VACATION AMONG THE STARS

Poster from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

 

Take a once-in-a-lifetime vacation among the stars!

Or at least among the planets. And moons. And asteroids.

OK, not quite yet. But we can go a long way in our imaginations, especially with the help of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s new series of travel posters.

The travel posters are the work of JPL’s The Studio: “a design and strategy team that works with JPL scientists and engineers to visualize and depict complex science and technology topics. Their work is used in designing space missions and in sharing the work of NASA/JPL with the public.” And the posters are available for you to download or print off free-of-charge to help your imagination take you all over the solar system and beyond. Fine print at the bottom of each poster explains the known facts behind the artists’ inspiration.

On planets like Jupiter and Venus, we’re only likely to be able to establish a human presence in their upper atmospheres—Jupiter’s gravity and atmospheric density would crush us any lower than that, and Venus’s high atmosphere is its only zone with human-friendly temperatures and survivable pressure too. But what about a Jovian balloon ride or a visit to a Venusian cloud city?

Who knows what sights can be seen from dive suits or submersibles in the ocean under the ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa? (Scientists and SF writers have considered Europa one of the most promising places in the solar system to find extraterrestrial life.) Or maybe an exotic boat ride on one of the liquid methane lakes of Saturn’s planet-sized moon Titan is more to your taste. From there you could skip over the rings to Enceladus and gaze at the famous geysers.

If we ever get the hang of interstellar travel you might check out the twin suns of Kepler 16-b (and pretend you’re on Tatooine with Luke Skywalker), or the red sun of Kepler-186f (like Krypton—do you think we yellow-sun-dwellers might gain super powers there?), or try skydiving on HD 40307g with its extra thick atmosphere. If you’re a true party animal and night owl (or an actual vampire who shuns the light of day) then the place for you would be PSO J318.5-22 which looks to be a rogue planet without any nearby star to give it light. Neverending nightlife!

Sure, a lot of this is speculation and all of it involves flights of fancy, but these free posters from NASA could be a great addition to the bedroom of a young budding astronaut. Or equally good for grown-ups like us who still allow our inner child to dream and dream big.

THE MARTIAN IS A MODEL FOR SCIENCE MOVIES

Movie poster for The Martian from 20th Century Fox

 If you’ve read the bestselling SF novel The Martian by Marty Weir, you’ll know it’s not a stretch or an insult to describe it as MacGyver On Mars—the plot depends on stranded astronaut Mark Watney using every piece of available technology, biology, and chemistry in creative ways to help him survive the hostile Martian environment. Weir does it brilliantly, with just enough human touches to keep the reader fully invested in Watney’s survival in spite of numerous technical descriptions that some will find dry. Translating such a science-heavy story into glossy Hollywood entertainment for today’s average moviegoer would seem to be as daunting a challenge as surviving on Mars.

Congratulations to Ridley Scott & Co. for pulling it off with flying colours. I hope Hollywood will take the movie version of The Martian not only as proof that science movies can be successful but as a model for how to do them well.

When a ferocious sandstorm forces a crew of NASA astronauts to cut short their stay on Mars, Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is injured and thought to be dead. The crew is forced to leave him behind and return to Earth. The next Mars mission can’t happen for another four years—Watney has enough food and water for a couple of months. His personal survival and any attempt by NASA to rescue him appear to be impossible. Both will require the utmost in human determination and ability to achieve.

In The Martian nearly every character is a scientist—Watney himself is a botanist as well as an astronaut—yet the movie shows that they can be every bit as committed, stubborn, inventive, defiant, funny, sweaty, and courageous as any spy, cop, or soldier. They’re not superhuman, instead they show the best qualities of real human beings and the astonishing things we can achieve. The story isn’t about great feats of daring and stamina (though there’s certainly some of that), but using human ingenuity to overcome seemingly insurmountable problems one step at a time. As the implacable universe throws up each new roadblock, Watney, or the NASA team trying to bring him home, uses brainpower to figure out a way around it.

The scientific explanations are necessarily brief but not absent. When a risky course of action is suggested, the pros and cons are explored honestly. The unpleasant realities of both physics and economics are given fair representation and, true to the book, The Martian escapes being propaganda for the USA by giving an important role to the Chinese space program. I’m deeply impressed by how Ridley Scott has crafted a slick and suspenseful Hollywood offering while keeping it so well balanced. Others have pointed out that it is a rare movie full of optimism. Sure, it has moments of carefully-crafted theatre, but it’s inspirational in a true sense and not just emotionally manipulative.

