In the latest ambitious plan to make space exploration accessible to the general public, Uwingu has unveiled a new campaign where people can send messages and pictures to the Red Planet. It’s called “Beam Me to Mars”, and the company is inviting people to contribute, for a fee, to a “digital shout-out” that will send messages from Earth to Mars on Nov. 28 — the 50th anniversary of Mars exploration.
The first successful Mars mission, NASA’s Mariner 4 – launched on Nov. 28, 1964 – performed the first flyby of the Red Planet and returned the first pictures of the Martian surface. This was the first time that images were captured of another planet and returned from deep space. and their depiction of a cratered, seemingly dead world largely changed the view of the scientific community on life on Mars.
According to representative from Uwingu, “Beam Me to Mars” celebrates that landmark effort in a new and original way by inspiring people to get on board with Martian exploration. Other goals include raising lots of money to fund space science, exploration and education (Uwingu’s stated chief purpose) and letting policymakers know how important space exploration is to their constituents.
As CEO Alan Sterm, a planetary scientist and former NASA science chief, said in an interview with Space.com:
We want it to inspire people. There has never been an opportunity before for people of Earth to shout out across the solar system their hopes and wishes for space exploration, for the future of mankind — for any of that… We want to make an impression on leaders. The more messages, the bigger impression it makes. If this thing goes viral, and it becomes the thing to do, then it’ll make a huge impression.
For $4.95, people can beam their name (or someone else’s) to Mars, whereas $9.95 gets people a chance to beam a name and a 100-character message. $19.95 gets a 1,000-character note instead of the shorter one, and for those willing to spend $99 will be able to send their name, a long message and an image of their choosing. All messages submitted for “Beam Me to Mars” will also be hand-delivered to Congress, NASA and the United Nations.
Submissions must be made via uwingu.com by Nov. 5. And the company – whose name means “sky” in Swahili – and its transmission partner, communications provider Universal Space Network, will use radio telescopes to beam the messages at Mars on Nov. 28 at the rate of 1 million bits per second. The transmission, traveling at the speed of light, will reach the Red Planet on that day in just 15 minutes.
For comparison, it took Mariner 4 more than seven months to get to Mars a half-century ago. The probe didn’t touch down, but its historic flyby in July 1965 provided the first up-close look at the surface of another planet from deep space. Mariner 4’s observations revealed that Mars is a dry and mostly desolate world, dashing the hopes of those who had viewed it as a world crisscrossed by canals and populated by little green men.
Already, several celebrities have signed on to the campaign, including actors Seth Green and wife Clare Grant, George (“Sulu”) Takei of Star Trek fame and his husband Brad, Bill Nye “The Science Guy”, astronaut and former ISS commander Chris Hadfield, commercial astronaut Richard Garriott, former NASA senior executive Lori Garver, Pulitzer winning author and playwright Dava Sobel, and Author and screenwriter Homer Hickam.
This is not the first Mars effort for Uwingu, which was founded in 2012. In February, the company launched its “People’s Map of Mars,” asking the public to name Red Planet landmarks for a small fee. To date, people have named more than 12,000 Mars craters, and Uwingu has set aside more than $100,000 for grants. And when it comes to getting the general public involved with space science and travel, they are merely one amongst many. The age of public space exploration is near, people!
Lately, I’ve been getting back to work on the space anthology known as Yuva – and for good reason. Not only has our group been blessed with the arrival of some new blood in recent months, but for many of us (me especially), the inspiration bug has bitten after a long hiatus.
Don’t ask me why, but writing for a different genres can be very temperamental. One minute, you find that all you can write about zombies and apocalyptic scenarios; next minute, its all space ships and futurism. Somebody really needs to put a label on inspiration, one that reads “non-transferable”!
In any case, here is the latest sample from my latest anthology story, “Arrivals”. In this scene, we find one of the main characters (Marcellin Strauss) aboard the ship that will take him and its crew to rendezvous with the Second Migration, a flotilla of ships that are rapidly making their way towards Yuva…
* * *
The tiny space inside his helmet felt terribly confining. And at the moment, the heads-up display, with all its colored light and constant barrage of information, was not helping. And top of all that, there was the launch clock that was slowly counting down in the lower left corner. At the moment, it was the largest thing in his display field, and impossible to ignore. It’s every tick kept pace with the automated voice coming in from Control, and with the frantic beating of his heart.
Strauss could only breathe and try to remember what he had been told during the past few weeks of crash-course training.
Breath steadily, sit tight, and trust in the instruments.
Not exactly the height of preparation; but at the moment, what else could one do? At this point, the ship pretty much flew itself and all they could do was trust the equipment not to kill them. And considering that Strauss wasn’t even flying the thing, he was left with little to do but wait and try not to panic.
Hartberg’s voice sounded in his ear. “Commencing engine ignition sequence…” He felt a low rumble as the ship’s engine began powering up and preparing to slam hydrogen and anti-hydrogen together in a controlled reaction. “Ignition sequence in five, four, three, two, one…”
They were hit by a hard jolt. Vibrations that were enough to make all the colored lights in his field of view turn into a blurred mess took over. Like everyone else in the cabin, he was thrust into his seat and felt the restraints grab him tighter. And within seconds, they began shooting down the runway.
