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Science Fiction and the Interstellar Idea

Science fiction has been much on my mind of late, particularly following the 100 Year Starship Symposium, where so many of the scientists I talked to mentioned novels and movies that had been influential in getting them into science. My friend Keith Cooper, editor of Astronomy Now and a fine science writer whose work I often cite in these pages, also shares an interest in SF, and it was natural enough that we fell into a conversation by email on how the genre relates to interstellar studies. Because while we would expect a natural synergy between science and science fiction, the genre’s cinematic and literary treatments are often at variance with each other. Why is this, and why are some elements of the interstellar idea easier to explore in writing than in film? Here are some thoughts (and memories) about science fiction’s role.

  • Paul Gilster

Keith, you and I are both science fiction readers, although I’m enough old that I grew up in the heyday of Heinlein and all those great books for young people. I remember being in a book fair at my grade school where each class had tables set up with books that were considered appropriate for that grade level. I was in about third grade at the time, but I wandered over to the sixth grade table because I saw a hardcover copy of Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy. I can still see that book’s cover, and feel the effect of that odd juxtaposition that Heinlein opened with — slavery in a far future society. At that point in my life, slavery was one of those things that were safely in the past, but of course Heinlein played with a lot of our expectations, as does SF in general.

I could muse on some of those early readings for a long time, but the other one that really lit up for me was Starman Jones, in which I learned the term ‘astrogation’ and started to think seriously about ships that went between the stars. Right around the same time I found Andre Norton’s Galactic Derelict — can still recall the cover of that one, too, and the vistas it opened up to me. The list goes on and on, but maybe you can see why I’m sort of dismayed by the current emphasis on movie science fiction. In fact, when I mention SF to a lot of people, the response almost automatically refers to cinematic treatments. I’ve always enjoyed these but found them far less compelling than science fiction in actual books! But then, I’m a bit of a throwback. I still enjoy listening to old radio shows more than watching contemporary television programming.

I’d like to get your read on an idea that Geoff Landis told me about when I interviewed him for Centauri Dreams some years ago. We had been talking about his book of short stories called Impact Parameter and Other Quantum Realities, in which there is a story about an all-female crew on its way to Delta Pavonis. It’s a two-decade trip, as I recall, and conditions aboard the ship are cramped to the point of excruciation. How the crew finds the will and the mental fortitude to make it through the journey are what the Landis story is about, but it’s also a meditation on a key idea, that interstellar journeys may well be possible one day, but that they’re going to be long and hard under the best of circumstances.

But talk to the general public about star journeys and you basically get the same thing: Star Trek. I sometimes wonder whether science fiction as shown on television and in the movies hasn’t completely over-emphasized the far future possibilities at the expense of a more realistic approach. Wouldn’t it be interesting to tell the SF story — or make the SF movie — that tried to be as credible with the science as Destination Moon was when dealing with a lunar journey? I for one would love to see a movie version of the attempt to build an enormous sail for beamed propulsion, or someone’s read on a true Bussard ramscoop vessel. Hollywood is supposed to be where all the imagination is, so why have all the SF starships been so similar to each other?

  • Keith Cooper

Paul, I think part of the problem is that in Hollywood they look at spacecraft the same way I look at cars: they go for an aesthetic but don’t really understand what goes on underneath the hood. I remember J Michael Straczynski once commenting that police officers, lawyers and doctors are hired to advise on police, courtroom or medical/forensic dramas, but they rarely use scientists or genre authors on science fiction shows or movies. I’d love to see a big budget movie featuring interstellar travel using nuclear fusion, microwave beaming and solar sails as advised by someone like Marc Millis or Kelvin Long.

Straczynski’s Babylon 5 was my favourite show as a teenager, and still is. He gave us a station that rotated to create the effect of gravity via centrifugal force, just like an O’Neill colony. The massive Earth cruisers had rotating mid-sections, and the Starfury fighters featured four-pronged vectored thrust multi-engines that NASA have optioned as a possible real-life design in the future. In contrast to B5’s alien spacecraft, the human spacecraft had well thought out designs and made space flight look a little more difficult than is usually portrayed on TV. This is a theme I want to pick up on.

Recently there appeared an article on the Tor website entitled A Moral Argument for Hard Science Fiction by Madeline Ashby. She talks about the inaccurate depiction of computers and computer hacking on the big screen, placing them in the broader context of the general lack of understanding of science amongst the public and politicians. To quote from her article:

“Me, I blame Hackers. I don’t mean actual hackers. I mean Hackers, the 1995 piece of bad William Gibson fan-fic about kids who save their haxx0r reputations with rollerblades and holograms. And with it I’d like to blame all other depictions of hacking as easy, technology as simple, and science as the work of solitary geniuses awaiting quick flashes of divine inspiration.”

If we substitute ‘interstellar travel’ for the word ‘hackers’ I fear the problem still stands. Space travel is part of the furniture of SF and we need it to voyage to wondrous new worlds, but at the same time it can seem too easy. I love Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War for showing that the consequences of relativistic space travel can be difficult for the characters as they return home from each mission finding that time on Earth has progressed without them.

However, written SF can gloss over the realities of building starships too. In Peter F Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga, a human civilisation that has had wormhole technology for hundreds of years (railroads passing through wormholes link planets, which is ingenious) builds its first starship to investigate a Dyson Sphere. After they become embroiled in an interstellar war with the denizens of the Dyson Sphere, the Commonwealth quickly start building bigger, better and faster starships, seemingly at will. I adore Hamilton’s work but the process of building the new starships seemed too easy to me. E E ‘Doc’ Smith used to do the same thing in his Lensman series.

I’m now in a quandary Paul. I love to watch the adventures of Han Solo or Captain Kirk galivanting around the Galaxy, but at the same time I yearn for more science over fantasy. What examples of SF are there that strike the right balance and depict space travel as something that is hard but achievable with effort, while yet continuing to have exciting adventures on strange new worlds?

  • Paul Gilster

As I expected, Keith, we have many of the same enthusiasms. I do enjoy video treatments of science fiction but on a somewhat different level than written SF, but hey, I get a kick out of going back and reading old issues of Science Wonder and some of the early Astoundings as well. There’s something about that era and the way it interacted with the then current concept of the future that mesmerizes me. Anyway, we seem to be in a time when hard SF, with more emphasis on the science, is again competitive with the other strains of the genre. I am a great devotee of Gregory Benford’s work and think the Galactic Center series is the best treatment of the far future I’ve encountered. I have wonderful memories of the novella in IF back in 1972 that started it all off.

But maybe you’ve read Robert Forward’s Rocheworld, or the earlier, shorter work it was based on called Flight of the Dragonfly. Forward is one of my heroes for the insights he has given us into interstellar flight using known physics, but his fiction clanks a bit in terms of characterization even if the ideas he plays with are the kind of thing we discuss every day on Centauri Dreams. I’m betting laser sails and antimatter rocketry with a scrupulous attention to the physics are turning up in modern science fiction without my knowing it, because I’ve been so busy in the past ten years with the kind of work I’m doing now that I haven’t had the chance to keep pace with the field. We’re lucky here because the readers have always come up with book suggestions. Let’s see what they say.

Madeline Ashby makes sense to me, especially when she talks about depictions of hacking as “easy, technology as simple, and science as the work of solitary geniuses awaiting quick flashes of divine inspiration.” I don’t know about the hacking part because I’m not of the hacker mindset (though I envy people who hack in the true tradition of the world, meaning that they really get to understand how their computer and software work), but as far as science goes, when we depict the solitary geniuses waiting for inspiration, we’re not talking about a world that’s with us today. You look at major crowd-sourced projects like the Galaxy Zoo and realize how much science is being turned out by thousands of amateurs making a collaborative contribution. On the other end of the spectrum is something like the Large Hadron Collider, where vast numbers of highly-trained people turn up as co-authors on the papers generated by this enormous project.

The solitary inventor was the norm in Edison’s day, perhaps, but we see little of this today. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone with a breakthrough idea, but we also need science fictional depictions of the way science works in today’s era of the particle accelerator and the federal grant. One of the things Greg Benford brings to the table is his intimate relationship with science through his own work in physics. He knows how the process works, where it is frustrating and where it can be exhilarating, and he’s done enough experimental physics to know how thorny are the problems of gaining the needed funding. But bear in mind that he and brother Jim have also found ways to test microwave beaming on a sail in a laboratory at relatively low cost, so this kind of thing does get done. I’d like to see more science fiction coming out of that kind of lab work.

As for movies, maybe James Cameron can be prevailed upon to try a different kind of starship one of these days. Or maybe Ridley Scott? Because if we’re talking movies, I’d love to see either of these men work up a screen treatment of Forward’s ideas in Rocheworld, taking a laser sail mission all the way to Barnard’s Star and solving the complex issues involved in deceleration and exploration. There’s a screen epic crying out to be made, and along the way it would introduce the general public to the concepts of interstellar flight by non-magical means.

Say, did you know that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (I call it a trilogy because the next three novels came much later and I have to say I’m ambivalent about them) has been kicking around in the planning stages for one or another film studio for some years now? It would be fun to see what Hollywood made of it, but I’m a bit burned out with far future epics. Tell you what, let’s lobby for a beamed sail movie, and maybe also for Geoff Landis’ Mars Crossing to turn up in a movie version. We’d get two movies, one near-term, one much further out, each with an impeccable scientific pedigree. In the right hands, the results could be mesmerizing. How say you?

  • Keith Cooper

Believe it or not Paul I’ve yet to read Benford, Landis or Forward; I’m well aware of their work but haven’t got around to them yet. Instead I’ve been ploughing through the ‘golden generation’ of UK SF authors from the past 20 years, such as Hamilton, Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, Richard Morgan, Iain Banks, Neal Asher and others. British SF currently has a lot going for it and I strongly recommend these authors to you. What I would say, however, is that among this clutch of British authors I think there is a tendency to focus more on world-building with lots of great plot ideas exploring a range of issues from the social to the cosmic, rather than any urge to delve too deeply into the mechanics of spaceflight. There are exceptions of course, such as Stephen Baxter, and although I don’t think there is much wrong with the current direction of UK SF, that pioneering spirit of space travel so evident in the novels you describe Paul does seem to be sometimes missing.

