Terraforming Ourselves

From The American Interest:

In 1903, the aging Jules Verne—famed French author of the 54 adventure novels in the Voyages extraordinaires series—was asked to compare his body of work to that of his upstart English competitor, H.G. Wells. Verne, who prided himself on the strict scientific accuracy of his tales of exploration and discovery, found the question offensive. “No, there is no rapport between his work and mine,” Verne snapped. “I make use of physics. He invents.” Verne cited his From the Earth to the Moon, which featured characters travelling to the Moon in an aluminum bullet fired from a giant cannon, contrasting it with Wells’s The First Men in the Moon, in which the lunar-bound spaceship is made of gravity-defying “cavorite.” Verne had based his space cannon on the latest technological discoveries of the time, even doing rough calculations on the necessary dimensions of the muzzle. He explained in an interview:

I go to the moon in a cannonball discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars [sic] in an airship which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ça c’est très joli…. But show me this metal. Let him produce it.

In this put-down of one of the “Fathers of Science Fiction” by another, we see the future of the field. Long before anyone coined the terms “hard sci-fi” and “soft sci-fi” or used them as badges of pride or disparaging slurs, long before the “holy war” between old school pulp and the ’60s era New Wave, we have this demand from the cranky old school to the squishy new school: “Show me this metal.” Wells, whose social activism permeated his fiction, would no doubt claim that Verne was rather missing the point. But what becomes clear from a survey of science fiction’s history is that, if there’s one thing these authors love more than cosmic wonder and terror, it’s petty fights about what constitutes “real” science fiction.

Not, of course, that these science fiction fights aren’t proxies for fights about science or society itself. Science Fiction: A Literary History, recently published by the British Library and edited by Roger Luckhurst, chooses to forego defining the genre in order to discuss the sociopolitical stakes behind some of those “Whose Science? Which Fiction?” debates. Each of its contributors seems to have his or her own position on that definitional question, anyway. The eight chapters by different sci-fi scholars cover topics from “The Beginning, Early Forms of Science Fiction” to “New Paradigms, After 2001.”

. . . .

The best definitions of science fiction are evocative rather than exhaustive. Ray Bradbury, in the introduction to the 1974 collection Science Fact/Fiction, wrote, “Science fiction then is the fiction of revolutions. Revolutions in time, space, medicine, travel, and thought. . . . Above all, science fiction is the fiction of warm-blooded human men and women sometimes elevated and sometimes crushed by their machines.” Bradbury is onto something here: Revolutionary change, often but not exclusively technological, is one of the most vital subjects for science fiction. Confronting that change might be the core of the story, as in first-contact narratives from Wells’s War of the Worlds to Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (the basis of the film Arrival)Or the revolution might have occurred in the narrative’s past, with the story examining how and if people can live in their brave new world. This is often the set-up for novels of utopia and dystopia.

One of the most interesting things Science Fiction: A Literary History reveals is how difficult it is to write utopias. Surely the point of the exercise is to paint a picture of a world readers might want to live in. And yet for every author’s utopia, there’s a coterminous dystopia for the reader with eyes to see. H.G. Wells painted a parallel world called Utopia in Men Like Gods, in which enlightened and technologically advanced humans live in harmony with one another and the natural world, whose climate they have adjusted to a uniform Mediterranean tranquility. The Utopians are intrigued to discover our Earth, in a sister universe “a little retarded in time” compared to theirs. Utopia’s many advances include a eugenics program, for Utopian science can “discriminate among births” to weed out the “defective people” such as the disabled, the criminally inclined, and even “the melancholic type” and those of “lethargic dispositions and weak imaginations.”

Link to the rest at The American Interest


40 thoughts on “Terraforming Ourselves”

  1. Bradbury’s definition is pretty good but I prefer a broader definition: Science Fiction as the literature of ideas.

    Scientific thought (methodology and/or concepts) needs to be central to the story but Science itself is very broad and goes beyond engineering and the hard sciences. As long as that expectation is met, the story is SF.

    What lies beyond that is a matter of taste and subgenre variation. Wells vs Verne, Asimov vs Clarke or Anderson or Dickson, all different but all fit.