Hartberg‘s voice spoke again within a few seconds, relaying their progress to Control in an unbelievably calm tone.
“Thrust capacity reaching optimal… acceleration normal… beginning ascent in ten seconds…”
Breath steadily, sit tight… he thought as he continued to be pushed back into the seat.
The runway continued to recede behind them. In the distance, he could see the Great Expanse growing larger as they drew nearer to the coast. And then, he felt the slightest lift as the runway dropped beneath them.
Hartberg‘s reports became faster and closer together now.
“Ascent begun, engine function nominal, orbital velocity in sixty seconds…” The vibrations subsided a little, so that the readouts in his vision seemed discernible. He could only ascertain so much from them, but the fact that all were in the green was reassuring.
Their acceleration mounted and they continued to climb, and Strauss felt himself being pushed harder back into the seat. It was a funny paradox, how breaking the hold of planet’s gravity meant having to endure additional gravitation stress. It was as if Yuva didn’t want them to leave and was trying to pull them back in.
Trust in the instruments, he told himself. Trust in the pilot.
Up ahead, all he could see now was the deep azure of the sky, the slowly receding clouds, and the faint dots of the distant stars. The engine continued to slam particles together in an ongoing effort to achieve maximum thrust, and his body could feel additional bit of acceleration they achieved.
Beneath the noise of the ship, the voices and the instruments, he could hear a dull moaning. It was coming from him, and growing in intensity. A voice soon sounded in his ear, one of the operators at Control demanding to know his status.
“Control to Eagle One. We’ve got Strauss showing very high levels of epinephrine. Advise on the need for a sedative, over.”
Strauss quickly keyed his comm and replied. “This is Strauss. I’m fine. I’m just fine, over. I’m good, don’t dose me.”
His hurried, panting reply was followed by that of the Captain’s, who was sure to use all the proper comm protocol.
“Control, this is Eagle One Actual. That’s a negative on a sedative, over.”
“Roger that, Eagle One.”
There was a slight pause, during which time Strauss stopped making noise and tried to catch his breath. The Captain came back on and tried to talk him down.
“That’s it, Strauss. Just keep breathing. We’re almost there.”
Strauss heard him and felt somewhat reassured. He kept breathing and kept his eyes ahead, focusing on the distant stars. These were much more calming than all the readouts that continued to frantically tick away, showing their speed, engine pressure, altitude, and anything else that was rapidly changing. In time, the sky began to change color. A flare of orange light flickered through the cabin as their sun’s light hit them for the first time without refraction. And very quickly, the distant stars began to burn much brighter.
That’s when Strauss noticed everything change…
The cabin ceased vibrating, the numbers in his field of view began to drop off, and he no longer felt himself being thrust back into his seat. In fact, he now felt the restraints tugging against him to keep him from floating away.
They had done it. They had broken atmo, and were now floating in high orbit above the planet. Hartberg’s voice came back on the line to announce this.
“Control, this is Eagle One. We have broken atmo. I repeat, we have broken atmo, over.”
There was a pause as Strauss was sure the people at Control were howling out in celebration. Just about everyone in the cabin was doing the same. Meanwhile, he licked his lips and tried to get his heart and breathing under control. He could feel his head beginning to spin as his blood pressure dropped and his adrenals took a break. He also became aware of an incredibly dry feeling in his mouth.
All of this made him painfully aware of how sober he was right now, and how much he wished it weren’t so.
It’s no secret that the orbital space lanes are clogged with debris. In fact, our upper atmosphere is so clogged with the remains of dead satellites, old rockets, and assorted space garbage, that initiatives are being planned to remedy the situation. The ESA, for example, has the Clean Space Initiative; and the e.DeOrbit mission that aims to send debris-hunting satellites into orbit to clean up the mess.
The aim of this mission is to clean up the important polar orbits between altitudes of 800 to 1,000 km (500 to 625 mil) that face the prospect of becoming unusable due to the increasing buildup of space debris. As part of the plan, the ESA is also investigating the possibility of using space harpoons to capture large items, such as derelict satellites and the upper stages of rockets.
This is just the latest in a series of possible plans to capture debris. In the past, the ESA has revealed that it was looking at capturing space debris in a net, securing it with clamping mechanisms, or grabbing hold of it using robotic arms. However, the latest possibility calls for using capturing debris with a tethered harpoon, which would pierce the debris with a high-energy impact before reeling it in.
Such an approach would not be practical for smaller debris, but is aimed at reeling in uncontrolled multitonne objects that threaten to fragment when colliding with other objects. These sorts of collisions result in debris clouds that would steadily increase in density due to the Kessler syndrome – a scenario in which the density of orbital debris is high enough that collisions generates more debris, increasing the likelihood of further collisions.
The ESA says the space harpoon concept has already undergone initial investigations by Airbus Defense and Space in Stevenage – two aerospace developers based in the UK. The preliminary design incorporates a penetrating tip, a crushable cartridge to help embed it in the target satellite structure, and barbs to keep it sticking in so the satellite can then be reeled in.
