≡ Menu

Clarke: The Rocket Man Emerges

In the 1950s, Arthur C. Clarke’s fame had begun to spread, and he sometimes referred to himself, genially enough, as an ‘unemployed prophet.’ This is a period in Clarke’s career that, from 1953 to 1956, saw the emergence of the fifteen tall tales that would be published in 1957 as Tales from the White Hart, a fictitious pub modeled after London’s White Horse. But while the stories were extravagant, the setting was the perfect amalgam of Clarke’s interest, for the White Horse was where science fiction met rocketry for his extensive network of friends.

One habitué of the White Horse was Ken Slater, whose recollection of those meetings appears in Neil McAleer’s Visionary: The Odyssey of Sir Arthur C. Clarke (2013):

“Anybody new that came to the pub was always told to ask Arthur to tell them about rockets, you see. Which they would do and then sit back for the short lecture. After Arthur broke into the short lecture, then we’d always strongly advise the newcomer to ask, ‘Look, what does the rocket push against?’ Which immediately brought forth from Arthur the long lecture, you know, the five-guinea version. That was a standard put-on at the White Horse, because if you ever got Arthur on rocketry, you could sit back and let the bar listen for up to a couple of hours.”


By now Clarke was well established in science fiction, with credits like The Sands of Mars (1951) and Childhood’s End (1953), along with short story collections like 1953’s Expedition to Earth. But as McAleer notes, it was science writing rather than science fiction that had made him realize it was time to become a full-time writer. The spur was a contract with Temple Press in 1949 for a nonfiction book called Interplanetary Flight, which drew heavily on a two-part paper he had published in separate magazines in previous years. The book presented spaceflight for the general reader, though the more technical minded could find Clarke’s equations tucked neatly away in the appendix.

The Science Writing Breakthrough

Now emerges Clarke the educator, a rocket scientist with a bent for philosophy who saw the exploration of space as both a physical and a spiritual quest. Carl Sagan would call Interplanetary Flight ‘a turning point in my scientific development,’ and technology in service of the human spirit became Clarke’s idée fixe, the principle that would hold humanity together by offering it challenges that summoned up all its reserves of intellect and courage. Soon Clarke’s American editor George Jones would encourage him to write 1952’s The Exploration of Space, which was bought by the Book of the Month Club.

Clifton Fadiman, for years one of the BOMC’s judges, met Clarke on the first of the author’s trips to the United States. McAleer quotes him on a meeting at the Plaza Hotel:

“The Oak Room is a rather worldly rendezvous. Mr. Clarke is not worldly; he is otherworldly. He spoke of space satellites, lunar voyages, interplanetary cruises, as other men would discuss the market or the weather. As he explained how within a decade three space stations whirling in an orbit about the equator will make possible (indeed one fears inevitable) simultaneous world-wide television broadcasting, our right-hand neighbor (a vice-president of CBS) went into a kind of catalepsy.

“To understand a mind like Mr. Clarke’s we must realize that during the last fifty years, more especially the last twenty-five years, virtually a new mental species has emerged among us. They are the men who in a real sense live in the future, men for whom the present is merely a convenient springboard.”

If you’ll go back to the first of these articles on Clarke (The Vision of Arthur C. Clarke), you’ll see in the second photo there that Clarke is wearing under his jacket a T-shirt that Gregory Benford gave him. The text is barely readable, but if you look closely, you’ll see that it says “I invented the communications satellite, and all I got for it was this lousy T-shirt.” Fadiman remembers Clarke’s enthusiasm for the idea in 1952, but it would indeed make him little money.

As his stint in the Royal Air Force drew to a close in 1945, Clarke developed the notion of geostationary satellites providing global communications. During the war he had worked on microwaves and radar, while his passion for rocketry provided the means of deployment. McAleer points to George O. Smith as a possible influence, the latter having published a series of stories in Astounding during the war years that became known as the Venus Equilateral series. Clarke even wrote an introduction to a 1976 reprint of these stories saying that they might well have influenced him subconsciously in his work.

The article “Extra-Terrestrial Relays,” whatever its sources, would appear in Wireless World in October of 1945. Worldwide coverage by radio and television would be implemented by a series of spacecraft with an orbital period of 24 hours at a distance of 42,000 kilometers from Earth center. Clarke went on to describe the equatorial orbits that would place space stations into ‘fixed’ spots in the sky (as seen by people on Earth). The predictions were bold, valid and, yes, visionary, but remained unheralded at the time except by the US Navy. Many believe the article was influential in the development of early space satellites.