    Or Fantasy, but that is another subject.

    • Agreed. Whatever it is, though, it has to have some thought behind it.

      Which is why Verne’s From the Earth To the Moon is not really science fiction, unless you ignore the macguffin of his cannon. Just a tiny bit of thought would have told him that his passengers would have been turned into a thin layer of red goo right at the start.

      • Did they know about human acceleration limits back then? He probably didn’t even think to consider reaction forces inside the “ship”. In contrast, Jerry Pournelle did for KING DAVID’S SPACESHIP, where he calculated the ride was murder and could barely make low orbit without killing the passenger. Plus it was a one way ride, more of a techno-political statement than a practical system.

        It’s the main issue with strict hard SF: today’s best known fact will be overridden tomorrow. Amusing, some of the more speculative ideas have a tendency to over time become more plausible as we learn more about the universe.

        • One only needs to consider the results of trying to catch a cannonball as it exits the muzzle, Felix. Much of the rest was within the “suspension of disbelief” for the day – but not that.

          • Ah, but what about the forces inside the cannonball?

            Verne did the math for the ship as a unified system, implicitly assuming acceleration was applied uniformly to every atom within the system, not just to the shell, which then transmits the force to the contents.

            Which is to say he treated the ship exactly as a cannonball when he should have been taking his cues from a steamship firing its cannons.

            (System boundaries are the bane of many an engineering student.)

            So no, he wasn’t all that different from Wells, except Wells wasn’t concerned about the technology as much as he was in exploring (or exposing) human foibles. Both are SF, just different flavors. Not the only ones, by any means, but they did blaze early trails. They just did it on foot with machetes instead of riding bulldozers. 😉

            • AH! Okay, that works – Jules invented the “inertialess drive,” such a favorite of early writers.

              Later writers, too, except for the hard science ones (whose works I tend to call “engineering fiction” rather than “science fiction” – not that such is intended as a slur; I loved “The Martian”).

              Never explain how it works, though. Still a macguffin.

              (Confession time – I “explain” the ability for my world to deal with the extremely high accelerations needed to get anywhere interesting before the heat death of the universe. I do it with “gravity manipulation” – still just barely possible inside current theory, if not probable. Some things you just have to live with…)

              • One of the lesser known conventions of the genre is the “one impossible/improbable thing”. Or as Asimov was so fond of quoting: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

                Job one is to tell a good story. A wink and a nod here or there won’t kill you.

                As for the inertialess drive, don’t give upon it yet.
                Alcubierre warp drives are effectively inertialess with respect to their external motion.
                And then there’s the newer quantized inertia horizon drives.

                Used to be that effective interstellar drives were the “one impossible” thing in most SF but as we learn more they becoming “vaguely p!ausible”. In a few years they might be merely an engineering challenge. 🙂

                • Arthur C. Clarke.

                  “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

                  “The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.”

          • I found your explanation of the science that would affect the ship highly amusing. I am not a big SF reader and don’t think in terms of the science behind the SF, so the mental image I got from your words made me laugh. While I learned, no less. Note to self: No cannon-shot people, ever.

            • David Weber’s Honor Universe mentions what happens to humans getting hit by a couple hundred gravities of force as that sticky red paste that now covers whatever surface was ‘down’ at the time …

  2. One of the most interesting things Science Fiction: A Literary History reveals is how difficult it is to write utopias.

    Really? Given the prevalence of Utopias in sf — for example, the Federation of Star Trek — it seems to me that it must not be difficult in the slightest. All that is required in each and every case is that men cease to be men and become angels.

    What is lacking in sf — or anywhere else — is how we get from here to there; that is, what steps do we take to move from the muddle-through state of affairs we have today to Utopia. Every politician promises a better life and when asked by what means they intend to bring the Jubilee, they say, “Give me power.” Yeah, that worked real well for the ancient Athenians. /sarcasm

    When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
    They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
    But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

    • I have the recipe for utopia. Change human nature. There you go.

      One of the things I liked best about Babylon 5 is that Joe Straczynski didn’t pretend that human nature would be any different in the future than it is today, or was in the past. What does change is our ability to recognize that we can stop some of our most harmful impulses.