The initial tests involved shooting a prototype harpoon into a satellite-like material to assess its penetration, the strength of the harpoon and tether as the target is reeled in, and the potential for the target to fragment, which would result in more debris that could threaten the e.DeOrbit satellite. The ESA now plans to follow up these initial tests by building and testing a prototype version of the harpoon and its ejection system.
The project will examine the harpoon impact, target piercing and the reeling in of objects using computer models and experiments, ultimately leading up to a full hardware demonstration. The space agency has put out the call for bidders to compete for the project contract, and hopes to be sending a working model into orbit by 2021 to conduct some much-needed housecleaning.
Naturally, there are other proposals being considered for debris-hunting. Between the ESA and NASA, there’s also the EPFL’s CleanSpace One debris hunter, and the Universities Space Research Association anti-collision laser concept. And while these remains still very much in the RandD phase, clearing the space lanes is likely to become a central issue once regular missions are mounted to Mars and the outer Solar System.
It’s no secret that the human race is poised on a new generation of space exploration and travel. With future missions based on towing asteroids to Earth, building settlements on the Moon, and walking on Mars, NASA and other space agencies are eying their aging hardware and looking for design modifications. From shuttles, to rockets, to capsules, everything is getting an overhaul. And now, NASA is looking to create the next generation of space suits, and is looking to the public’s for help.
They are called the Z-series, a revolutionary new suit that is designed for walking on Mars as well as floating around in space and performing spacewalks. This new series is expected to replace the current aging design, which has been in continuous use on both space flights and aboard the International Space Station since 1982. In addition to updated technology and functionality, the new spacesuit also has an updated look.
The first design was unveiled back in December of 2012 with the Z-1, which bore a striking resemblance to Buzz Lightyear’s own spacesuit. The new version (the Z-2 series), which has different joint designs and a more durable torso, also comes with a trio of “flashy” cover designs that were made in collaboration with fashion students at Philadelphia University, and were inspired by biomimicry, the evolution of technology, and even – supposedly – street fashion.
And unlike the current microgravity suits, the Z-series is designed for walking in extra-terrestrial environments where gravity is the norm (i.e. the Moon and Mars). Intrinsic to the new design is flexibility: it makes it much easier to walk, bend, and pick things up off the surface of a planet or moon. It also goes on quite differently. Whereas the old suit is pulled on like a pair of pants and a shirt, the new version has a handy door built into the back so someone can climb inside.
As Bobby Jones, an engineer for ILC, the company that worked on the new design explained:
There are a lot of fundamental design differences between developing a microgravity suit versus a planetary walking suit. A lot of that has to do with how much mobility is built into the lower torso. With microgravity you’re using your arms to move around and your feet just hang out there. You can dock the suit up to your habitat or vehicle and leave it outside, so you don’t drag dust and other things into your cabin,” Jones explains.
As previously noted, anyone can help decide among the three cover designs by casting a vote on NASA’s website. One option, inspired by underwater creatures (and known as the “Biomimicry” suit), employs glowing wires to help the suit stay visible at night. A second version – known as the “Technology” suit – pays homage to past spacesuits and uses light-emitting patches along with wire. The third option, inspired by “Trends in Society”, uses electroluminescent wire and a bright color scheme to mimic the appearance of sportswear and the emerging world of wearable technologies.
NASA says the final design is “reflective of what everyday clothes may look like in the not too distant future,” pulling in elements of sportswear and wearable tech. NASA will move forward with the most popular cover in the public vote, and plans to have the suit ready for testing by the end of the year. And they are hardly alone in looking to create suits that can handle the challenges of future exploration. For example, it’s also worth checking out this MIT professor Dava Newman sleek Mars spacesuit, aka. the “Spiderman Spacesuit”, that is currently in development.
In the meantime, check out this video from Ted Talks where Newman showcases her Spiderman suit. And be sure to head over to the Johnson Space Center’s website and cast your vote for what NASA’s next-generation spacesuit will look like.
Imagine if you will a long tether made of super-tensile materials, running 100,000 km from the Earth and reaching into geostationary orbit. Now imagine that this tether is a means of shipping people and supplies into orbit, forever removing the need for rockets and shuttles going into space. For decades, scientists and futurists have been dreaming about the day when a “Space Elevator” would be possible; and according to a recent study, it could become a reality by 2035.
The report was launched by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), a 350-page report that lays out a detailed case for a space elevator. At the center of it that will reach beyond geostationary orbit and held taught by an anchor weighing roughly two million kilograms (2204 tons). Sending payloads up this backbone could fundamentally change the human relationship with space, with the equivalent of a space launch happening almost daily.
The central argument of the paper — that we should build a space elevator as soon as possible — is supported by a detailed accounting of the challenges associated with doing so. The possible pay-off is as simple: a space elevator could bring the cost-per-kilogram of launch to geostationary orbit from $20,000 to as little as $500. Not only would be it useful for deploying satellites, it would also be far enough up Earth’s gravity well to be able to use it for long-range missions.
This could include the long-awaited mission to Mars, where a shuttle would push off from the top and then making multiple loops around the Earth before setting off for the Red Planet. This would cut huge fractions off the fuel budget, and would also make setting up a base on the Moon (or Mars) a relatively trivial affair. Currently, governments and corporations spend billions putting satellites into space, but a space elevator could pay for itself and ensure cheaper access down the line.
