I’m working on a science fiction book, a “generation ship” story, and my current writing research has been eye-opening and more than a little disquieting.
A generation ship is a spacecraft that is designed to carry a large number of people, taking them on a voyage through deep space for many generations. Even if the current occupants will never see the destination, their children’s children might.
As usual, I’m doing quite a lot of research. I’m learning about time-dilation, exo-planets, plasma drives and a host of other things, and the more I learn, the more uneasy I become.
One of the challenges of writing science fiction is finding a balance between, well, the science and the fiction.
Most science fiction is closer to fantasy than fact and for good reason. It’s difficult to tell a gripping, entertaining story while staying within the limits of physics and biology.
Just think of the way space suits are represented in most books and movies. People slip in and out of them as if they are little more than cumbersome wetsuits. Real space suits are a bit more complicated than that. In our current reality, astronauts have to spend hours adjusting their bodies to the air pressure and oxygen mix of the suit before they can even put them on. Skipping this step would mean risking permanent paralysis or death.
I could certainly build this fact into my story, use the difficulty and challenges of donning a space suit to create tension and drama, but it does rather limit the type of story I could tell. Like most writers I often choose to hand-wave these difficulties with vague references to new technology that we’ve not quite got around to inventing yet. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
If we stick too closely to the hard limits of what we think we know about the world, so many stories would never be told.
Consider Philip Reeve’s walking cities from his “Predator Cities” series. The technology in these books doesn’t hold up to even the slightest reality check but it still rings true. His monstrous mechanical cities and towns are a compelling metaphor for something most of us experience almost every day, the voraciously destructive environment we live in. It’s satisfying to read about the clanking, steaming cities hunting one another on the blasted plains of Reeve’s world, even if we know quite well that it’s a preposterous vision that could never possibly come true.
This is one of the beauties of science fiction and fantasy. The freedom to bend reality means that we can find new ways to look at our world that might otherwise never occur to us.
I can’t help wondering, though, whether there’s something inherently worrying about how unrealistic so much of science fiction has become.
One of the topics I’ve been looking into for my current book is the feasibility of traveling to other planets. Most of the conversations I’ve heard, online as well as off, seem to assume that it’s just a matter of time before we can all hop on a space-cruiser and blast off to another planet. Or maybe we can build a generation ship or a space-station to replace earth. We seem to be blissfully unaware of how far we are from achieving this goal. A more significant question is whether this is something we should even be trying to do?
Assuming (and it’s a fairly safe assumption to make) that we will never have faster than light travel, how long do you think it would take us to get to Proxima B, the closest known planet outside of our solar system? How does eighty thousand years sound? Eighty thousand years! I can’t even conceive how much time that is, or how a journey could last that long.
We might be able to cut that time down a bit if we develop some new technology undreamed of with today’s science, but even then, the most optimistic estimate is thirteen thousand years. Consider how much has changed even in the last two thousand years of human history and that is only a fraction of the time needed.
But let’s say we find a way to side-step that little problem. Assuming we do reach our goal we’re very far from sure that the planet in question could even sustain life.
Well, never mind that, how about Mars? Mars is certainly closer and getting there might not be quite so much of a challenge. But can we survive on Mars in the large numbers implied by the “we can always move to another planet” crowd? Assuming, for arguments sake that the “we” isn’t just a few rich people and their servants?
Consider the failures of Biosphere 2 and Mars One. These were both attempts to create closed, self-contained system to sustain life. Think of a big greenhouse containing all the air, water, soil, plants, insects and so on so that humans can survive without external supplies such as oxygen, water or food.
Both of these projects underestimated the complexity and sophistication of the system needed to sustain life. The carbon dioxide and oxygen levels fluctuated so much that it became dangerous for the human occupants and they had to be evacuated.
HI-SEAS, another much more limited experiment in recreating the conditions of life on Mars came to an end because of irreconcilable differences between the occupants. The challenges for a small group of people living together in a confined environment are considerable.
Of course this doesn’t mean that these experiments were useless. It might very well be possible to create a self-contained, self-sustaining habitat and that would be a valuable goal to achieve.
But the fact is that we already have a self-contained, self-sustaining habitat, and one that works beautifully. Our planet Earth. The idea of escaping from the mess we’re making and setting up shop elsewhere in the universe is seductive but ultimately harmful.
What is my duty, as a writer of science fiction?
I want my writing to be entertaining. The biggest compliment you could give me is that you got lost in one of my stories. But is that really enough, when dealing with this particular topic? I’m starting to believe that I have the responsibility to do more than just entertain.
Maybe our love affair with science fiction and our need to escape into stories of a future that could never be is stopping us from seeing that we’re already on a voyage on the most beautiful, marvellous, living space-ship any of us could imagine.
Right now, I’m battling with these questions. How do we tell stories that will help readers appreciate exactly how much danger we are in without scaring them into apathy or nihilism?
Can we dream up stories that will give us the hope, energy and resilience we need to fix the life-support system we already have?
Masha du Toit
Masha du Toit writes fantasy and science fiction, set in alternate world South Africa. She trained as a visual artist, majoring in sculpture and went on to study bronzecasting. After many years teaching the creative use of digital technology, she finally focused on her true passion: writing her own stories. She's inspired by all kinds of magic, from the worlds of Hayao Miyazaki, Ursula Le Guin and CJ Cherryh, to those of James Herriot and Gerald Durrell.