Science Fiction and Interstellar Thinking

by Paul Gilster on August 28, 2009

It’s easy to cite science fiction technologies that made their way into real life, starting with, say, submarines and the Jules Verne connection, and pushing on into air travel and, eventually, a spaceship to the Moon. It’s also easy to find numerous examples of science fiction being blindsided by technologies no one really predicted. I’ve read “A Logic Named Joe,” but other than Murray Leinster’s prescient 1946 tale, did anyone really predict the advent of computers small enough to fit on your desktop, or mobile devices that connect us to a worldwide network for communications and data transfer?

Predictions or Dry Runs?

This is where I think some science fiction enthusiasts make a mistake in trying to sell their genre as a predictive force. Sure, the examples are there, and we have visionaries like Arthur Clarke who, in addition to crafting spectacular novels of the future, managed to introduce communications satellites into the pages of a popular magazine (Wireless World) before anyone had really examined the idea. But by and large, science fiction’s clout doesn’t come so much from prediction as much as from the ability to try out new ideas by remodeling the world so as to accommodate them.


I collect old science fiction magazines and sometimes look at these rows of pulp and digest-sized volumes as containing dry runs on the future we’re moving into now. Their authors weren’t really making predictions as much as asking what would happen when a new idea was introduced, or a present-day trend was taken to its logical conclusion. That makes SF a golden way to explore the present dilemmas we all face as we try to build the best future we can muster. Peter Garretson talked about this recently in an interview with the Indian science fiction magazine Kalkion, from which this excerpt:

Of course there are degrees of imaginative vision vs technical vision, but the latter feeds the former. One can imagine and say, “What if we had a method of communcating remotely with just a small device in our hands.” That vision of a fulfilled need encourages others to think through how it might actually be done.

Image: The cover of Analog from November, 1962, with artwork by John Schoenherr. How many minds did such covers turn to science and eventual careers in fields like astronomy or physics?

Pushing Alternative Futures

Many forays into fictional futures, then, can give us alternative ways to make a new concept real. We can try on those futures by reading stories that make them come alive, seeing what effects these changes would have on society. And we can do more. By placing futuristic concepts in a tangible, fictional context, we can encourage their growth and dissemination.

Garretson continues:

The same is happening today with interstellar travel. It starts as an imaginative SF question, “How would our horizons be different if we had an interstellar drive.” Then it gets taken up by a amateur society, then NASA ( Now there are are annual conferences ( on the subject, dedicated organizations ( and even an academic physics textbook on potentially promising avenues ( I think it is always valuable for SF authors to say (paraphrasing Joel Barker), “What is impossible today, but if it could be changed, would change everything” for the frontiers of humanity or technology. That in turn informs us both about the widened frontiers, and the dangers and new problems we might encounter. And that, in turn, creates new and interesting technical challenges, and informs enlightened policy.

How satisfying to see the Tau Zero Foundation placed in a context that builds from amateur rocketry through the modern space age to NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project, and now on to the Frontiers of Propulsion Science volume assembled by TZF founder Marc Millis and physicist and visionary Eric Davis. I’m not familiar with Joel Barker, but I like the idea of taking what is impossible today and asking the ‘what if’ question, which propels us to study alternatives and shapes what we do next.

A Vision Realized in Fiction

Garretson is a futurist and strategic thinker whose background includes service in the US Air Force as Chief of Future Science and Technology Exploration. The reason Kalkion snared him for this interview is that he is in India as a visiting fellow at the Indian Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) under the sponsorship of the US-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He’s absorbed by the idea of using science fiction as a way of shaping resiliency and encouraging futuristic thinking, calling SF “…a kind of marketing for a grand future for humanity. It creates a need. It creates future envy. We get hooked on a vision, whether Utopian, or just plain cooler than today, and we want to bring it into being.”

‘Future envy’ — lovely construction, that, and so true! As to the objection that science fiction is escapist in its orientation, Garretson has this to say:

I think SF is fundamentally different than other fiction in that for many of us, it is the opposite of escapist. I do not read SF to get out of the present because I am pained by my present condition, but rather to inform and give meaning to my plans for the future and action in the present because I am optimistic about either the present or the future.

