(This is continuing thoughts from Fun Exploratory Sci-Fi Without Magic is Hard and Why Science Fiction Will Never Die, both of which are related to a science fiction story I’m working on writing.) As I’m working on a Science Fiction story about the first ship from the Milky Way to explore the Andromeda galaxy, the various sorts of magic required to make any sort of space exploration story weigh on my mind because I tend to prefer hard SciFi to soft SciFi. I think that this is in part because if one is going for magic, why bother with the SciFi at all—why not just go whole hog and actually have fun with the fun parts?
But the problem is that you can’t do space exploration as hard SciFi. This was captured fairly well in a post by Jasyn Jones titled, Hard SF Does Not Exist. And he’s right. There are of course exceptions like Andy Weir’s recent book The Martian, but the sorts of stories one can tell in hard SF are not very different from the sorts of stories one can tell on earth. People get trapped for many months at a time on Antarctica, and there is nothing preventing someone from setting a story on a desert island. (For example, two women were recently stranded at sea for months.) But if you want to actually do space exploration, you need magic to accomplish it. To put things in perspective, it took 9 years for New Horizons to get to Pluto. Proxima Centauri, the closest star we know about, is approximately 5,400 times further away than Pluto is. Even if we could travel to Proxima Centauri ten times faster than New Horizons (which seems doubtful), it would still take more than twice as much time to get there as has elapsed since Julius Caesar became the emperor of Rome. Just the amount of fuel necessary to power a ship for 5400 years would be staggering (ball park, assuming a gigawatt nuclear power plant, it would need about 5.4M Kg of fissile material, according to this), to say nothing of the near-perfect oxygen and water reclamation necessary, the meters of shielding necessary to protect the people from cosmic rays, etc. It would take tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of rocket launches just to assemble such a generation-ship in orbit around the earth. And heaven help the people on it if they need any spare parts for their ship during those five millenia.
I should probably note that there are proposals, like Project Daedalus which can span that distance much faster—on the order of 50 years. But they involve fusion engines firing for years and consequently truly massive amounts of deuterium and tritium, both of which are extremely rare. Project Daedalus depends on a bunch of stuff which there’s no good reason to believe can reliably be made to work, and that in order to get a 500kg mechanical payload to do a flyby. To move people in a way that they can land on a foreign planet requires exponentially more mass and consequently initial fuel, etc. In short, the human race is not going anywhere outside of our solar system in real life.
And yet, as I said in my last blog post on the subject, I do think that exploratory Science Fiction is great because it is the heir to Greek epics like the Odyssey. (Of course, the Odyssey did have magic in it, but the magic wasn’t Odysseus’s, it belonged to the people he met.) But all exploratory sci-fi relies on what amounts to teleportation. Does this mean that Science Fiction is just bad fantasy? Is it just fantasy for people whose imaginations are too weak to entertain the explicitly fantastical?
There is another possibility, though: what if Science Fiction was possible in an earlier time, but isn’t now? The Science Fiction written from about 1850-1950, was often set in our solar system. There are a million counter-examples, I have no doubt, but what if it was the Science Fiction (scientifiction, as C.S. Lewis called it in the days when he was writing it) that was set in our solar system which was the source of vitality in science fiction?
Space exploration set in our solar system actually did have the right scale to it. One can get to the moon in days; one get can to Mars in months. The moons of Jupiter are more like a year’s travel time; and all these are the right time scales for the Greek epics. Stories set here were—when we didn’t know what was on the moons and the planets—actually were quite plausible for the future. The science involved in getting to these places was actual science, not merely magic with a veneer of science lightly glued on top.
Alas, time moved on and we found out that there are no civilizations to explore on the moon or on the other planets; any civilization which happens there will be human settlers living in very highly technologized dwellings. They will live there, if they live at all, in little bubbles of planet earth which they’ve brought with them.
I grew up on Star Trek; there is something utterly magical about Science Fiction. But it seems very possibly that true, hard science fiction is as much a thing of the past as the wild west is. We may be in the unfortunate position that to recapture the magic, we must capture it in a genie’s bottle. And that will always leave us with the question of where we got the genie’s bottle, and why we take it for granted.