Clarke’s $40 from Wireless World offered him plenty of opportunity later in life to joke about the real monetary value of the communications satellite concept, and McAleer notes that he never showed any regrets about what might have been. In any case, being a visionary was already becoming a habit for the writer, one that seemed to outweigh financial considerations. While still in the RAF and working as an instructor at a radio school in Wiltshire, Clarke often broke into soliloquies on rocket science, describing at one late night session how multistage rockets would get us to the Moon. When asked how big the rocket would be, he described it as the height of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which turns out to be within a few feet of the height of the Saturn V.


Image: With Walter Cronkite (L) and Wally Schirra (center), Arthur C. Clarke takes part in CBS coverage of Apollo 11’s return to Earth on July 24, 1969. Credit: CBS:Landov.

The Pleasures of Re-Reading

The twin themes of Clarke’s life — the future as depicted in science fiction and the technology that would get us there — were fully in place by 1950. For the rest, for Sri Lanka and 2001 and the space elevator, for the increasing fascination with the ocean and diving expeditions among the Pacific coral, for the Apollo coverage with Cronkite and the extraterrestrial interloper called Rama, I send you to McAleer’s book. But I also send you emphatically back to Clarke himself. I’d begin a re-read of the man with his short stories, probably starting with Expedition to Earth and moving then to Childhood’s End. I’d look anew at The City and the Stars and them make a point of picking up The Songs of Distant Earth, a few thoughts on which will close this piece.

The Songs of Distant Earth came out of Clarke’s speculations on using an interstellar rather than an interplanetary setting, and the genesis of the book was a short story written in 1957, the year of Sputnik. Thirty years later he would begin the novel of the same name, one he would always consider his best work. Clarke took his crew to a planet 50 light years away, traveling in hibernation at ten percent of the speed of light. Judy-Lynn del Rey would publish the book in 1987, a hard science fiction tale that at its kernel contained a love story. McAleer says this:

Thematically, as in much of Clarke’s fiction, the novel addressed humanity’s quest for purpose and immortality in contrast to the individual’s inevitable death. The loneliness of man is intensified against the backdrop of cosmic space and the finiteness of human time. Even if the survival of Homo sapiens is assured through interstellar travel, are not individuals doomed even as they embrace in love and light to keep the fall of night at bay? Clarke’s “songs” are not as joyous and uplifting as we might first expect. Always present in the novel is the feeling of insurmountable separation across the voids of space, time, and death.

Clarke tried to pull out all the stops here — he was sensitive to the charge of flat characterization and wanted to counter it, and The Songs of Distant Earth demonstrates he had it in his power to do that, though reading the book I can sense how hard the effort must have been. For Clarke’s characters are, for the most part, drawn to serve a plot purpose, and in the bulk of his fiction, we see character used the way the writer and critic James Gunn thinks it should be used in science fiction, as a way of creating a representative humanity in which the important work — the ideas of the tale — can be made manifest by the character’s reaction to them.


That can still make for powerful fiction, but you can see from the characters in The City and the Stars that their very flatness of affect is the result of their situation, living a changeless life in the eternal city. Or think of Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the difference between humans and their technology is not always apparent, the crew of Discovery sometimes seeming as robotic as Hal himself.

None of this matters when, as did Stapledon, Clarke takes our imagination into the deep future and rotates our view back around to see what our world looks like from that perspective. He was dismissive of the idea that science fiction is nothing but escapism, telling Alice Turner:

“It’s hard to define science fiction these days, especially since the mainstream seems to be moving in that direction. Traditionally, it’s been a form that offered a good story, and I suppose you could call that escapism, in a positive sense. C.S. Lewis, who wrote it himself, said, ‘The only people who think there’s something wrong with escapism are jailers.’”

But I also like what he told Alan Watts: “The purpose of the universe, Alan, is the perpetual astonishment of mankind.” Clarke was a writer who thought not in terms of years but of aeons, and not so much of individual humans as of the species. Re-reading Clarke, then, should also take us to his collected non-fiction, the hefty volume called Greetings! Carbon-Based Bipeds (1999). Here the twin strands of Clarke’s work come together, a lifetime of enthusiasm for and optimism about technology and the deep spaces to which it can take us all.