What strikes me about your description of Landis’ and Forward’s work makes me think they rather enjoyed doing the calculations to make their space travel realistic. Certainly it is no coincidence that the trio of authors you mention all have an academic science background, allowing them to reach the rigorous level of detail required to not only fully get to grips with the propulsion systems they deploy in their books, but also derive fresh new ideas.

We may ask, how many of the creative types in Hollywood are tuned into where SF is pushing the envelope today? So much of Hollywood’s output seems to be 20 or 30 years behind the current trends in written SF. Perhaps what is needed is for some SF authors to cross the divide. Robert Sawyer, for example, has done it somewhat on television with the likes of FlashForward, but let’s see more. I don’t know if it is a reluctance on the side of the authors, or whether Hollywood is a closed-shop, but rather than making movies based on books without the involvement of the authors, let’s see some SF authors team up with a director and be given the opportunity to write an original script for Hollywood.

I’m not sure who that director could be – the idea of a Foundation movie potentially helmed by Roland Emmerich fills me with dread, James Cameron’s Avatar was more fantasy than hard SF, and as great as Alien and Bladerunner are, Ridley Scott has not displayed any empathy for hard SF (although he has picked up the rights to The Forever War, which if done right could make for a tremendous film). Perhaps Ron Howard, with his experience on Apollo 13, might be a good choice, or some other up and coming director?

Science fiction is perhaps the first, best testbed for future technologies. In its pages we can play out where these technologies can take us, the riches they can give us and the risks they pose. To continue to do so, we need more scientists with a passion for the genre and an eloquence to their prose to introduce us to detailed new ideas. The authors who follow them can then be let loose with these concepts, like kids in a candy store, picking ideas off the shelf and running with them, placing them in new and exciting settings. This is how SF has always operated, from Stapledon to Clarke to Baxter, or Asimov to Niven to Banks to the next generation of authors – where will they take us next?

  • Paul Gilster

PG: We can only imagine where they’ll take us next. I see we’re both in heavy reading mode. Lately I’ve been going back to some of the classics and refreshing my memory, most recently with Asimov’s first three Foundation books, which is why the subject was on my mind earlier. And I see you’re deep in the Hamiltons, Baxters and Reynolds of this world. What’s happened to me is that many of the readers of Centauri Dreams have suggested authors — this is how I started reading Alastair Reynolds and Iain Banks, and although I haven’t gotten into his work yet, I’ll use your suggestion (and I’ve heard it from others) to start reading Peter Hamilton.

I always get a kick out of learning about authors that are new to me, and you’ve mentioned several in this exchange that I’ll need to get to know. Interstellar flight has always gotten us straight into the science fiction element because there are so many unknowns, so many approaches, and we can let the concepts fly in fiction and see where they lead us. The number of physicists and engineers who have related what they are doing to earlier science fiction novels and short stories is, well, astounding, and tells us that SF will always play the role you describe, as testbed for both scientific ideas and philosophical speculations. Let’s keep the lines of communication open as we both discover new authors and range through their universes.


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  • Tulse November 18, 2011, 12:32

    One recent example of realistic interstellar travel is the TV pilot Virtuality. The show’s premise is a mission to Epsilon Eridani, and the ship is powered by nuclear pulse detonation — essentially a Project Orion-style drive. (A major scene in the show is “starting up” the drive, with a long sequence of deploying the bombs through the pusher plate and out the back end of the ship.)

    The show had a great pedigree (Battlestar Galactica creator Ron D. Moore, actors Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Clea Duvall), and some other interesting ideas (e.g., the heavy use of the titular virtual reality by the crew to deal with a ten-year mission time, the private funding of the mission via a “reality TV” contract). Unfortunately, though, the pilot was not picked up as a series. A DVD of the pilot is available.

  • Marc G Millis November 18, 2011, 13:46

    Regarding Hollywood, the following true-life experience came to mind:
    By Gregory Benford on September 13th, 2011

    In short, the Hollywood types want to take other people’s stories and then input their ideas, ideas based on reruns of drama the remember fondly, but which now, in my opinion, is stale. That taints the novelty. Even Cameron.

    That said, finding a producer and director who would follow a good author’s story line without meddling, and who would do the sci-tech right, will be hard. I also hope that the director has the vision to realize the dramatic power of NOT having sound in space and then takes advantage of that rather than the disappointing swooshing-by starships that fly like airplanes in invisible fluid. I also am bothered by explosions that look like in air and then propagate at unrealistic, our of scale speeds. (when the view of a planet blowing up progresses as fast as a grenade blowing up).

    Ah, I need to get back to work.

  • Abelard Lindsey November 18, 2011, 14:28

    Most of the SF I’ve read is solar system based. Greg Bear’s “Moving Mars” for example. Or Bruce Sterling’s “Schizmatriz”. For interstellar scale SF, Alastair Reynold’s “Revelation Space” series is probably the best. Greg Bear’s “Anvil of Stars” is also quite good. Peter Hamilton has a series called the Commonwealth where they have these wormholes that they run railroad trains through (yes, seriously!). Nevertheless, it is also quite good as well. I would put the Commonwealth under the category of “feel good” SF, because the Commonwealth is like a dream world in terms of desirability. The other “feel good” SF is Jim Hogan’s “Voyage from Yesteryear”, which also features a society that I would like to live in.

  • Abelard Lindsey November 18, 2011, 14:30

    The only SF films that are really good are “2001” and “Bladerunner”. Peter Hymms “2010” is also quite good, but not as good as the above two.

  • Sean the Sorcerer November 18, 2011, 14:53

    Yes but imagine how dull a story about realistic interstellar travel would be! Years of sitting around waiting to arrive at a planet or receive a message from home. Where’s the drama in that? The inhuman scale of space doesn’t really lend itself to stories people can relate to, does it?

    My guess is the biggest challenge would be the mind-numbing boredom and sheer cosmic terror which would accompany long journeys in deep space. Those mid-twentieth century stories were fun, but they really glossed over the psychological aspects and the horrific reality of this immense, alien cosmos, which Lovecraft captured well but the John Campbell-era writers generally ignored. Space is terrifying if you ask me, much more like Lovecraft’s “black seas of infinity” than Sagan’s “shore of the cosmic ocean”!

  • A. A. Jackson November 18, 2011, 16:57

    The oddest thing , is at this late date, how little of the greatest prose form of SF has been adapted to film or TV.
    To some extent it has to do with a general ignorance of prose SF by, I think most film makers, and by almost all the ‘money’ people in that strange place of Hollywood (tho I would guess most film and TV has not been made by Hollywood types, and in other countries) seem unfamiliar with it.
    I was at the 1966 World SF convention in Cleveland when a black and white print of “The Cage” was screened by Gene Roddenberry in September, 1966.
    Long before Gene became ultra famous. I saw Gene in a Hotel hallway the next day, he was there with an Enterprise prop. Everyone who went by told the loved the pilot film and hoped the show would make it, but 90% of the time he was just standing there alone!
    I went over to talk to him. I said “You know I recognize a whole universe of elements of modern prose SF in that film you showed yesterday.”
    He said, “You should!”
    He related to me how during WWII while in the Army Air Force he had avidly scrounged every copy of John Campbell’s Astounding (I think the only SF magazine published during the war). He continued reading SF prose after the war when he was an LA cop. So he accumulated a ‘SF background’, authors, nomenclature, the modern prose milieu.
    He also told of his disappointment in the 1950’s of the rise of the SF ‘Z film’, harking back to the old old days of BEMs and Bras Bras.
    He praised the exceptions, such as Day the Earth Stood Still, Pal’s War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet…. and that handful of other good SF films.
    He puzzled why Forbidden Planet , which pulled away from Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon into the realm of sophisticated SF space opera, was never repeated.
    So that’s why Star Trek, though not always successful, had the modicum of verisimilitude that we SF prose readers love so much.
    Roddenberry even used SF stories, not always, but here and there as source material, even the great SF writer Theodore Sturgeon.
    I did like Star Trek and it’s incarnations, alas it and it’s other fairly good brethren on TV just would not take that step away from some degree of clumsiness and technobabble towards even the sophisticated form of Space Opera practiced , as an example by Poul Anderson.
    Prose SF , by the time of Star Trek has moved way away from it’s pulpy origins , yet, I am afraid the TV form has made ‘pulp’ live on.

    One notes there is only one SF film in the bedrock of great modern prose SF… that is 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
    It was obvious, but took me nearly 40 years to find the evidence that Kubrick was an avid reader of prose SF. Some of it exists in his biographical literature, mainly hearing his wife Christine note it , on the special editions of the film, did I learn.
    It should be noted Kubrick had the idea of making Childhood’s End, which is probably his reason for getting Clarke, not much is made of it. Clarke even mentions in Lost Worlds of 2001 that Kubrick was still trying to incorporated elements in 2001. Actually the ending of Childhood’s End does make it, in an abstract way, to ending of 2001.
    How a Wellsian Big Thinks SF film ever succeeded will forever astound me, I don’t think it will ever be done again.
    (We do have the example of the two Solaris films, but why anyone thought that work would make cinematic narrative is a puzzle. I love the novel, but it is un-filmable.)
    Since , even director’s such as James Cameron, familiar with prose SF , descend into the pedestrian.
    There is a lot of great SF prose I think would make great intelligent SF , but doubtful commercial film, The Left Hand of Darkness comes to mind.
    Other prose, The Stars My Destination, Heinlein’s so called ‘juvies’, Poul Anderson one-step-beyond Star Trek space opera… others… they all lay fallow.

  • A. A. Jackson November 18, 2011, 18:53

    Even if E.E. “Doc” Smith: Skylark and the Lensman series got into interstellar flight early , if not a little awkwardly, in my opinion, John W Campbell might be considered not only the ‘father’ of modern SF but also editor who provided the stage for modern SF interstellar flight.
    By about 1940 the great SF writers were getting bored with the solar system!
    (Not really, a bunch still used our home planetary for a long time, still do.)

    Should note that great controversial mind John Desmond Bernal had envisioned real interstellar travel in 1929 , The World, the Flesh & the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (1929).
    Were his generation to generation the first mention of these?
    Did Wells envision star travel?

