Roundtable on Space Exploration–Part 3, Cynicism and Cannibalism
Continued from Wednesday…
It’s kind of sad how many of the SF writers, editors, and critics here don’t really believe that any real extended presence in space is possible. No wonder we can’t convince anybody else.
Gardner. You and me. Let’s shoot the Moon.
Well, I guess it depends on who the “we” is in that sentence? Obviously, those who don’t believe it aren’t really part of the “we” trying to convince.
I’m ambivalent, personally. Not my area. I’m more interested in the speculation bit.
And transporters, damn it. Those goddamn better be possible.
I believe it’s possible, it’s just not someplace I’d like to spend a good chunk of my life.
Gardner, that’s exactly my thought. No wonder readers seem to be more inclined to fantasy or the so-called New Space Opera stories these days (that is, Alastair Reynolds rather than Stan Robinson). As a reader, I must confess I love both to bits, but Reynolds (I’m not thinking in Pushing Ice, but in the Revelation Space series) seduces us with a far more comfortable scenario than the down-and-dirty, rolled sleeves, let’s get things done we see in the Mars Trilogy, which is (at least from a 21st-Century POV) more plausible.
There’s sf, and there’s fantasy
I don’t know that it’s sad, Gardner, so much as inevitable, given the demographics of this group–many of the folk here I know personally are 60ish-and-up. It’s a hard age at which to maintain easy dreams, and if there’s one thing that the best SF has shown it’s that space travel, like old age, is not for sissies. (And unlike old age, it’s not for old folks, either.) Everything has not only a cost but a price, and the price of living in or conducting extended exploration of our solar system is going to include not only separation from the environments for which we are optimized, but perhaps (as already mentioned here) shortened life and certainly straitened living conditions. On the other hand, some of that applied to global travel, trade, and exploration in the age of sail, so it’s not like our species is incapable of paying those prices.
But I also think about what drove merchants and especially ordinary seamen to put up with a life on the bounding main and reflect that most people resisted the romance of the sea because they recognized the many downsides. (Scurvy, drowning, bad food, drowning, sunburn, drowning. . . .) Then there’s cost. The people who are willing to pay the price to get off the planet (even temporarily to look around the neighborhood) will be standing tippytoe at the small pointy top of an enormous technological and logistical and thus motivational pyramid. I’m on their side even though I (like the ship’s chandler or the Lloyd’s underwriter) am not going along for the ride. But it will take a lot of us with similar sentiments to make it happen.
(My big dream, thanks to Clarke and those who followed: a space elevator. That enables the kind of cislunar space development that I see as useful and probably necessary for our very-long-term benefit Down Here.)
I don’t know many people my age (30) who are, pardon me, but starry-eyed about space. I think by and large even those of us who want or expect a space presence believe things will move slowly and modestly.
Interesting observation, Rachel. When I was a kid in the early 60s, the Space Race was on, its rhetoric perfused the culture, and the inevitability of space travel for everyone was part of the zeitgeist.
Today, you have a generation past its prime that might have considered space travel when younger, and a younger generation that might not care because space travel wasn’t part of the atmosphere they breathed growing up.
Yeah, when the Nebulas were in Florida to see the shuttle launch, we went to a museum where we could see NASA artifacts. There seemed to me to be a sharp division where people who had been old enough to be aware in 1969 started tearing up and those of us who weren’t were like, “Oh, that’s neat,” but didn’t have nearly the same emotional reaction.
Maureen Kincaid Speller
I was at the Air and Space Museum in Washington a few weeks back with a bunch of 20-year-olds, and the response was similar. They were gosh-wow but I was the only person in the group old enough to remember the first men on the Moon as an actual before-and-after thing. They’d always lived in a world in which people went into space and did stuff so it was cool to see these things but there wasn’t the same sense of historical weight. It felt a little odd.
Gary K. Wolfe
Regarding the generation question (I won’t use the term “generation gap” because that’s so antiquated it automatically puts you on the wrong side of it), I once had the experience of taking a group of SFRA attendees, mostly grad students, to Lovell’s restaurant in Lake Forest, Illinois (not too far from Skokie, where the conference was). Connie Willis was with us, and when Jim Lovell came around and introduced himself, Connie and I were pretty much speechless, but a couple of the grad students couldn’t figure out what the fuss was–to them, Apollo 13 was just a movie. One of them still couldn’t make the connection until someone said “Tom Hanks!” But that didn’t quite work, either–he just said, “That wasn’t Tom Hanks.”
After the meal, we were invited downstairs to see a little mini-museum of Apollo 13 artifacts that Jim had assembled, and he finally got it.