      I could never write a utopian fantasy because I think war will never end as long as humans remain human. Unless the totalitarian state manages to control all of human thought and action–which some are actually hoping for, sadly.

      I’ll take liberty for a thousand, Alex.

      • That’s what Firefly was about. Trying to change human nature. We are still the same, brutal, killers we were 10,000 years ago. The moment society collapses, even in a microcosm, that brutality returns almost instantly. Those of us who can fight against that natural man, are the ones who form a shield wall against those who can’t.

        They say the only constant is change, but human nature must have missed that because it never changes.

      • Hopefully not too off-topic, but I was reminded of something an older lawyer friend said a number of years ago.

        “Thank God for human nature. Without it, lawyers wouldn’t have anything to do.”

          • The most complicated litigation with which I was ever involved was a will contest, Felix.

            For those who have lived a good life and been rewarded by never being involved in a will contest, here are the basic predicates:

            1. You must be of sound mind to create a will.

            2. You should express yourself clearly in your will and avoid ambiguous descriptions of the property you are bequething and to whom you are bequething it (“My daughter” won’t work well if you have two daughters. “The spotted cow” will cause problems if the spotted cow dies befor you do.)

            3. If you want to change your will, you should consult a competent attorney to either prepare a new will with different provisions or a codicil (estate planning term for amendment) to your will and make certain you execute the new will or codicil with the necessary formalities (two witnesses, notary, etc. – it varies from state to state).

            Back to the will contest. When I was hired, the litigation had been ongoing for 13 years.

            The decedent (person who died) had a proper will drafted by competent counsel and signed it with necessary formalities prior to her death. The decedent was a widow who had no children, but lots of nieces, nephews, cousins, etc.

            The decedent decided to take a trip to visit several of her heirs who lived out of town and took the will with her.

            The decedent died a few months after returning from her trip. As would be standard practice, one of her local heirs hired counsel to assist in the probate of the decedent’s estate.

            (Probate is a formal legal process that makes certain taxes, unpaid bills of the decedent, etc., are paid from the assets of the deceased and that the decedent’s remaining funds and property is distributed according to the decedent’s wishes as set forth in a valid will. In the absence of a will, state law will govern who receives the property.)

            When it was filed with the Probate Court, the will was covered with many handwritten changes, some in pencil, others in ink. Some provisions in the original will were crossed out. Some handwritten changes were crossed out. Some handwritten changes had been erased.

            PG’s recollection is that there were 20-25 heirs named either in the original will or in the handwritten changes. The estate’s value was in seven figures.

            Some of the heirs would have received much more money under the terms of the will as originally written than they would under the will with the written changes. Some of the heirs would have received much more if all the handwritten changes were recognized by the court and some of the heirs would have received much more if some of the changes were recognized by the court and others were not.

            Some of the heirs suggested that the decedent had not made some or all the handwritten changes herself and, instead, the changes had been made by other heirs to enrich themselves either before or after the decedent’s death.

            Under the usual laws and rules governing wills in the United States, after a will is drafted and properly signed, the person making the will is free to revoke the will in whole or in part. This revocation can be by formally revoking the will with a separate document or creating a new will (that usually includes a boilerplate provision revoking all prior wills) or the person can simply destroy the will.

            If a person dies without a will (“intestate”), state laws determine who will receive the assets of the estate. If a will disposes of only a portion of the decedent’s property, state laws governing intestate succession will determine who receives the property not included in the will.

            PG’s clients, who had fired their prior attorney after 13 years, just wanted the whole mess to be over. In all the prior wrangling, no one had asked that the case be brought to trial and decided by the court.

            So, PG asked that the case be set for trial. (The judge was thoroughly sick of the whole mess, but didn’t want to have to try the case and make a ruling that would take a very long time to prepare, then have that decision be appealed with a high probability the appeals court would find some problem with the trial judge’s handling of the complex issues and bounce it back for a retrial.)

            PG persuaded the judge to set the matter for trial by asking that the judge also order the attorneys for all parties to appear in court for a settlement conference several weeks prior to the trial and that their clients either appear in person or be available by telephone so all attorneys could consult with their clients during breaks in the conference.