    Campbell and his discoveries, Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke, and a host of others knew their astronomy, and what was the difference between interplanetary and interstellar distances.
    I think Jack Williamson first put forward a tenable extrapolated star drive in Legion of Space (1934).
    From there writers must have been beaten senseless by John Campbell, “show me what it does, not how it works, I want a good story, just make some kind of sense.” (Eschew the techo-babble.)
    From there the number of Star Drives proliferated. Hyper-drives, warp drives, I don’t know how many names there were, someone could write a whole book about FTL dives in prose SF. (Not that STL methods were forgotten , a catalog of them is needed too.)
    There might be a good history of interstellar flight on the net, but I have yet to find it, it’s a vast period to cover, more than 80 years and how many pages I don’t know.

    Since Paul mentions Heinlein’s Starman Jones (my favorite so called Heinlein juvie)…. chapter 7, ELDRETH, end of chapter, Max is describing how the ship’s ‘jump drive’ works. Heinlein, ever the Jimcrack story teller does the best job of a disguised exposition on using the multiply connected topology of a Einstein-Rosen bridge.
    It would not surprise me that Heinlein knew some who, knew some physicist who knew the 1935 Phys Rev paper by Einstein and Rosen.
    I can’t find it , but suspect, someone else used that hyperboloid of one sheet ( with a nod toward Hermann Weyl (1921)) as and FTL idea in prose SF.
    Heinlein’s description and extrapolation in that fascinating conversation is still uncanny!

  • Dave Moore November 18, 2011, 19:28

    To Abelard Lindsay
    Make sure that you watch the 2007 final cut of “Bladerunner.” That final reworking of the film turned, what I regarded as a flawed gem, into a truly great movie. All the little parts make sense now.

  • Adam November 18, 2011, 19:49

    The starship in “Avatar” was based on realistic designs, but Interstellar travel was peripheral to the tale.

  • Joy November 18, 2011, 21:13

    A good one not mentioned, Dune, made into a film and a TV miniseries. which was brilliant in describing how human societies actually function through the machinations of amoral hereditary plutocrats and secret societies (rather than the myths of progressive democracy so successfully propagated during the 20th century)…

    Re: Asher and Reynolds, both are highly entertaining, (Asher more reliably so), but their work is solidly in the realm of fantasy. Both have magical and inexhaustible power sources. There are some differences, Asher likes instantaneous travel, Reynolds has more respect for the c limit. What they do share is a common agreement that baseline human minds are inadequate for a spacefaring civilization. Asher even adds that humans are incapable of wise self government. I would agree with that, a sentiment earlier expressed by Asimov and Herbert, and demonstrated every day in the news.

  • Hiro November 18, 2011, 21:19

    I read most of Egan’s novels: Permutation City, Diaspora, Schild’s Ladder, Incandescence, and the latest Orthogonal I: The Clockwork Rocket (Riemannian Universe).

  • ljk November 19, 2011, 2:42

    The starship in Avatar, named the ISV Venture Star (you can see the name on its hull), appears to be based on a realistic starship design, as opposed to most science fiction starships which rely on hyperspace bypasses and magical crystals to channel their energy from. They do use instantaneous communication across the light years with quantum entanglement (we will see how that ever works out).

    The Avatar starship concept comes from an antimatter starship design by Charles Pellegrino and James Powell called a Valkyrie, which you can read a fair bit about here:


  • A. A. Jackson November 19, 2011, 8:06

    I got into reading SF (by the way it is not easier to type two letters five?, and any way SF has the precedence so I will always stick with that) by running out of popular science about Space Fight. I started in 1952 when I was 11 because the Colliers von Braun, Willy Ley, et. al., combined with the art of Chesley Bonestell, Fred Freeman and Rolf Klep. They set all my adolescent neurons a-thrill, and led me to math and physics and to a life in space flight (to my amazement).
    In the early 50’s there were only so many books about rocketry and spaceflight, I still treasure my copy of Ley’s Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel, I have read it to pieces.
    My brother had bought a copy of Tomorrow, the Stars (1952), edited by Robert Heinlein , didn’t like it, gave it to me. Being really ‘adult’ SF I did not quite understand it (there is not a story by Heinlein in it!)…
    Notice all the famous names! Heinlein even latched onto an early Kurt Vonnegut SF story, Heinlein knew all those guys, even that, alas almost forgotten SF genius Cyril M. Kornbluth who died so young.
    Quite quickly I noticed Heinlein’s ‘juveniles’ Red Planet first , it was hook line and sinker from then on. It was not hard to find
    Rocket Ship Galileo, 1947
    Space Cadet, 1948
    Between Planets, 1951
    The Rolling Stones, 1952
    Farmer in the Sky, 1953
    Starman Jones, 1953
    then I had to wait for the yearly Heinlein novel.
    I can remember supplementing these with early Andre Norton (she was an odd SF author, did not notice at the time she was a bit of a technophobe, but a fine story teller). Was not fond of Asimov’s attempts at ‘juvie’ SF or Lester del Ray’s.
    I was getting older, started check out Conklin anthologies from the library, there were so many of those short story collections I caught up on Golden Age SF stories in two years!
    When I was 15 I was picking up Astounding each month, I still dearly loved the hard SF Campbell was publishing (even tho I , at that tender age, started noticed his weakness for screwball theories, such as the infamous L. Ron Hubbard spawned).
    Right about that time I started trading my copies of Astounding for H. L. Gold.s Galaxy Magazine. What an eye opener that was! I became an SF omnivore , reading both hard SF and Galaxy’s ‘social’ SF . Discovering Ted Sturgeon, Phil Dick’s short stories, Alfred Bester’s mind blowing novels The Demolished Man and (ah) The Stars My Destination (the greatest never to be beat baroque Space Opera novel ever written. I loved Fred Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s satires Space Merchants and Gladiator at Law. Those funny clever guys Fred Brown and Robert Sheckley , to whom Douglas Adams owes so so much.
    Not to forget Jack Williamson , Clifford Simak , especially James Blish, Jack Vance, Harry Harrison, Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg, …., not to forget Ray Bradbury, my favorite non-hard SF writer…. on and on…
    My personal favorite unjustly overlooked SF author is Cordwainer Smith. There is no nor will there ever be SF such as Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger (Smith) wrote, it is the damnest odd and beautiful SF as I have ever read.
    O my shelves are all the works of the big three. Clarke stayed the best for the longest, tho, to me, Rendezvous with Rama was Clarke’s last great novel. Up front I am not fan of Stranger in a Strange Land, Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the last great SF novel Heinlein wrote. When Asimov returned to fiction writing in 1982, he had lost it. None of their later works tarnish their towering early writings.
    After about 40 years of SF , alas to exclusion of most other fiction, I passed some kind of threshold… names of Hugo come now of authors I don’t even know, even when their fiction is fine.
    Always have a spot inside for ‘hard’ SF , not to forget Hal Clement, and that clever guy Larry Niven.
    Alas, my old friend Bob Forward was a great idea man, but , to me, no where in the class of Heinlein and Clarke as a story teller.
    As a scientist it seems strange to me that my list of favorite SF work is:
    1. More Than Human – Sturgeon
    2. Left Hand of Darkness – Le Guin
    3. The stories of Instrumentality of Mankind – Cordwainer Smith
    4. Man in a High Castle – Phil Dick
    5. City and the Stars – Blish
    6. The Stars My Destination – Bester
    7. Childhood’s End – Clarke
    8. Double Star – Heinlein
    9. Foundation (Series) – Asimov
    10. The Space Merchants – Pohl and Kornbluth
    (Tho it’s like choosing between children … if asked this next Tuesday the list would change!)
    Deep space is my dwelling place
    The stars my destination.
    — Gully Foyle (Alfred Bester)

  • A. A. Jackson November 19, 2011, 10:28

    That article has a lot of stuff about the Bussard Ram Jet in it.
    I worked for the Air Force in the late 70’s in the San Francisco area. The AIAA San Fran section held a sort of future space flight conference there in 1979. We invited Poul Anderson, who lived near by to come. I got the bright idea of inviting Bob Bussard. Bussard lived in the D.C. area in those days but came to out on his own nickle. Bussard and Anderson were delighted to meet one another. Bob had been a modest SF reader, kept up with the literature a little, he did know about Tau Zero, so Poul and Bob had a jolly time talking about it.
    I sat with Bob that night at the banquet and had a long conversation with him. Bob may have been , at that time, the top expert in the whole world on nuclear rocketry, he worked on it from 1955 till the mid to late 60’s.
    I remember we had a bottle of wine and a great time, but only one thing stuck in my mind.
    Bussard told me how the idea of the fusion ram came to him in flash at breakfast in 1958 or 1959. He was looking at his plate and a scramble egg rolled in a cylinder of tortilla (seems something you would see in New Mexico!) He had been thinking of interstellar flight , so bingo, why not scoop hydrogen and fuse it!
    His paper in Acta Astronautica is a classic of exposition.
    Bob was one of the most unusual people I have ever met, a tall, handsome, rangy guy, good humored, intelligent and witty. He had an air about him of a man who walked the halls of power, which he did.

  • Alex Tolley November 19, 2011, 12:26

    It isn’t just SF that Hollywood does badly. Almost any serious subject is badly dealt with in Hollywood, unless the subject has a low common denominator of understanding, like emotions.

    SF on tv, at least in the past, was much better. I still remember with fondness the BBC tv series (late 1960’s – early 1970’s) “Out of the Unknown”, of which perhaps a dozen episodes remain and can be acquired on YouTube. For an interesting take on interstellar travel, watch the episode “Thirteen to Centaurus”.

    Cinema audiences today can barely even remember a time when there were no cellphones, or at least cheap international telephone calls. Asking them to even sit through movies when communication by letter was costly, haphazard, and associated with months or more before receipt is hard enough. How will they comprehend realistic interstellar communication measured in many years? How would a plot move along if this was an element of the story? 2001:A Space Odyssey used the clever idea of the Discovery astronaut interview as a prerecorded sequence with the time delays edited out. But for a ship even 10 light years out from earth? So ship speeds and communication become instantaneous in movies and interstellar travel becomes global travel written on a larger canvas.

  • Aleksandar November 19, 2011, 17:34

    Alex, thank you for that reference, it’s a true gem. We seem to be badly regressing from those days…

  • mike shupp November 19, 2011, 17:48

    Well… suppose you’re a studio head back in the old Hollywood days, or an investor today. You’re willing to consider a science fiction film, but what do you notice? First, that comic book and cartoon strip SF has a large audience, and that book and magazine SF has a much smaller audience. Secondly, that the simple plots and pacing and the use of repeating characters in comic book SF is a lot easier to convert to serial or feature film conventions than literary SF. The thought would probably strike you that a Superman movie could make money, and Solaris would probably not, and events would eventually prove you right.