I’m with Rachel. Around NASA, younger engineers “believe” less in humans going into space than the older generation does. I sometimes feel like I have to keep reminding people that there are six humans living more-or-less permanently in space right now, and that’s pretty cool.
I’m sympathetic to the argument that the Space Race/Moon Shot oversold the manned space program, and everything since then has been a comparative let-down. It’s hard to be as enthusiastic when we haven’t yet matched the high water mark set over forty years ago. Gene Cernan is getting pretty sick of being the “last man on the Moon.”
Based on my experience, I’d say our starry eyes are directed at things like the Singularity. I have met current thirty-somethings who are every bit as unrealistically enthusiastic about uploading their consciousness to a cloud of nanobots as their counterparts were about living on the Moon.
Karen Joy Fowler
I like to think of myself as someone who will take an adventure if offered one, but I’m really the sort who prefers to reading about them to having them. But since it’s all so hypothetical, why not say yes? Of course, I would go into space, assuming I could do it without missing my grandsons’ little league seasons.
I’m less hopeful about the future than I want to be and that includes space-travel. Also I can’t help but notice how long it has taken to produce some of the simpler things we were promised in our sixth grade science readers back in the early sixties. It took decades just to get us video phones (granted nobody really wanted those.) Cars that drove themselves — only just now arriving. Robots are less prevalent and far less useful than we were promised. I remember being told in high school that we were on the verge of a revolution in mechanization. We actually had to write papers on “the leisure problem” — how we would all manage those endless days of nothing to do once the robots took over. So if space travel is coming, I don’t think it’s coming fast enough for me. Unless we solve the longevity problem first.
The dreams of the old science fiction writers about space travel in some ways actually CREATED the reality of space travel and the fact that there are now six people living permanently in space, by inspiring hundreds of future scientists, engineers, and astronauts to go out and actually make it happen. You have to wonder what current SF is going to inspire future generations to want to do. Huddling in the burnt-out shell of a car after the apocalypse toasting a poodle over a trash fire doesn’t seem like a dream we’d really want people to aspire to.
This is been a really interesting discussion for me, even though I’ve sat outside of it for most of the time. I do think it’s interesting–though I’m not quite sure what to make of it–that even though I write some of the bleakest fiction of people on the list, I still have an almost Romantic enthusiasm and optimism about space travel and a sense that no matter how uncomfortable the experience would be there’d be enough about it that’s worthwhile that I’d still go, even if there was a decent chance I wouldn’t come back alive. I’d go even if I had a sense that the experience of space travel would be a lot like that described in Mike Harrison’s recent trilogy (wires through the roof of the mouth, zones of fragmented physics, the likelihood that I’d end up a corpse floating a few feet off the ground, etc.). Of course, it’s exactly this attitude and optimism that’s gotten me within a hair’s breadth of being confined in a Mexican prison in the past, so maybe the lesson here is that I just don’t learn (a lesson I also will not learn). But it’s intriguing to me that many of you whose work strikes me as more optimistic (and whose work I admire)–even more optimistic in regard to snfal travel–seem inclined to stay home, while Mr. Bleak here has to be talked out of putting a second mortgage on his house so as he can take the (admittedly problematic) Virgin flight…
I think it’s one thing to talk about it, but it’s another thing to actually do it. I’ve been writing about this recently, and so I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I just picture me, as I am now, in a space ship even maybe a little further along than the ones they have. My scattered thinking, my fat ass, my claustrophobia, and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be magical. Now think about it on a five year mission to Mars. In year two, maybe month two, the crew would send me out to fix the antenna, cut my tether, and throw the ship into overdrive As far as a quick trip up into orbit for a couple of hours, like a plane ride, I could go for that probably as long as I flew business class, but really, what’s the point? I was never enthralled by roller coaster rides. I applaud your optimism, and I think space is definitely going to be a big part of the future. Space travel, the science behind it, etc, fascinates me. But I was trying to give a truthful answer to the question. To say you don’t want to go to Mars on a suicide mission, isn’t to say you don’t think it would be cool if someone else wanted to. Optimism is a state of mind, not a location.
Jeff, I was brooding on almost exactly that last night. All I could think of was the image of that tiny pod the Chinese were using in their ad for the Mars mission, and what it would be like to be trapped in that with three other people for the rest of my life. You wouldn’t be able to take a casual walk outside. You’d never see anything green again. It would be pretty close to my idea of hell.
So yeah, I’m very happy for others to boldly go etc.. I love the notion of space exploration, but I’ll be waiting for that generation starship, or at least something like the one in Silent Running, before I sign up.