If the duties of the present consumed my every minute, left me without the leisure time and resources (including literacy) to acquire such books, or discouraged me from thinking about a future different than the status quo, I might chose escapist literature if any at all, and might prefer themes that reflected useful themes for my life–acceptance of the vicissitudes of fate, and a smallness of human beings before society’s structure and forces and those of a cruel, capricious, and uncontrollable nature.

To read SF is to pre-suppose that my daily life allows for such leisure time, and that I can imagine a future different in some meaningful way than today, where both mankind in respect to nature, and individuals in respect to both society and nature can be a meaningful actor.

Science Fiction and the Long View

I think what Garretson is getting at here ties directly to our own emphasis on long-term thinking. An optimistic turn of mind is one that sees the power of the individual to shape the future, even when the results one is working toward will not be accomplished necessarily within one’s own lifetime. We all need to be reminded of that outlook, especially when the slow pace of change (and the ongoing budgetary problems involved in any space exploration) tempt us into disillusionment. This is a good interview to read when you need a bit of bucking up. It will remind you that the interstellar future, in whatever form we realize it, is an achievement worth thinking about and working for.

Let me close by quoting Garretson again, this time on where he sees science fiction going:

I am also of the opinion that the best way to predict the future is to create it. So let me attempt to create the future of science fiction with a bit of criticism. I think today’s sci-fi is too dark, it is too pre-occupied with humanity’s problems, and not sufficiently concerned with stroking its ambitions and setting new vistas. I think science fiction needs to pull back a bit from the space-opera fantasy, and transcend the cyber-punk darkness.

Another good phrase: ‘transcend the cyber-punk darkness.’ I hear similar sentiments from many long-term science fiction fans (Les Johnson and I had this discussion at the Aosta conference on a walk before dinner one day). Garretson continues:

I think right now we most need science fiction that creates a compelling vision of where we can take humanity over perhaps 3 generations using real, not just imagined technology… I believe there is a real world of the future that could involve a sustainable, developed world getting its energy from Space Solar Power, protecting Earth from asteroids, mining the sky for valuable minerals, and protecting our climate. Where access to space through space planes and other new innovations is common. I think we could use that as a stepping stone to free-flying space colonies. How different would that be? What would it be like to live in that world? What kind of institutions would make it work? How can we hook kids on the science it takes to put it all together? How do we get them to decide: “I want to solve that problem”,”I want to live in that world!”

If we let it tap its deepest roots, science fiction can indeed be the stuff that dreams are made of. Be sure to read all of this absorbing interview.



Athena Andreadis August 28, 2009 at 15:11

Garretson’s words echo my views. Here’s the end of my essay The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction. The rest of it can be found here.

So now here we are, in the technologically advanced Western civilization of the early 21st century, with our obsession with tangibles and our stranglehold on imagination. Can we live only day to day, without a large future goal? Now that humanity has covered the face of the planet, where is the frontier? What will give us a unified vision, something larger than ourselves? Unless we have collective goals, we are doomed to the relatively sterile enterprise of “bettering ourselves” at the individual level—watching our navels among dwindling prospects and resources.

Quest for knowledge in general, but particularly the desire for space exploration is the large goal, the last goal, if only because it guarantees our long-term survival. Earth is beautiful, but it won’t live forever, even if we husband its finite resources with infinite care. We humans may drown in our own refuse, or run through the finite lifespan vouchsafed to all species unless we speciate. We may get extinguished by an asteroid hit or the lethal radiation of a nova explosion. Even barring such statistically likely events, eventually our sun will exhaust its fuel, turn into a red giant and engulf the inner planets.

Before any of these outcomes happen, we’d better be able to take to the stars, whose fiery engines created the elements that comprise our bodies. From the stars we came, and to the stars we must return. And though science will build the starships, it’s science fiction that will make us want to board them.

kurt9 August 28, 2009 at 15:19

What you have to understand is that all great fiction is based on conflict. People also like to obsess over the darkness as well. Cyberpunk is popular for these reasons and also because it is more “accessible”. That is, the characters are more like normal people than great scientists and entrepreneurs and the technology is more personalized “street-tech”, consisting of advanced personal electronics and personal biotech. I like cyber-punk. Transhumanist SF is mostly an offshoot of cyberpunk.