    Another point: Hollywood isn’t much interested in making Great Invention films. I can’t think of any films off-hand which are actually about railroad engines or railroad companies; maybe you can point to THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI or part 1 of ATLAS SHRUGGED, but I’m prety sure they had more than engineeing details to keep an audience’s interest. Ditto for automobile manufacturing, submarines, steamboats, ferris wheels, bicyles, tanks, and aircraft carriers.

    There is an odd exception — from the 1930’s onward, quite a few films have been made about airplane improvements (WINGS IN THE DARK) and operations (NIGHT FLIGHT); this ran up to the 50’s (NO HIGHWAY IN THE SKY), before petering out as a subspecies of disaster films (THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY, AIRPLANE!). These seem to be best analogs to the style of SF film you’d like to see.

    Why was aviation of such interest? Hard to say. Flying itself seems to have a romantic aura, back before it became commonplace. And it was contemporary — many people could recall the evolution of aircraft from canvas-clad biplanes to aluminum-skinned DC-6’s and Lockheed Constellations. It probably helped that film company owner Howard Hughes built airplanes on the side, that WW I ace William Wellman became a director of note, and that occasional script writer Nevil Shute had an aeronautical engineering background. SF films lack these advantages.

  • Sean M. Brooks November 19, 2011, 18:44

    One of the earliest science fiction books I read was Poul Anderson’s AGENT OF THE TERRAN EMPIRE, which made a deep impact on me! I’ve also read Asimov, Bradbury, Clark, Heinlein, etc., as well as a boy. But it was Poul Anderson’s works which affected me most deeply. He was both a fine writer with a humane and sympathetic view of people, but also very CAREFUL about the science. I also considered Anderson’s treatment of non human rational beings as being one of the best to be found among SF writers.

    I’ll list a few books by Poul Anderson which touches on science and space flight in ways I considered realistic.


    Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  • Duncan Ivry November 19, 2011, 20:20

    Paul and Keith, a very interesting discussion about science fiction and the interstellar idea.

    As I have said in previous comments, science fiction literature — as literature generally — in most cases is about human beings and their matters — how human beings (especially young males ;-) find their way, their role, and their identity in life and in society — clad in more or less science and technology.

    Popular and important examples are those science fiction stories telling the same archetypical cases again as they have been told in the story about the argonauts and in the Odyssey: a group of people on a dangerous quest.

    I would say, that a science fiction story which (your first example, Paul) includes slavery in a future society (there are many stories like that) in most cases is much more about slavery as a social problem than about science and technology. Even the most advanced stories, which “use”, say, quantum entanglement for interstellar communication, do this only as a subordinate tool for promoting the plot.

    And the favorite topics on Centauri Dreams: space travel, space ship drives, etc.? As fascinating as the various ideas in the science fiction literature are for me too, I would say: in most cases it’s decoration only — and ridiculously unfounded.

    Another example you, Paul, gave, is the wonderful and attracting Galactic Center series by Gregory Benford. I would say these stories are about human beings in the first place (and in the second place) — and the science fictional decoration is absolute fascinating. I would say the same about Asimov’s Foundation stories (these are especially appealing for me as a mathematician interested in history).

    The situation is as sketched above, I think, because (a) most readers want stories about human beings in the first place, (b) most science fiction authors want to earn money, and (c) it is indeed very difficult to design something *really* alien. Regarding (c) I, as I write this, am not able to remember some science fiction story containing something *really* alien (I’m even not sure regarding H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu and the Old Ones from the stars).

    As someone preferring hard science fiction, I must confess, when reading a science fiction story, I want a good plot, otherwise I would prefer real scientific literature. I agree with you, Keith: “we need more scientists with a passion for the genre and an eloquence to their prose to introduce us to detailed new ideas.” What at least I do not want is someone just telling technological fact after fact without any inspiration (and I do not want someone like the notorious Carl Sagan, please — too much … er … inspiration).

  • Christopher Phoenix November 19, 2011, 21:18

    Modern SF writers should write more stories featuring starships that travel at sublight speeds using light sails, antimatter rockets, magnetic sails, and so on. Interstellar travel might well be possible one day, but the voyages will likely be long and hard, even under the best of circumstances. However, for a SF author, these voyages offer many exciting story opportunities!!

    There are basically two main types of interstellar travel- slow and fast. Slow covers voyages that take many decades or centuries, such as generation ships, sleeper ships, etc. Often, writers propose some means of extending human life or a multigenerational crew for these approaches. The “fast” starship is relativistic- it travels at a high fraction of C. The crew will reach another star in their lifetimes and experience time dilation, making the trip even shorter for the crew.

    The social issues of a generation ship will be even more difficult than the technical aspects. If we launch a starship that travels at 5% of C to a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri, it will take a century to get there. The people who arrive will the the descendants of those who had left. This ship will need to have a carefully planned out trip, to ensure that inbreeding is avoided and that the children are capable of maintaining the starship. There will be a whole generation of children who have never had the concept of an “outside” that was not an airless void laced with deadly radiation and space debris. Stories set on generation ships tend to explore the internal problems of such an enclosed world, not the wonders of deep space or strange settings on alien planets, creating somewhat claustrophobic plots.

    We could probably build a starship like this in the fairly near future- near future being this century. Nuclear pulse drives, antimatter sails, and magnetic sails are methods for reaching 5% C or even 10% C. The life support and societal issues will probably be even bigger than the propulsion issues.

    The crew of a relativistic starship will experience a shorter trip time than people back home due to time dilation, but years or decades will still pass for observers back on Earth. Signals to Earth take years to arrive, and any reply will take years to reach the ship. The crew of a relativistic exploration ship will have to solve any problems they encounter by themselves- they can’t hope for rescue or even radio back for advice if they run into trouble. Fast starships will be on their own when they arrive at unexplored star systems. Personally, this is the type of sub-C travel I always liked- I want to see another star for myself, even if it meant several years on a large, relativistic craft. These kind of starships lend themselves to a “beagle” type voyage of exploration.

    One thing I’ve thought about is that the technology on the starship will be rather outdated when it arrives. A multigenerational ship traveling at 5% C will take a century to reach Alpha Centauri. If we had launched one in the 1960’s, it would be only halfway there already, and all the technology on board would be antiqued by our standards. The crew would probably spend much of their time replacing the vacuum tubes in their primitive navigation computer!! Even if we sent them plans by radio, they would probably not be able to fabricate any modern electronics, not having the proper supplies or equipment. By the time it got to Alpha Centauri, it would be 2060- imagine what technological improvements Earth might have had by then!! Of course, we didn’t have the ability to launch a starship in the 1960’s, but this was just a though experiment.

    Even a relativistic ship will appear old fashioned after it completes its voyage. A trip lasting thirty years will leave everything on board thirty years outdated. Maybe the crew’s laser pistols won’t be too out of date- after all, the 45. 1911 is still used today.

  • A. A. Jackson November 19, 2011, 21:31

    Sean M. Brooks>
    Poul Anderson is one of those writers with a broad range.
    One of his first novels, I think his second, 1954, The Broken Sword, is a Nordic fantasy story , my opinion, is only trumped by Tolkien. It’s more ‘adult’ than LTOR , well for it’s time, a compact fantasy that is a ripping yarn well told.
    He wrote several outstanding science fiction novels, one of the most remarkable is Brain Wave (1954). The Enemy Stars (1959) and Tau Zero were Hugo nominees. He won 7 Hugos in all, I think mostly short stories , of which he as grand master.

    Your post makes me think of the Technic History novels.
    Anderson took the back bone of old Space Opera SF and kicked it upstairs!
    Others wrote different kinds of Space Opera (not like the old kind), Stars My Destination is a good example.
    However Anderson sort of stuck with old form and transformed it.
    It would be almost as if one asked, “what would the one-step-beyond Star Trek?”
    The Technic History would make fantastic visual entertainment. It would more sophisticated yet familiar to people the stories are all ripping yarns!
    As much as I would like to see Nicholas van Rijn of the Polesotechnic League period… I would go with Dominic Flandry of the Terran Empire period. Flandry was C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower done as future fiction. But it’s not just Hornblower dressed in SF garb, Anderson gives Flandry’s story it’s own fiber and twist.
    Done as a TV series it would have to be handled with care, all the elegance, and finesse Anderson gave it would have to shine through, or your going to just have a hyped Star Trek.
    I think, maybe wrongly, people would like it, it would not be off center or Big Thinks SF , it would be recognizable but different.

    I would say that most great SF is like Jazz, a great art form, but never with huge mass appeal. Still embedded in prose SF are a few nuggets here and there , if handled right, might succeed.
    So it goes.

  • Christopher Phoenix November 19, 2011, 22:57

    @Mark G Millis

    I also hope that the director has the vision to realize the dramatic power of NOT having sound in space and then takes advantage of that rather than the disappointing swooshing-by starships that fly like airplanes in invisible fluid. I also am bothered by explosions that look like in air and then propagate at unrealistic, our of scale speeds. (when the view of a planet blowing up progresses as fast as a grenade blowing up).

    A good discussion of why Hollywood movies have such a pathetic lack of scientific accuracy written by someone who actually works in Hollywood is found here: http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/prelimnotes.php#id–On_Shaky_Ground–Hollywood_Reasons

    The look of Hollywood spaceships always bothered me. They always have a clearly defined “top” and a “bottom” and are needlessly streamlined, even if they are never intended to enter an atmosphere. Real spacecraft are often much more startling and outlandish looking than any fictional designs, but no one seems to understand the dramatic potential of realistic spacecraft. Part of this might be because of the expectations of the audience, who are used to the concepts of up and down, not to mention the idea that “streamlining=speed”. Having the Enterprise approach the Excelsior flying nose down sideways might disturb the audience, but that is what we expect to see in space.

    I’m willing to accept the idea of a hyperdrive in a SF show- but I expect this craft to still look like it is in space!! That means the craft won’t be streamlined unless it has to enter an atmosphere or worry about induced cosmic rays at near-light-speeds. Down will be the axis of thrust of the spaceship when it engages real-space rocket drives to maneuver near planets. I liked the artistic renderings of spacecraft with your hypothetical space drives like the disjunction drive and induction ring- its a pity no SF show has picked up on one yet!!

