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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
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Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
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Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
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Past Valve Book Events

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Gradisil, SF, and Sacred Hunger II:  A Reply

Posted by Adam Roberts on 07/13/06 at 04:11 PM

[This follows Bill’s thoughtful reaction to reading my novel Gradisil.  Since I don’t suppose many people here, Bill excepted, have read the book, I thought I’d respond to the larger questions he raises rather than spend time on the novel itself.  But I wouldn’t want you to think, on that account, that I’m blithe about thereby missing the chance to flog my book.  On the contrary.  It seems to me imperative that everybody in the world buys my book.  Buy it, buy the book.  Buy seven copies, in case you lose six.  All except Scott, who should buy eight copies, seven for personal use and one to review.  Buy, buy, buy.  In sum: buy my book.]

Dear Bill

Thank you for your response to the Gradisil book; I’m chuffed you liked it (I take “enjoyed Gradisil quite a bit. It was a good read” as a genuine, and therefore worthwhile and pleasing, response; enormously preferable to courteous hyperbole or ).  You’re right, I think, to identify a certain feeling, a space-high, as being what the book is ‘really about’, or at least what it is built around.  I wholly agree with you about that particular feeling.  Some people who’ve read the book have come back to me with ‘but the life you describe in these claustrophobic tincans is so horrid-sounding! Why would anybody want that?’ I suppose this must be a differend, because I’d give my eye teeth and all my money for a chance to get up there, and if sitting in a tin can is what it takes, then there I’ll be, sitting in a tin can.

As you said in an email to me (if you’ll excuse this slightly awkard rhetorical manoeuvre; of course you remember, but if you’ll bear with me for the benefit of those eavesdropping, or eyespeering, over this exchange) you recalled your awe at the golden age of US spacefaring in compelling manner:

Back to 1957 and the launching of Sputnik and standing outside in the evening with my father pointing up in the sky to the spot (he thought was) Sputnik. Back a decade or so when I spent half a day at Kennedy Spaceflight Center and felt brushed by awe at seeing the place from which human beings left the earth and journeyed to the moon.  Really.

This is exactly it, isn’t it?  I was four when we landed on the moon; but my memory of the 1970s was shaped by exactly that numinous buzz.  It still gets me.  I hate to sound like a sap, but of all the things that mankind achieved in the twentieth century (and here I include the negative achievements like the holocaust of Hiroshima), the one single thing that surely stands the best chance of still being remembered ten thousand years from now is Armstrong stepping out onto the moon.  I’d say the Onion captured it perfectly with what is still surely their Best Ever front page:  Man lands on Fucking Moon, except that, you’re right, there is genuine awe mixed in with the exaggerated ‘wow!’ of it all.

But I fear that we have we lost that nowadays, rather.  I suspect that people today (and ‘people’ is a category that includes SF) takes that sense for granted.  Which feeds through into your other point.  You credit the genre with an actual effect in the world of space travel: NAS inspired by SF.

I can’t imagine any of this [Space programme, moon landing]
without SF. I’m not arguing any direct causation. I don’t know what kind of causation I’m arguing for, but it’s there.

But I disagree.  SF killed the space race, I fear.  I’ve argued this point in a couple of essays, but I’ll repeat myself: that once upon a time the road to space lay all before us like a dream of dawn.  We were going to have hotels on the moon and trips to Pluto by the twenty-first century; instead of which we have nuclear piles the size of tumble-driers upon which microprocessors the size of scrabble-tiles fly silently and coldly past the outer planets.  And nothing else.  (I know your President ‘Buisson’ has promised a flight to Mars, but it’s not going to happen.  Is it.).  The space race, which not only achieved great things but energised the whole globe, is something our ancestors did, like building pyramids or wearing swords, not something we do.  Probably not something our immediate descendents will do.  The fizz went out of it.  Why?  To quote myself (filthy habit):