            After the judge ordered the conference, it was clear that few of the attorneys were looking forward to trying the case, which would take a great deal of time (imagine how many objections about 15 attorneys representing different clients could make to almost anything another attorney would do) and might end with their clients receiving nothing.

            Suffice to say, the case was settled at conference to the relative satisfaction of all the parties.

            After the settlement, PG was admonished in a friendly way by several other attorneys for ending a case that had generated so many legal fees over an extended period of time.

  3. As it happens, I just recently read H. G. Wells’s The War in the Air, a justifiably lesser-known work. So far as Wells and science and technology goes, I’m with Verne. The book is very concerned with flight technology, both lighter and heavier than air. So far as lighter than air tech goes, Wells didn’t do the math. This wasn’t because the math wasn’t known. The technology was well established. As for heavier than air tech goes, Wells clearly didn’t understand the state of the art. He has airplanes with flapping wings, and treats stability as a dark unsolved mystery. The thing is, the book was written in 1907 and published the following year. The Wright brothers were already producing aircraft for sale. Wells simply wasn’t paying attention, choosing to write a novel about a subject he was willfully ignorant of.

    That being said, the book is interesting for other reasons. He depicts Cold War mutually assured destruction. The fictional technology behind it is absurd, but the idea of it is prescient. He also has the temerity to suggest that war isn’t as much fun as you would think. That was actually quite daring in pre-WWI Britain.

    • Well, ornithopters are possible – although thoroughly impractical in the face of much better solutions.

      I like both “hard” (or “engineering”) and “softer” science fiction. In the latter, I can deal with things that are either outside of, or flatly contradictory to known science. So long as they are simply incidentals, used to move the real plot along (such as Verne’s cannon, or Well’s ornithopters).

      Where I draw the line is when the impossible and illogical is a central part of the story, without which there is no story. That was the problem I had with The Day the World Turned Upside Down. Huevelt had some interesting things to say about people and relationships, but the whole thing was hung from a central idea that wasn’t even good fantasy. (Fantasy is about things that are not possible in our world, but good fantasy has an internal logic to it. Something that Huevelt completely ignored.)

      • It would have been one thing had Wells been writing ten, or even five, years earlier. Then he would have been dealing with unsolved tech, giving him the room to speculate. But writing in 1907? This is like someone writing today about how no one has managed to build an electric car that can go a hundred miles, so said someone will speculate about possible solutions.

        Then there are the airships. He goes on at some length about the measures taken to save weight, up to an including sleeping pillows inflated with hydrogen. Then said airships start dropping bombs and turn out to have unlimited magazine capacity, like six shooters in bad Westerns.

    • Not that Wells needs defending, but:

      1- The War in the Air was a rush job for a magazine serial.
      2- We’re talking SF prehistory. The modern rules weren’t in place. Nonetheless, bad/dated engineering aside, it does fit the core demand of a scientific concept being central to the story.
      3- Wells was much more interested in the human aspect and the story fits his m.o. to a T: a new technological age of human flight implies a new kind of war because times may change, but “war, war never changes”.

      (No apologies to Bethesda Softworks, though.) 😉

      4- Wells also did the giant creatures and mad scientist thing, too. Hard science and the square-cube law weren’t of much concern to him.

      5- One thing he didn’t do is send characters to a dinosaur infested hollow earth.

      A bit of slack to the pioneers is not out of the question.

      • Human aspect: I didn’t mention that only the main character even rises to the level of “paper thin.” And the plotting is terrible, in a herky jerky way.

        What I like about it is that it is an implicit commentary on the subgenre of the day that has been called “Those Horrid Germans,” in which Britain is invaded by said horrid Germans (usually: in at least one instance it was those horrid French, but Germany was more plausible). These were a thing for about fifteen or twenty years, before the First World War killed them off. For a more modern example, the 1980s film Red Dawn is pretty much the same thing.

        The War in the Air is not a Those Horrid Germans novel, though it does have Germans, and many of them are horrid. It is a response to Those Horrid Germans novels. This was well worth doing. (The fear of the Asiatic Hordes holds up less well.)