The report lays out a number of technological impediments to a space elevator, but by far the most important is the tether itself. Current materials science has yet to provide a material with the strength, flexibility, and density needed for its construction. Tethers from the EU and Japan are beginning to push the 100-kilometer mark, are still a long way off orbital altitude, and the materials for existing tethers will not allow much additional length.
Projecting current research in carbon nanotubes and similar technologies, the IAA estimates that a pilot project could plausibly deliver packages to an altitude of 1000 kilometers (621 miles) as soon as 2025. With continued research and the help of a successful LEO (low Earth orbit, i.e. between 100 and 1200 miles) elevator, they predict a 100,000-kilometer (62,137-mile) successor will stretch well past geosynchronous orbit just a decade after that.
The proposed design is really quite simple, with a sea platform (or super-ship) anchoring the tether to the Earth while a counterweight sits at the other end, keeping the system taught through centripetal force. For that anchor, the report argues that a nascent space elevator should be stabilized first with a big ball of garbage – one composed of retired satellites, space debris, and the cast-off machinery used to build the elevator’s own earliest stages.
To keep weight down for the climbers (the elevator cars), this report imagines them as metal skeletons strung with meshes of carbon nanotubes. Each car would use a two-stage power structure to ascend, likely beginning with power from ground- or satellite-based lasers, and then the climber’s own solar array. The IAA hopes for a seven-day climb from the base to GEO — slow, but still superior and far cheaper than the rockets that are used today.
One thing that is an absolute must, according to the report, is international cooperation. This is crucial not only for the sake of financing the elevator’s construction, but maintaining its neutrality. In terms of placement, IAA staunchly maintains that a space elevator would be too precious a resource to be built within the territory of any particular nation-state. Though every government would certainly love a space elevator of their very own, cost considerations will likely make that impossible in the near-term.
By virtue of its physical size, a space elevator will stretch through multiple conflicting legal zones, from the high seas to the “territorial sky” to the “international sky” to outer space itself, presenting numerous legal and political challenges. Attacks by terrorists or enemies in war are also a major concern, requiring that it be defended and monitored at all levels. And despite being a stateless project, it would require a state’s assets to maintain, likely by the UN or some new autonomous body.
In 2003, Arthur C. Clarke famously said that we will build a space elevator 10 years after they stop laughing. Though his timeline may have been off, as if often the case – for example, we didn’t have deep space missions or AIs by 2001 – sentiments were bang on. The concept of a space elevator is taken seriously at NASA these days, as it eyes the concept as a potential solution for both shrinking budgets and growing public expectations.
Space is quickly becoming a bottleneck in the timeline of human technological advancement. From mega-telescopes and surveillance nets to space mining operations and global high-speed internet coverage, most of our biggest upcoming projects will require better access to space than our current methods can provide for. And in addition to providing for that support, this plans highlights exactly how much further progress in space depends on global cooperation.
In the course of becoming an indie writer, there is one aspect of the creative process which keeps coming back to me. To put it simply, it is the challenges and delights of world building – i.e. creating the background, context, and location in which a story takes place. For years, I have been reading other people’s thoughts on the subject, be they authors themselves or just big fans of literary fiction.
But my own experience with the process has taught me much that I simply couldn’t appreciate before I picked up my pen and pad (or in this case, opened a word doc and began typing). Ad lately, the thoughts have been percolating in my mind and I felt the need to write them out. Having done that, I thought I might share them in full.
For starters, being a science fiction writer presents a person with particular opportunities for creative expression. But at the same time, it presents its share of particular challenges. While one is certainly freer to play around with space, place, and invent more freely than with most other genres, they are still required to take into account realism, consistency and continuity in all that they do.
Sooner or later, the world a writer builds will be explored, mapped, and assessed, and any and all inconsistencies are sure to stick out like a sore thumb! So in addition to making sure back-stories, timelines and other details accord with the main plot, authors also need to be mindful of things like technology, physical laws, and the nature of space and time.
But above all, the author in question has to ask themselves what kind of universe they want to build. If it is set in the future, they need to ask themselves certain fundamental questions about where human beings will be down the road. Not only that, they also need to decide what parallels (and they always come up!) they want to draw with the world of today.
Through all of this, they will be basically deciding what kind of message they want to be sending with their book. Because of course, anything they manage to dream up about the future will tell their readers lots about the world the author inhabits, both in the real sense and within their own head. And from what I have seen, it all comes down to five basic questions they must ask themselves…
1. Near-Future/Far Future:
When it comes to science-fiction stories, the setting is almost always the future. At times, it will be set in an alternate universe, or an alternate timeline; but more often than not, the story takes place down the road. The only question is, how far down the road? Some authors prefer to go with the world of tomorrow, setting their stories a few decades or somewhere in the vicinity of next century.
By doing this, the author in question is generally trying to show how the world of today will determine the world of tomorrow, commenting on current trends and how they are helping/hurting us. During the latter half of the 20th century, this was a very popular option for writers, as the consensus seemed to be that the 21st century would be a time when some truly amazing things would be possible; be it in terms of science, technology, or space travel.