Good points, Jeff. I’m (probably unfortunately) more the type that has reservations to really obvious potential difficulties only after the capsule door closes (which probably explains my last relationship). I think yours is definitely a better approach not only to space but to life in general. If I think about it with a little more distance, I do think that probably chances are for those early missions that the passengers are more likely to end up in situations like Gully Foyle’s, even as a best case scenario: in the closet of a disabled spaceship slowly running out of oxygen bottles. I’ll try to keep that in mind before volunteering for a trip for Mars…
I’m with Liz and Jeff, though way less optimistic than they are. Actually, I don’t even see the point of “exploring” space. For me, it works better as a metaphor, sort of like religion.
Them’s fightin’ words, Peter.
I envy you, Karen, because you’re work so close to reality of space travel. For most of us, it will never be more than a metaphor, even though we know it actually happens.
Yeah, I can barely think of space metaphorically (I’m sure Gary can confirm this). For me it’s too much of a real place where the systems I work on really have to function. I guess for me it’s only metaphorical to the same extent Kansas is: not a place I’ve been, but certainly a place with its own identity and reality.
Now, I don’t want to go to Kansas, for sure.
Gary K. Wolfe
Glad to confirm that, Karen, but I don’t think the metaphorical and the literal are mutually exclusive in this case. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that one of the iconic images of SF is that old Flammarion engraving of the guy poking his head through the vault of heaven to see the workings beyond. So Peter has a point that religion often deals with unattainable worlds, and the fact that we know extrasolar planets are there doesn’t make them any less unattainable. Sure, we might get to the Saturn system (my personal favorite goal as a space tourist), but we already mostly know what’s there and what it looks like. Get very far outside the solar system, though, and you’re pretty much taking things on faith, at least in the details.
F. Brett Cox
My wife is an even unhappier flier than I am. When asked why, with that response to flight, she says she’d cheerfully go into space, she replies, “Risking your life to go to Los Angeles is one thing. Risking your life to go to Mars is something else entirely.” I’ve greatly enjoyed this discussion and take all points, but my initial response remains: you bet. Let’s go.
Bill Gibson wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter. Asimov was terrified of flying. I’m okay with Stan not leading us into space. (we are WRITERS, dammit, just that. 🙂
What befuddles me is the fact (and in this I seem to be of the same mind with Gardner) that most of us here in this roundtable apparently wouldn’t even want to go there.
If I was young and strong (and thin!) again, and for some odd reason they WANTED me to go (can’t think why they would), I would give it serious consideration. I was pragmatic enough even when young that I probably wouldn’t have signed up for a one-way suicide mission, though. I’d want to wait until there was a halfway decent chance of coming back.
If it was even as easy as it is in Paul McAuley’s stories, let alone the immense luxury liners in Jack Vance’s work, sure I’d go, even right now, old and fat and infirm as I am now. (Especially on the Vance liners; I like cruise ships, and figure that this wouldn’t be much different, except you got to see other planets.) Would I sign up to be cramped in a can for months eating paste, even if there was a reasonable chance I could come back alive? At this point in my life, probably not. Trans-continental and intra-continental plane flights are grueling enough.
They ought to send us geezers. We’re expendable.
There was a story last year by Linda Nagata with that premise.
Not to mention the whole John Scalzi’s Old Man War series – but, hell, since you’re going to space in order to get blasted, then it defeats the purpose.
Karen Joy Fowler
I like the way we eat in California. I’m going to want the food replicator.
Kathleen Ann Goonan
Gardner, you’re right. I’m so ashamed. Despondent, I was thinking of turning in my science fiction badge, but then I ate a tube of Popeye Spinach Paste (I’d been passing on it, despite what my mother told me) and now my Future Optimism is back at full-tilt 1960’s lightspeed.
I have a few requirements for this trip, long or short. First, the full life-extension and neuroplasticity upgrade that’s been on backorder every time I check on it will have to be delivered via the electrical sockets . . . no, wait, I’m not in Thurber’s world (though I was welcomed to it). I guess it will be delivered from Canada or from Europe, where they sell it cheaper. My insurance plan will only pay for generic, so that will have to do.
Once infinitely upgradeable long life is assured, along with perfect health and a lack of dementia (we can’t really let things take their natural course and have people wandering out of the control room having left the turn signal, or its futuristic equivalent, blinking and confusing our travel companions), part of a perfectly emotionally balanced technically brilliant team ready to make lemonade out of any lemons the endless but always interesting voyage might hand us, well, why not go?