    I’d like to see a design that looks like a delicate glass sculpture. The rocket drives could be fusion engines- brass colored metallic tubes wrapped with electromagnetic coils. The hulls might be metallic colored or even clear, if a Niven-style General Products Hull is available. The habitation sections might be rotating rings to create artificial gravity or a spherical pressure hull. The warp engines might be a ring circling the hull, like the induction ring. It would be neat to see something like a GUT drive that utilizes vacuum energy, like some of the spacecraft from Arthur C. Clarke stories. Wormholes should be spherical with glimmers of the space on the other side shining through, not whirlpool shaped.

    I’m tired of laser cannons being portrayed as turrets with gun barrels. For energy weapons, I draw inspiration from particle accelerators. The heavy relativistic particle beam guns will be long tubes wrapped with electromagnetic coils to accelerate and focus the beam. Coherent electromagnetic radiation emitters, or laser weapons, need long beam paths in the beam generator, but the laser generator can be folded many times. The beam generators might be kept in the hull, and the beam will emerge through heavily armored parabolic reflectors. The most powerful beam weapons will be “spinal mount”- they will literally be the spine of the spaceship and fire through the “nose” of the ship.

    You mentioned explosions in space- those slow, noisy blasts are so annoying!! A real explosion would be just a flash, followed by debris hurtling away too fast to be seen. Another annoying aspect of Hollywood SF is that the space battles always occur with the ships only hundreds of meters from each other at the same relative speed. Why? Combat between ships and fighter planes today often occur far beyond visual range. The energies, speeds, and distances of space travel are enormous, so the opposing ships would have to agree to slow down and match speeds. Why would ships that fly about at relativistic velocities or FTL “warp speeds” wallow about like beached whales when they encounter enemy spacecraft?

    Another thing that bothers me in Hollywood SF are the beam weapons- slow, visible beams and pulses seem to be the norm. In reality, the beams and pulses from an energy weapon would be invisible in the vacuum even if the energy beam was in the visible spectrum, since there is no medium to reflect, refract, or absorb it. Invisible UV and X-ray beams are more likely anyway, due to their sharp focusing power and high penetration. Particle beams are invisible as well.

    One of the things that are odd about phasers in Star Trek is that a person hit by a phaser on high power settings vaporizes, leaving no visible debris and slowly enough to see the “vaporization” propagate over their body. The only way to explain this is to say that the phaser causes some chain reaction that converts the target’s mass-energy into neutrinos, but isn’t that a little complicated for a hand weapon? A ray that dematerializes a person visibly slowly while leaving no debris and not even raising the temperature of the room- give me a break!! I’d me more impressed to see laser guns that actually vaporize a target, leaving nothing behind but charred skeletal remains, ash, and vapor.

    If a director wanted a spectacular ship-to-ship beam weapon duel, there is a realistic way it could be done. In a planetary atmosphere, the beams will become visible. Even a medium reasonably transparent to an energy beam weapon presents some obstacle simply by being there- so a powerful energy beam will literally blow the air out of the way in a flash of plasma. Firing heavy ship-to-ship energy cannons in an atmosphere would be spectacular, to say the least. The effects of thermal blooming in an atmosphere from a powerful energy cannon can ravage the environment- the air might turn to plasma, shockwaves will radiate out from the beam path, and flash-fires will occur even in areas not usually considered fire hazards.

    Hollywood ought to present some interesting exoplanets, as well. The list is growing, so someone could take a known body and run with the possibilities- maybe a gas giant in the habitable zone has a habitable moon. There will be many more planets than Earth twins- like super-earths, water-worlds, habitable moons, maybe even desert worlds. Space colonists could try living in flying cities on a gas giant. O-Niell colonies or asteroid habitats are another interesting destination. The inhabitants of these worlds should be more diverse- imagine forests of pagoda trees, sky whales, gourd trees, or gas-bag creatures living in a gas giants atmosphere!!

    In short, Hollywood shows a distinct lack of imagination.

  • spaceman November 20, 2011, 2:47

    Paul, have you seen the movie Pandorum?

    I too lament the lack of a more realistic representation of how difficult starflight is likely to be in many of the recent sci-fi films. All too often the idea that there will be some FTL hyperdrive breakthrough is taken for granted in these movies. However, I’ll point out one notable exception with which I am familiar.

    Pandorum (2009), although panned (no pun intended) by the reviewers, provided perhaps the most realistic picture of what spaceflight in the far future is likely to be like. The interstellar spaceship in this movie is a colonization ship built and launched by a troubled and declining Earth of the mid 2100s.

    In the opening of this movie, the Kepler mission is even mentioned! Something along the lines of “in 2009 NASA launches the Kepler mission to look for Earthlike planets…” Tell me, in how many movies–sci-fi or otherwise– are space science missions mentioned? I view the mention of Kepler as being in line with the overall what I would call realistic hard science theme. Later in the movie there is even a crew member’s flashback to his childhood of images relayed back from a probe sent to explore the Earthlike planet, Tanis (to which the colonization mission is later launched).

    The Earth’s population has reached a critical level and the environmental crisis and resource wars have been enough to convince the powers that be that humanity’s only chance to survive as a species is colonize an earth-like planet called Tanis. The ship is successfully launched but en route some problems crop up. First of all, there is a psychological disorder called Pandorum caused by long duration spaceflight and in particular seems to be an effect of being put in long-duration suspended animation. Those afflicted with it present with sxs of amnesia, paranoia, and even psychosis. Additionally, the colonists aboard have been given a special enzyme to help them adapt to the conditions that will be faced on Tanis. I do not want to give away too much here other than to say that pandorum plus this enzyme lead to some problems for the ship’s crew…

    In any case, in this movie we have mention of the Kepler mission, plausible reasons for interstellar colonization, a big bulky sub-light speed ship, suspended animation, an interstellar probe, depiction of an Earth-like planet, biological modification of humans for adaptation to conditions on this planet, psychological stress of spaceflight, etc. It really struck me how many of the issues addressed/discussed regularly on this site are incorporated into this one movie!

    In conclusion, although more realistic hard science movies depicting interstellar travel are clearly in the minority, there is one movie, Pandorum (2009) that goes against the grain. I would argue that it is the broad lack of understanding of science in our culture that led to this movie being underappreciated. Sure, it was not an Oscar contender, but for the type of movie it is and especially for the type of movie that Paul and Keith would like to see more of made– it is a real breath of fresh air.

  • Alex November 20, 2011, 5:43

    Another interesting author who touches on lots of hard science is Paul McAuley in The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun. These two books cover a genetically modified branch of humanity who populate the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, using lots of rich and interesting biological technology to survive.

    Again, there’s less discussion of propulsion technology, but the author is a botanist so the biotechnology has a certain edge.

  • Keith Cooper November 20, 2011, 6:23

    I’ve enjoyed reading everybody’s comments, and there are some terrific points being made and recommendations for future reading. I’m going to try and search out Virtuality and Out of the Unknown, and some of those stories in Dr Jackson’s list.

    Dr Jackson, your remembrances of SF are an education and I enjoyed reading about your encounters with Gene Roddenberry, Robert Bussard and Poul Anderson, and the evolution of hard SF from pulp. I’ve read some of Heinlein and Asimov’s juvenile material – Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, the Lucky Starr series. I’m not sure this type of SF storytelling exists for teenagers any longer (although perhaps someone could enlighten us further on this). As a young teenager, my way into reading ‘proper’ SF was through the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek tie-in novels instead, and perhaps they fill that niche now.

    For me the quintessential Heinlein is Starship Troopers. I found A Stranger in a Strange Land to be weird, thought-provoking in some ways but dated in others. As with everything, it is a product of its time and I’m not sure how relevant it is today. I’d be interested to find, Dr Jackson, what you think of modern SF and how you think it compares to the era that you describe. What does each era do differently, and what different aspects do each excel at (and, in respect to each other, what do the different eras not do so well)?

    Personally, I’m not a fan of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I feel cold every time I watch it, and yet I find Clarke’s novel to be superb. The Discovery One and the scientific depiction of space travel is great, but to me there’s no human warmth to it. And I think, Duncan Ivry, that good SF has to maintain some aspect of humanity, not just to create something that we can identify with but to do those things that most of the best SF does: explore how science and technology affects what it means to be human, how it helps tell us who we are and our place in the Universe, what the consequences of its use may be and how far it can take us. Even when dealing with alien life it is often from the aspect of how it is different from us, and what those differences tell us about what we think are the unique qualities of human beings.

    Certainly fiction of all kinds needs a certain quotient of drama, and often this is achieved by softening the edges of the science. Sound in space? Not accurate but it adds to the dramatic effect (I’d also argue that neither are there any orchestras in space, but I’d favour John Williams over scientific accuracy in this department every day of the week). Magical faster-than-light travel if it gets us to where the story needs to take us? Fair enough. Our point in the dialogue is that there should be room for accurate depictions of pioneering space travel alongside the Star Treks and Star Wars’ of this world. The science on its own may be too dry for a general audience, but if you tell it as a story of humans triumphing, or attempting to triumph, over the challenges of their environment, in this case the vastness of space and time inherent in any sub-light speed voyage – the same way we may depict explorers crossing the Sahara or climbing Everest, or the fateful journeys of Amelia Earhart or Captain Scott – then I think it is certainly possible to tell a good story on the big screen. I’m not even sure there’s a need to add in any psychological or Lovecraftian horror (not that it would necessarily hurt the story to have those elements). So we get the scientific depiction, but we also get the human story too.

  • Garrett November 20, 2011, 12:03

    I’m surprised no one mentioned *Moon* with Sam Rockwell. I love the movie as a very simple near-future sci-fi film that captures a lot of interesting ideas about the tedium of a realistic future.


    The movie wins me other with so many small details that are thought-provoking along with a good display of the effects of isolation. Overall, it shows a picture of society almost identical to our own, just one step further out into space. Of course Sam Rockwell is also an amazing actor.

    Peter Hamilton is great, but he, like many others, focuses on the most exciting aspects of a future society. We all forget how a larger, more complex society inevitably requires more “cogs” and someone has to do the boring work.

