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Opinion: To boldly go - how science fiction inspires space exploration

More mythical material gives us more stars to aim at, writes Jack Fennell.

Jack Fennell Writer

Updated Sep 7th 2021, 9:00 AM

EVEN IF YOU’VE never read or watched any science fiction, you have an idea of what it looks like.

Its emblematic form is the ‘space opera,’ which emerged from the pulp magazine explosion of the 1920s, and evolved during the so-called Golden Age of sci-fi (roughly up to the 1960s); it’s all about action and excitement, galactic empires, weird aliens we can do business with, heroic engineers and mad scientists.

Most modern sci-fi of this type, of course, deconstructs the formula with an ironic eye.

Some silliness notwithstanding, sci-fi has had a measurable impact on space exploration. Jules Verne was feted as an inspiration by astronauts and cosmonauts alike during the Space Race, and were it not for the influence of Verne’s work, Edwin Hubble might have become a lawyer instead of an astronomer.

Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti drank the first espresso in space while wearing a Star Trek uniform; other admitted Trekkies include astronauts Chris Hadfield and Mae Jemison, and the late Stephen Hawking appeared as himself in The Next Generation. The crew of NASA’s Expedition 45, meanwhile, dressed up as Jedi Knights for their mission’s official poster.

It’s simple, really: if we want an Irish space programme, we should start cranking out more Irish sci-fi.

So, how does the fiction inspire the reality?

The obvious answer is that cruising through space at faster-than-light speeds to go on holidays to an alien world would be awesome. Aside from the obvious, though, there’s the dynamic of the genre itself (warning: academic obtuseness incoming).

Sci-fi works by pretending to be history: that is, it works around the laws of physics instead of breaking them (like fantasy and horror do), and it often shows us a continuation of human history into the distant future. Whoever helps humanity to get going in that direction is part of that glorious future history: as inspirations go, it’s not a bad one.

There comes a point when certain contrasts become obvious, though: between the nobility and purity of purpose we see in sci-fi, and the billionaire grandstanding of Bezos, Branson and Musk; between the old dreams of galactic empires, and our increasing awareness of the evils of colonialism; between the sci-fi ‘sense of wonder’ and the fact that real-world science is a different kind of beast from the kind of fictional physics that allow faster-than-light travel.

Perhaps the biggest contrast is between science-fictional visions of our potential, and what we can actually do.

It’s been clear for a while now that the kind of sci-fi that had the biggest impact on popular culture is kind of outdated, and it’s built on slightly wonky expectations of what we can accomplish.

We evolved on Earth; this is where we have the best chance of survival – any other planet would be an uncomfortable compromise at best – and we have a moral obligation to mind it. And who could be arsed with a galaxy-spanning civilisation anyway, even if such a thing were possible?

We still keep creating and re-creating such things, though, so there has to be something behind their appeal, something that goes beyond the flashy tech that comes with the backdrop. For me, that ‘something’ is watching smart people figuring out solutions to difficult problems, or at least trying to.

This isn’t limited to science and engineering smarts, either: some of the best sci-fi out there takes emotional or linguistic intelligence as its paradigm.

We’re probably never going to be able to zip over to another inhabited planet for a quick visit, but that’s okay. Human culture is mostly made up of things that aren’t literally true anyway; they persist because they mean something to the people who dreamed them up.

If humans ever do settle on other planets, they’ll still read and write space opera, no matter how removed it is from their reality. This is what makes the growing profile of sci-fi from traditionally underrepresented people so exciting: the standard future-history is being overhauled and expanded by movements such as Africanfuturism and Indigenous Futurism, and increasing amounts of non-Western stories are being translated for the first time.

More mythical material gives us more stars to aim at, and even if we fall short, we’ll discover cool stuff along the way.

Sci-fi doesn’t just directly inspire people to do the exploring, though; it also inspires those with no vocation for that kind of thing, who nonetheless form the all-important social foundation that makes it possible: politicians who can make funding decisions, teachers who might encourage students to pursue an interest in astrophysics or parents who might be more inclined to support their own children’s ambition to blast off into the void.

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On top of everything else, it takes a lot of goodwill to get a rocket off the ground, and that’s what sci-fi delivers by the bucketload.

Jack Fennell lectures at the University of Limerick. He is the author of Irish Science Fiction, and editor of A Brilliant Void.  His book It Rose Up will be published by Tramp Press in November.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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