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How SF lost the Space Race

a feature by Keith Brooke


This is a piece originally written for the launch issue of the British sf magazine, Beyond (which, sadly, went into 'suspension' after only three issues). Since then, I modified it slightly for a session of readings I did with Steve Baxter and Peter Hamilton. It was written as a belated response to a debate I took too little part in, at Wincon in July 1995 -- I always tend to come up with what I should have said about three days too late, so instead I wrote it down. It's what I felt about science fiction at the time, and it's pretty much what I still feel.

Since my teenaged obsession with science fiction I've developed a kind of love-hate relationship with the genre. I love the stretches of imagination of good science fiction, and the way it lets both reader and writer address ideas and problems from a range of perspectives. I hate the tendency in a lot of writing towards the formulaic and the safe.

If infinity plus has a manifesto, then perhaps this is it. It's called...

How Science Fiction lost the Space Race

I was at a convention last year, sitting at a table in the bar with three other writers. The conversation turned to the history of space exploration: what has been achieved, where things have gone wrong, what we should be doing about it.

One argument put forward was that the near-failure of the space programme to get much beyond Earth orbit, with a few notable exceptions, is also a failure of science fiction: science fiction should be producing the positive, inspirational works that would put the impetus back into the move into space. That simply is not happening, the argument went. Instead, the decline of interest in space twenty years ago was paralleled by a switch in concerns from outer to inner space -- we went from technology mad optimism to planet-bound pessimism. In written science fiction we went from Golden Age galaxy-spanning future histories to the more cynical and sceptical New Wave and, later, cyberpunk.

I felt distinctly out of tune with this debate. The other three writers belonged to my father's generation. When they spoke of Apollo 11 and the Mercury and Gemini programmes they had all been there, they had lived through it all: the Kennedy speech in 1961; the first manned orbits of the Moon; the landings; the subsequent winding down and failure to find a new target to which the American nation and its political establishment might aspire. The Three Writers had lived through it all: every up and every down was in the news, they were current events. The three were indulging a shared history. They had all lived back in a time when space actually mattered.

I'm part of the post-Apollo generation. I was born when the space race was near its peak, six years old when the last Apollo mission returned to Earth. I grew up when space had already been conquered: we'd been to the Moon, we knew it could be done. Space had lost some of its buzz, it had become just an extension of the real world.

Ask previous generations of science fiction writers and they'll tell you how they felt when news broke about an orbiting steel ball containing radio transmitter and batteries, called Sputnik. They'll tell you about the excitement of a time in the late fifties and into the sixties when the Americans and the Soviets were leapfrogging each other, a time when no outsider ever really knew which side would make the next step, stealing a march on the opposition. A time when just about anything seemed possible.

I grew up with the Space Shuttle. The Space Shuttle. A reusable space plane that wasn't completely reusable, planned to service a space station that was never built, delayed over and over because of dodgy main engines and innovative heat resistant tiles that weren't reliable.

Of course all the earlier programmes had their delays and their accidents, too -- think of the fire that destroyed Apollo 1, or the near disaster of Apollo 13 -- but it was still a great adventure then, a heroic thing to do. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that sometimes the Shuttle seemed pretty damned exciting, but looking back it all seemed somewhat farcical. All those ambitious early pronouncements about how space travel would soon be an everyday fact of life, the celebrities announcing they would go on the first tourist flights, and the steady accumulation of failure and delay, the enormous, escalating expense of it all. Space travel wasn't heroic any more -- we expected it to work, but all we got were excuses and delays.

And then farce turned to tragedy in January '86. The doomed Challenger mission had been heavily promoted in an attempt to demonstrate the exciting potential of space: the things we can learn, the massive achievement of getting ordinary people up there. Teacher Christa McAuliffe was going to broadcast lessons directly into schools across the United States. For a short time space had recaptured some of its lost sense of wonder. And then it all went wrong. When the Shuttle programme started up again, two and a half years later, most of the exciting stuff was pushed firmly aside so that the Star Wars programme could make up some lost ground.

Five months after the Challenger disaster I wrote my first short story. There's no causal link there, the timing is no more than coincidence. All I am trying to do is show the backdrop against which I started to write.

The other side of the coin is what has happened here on Earth in that time. The three writers I mentioned before were young when the world was recovering from the Second World War. They grew up in a period when almost anything seemed possible, from the wonders of technology right through to the Age of Aquarius and the power of love. I grew up with punk and football hooliganism, with an economic recession that has lasted all my adult life, with a growing awareness of impending environmental overload, grimly presaged in famine after famine in Africa. Hippies of the sixties thought love would change the world; the hippies of the nineties, the New Age Travellers, tell us love could have changed the world, if only we'd given it a chance.

Is it any wonder science fiction writers are more cynical these days, less inclined to beat the drum for Progress?

Having claimed a right to cynicism, now is probably the time to ask if it would make any difference anyway. If today's writers started producing up-beat extrapolations of humankind's advance into the solar system does anyone really think things would be different?

Science fiction as a written form is a ghetto. Just about anything as a written form is something of a ghetto, come to think of it. One or two uplifting stories might get through to a few thousand readers who are already inclined to be sympathetic to such ideas. A good novel might reach some more, but it's hardly going to change the world. Most of the time science fiction isn't a shaper of opinion, it simply reflects the kind of mindset that's already out there.

Maybe I'm being unduly pessimistic -- a product of my times? Whilst I find it difficult to accept that a rash of positivistic science fiction will kickstart the space race again, I have to recognise what I would call an ambiguity in my position. Others might call it hypocrisy.

I deny that science fiction can change the world, yet I've always argued for the power literature has to move people, to make them start thinking about things on which they might otherwise hold fairly fixed views.

For me that's the strength of good science fiction: it provides a whole new range of routes that we can use to bypass our preconceptions. Couldn't science fiction -- shouldn't science fiction -- use this power to prod a few key minds in a certain direction?

I read recently of a psychological study showing the incidence of depressive illness in staff working on long-term projects for NASA: these people can work for 25 years on a single project, often with little or no feedback, and always with the budgetary threat hanging over their heads. Then, when their work is over, they are suddenly faced with having to do something with the rest of their lives. The report suggested that the odd medal or citation, or even the occasional pat on the back would make a huge difference to people in such situations. We know scientists, especially space scientists, are often great science fiction fans: maybe the positivist school of science fiction -- showing them just how good it could be -- might play an important role in motivating and reassuring these vulnerable people who actually make it all happen?

Maybe I'm wrong to be both sceptical and hopeful -- maybe I should choose sides -- but then it's the job of the writer to be able to hold two contradictory views simultaneously. It's the job of the writer -- particularly the science fiction writer -- to explore ideas and the effect they have on people, to show how good it could all be but also to show how it might all go wrong, or how something might work but simultaneously have unforeseen costs. It's the job of the science fiction writer to explore, not propagandise.

Earlier I claimed the right to cynicism. I'd also like to claim the right to optimism, realism and just about any other -ism that might feed what I write. Fundamentally, it is most certainly not science fiction's job to promote space exploration, or anything else: science fiction's job is, like any good writing, to explore the entire range of human experience, the good, the bad, the perverse, the hopeful, the sad ... everything that makes us human. Science fiction has an advantage over other forms of literature in that it affords us so many different perspectives.

Science fiction should never become a vehicle for a narrow range of viewpoints, it's the literature of exploration. It's not the literature of propaganda, it's the literature of debate.

© Keith Brooke 1995, 1997.

This article appeared in Beyond #1.

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