Addendum: The Rosetta Books ebook edition of Visionary, Neil McAleer’s revised biography of Arthur C. Clarke, is now available through Amazon.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • James D. Stilwell April 3, 2013, 11:04

    Glad to realize that jealousy just isn’t in your spirit…
    $40.00 payment for the communication satellite concept…
    Film directors these days want $25,000 just to read a script….once….

  • GaryChurch April 3, 2013, 11:06


    I mistakenly posted in an earlier thread that I had only read one book by Clarke; The Promise of Space. I saw this dating back to 1954 and remembered reading it as a teen (in the 70’s).

    It may be supremely ironic that the Navy would be most involved in exploring new undersea worlds beneath the surface of the moons of the gas giants in the outer system. In a stretch it might be possible to aquafarm these subsurface ocean moons and supply food to space habitats. But if there is complex life in the waters of these new worlds, it will be a fantastic find.

  • Alex Tolley April 3, 2013, 11:42

    I often think we have overlooked Clarke’s best writing – non-fiction, in favor of his more famous novels. Perhaps that is due to the famous Asimov Clarke treaty splitting between them who wrote the best SF and science works. Clarke was clearly the better SF writer by a long way, although I love Asimov’s robot stories. But while Asimov’s non-fiction writing was often superlative (I still think he wrote the clearest, most unambiguous texts of all time), Clarke’s non-fiction work was exemplary. More importantly, while Asimov’s work was incredibly far ranging, Clarke focused much more on space, space travel and the use of comsats (he also wrote quite a bit about the ocean, but space remained his dominant subject). This resulted in a very nice body of work, arguably larger than his novels if you exclude works with co-authors.

    Looking at “The Songs of Distant Earth”, while it is usually described as a hard SF novel with a love story, I see it more as exploring the theme of siding with explorers than the lotus eaters.
    I think of the ending of Korda movie version of Well’s “The Shape of Things to Come” when Cabal proclaims: “And if we’re no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness, and live, and suffer, and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. It is this, or that. All the universe or nothing. Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?”

    The crew of the Magellan flirt with staying on Thalassa, and some do stay. But our main character, Loren lets go of his lover and continues on with the Magellan’s journey. I think this is where Clarke’s heart lay, and I wonder if to some extent he may have wistfully imagined that he had become a lotus eater living in Ceylon while the technological and space action was primarily being developed by culture he left behind.

  • qraal April 3, 2013, 16:05

    Hi All
    There are three versions of “Songs of Distant Earth”, the short-story, the movie outline (in “The Sentinel” anthology) and the novel. Makes for an interesting comparison of star-drive concepts as they evolved in Clarke’s thought. In the first, the starship used some kind of “field drive” and travelled at nearly the speed of light. In the 1979 version the ship travels at 0.1c using a “plasma drive”. In the novel length version, the (in)famous Quantum Ramjet is used to cruise at 0.25c – incidentally based on a JBIS paper that speculated on using the quantum vacuum for propulsion in c.1981.

    Fortunately the one ‘prophecy’ that Clarke got wrong is the solution to the Solar Neutrino Problem being the imminent detonation of the Sun – we now know that the problem is due to shape-shifting neutrinos and not anomalous solar core physics. Clarke had a fictional astronomical congress discussing the discovery of the future Solar Nova in the early 2000s, about the same time the Solar Neutrino Problem was declared solved.

  • tchernik April 3, 2013, 17:00

    I consider Arthur C. Clarke one of my personal foundational writers. I consider him so, because reading 2010 and 2001 (in that order) as a kid galvanized my imagination, and helped me define my perception of what the future should be about, including what I should strive to have in my life.

    First as a aesthetic reference, then as a philosophical one, as I read more of his books. It’s in part thanks to my favorite writers that I chose the career I did. And I’m very grateful to all of them.

    It took me a long while to put my finger exactly on what was exactly that I found so appealing about Clarke’s books or writing. It was much later that I read “Songs of Distant Earth” when I knew it: the relentless passion and belief he subtly displayed, on believing human beings can be more than what they think they are, or living more than they thought life was about.

    Loren’s choice of leaving and continue making a part of forging a future for Earth’s survivors was the detonator of my understanding: we can chose to be happy/non suffering simply by following the flow of life, and become no more important than any living animal does or has done in the past.