    If people have not seen it, I strongly recommend it and tried to keep my comments vague enough to avoid spoiling it.

  • Ole Burde November 20, 2011, 12:11

    If we try to judge wether a certain SF book has any predictive value , its important not to fucus too much on propultion-realted issues . To many people it seems to be selfunderstood that everything stands or falls apart dependent upon the propultion used . This might be true for a 2011 starship design , but not necesarrily for a great hard core SF book . A god example to my taste is Larry Niven s “Legacy of Heorot” , Where many other REALISTIC non-propultion issues takes center stage : The colonyship arrives with limited resources , including a somewhat badly chosen crew , who, partly because of having been frozen for ages ,mostly are unable to UNDERSTAND and cope with an extremely hostile alien ecology. As anybody who has been to a war can tell you , eventualy it always gets down to people and leadership, and this have to be true also in any SF story worth its salt.

  • Tobias Holbrook November 20, 2011, 12:16

    *obligatory mention of Permanence* Aside from the FTL, which is used as a plot device, Karl Schroeder manages to make what I’d consider quite a realistic world – a sublight interstellar civilisation. I’d like to see them make that into a film…

    Anyone know of other works dealing with sublight interstellar civilisations?

  • John Q November 20, 2011, 12:57

    This is all great stuff and I appreciate the thought that has gone into the article and the comments. Here’s my thoughts/concerns:
    I actually think science-fiction, hard or soft, messes up our thinking on the process of science. Looking over my reading and attitudes since I first discovered the stuff, I realize I was profoundly mistaken on how science is done and what are the pitfalls in doing it. Too often the story line was about A) the brilliant, solitary scientist-inventory who makes a great discovery which quickly becomes a great product/device which then defeats the enemy and enables our hero to get the girl. WWII pretty much killed off that notion (though it took about a generation for it to completely die) but the replacement was no better. Now its B) the giant evil corporation that wants to rape the planet and will start by sending your grandmother over a cliff (or blowing her up real good like) to possess her garden to experiment on things too awful to describe with any technical accuracy.
    I wish I had read more philosophy of science when I was a kid, but of course no kid gets into that stuff. Nowadays, I just tell people to read Imre Lakatos, who in my opinion was the greatest philosophy of science in the 20th century (even surpassing Karl Popper) and who really makes the process of science exciting. Note: He lived a rather exciting (make that harrowing) life himself, surviving both the National Socialists and the International ones.
    Sometimes hard science fiction writers have great ideas, which is good, but on the whole their works make for dull reading. There are exceptions, of course. I think of Clement’s Mission of Gravity and it’s sequel, and some of Clarke’s novels but have a hard time sadly coming up with other examples. Forward’s novels, for example, were filled with great ideas, but his books were unfortunately weak stories at best and as he matured as a writer, they just got worse. Heinlein viewed himself as a speculative (not science fiction) writer and would shamelessly fudge whenever the hard science got too restrictive. But the man was a genius. He could go in any direction he wanted to and do a great job (until the late ’60s), but examples of other writers possessing Heinlein’s sure-footedness are very rare. I still reread the Heinlein classics (and Norton! Maybe she was a ‘technophobe” but damn her stories were good. She gave the grandmaster a run for his money during the 50’s and who would have thought that even possible?) confess I stopped reading any contemporary hard science fiction years ago. Maybe that sounds bigoted but I’ve met a number of these people. The last hard s-f novel I read was by a physicist whose name I dare not mention. I think it was something about an Einstein-Rosen bridge. I wanted to burn the thing at the end of it.
    One of my favorite quotes is Popper’s “The wrong view of science betrays itself in the craving to be right.” This aphorism can be interpreted in more than one ways. One way is to run from anything claiming to be science that forbids, even punishes, criticism. Can’t think of an example off hand, but I’m sure you all know what I mean. But another, more positive way, is that to make progress in our thinking, drop the craving to be right. Learn to speculate for fun, and use that fun to explore, to move on to other hypothesis. Generating testable hypotheses is the essence of science. Don’t worry about proof until long afterward. Proof, as Edward de Bono says, another great philosopher whose work complements that of Lakatos, is often little more than a lack of imagination.
    Finally, for all those good physicists out there, please don’t write a story unless you know how to do the mechanics and have some feeling for history and psychology. Too many contemporary writers simply do not have that knowledge.

  • New York Seltzer November 20, 2011, 14:38

    One possiblity is to just stick with the solar system. The short-lived UK series Star Cops did a reasonably good job of near-future hard SF in that setting.

    I think the Japanese Gundam franchise proves that solar system is easily big enough to accomodate epic stories in the vein of Star Trek amd Star Wars, though obviously in its case the need to sell toys hurt the plausibilty of its ship designs, to put it mildly. Anyone seriously pondering how to make hard SF work as television definitely ought to give it a look.

  • A. A. Jackson November 20, 2011, 16:07

    >Keith Cooper
    I have to admit that after about 1990, having read prose SF for nearly 40 years, I trailed off. Even tho I know names such as, Lois McMaster Bujold, Vernor Vinge, Connie Willis, Kim Stanley Robinson and a few others, it is by their short stories, I am ashamed to admit I never read their Hugo winning novels.
    In recent years I don’t even recognize most of the names!
    I do know that after ignoring cyber punk for some number of years, I did go back and read Gibson , which I found good, tho I like Bruce Sterling’s work better. (Not to forget that Alfred Bester and Phil Dick had already done cyber punk in the 1950’s before it even had that name!)

    A vastly under rated SF writer was Octavia E. Butler, who SF writers liked, and I am sure a lot of fans, but never got the recognition she deserved.

    One thing that happened was by sons started reading SF about the time I was heading towards trailing off and were high on Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. I finally read it, and liked it, but as a long long time SF reader like me, it seemed like been-there-done-that. O, it had it’s surprises for me… but after Star Ship Troopers, Dorsai, Forever War, …, other’s , I was jaded.
    Never read the sequels.

    One thing to note about star flight in prose SF…. FTL became a necessity early on , a facilitator of story telling Asimov used it for just that purpose in the Foundation series, and that is a good example of how it was used over and over again in the genre. O writer’s such as James Blish had fun with the Spin-Dizzy… such like stuff, but it’s not overdone. Later when Black Holes came along , those got played with a lot.
    I think generation to generation ships got more mileage out of STL , Heinlein early on, Clarke’s third best novel Rendezvous with Rama (a cool story), Alexei Panshin’s remarkable Rite of Passage…..

    This site’s name sake Tau Zero by Poul Anderson… which I read as grad student about to graduate with a degree in relativistic physics! I was blown away.
    I don’t know a novel that created a greater problem solving dilemma than that one. Tho I must admit that even by the late 60’s or 1970, or whenever Anderson wrote that novel, he seemed to have gotten his cosmology from George Gamow’s The Creation of the Universe , well at least the climax of the novel.
    It would be amusing to follow the flight of the Leonora Christine into today’s accelerating universe , could the Big Rip be fixed?

  • Ole Burde November 20, 2011, 16:30

    Another , more problematic way of judging the quality of todays SF i to set it in context among the generel literature of our times . We live in a period, where litterature for a generation has been more-or-less dominated by the cultural paradigm (or axiom) of culture -relativism . An extreme example of this could be seen in the recent block-buster “Avatar” , where the Bad& Guilty sons of earth just HAD to be defeated by the noble blue natives…
    My son had murder in his eyes when we came out of the cinema….good luck there wasnt any realy tall bue guys around !
    So , this might be a good place to ask our selves , if the so called modern SF too have been infected with an attitude to exporation , that would basicly destroy any real reason to go anywhere worth going ?

  • ljk November 20, 2011, 16:47

    Garrett, my problem with Moon was the surprise of the film (Do not read any more if you do not want a spoiler), namely that a corporation would store hundreds of clones on the Moon, when having a living staff would be cheaper and easier to maintain. Without this bit, the sinister element disappears.

  • Christopher Phoenix November 20, 2011, 17:46

    @Keith Cooper

    I always felt cold when watching 2001: A Space Odyssey too!! Somehow, while watching the pretty spaceships slowly drift across the screen, I felt as though there were not people alive on those ships- as though they were nothing more than the toys of some cosmic entity that played with toy spaceships. There were no human characters to relate too in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The book was fantastic, and explained things a lot better, but the movie lacked any human emotional contact.

    Really good SF explores what it means to be human, how technology affects our lives, and what our place in the larger universe is. A good SF story doesn’t just have spaceships. Without the warmth of realistic human characters, it is hard to connect to a story on an emotional level. I think this is why shows like the original Star Trek series are more popular than 2001: A Space Odyssey- the characters are a lot more engaging in Star Trek!!

    The voyage of the crew of a sub-C starship would be a great story. It is a pity no one has picked up on this idea. Even amongst written stories, I don’t know of many authors who portray star voyages as taking years or decades. The constraints of Special Relativity don’t rule out exciting stories. I don’t mind FTL drives, but if authors only ever write stories with wormholes and warp drives, we miss out on stories of pioneering interstellar flight using nearer term propulsion systems. Even in futures with FTL, there probably were sub-C starships that tried to reach other stars before the FTL propulsion systems were invented.

    You guys wouldn’t happen to know of any SF stories that show star travel as taking years or decades? I’ve heard of Robert H. Heinlein’s novel “Time for the Stars,” but have yet to read it. Please write back with any suggestions if you know of any good SF stories where the voyages take years or decades at sub-light speeds.

    Noisy explosions in space movies are annoying. As for orchestra- well, there is a point one has to stop dissecting films. If you go too far, you will have to explain the letters crossing the screen at the beginning of every Star Wars movie as being an actual astronomical phenomena!!

    If you want sound in a space battle, just locate the cameras on the interior of a spaceship. The impact of enemy weapons will make noise on the interior of the craft, and the sound of air rushing out into the vacuum will leave no doubt that the spaceship is in trouble. As for explosions- silent explosions are more dramatic than noisy ones. A very bright flash when the antimatter escapes containment will be a lot more convincing than the “BOOM!!!” of standard hollywood explosions.

  • Gregory Benford November 20, 2011, 18:03

    Christopher Phoenix: thanks for all these insights.
    Also, the recommendation of Pandorum is spot on, “spaceman” — and Moon too is worth one’s while.
    Hard sf is a dance between the shifting rhythms of science and the demands of drama, to be sure. The Hartwell & Cramer volume, “The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF” is essential reading.