        It is not a good book, but it is a not-good book in interesting ways. I am happy I read it, but not due to its literary merit, which is modest.

        • Lots of those in that era.
          In fact, a lot of pre-Astounding SF fits that category: not great by modern standards but still significant and worth reading. If only as context for their contemporaries that are genuinely good even by modern standards.

          Somebody had to be first.

  4. I used to love sci-fi, but for the last few decades, meh. Asimov, I loved. Heinlein, I also loved, but too ideological as I matured. Philip K. Dick, a genius. Stanislaw Lem, a master. Gibson, too many technical gaffs for a software engineer.

    I’d love to recapture my early love for sci-fi. Who should I read? Warning: I consider dystopia a creative lapse.

    • You’ll be sor-ree! 😀

      Niven and Pournelle. Anything as a team but generally THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE is considered their best. FOOTFALL and INFERNO not far behind. LUCIFER’S HAMMER isn’t a dystopia but it is about a cometary impact, end of civilization story. Hopeful story nonetheless.

      Gordon Dickson: Try his TIME STORM. I just love it. Most recommend his DORSAI saga. Expansive.

      Poul Anderson: Just about anything. I favor TAU ZERO, BRAIN WAVE, THERE WILL BE TIME, in that order. Fantasies: OPERATION CHAOS.

      H. Beam Piper: LITTLE FUZZY.

      Lloyd Biggle: MONUMENT

      Clifford Simak: CITY, TIME AND AGAIN


      Roger Zelazny: CHRONICLES of AMBER. Technically a fantasy but it’s written with a SF tone. JACK OF SHADOWS, too.

      F.M. Busby – THE DEMU TRILOGY, especially volume one: TO CAGE A MAN. Aliens capture a fairly normal human for study and experiment on him. In the process they unknowingly drive him insane. Which is not a good thing. They don’t realize the only thing deadlier than a human is a crazy human.
      Also ALL THESE EARTHS, about an FTL drive that doesn’t work quite the way it’s intended. But it’s still useful even if the trips are all one way.
      THE RISSA KERGUELEN/ALIEN DEBT SERIES is on the surface about a very nasty dystopia but it’s really adventure SF about the uses of relativistic time dilation in planning a revolution.

      Newer authors?

      Lois MacMaster Bujold. The entire Vorkosigan saga is worthy. Multiple Hugo/Nebula winners from when Hugos still meant something. Can be read in any order, either as published, in internal chronology or just randomly.
      If unsure of the whole series, CETAGANDA is not to be missed. The world building is superb. As proof of her writing chops: A CIVIL CAMPAIGN is a SF regency romance comedy. With bite. A joy to read. Bujold specializes in bioscience speculation so she’s technically “hard SF” but the stories run all over, military, mystery, capers, and romance. All in a decidedly SF vein.

      Modern space opera? David Webber’s EMPIRE FROM THE ASHES is a fun ride. First two parts are the best, third one is “just” fine.

      If you don’t object to military SF three series are worth exploring. All take their inspiration and focus from historical scenarios to a large degree.

      David Drake’s Republic of Cinnabar series (volume one, WITH THE LIGHTNINGS is free at the BAEN FREE LIBRARY) takes inspiration from political and military scenarios from the history of the Roman republic. The series format owes a bit to the Aubrey/Maturin historical novels.

      Tanya Huff’s Confederacy Novels are inspired by specific battles in history with a focus on ground combat. The lady knows her stuff. Again, great world building.

      David Weber is best known by his star Kingdom of Manticore/Honorverse series. Very long. Mostly in an adventure SF vein, the core HONOR HARRINGTON novels are set in a future inspired by the naval side of the Napoleonic wars. Other arcs take a rather Bondian tone.

      Alternate history interest you?

      Harry Turtledove is a specialist at it with a series set in the 19th century and beyond, where the confederacy won the civil war. Another feztures alien invaders arriving in the middle of WWII.

      Eric Flint has an extremely successful series, the Grantville saga, predicated on the mysterious transposition of an early 21st century West Virginia town into the middle of Germany during the Thirty Years War. Not your classic “modern tech” fixes history story, rather the focus is the consequences of modern thought and knowledge of 300 years history spreading globally in the 1630’s. Plus some very colorful characters. Multiple arcs by a dozen authors or more. The whole thing was intended as a one shot, 1632, but it’s grown into an industry all its own. The first two volumes are in the BAEN FREE LIBRARY.
      What else?