    In real life that’s OK for most purposes and people, and all of us need to fall into that eventually, or risk becoming alienated and/or unhappy. That’s simply human nature and as such is not any less dignified.

    But there is also the other inalienably human attribute: trying to transcend our limitations, creating something beautiful just for the sake of it, and trying to choose the future instead of just drifting into it. Living is not only surviving, but creating and bringing the future you dream, in whatever big or small parts you can.

    And that is what I found more appealing about Clarke’s books: they assumed human beings would find a way to do things better eventually. Even at a high personal cost for a selected few.

    Yes, I also noticed Clarke’s protagonist tented to be strangely devoid of personal dreams, fears and wants, and also strangely ready to leave everything else behind for the Big Idea, which was both rational and emotionally worthy for them.

    Except for Loren, his main characters simply fulfilled their role in the story without too much introspection. And they tended to sacrifice their personal lives for their Great Quest’s sake. Vannevar Morgan on “Fountains of Paradise” is the more egregious example of this, but not the only one.

    I don’t think Clarke was dissing common people, though, simply that he seemed to believe we need those dreamers, that go that extra length sometimes at their own expense, in order to move forward collectively and as a species.

  • GaryChurch April 3, 2013, 17:56

    “-Clarke’s $40 from Wireless World offered him plenty of opportunity later in life to joke about the real monetary value of the communications satellite concept-”

    The richest person on Earth made most of his money from satellites if I recall correctly. The other well known loser in the idea market was Tesla of course; I read that if he had bothered to show up in court to defend his patents he would have been the richest person in history.

    Stanislaw Ulam held the patent on atomic bomb propulsion. Had the Saturn V continued to launch every couple months during the 70’s it could have transported bomb pits to the Moon and made the Atomic Spaceship a reality.

    Instead we went cheap and fell for a think tank study that promised absurdly low prices per pound to orbit- if we could launch the shuttle over 50 times a year. The resources to accomplish such a flight schedule did not exist and never would. The Orbiter itself was in the same class as the Saturn V. Instead of the Kerosene first stage of the Saturn V the Shuttle system used a pair of solid rocket boosters. This solids were not as efficient as the giant F-1 engines so this lowered the payload. The second stage was liquid hydrogen and oxygen very high performance engines that would have compensated for the solids except unlike the Saturn V the Space Transportation System had no third stage. The high performance engines had to be rebuilt after every flight and the other maintenance nightmare of ceramic tiles made the Shuttle a very expensive ride to Low Earth Orbit.

    Lifting the Orbiter with it’s huge never full cargo bay (rumored to exist in hopes of kidnapping a Russian spy satellite), its hypersonic gliding delta wing (rumored to exist to allow the kidnapping mission in one orbit) the tons of landing gear required to land back the engines, cargo bay, wing, and the crew section- made this over 7 million pound thrust vehicle a poor performer in terms of payload. There was never any weight to spare for an escape system.

    There was never any funding for a cargo version of the Shuttle, let alone any missions to establish a Moon base from which to launch interplanetary missions.

    I think it is interesting to speculate on geosynchronous space stations taking care of mass communications with a human crew to keep everything running smoothly. The reason there are no such space stations is radiation shielding for the humans. The Moon has water to fill a several thousand ton radiation shield and launched from the lesser lunar gravity such stations could make their way to orbit for far less energy than launching from the Earth. Such multi-thousand ton space stations stationed every thousand miles or so in geosynchronous orbit would be far more profitable than, for example, the 200 billion dollars we have flying in endless circles only a few hundred miles up.

    All things are possible with a Moon base but few things are practical without one.

  • Christopher Phoenix April 3, 2013, 18:26

    I read The Songs of Distant Earth, mainly ’cause it dealt with STL interstellar flight. I haven’t read much Clarke recently, though- the works of Polish SF author Stanislaw Lem attracted my interest, starting with Solaris.

    Hey, Paul, I think that Lem’s novel Return From the Stars might be of great interest to you. The story concerns an astronaut, Hal Bregg, who returns from a 127 year long interstellar flight to Fomalhaut (which lasted for a subjective time of only ten years to him). He finds Earth to superficially appear a utopia free from wars, violence, and even accidents, a place where living costs nothing and fantastic robots serve at every boring or dangerous task. Hal finds it difficult to adapt to this new society, and struggles to understand his place in all of this over the course of the novel.