  • Sean M. Brooks November 20, 2011, 23:16

    Dear Dr. Jackson:

    I fully agree that Poul Anderson’s THE BROKEN SWORD (copies of which I’m happy to have in both the original and revised editions) is the equal of Tolkien’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS. And both Anderson and JRRT mined some of the same Nordic sources. I agree what while some of the grimmer elements found in THE BROKEN SWORD are not present in LOTR, much of that same grimness can be found in Tolkien’s posthumously published THE CHILDREN OF HURIN (2007).

    You also mentioned Anderson’s early masterpiece BRAIN WAVE, which treats Stapledonian ideas in remarkably mature ways for so early a work in an author’s career. I would recommend Anderson’s four HARVEST OF STARS books as masterpieces showing how well he handled “transhumanist” ideas. I would also note how Anderson chose to use slower than light means of travelinig to the stars in those books.

    With some reservations, I agree with your comments about Anderson’s Technic History stories. It would be great fun if some one had the nerve to try his hand at a film version of the fat, malaprop prone, wily Nicholas Van Rijn. Perhaps a film version of THE MAN WHO COUNTS?

    And, yes, a film series set in the era of the Terran Empire (after the collapse of the Polesotechnic League) would also be fun. I’m not sure Horatio Hornblower is a good analogy for Dominic Flandry. I think Sandra Miesel suggested the cynical gallantry of a Byzantine aristocrat struggling to preserve the Eastern Roman Empire in its final centuries as more apt. Anderson’s story “Tiger by the Tail” comes to mind as one piece which might profitably be filmed.

    I consider Anderson’s Technic History series far superior to those of either Heinlein’s “Lazarus Long” timeline or Asimov’s Foundation stories. In addition Anderson treated religion, human or non human, far more seriously in his works than either RAH or Asimov. “The Three Cornered Wheel,” “The Problem of Pain,” “The Season of Forgiveness,” and the novel THE GAME OF EMPIRE being examples which comes to mind. It’s interesting to note how, in both the eras of the Polesotechnic League and the Terran Empire, Anderson shows some non humans converting to Buddhism or Catholic Christianity. Showing how religion will affect humans and non humans alike in the future would be an interesting theme for both written and filmed SF.

    Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  • Alex Tolley November 21, 2011, 0:00

    @ Chris Phoenix and Keith Cooper

    “I always felt cold when watching 2001: A Space Odyssey too.”

    That was a deliberate decision by Kubrick. He wanted the astronauts to have less humanity that HAL. Interestingly, the Mars 500 simulation showed (again) that people in isolation dissociate from the humans things of earth. We might well expect our interstellar travelers to do so too.

  • tesh November 21, 2011, 5:55

    “ark” by S. Baxter was surprisingly good read. Though it did involve faster than FTL travel, travel times were in excess of a decade. The degeneration of society both on the Earth and within the spaceship is both horrible and uncomfortable, yet easy to imagine.

    “ark” and his previous book “flood”, could easily be made into films as it mixes both drama and SF in equal measure.

    @Christopher Phoenix
    I have to say I liked 2001 a lot. I get the impression that Kubrick was going for two main things (amongst other smaller things); 1st, the cold and vastness of space in comparison to man and 2nd, a role reversal of machine and man. The humans appear more robotic and machine like while the computer appears to be a paranoid killer.

  • Michael Spencer November 21, 2011, 7:56

    Thanks, everyone, for booking every single weekend from now until the end of time with fine reading!

    I love these discussions, particularly among true aficionados. One current writer not mentioned though is Jack McDevitt. I’ve developed a fondness for some of his novels and he has been cranking them out for sure.

  • A. A. Jackson November 21, 2011, 8:26

    Since the Kubrick/Clarke collaboration 2001: A Space Odyssey has come up several times here, that film very much surprised me. I was already a Kubrick fan, and I expected something good, I did not expect a Big Thinks science fiction idea and narrative. Childhood’s End is one of my favorite Clarke novels, no matter that Clarke’s Sentinel was used as a hook, 2001 is essentially H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon (others) examination of the meaning of life in the Cosmos. Clarke was a , sort of, disciple of Stapledon, but a better writer, Childhood’s End and City and the Stars, are clear and thoughtful , with Clarke’s own contributions, compared to Stapledon’s somewhat turgid novels.
    (Stanisław Lem covered similar territory in his novels, like Stapledon there are long philosophical riffs in Solaris that are worth the time of anyone seriously interested in contemplating alien life in the universe.)
    Kubrick’s film narrative is different from Clarke’s novel even tho the backbone of the story is there.
    I love the film better than the novel , since it seemed in philosophy the same territory Clarke had covered in Childhood’s End.
    As a long long time science fiction reader and student of the miniscule dent we have put (or can put!) into the meaning of advanced extraterrestrial civilization , I can think of no film in the spirit of modern SF prose than 2001.
    (A trivia note, during the writing of the screenplay and novel in New York in 1965 , Clarke and Kubrick had dinner with Carl Sagan, they wanted to portray the Monolith Makers in some alien form. When Sagan heard the story and that the advanced civilization was at least 4 million years old, he said “How in the world would you know how to protray the beings of a millions old civilization, don’t show them at all.” So it came to be.
    To modify: Any sufficiently advanced civilization will just be indistinguishable.)

    I found out , long ago, when Roger Ebert had his WEB forum, that he was a very knowledgeable reader of modern SF prose.
    What come next is the best and most serious review of 2001 I know of, I quote at length:

    2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
    BY ROGER EBERT / March 27, 1997

    “The genius is not in how much Stanley Kubrick does in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but in how little. This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn’t include a single shot simply to keep our attention. He reduces each scene to its essence, and leaves it on screen long enough for us to contemplate it, to inhabit it in our imaginations. Alone among science-fiction movies, “2001” is not concerned with thrilling us, but with inspiring our awe.

    No little part of his effect comes from the music. Although Kubrick originally commissioned an original score from Alex North, he used classical recordings as a temporary track while editing the film, and they worked so well that he kept them. This was a crucial decision. North’s score, which is available on a recording, is a good job of film composition, but would have been wrong for “2001” because, like all scores, it attempts to underline the action — to give us emotional cues. The classical music chosen by Kubrick exists outside the action. It uplifts. It wants to be sublime; it brings a seriousness and transcendence to the visuals.

    Consider two examples. The Johann Strauss waltz “Blue Danube,” which accompanies the docking of the space shuttle and the space station, is deliberately slow, and so is the action. Obviously such a docking process would have to take place with extreme caution (as we now know from experience), but other directors might have found the space ballet too slow, and punched it up with thrilling music, which would have been wrong.

    We are asked in the scene to contemplate the process, to stand in space and watch. We know the music. It proceeds as it must. And so, through a peculiar logic, the space hardware moves slowly because it’s keeping the tempo of the waltz. At the same time, there is an exaltation in the music that helps us feel the majesty of the process.

    Now consider Kubrick’s famous use of Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” Inspired by the words of Nietzsche, its five bold opening notes embody the ascension of man into spheres reserved for the gods. It is cold, frightening, magnificent.

    The music is associated in the film with the first entry of man’s consciousness into the universe – -and with the eventual passage of that consciousness onto a new level, symbolized by the Star Child at the end of the film. When classical music is associated with popular entertainment, the result is usually to trivialize it (who can listen to the “William Tell Overture” without thinking of the Lone Ranger?). Kubrick’s film is almost unique in enhancing the music by its association with his images.

    I attended the Los Angeles premiere of the film, in 1968, at the Pantages Theater. It is impossible to describe the anticipation in the audience adequately. Kubrick had been working on the film in secrecy for some years, in collaboration, the audience knew, with author Arthur C. Clarke, special-effects expert Douglas Trumbull and consultants who advised him on the specific details of his imaginary future — everything from space station design to corporate logos. Fearing to fly and facing a deadline, Kubrick had sailed from England on the Queen Elizabeth, doing the editing while on board, and had continued to edit the film during a cross-country train journey. Now it finally was ready to be seen.

    To describe that first screening as a disaster would be wrong, for many of those who remained until the end knew they had seen one of the greatest films ever made. But not everyone remained. Rock Hudson stalked down the aisle, complaining, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?” There were many other walkouts, and some restlessness at the film’s slow pace (Kubrick immediately cut about 17 minutes, including a pod sequence that essentially repeated another one).

    The film did not provide the clear narrative and easy entertainment cues the audience expected. The closing sequences, with the astronaut inexplicably finding himself in a bedroom somewhere beyond Jupiter, were baffling. The overnight Hollywood judgment was that Kubrick had become derailed, that in his obsession with effects and set pieces, he had failed to make a movie.

    What he had actually done was make a philosophical statement about man’s place in the universe, using images as those before him had used words, music or prayer. And he had made it in a way that invited us to contemplate it — not to experience it vicariously as entertainment, as we might in a good conventional science-fiction film, but to stand outside it as a philosopher might, and think about it.

    The film falls into several movements. In the first, prehistoric apes, confronted by a mysterious black monolith, teach themselves that bones can be used as weapons, and thus discover their first tools. I have always felt that the smooth artificial surfaces and right angles of the monolith, which was obviously made by intelligent beings, triggered the realization in an ape brain that intelligence could be used to shape the objects of the world.

    The bone is thrown into the air and dissolves into a space shuttle (this has been called the longest flash-forward in the history of the cinema). We meet Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), en route to a space station and the moon. This section is willfully anti-narrative; there are no breathless dialogue passages to tell us of his mission. Instead, Kubrick shows us the minutiae of the flight: the design of the cabin, the details of in-flight service, the effects of zero gravity.

    Then comes the docking sequence, with its waltz, and for a time even the restless in the audience are silenced, I imagine, by the sheer wonder of the visuals. On board, we see familiar brand names, we participate in an enigmatic conference among the scientists of several nations, we see such gimmicks as a videophone and a zero-gravity toilet.

    The sequence on the moon (which looks as real as the actual video of the moon landing a year later) is a variation on the film’s opening sequence. Man is confronted with a monolith, just as the apes were, and is drawn to a similar conclusion: This must have been made. And as the first monolith led to the discovery of tools, so the second leads to the employment of man’s most elaborate tool: the spaceship Discovery, employed by man in partnership with the artificial intelligence of the onboard computer, named HAL 9000.

