April 14, 2016

Space and Science Fiction Collide in an I-House Far, Far Away

Students, faculty, and Hyde Park residents gathered at I-House this past Saturday to explore the development of science fiction at a time when astrophysics continues to discover puzzling properties of the universe. The conversation was a part of the Chicago Society’s conference “Space: Speculation and Exploration.”

The event featured three panels of experts: the first focused on the science of space, the second on the political and economic dimensions of space exploration, and the third on literature that has been influenced by space exploration. The science fiction panel in particular brought together both authors and enthusiasts, including writers John Hemry and Robert Buettner, Robert Scherrer, the chairman of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University, and Eric Rabkin, Professor Emeritus of English Language and Art & Design at the University of Michigan.

Scherrer was the first to speak. Rather than talk about fiction itself, Scherrer focused on the science in the authors’ books. He specifically looked at how science fiction authors have coped with Einstein’s discovery of the cosmic speed limit: the speed of light.

“Traveling between stars in our galaxy at the speed of light is the equivalent of getting on a tractor and setting out at six feet per hour to explore the United States…. So science fiction has dealt with this [problem of the speed of light] in three different ways: one is to just ignore it, one is to evade it, and one is to accept it,” Scherrer said.

Ignoring the speed of light has been perhaps the most popular approach. Hyperspace is a staple of science fiction literature and film, appearing in everything from Isaac Asimov novels to Star Wars and Star Trek.

The second method, however, is somewhat more interesting and was recently utilized in the film Interstellar, in which a wormhole was used to travel between galaxies.

Finally, the last of the writer’s toolkit—incorporating the science into the fiction—has, according to Scherrer, “produced some of the most creative and memorable ideas in all of science fiction.” One of these is the “generation ship,” the interstellar rendition of Noah’s Ark where humanity travels through space in a gargantuan spaceship. Another is time dilation, where two events are experienced at different times due to observers’ relative motion or positions near a massive body. Both concepts were used by Robert Heinlein, the so-called “dean of science fiction writers.”

Unlike Scherrer, Rabkin focused on the phenomenology of space. He argued that our evolving knowledge of space is reflected in the use of space and its objects at different cultural moments. To highlight this changing knowledge and its effects on the arts, Rabkin compared the works of two English poets, John Keats and Elizabeth Jennings. In Keats’s “Bright Star,” the star is looked at as a still, eternal object that the author uses as a metaphor for his expressions of love. On the other hand, Jennings’s poem “Delay,” written a century later, uses the star and its death as a metaphor for the immoderate passions of love. Just as a star dies in a masterful explosion and leaves its light to be appreciated, the first moments of love are a burst of emotion that may destroy the sentiment but are left to be valued once the moment has passed.

Next to speak was the best-selling author of The Lost Fleet series, John Hemry, who is a proponent of “hard” science fiction, which is to say he “pays attention to science” when he writes.

“I’m a retired Navy officer, and so I write about space from that perspective,” Hemry said. “[Space is] a very different character from the ocean. The ocean is a very active character. It has moods; it has feelings. If the ocean decides to kill you, you pretty much know. Space, for me, however, is a much more passive character. Space to me is an old man who sits in a corner in infinite patience waiting for someone to make a mistake, for something to break, and then it is going to kill you.”

With this image of space in mind, Hemry incorporates struggles over food and living conditions aboard spaceships, as well as various maintenance issues that may arise while traversing space.

Finally, Robert Buettner, author of the Orphan’s Legacy series, asked if “science fiction murdered its child.” In other words, has science fiction increased space exploration and degraded the novelty of the fantastical science fiction universe by excessively promoting space exploration with its elaborate descriptions of space? When man finally did begin to explore space, their real-life accounts were colorless and dry. This disappointed a public whose fiction caused inflated and unrealistic expectations.

Yet science fiction has always been a keen reflection of current societal issues and ills. As Buettner said, “Space has always been a venue to which science fiction returns when it wanted to hold a mirror up to what it held puzzling on earth.”

Buettner concluded with optimism for the future of his field: “For me, space science fiction’s best years aren’t behind it. Its future remains as infinite as the universe.”

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