    Lem’s social speculation is interesting. The utopic human society is thrown in doubt- humans no longer harm each other, but this is achieved by having every child undergo a process called betrization that chemically neutralizes aggressive instincts. The side-effect of this process is an extreme aversion to risk, inability to focus on serious plans, even the loss of the ability to assert oneself and feel strong emotion. The astronauts are disgusted by the process, feeling that “they have killed the man in man”. Betrization causes the humans to lose all interest in space travel, viewing it as the folly of humanity’s barbarian adolescence. Earth has become a planet of Lotus Eaters in which the explorer is seen as an artifact of the barbarian past.

    Astronautics primarily concerns the novel when Hal flashbacks to his experiences onboard the interstellar vessel Prometheus, and when he reads a book on astronautics to see what developments occurred while he was away.

    The Prometheus is interesting- it apparently masses several thousand tons (if I recall the book correctly), but carries only twelve men, most of its mass being devoted to the propulsion system. And, of course, it is STL- and designed to carry out a roundtrip flight of over a century. Prometheus‘s drive system is never described in detail, but Hal refers to the possibility of a drive becoming “defocalized” and the resulting vibrations splattering the astronaut over the walls, suggesting some kind of photon drive. It possessed magnetic fields that interacted colorfully with the surrounding interstellar medium at some points of the flight, suggesting an ion scoop to gather up extra fuel/remass or magnetic shielding to protect the ships from impacts with cosmic gas.

    The crew must hibernate in fluid-filled tanks for months while the ship accelerates at 2g. Smaller probes and piloted rockets are carried along for exploring various planets and stars encountered on the flight. Prometheus seems every bit as plausible as many other “realistic” interstellar craft in fiction, but it doesn’t seem to be mentioned often. Lem was undoubtedly reading speculation on how a real starship might be built around the time.

    While the starship Prometheus is in flight, fundamental breakthroughs in physics lead to control over inertia. This means that newer starships could accelerate at hundreds of gees to relativistic velocities without putting any strain on the crew, and allow for flights across the galaxy or even to other galaxies within a short subjective timeframe. By this time, the betrizated humans have lost interest in spaceflight, and inertia control is used for making vehicle crashes risk-free but nothing more.

    The novel also explores the societal side of starflight. Later (betrizated) authors speaking on astronautics argue that there is no purpose for interstellar flight, since any messages we might send to other civilizations would be delayed by hundreds of years or more and the crew would return to find Earth altered beyond recognition. The astronauts argue differently, stating that the continuing exploration of new frontiers is vital and that Prometheus would have gone even if there were no stars to visit. Unlike many other SF novels that assume space travel and colonization is inevitable, Return From the Stars questions whether society will continue to support the effort, even when inertia control makes star travel far easier. All in all, a pretty fascinating book from any perspective- especially anyone interested in astronautics.

  • Paul Gilster April 3, 2013, 20:57

    Christopher Phoenix writes:

    Hey, Paul, I think that Lem’s novel Return From the Stars might be of great interest to you.

    Right you are — I’m a great admirer of Lem’s work and have read a good bit of it, but not this one. Thanks for the information!

  • Michael Spencer April 4, 2013, 8:05

    I suppose everyone has heard the terrible news about Iain M. Banks?


    I shall now need to slow my recent tear through Banks’ thousands of pages, savoring, as they won’t be replaced.

  • Gary Nugent April 4, 2013, 11:56

    I was big into science fiction in my teens and one of my favorite backs then was The Sands of Mars. I liked Clarke’s writing style and he became a favoured author. Childhood’s End and A Fall of Moondust were other books I enjoyed. He was one of the Big Three science fiction writers in the latter half of the 20th century, the other two being Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.

    Clarke was a also long-time friend of Patrick Moore (host of the BBC’s The Sky At Night astronomy program) – they met in the British Interplanetary Society in the 1930s. Both were passionate about the Moon. Moore went on to map the Moon and his maps were used by NASA during the Apollo program. Clarke went on to write stories about the Moon (amongst other subjects) but remained an avid amateur astronomer.

    Clarke was seen as a knowledgeable scientist and would appear in documentaries from time to time. One notable one being in conversation with Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking in 1988 (done for the BBC). I think it was called “Life, The Universe and Everything Else” and used to be up on YouTube (it may still be there).