    Life onboard the Discovery is presented as a long, eventless routine of exercise, maintenance checks and chess games with HAL. Only when the astronauts fear that HAL’s programming has failed does a level of suspense emerge; their challenge is somehow to get around HAL, which has been programmed to believe, “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.” Their efforts lead to one of the great shots in the cinema, as the men attempt to have a private conversation in a space pod, and HAL reads their lips. The way Kubrick edits this scene so that we can discover what HAL is doing is masterful in its restraint: He makes it clear, but doesn’t insist on it. He trusts our intelligence.

    Later comes the famous “star gate” sequence, a sound and light journey in which astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) travels through what we might now call a wormhole into another place, or dimension, that is unexplained. At journey’s end is the comfortable bedroom suite in which he grows old, eating his meals quietly, napping, living the life (I imagine) of a zoo animal who has been placed in a familiar environment. And then the Star Child.

    There is never an explanation of the other race that presumably left the monoliths and provided the star gate and the bedroom. “2001” lore suggests Kubrick and Clarke tried and failed to create plausible aliens. It is just as well. The alien race exists more effectively in negative space: We react to its invisible presence more strongly than we possibly could to any actual representation.

    “2001: A Space Odyssey” is in many respects a silent film. There are few conversations that could not be handled with title cards. Much of the dialogue exists only to show people talking to one another, without much regard to content (this is true of the conference on the space station). Ironically, the dialogue containing the most feeling comes from HAL, as it pleads for its “life” and sings “Daisy.”

    The film creates its effects essentially out of visuals and music. It is meditative. It does not cater to us, but wants to inspire us, enlarge us. Nearly 30 years after it was made, it has not dated in any important detail, and although special effects have become more versatile in the computer age, Trumbull’s work remains completely convincing — more convincing, perhaps, than more sophisticated effects in later films, because it looks more plausible, more like documentary footage than like elements in a story.

    Only a few films are transcendent, and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape. Most movies are about characters with a goal in mind, who obtain it after difficulties either comic or dramatic. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is not about a goal but about a quest, a need. It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character. It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are. Now it is time to move on to the next step, to know that we live not on a planet but among the stars, and that we are not flesh but intelligence.”

  • Greg November 21, 2011, 10:29

    One of the true excellent series of books is Larry Niven’s “Ring World”. All except for the interstellar hyperspace travel, which Niven uses more as a plot device, the rest of the books represent real physics and goes into a good description of how life is impacted by the technologies we develop.

  • ljk November 21, 2011, 12:51

    Maybe I missed it but I see no mention of Stanislaw Lem, especially for those who want really alien aliens, the kind we will probably come across in the real galaxy, not the Star Trek or Star Wars versions (i.e, no humanoids with pointy ears that we can mate with and who know English).

    Try his novels Solaris and His Masters Voice for starters. These aliens alone are so enigmatic and outside humanity’s scope of understanding and experience (just like our dealings with the vast majority of the vast Universe) that the scientists can barely even determine if the species are intelligent let alone their motives or their messages. Everything else is speculation, though the scientists are able to generate hundreds of technical papers on their subjects just the same.

    Lem, a long-time resident of Communist Poland, said that most Western SF was limited in scope and imagination, sticking with “safe” characters and situations. I have to agree with this for the most part. Lem’s stories were deeply thought-provoking, not easily translatable to film (note the two attempts at putting Solaris on the big screen: Not bad by most cinematic SF efforts, but they both missed the main points of the novel and Lem rejected them as well), and did not come with your standard happy endings.

    What Lem dared to say was that current humanity cannot really comprehend the vast and ancient Cosmos, that what we really want are “mirrors, not planets.” We are still coming to terms, despite several centuries of knowing how the Universe is really set up, with the fact that we are not the special creation and focus of all existence, that Earth and humanity are very tiny parts of something so grand that we are not even pale blue dots long before one might leave the galaxy. We are just barely beginning to understand it all, but humans still think they can grasp the Universe and even bend it to our will, which the Lem aliens such as Solaris deflect without even trying by their very natures.

    Clarke did something similar with Rendezvous with Rama, when the giant alien worldship arrived in our Sol system not to make contact with the third order chimpanzees but to make a fuel stop at our star before moving on to destinations unknown. Our presence was of no consequence to Rama.

  • A. A. Jackson November 21, 2011, 14:17

    I did mention Lem in my 2001 post.
    I enjoyed Lem’s work’s greatly , but a fellow scientist friend of mine who I did a paper with , when I visited him in Poznań Poland showed me a book store that had all of Phil Dick’s work. We talked about Lem , I think Lem liked Dick too, and his remarks about Western SF.
    He said he really thought that Lem based his remarks on a limited reading of Western SF. For example I don’t know what Lem thought of Clarke, say Childhood’s End , I wonder if Lem ever read Ursula K. Le Guin , especially The Left Hand of Darkness or Cordwainer Smith or James Blish (A Case of Conscience for instance) … Ted Sturgeon… many others…. theirs were decidedly not ““safe” characters and situations”. Lem himself was a bit a curmudgeon and may have formed a first judgement and never followed up with deeper reading, or just would never admit his mis-judgement.

  • Keith Cooper November 21, 2011, 16:06

    For any readers who are interested, a post on Alastair Reynolds’ blog suggests that his next series will delve at least partially into the subject of slow interstellar travel: http://approachingpavonis.blogspot.com/2011/10/elephant-talk.html

  • Paul Gilster November 21, 2011, 17:04

    Interesting news about Alastair Reynolds. And thanks to spaceman for the recommendation on Pandorum, which I’ll look into. This is a new one for me. As usual, the readers are giving me tons of good ideas about things to read and movies to see. Thanks to all for the excellent responses on this thread.

  • ljk November 21, 2011, 17:33

    To A. A. Jackson about Stanislaw Lem:

    It is entirely possible that his reading of Western SF literature was limited, living in a repressive regime such as he did. I can also see it making any intellectual cranky and guarded. My impression, though, is that Lem was very well read despite the limitations imposed on him by his society, but I do not have all the details.

    I can also speculate that Lem may have been unhappy with his Western counterparts taking such an important vehicle for social commentary like SF and using it for easy fluff to make a buck. Being in a restrictive society tends to make you appreciate and utilize wisely whatever you have to get through life (or at least it should).

  • ljk November 21, 2011, 17:54

    I am very glad that several people already commented on the characters in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The whole point Kubrick was trying to make with that aspect is that we are losing our personalities and ourselves to our tools, namely the computers.

    Now this was in the late 1960s, when the idea of a personal PC was still science fiction but they assumed AI like HAL 9000 were going to be realities by the start of the 21st Century, if not sooner. These days we are “losing” ourselves in those little handheld devices and in virtual online worlds like Second Life – and how long before we willingly put ourselves in a Matrix-style situation?

    Peter Hyams certainly missed that point when he made the sequel to 2001 in 1984 called 2010: The Year We Make Contact (2010: Odyssey Two was the Clarke novel title, published in 1982). He commented to some interviewer that the 2001 characters were so bland, something he would “fix” in the sequel. I cannot remember if Clarke tried to correct Hyams on his interpretation of the original film (Kubrick stayed out of the sequel other than not condemning it for existing at all), but obviously if he did it did not stick.

    Ironically, the makers of 2010 were rather stuck in this regard: If the human characters were as bland as those in 2001, they might have been accused of merely copying the far superior original as well as alienating their audience, at least those living in the post-Star Wars era who expected likeable characters in their films, SF and otherwise. Instead we ended up with people who were somewhat stereotypical and often tried a bit too hard to be relatable and likeable (except for the computer nerd, of course, who lived only for his pal HAL). In most other aspects, however, 2010 was a notch above most SF then and now, but 2001 remains the gold standard for the genre over four decades later.

    However, there was one successful parody of 2001 that was also a very good SF film in its own right – and on a budget and with special effects that stand in sharp contrast to Kubrick’s masterpiece: Dark Star. Made in 1974 for under $60K, it was part of that golden era of SF films when filmmakers dared to have thoughtful works that matched the literature, namely the late 1960s into the early 1970s.

    But Star Wars (along with a changing society in general) pretty much killed that bold effort in 1977 and we have seldom recovered from it since, with fancy FX and likable, simple characters ruling the day. Of course with such films now costing over $300 million on average (remember when people flipped out in 1995 when Waterworld broke the $100 million budget mark?), one can understand on a business level why Hollywood is skittish about taking risks when you have to double your budget in ticket sales just to break even. To heck with meaningful social commentary and making people really think!

  • A. A. Jackson November 21, 2011, 20:05


    In Kubrick’s own words,
    Excerpted from “The Film Director as Superstar” (Doubleday and Company: Garden City, New York)
    1970 Joseph Gelmis,

    Gelmis: Why was the computer more emotional than the human beings?

    Kubrick: This was a point that seemed to fascinate some negative critics, who felt that it was a failing of this section of the film that there was more interest in HAL than in the astronauts. In fact, of course, the computer is the central character of this segment of the story. If HAL had been a human being, it would have been obvious to everyone that he had the best part, and was the most interesting character; he took all the initiatives, and all the problems related to and were caused by him.

    Some critics seemed to feel that because we were successful in making a voice, a camera lens, and a light come alive as a character this necessarily meant that the human characters failed dramatically. In fact, I believe that Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, the astronauts, reacted appropriately and realistically to their circumstances. One of the things we were trying to convey in this part of the film is the reality of a world populated — as ours soon will be — by machine entities who have as much, or more, intelligence as human beings, and who have the same emotional potentialities in their personalities as human beings. We wanted to stimulate people to think what it would be like to share a planet with such creatures.

    In the specific case of HAL, he had an acute emotional crisis because he could not accept evidence of his own fallibility. The idea of neurotic computers is not uncommon — most advanced computer theorists believe that once you have a computer which is more intelligent than man and capable of learning by experience, it’s inevitable that it will develop an equivalent range of emotional reactions — fear, love, hate, envy, etc. Such a machine could eventually become as incomprehensible as a human being, and could, of course, have a nervous breakdown — as HAL did in the film.

  • Abelard Lindsey November 21, 2011, 20:10

    The coldness in “2001” is one of the aspects that made it such a great movie. It was the eerie emptiness, that continued to increase through out the movie, that made it so great.