Sean Williams

Iron Codpieces

posted on 29 May 2006 at 12:37 pm

“Alas for our beloved genre,” says Alexis Gilliland in the Spring 2006 issue of the SFWA Bulletin. “Time travel always was fantasy. Interstellar space travel (with Einstein refuting FTL travel, and now cosmic rays denying even the possibility of a generation ship) has become fantasy.”

I think this is an extraordinary statement for a magazine like the Bulletin to publish. Sure, it’s one man’s opinion and he’s entitled to it; I would never begrudge him that. But is this the kind of declaration an organisation such as the SFWA should be broadcasting to its members, who are by definition practitioners of the speculative art? It seems to me that such doom-saying is symptomatic not of scientific rigour (always excellent when applied well) but of failure of the imagination.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the two points Gilliland raises. The unbreakable nature of the speed if light is a big issue for space opera. Normally SF writers wave their hands and invoke space drives with fancy names and even fancier jargon to explain it away. I’ve done it myself, many times. (My favourite so far is in Geodesica, but I’m proud of all my attempts in this area.) Radiation is also a killer, not just from cosmic rays but as a result of space travel itself. The closer you get to C, the more you’ll be fried. It’s a cold equation, and an irrefutable one.

In his essay “Science Once Again Nudges Science Fiction Towards Fantasy” Gilliland goes to extraordinary lengths to get around the problem of helping humans survive space: short trips in powerful rockets, habitats with extra shielding, etc. He does address the obvious question: why put humans up there in the first place? But the only alternative he offers is the one we have been using for years: satellites and robots that will do the job for us. There is a much more interesting alternative that he doesn’t even mention.

If humans are the weak link in interstellar space exploration, why not change the humans? Slowing down an astronaut’s metabolic rate so a year feels like an hour puts interstellar travel well within the boundaries of acceptance. Fancy a day-trip to Alpha Centauri? I know I do. And if everyone at home lives at the same tempo–or lives for thousands of years so a lost decade or two between friends won’t even be noticed–what does the missing time matter?

The same with radiation. Ask the biosciences to give us better bodies. Is that so unreasonable? I don’t think so. No more unreasonable, anyway, than asking for a drive capable of accelerating us to near C and materials that will survive the journey intact.

This kind of future has been imagined before. It’s being imagined right now (by me, among others, I’m sure: Astropolis is set in just such a galaxy, with no ftl at all). Scientists are working in innumerable ways to improve us, on many levels. Why ignore all this wonderful hard work and declare that “the future looks a whole lot less promising than it did a half century back”?

On a related note, Colin Steele recently reviewed Geodesica for the Sunday Canberra Times, name-checking Arthur C Clarke’s Rama books and Greg Bear’s Eon (two major sources of inspiration for me) and declaring that the duology “falls into the genre of speculative human evolution, as the reader takes an intriguing journey into what we might become.”

Seems to me that this is what SF is about, not the inch-thick lead shielding we’ll have to wear to get there. 🙂