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Blame Science Fiction
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[Welcome to Locus readers...]

I came across this article in Locus, looking forward to the insight from someone in the science fiction world, in light of this tragedy. What I got was an attitude I've seen all to often as I wend my way deeper into the SF culture, an odd backlash at the dreams set up by science fiction, a kind of resentment toward the genre for promising dreams it hasn't delivered fast enough. The response? Sometimes a sort of neo-Luddite technophobia. In this case? Scuttle the dreams of human space flight...at least for now.

Let some later generation, with faster computers and better materials, tackle it. When it's safer. When it's easier. When it's less expensive.

Well guess what? If it's a goal we're not constantly working toward, our capabilities rust and fail. The dream fades, and restarting it is like trying to light a fire on a windy day. And it's not as if the choice is between us today and us tomorrow. The Chinese, in a surprising display of social vision, have promised themselves that they will venture into space. They have a manned flight scheduled for this year, and their eye is on Mars. I'm not saying we should be in direct competition with China, but the point is, countries with vision are the ones that thrive. Pull back into our comfortable little holes, and guess what? We stagnate.

Westfahl says:

Given the technology we have today, space travel is just too darn difficult. We've been stretching our capacities to the limit, and we've been doing our damnedest, but America has still launched over 150 space missions and has watched three of them end in catastrophic failure. A 2% failure rate just isn't acceptable; would trains or jets be in use today if there was a 2% chance that every trip would end in disaster?

But he's spent the entire first part of the article explaining exactly why space flight is qualitatively different from either trains or jets. The comparison is ludicrous. I would think a 2% failure rate, in an incredibly difficult, complicated, dangerous pursuit is more than acceptable, it's incredible.

Then he asks:

Why, at this particular moment in our history, must humanity conquer space?

The goal isn't to "conquer space". The goal is to reach beyond our grasp. It's to strive and grow and explore. When we stop doing that we turn back in on ourselves. We become insular and small-minded. This isn't about conquering. It's about growing.

But then Westfahl drops the bomb:

However, the logical arguments in favor of space travel long advanced by impassioned advocates have always been a smokescreen in any event. The real reason why so many people feel this compulsion to carry on with space travel is simple enough.

We must conquer space because science fiction has told us to.

We must conquer space because that is the way science fiction said it was going to be. After beginning with small steps into Earth orbit, we must build space stations, travel to the Moon, Mars, and other nearby planets, and set up human colonies wherever we go a process that science fiction writers in the 1950s and 1960s thought we would complete well before the year 2001. Then, we must ready ourselves for ventures into interstellar space, encounters with alien life, and the formation of a galaxy-spanning Federation of Planets. We must conquer space so that our children can be Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and so that our great-grandchildren can be Captain Kirk.


Yes, that's it Gary. Those people died on Saturday in the quest for some puerile fantasy, so that future generations could run around in spandex and shoot lasers at aliens. This attitude frankly makes me sick, because it simultaneously belittles the astronauts who gave their lives and the men and women who write science fiction. Those writers' dreams, Westfahl is saying, are infantile, and in a sense they're to blame for what he no doubt sees as an extravagant waste of time, money, and human life.

And this from a man who has devoted much of his life to studying and writing about science fiction.

What does he conclude about science fiction?

You've got to admire the astounding power of a form of literature that can keep inspiring people to do silly things.

And you've got to admire the astounding power of a man so capable of denigrating the work and dreams of so many, on such a scale, with so few words.


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