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Publisher: Bluejack

September, 2009 : Feature:

Look to the Skies!

Signals 24

This week I had one of those embarrassing revelations. You know the kind: You know something, you may even espouse it, but you don't really know it, not deep down.

Well, this week, I realized that all fiction is about the times in which it was created. I've always said that. I may even have made some arguments to back it up.

But the idea really didn't come home to me until a few things converged.

First, we've been moving. We got rid of our outside offices and have consolidated everything in our too-large-for-two-people house. The house isn't too large for two people, four cats, two offices, a research library, a mystery library, a science fiction library, and a science fiction magazine collection, however. Dean's been hanging shelves, and I've been putting books on those shelves, looking at old titles.

My internet computer lives in the room that has the science fiction magazines on the wall. Along my line of sight are a collection of digests from the late 1950s and early 1960s, with the contents outlined on the spine. That detail will become important in a moment.

Add to that the fact that this summer marks the death of Walter Cronkite and, not incidentally, the fortieth anniversary of the moon landing. Those two events, at least around here, have revived the saying, "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we…?" (Fill in the blank with your own pet peeve.)

Finally, I got back to reading the current fiction magazines again, after a nearly four month hiatus. I didn't intentionally shy from the magazines—or any short stories for that matter. I'd just been teaching a lot of workshops and critiquing a lot of manuscripts, which seems to take my short story time.

Two science fiction stories in particular caught my attention, both from the April/May Asimov's, Chris Beckett's "Atomic Truth" and Robert Reed's "True Fame." I'll get to those in a moment as well. (Both are worth reading, by the way.)

Here's how all those little details came together.

Throughout June, as the build-up to the moon landing anniversary grew, I grumped, saying, "If we could put a man on the moon forty years ago, why can't we do it now?" I know why we aren't—it's more about a triumph of small-mindedness and budget cutting than it is about great visions.

But the moon landing wasn't about great visions or even a great visionary president (no matter how much people want to credit John F. Kennedy). It was a space race. We were in a competition and, even now, when Americans are in a competition, we want to win. In fact, we're brokenhearted if we don't win, and see it as more than a failure. A loss to an American in a competition is catastrophic.

Okay, so we had that factor. But we also had an obsession with space. We all looked up. And, if the digests in my magazine room are any indication, we looked up long before 1957 when the Soviets fired the first major salvo in the space race by putting the satellite Sputnik overhead.

The spines of those digests indicate space stories, and more space stories, and even more space stories—so many space stories that some of the magazines became space only like Satellite Science Fiction and Space Science Fiction Stories. Science fiction was about outer space. We couldn't get enough of the place, it seemed. Good and bad—deadly aliens, horrible viruses, and terrifying planets as well as friendly aliens, new frontiers, and planets providing riches beyond belief. We could get to them all in vessels that took us out of Earth's atmosphere and sent us somewhere special.

I have often lamented, here and other places, about the lack of outer space visions in our science fiction. Even stories in books like The New Space Opera and The New Space Opera 2, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, have fewer true space stories and more metaspace stories or metaphorical stories or new human stories—about people, machines, and life unrecognizable from our own. As a kid, the thing I loved about science fiction was that the people going to the stars were just like us, except maybe a tad more heroic or a little smarter or, in my case, a lot maler.

Even our space stories aren't outer space stories any more. They're inner space stories, exploring how different humanity will be thousands of years from now. (A side note: If history teaches us anything—and it teaches us a lot—humans are the same creatures we were a thousand years ago or a thousand years before that. Yes, we might live a bit differently, but essentially, we're just as emotional, brilliant, venal, and heroic as we were before—and probably in the same percentages.)

The most innovative science fiction these days are inner space stories. This trend started with William Gibson and the cyberpunks. But as Bill Gibson's latest non-sf novel, Spook Country, shows, we're living in the cyberpunk age. Most everything he wrote about in that novel exists, and much of it was SFnal in 1984 when Neuromancer first got published.

Inner space. Robert Reed explores the possibilities of it in "True Fame" as a young couple spies on their fellow diners in a resort restaurant. Some of the things they learn just by staring at the people (and downloading available information about them) are true, and some of them are as false as the stuff you can put on the web now. The couple sets up constructs, changes information so that smart equipment (like a boat) thinks they own it, and causes them to distrust each other completely in the end.

But the best example I've seen of inner space, and one that might actually be a glimpse of our real future, is Chris Becket's "Atomic Truth." In the story, the characters all wear goggles that allow them to interface with whatever they want to interface with. It's as if you wore your iPhone on your eyes instead of holding it in your hand. The goggles (a half-way step, he says, to implants) allow the wearers to opaque the real world as far away as 95 percent.

