Slower Than Light Imagination

Science fiction has always entertained the idea that travel between the stars would be no more arduous than travel between countries around the world today.  Because science fiction is basically adventure fiction, rocketing between Star A and Star B isn’t very exciting plotwise, so writers long ago imagined theoretical faster-than-light drives.  Anyone who has studied physics knows that these ideas are fantasies, and they contradict the notion that science fiction is based on science.  So as readers, should we accept science fiction as unscientific fun, or should we ask science fiction writers to be more scientific?

If travel between the stars was as slow as it took knowledge to evolve from Aristotle to Einstein would it still make for exciting fiction?  Science fiction has hinted at the immensity of generational ship travel, but it’s hard to write a novel that contains centuries of human activities.  I would think most novels would end up being about just the journey or jump to the destination and be just about the evolved world-building of starting a civilization on a new planet.  Interstellar war wouldn’t make any sense storywise, and neither would commerce between planets within a galactic empire, killing off two main sub-genres of SF.

Has any science fiction writer pictured a future where there are dozens of settled worlds and communication between them take years and decades?  Imagined if we had already colonized six other star systems, how would that feel to us people living on Earth?  Would it really feel any different than watching stories about China in the news?  Or imagine blogging with people from the six colonies – reading a steady stream of daily posts could be exciting – but commenting would be pointless.

There are hundreds of diverse countries around this globe that most people ignore in their daily life.  Sure, future people might watch an occasional documentary set on another world just like we watch a National Geographic show about an exotic Pacific island now.  Slower than light travel and speed of light communication will make an odd expansion of the human sphere of influence.  We could stay constantly in contact with generation ships and influence each other’s language and culture.  Just imagine new songs, television shows, books and movies coming from generation ships and colonies on distant planets.

A cool novel would be following two friends, one on Earth and one on a generation ship, staying in contact by a steady stream of messages where the time lag of replies grows ever longer.  Heinlein hinted as the possibilities of such a story with his novel Time for the Stars, but he cheated and used instantaneous telepathy as a form of communication.

Once I started thinking about STL travel to the stars I realize that science fiction hasn’t even begun to explore the idea.  Science fiction has fixated on space opera, military conflict and galactic civilizations, all from the realm of fantasy to the almost complete exclusion of how things might be.  Why is this?  Obviously, adventure fiction is built on conflict – where fighting nasty aliens is thrilling and the politics of interstellar empires offers far more intrigue.

It also shows a lack of imagination.  Two recent literary novels using fantasy and science fiction techniques, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, absolutely kicked our genre’s ass when it came to plotting outside of the traditional genre box.  Too often science fiction writers find their inspiration from science fiction tradition, like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, a book I had much fun reading and which felt like delicious SF nostalgia rather than Cirque du Soleil storytelling dazzle that I got out of The Life of Pi or The Time Traveler’s Wife

I’m guessing that future SF writers of the talent of Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke won’t use golden age giants for their models, but come out of left field with stories that surprise us.  And one area where I’d love to be surprised is by reading stories that make me think I might be reading real possible futures.  I used to think reading history was a way to know the past, and reading science fiction was a way to imagine possible futures.  I hate the idea of dying and not know the future of mankind, so I always loved science fiction as a way to speculate and sooth my existential sadness about the future, however the older I get the more I’m disappointed with the help I’m getting from science fiction.  Some science fiction stories do admirably work at what I want, but too often science fiction has become recursive, like standing between two mirrors, mesmerizing but limited.

I’m not saying that generation ships are the only way to envision mankind traveling to the stars.  What if travel could be speeded up to a significant fraction of the speed of light?  Then it’s possible to write about people who make the whole trip from one star to the next.  It is physically possible to travel such speeds but it is highly unlikely it will ever be done by humans, but I’m more than willing to explore the possibilities.  I don’t think science fiction has really explored the nature of relativity all that well.  There were some stellar examples like Tau Zero by Poul Anderson and The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.

One inherent barrier to what I’m talking about is SF novels are from the POV of the characters on the cutting edge of the action.  The reader gets to experience reaching another world but never understands what the rest of humanity feels about such a success for our species. 

