The space between us
Last year, Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker published a skeptical article about the various proposals to put human beings on Mars. Kolbert, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her excellent book The Sixth Extinction, is inclined—as many of us are—to regard such projects as Mars One as the province of hucksters and crackpots, but she’s also doubtful of the entire idea of planetary colonization itself. Taking note of the Fermi Paradox, which asks why we haven’t seen any evidence of the alien life that logic says should be all around us, Kolbert suggests that the lack of visible signs of intelligent activity isn’t due to some unavoidable cataclysm that swallows up all civilizations or a mysterious resolve to remain invisible, but the result of a sensible focus elsewhere: “Perhaps the reason we haven’t met any alien beings is that those which survive aren’t the type to go zipping around the galaxy. Maybe they’ve stayed quietly at home, tending their own gardens.” Kolbert concludes that the idea of sending people to Mars “is either fantastically far-fetched or deeply depressing.” When I read those words six months ago, something in me rebelled against them on a fundamental level: I wasn’t ready to give up on that dream. But at some point in recent days, I realized that I’d changed my mind, and that I now agree with Kolbert. I no longer think that we have any business going to Mars. At least not yet.
And I’ve arrived at this conclusion not despite my background in science fiction, but because of it. One of the smartest observations ever made about the genre comes courtesy of the great Jack Williamson, who once said:
The average [science fiction] author is more stage magician, a creator of convincing illusions, than scientist or serious prophet. In practice, once you’re into the process of actually writing a work of fiction, the story itself gets to be more important than futurology. You become more involved in following the fictional logic you’ve invented for your characters, the atmosphere, the rush of action; meanwhile, developing real possibilities recedes. You may find yourself even opting for the least probable event rather than the most probable, simply because you want the unexpected.
This certainly squares with my own experience as a writer. And that last sentence applies not just to the plots of individual stories but to the conventions of science fiction as a whole. When we think of science fiction, we tend to think first of manned space flight, which means that it’s also inextricably tied up with our vision of our “real” future. But when you look at that assumption more closely, it falls apart. Why, exactly, should we assume that space will be an integral part of our destiny as a species? And why did science fiction try so hard to convince us that it would be?
The real answer lies in Williamson’s shrewd observation: “The story itself gets to be more important than futurology.” When science fiction reemerged as a viable genre in the late twenties and early thirties, it was essentially a subcategory of men’s adventure fiction, with ray guns substituted for revolvers. Many of the stories it told could easily have been translated into earthly terms, and space was less important in itself than as the equivalent of the unexplored frontier of the western: it stood for the unknown, and it was a perfect backdrop for exciting plots. Later, however, under the guidance of editors like F. Orlin Tremaine and John W. Campbell of Astounding Science Fiction, the genre began to take itself more seriously as futurology—but with outer space grandfathered in as a setting, even if it had little to do with any plausible vision of things to come. Space exploration began to seem like an essential part of our shared future because it happened to be part of the genre already, for reasons that had less to do with serious speculation than with a writer’s need to keep the pages turning. And it takes a real effort of the imagination, now that science fiction seems so inevitable, to see how arbitrary that emphasis really was, and how so much of it depends on what Campbell, in particular, happened to find interesting. (As Bruce Sterling put it: “There has never been another editor of [Campbell’s] stature who would sort of come in and say, ‘All right, you guys are going to do it my way—and here is like a series of things we’re going to write about: robots, psi, space travel. And here’s a bunch of stuff we’re not going to write about: women, black people, drugs.'”)
And trying to shape our future based on decisions made by an army of pulp writers, no matter how talented, strikes me now as quixotic, in the original sense of the term. As Umberto Eco says in Foucault’s Pendulum: “People don’t get the idea of going back to burn Troy just because they read Homer.” In reality, our future is already taking a very different form: grounded on this planet, founded on information, and mindful of the fragility of our predicament right here. And it’s time that we grudgingly recognized this. This doesn’t mean that we need to give up on the dream of putting a person on Mars: only that we detach it, gently but firmly, from the idea of our collective destiny, and restore it to its proper place as a kind of interesting side project. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter if we do it in the next fifty years or the next five hundred, especially when there are so many other problems that require our attention right now. (The longing to see it happen in our own lifetimes is understandable, but also a little selfish.) Our efforts to explore and understand space itself are vital and elevating, as the recent flurry of excitement over a potential Planet Nine reminds us, but devoting billions of dollars to placing a human being on a spacecraft—simply because a few good writers seized our imagination decades ago—seems misguided at best, irresponsible at worst. If we really want to explore the unknown for the sake of our souls, there’s always the deep sea, or Antarctica, which would confer the same spiritual benefits at far less of a cost. And while there may not be life on Mars, now or ever, we can still allow ourselves to hope for a life beyond it.