It is the very success and popularity of Science Fiction itself that finished off the Space Race.  There was once a space-shuttle called Enterprise which spent most of its life sitting on the platform waiting for the clouds to thin out sufficiently to allow a launch, or being wheeled back into its mega-garage because a light drizzle had started up.  It looked like an obese version of an aeroplane: Homer Simpson curves and stubby little chicken-wings.  It was crewed by a few decent, smiling professionals.  It flew up a few miles, circled round, and flew back down again.  Then there was another space-craft called Enterprise crewed by an ethnically diverse mix of charismatic, sexy, passionately-overacting humans.  This Enterprise flew near-instantly to all the most exciting corners of the galaxy, got into edge-of-the-seat dramas, zoomed into and out of danger.  It looked – madly, but somehow rightly – like a white Frisbee with spreadeagled legs.  Now,: which would you rather watch?  Be honest.  SF is too good at what it does.  Why should people bother with real space flight when fictional space-flight is so much better – better in every way, more exciting, more engaging, more satisfying (and you get a better view)?

It’s fair enough to ask why people should invest emotionally and intellectually (and therefore financially) in actual space technology when they can get so much more from fictionalised space flight?  More, SF has been so convincing that many people now simply assume we can already zap from planet to planet, from star to star: hence the X-Filesish subculture that genuinely believes that Roswell is full of futuristic spaceships operated by the US government.

I think the key to actual space exploration is the money, stupid.  (Not, I hesitate to add, that I’m calling you stupid …).  In the 1960s putting a man on the moon cost as much as would have been needed to make a statue out of that man in solid gold.  The cost has come down a little, but not much: rockets are still an astonishingly and obscenely expensive way of getting into orbit.  We need a cheaper one, and I posited such a method for the novel.  That’s the single thing, I think, standing between mankind and our manifest stellar destiny.  No, really.

On that subject, let me make another crashing self-reference. Jolly Spaniard, who to the best of my knowledge is both jolly and a Spaniard, interviewed me recently for his estimable blog Meme Therapy.  Check the link if you like.  But if you do, please pay no attention to the scrappy and effete line drawing of me.  (‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’ as they say).  Iinstead concentrate on the Great-Holographic-Oz-worthy Contemplation of the Practical Possibilities of Gradisil’s mode of propulsion becoming a reality:

Jolly Spaniard: You use a novel approach of getting into orbit in Gradisil. Storytelling possibilities aside how probably do you think this approach is?

AR: Well, I’d like to think it’s not wholly outside the realm of possibility.  The earth does provide a tree, in a manner of speaking, up whose branches we might clamber: it’s called the magnetosphere.  Magnetohydrodynamics, upon which my orbital flying in Gradisil is based, is a real phenomenon.  Charge up the wings of a regular plane and fly the resulting electromagnetic field so that it ‘cuts into’ the Earth’s field and you should get lift.  The idea is: you fly up as far as you can on aerodynamic lift, then you charge up your wings and fly the rest of the way up on magnetohydrodynamic lift.  I ran the idea past my friend Stephen Baxter, and he, sensitively and diplomatically, gave me his opinion on the matter: that the physics behind this idea is ‘bollocks’.  It would ill behoof me to disagree with Steve Baxter on physics.  Ill, I say.  But nevertheless I’m prepared to give it a go.  Ahem!

Common sense says that the forces involved ultimately arise from E x B and, since, the Earth’s B-field is so small, the electrical currents would have to be very big. (This was Steve’s judgment: ‘you’d need the sort of energy associated with a lightning strike!’).  But I’d like to think that it is a little more complicated than that.  The point is that you’re already travelling really quite rapidly through the medium: with a twenty-meter (say) wingspan moving at several tens of metres of second in ordinary flight you’re sweeping out a large ‘sheet’ in space.  There’s plenty of people have made motors that generate sizeable fractions of amps on the basis of rods that reach relatively short distances upwards (to capitalise on magnetic differentials) … at least that’s what that unerring and unarguable source the Internet says; cf for instance this site, amongst many. So, it seems to me, given a large enough and fast enough vector of interaction, you should be able to generate a fair whack.