He takes the point of view of one somewhat self-aware goggle wearer and one schizophrenic (and unlike most fiction writers, Beckett knows what schizophrenia is—a disease that interferes with perception, not a split personality). In a nice ironic twist, the schizophrenic is the one who sees the real world, with its rats and bugs and filth, most clearly, and the gogglewearers do not.

His elegiac message: what are we going to lose when we stop really seeing the world around us?

Hmmm…maybe we'll lose our interest in the stars. Just a random thought.

We are more concerned with inner space than we've been in a long time. As I shelve the old mystery paperbacks, I see a lot of books about poverty and the underworld—the real underworld, the places that "good" people pretended not to see. Books about social issues, books about threats, books about prostitution and vice and drug addiction and corruption, things mentioned, but not explored in the modern mystery. Oddly enough, in this anything-goes culture, we're more afraid of the other—our neighbors (might be serial killers), the teachers (might be pedophiles), the politicians (might be budding Hitlers)—than we are of very real threats like the effects of poverty on children.

Inner space again—fear of the other and what he might do to me.

Not that the 1940s, 50s and 60s were a great time to live in. They were filled with terrible upheavals and all-encompassing fears of complete planetwide destruction. People were more bigoted than they are now, the societal rules much stricter than they might ever be again, and things we accept now as normal were considered so fringe that children got in trouble just for reading comic books. Now we all go to movies based on those comic books, whether we read them or not.

Maybe the desire for outer space came from being so imprisoned in our own lives. I don't know. I was born in 1960, so I have only dim memories of that time, memories revived by the old tapes being shown this summer of Cronkite giddy over the moon landing or the memories—from people now elderly—of how important a victory getting into space actually was.

I do miss the glory days of space. I miss the glory days of science fiction with its outer space attitudes. But I also love the inner space world. I love being able to have a virtual science fiction convention on my Facebook page. I love the live conversations on Twitter—the random ones about Torchwood and Dr. Who with people I haven't met (rather like the conversations I'd have in the hall of a convention center with fen I'd just met) and the important conversations with people I do business with every year.

I like having information at my fingertips, and if they were available, I'd probably wear those goggles from the Chris Beckett story. But I like to think I'd take the things off now and then to enjoy the world as it is.

Because I do leave the computer now and then. And I still do look at the stars.

Two nights ago, the moon was bright over the Pacific Ocean. Dean and I walked down to the beach and looked at the night sky. That night we talked about the hole they found in Jupiter's atmosphere. The Pacific Ocean-sized hole, caused by something crashing into Jupiter. And we talked about the events in our lives. And, oh yes, we talked a bit about the future.

To the sound of the waves on a quiet beach, as we stood under the lights of a thousand bright stars.


Copyright © 2009, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. All Rights Reserved.

About Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a Hugo award-winning writer who was, once upon a time, a Hugo award-winning editor. She has published fiction in almost every genre under a variety of names. Her most recent science fiction novel is Diving into the Wreck which Pyr
published in November. Her novella, "Recovering Apollo 8," won last year's Asimov's Readers Choice Award and was nominated for a Hugo. The novella has just been reprinted in Russian. For more information, go to her website at www.kristinekathrynrusch.com.

COMMENTS!

Sep 5, 06:46 by IROSF
Comment Below!
Sep 5, 11:01 by arvind mishra
Excellent write-up -very prudent !
thanks for sharing your thoughts on outer space in Sf.
Sep 5, 17:24 by Dave Creek
Kris, I've had a lot of these same thoughts lately, and you've put them into form for me. I really wish we would see more adventure SF that was set in space but wasn't military SF. I've really enjoyed Allen Steele's Coyote stories for that reason, and told him so in a recent e-mail. And character-oriented space SF is what I tend to write, as well.

Not that I don't enjoy military SF, but it seems to dominate right now. Naturally SF is about change, so we can't really compain that the field itself has changed. But our preferences are formed early and tend to remain with us, so I miss space SF that's about exploration about as much as I miss the real moon landings.
Sep 5, 17:28 by Gregory Benford
We have no personal vision of space because we have no true plans to send people beyond low Earth orbit. Thus vanishes the vision. Mars could change all that.
Sep 5, 18:56 by Bluejack

I've read some fun space opera in recent years that is not strictly military sf (although there's certainly the odd battle or two), and which takes space travel seriously. However, it's all stuff that is in the distant future; space travel is a solved problem; it's part of the fabric rather than part of the point.

I think there is plenty of that being written, and at a high level.

However, one thing we've learned about the near future of space travel is that it's a slog. Getting even a basic space station up there takes billions and billions of dollars, and decades of work to accomplish. Getting to the moon, or to Mars, is a very hard problem with no expectation of anything profound revelation: there's just not much happening up there. You can go to the remotest, most boring deserts here on earth, and find stuff more startling than we're likely to on our neighboring planets.