    I felt he undermined his credibility somewhat when he hosted “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World” for ITV in the 1980s. This was a show about weird stuff around the world (crystal skulls, falls of fish, spontaneous human combustion, etc) which was more about myth and folklore than anything that was science-based.

    2001 didn’t work for me (in book or movie format); I much preferred 2010. I never read 3001: The Final Odyssey or The Light of Other Days, which I think was his last novel.

  • GaryChurch April 4, 2013, 13:46

    “-starting with Solaris-”

    My wife enjoyed the original movie- my short attention span did not allow me to sit through it. I did enjoy the Soderbergh remake; the idea of a living intelligent planet is really wild. I thought the movie Fantastic Voyage should have been set in the “body” of a living planet. It would have made for better suspension of disbelief.

    Perhaps we will find one of the subsurface oceans of the outer moons to be an intelligent being. I wonder if it tunes in to Dancing with the Stars.

  • GaryChurch April 4, 2013, 16:13

    Getting on a 747 from SF to Korea.
    Do not know when I will be able to comment again. I would like to thank Paul and you regulars for the real joy of reading and writing here.

  • Rob Henry April 4, 2013, 21:29

    Gary Nugent wrote “I felt he undermined his credibility somewhat when he hosted “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World” for ITV in the 1980s” to which I reply WHAT!

    Gary, I believe that sentiment does not reflect the thoughts of the general public. It may well reflect a consensus view of the scientific community, but that in itself is a great tragedy for reasons I will herein highlight.

    If science is a list of truths open to only a small élite, and otherwise unchallengeable, what differentiates it from religion? If science is just a search for predictive answers for which there exist logically base decision procedures, then it is completely open, and the path of future improvement, both a mystery and accessible by all. Every scientist knows that that latter view is the correct one, yet all too many continue to let their subconscious cling to the former.

    Most of the mysteries given in “Mysterious Worlds”, will, or have, turned out to have mundane explanations. This was also the expressed view of Clarke, a sentiment he inculcated throughout the entire series. Some of them may not, and may challenge the foundations of one or another of the scientific paradigms on which our current view of the universe rests. They well may have to be amended. This second point he also inculcated through the series, and, indeed, this gave the series its name.

    To me, the scientific community should be weary that they could disconnect with the general public. The consequences would be disastrous. Now let’s all thank Clarke, for helping to bridge that gap.

  • Alex Tolley April 4, 2013, 22:55

    @Gary Nugent
    Clarke’s last novel that he fully authored was “3001: The Final Odyssey” (1997). His last novel was “The Last Theorem” (2008) that, IIRC, was primarily written by Fred Pohl, from notes Sir Arthur made.

  • ljk April 4, 2013, 23:04

    The BBC program with Clarke, Sagan, and Hawking from 1988 is on YouTube here:


  • ljk April 4, 2013, 23:08

    GaryChurch, you should read the original Solaris novel by Lem. Both films differ from the 1960 work.



  • Adam April 5, 2013, 4:48

    Aeonic vistas and (impending) death notices – why do I feel uplifted and undermined at the same time? Always a surprise when reading this blog…

  • ljk April 5, 2013, 11:43

    I thought it was rather wise to have Clarke be the host of a television series that tackled the fringe science arena. He was a science fiction author who happened to be very knowledgeable about science and technology.

    A professional scientist would not have touched such a program, which means it might have been left to a regular TV host or an actor who would have probably left skepticism at the door.

    Anyone remember In Search Of from the 1970s, hosted by Leonard Nimoy? With all due respect to Nimoy, that series was more like the junk which permeates The History Channel and other cable networks now. Even venerable institutions like the National Geographic Channel have dabbled in UFOs and doomsday prophecies, with no end in sight so long as the public is willing to support such nonsense – and often poor presented nonsense at that.

  • ljk April 5, 2013, 11:52

    Christopher Phoenix’s post on Lem’s novel Return from the Stars had me thinking: Will a starship with a human crew ever return to Earth as a planned part of the mission? Besides the obvious possibility that they or their descendants could whether it was in the mission agenda or not, since a manned mission to distant stars systems would usually imply a colonization effort, what good reasons would there be for an interstellar voyage with a return plan? Actual samples of the investigated worlds? Promoting interstellar missions via the very explorers who went there? Would Earth still be the focal point of humanity by then? Discuss.

  • Alex Tolley April 5, 2013, 19:18

    @ljk – Lem often used the theme of a return to earth as a way to make social commentary part of the story. He did this with both his serious and playful stories. Realism and well thought out world building were not his stock in trade.