Other, less technologically-inclined authors, liked to use the not-so-distant future as a setting for dystopian, post-apocalytpic scenarios, showing how current trends (atomic diplomacy, arms races, high tech, environmental destruction) would have disastrous consequences for humanity in the near-future. Examples of this include Brave New World, 1984, The Iron Heel, The Chrysalids, and a slew of others.
In all cases, the totalitarian regimes or severe technological and social regression that characterized their worlds were the result of something happening in the very near-future, be it nuclear or biological war, a catastrophic accident, or environmental collapse. Basically, humanity’s current behavior was the basis for a cautionary tale, where an exaggerated example is used to illustrate the logical outcome of all this behavior.
At the other end of the spectrum, many authors have taken the long view with their sci-fi world building. Basically, they set their stories several centuries or even millennia from now. In so doing, they are able to break with linear timelines and the duty of having to explain how humanity got from here to there, and instead could focus on more abstract questions of existence and broader allegories.
Examples of this include Frank Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation series, both of which were set tens of thousands of years in the future. In both of these universes, humanity’s origins and how they got to where they were took a backseat to the historical allegories that were being played upon. While some mention is given to the origins of humanity and where they came from, little attempt is made to draw a line from the present into the future.
Instead, the focus is overwhelmingly on the wider nature of human beings and what drives us to do the things we do. Asimov drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to make a point about the timeless nature of history, while Herbert drew on the modern age, medieval and ancient history, religion, philosophy, and evolutionary biology and ecology to investigate the timeless nature of humanity and what factors shape it.
For non-purists, Star Wars and Star Trek can also serve as examples of both tendencies in action. For decades, Star Trek used a not-too-distant future setting to endlessly expound on the human race and the issues it faces today. And always, this examination was done in the form of interstellar travel, the crew of the Enterprise going form world to world and seeing themselves in the problems, norms and social structure of other races.
Star Wars, on the other hand, was an entirely different animal. For the people living in this universe, no mention is ever made of Earth, and pre-Republic history is considered a distant and inaccessible thing. And while certain existential and social issues are explored (i.e. racism, freedom and oppression), the connections with Earth’s past are more subtle, relying on indirect clues rather than overt comparisons.
The Republic and the Empire, for example, is clearly inspired by Rome’s own example. The Jedi Code is very much the picture of the Bushido code, its practitioners a sort of futuristic samurai, and the smugglers of Tatooine are every bit the swashbuckling, gun toting pirates and cowboys of popular fiction. But always, the focus seemed to more on classically-inspired tales of destiny, and of epic battles of good versus evil.
And of course, whether we are talking near future or far future has a big influence on the physical setting of the story as well. Which brings me to item two…
2. Stellar or Interstellar:Here is another important question that every science fiction author has faced, and one which seriously influences the nature of the story. When it comes to the world of tomorrow, will it be within the confines of planet Earth, the Solar System, or on many different world throughout our galaxy? Or, to go really big, will it encompass the entire Milky Way, or maybe even beyond?
Important questions for a world-builder, and examples certainly abound. In the former case, you have your dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and near future seenarios, where humanity is stuck living on a hellish Earth that has seen better days. Given that humanity would not be significantly more adavanced than the time of writing, or may have even regressed due to the downfall of civilization, Earth would be the only place people can live.
But that need not always be the case. Consider Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. In his dystopian, post-apocalyptic tale, Earth was devestated by nuclear war, forcing the wealthiest and healthiest to live in the Offworld Colonies while everyone who was too poor or too ravaged by their exposure to radiation was confined to Earth. Clearly, dystopia does not rule out space travel, though it might limit it.
And in the latter case, where human beings have left the cradle and begun walking amongst our System’s other planets and even the stars, the nature of the story tends to be a bit more ambiguous. Those who choose such a setting tend to be of the opinion that mankind either needs to reach out in order to survive, or that doing so will allow us to shed some of our problems.
Examples abound here again, but Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe seems like the ideal one here. In this series, humanity has access to near-light speed travel, nanotechnology, brain-computer interfacing, neural uploading, AI, smart materials, and has colonized dozens of new worlds. However, the state of humanity has not changed, and on many worlds, civil war and sectarian violence are common.
In either case, the setting also bears a direct relation to the state of technology in the story. For humans still living on Earth (and nowhere else) in the future, chances are, they are about as advanced or even behind the times in which the story was written. For those living amongst the stars, technology would have to advanced sufficiently to make it happen. Which brings me to the next point…
3. High-Tech or Low-Tech: What would a work of science fiction be without plenty of room for gadgets, gizmos, and speculation about the future state of technology? And once more, I can discern of two broad categories that an author can choose from, both of which have their share of potential positives and negatives. And depending on what kind of story you want to write, the choice of what that state is often predetermined.
In the former case, there is the belief that technology will continue to advance in the future, leading to things like space travel, FTL, advanced cyborgs, clones, tricorders, replicators, artificial intelligence, laser guns, lightsabers, phasers, photon torpedoes, synthetic humans, and any number of other fun, interesting and potentially dangerous things.