Reynold’s “Revelation Space” series has the kind of classic interstellar future space opera you guys are into as well as the transhumanist/cyberpunk elements that I like. “Revelation Space” is rather dark, though.

The other interstellar SF that I like is Hamilton’s Commonwealth and Void novels.

I don’t read much SF these days.

NS August 28, 2009 at 16:03

40 years ago when I was a kid, we didn’t have the internet or video games. On the other hand, my friends and I could play outside all day without adult supervision, and even at age 12 or so went camping on our own 20 miles from home. There probably aren’t many places where kids could do that today. I know it shouldn’t be a tradeoff, but I wouldn’t mind swapping some of the personal gratifications we have now for the public safety we had then.

James M. Essig August 28, 2009 at 23:59

Hi Athena Andreadis;

I completely agree with your above comments.

One thing I like to mention is the mean lifetime of the proton and the implications of the fact that the mean life of the proton is atleast 10 EXP 36 years according to experiments searching for proton decay. Many stable forms of the atoms that comprise our bodies are similarly long lived, or perhaps at least so within 5 or 10 orders of magnitude.

The point is that atomic matter in the elemental forms required by our bodies will exist long after the stelleferous era of our universe ends when the last red dwarfs burn out about 10 EXP 15 years from now.

By then, hopefully we will have mechanisms to sequesture cosmic background radiation, red-shifted back ground star light, and perhaps even zero point vacuum field energy, which might exist in abundance as long as space and time exist, perhaps into eternity, whereby we might fabricate new supplies of protons and atoms for industry, daily living, and nuitrition. I would expect that as long as space-time has electromagnetic properties, electromagnetic zero point vacuum fluctuations should continue thus providing an ever abundant energy source that might be convertable into real mattergy.

Science fiction is repleat with concepts of tapping into the zero point fields and the effectively free energy such might provide. Science fiction, especially that from Hollywood has given 2 generations of space heads, a label I proudly give myself, with mental imagery that just beckons us to look around the next hill or corner. Perhaps such curiosity is genetically instilled within our species via our hominid ancesters.

I know that every time I see a good sci-fi space movie for the first time, I come out of the movie theater feeling as though I have had some form of spiritual experience. While I intend no effort to endorse spiritualism or faithbased creeds in this scientific forum, from a purely sociological perspective, as someone who considers himself a conservative Catholic, I have never had a supernatural nor any form of paranormal experience. However, in my mind, the next best thing to such an event is to simply see a Sci-Fi space movie and come out of the theater exhilerated. I was somehow permanently changed after I first saw the movie Star Wars.

The point is that Science Fiction provides a means to promote interest in the future of humanity, technology, and space travel, and science fiction is a good way, in fact, probably the only way to get to the hearts and minds of today’s pop-culture minded teenagers and 20 somethings, many of whom do not know the difference between special and general relativity, and even more sadly, the distinction between nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. I read of an account where someone was worried that microwaving their food could be dangerous because the microwave “radiation” would make their food radio-active.

Not to belittle the pop-culture youth of modern society, but rather instead I think these young persons are searching for something tangible and inspiring, a certian sign of an attitudinal astuteness, and my feeling is that the efforts of Tau Zero and Centauri Dreams can help here along with a periodic good dose of Hollywood. Although being conservative in political orientation, I still say my Hats off to you Hollywood every time I see a good Sci-Fi space movie.

tacitus August 29, 2009 at 4:30

Wow — a lot to chew over in this article. I have several thoughts, but it’s late, so I will stick with one.

What we need in science fiction isn’t necessarily what people want, and what publishers want, first and foremost, is to give people what they want. I don’t read a lot of science fiction these days, but it’s seems to be true that authors like Reynolds, Hamilton, Banks, et al. are popular at the moment, and the type of “near-in” sci-fi Garretson would like to see just isn’t that marketable at the moment. Things will and do change, but I don’t think it can be by a deliberately concocted trend.

Tibor August 29, 2009 at 6:35

Early this millenium ESA was bold enough to embark on

… a study on technologies and concepts found in Science Fiction, in order to obtain imaginative and innovative ideas potentially viable for long-term development…

. You can read about the ITSF project here; the study results were published in an ESA publication, which can be read online; it is also ready for download. The printed version can be ordered for 10 EUR. Here is the link to the brochure.