It’s true that even with superefficient power generation aboard my spaceplanes, and with rapid flight, there’s a certain amount of fudging.  Of course we’re only talking about relatively small amounts of energy compared with what comes out of the bottom of a Saturn V, but then again it doesn’t have to be very large.  It’s not about generating the power to slingshot something ballistically into space; it’s about making enough to keep something moving through the medium of the magnetosphere on as slight an upward vector as you like; and since the magnetosphere operates in many respects like a fluid (this is the basis of magnetohydrodynamics), this both makes the equations extremely complicated and opens up the margin for error.  How much energy, after all, does a glider need to keep it in the sky once it’s been launched at an appropriate speed?  Why couldn’t the magnetosphere operate according to similar principles, mutatis mutandi?  But it’s more than possible that I’m just talking out of my arse.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, all this has been building up to a naked sales-pitch.  Now that my Hippogriff farm has gone into receivership, and since the unforeseen flopping of my stage-musical-spectacle Springtime for Stalin, I find myself with the free time to set up the Gradisil Magnetohydrodynamic Trust.  Shares go on sale at $1000 a pop.  Don’t delay, buy one today.

Best wishes, Adam


Comments

I see this is addressed to Bill, so sorry if I’m interloping and feel free to ignore.

It’s refreshing to hear somebody, anybody, and a SF writer at that, talk so unabashedly of the stars as our destination. I couldn’t sympathise more with the hope, Adam. But I’m not certain science fiction can shoulder as much of the blame for interest in the project waning as you suggest. I appreciate CGI, in particular, has upped the ante; space will have a lot to live up to if we ever make it off terra firma, but I’m unconvinced that the general populace’s desire or otherwise to get intergalactic is informed by SF (bear in mind, also, that most people don’t watch SF as fans of the genre, but as fans of spectacle per se, hence the popularity of Jackson’s LOTR, for instance).

It seems to me that the dampening of humankind’s passion for travelling to the stars is (with great complexity, granted) tied up in a cultural retreat from the notions of expedition and exploration generally. The rockets you mention were the apotheosis of the industrial revolution. Yes, they coincided, in America certainly, with the inchoate stages of the consumer capitalism we all know and love, but their look, their very aura, belong as much to the days of nineteenth century industrialism and the colonialism they were dependent upon for raw materials. For all the brave new world scenarios and the giant leaps, those poor, desultory hunks of metal have come, rightly or wrongly, to be subtly reminiscent of Western European invasions of Africa, the Indian subcontinent etc.; big, technologically advanced, primed for incursion. Their anachronism isn’t purely technological, but also historical, political and cultural. Don’t get me wrong, I needn’t say that colonialism’s still there, working its magic in the oilfields of the globe, but in a far less graphic, more insidious manner.

Alongside the shift from manufacturing-based economies, there’s been a recent predilection in Western culture for travelling inward (is there a way of saying this without sounding like the very self-help books that are the status quo’s sine qua non?) or at least terrestrially. You mention the moon landings and the spot-on Onion piece, yet, however obliquely, a host of things put paid to the ‘Fuck me Factor’ and very quickly seemed to consign it to the last exhalation of an epoch that began in Ironbridge Gorge. Vietnam was in people’s living rooms and with it the realisation that many viewers hadn’t seen much of their own planet let alone others. Add cheap air travel, globalisation (which even its at its most perfunctory, putative level gives the illusion that other places are there to be discovered), distaste for colonial pasts, the demise of the Eastern Bloc, and space looked a less interesting proposition than seeing places as exotic as Dubrovonik (and what’s more, it wasn’t painted in the muted Soviet tones most of us had expected). And all with guide books in our suitcases, tourists rather than travelers, taking ourselves with us wherever we go.