With stories like these, the purpose of high-tech usually serves as a framing device, providing visual evidence that the story is indeed taking place in the future. In other words, it serves a creative and fun purpose, without much thought being given towards exploring the deeper issues of technological progress and determinism. But this not be the case, and oftentimes with science fiction, high-tech serves a different purpose altogether.
In many other cases, the advance of technology is directly tied to the plot and the nature of the story. Consider cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer and the other novels of William Gibson’s SprawlTrilogy. In these and other cyberpunk novels, the state of technology – i.e. cyberpsace decks, robotic prosthetics, biotech devices – served to illustrate the gap between rich and poor and highlighting the nature of light in a dark, gritty future.
By contrast, such post-cyberpunk novels as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age took a different approach. While high-tech and its effects on society were explored in great detail, he and other authors of this sub genre chose to break with their predecessors on one key issue. Namely, they did not suppose that the emergence of high-tech would lead to dystopia, but rather an ambiguous future where both good and harm resulted.
And at the other end of the spectrum, where technology is in a low state, the purpose and intent of this is generally the same. On the one hand, it may serve as a plot framing device, illustrating how the world is in a primitive state due to the collapse of civilization as we know it, or because our unsustainable habits caught up with us and resulted in the world stepping backwards in time.
At the same time, the very fact that people live in a primitive state in any of these stories serves the purpose of commentary. Simply by showing how our lives were unsustainable, or the actions of the story’s progenitor’s so foolish, the author is making a statement and asking the reader to acknowledge and ponder the deeper issue, whether they realize it or not.
At this end of things, A Boy and His Dog and Mad Max serve as good examples. In the former case, the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape where a lone boy and his genetically-engineered talking dog rove the landscape in search of food and (in the boy’s case) sexual gratification. Here, the state of technology helps to illustrate the timeless nature of the human condition, namely how we are essentially the products of our environment.
In Mad Max as well, the way roving gangs are constantly looking for gasoline, using improvised weapons, and riding around in vehicles cobbled together from various parts gives us a clear picture of what life is like in this post-collapse environment. In addition, the obvious desperation created by said collapse serves to characterize the cultural landscape, which is made up of gangs, tinpot despots, and quasi-cults seeking deliverance.
But on the other hand, the fact that the world exists in this state due to collapse after the planet’s supply of oil ran dry also provides some social commentary. By saying that the world became a dangerous, anarchistic and brutal place simply because humanity was dependent on a resource that suddenly went dry, the creators of Mad Max’s world were clearly trying to tell us something. Namely, conserve!
4. Aliens or Only Humans: Another very important question for setting the scene in a science fiction story is whether or not extra-terrestrials are involved. Is humanity still alone in the universe, or have they broken that invisible barrier that lies between them and the discovery of other sentient life forms? Once again, the answer to this question has a profound effect on the nature of the story, and it can take many forms.
For starters, if the picture is devoid of aliens, then the focus of the story will certainly be inward, looking at human nature, issues of identity, and how our environment serves to shape us. But if there are aliens, either a single species or several dozen, then the chances are, humanity is a united species and the aliens serve as the “others”, either as a window into our own nature, or as an exploration into the awe and wonder of First Contact.
As case studies for the former category, let us consider the Dune, Foundation, and Firefly universes. In each of these, humanity has become an interstellar species, but has yet to find other sentiences like itself. And in each of these, human nature and weaknesses appear to be very much a constant, with war, petty rivalries and division a costant. Basically, in the absence of an “other”, humanity is focused on itself and the things that divide it.
In Dune, for example, a galaxy-spanning human race has settled millions of worlds, and each world has given rise to its own identity – with some appearing very much alien to another. Their are the “navigators”, beings that have mutated their minds and bodies through constant exposure to spice. Then there are the Tleilaxu, a race of genetic manipulators who breed humans from dead tissue and produce eunuch “Face Dancers” that can assume any identity.
Basically, in the absence of aliens, human beings have become amorphous in terms of their sense of self, with some altering themselves to the point that they are no longer even considered human to their bretherin. And all the while, humanity’s biggest fight is with itself, with rival houses vying for power, the Emperor gaurding his dominance, and the Guild and various orders looking to ensure that the resource upon which all civilization depends continues to flow.
In the Foundation universe, things are slightly less complicated; but again, the focus is entirely inward. Faced with the imminent decline and collapse of this civilization, Hari Seldon invents the tool known as “Psychohistory”. This science is dedicated to anticipating the behavior of large groups of people, and becomes a roadmap to recovery for a small group of Foundationists who seek to preserve the light of civilization once the empire is gone.
The series then chronicles their adventures, first in establishing their world and becoming a major power in the periphery – where Imperial power declines first – and then rebuilding the Empire once it finally and fully collapses. Along the way, some unforeseen challenges arise, but Seldon’s Plan prevails and the Empire is restored. In short, it’s all about humans trying to understand the nature of human civilization, so they can control it a little better.
Last, but not least, their is the Firefly universe which – despite the show’s short run – showed itself to be in-depth and interestingly detailed. Basically, the many worlds that make up “The Verse” are divided along quasi-national lines. The core worlds constitute the Alliance, the most advanced and well-off worlds in the system that are constantly trying to expand to bring the entire system under its rule.