      Joan Vinge. Her PSION series is interesting and very good.

      Alan Dean Foster is very prolific but his best work is his HUMANX COMMONWEALTH series of mostly standalone novels. ICEWORLD and its sequels is worth looking into. So are the Flinx novels.

      Larry Niven solo tends towards hard SF with really good world building, I favor the INTEGRAL TREES.

      DAVID BRIN most popular works are in his FIVE GALAXIES series, starting with SUNDIVER and hitting its peak in STARTIDE RISING. (A starship crewed by dolphins.) I really like THE PRACTICE EFFECT which may or not be fantasy, depending on how you feel about a world where the Third Law of Thermodynamics runs backwards.

      Lots of great SF out there by lots of great authors.
      And that is without listing the horde of Indies going where no tradpub would dare. The field has grown well beyond the ability of any single person or clique to assimilate.

      Which is where the award catfights are coming from.

        • You’re welcome.
          If nothing strikes your fancy, flip a coin: heads, MOTE IN GODS EYE, tails CETAGANDA. Both have fabulous aliens. I doubt either will disappoint an Asimov fan.

          • Cetaganda aliens? Well… A very alien culture, although human.

            When you come up for air, though, Democritus – I’m sure Felix or I can bury you under a whole new pile (grin). For Piper, there’s Lord Kalvan, Weber there is the Safehold mega-series, Ringo’s Posleen Wars and (surprisingly to me) the zombie apocalypse series.

            Additionally – to annoy the gatekeepers at SFWA – the books that I have sampled from the “20BooksTo50K” group are generally good for fast reads. Somewhat hit and miss; if you take a look at them, start with the ones by Michael Anderle.

      • PS. It’s pure fantasy but if you haven’t read THE WIZ BIZ series by Rick Cook you’re missing out on a series chock ful of software developer in-jokes. (Volume one is WIZARD’S BANE)

        The premise is traditional portal fantasy but the stories are anything but traditional.

        A world of magic where humans are divided between warring good and evil camps while slowly and steadily the nonhuman magic creatures are eroding the human domain. In a few generations, humans will be extinct. The mightiest wizard decides to bring in a hero from another universe to set things right, even if it kills him. Which it does. What he gets is a stereotypical nerd programmer with not a single shred of magical talent, totally incapable of surviving in the new world. The evil wizards don’t know that, though. They think he must be a mighty foe that must be captured or destroyed.

        The UNIX jokes are all over, especially in the later volumes; THE Wizardry Compiled and the Wizardry Consulted.

      • Lots of interesting suggestions there Felix. I’ve read most of them and agree your choices. I think I’d add C J Cherryh, I’ve always liked her aliens.

        However, I’m not sure that your “newer” authors are really that new. These days – other than re-reads – I mostly read indie published works and there are so many people doing things that interest me that I hardly need to bother with trad published works.

        • Ah, yes, Cherryh.
          I knew I missed a few good ones.
          (Alfred Bester, for one. Frank Herbert’s WHIPPING STAR and DRAGON UNDER THE SEA.)
          It was off the top of my head, after all.

          Indies I intentionally left out since I was going with authors and stories that have a longer track record. Not that I haven’t read or bought Indies, just that I feel more comfortable recommending stories I know to be enduring. You only get one chance to make a positive impression of the genre. 😉

          Like, MOTE is going on 50 years and still as fresh as when new. Plus they got their computer tech right.

          Still, some of the series I listed are still going strong. That makes them new. 😉

          • Good point about picking stories with a track record. I always think that a book, movie or music track needs to be at least five years old and have been revisited more than once to really be called a favourite (and sometimes I make it ten years).

            I can still recall the exhilaration I felt when I read DRAGON IN THE SEA (in a single session late into the night) when I was quite young and my disappointment when I re-read it 20 years or so later and didn’t feel the same excitement. I guess it’s about time to try a third read and reach a critical conclusion.

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