But, um, as things are presently, and if I can’t take my dog and wander out into the raging sensorial rainbow change of Clifford Simak’s Jupiter, I–
Oh, what the heck. Send me an email with the terms of the contract and if they’re agreeable I’ll go. It’s the Future, right? I love the Future. The Future has been very, very good to me.
As an aside, let me add that sometimes The Jetsons theme song plays in my head for days at a time, but it goes “Meet George Jetson, daughter Judy, the millionaire, and his wife (da da da, da); the movie star, and the rest, here on Gilligan’s Isle . . .
Sorry about that!
To make it even more confusing, I often channel (no pun intended) Mr. Magoo.
This is what The Future (television) has done to me. I dare the rest of the The Future to undo it.
Part of the problem is that we’re an immediate-gratification society. Not for us the patience or faith that started the building of a cathedral knowing that it wouldn’t be completed until hundreds of years after your death. We want it right NOW, or we lose interest. Settling the New World in any significant numbers took centuries after the initial exploratory voyages, especially in North America, but we don’t have that kind of historical perspective–it’s been fifty years since the Moon landings, and we haven’t been back or to Mars, the Age of Space is over. To the contrary, my guess is that the real Age of Space is just beginning. If it takes a few centuries to establish a viable human presence in space, so what? We won’t see it, our kids won’t see it, maybe even our grandkids won’t see it, but the gears of the historical forces are grinding and it’ll happen eventually. Because it won’t happen in our own lifetimes, though, we dismiss it or say it’s not worth doing or that it can’t be done or won’t happen.
I say again that it’s impossible to know what technology will be capable of in a hundred years, after some development that hasn’t been made yet leads to another development that leads to another development that leads to another development. There was no reasonable way forward the Wright Brothers could have foreseen at Kitty Hawk that would lead to the Stealth Fighter, because that chain of developments had only just started to lock into place. And yet, here it is.
Yes, but Cortez and Captain John Smith didn’t start thinking: we’re settling the New World! They started out thinking: I’m going to get rich.
Which, as we said earlier, is almost certainly going to be one of the big motivators for going into space.
The settlement of the New World was also driven by hunger, war, political repression, and general misery in the Old. Plus good old entrepreneurial spirit (greed writ large and generally better-fed). “Adventure” draws a relatively small number of people to new environments. The aforementioned forces drive them out of homes and lives made untenable.
If we don’t cripple or kill technological civilization, I suspect that we will get around to spreading out to other chunks of our immediate neighborhood–though the challenges of really living off our first home are considerable. Nevertheless, it’s good for the species to have options. But life in a can or extensive re-engineering of the body and/or mind is never going to be a majority taste. In fact, it would be very strange if it were.
The problem with achieving and living with all the comforts of home in space and/or on other planets is then–why leave earth at all? Might as well stay here. Unless there’s something more than a gorgeous view of Earth from Mars.
Now I’m picturing an exploration mission with: me, Brian Evenson, Paul Witcover, Gardner Dozois, Stacie Hanes, Brett Cox, Jeanne Beckwith, Cecelia Holland, Fabio Fernandes, Maureen Kincaid Speller, and Cat Rambo as the crew. Hell, at least we’d never get bored!
Just this morning I was reading about archaeological proof that the Jamestown settlers resorted to cannibalism. If a drought (and a badly-planned colony) on Earth can do that, just think about what trying to survive on another planet might do.
Oh right — that’s our job, isn’t it. 🙂
In space, no one can hear you burp . . .
Bring the ketchup
I knew there I was a reason I included Gardner among the provisions… I mean crew roster…
Way too tough.
Guy Gavriel Kay
A whole new meaning to The Restaurant At the End of the Universe!
I’m too fatty. Better eat Karen instead.
Is the space traveling version of going to a restaurant with someone who can’t decide what they want off the menu?
Gardner would make a great gravy, though
I’d barely make an appetizer for this crowd.
But a tasty one!
Gary K. Wolfe
And just out of curiosity, can a gluten-free person eat another gluten-free person and be OK with it? I mean, diet-wise.
Guy Gavriel Kay
Only if he or she is a glutton, of course.
Sorry. Kind of.
Gary K. Wolfe
I spend a day grading theses, and come back and now the topic is the Donner party in space? (Has anyone done that?)
Not sure, but I do remember that in “201 Minutes of Space Idiocy,” MAD Magazine’s spoof of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Frank Poole mistook the crew members in cryogenic suspension for frozen food.
I will bring mustard.
