SOMETHING ABOUT THE SHUTTLE/SPACE PROGRAM

Though it’ll be posted on Tuesday, I’m actually writing this on a busy Monday. I’ve got a long to do list today, so I’m trying to get items crossed off one at a time, in order, so nothing gets shoved to tomorrow’s to do list. This is the item as it appears on my Stickies:

> Write FAH blog post

     something about the shuttle/space program

I jotted that down on Friday after watching the space shuttle Atlantis take off for the last time, and watching a Science Channel documentary about the end of the shuttle program. Now, I’ve written more than once about how much the space program has delighted and inspired me, and don’t want to cover that territory again. I know there’s been a lot of media buzz about the final shuttle flight as well, and not being a NASA insider or anything, I wonder how much I can add to that discussion.

But then this is a blog about writing science fiction, and it’s hard not to comingle these two things: real science/technology and SF.

I’ve also just come back from lunch with two friends, Pierce Watters of Paizo and Kuo-Yu Liang of Diamond, both lifelong SF fans, avid readers, and SF/fantasy publishing professionals. We talked about lots of stuff, and a discussion of the e-book marketplace, e-reader technology, and my consulting practice morphed into some more conceptual discussions of the future of technology. We talked about how far ahead of his time William Gibson was, though he completely missed both the cell phone and the fall of the Soviet Union. We talked about my ill-fated pitch from years ago that ended up being way too much like the M. Night Shyamalan movie The Village. And I bought Neuropath by R. Scott Bakker from the Kindle store via my smart phone both because Pierce just recommended it and also to prove a point that I carry that amazing technology around in my pocket at all times.

The discussion included some thoughts from Kuo-Yu on Billy Graham’s famous talk at the 1998 TED Conference, that technology hasn’t actually addressed human suffering, or made the world a better place—made people better, helped us live together more peacefully, and so on, and that we need Jesus to do that (Graham’s assertion, not Kuo-Yu’s).

I think Billy Graham was wrong—about a lot of things, frankly, but this one in particular.

In orbit over our heads right now is not Skylab or MIR, but the International Space Station. The crew currently consists of Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa, Americans Michael Fossum, and Ronald Garan, Jr., and Russians Alexander Samokutyaev, Sergei Volkov, and Commander Andrey Borisenko. I’m just old enough to still find it strange that the space shuttle is servicing a space station commanded by a Russian, but there it is. Here are the two Cold War super powers cooperating with a past mortal enemy of both (Japan) on what used to be the Cold War’s prime front: Earth orbit. There’s an example of amazing space technology uniting past enemies in a common effort.

Billy Graham reminded us that we’re all going to die, but are we? For the first time in human history that’s a question no one really has a clear answer for. There are, in fact, compelling reasons to believe that the first generation of immortals have already been born.

Has technology brought us closer together? Ended wars and dictatorships? How much did western television and radio infiltrate the so-called “Iron Curtain” nations and help bring about a second people’s revolution in the former Soviet empire and its satellite countries? What roll did social media networks like Twitter and Facebook play in the Egyptian revolution, and the rest of the Arab Spring? How many people suffering from depression are not only alive today, but more productive, happier people because of the current wave of anti-depressants? Genetically modified crops are feeding millions all over the world who would have starved thirty years ago. Wiki Leaks has made as many enemies as friends, it seems, but with the technology at our fingertips we can finally do what generation after generation, even in the democratic world, have tried so long to do and with such mixed results, and that’s keep our leaders honest, if not on the run.

Sometimes, this blows up in our faces, and visits upon us things like the Anthony Weiner embarrassment or the Casey Anthony verdict, but I’d rather have a generally good man driven out of congress and even a (suspected) child murderer set free than go back to Apartheid, the Cold War, the Holocaust . . .

Cold Warriors Need Not Apply

I know it’s hard to say that we live in a science fiction wonderland, riding the crest of the greatest scientific and technological golden age in all of human history when people like to focus on the mundane, like Viagra as “medical miracle” or our admittedly disappointing lack of jet packs. I know it’s not necessarily making the world a better place that I can stop reading Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear on my tablet then pick it up again later at the same place on my smart phone—but honestly, that’s pretty frickin’ cool—and Isaac Asimov never thought of it.

So what about SF, and the last space shuttle flight? Science fiction authors since the very beginnings of the genre with Frankenstein (or maybe something before that) have been doing a lot of things, sometimes trying to predict the future, sometimes trying to warn us away from a line of thought that might be dangerous, and most of the time trying to tell us that we’re already doing this, and imagine how crazy the future will be if we don’t stop—what? Thinking of space as a Cold War battlefield? 2010: Odyssey Two. Giving the state complete control over mass media as was happening in post-war England? 1984. Base our entire civilization on a single, dwindling commodity? Dune.

Of these three things we’ve managed to avoid (at least mostly) two of them. If someone doesn’t get us off oil soon, Frank Herbert’s going to be pissed.

I know that the end of this last Atlantis mission will not be the end of manned spaceflight—I mean, somebody’s going to have to go up and get that Russian commander and his friends. The next generation of manned space vehicle might look a lot like the first generation of manned space vehicle, but then what? Commercial space shuttles? Sure—they’re on the drawing boards now. What will manned space flight look like in forty years? No idea. If even William Gibson couldn’t call the cell phone, and Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick were way off, I’m not going to try, but we’ll be in space if for no other reason than there’s literally nowhere else to go, and an already crowded Earth is going to get pretty chock full o’ nano-enhanced immortals.

I hope, unlike Billy Graham, that I’m around to see it.

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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One Response to SOMETHING ABOUT THE SHUTTLE/SPACE PROGRAM

  1. chadao says:

    I’m still hoping for a Clarkian space elevator, but I shan’t see it in my time…unless those nanobots come to fruition, soon.

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