Reality has leeched the sexy out of near-future space travel.

At the same time, technological progress here on earth has outpaced, and often outclassed science fiction.

The trend certainly doesn't surprise me. But, it's the power of human creativity we're talking about, so I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone turned this thing around; and all it takes is the successful propagation of one new, unexpected meme about near-future space travel to break out of science fiction and into the larger community for the reality of space exploration to change as well.

Sep 5, 20:10 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Oh, I don't think reality has taken away the romance. I think reality can make for good adventure story-telling, as the nonfiction about the space program shows. I do think that reality has, as you say, Blunt, gotten ahead of a lot of sf.

I hope you're right about the Mars mission, Greg. I'm not sure it'll happen, though, esp. with the recs of the new commission coming in this week. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for space travel. I want to head to the stars! (Or at least, watch people do so.)
Sep 6, 15:13 by Steve Fahnestalk
We've forgotten the message of Heinlein, among others. Make space profitable for business, and business will fill in the gaps. Why did we ever think that space should be the sole province of governments and the military?

Reread "The Man Who Sold The Moon," Kris & Greg. That's our ticket to space. Excite the public, yes, but get business thinking about what's out there for them.

BTW, Kris--I laughed out loud when you wrote "...and a lot maler." Thanks for the guffaw.
Sep 6, 16:39 by Bluejack
Well, who is going to make space profitable for business, but business?

And that, at least, is one area where space is making good progress on the tourism front. They have a long way to go to the space station and lunar outpost level, but since they are trying to do it both profitably and safely, the achievements of the past five years are pretty amazing.
Sep 6, 19:47 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
It looks like the committee's recs will include a lot more private industry in space, and I think that's a great thing. We need to get it moving. I think space tourism would work now. How many of us would pay to stay in a hotel in low Earth orbit? I would.
Sep 8, 16:45 by Nader Elhefnawy
Indeed, many would pay. But how much? And how much risk would they tolerate in doing so? Launch costs per-pound remain very high, even in the estimates of the fantasists who dominate too much of the debate (solid figures are hard to come by, but several k per pound are still standard; it's 200 k a seat for a ride on SpaceShip One, the hypothetical space hotel stay likely having a seven or eight figure price tag, the latter if the trips up to the ISS are taken as a basis), and vehicle reliability remains a real issue. (We're talking about a field where a 2 percent failure rate's standard.)
There's plenty of people who insist that this is due to bureaucratic failure, rather than of deeper technological limitations, but given how long the problem's been around, the onus is really on them to prove it, and they've yet to do it. As we speak, the "first flight" dates of all those space tourism ventures-grossly overhyped-are being endlessly pushed back.
And at any rate, we should all remember the limits of space tourism as an approach to space development. It's a very different thing from actually extracting resources from space by way of bringing down resources to Earth, or using them as a basis for human settlement-which is the real basis for meangingful economic development out there.
I'm not saying it won't happen. But as I've said in too many times and too many fora, I don't picture it happening in the very near future barring some really revolutionary tech breakthroughs of the kind that always seem to be stuck in the land of "more research necessary."
Still, you're quite right about the trend in space stories, and the "culture of fear."
Sep 9, 11:50 by Bluejack
Re: tourism not being the long term answer to private space exploration: true. But since, as you point out, the main barrier to *any* profitable space industry is the per-pound launch-cost, then if tourism as a short term lure to business can bring the costs down to something affordable by say, upper middle class, then almost certainly industry can find profit in manufacturing and resource extraction as well.

Mind you, the main resources we are running short of down the well are not likely to be found out there either, so my bet, in anything like the current macro-economic climate, is on zero-g / vacuum / clean-room manufacturing.
Sep 20, 15:53 by Janine Stinson
I just got round to reading this column and noticed:

"satelitte"

Cool typo for "satellite." :) Job hazard of English majors and proofreaders: compulsive error corrections. ;) Still a good column.
Sep 20, 17:41 by Stacey Janssen
Got it! Thanks for the catch!
Sep 20, 20:03 by Lois Tilton
Janine - come and work for me!
Oct 7, 15:21 by Nader Elhefnawy
It seems appropriate to mention here that this week saw the five-year anniversary of the SpaceShip One flight that helped private space flight get so much attention. Here's a piece from Space.com about it:
http://www.space.com/businesstechnology/091002-spaceshipone-5yrs-later.html
Oct 8, 03:23 by Bluejack
Let's make that link easier. Remember that to make a hotlink in this forum system, you do the following (with no whitespace): [ a = http://www.space.com/businesstechnology/091002-spaceshipone-5yrs-later.html ]The Link![ /a ]. So: The Link!

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