Maureen Kincaid Speller
“Now I’m picturing an exploration mission with: me, Brian Evenson, Paul Witcover, Gardner Dozois, Stacie Hanes, Brett Cox, Jeanne Beckwith, Cecelia Holland, Fabio Fernandes, Maureen Kincaid Speller, and Cat Rambo as the crew.”
Frankly, this sounds like the best ever seminar … and in space.
Or, continuing the cannibalism thread, it means one lucky space traveler gets an exceptional 10-course meal.
Roast leg of burnham, dressed with dozois sauce, served with mashed witcover spiced with hanes and beckwith. Dessert: a cat sundae. Maybe a cat Saturday. Whatever day it is on Mars.
10 thoughts on “Roundtable on Space Exploration–Part 3, Cynicism and Cannibalism”
The thing about space exploration is that a huge part of humanity got ludicrously over-excited about it in the 1960s. I’m old enough to remember when we were eagerly anticipating the moon landing, and it was a given that Mars would be next in oh, say, 1976 or so.
People don’t realize that Project Apollo stretched mankind’s technological and financial resources to just beyond what had previously been thought possible – but that going to Mars is simply an exponentially more difficult undertaking. And going interstellar, even more so. The average joe doesn’t really size up these things correctly.
I think mankind will go wherever it wants to go – but it’ll be far into the future, and it’ll be based on some breakthrough that nobody expected.
For now, can I have the movie rights to WHINY OLD GEEZERS IN SPACE, starring Gardner Dozois?
If we didn’t spend all of our money on unnecessary crap like war and stupid political ads, we would of built a warp drive by now.
Brother Jim & I just ran a 2 day Symposium at UCSD centered on an anthology to appear in August, STARSHIP CENTURY. It’s about building n interplanetary economy with building a (probably robotic) starship within a century. The CEO of Planetary Resources gave a striking talk about plans to mine asteroids and other business opportunities they’ve planned, complete with expected revenue projections! You can see it at
and get the book earlier at
If there’s profit to be had, those 30somethings will go — count on it. The Chinese are quite convinced of this already, too.
Maybe one reason people continue to be so cavalier about destroying the Earth is that they think they will have the eventual escape route of space travel. But that escape may never materialize, leaving us in our own fouled nest, stewing in our own shit. Not quite the future Tom Swift expected. Deal with it.
I don’t have much patience with the argument that “If we can go to the moon, we can [insert your own cause here].” Often as not, it’s something that a whole lot more money has been spent on whatever it is—without success.
Also, as far as going to space goes, I see it as technologically feasible—but the will to do so is lacking. The cost (high, though not as high as spending on “whatever”) puts it out of the reach of those who have the will—say, you and me for short. Those who could field the cost have the will to do something else, not put money in space travel.
Should’a mentioned…whereas I see space travel as technologically feasible, I have little to no confidence in the ability of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to carry it through. It’s hidebound by its own rules and bureaucracy, it sets up (or has set up for it) grandiose projects that cannot be carried out before budgets are cut, and it’s been used for political purposes not relevant to its stated missions and goals in recent years.
It’s likely more valid to think of our current spacefaring abiliies and technologies as the equivalent not of the Wright brothers, but of the Montgolfier brothers.
Robert – I was at a small AIAA conference a few months ago, and when asked about “your vision for space travel in the next 50 years” one expert gave my favorite answer: “My vision is that we pick one vision and stick with it!” That got rousing applause from the largely NASA audience.
One, whether space colonization takes place will only partly be determined by us. Natural selection will determine it. If it affords a selective advantage, someone will do it. If not, it doesn’t matter who tries it, it won’t work in the long run.
Two, there’s more of everything living things need up there, than there is down here. Air, water, minerals, energy. That means, there is in fact an enormous, enormous selective advantage to space colonization.
Three, once in space, breathe vacuum, forget about bones, etc., etc.
Inference: someone will colonize space. It might be us. If it is us, we will no longer have bones, and will breathe vacuum (metaphorically).
Four, space colonization is technologically beyond us. It is not impossible, not even interstellar travel is impossible.
Inference: If we colonize space, it will not be until we have mastered the technology. I think the primary requirement at this point is lightweight nuclear power, for rockets. Secondary requirement, space junk sweeper upper.
I was googling for an SF story that involved cannibalism in a space (say Mars) colony setting. Given that Mars is so out of touch, and Earth is more likely to over supply than undersupply. A colony could easily descend into laziness, bad planning and ultimately end in cannibalism. The end game might be dragged out by a clever individual who is able to maintain a pretense to Earth that all is well. In fact he, and a handful of lackies are the only survivors – eating the new wide eyed arrivals.