I could go on about the contemporary notion of human rights, their co-option by the ‘to thine own self be true’ ethos, the ascendancy of psychotherapy and the debatable erosion of community, but I’m wary of sounding like a grumpy codger so late into my twenties, and I think the point’s been well made elsewhere umpteen times. Nonetheless, while it saddens me that what should be the project of our age has either been discarded or will only be resurrected when Earth’s resources have all been burned up, I think laying the blame (and it should be blame) at SF’s feet is hyperbolic. Unless we can point a finger at the sixties New Wave and its disregard for the ‘sacred hunger.’ J’accuse Harlan Ellison for writing about timekeeping instead of strange new vistas and humanity’s duty to get out there amongst ‘em.

Star Trek is an interesting reference point, Adam. For all the spectacle, for the Borg, the Battle of Wolf 359 and warp 9, I’ll go out on a limb and say that Star Trek’s popularity owes a lot more to its engaging (no pun intended) with ethical (moralising?) concerns, such as alterity and the Prime Directive, and chiefly the emotional landscapes of its players, the interactions of Spock with Kirk, Data with humans, Picard with his staff etc. When the series Enterprise went for the exploration angle it was cancelled and, for what it’s worth, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me that they like Trek except when it’s all about space travel and bloody aliens. Much as I enjoyed First Contact’s first contact with the Vulcans, it’s Picard quoting Melville that sticks in my mind and it was you who rightly pointed out to me once upon a time that the bridge in TNG was a living room; carpeted, comfortable, replete with bigscreen television and armchairs.

Apologies for this being rather jumbled but it’s late, I’m excited, as I said, to find someone willing to ‘sound like a sap’ over this and as I write I’m frightening myself with what an unreconstructed humanist I am. Teleology, anyone?

P.S. I was only trying to find your email address online for yet another application form. Interesting site. Hope my disagreeing with you won’t influence any future references.

By on 07/13/06 at 08:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dear Adam,

As I see it, you’re offering two, maybe three with at bit of interpretive extension, ideas about the demise of . . . the space race, the sacred hunger?

You say

. . . once upon a time the road to space lay all before us like a dream of dawn.  We were going to have hotels on the moon and trips to Pluto by the twenty-first century; instead of which we have nuclear piles the size of tumble-driers upon which microprocessors the size of scrabble-tiles fly silently and coldly past the outer planets.  And nothing else. 

Let me continue this thought rather differently than you did. Perhaps the space race was best left as a grand goal. Once the goal has been achieved, well, so much for that. Now what? So that’s one notion, whether or not you’d assent to it is another matter but I’m tossing it into the ring for sake of discussion.

Coming toward the end of your piece you suggest that it’s the money. It’s just so bloody expensive. If manned spaceflight were significantly cheaper, there’d be more of it. I suspect that’s so.

I don’t know how the cost of sending Columbus off to the Indies compares with the cost of putting Neil Armstrong on the moon, but both were expensive enterprises requiring state sponsorship. In the case of Columbus, whatever the prospect in terms of adventure, knowledge, and a sense of Spain’s (and Europe’s) place in the world, there was also the prospect of practical gain. And that prospect remained alive in the wake of the first voyage—despite the fact that it was a failure in certain terms—and so there were follow up voyages that produced sufficient practical value that the whole enterprise prospered and expanded. But man on the moon has had little or no prospect for practical return, and so that was the end of that.

The symbolic point had been made and there was no point in simply repeating it time and again, though any number of people would have been willing to make the trip for personal gratification. But moon shots are too expensive for the extreme adventure biz, like trips to the top of Mt. Everest or, apparently, five minutes in space courtesy of Virgin Galactic. So the grand goal as been achieved, the symbolic point has been made, but there’s no obvious way of putting human spaceflight on a more routine footing. There is, of course, the Shuttle, and orbiting space stations, but those ventures are not quite routine and not quite successful and haven’t captured the imagination.

But putting space flight on a routine footing, doesn’t that entail some diminishment of the adventure?

