The “What Ifs?” of Science Fiction

If someone were to ask people who have one way or another made a career out of science or technology what they read in their childhood, the chances are very good that the common thread would be science fiction. I read a lot of things when I was a kid, but my most beloved book in second grade was a tome called Rusty’s Space Ship, which I read in its entirety a number of times that surely contains two digits. I won’t bore you with the plot line. Suffice it to say that it involves travel across the solar system by a boy and a girl by unlikely means with an unlikely alien companion, and that it expresses rather well the endemic sexism of the 1950s. A little later, Tom Corbett and his space cadet pals Roger and Astro displaced Rusty and Susie in my affections, and they were in turn followed by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

The genre is often dismissed as trash, and indeed there is plenty of evidence to support that. But there are a lot of trashy novels written about rich people and doomed romances too, and that doesn’t make The Great Gatsby trash. Any good novel, it seems to me, is an attempt to explore the human condition, to look at how we live our lives, to ask: What If? What if a French wife decided her life needed the excitement of an affair to relieve the boredom of provincial life? How might that play out? What if we put a poor white kid and a runaway slave on a raft and float them down the antebellum Mississippi River? What might that tell us about America? What if time travel were possible?

People who don’t really understand science fiction often speak of its power to predict the future, when in fact it is usually really bad at doing so. My hero Robert Heinlein, from whom I learned about orbital mechanics in The Rolling Stones, has his space travelers figuring their trajectory with slide rules! So much for predictive power.

It is that stretching of the imagination in the “what ifs” of science fiction that inspired so many of us. Particularly in so-called “hard” (scientifically plausible if not yet achievable) science fiction, many of us first saw possibilities that intrigued us. The exploration and eventual settling of the solar system has been an enduring interest of mine, from Rusty and Susie through Tom Corbett and the traveling Stone family of Heinlein.

Which brings me to the fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson. He is best known for his Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars), which describes 200 years of future human history on the planet. His most recent book is 2312, in a world where the solar system is mostly settled and Earth is devastated by global climate change. It is a rich interweaving of sociology, economics, psychology and the “hard” sciences that I consumed over the holidays.

I have not made a book recommendation in this blog before, and I don’t intend to make a habit of it. I can only tell you that this reader, who loves both Anna Karenina and Time For the Stars, found it satisfying both as science and as literature. And if you think all science fiction is trash, I offer this as strong evidence to the contrary.

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Posted in human spaceflight, Planets, Solar System

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Neal Sumerlin

Neal Sumerlin, retired Professor of Chemistry and founding Director of the Belk Observatory at Lynchburg College

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