The Independents, we learn early in the story, were a coalition of worlds immediately outside the core worlds that fought these attempts, and lost. The Border Worlds, meanwhile, are those planets farthest from the core where life is backwards and “uncivilized” by comparison. All of this serves to illustrate the power space and place have over human identity, and how hierarchy, power struggles and divisiveness are still very much a part of us.
But in universes where aliens are common, then things are a little bit different. In these science fiction universes, where human beings are merely one of many intelligent species finding their way in the cosmos, extra-terrestrials serve to make us look outward and inward at the same time. In this vein, the cases of Babylon 5, and 2001: A Space Odyssey provide the perfect range of examples.
In B5 – much as with Stark Trek, Star Gate, or a slew of other franchises – aliens serve as a mirror for the human condition. By presenting humanity with alien cultures, all of whom have their own particular quarks and flaws, we are given a meter stick with which to measure ourselves. And in B5‘s case, this was done rather brilliantly – with younger races learning from older ones, seeking wisdom from species so evolved that often they are not even physical entities.
However, in time the younger race discover that the oldest (i.e. the Shadows, Vorlons, and First Ones) are not above being flawed themselves. They too are subject to fear, arrogance, and going to war over ideology. The only difference is, when they do it the consequences are far graver! In addition, these races themselves come to see that the ongoing war between them and their proxies has become a senseless, self-perpetuating mistake. Echoes of human frailty there!
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, much the same is true of the Firstborn, a race of aliens so ancient that they too are no longer physical beings, but uploaded intelligences that travel through the cosmos using sleek, seamless, impenetrable slabs (the monoliths). As we learn in the course of the story, this race has existed for eons, and has been seeking out life with the intention of helping it to achieve sentience.
This mission brought them to Earth when humanity was still in its primordial, high-order primate phase. After tinkering with our evolution, these aliens stood back and watched us evolve, until the day that we began to reach out into the cosmos ourselves and began to discover some of the tools they left behind. These include the Tycho Monolith Anomaly-1 (TMA-1) on the Moon, and the even larger one in orbit around Jupiter’s moon of Europa.
After making contact with this monolith twice, first with the American vessel Discovery and then the joint Russian-American Alexei Leonov, the people of Earth realize that the Firstborn are still at work, looking to turn Jupiter into a sun so that life on Europa (confined to the warm oceans beneath its icy shell) will finally be able to flourish. Humanity is both astounded and humbled to learn that it is not alone in the universe, and wary of its new neighbors.
This story, rather than using aliens as a mirror for humanity’s own nature, uses a far more evolved species to provide a contrast to our own. This has the same effect, in that it forces us to take a look at ourselves and assess our flaws. But instead of showing those flaws in another, it showcases the kind of potential we have. Surely, if the Firstborn could achieve such lengths of evolutionary and technological development, surely we can too!
5. Utopian/Dystopian/Ambiguous: Finally, there is the big question of the qualitative state of humanity and life in this future universe. Will life be good, bad, ugly, or somewhere in between? And will humanity in this narrative be better, worse, or the same as it now? It is the questions of outlook, whether it is pessimistic, optimistic, realistic, or something else entirely which must concern a science fiction writer sooner or later.
Given that the genre evolved as a way of commenting on contemporary trends and offering insight into their effect on us, this should come as no surprise. When looking at where we are going and how things are going to change, one cannot help but delve into what it is that defines this thing we know as “humanity”. And when it comes right down to it, there are a few schools of thought that thousands of years of scholarship and philosophy have provided us with.
Consider the dystopian school, which essentially posits that mankind is a selfish, brutish, and essentially evil creature that only ever seeks to do right by himself, rather than other creatures. Out of this school of thought has come many masterful works of science fiction, which show humanity to be oppressive to its own, anthropocentric to aliens and other life forms, and indifferent to the destruction and waste it leaves in its wake.
And of course, there’s the even older Utopia school, which presents us with a future where mankind’s inherent flaws and bad behavior have been overcome through a combination of technological progress, political reform, social evolution, and good old fashioned reason. In these worlds, the angels of humanity’s nature have won the day, having proven superior to humanity’s devils.
In the literally realm, 1984 is again a perfect example of dytopian sci=fi, where the totalitarian rule of the few is based entirely on selfishness and the desire for dominance over others. According to O’Brien, the Party’s mouthpiece in the story, their philosophy in quite simple:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake.We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.
Hard to argue with something so brutal and unapologetic, isn’t it? In Orwell’s case, the future would be shaped by ongoing war, deprivation, propaganda, fear, torture, humiliation, and brutality. In short, man’s endless capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others.
Aldous Huxley took a different approach in his seminal dystopian work, Brave New World, in which he posited that civilization would come to be ruled based on man’s endless appetite for pleasure, indifference and distraction. Personal freedom and individuality would be eliminated, yes, but apparently for man’s own good rather than the twisted designs of a few true-believers:
Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered… People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness. One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for.
But even though the means are entirely different, the basic aim is the same. Deprive humanity of his basic freedom and the potential to do wrong in order to ensure stability and long-term rule. In the end, a darker, more cynical view of humanity and the path that we are on characterized these classic examples of dystopia and all those that would come to be inspired them.