So that’s the first and third of your notions. Now for the second, that SF’s very success has killed the space race. The Roswell stuff you mention goes back before the space race, does it not? and is as much about Them having visited Us as about Us going out there. This shades into the whole alien abuduction thing—which has had the imprimateur of a Harvard psychiatrist as I recall. “The aliens have landed” is, of course, a venerable SF genre, but one that doesn’t engage the urge to go Out There.

And then there is Star Trek and the Enterprise and now we have spectacle. And we’ve moved to a medium that gives us things to see. Most of the effects in 50s SF movies were pretty cheesy, though Forbidden Plant was cool. I suppose the real landmarks are 2001 and Star Wars; after that the effects ante was very high. Kubric was going after the Deep Metaphysics; Lucas not so deep. Here Anthony O’Keefe’s remarks about spectacle are germane. So, Lucas remakes the chariot race from Ben Hur into CGI thrills and chills for one of his franchise flix. Does that have anything to do with the dreams of Arthur C. Clarke or the paintings of Chesley Bonestell?

Let me conclude with another data point from my own experience. I don’t have any distinct recollection of how I felt about Armstrong actually landing on the moon. I don’t remember whether I watched the launch on TV or how I felt when I finally learned about the landing. I have a vague recollection of being cynical about it all. The war in Vietnam loomed larger in my consciousness at the time. And yet, on the evidence of how I felt years later when I went to Kennedy Space Center, that cynicism didn’t extinguish deeper commitments.

How do we differentiate the urge to go Out There from the other premises that have fed SF? Has this been extinguished from all but those libertarian dot com billionaires Rich mentioned in the other thread?

Meanwhile, I’d still like to know when SF writers started putting women in the drivers seat.

* * * *

BTW, here’s Chesley Bonestell on the web. You can find some of the good stuff here.

By Bill Benzon on 07/14/06 at 11:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony: Hi!  You alright?  You’re not interloping in the least; your response is fascinating & thought-provoking.  You’re right of course that by disagreeing with me, howsoever slightly, you’re destroying any chance that I’ll write you a positive reference.  I could put in an emoticon here to indicate irony, but I despise emoticons.  You may just have to believe that sentence is typed with a straight face.  Can’t be helped.

There’s a great deal in what you say, although I wonder if it doesn’t imply a glum ‘is it just me or is everything shit?’ mindset.  Has society turned inward, to the satisfactions of TV and New Age soul-wanking to that degree?  I mean, in non-spacefaring arenas?  Seems to me that (to pluck an example from the air) the Make Poverty History jamboree tapped into a very real and widespread urge to do something good in the world.  All sorts of problems associated with it of course, but the dream is good.

Bill would still like to know when SF writers started putting women in the drivers seat.  I’d say that women SF writers started doing that in the 70s, and men in the 80s.  Roughly.  Or, actually, maybe earlier than that ... wasn’t it a point of pride as early as the 60s for SF writers of all sorts of political stripe that their future will mark a break with the embedded prejudices of the past?  Heinlein, however much he was a militaristic authority-junkie, still took pains to have multi-ethnic futures and lots of strong women.

I’d respond to your other interesting points, Bill, but must dash off to pick up daughter from day-nursery.  Heinlein’s heroes never had to dash off to collect their kids from day-nurseries.  Pah.

By Adam Roberts on 07/14/06 at 12:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

While you’re pondering things, Adam, I’ll tell you that I was interested in your remarks about the religious origins of SF that you made over there at Acephalous. That you are an aethiest, so much the better. My decision to talk of “sacred hunger” was not casual.

FWIW, I find the techno-utopianism of the transhumanists to be rather, shall we say, juvenile. But I still figure that in some way, at some time, we’ll once again travel to the moon, and then the planets and, who knows, maybe even the stars. I’m not sure how I’d justify this distinction which has, I believe, a moral dimension.

BTW, would your American publisher approve of your pushing your book on a blog where many of the readers are American and thus, if enticed, are likely to buy the UK version rather than wait for the American? I must admit that, after reading that, I felt a little guilty about having ordered the UK version. 

