic used in this book is addiction.   The girls have hangovers after using magic.  They are drawn to magic because of their unhappy lives and magic makes them feel good.  They are warned about the dangers of magic, but they become addicted, knowing that magic killed the two girls that are their spiritual guides.  In A Great and Terrible Beauty magic is seen as a kind of high, or escape of from the real world.

The metaphor for magic in the Harry Potter books is different.  J. K. Rowling treats magic as if it was a science, to be studied in school, with textbooks,  journals, and learned societies.   Magic has rules and limitations, and mastery of it takes work, skill and talent.  This is probably the most popular metaphor for magic.  Readers love everyday stories of practical magic.

Older books, especial from medieval times and earlier, see magic as a metaphor for good and evil, directly related to God and Satan, or gods and goddesses.  There is white magic and black magic, and human users get their magical power through association.  As humans self importance grew, and the power of the gods declined, the nature of magic was moved into hidden aspects of reality.  It was the secret knowledge of adepts.  Stories like The Lord of the Rings comes out of this heritage.

Nowadays magic doesn’t have to have a philosophical justification.  Every writer who creates a new series of books about vampires decides the rules for how they live in their literary creation.   Magic is a tool that shapes fictional form, which can go from sexual magic (True Blood) to comedy magic (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) to satire magic (Saturday Night Live) to alternate history science fiction magic (“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang).

The sad thing is sometimes people really do want to believe in magic.  They want their fictional fun to be reality.  All religions believe in magic of some sorts.  Miracles are the metaphor for religious magic.  But people also want to believe in concepts like luck, Karma and voodoo too.  Thus magic is a metaphor for altering reality.  That’s where it gets really dangerous.  New Age believers are convinced in the power of mind over matter.  That’s an especially dangerous belief.

That’s why you must ask yourself:  Do I believe in real magic or just fictional magic?  Fictional magic is just a plot device to create fun stories, and sometimes its also used as a moral metaphor, like in A Great and Terrible Beauty.  But if you think anything other than the laws of science rule reality then you have something to worry about.  And I don’t mean worrying about being delusional, which you probably are.  No I mean, you have to worry about knowing the rules of your magic. 

For example, if you believe in angels, you have to also believe in devils.  If you believe magic can help you then you also have to believe it can hurt you.  If you can hex someone, they can hex you.  If you believe in ghosts, then you are never alone.  It gets creepier and creepier.  That’s why I love the magic metaphor in Ted Chiang’s gorgeous story “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” where he uses a fantasy time machine to teach the lessons of the Koran.  All magic has laws, even if magic might be real.  All magic has philosophy, even if its untrue.  The best magic is fiction that teaches us lessons about living in the world of reality.

So, whenever you encounter magic ask yourself:  What does this magic imply.

JWH – 11/14/10  

My Favorite Science Fiction Fantasies

I’ve always been a big time daydreamer.   By the way, do most of you spend a good portion of your day daydreaming?  I hope I won’t be embarrassing myself by revealing my how much inner fiction I generate.  Well, I won’t go into the sexual fantasies, I’m sure everyone has tons of boring mind movies about getting naked with other people.  No, what I wonder about is your revealing science fiction fantasies.  I tell you mine, if you tell me yours.

For instance, how many of you have ever dreamed of owning a flying car?  I can remember back to when I was four years old, and riding in the back seat of our family car with my sister, and imagining the car flipping out switch-blade like wings.  I’d always envisioned the car getting up speed and then soaring up into the sky at a seventy-five degree angle.  At first, my father was the pilot, but soon I cast myself into the driver’s seat, and eventually morphed the family car into something sportier that changed into a jet fighter.

labiche-flying-sports-car

The flying car was a good solid feature attraction of my early daydreaming.  They started in the 1950s, but as soon as Alan Shepard took his Mercury ride on a Redstone rocket into sub-orbital space I started expanding the features of my dream flying car so it could drive all the way into orbit, and then the Moon and Mars.  I can’t remember now, but my flying car was featured as a flying submarine in some those daydreams, but I don’t remember if underwater action happened before or after outer space action.

Even as a grown up, sometimes when I’m driving across country on a long trip I like to imagine that my truck could fly.

Starting with elementary school my main science fiction fantasy was flying to Mars in a giant rocket ship, the kind that stood on four fins when it landed.   Mars was always my favorite interplanetary destination, and before Mariner 4 flew by Mars in the summer of 1965 I pictured the Red planet full of exotic alien life.  Because my parents were alcoholics, that often fought, I pictured Mars as a getaway from my family life.  Mars had unlimited potential.  It could be anything.  After Mariner 4, when that spacecraft photos crushed my Mars dreams by revealing that world to be as dead as the Moon, full of craters and not much else, I started daydreaming interstellar fantasies.

Spaceretro16

Of course by my teen years 99.9 percent of my mental movie making dealt with sex, and so science fiction fantasies got shoved aside for many years.  Growing up and trying to adultify had been very painful for me.  Getting an after school job when I turned 16, where I worked 3:30 to 9:30 M-F, and all days Saturdays at a grocery store, killed off my reading, television and fantasy time.  Oh, I’d have lots of mini fantasies about having sex with girls and ladies shopping the store, but reality killed off most of my sci-fi fantasies.

