Posted 7 February:
Gary Westfahl amends his essay on the Columbia disaster, in light of letters.
Dear Locus Online,
While readers sometimes react negatively to what I have written, I usually
find it counterproductive to respond. Still, the responses
in this particular case the immediate outburst of negative reactions interestingly suggests that I have touched a very sensitive nerve.
For the record, opposition to the space program by members of the science
fiction community is not unprecedented. During the 1960s, at the height of
America's successes in space, several writers freely opined that it was
nothing more than a tremendous waste of our money and resources. (As
evidence, one might dig up the 1969 edition of Donald A. Wollheim's
anthology Men on the Moon to read a broad range of reactions to the
Apollo 11 moon landing.) I do not recall those writers being subjected to
vehement rebuttals. However, when things are going well and with one
spectacular exception, things were going very well for the American space
program in the 1960s voices of dissent will not be a matter of great
concern. It is only when things are not going well that voices of dissent
begin to seem disloyal, dangerous, stupid, or repugnant.
I am reminded of another subject that inspired dissent in the 1960s. In
1965, President Lyndon Johnson committed the United States to winning the
Vietnam War, defending the effort with a number of resonant arguments
rooted in American history and tradition: we must fight so that the South
Vietnamese people can live in freedom; we must demonstrate American resolve
in response to the grave threat of global Communism; we must draw a line in
the jungle so that other nations in Asia and throughout the world will be
protected from Communist advances. Soon, a number of Americans came to
believe that these admirable goals did not justify our involvement in the
conflict, and they said so. Despite what many believe today, these people
were never in the majority, and they were often vilified as traitors
undermining the efforts of our brave American soldiers and giving aid and
comfort to our enemies, or as weak-willed, irresolute cowards "Nervous
Nellies," in Johnson's words. The language used to criticize opponents of
the Vietnam War, as it happens, was not entirely unlike the language used
to criticize opponents of the space program.
Of course, if dissent was ultimately correct in one situation, that does
not automatically mean that it will be correct in another situation; and my
own track record in this regard is hardly impressive since I
enthusiastically supported the Vietnam War for its duration and, like many
Americans, only recognized it as a tragic mistake well after its
conclusion. Still, my background may explain why I now have a natural
skepticism about causes clothed in lofty rhetoric that too often appear to
have only lamentable consequences.
Disillusionment is never a pleasant experience. Young people in the 1960s
were not happy to come to the realization that the American government they
grew up admiring was dissembling and blundering in pursuit of dubious
objectives. If you have grown up enjoying listening to Uncle Charlie's
wonderful stories about his many adventures, you are not happy when you
decide one day that all those stories were nothing more than a pack of
lies. I was not happy when I acknowledged one day that I could no longer
embrace the arguments about humanity's manifest destiny in the universe so
glowingly embedded in the form of literature I had devoted my life to
arguments that, the evidence does demonstrate, often had a decisive impact
on the young men and women who grew up to build rockets and to pilot them
into space, and arguments that I now concluded were driving humanity to
unwisely premature initiatives.
On Tuesday, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America was
soliciting signatures for a petition to be sent to President George W.
Bush, urging him to vigorously carry on with our ventures into space.
Perhaps there is so little today to unify our now-fragmented genres that
support for human space travel must be seized upon as one remaining shared
attribute, a way to affirm one's membership in the tribe; and for that
reason, perhaps, dissenters cannot be as calmly tolerated as they were in
the past. So be it. Needless to say, I did not sign that petition, and I
hope a few other SFWA members also declined to do so. Those who proudly
sign the petition may be happier people than I am, and I do not begrudge
them their happiness; it is heartening to believe in noble dreams, to
passionately feel that important goals outweigh any of their negative
effects. But someday, a number of those signers may find themselves
considering some new piece of evidence, looking at matters from a fresh
perspective, and discovering that they too can no longer believe in the dream.
Coordinator, English Programs
The Learning Center 052, University of California
Riverside, CA 92521