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Gary Westfahl: Columbia, and the Dreams of Science Fiction  

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February 2003

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.

Gary Westfahl
Coordinator, English Programs
The Learning Center 052, University of California
Riverside, CA 92521
4 February

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