I can’t talk about a movie like this without mentioning the special effects and they are terrific—eye-popping and authentic (OK, we wouldn’t hear rocket engines in space and the Hermes spacecraft wouldn’t have such big windows, but otherwise…). The Martian vistas are stunning, well worth the extra price of seeing them in 3D. The movie reportedly cost $108 million USD to make and it shows on the screen. Not all of that is Matt Damon’s salary, though he certainly earns his pay by giving Watney just the right amounts of stoicism and nerdiness to grab the audience and hold them—it could so easily have failed in the hands of another actor.

The Martian is a movie without any killing, martial arts, fleets of helicopters, contrived romance, explosions meant to destroy or terrorize, inane humour, super powers or supervillains. So it’s truly a breath of fresh air. I hope box office numbers will show Hollywood that there’s an appetite for this kind of movie and at least one director who knows how to make them.

THE SCIENCE FICTION TAKE

Writers get our ideas in different ways. We may not even know where an idea came from. But for science fiction writers it’s fun to take a look at the newest science stories and try a “science fiction take” on the story—imagine what kind of fictional tale could make use of the new facts. Here are a few examples:

The news story: The New Horizon spacecraft’s flyby of Pluto was the biggest space story of the past month. Although it will still take a long time for NASA to receive all of the data, we’ve learned that the surface of Pluto includes glaciers of nitrogen ice, as well as frozen methane and carbon monoxide. The mission has reawakened interest in the dwarf planet and how it came to be part of our solar system, with its wonky orbit so far from the sun (most of the time).

The science fiction take: Two centuries from now, human crews are mining nitrogen and methane on Pluto when it’s discovered that another body the size of a dwarf planet is swooping out of the far reaches of the Oort Cloud on a collision course for Pluto. Engineers try desperately to come up with a plan to deflect the newcomer, and colonists are just about to evacuate Pluto when the incoming planetoid slows down and it’s found to be home to an ancient race of explorers who use rogue planets to travel the galaxy.

The news story: Out of the nearly 2,000 planets that have now been discovered orbiting other stars, it seems as if every other week a new candidate is being named “most earth-like”. Generally that means that it’s a rocky planet (as opposed to a gas giant) orbiting a star not too different from our own sun in the “habitable zone” (not too hot, not too cold because it must have liquid water) and is somewhat close to the Earth in size. The most recent most earth-like is known as Kepler-452b, but here’s a good look at some of the best candidates by Scientific American.

The science fiction take: Fleeing an exhausted home planet, human colonists travel to colonize new planets called New Earth, Earth 2, and Terra Nova around other stars. But because of the impediments of slow space travel and a lack of resources among struggling new colonies, the planets lose touch with each other. On one of them, a catastrophe knocks the civilization down a few rungs and space technology (and knowledge) are lost. When progress once again permits the inhabitants to venture into space, they try to find planets like their own. The most promising candidate found is (drum roll please) the original Earth, refreshed and once again able to host its human children. (Awwww.)

The news story: In recent years, China and Russia have put a lot of effort into developing anti-satellite weapons, and have had no interest in negotiating the peaceful use of space, so the Obama administration in the US has budgeted $5 billion over the next five years to enhance the American military space program. “Space wars” could become a reality.

The science fiction take: An orbital war sparks and the major powers destroy each other’s satellites thereby killing all GPS systems and causing most telecommunications and the internet to collapse. The resulting financial fallout causes a full-blown global economic collapse too. The warmongers still have their conventional and nuclear weapons, but only those that can be guided without satellites. Devastated populations worldwide know who’s to blame, rise up against the makers of war, and forge new alliances, heralding an unprecedented era of peace (but poor availability of TV channels).

Call these ideas cheesy or dumb or maybe brilliant, I have no plans to write any of them into stories (at present). Some of them have probably already been done. The point is, it’s a good exercise for the imagination and it’s fun.

Try it yourself. There might be a science fiction writer lurking inside you. (And for heaven’s sake let him out, because it’s dark in there.)

SCIENCE FICTION VS. FANTASY

I spent some time with multiple-award-winning Canadian SF writer Robert J. Sawyer recently. Rob was leading a couple of workshops, and we got to share some meal time too. As often happens when science fiction fans and writers get together, the conversation came around to the definitions of science fiction versus fantasy.

When I scout the publishing deals announced by Publishers Marketplace, there are more fantasy manuscripts being sold than science fiction, but even the ones that sound like they should be science fiction—they feature alien planets and space ships—often use the tropes of fantasy. They may include magic, quasi-medieval social structures, swords and swashbuckling. Is that really science fiction?

Star Wars is a classic movie, and a lot of fun. Science fiction, right? Nope. Not really.

Yes, it has spaceships, alien species, energy weapons and more, but it also has magic (the Force), knights, swordplay. There’s no actual science involved (and what little science is mentioned, like parsecs and the jump to light speed is best ignored to save everyone embarrassment). The story is a piece of mythology common to many cultures: a young man aided by a wizard to achieve his special destiny. Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction. But that isn’t a criticism of it any more than it would be to say that Lord of the Rings is not a science fiction story. It wasn’t meant to be. It doesn’t have to be.