  • Adam April 6, 2013, 2:28

    Lem was always masterful in how he played with the language and concepts of science, even if his figuring was dubious. Fomalhaut is ~25 ly away and a round trip would take ~52 years Earth-time if the vehicle accelerated at 2 gee the whole way there and back, without including exploration time.

    Round-trip missions might be meaningful for longer-lived humanity, if we can achieve near lightspeed flight. Whether we’d be coming back to Earth or not is a whole other question. By the time we’re launching off at near-cee we might mostly live off-Earth.

  • Christopher Phoenix April 6, 2013, 17:21

    Yeah, at first Lem’s figuring seemed a bit “off” to me, especially when I first assumed that Hal had set out on a relativistic craft which should have only taken about 50 years Earth-time round trip to Fomalhaut. However, I think this wasn’t a mistake on Lem’s part. He could figure the distance to Fomalhaut as well as anyone else, after all.

    The Prometheus‘s top velocity was not stated in the story, and I suspect it is much less than luminal velocity. The craft could have accelerated to a fraction of C and then coasted. Also, Hal describes the craft as visiting a number of suns. Fomalhaut was simply in the region of space the starship explored, but the ship leisurely visited numerous stars and planets, even slowing down to rendezvous with interesting looking planetoids. This tooling about would add years of flight time to the mission.

    And, at one point in the cruise, Prometheus cannot accelerate to top speed because of the danger posed by surrounding interstellar dust- which may have something to do with the long trip time.

    A return to Earth makes sense if your expedition is equipped only for exploration and carries too small a crew to provide enough genetic diversity for many generations. After you finish exploring another star, where do you plan to go after that? Even at sub-relativistic velocities, you can bring a flight to a nearby star down to a few decades- at 20% C, for example, we are talking about a round trip of about 43 years to Alpha C. Earth will change, but not necessarily as drastically as Lem’s story portrays.

    Colonization implies a much larger-scale effort involving hundreds of settlers, enough supplies to get a mechanized civilization started in the target system, and a destination that is to be made into a second home for Earth humans… if you simply want to land some explorers on an interesting planet, you will send a much smaller expedition.

    Actually returning a human from another star would be a big deal, too. Asides from the possibility of getting actual artifacts from an extrasolar planet, you would have a person who actually stood on the surface of an alien world right there on Earth- and having the story told in person by a human who was actually there on the flight will interest everyone.

    Whether humans will mostly live on the surface of Earth, on other bodies in the Sol System, in free-floating O’neil style colonies, or over a number of exoplanetary systems by that point is whole other question that hints at future history.

  • ljk April 8, 2013, 9:38

    Lem was much like Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame, a great writer with lots of important social commentary to impart, but neither man fretted over the technical details of their stories, especially Serling. Lem was trained to be a doctor and he did know his science and how scientists work as witnessed in Solaris and His Master’s Voice, but the intricacies of how Kelvin got to Solaris was not the important thing, for example.

    Serling had Sol system planetoids with Earthlike atmospheres and gravities and starships going from one system to another that were just tens or maybe hundreds of millions of miles apart. In fact there is a whole list of such TZ technical slipups here:


    As much as I am a stickler for scientific accuracy in my science fiction, I also get annoyed with novels and such which are little more than thinly veiled technical papers, foregoing any real characters, plots, or ideas. That is why I let those things go with Serling, besides the fact that it would not do much good to try and tell him now anyway.

  • GaryChurch April 9, 2013, 6:02

    “-you should read the original Solaris novel by Lem.”

    I have read a little of Lem’s stuff and it is not what I like. If I am having trouble sleeping I might pick it up some time.

    I need a great deal of violence to keep my attention for any length of time- and if I am actually going to finish a book it has to have some cool geargeek stuff in it.
    E.E. Doc Smith pretty much ruined my appreciation of deep sci-fi; I need space opera!

    The only authors I have found that hold a candle to the old lensmen series is David Weber (we love our HONOR!)- and Steve White when they co-authored a couple three books.

  • Dmitri April 9, 2013, 10:01

    GaryChurch “I need space opera!”

    Iain M Banks Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons. The latter is not gore but isn’t light reading also. Consider Phlebas is a near perfect masterpiece. All IAM books are more or less space opera. On very grand scale.