Visit also the Maison d’Ailleurs – The House of Elsewhere – which was heavily involved in the study and is a great place for all SF fans.

Tibor August 29, 2009 at 9:23

How can we hook kids on the science it takes to put it all together? How do we get them to decide: “I want to solve that problem”,”I want to live in that world!”

Give them the chance to participate in cool and real things like MoonBots: “MoonBots” Challenges Parent-Child Teams to Conduct Google Lunar X PRIZE Missions with LEGO Robots

Or ask them for Modeling an Interstellar Future – one of my two cents for projects for (small and big) kids – in the MSW Design Contest: Far Worlds – Best of Science Fiction.

James Enge August 29, 2009 at 13:30

A good plea for science fiction that transcends limits instead of crouching behind them.

A detail:

“I’ve read ‘A Logic Named Joe,’ but other than Murray Leinster’s prescient 1946 tale, did anyone really predict the advent of computers small enough to fit on your desktop, or mobile devices that connect us to a worldwide network for communications and data transfer?”

Asimov’s short stories featured this sometimes (e.g. “Anniversary”). The devices were usually links to a gigantic central computer, named Multivac, but the effect was the same.

Administrator August 29, 2009 at 15:32

Apologies to all for the mistake in the URL leading to the Garretson interview. Tibor Pacher caught it and I’ve now corrected it.

Administrator August 29, 2009 at 15:33

James Enge, thanks for the information about Asimov. I should have known he would have played around with the concept in some fashion.

andy August 29, 2009 at 17:59

The Revelation Space universe of Alastair Reynolds is interesting in that it does incorporate transhumanist elements but does not have an AI Singularity: Reynolds has stated that the Singularity doesn’t interest him particularly as something to write about.

As for a discussion of science fiction and prediction, such a discussion cannot be complete without mentioning John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, which is frequently regarded as one of the more accurate examples of predicting future trends in science fiction.

Pointless Geometry August 30, 2009 at 3:28

“How many minds did such covers turn to science and eventual careers in fields like astronomy or physics?”

While I don’t have a career in astronomy or physics, it’s been the artwork that has piqued my interest in those areas. As a schoolkid I browsed Galaxy bookshop, not for authors or their stories, but the cover art. Chris Foss’s work was a particular favourite because it seemed both realistic and fantastic.

And James M. Essig, your statement, “I was somehow permanently changed after I first saw the movie Star Wars.” rings true for me too. From that jump to lightspeed:
to the Tau Zero Foundation, art weaves its inspiration.

kurt9 August 30, 2009 at 15:41

Its rather hard to write stories involving the AI singularity. Since it is, by definition, unknowable what comes after, there is no point to writing stories about it before it happens. Reynold’s is right to avoid it. If I were a writer, I would avoid it as well.

I think SF really is about the present more than the future. More exactly, it is about present conditions and trends extrapolated into the future. Clarke’s and Asimov’s SF was like 50′s and early 60′s society extrapolated into the future. The bulk of the cyberpunk was written in the mid 80′s and was clearly mid-80′s perception of the future.

Hamilton’s “commonwealth” is a mixture of 90′s yuppydom combined with the lonely-planet style slackerdom combined with life extension and wormhole travel. It really is like present-day society with the addition of these two technologies.

If I were to write a hard SF story, it would have radical life extension and synthetic biology, but no AI, uploading, or any other aspect of the singularity. I’d have fusion power, but most likely, I would not have any kind of FTL. In other words, it would be based in the solar system.

Duncan Ivry August 31, 2009 at 15:24

kurt9: “… AI singularity. Since it is, by definition, unknowable what comes after, there is no point to writing stories about it before it happens.”

That’s a minor problem. A sci-fi writer could say, what Peter Garretson talked about: “What if we (changing the definition) had a method of knowing what comes after the singularity?!”.

By the way, I think, the singularity will not happen (well, with all due respect to the singularitarians, I even think it’s nonsense), but I like sci-fi literature — the plain affirmative one, the dark one, everything between, and everything off the beaten track.