Imagine a classroom of students adopting a young astronaut on the first near-light speed trip to another star.  To the astronaut, the trip will be a few years to him, but a lifetime to those kids.  What if Neil Armstrong’s whole trip to the Moon took our entire lifetime, and his story was one we followed avidly our whole life, sharing with friends.  Can you imagine a novel about thirty 13-year-old school kids meeting a 25-year old man before his trip, and then a group of 83-year-old grown-up kids meeting him again when he returned and was only 35? 

Now the kicker, whose story would be more interesting?  The guy who got to go to another star, or the group that got to experience seventy years of life on Earth during a time when mankind was going to the stars?  The genre writer would pick the astronaut, but the literary writer would pick the kids.

Living in space is so much different from the dreams of science fiction.  It has been my theory that science and science fiction diverged back in the 1960s when space travel became a reality.  It is theoretically possible for mankind to live in space despite all the harsh realities of the dangers it poses.  Future space ships that travel between the stars will probably be large asteroids that are flung between the stars, to drift at speeds far below the speed of light.  They would have be self-contained worlds, with energy systems that could function for centuries.  The art of recycling would have to be near perfect.

Such space travel is a far cry from the adventures of Hans Solo and Captains Kirk and Picard.  Do science fiction readers have the patience for such stories?  Robert A. Heinlein imagined the fantastic tale of people forgetting they were the crew on such ship in Orphans of the Sky.   Brian Aldiss wrote a very similar story called Non-Stop/Starship.  In fact, most generation ship stories, including the more modern ones like Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo and The Book of the Long Son by Gene Wolfe can’t get past the idea that the inhabitants of such voyages will forgot their missions.  Wolfe goes go way beyond Heinlein by imagining a vastly complex society that is far more interesting than space travel itself.

Has any science fiction writer imagined such a generation ship society that remembers their purpose and creates a society that reflects what living between the stars would be like with the full knowledge of where they are and why they are there?  Like I said earlier, it’s probably easier to just skip the journey and create a new world for your characters to have their adventures.  But isn’t this just a way to set Lord of the Rings on another planet?

When does science fiction turn into fantasy?  Think about it.  Wherever we go in the universe, humans will all face the same problems.  Air, water, food and shelter.  After that comes community and civilization.  If we don’t forget like those characters in the Heinlein story, we’ll always have an ever-growing body of science and knowledge to work with and use.  In other words, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy.  It will be like on Earth, but somewhere else, but with a vastly different society and culture, but will it be that different?

Science fiction was born during a time when the knowledge about other planets could easily fit into a single volume.  In the 21st Century a SF writer needs to read dozens of books to scratch the surface about what astronomy now knows about outer space.  It seems when NASA probes starting sending back photos SF stopped trying to deal with space reality.  I find it amazing that when NASA started succeeding, Heinlein shifted his focus from outer space science fiction, to the inner space of sexual/social science fiction.  That was a brilliant career move, but unfortunately he stopped being speculative and entered a personal recursive mode, restating the same ideas over and over again in each new book.  If only he had been as inventive as he had been in his 1950s space books.

What if mankind never goes to the stars, or even to Mars?  That’s one area that science fiction has totally failed to explore.  Science fiction has always assumed the final frontier is outer space – what if that’s a bust?  What if our species is trapped on Earth for millions of years, what does that do to us psychologically?  What if robots get to conquer the galaxy but we don’t?

Has science fiction become a steady-state recursive universe because of faster-than-light travel fantasies?  Has science fiction become entrenched in a Ptolemaic world view and desperately in need of a Copernicus?  Has our faith in FTL stories kept us from understanding what modern day Galileos are telling us?

Science fiction will always be exciting to kids because all of its great ideas are still new to them.  However, as readers grow older and have several hundred stories under their belt, science fiction stops being novel.  It gets harder to find truly sense-of-wonder stories.  I’d like to think if science fiction tried to recapture its relationship with science it might find new realms of wonder.

Jim