It was during that time that I had one of my most creative science fiction daydreams.  I’d imagined having a robot that would stand in for us at school and work so we could do other things, like imagining having sex with cute neighborhood girls or learning to play the guitar so I could become another Bob Dylan.  I always thought my idea of everyone owning a robot to earn their nine-to-five money was among my most brilliant inventions.  Plus I figured our robots would be our best friends for life.

robots_z

You’d have thought I would have combined my sex fantasies with my robot fantasies but I didn’t.  I guess my puritanical programming kept me from thinking about robot love.  I don’t know if it was a limitation of my imagination, but I always pictured robots having machine like bodies, rather than androids that could pass for humans.  Well hell, when you can imagine any girl you want for your sex fantasies, why picture one built out of metal and electrical parts.  But even before The Six Million Dollar Man, I did imagined having cybernetic enhancements for my own weakling bod, but they were more like the suits Heinlein imagined in Starship Troopers.

For some reason I was never the kind of guy who imagined clones of myself.  I still don’t.  I wonder what Freud would say about that.  I did love to imagine building my own robot where I programmed all the books of Mark Twain so I could have a Samuel Clemens bot for a buddy.  That was a favorite fantasy of mine for a long time, I guess while I was going to school studying computer programming.

It was very entertaining to think about programming a personality into a robot.  Of course, I did have the narcissistic fantasy of developing a robot with my personality.  I never pictured those robots looking like me, which is revealing, maybe I don’t like my body that much, but I loved the idea, the challenge of programming a robot that would love the same books, music, movies and television shows I liked.  I don’t know why, but it was a fun way to while away some hours.

I don’t know why I never liked clones.  I guess it’s just boring to think of a copy of me.  I think I once wondered if I had a female clone of me would I want to fuck myself, but that never caught on as a fantasy.  Who knows, maybe the strong anti-incest instinct we have keeps us from liking clones of ourselves.  Or I could go deeper, maybe it was become of my own un-attraction to my physical self (which would also explain why I’ve met so few women where I was the star of their daydreaming).

As an adult, I don’t have as many science fiction fantasies as I did as a kid, but I do have some, even now.  I really like the idea of having a robot companion, although I worry about the ethicality of having a robotic slave.  I think I should fix my own food, wash my own dishes, clean the house myself, and do all the chores I can as long as I can, but as I get old it would be great to have a robotic caretaker.  So instead of having to go into a nursing home, I could remain independent longer with a robot Jeeves.  If I ever got Alzheimer’s and forgot to check myself out, I’d want a robotic caretaker.   I’ve often imagined what it would be like to be an intelligent robot with such a job, and I’m even working on a science fiction story about it.

Another science fiction theme that’s been a big setting for my daydreaming has been after the collapse stories.   Why are last man on Earth fantasies so much fun?  Now really, what would Freud have made of that?   And Mad Max like survivalist stories with lots of wild west gun fighting makes for terrific heroic fantasies.   But also, Jeremiah Johnson living in the mountains alone, with few people left on Earth, also make satisfying daydreaming too.  Those are a little weird though, when I think about it.  I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 16, but in those circumstances I’m more than willing to kill and eat animals.  Hey, they are only fantasy animals.

post-apocalytpic-future

For some reason I’ve had many fantasies about a life without other people, so Robinson Crusoe dreams have been common, even Robinson Crusoe on Mars, like the old movie.  Being the sole human on an alien planet is a cool fantasy.   Don’t worry, I’m not always that way.  Another wonderfully challenging fantasy is building colonies on new worlds.  The fun here is picking the kind of people you want to bring with you versus the kind of people you want to leave behind.  My Mars colonies were free of religion and superstition, and everyone was liberal and scientific.   I wonder if conservatives dream of Republican colonies on Mars?  Or do Muslims ever think about a world without Christians and Jews?   Those Left Behind books tells us what evangelicals daydream about.

MaylockStansbury-MarsColony1-650

Of course, one of the best science fictional themes to use for personal fantasies is time travel.  I’ve had thousands of time travel daydreams.  When I as little I wanted to go see the dinosaurs, or visit famous events in history like the crucifixion of Christ, the gunfight at the OK corral,  or be at Kitty Hawk with the Wright Brothers.  Now that I’m older, and daydream of time travel, I imagine hanging out with Jack Kerouac, visiting the Bloomsbury group, or attending the Monterey Pop Festival.

Bloomsburymembers

monterey-pop

Reading science fiction is only brain loading pre-fabricated fantasies.  And maybe science fiction books are just favorite fantasies writers have to share with others.  When you think about it, the “What if?” mechanism in our minds are powerful generators of fantasies.  I’ve often wondered if our fantasies create real worlds in  other dimensions.  One of my favorite book titles is from a collection of interviews with Philip K. Dick that’s called, What If Our World is Their Heaven?  Let’s turn that around – what if our lives are the daydreams of other beings?

p.s.

This is embarrassing, but it seems not everyone spends a lot of time making up stories in their head.  I’ve been talking to my friends and wife, and so far none of them have the Walter Mitty gene.  This is a surprise to me.  I guess I’m admitting to doing something very weird in this blog post.  But I’ve got to ask, if y’all aren’t spending all your time making up vivid fantasies, then what’s happening in your heads?

JWH – 10/23/10