Gregory Benford August 31, 2009 at 16:00

I agree with kurt9: the Singularity is a wall hard to penetrate. So I’ve stuck to near futures, as in The Martian Race, with occasional sprints into far futures where any Singularity is so far past you can ignore it (as in Beyond Infinity).

I agree with Athena (appropriate name!): we need a frontier, and imagination leads the way.

george scaglione August 31, 2009 at 17:19

gregory i could not agree with your above statement more! and also as i have seen above just now…yes cover art always piqued my interest and i am sure that it “sold me” many a highly interesting sf story.thank you very very much all your friend george

Pat Galea August 31, 2009 at 18:32

I too am very doubtful that the Singularity will happen as Kurzweil et al. believe. I think each of the problems involved is much much harder than they imagine, so getting all the different bits of tech to work that are required will take quite some time. So long, I imagine, that the context of the world in which it might happen will be so far removed from ours as to render our speculation pretty much meaningless.

As Gregory has said, it’s a wall that’s hard to penetrate. I think Stross did a great job in Accelerando, but even he limited the final narrative to the edges of the Singularity, where the entities were still sufficiently human-like that we could relate to them. Even those characters talked about the Singularity itself as being impenetrable.

Pat Galea August 31, 2009 at 18:39

Duncan: “I think, the singularity will not happen (well, with all due respect to the singularitarians, I even think it’s nonsense), but I like sci-fi literature”

Same here. Well-written and thought out speculation is always interesting, even if based upon premises that are dubious. I find it stimulating because I can always ‘bend’ the writing a bit; even if the scenario as stated isn’t quite plausible, I can imagine that something sufficiently similar to it is. (I often find myself doing this with soft-scifi anyway. Something scientifically wrong is used as a plot device, so I have to mentally substitute a plausible correct alternative.)

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the singularity is nonsense; I think it’s logically coherent. It just depends upon too many speculative developments and ideas about how these developments would play out.

kurt9 August 31, 2009 at 20:12

“I think, the singularity will not happen…”

What I like to call the bio-singularity (radical life extension, synthetic biology as “wet” nanotechnology) is definitely going to happen. There is no question about this. What the singularity people call their singularity (AI, uploads, etc.) is much more doubtful to me.

Duncan Ivry September 1, 2009 at 8:32

Pat Galea: “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the singularity is nonsense; I think it’s logically coherent. It just depends upon too many speculative developments and ideas about how these developments would play out.”

I’m with you regarding the singularity depending upon too many speculative developments and ideas, but over and above that I have good reasons for my statement of the singularity being nonsense (I don’t want to begin the usual discussion, but this is important for me to say).

Very very briefly: Machines do not have intellect and/or consciousness; what’s going on is sensory input automatically leading to software based functions being invoked automatically leading to output via actors. That’s automatization — may be very sophisticated and impressing automatization — but nothing else. Because the proponents of the singularity start, as far as I know, with assuming the opposite, the singularity is — for me and with all due respect — nonsense.

Logical coherence, after having started with something wrong, only helps in science fiction, but not in real live.

Duncan Ivry September 1, 2009 at 8:46

kurt9: “What I like to call the bio-singularity (radical life extension, synthetic biology as “wet” nanotechnology) is definitely going to happen.”

I would call it medical progress, and, yes, it will happen. But since I’m on the brink of being old and since I have no good health — but I have a good live –, the *radical* improvements will come too late for me.

ljk September 1, 2009 at 10:25

This fellow thinks AI and by default the Singularity is an illusion:

Interesting and relevant to this thread quote here:

So why are predictions about robots taking over the world so common?

There has always been fear of new technologies based upon people’s difficulties in understanding rapid developments. I love science fiction and find it inspirational, but I treat it as fiction. Technological artefacts do not have a will or a desire, so why would they “want” to take over? Isaac Asimov said that when he started writing about robots, the idea that robots were going to take over the world was the only story in town. Nobody wants to hear otherwise. I used to find when newspaper reporters called me and I said I didn’t believe AI or robots would take over the world, they would say thank you very much, hang up and never report my comments.

