May 15, 2014
The current (May 17) Science News is running a story about the effort to figure out a way to penetrate the ice sheets on Europa so we can determine whether a relatively warm ocean exists on that distant moon, and, if so, whether it harbors life. At this point, of course, it all sounds pretty speculative. I would not have believed, in 1947, when the first UFO reports came in and got everyone excited, that 67 years later we would not only have no idea whether life existed anywhere else, but that the USA wouldn't even be able to get to the space station without help.
In any case, it can be painful to go back and read Golden Age science fiction, which often imagined interplanetary flight being very close. With World War II disposed of, and the sense that the USA could accomplish anything we set our minds to, we thought we were on our way. Certainly we'd be headed for Venus and Mars by the 1970's.
We might have moved the barriers back a few years when the Cold War took over and technology was diverted to weapons development rather than pure science. But even then, surely, we would be heading out by the end of the century. Think Arthur Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which gives us a manned expedition, Discovery I, bound for Saturn. And, for those who only saw the movie and think they actually went to Jupiter, the voyage was shortened for the film, apparently because Saturn's rings would have been an expensive challenge for the special effects unit.
I can't imagine anyone reading SF back during the early days of Heinlein and Asimov would have believed that, 14 years into the 21st century, we'd have been to the Moon, but forgotten how to manage it.
The bottom line is that in 1940, when science fiction arrived for a lot of us via the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movie serials, the world was vastly different. My parents let me buy the pulps a few years later, and dreamed of the kind of planetary exploration that Murray Leinster, Leigh Brackett and Doc Smith were writing about. During the fifth grade, more or less, I started my first novel, The Canals of Mars. I picked up The Martian Chronicles as I hit high school, and that finished me. I was going to be around when the big discoveries were made. Maybe I'd even make it onto that first flight to Mars. One of the more serious disappointments in my life came when those Mariner images came back revealing only a lifeless landscape.
I've been thinking about life in other places a good bit recently. I cleared 65,000 words yesterday on the first draft of Starlight Station, a sequel to Ancient Shores. Anyone who's read the original book will recall that a life form emerges from a 10,000-year-old star gate that has been discovered in North Dakota. The creature is experienced only as a combination of light wind and a soft glow. And maybe the presence of sentience.
Everyone knows it's out there. It has caused no harm, and even assisted a few people in trouble. The glow shows up at night. The question I've been asking myself: How would we respond to the presence of such a creature?
I've been fairly negligent about posting stories. The intent now will be to post a different story every month. The present one, "Auld Lang Boom," grew out of a lunch I had with a friend, who also happened to be my boss, in D.C. back in the early 90's. We were enjoying ourselves, probably talking about the Cubs, when we noticed that the restaurant had grown quiet. One of us –I don't remember which—leaned over to the next table and asked whether something had happened.
The answer: "We just bombed Baghdad." Or something along those lines. I had "Auld Lang Boom" plotted and ready to go when I got off the plane.