The thorny problem is that everyone loved Star Wars and came to base their expectations of science fiction on it. Adventure plots. Spaceships and blasters. Fun, but nothing to take too seriously. Thus George Lucas unintentionally did science fiction a great disservice, from which it still hasn’t recovered. Some of the most deeply insightful and prophetic works of fiction, by masters like H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, and so many others were branded as escapism by association. And current SF writers struggle to find a market.

So what is science fiction? Is it monster stories that happen to be set on a spaceship? Hmmmm. Romances that depend on some unexplained method of time travel? Not so much. Murder mysteries on another planet? Maybe. But that would depend on whether or not the mystery hinges on the otherworldly setting (as in Rob’s Red Planet Blues).

I expect that Rob Sawyer shares his concept of science fiction with Analogmagazine. Analog’s requirements for authors state that they will only accept “stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse”. That’s the key: the science element has to be integral to the story. But, having said that, science fiction is also a literature of allegory. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is really about present day warfare and politics, not something that might happen to us some day. Classics like Fahrenheit 451 (about censorship and intolerance) and Planet of the Apes (about racism and nuclear Armageddon) have minimal science, but use a futuristic setting to offer commentary on our own society. The same is true about movies like Avatar (environmental destruction and marginalizing of indigenous people) and District 9 (apartheid), whereas Interstellar is definitely science-based.

What science fiction is not includes anything that simply isn’t possible according to the physical laws of the universe. If you can’t get there from here, no matter how much time passes or how technology changes, it isn’t science fiction.

There’s nothing wrong with fantasy. Many of my published short stories are fantasy. But I have high hopes that the big screen version of Andy Weir’s The Martian and the coming TV adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End will be faithful to the source material and awaken people to the treasure trove of real science fiction out there.

It’s great stuff. It deserves to find its audience again.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE INVITED KIND

I’m a supporter of SETI—the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. It’s worth devoting resources to find out if we humans have company in this universe in the form of other intelligent life forms. There are lots of good reasons to want to know, especially if it doesn’t require us to do more than look and listen for signs of other civilizations. But recently some scientists have become impatient that SETI hasn’t detected anything in the past thirty years, and feel that we should be more proactive about the search. That impatience is understandable. SETI methods are painstaking. Space is vast. Even though our ability to search the skies has increased enormously over the decades, SETI astronomer Jill Tarter is quoted in an excellent Washington Post article about the subject, saying, “We’ve explored one eight-ounce glass of water out of the ocean”.

So the impatient scientists believe we’ve been going about things the wrong way. Since the Kepler Space Telescope and other projects have now identified more than a thousand likely planets circling other stars, and a fair number might be the right distance from their star to provide conditions that support life, these folks think we should start beaming strong radio signals toward those star systems, inviting any alien civilizations there to become “part of a conversation”.

Now hang on just a minute. Imagine yourself taking a walk in a strange neighbourhood at night. Would you keep your ears tuned to hear if anyone was around? Sure. Would you jump up and down and yell, “Helloooo! Anybody out there? Anybody feel like getting together for a coffee?

I don’t think so.

For one thing, who do you figure is most likely to respond to your invitation: Mr. and Mrs. Nice-to-know-you, or the neighbourhood muggers?

I’ve always wanted to believe that a species advanced enough to travel between the stars would be peaceful. But there’s no evidence to support that, and plenty of evidence from human history to suggest that I’d do as well to believe in unicorns and leprechauns. Humans advanced enough to travel between continents certainly weren’t peaceful. Ask native North Americans or the Aztecs. In fact, experience on this planet has shown that technological progress is most often for reasons of aggression. Should we compare the research and development budgets of the military around the world to private R & D spending? And of all the reasons for expending resources to get into outer space, population pressures and a desire to exploit what we find rank high. Making new friends probably isn’t even on the list.

Even if extraterrestrial travellers weren’t malevolent, they would surely be so far ahead of us that we’d be curiosities by comparison, or even lab rats worthy of further study but certainly no treatment as equals. The knowledge of their existence alone could destroy all motivation for the human race to make progress of our own.

The point is that we have absolutely no way to know if intelligent aliens would be nice, or very, very bad. But once we let them know we’re here, there’s no putting the cat back in the bag.

Some 28 (so far) notables in the scientific community, including Elon Musk and David Brin, have signed a petition condemning so-called active-SETI. Stephen Hawking thinks it’s a crazy idea. Even the originator of the SETI movement, Frank Drake, believes it’s too soon and a waste of time.

As we venture out into interstellar space on our own we may discover we’re not alone, but by then we’ll be much better equipped to deal with whatever—and whomever—we find. For now, let’s be content with paying attention and not calling for attention.