My comments continue here:

As for Star Wars, I think it derailed science fiction and the public’s perception
of the genre. SW is a fantasy soap opera set in space. The technologies such
as the light saber are pure fantasies. SW has made the public think that
interstellar travel or even just getting into space is a piece of cake that can
be done in mere minutes. Even the aliens are just versions of humans with
extra appendages. Plus the three prequels made in the last decade ranged
from dark to lame to just awful.

Athena Andreadis September 1, 2009 at 20:03

I completely agree with the New Scientist article, both about the Singularity and about Star Wars. I’ve been thinking of and writing about transhumanist issues for a long time, as a cursory view of my blog will attest. A major problem is the conspicuous absence of biologists in that domain. Everything is extrapolated from software development, a very poor analogy to biological systems.

kurt9 September 2, 2009 at 14:30

A major problem is the conspicuous absence of biologists in that domain. Everything is extrapolated from software development, a very poor analogy to biological systems.

You got that right, sport!

I’ve noticed this since I was in the milieu in the late 80′s. These people have no chemistry or biology background. Neither do I. But I do have material science background and some familiarity with chemistry and biology. Like AI, I consider “dry” (Drexlerian) nanotechnology to be a fantasy as well.

With regards to the NewScientist article, I agree with the guy about the infeasibility of machine sentience. But I disagree with him about the “AI dream” being a problem.

I see the future as being very “biological”. I think we will have the bio-singularity and that this will cause a certain amount of social change (the conventional life cycle will be optional). I subscribe to what Brain Wang calls the “mundane singularity”.

We can achieve quite a lot without Drexlerian nanotech or sentient AI.

Of course, its all about self-empowerment. The purpose of technology is to give small self-interested groups the ability to create their own societies, either on Earth or in space, free from the interference of centralized political authority. I believe this is achievable without “drexlerian” nanotech or sentient AI.

AFPhys September 4, 2009 at 21:09

“I think right now we most need science fiction that creates a compelling vision of where we can take humanity over perhaps 3 generations using real, not just imagined technology…”


This is a very wise area for brainstorming thoughts. I would go out as far as four or five generations at most. Considerations of the places we are able to take the internet, nanotechnology, hopefully fusion, marrying medicine to computer technology, near space exploration and exploitation – - – those are fruitful grounds for imagination. Such “science fiction” can inspire thoughts now and in the proximate future for inventors who are able to bring together the essential technology to bring it to fruition.

It is nice to have thoughts of Trantor and RingWorlds, but those concepts can’t inspire us to the future as well as “I Robot” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”

Adam September 5, 2009 at 3:50

I think one unexpected problem of AI – when hardware is approaching parity with human smarts in human size – may well be the fact that it’ll be beyond human understanding in a comprehensive way and thus perhaps too unpredictable to be useful – as Greg described in “Foundation’s Fear” our synthetic slaves may well resent being treated as mindless machines. Because they won’t be…

ljk September 10, 2009 at 13:33

Scientist: Human brain could be replicated in 10 years

September 7, 2009

A model that replicates the functions of the human brain is feasible in 10 years according to neuroscientist Professor Henry Markram of the Brain Mind Institute in Switzerland.

‘I absolutely believe it is technically and biologically possible. The only uncertainty is financial. It is an extremely expensive project and not all is yet secured.’

The apparent complexity of the human mind is not a barrier to building a ‘replica’ brain claims Professor Markram.

‘The brain is of course extremely complex because it has trillions of synapses, billions of neurons, millions of proteins, and thousands of genes. But they are still finite in number. Today’s technology is already highly sophisticated and it allows us to reverse engineer the brain rapidly’.

An example of the capability already in place is that today’s robots can do screenings and mappings tens of thousands of times faster than human scientists and technicians.

Another hurdle on the path to a model human brain is that 100 years of neuroscience discovery has led to millions of fragments of data and knowledge that have never been brought together and exploited fully.

‘Actually no-one even knows what we already understand about the brain’, says Professor Markram, ‘A model would serve to bring this all together and then allow anyone to test whatever theory you want about the brain. The biggest challenge is to understand how electrical-magnetic-chemical patterns in the brain convert into our perception of reality.

We think we see with our eyes, but in fact most of what we ‘see’ is generated as a projection by your brain. So what are we actually looking at when we look at something ‘outside’ of us?’

Full article here:

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