By Bill Benzon on 07/14/06 at 05:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, and when you have more than a few minutes you might want to take a look at this 1980 NASA tech report. It reads like a very long appendix to some super-hard SF.

The people who wrote that figured we were maybe 20 years away from being able to haul just the right cargo load to the moon such that the cargo could unpack itself and set up shop. At which point it would proceed to construct a factory that would be able to construct copies of itself. At the same time this technology would be mining the moon for useful stuff.

The people who wrote that report weren’t smoking wacky weed. I worked with some of them in my 1981 summer with NASA. Interesting folks.

But I haven’t got the foggiest idea when, if ever, we’ll be able to do that sort of thing. But going to Mars . . . .

I mean, where’s reality when you need it?

By Bill Benzon on 07/14/06 at 05:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not bad Adam. Yourself?  I must really have you convinced of my ‘is it just me or is everything shit?’ outlook if you feel the need to tell me when you’re being ironic. Still, the gesture’s appreciated, and to volley back some positive energy, I couldn’t agree more about the Make Poverty History business. Absolute shambles, self-congratulatory, involved Bono, etc., but some hearts were no doubt in the right places, which I think only shores up my point that terrestrial and humanistic concerns seem to have the jump on anything galactic (not that I’m suggesting it’s either end poverty or colonise Jupiter, though I can’t help thinking there’s a case for getting this house in order before building new ones).

I was being unfortunately glib in suggesting that we’ve arrived at a point where we’re too busy dipping into lake me to wade out into uncharted waters, and introspection is a good thing, but I do suspect, and regret, that it’s been at the expense of getting ‘out there’. I simply wonder why both urges aren’t entertained with more parity. It’s very easy to scoff at Trisha or reiki, and believe me I do, and at the risk of sounding overly-serious, I find a lot of this ‘soul-wanking’ socially damaging, but they go hand-in-hand with things that I think we can generally agree are for the better, e.g. counseling on the NHS = good, Dave Cameron’s desire to see us happy = wank; posthumous appreciation for Kafka’s (supposed) existentialism = good, Paulo Coelho = wank.

Watching and enjoying the television series Lost this evening, it seemed to confirm and play very effectively to the point I’m rather loosely and poorly articulating. They’re marooned on an island yet haven’t bothered to map the terrain. Instead, the audience is treated to a great deal of soul-searching, character revelation and some conspiratorial weirdness for good measure. I sound disparaging, but I love it, am willingly manipulated each time. 

I was going to mention how our sacred hunger doesn’t seem diminished, just miniaturised and internalised by Crick & Watson, or else quite easily sated by, off the top of my head, cheap air travel (see Middle Earth!), natural history film-making (see our primate cousins up close!), religion (it’s making quite the comeback), but I’ve actually arrived at another possibility, not unrelated to my earlier point about rockets being part of industrial society’s death throes (note the timing of China stepping up its space programme). 

Bill Benzon’s on to something when he mentions the mercantile, pecuniary impulse of exploration and expedition. Raleigh was a privateer, Columbus is a hero or a genocidist depending on whom you’re talking to (Hugo Chavez doesn’t like him much), Livingston was as much driven to establish missions in central Africa as anything else. I’m less interested in the specific motivations, more in the fact that they were mobilised by more than curiosity or sacred hunger, that these fellas and many like them were mobilised by professional interests. Being, as the developed world is, at the end of things (couldn’t resist), most of its residents are pretty comfortable and the division of labour so (over-)developed that exploration nowadays tends to serve either very specific and rarefied scientific interests or be a case of dilettantism (Alex James’ input into Beagle 2? Cousteau according to some). This hobbyism in particular, though admirable, is for me the ‘look’ of exploration at the moment (and looks go a long way toward winning hearts and minds), and it’s obviously ill-suited to anything as large-scale and complex as getting out and about in space. I googled ‘modern explorers’ and got a lot of people who turned out to be photographers (including an ‘urban explorer’-cum-flaneur based in East London) and Thor Heyerdahl, who, with the best will in the world, was an anthropologist. Even underwater exploration looks to have dried up twenty years ago - http://www.seasky.org/oceanxp/sea5a3.html

Anyways, a convoluted issue this waning desire for space travel stuff (insert joke about how it is rocket science here) not helped by me I dare say, but not, I reckon, down to science fiction film and TV (rather they haven’t superseded actual space exploration but have neatly occupied the space it vacated and maybe fulfil our collective desire for it now it’s been reduced).