As for Utopian fiction, H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods is a very appropriate example. In this novel, a contemporary journalist finds himself hurled through time into 3000 years into the future where humanity lives in a global state named Utopia, and where the “Five Principles of Liberty” – privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism – are the only law.
After staying with them for a month, the protogonist returns home with renewed vigor and is now committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.” In short, like most Positivists of his day, Wells believed that the march of progress would lead to a future golden age where humanity would shed it’s primitive habits and finally live up to its full potential.
This view would prove to have a profound influence on futurist writers like Asimov and Clarke. In the latter case, he would come to express similar sentiments in both the Space Odyssey series and his novel Childhood’s End. In both cases, humanity found itself confronted with alien beings of superior technology and sophistication, and eventually was able to better itself by opening itself up to their influence.
In both series, humanity is shown the way to betterment (often against their will) by cosmic intelligences far more advanced than their own. But despite the obvious questions about conquest, loss of freedom, individuality, and identity, Clarke presents this as a good thing. Humanity, he believed, had great potential, and would embrace it, even if it had to be carried kicking and screaming.
And just like H.G Wells, Clarke, Asimov, and a great many of his futurist contemporaries believes that the ongoing and expanding applications of science and technology would be what led to humanity’s betterment. A commitment to this, they believed, would eschew humanity’s dependence on religion, superstition, passion and petty emotion; basically, all the things that made us go to war and behave badly in the first place.
Summary: These are by no means the only considerations one must make before penning a science fiction story, but I think they provide a pretty good picture of the big-ticket items. At least the ones that keep me preoccupied when I’m writing! In the end, knowing where you stand on the questions of location, content, tone and feel, and what your basic conception of the future, is all part of the creation process.
In other words, you need to figure out what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it before you can go to town. In the meantime, I say to all aspiring and established science fiction writers alike: keep pondering, keep dreaming, and keep reaching for them stars!
Last week, Google announced that it will be expanding its menagerie of robots, thanks to a recent acquisition. The announcement came on Dec. 13th, when the tech giant confirmed that it had bought out the engineering company known as Boston Dynamics. This company, which has had several lucrative contracts with DARPA and the Pentagon, has been making the headlines in the past few years, thanks to its advanced robot designs.
Based in Waltham, Massachusetts, Boston Dynamics has gained an international reputation for machines that walk with an uncanny sense of balance, can navigate tough terrain on four feet, and even run faster than the fastest humans. The names BigDog, Cheetah, WildCat, Atlas and the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), have all become synonymous with the next generation of robotics, an era when machines can handle tasks too dangerous or too dirty for most humans to do.
More impressive is the fact that this is the eight robot company that Google has acquired in the past six months. Thus far, the company has been tight-lipped about what it intends to do with this expanding robot-making arsenal. But Boston Dynamics and its machines bring significant cachet to Google’s robotic efforts, which are being led by Andy Rubin, the Google executive who spearheaded the development of Android.
The deal is also the clearest indication yet that Google is intent on building a new class of autonomous systems that might do anything from warehouse work to package delivery and even elder care. And considering the many areas of scientific and technological advancement Google is involved in – everything from AI and IT to smartphones and space travel – it is not surprising to see them branching out in this way.
Boston Dynamics was founded in 1992 by Marc Raibert, a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And while it has not sold robots commercially, it has pushed the limits of mobile and off-road robotics technology thanks to its ongoing relationship and funding from DARPA. Early on, the company also did consulting work for Sony on consumer robots like the Aibo robotic dog.
Speaking on the subject of the recent acquisition, Raibert had nothing but nice things to say about Google and the man leading the charge:
I am excited by Andy and Google’s ability to think very, very big, with the resources to make it happen.
Videos uploaded to Youtube featuring the robots of Boston Dynamics have been extremely popular in recent years. For example, the video of their four-legged, gas powered, Big Dog walker has been viewed 15 million times since it was posted on YouTube in 2008. In terms of comments, many people expressed dismay over how such robots could eventually become autonomous killing machines with the potential to murder us.
In response, Dr. Raibert has emphasized repeatedly that he does not consider his company to be a military contractor – it is merely trying to advance robotics technology. Google executives said the company would honor existing military contracts, but that it did not plan to move toward becoming a military contractor on its own. In many respects, this acquisition is likely just an attempt to acquire more talent and resources as part of a larger push.
Google’s other robotics acquisitions include companies in the United States and Japan that have pioneered a range of technologies including software for advanced robot arms, grasping technology and computer vision. Mr. Rubin has also said that he is interested in advancing sensor technology. Mr. Rubin has called his robotics effort a “moonshot,” but has declined to describe specific products that might come from the project.
He has, however, also said that he does not expect initial product development to go on for some time, indicating that Google commercial robots of some nature would not be available for several more years. Google declined to say how much it paid for its newest robotics acquisition and said that it did not plan to release financial information on any of the other companies it has recently bought.
Considering the growing power and influence Google is having over technological research – be it in computing, robotics, neural nets or space exploration – it might not be too soon to assume that they are destined to one day create the supercomputer that will try to kill us all. In short, Google will play Cyberdyne to Skynet and unleash the Terminators. Consider yourself warned, people! 😉