A couple of minor thoughts that occurred to me as I read Bill’s earlier post:

The cheesiness of effects in the 50s is surely relative, and I expect they were convincing enough in their day. I know I was impressed by, say, Total Recall (the effects, I hasten to add) back in the day, and it now looks very shaky. Although it isn’t too difficult to envisage a state whereby budgets are the only impediment to representation (i.e. the much mooted FX grail of CGI actors).

2001 is an interesting milestone, in that while the FX stand up remarkably well, I don’t think they were deployed in pursuit of the conventional SF spectacle of shock and awe. Kubrick’s version of space travel looks a tedious affair, akin to a plane journey. The monolith and the space station are spectacular, for sure, but they feel almost like depiction rather than invention, as though the camera is pointed at these things that are, like mountains, just there, if that makes sense. I could see 2001 turning audiences away from space travel, but for quite the opposite reason Adam gives – it looks quotidian.

Have a good weekend.

By on 07/14/06 at 10:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I didn’t enjoy Gradisil as much as your earlier books. I thought there was a certain straining after literary effects. For instance that death scene,I can’t remember whose it was.I don’t mean to be unpleasant but I thought ‘On’ was a masterpiece.But my opinion isn’t worth much-my favourite SF novel is ‘Kiteworld’ by Keith Roberts,your namesake.

By on 10/02/06 at 03:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ooo!  There’s this interesting… er… dichotomy here.

For some of us, we step outside and look at the moon, and think about how a hundred thousand years ago, some homo erectus or what have you saw it and thought he’d like to go there.  Through the ages, you’ve got the moon.  It causes tides, it’s pretty, it’s scary, whatever.  And then, and this is no shit, Neil Armstrong goes and walks on it.  Absolutely amazing.  Still don’t entirely believe it.  In all seriousness, it makes me proud to be an American.

But!

We (I count myself among the crowd described above), were not what got us there.  Because the Apollo program cost fifty billion dollars, back when that was real money, and we don’t control that kind of money.  JFK had a couple of bad days, the Soviets were on a roll, and he needed to do something to demonstrate who was the big kid on the block.  Thus - Apollo!  And once we had flexed our muscles sufficiently, back to fighting Vietnam and building the Great Society and the drudgery of day-to-day life.

Of course we’re dissatisfied; we spent our lives thinking (dreaming?) ambitious and grand thoughts, had our moment in the sun, and then discovered that people didn’t really care what we thought but were using us to pursue their baser ends.  And tragically, the bar has been set so high that even doing what has done before is practically impossible.

It’s not just the space cadets who are suffering from these negative effects, there are huge bureaucratic problems within NASA due to the belief that the Apollo days were the natural order of things, and that all that had to be done was to stick around until those in charge came to their senses and set things back on the right path.  Misreading events as “The Return of Apollo” regularly leads to huge overcommitment with the subsequent forced retreat; we are (IMHO) in the midst of such a cycle right now, but it’s not clear that manned spaceflight as we know it will survive this one.

By on 10/03/06 at 05:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Your remarks about NASA’s internal problems are on the money, Jake. I spent some time consulting for NASA in the summer of 1981 and they were very concerned about morale. The agency had been built to put a man on the moon; now that that was over and done, being Space Transportation Inc.—e.g. the shuttle program—just wasn’t delivering the excitement that the moon program did. So morale was low and many of the best people were leaving.

By Bill Benzon on 10/03/06 at 06:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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