I wrote this in the 1970s and mostly agree with it, except that maybe I'm not quite as down on modern literature as I was then.
Personally I hate and fear modern literature and it makes me especially unhappy when it invades science fiction. The literary authors are always trying to manipulate my emotions on behalf of some cause or other they have read about in the New York Times Magazine. They want to make me share their hatreds; they rarely show affection for anyone except when they show him as a victim of someone who represents one of their hates. Therefore, I enjoy most old-fashioned science fiction in which the author shows us some neat thing he has thought up or heard about in a straightforward adventure context with good guys and bad guys of a conventional sort. It is even better if he can tell a good story without any fighting, but I understand that this is hard for authors.
I put my biases in at the beginning just for honesty. The real subject of this article is a bit different; it is the ways in which the authors get the world wrong, because they copy each other and the first guy got it wrong or because they have to get it wrong in order to tell a good story.
Now that man has reached the Moon, it is time to compare the reality with science fiction. Here are some of the differences:
1. Fifty billion dollars were spent on the space program before the first landing on the Moon, half of it on the Apollo Project itself. If we look at 1930s science fiction, we would probably get a median expenditure of between $50,000 and $500,000 judging from the number of people involved and the time taken - the error factor is between 100,000 and a million. Well, I don't resent that as a reader of entertainment, but it probably fooled a lot of people. Imagine a trillion dollar project to go to Alpha Centauri. Imagine that the project took an hundred years to prepare the first launch; since the journey will be a few hundred years, the launch should be delayed as long as technology is advancing so fast that a ship launched later will arrive earlier. One of the science fiction writers noted this point but as usual, he kept all of his characters on the space ship ignorant of this possibility until it happened to them. Of course, that's another literary device - keeping a rather obvious possibility away from the whole of society. Society as a whole has its surprises, but they aren't quite of this kind.
Anyway it would be interesting to see if some author could make an interesting story out of a trillion dollar project or even a 50 billion dollar project.
2. Alas the Moon has turned out at the extreme dull end of the possibilities envisaged by science fiction, but we will explore it anyway. I don't resent their choosing the more interesting possibilities of meeting some form of life or even having dust traps, but as a result they couldn't show us exploration in face of boredom.
3. By the way, Willy Ley did quite well in his 1940s book on Rockets and Space Travel in predicting what space exploration would be like technically. All the techniques he was sure would work were used and had about the predicted performance. Of the more exotic possibilities he mentioned the only one that has worked out so far was atmospheric braking. The exotic fuels like monatomic hydrogen haven't worked out. Nuclear rockets would work all right if our society hadn't entered a stage of fearing technology. In that it is interesting that the science fiction writers have no special view of the benefits or menace of technology that differentiates them from other intellectuals. They distribute themselves into rationalists and twisters of reality to fit preconceived ideas in about the same proportions as others.
4. Faster than light travel. It disagrees with the theory of relativity, but you can write much better adventure stories if you assume it. Larry Niven wrote some stories accepting the speed of light limitation and suitably freezing and thawing his colonists. However, he gave up the limitation when he really wanted to show interaction with alien civilizations. I have no objection to hyperspace as a science fiction device. People unfamiliar with science risk regarding it as an inevitable advance. This doesn't seem to do a lot of harm.
Here are some gripes:
The village size planet. "It was raining on planet X."
Lem's complaint about American science fiction. [1999: I forgot what it was.]
Some of the first futuristic authors showed us Utopias, but there is nowhere to go from there, and anyway an author who shows us a Utopia he really likes risks being taken for an enthusiast, than which there is nothing worse to a cynic. However, when forms of oppression that had a social role in undeveloped societies are transferred without change to advanced societies, they libel humanity.
The "if this goes on" story wherein the writer extrapolates one trend in society to extremes is pretty bad.
There will be more stuff - robots, telepathy, teleporting,, etc.
In a story written in 1975 she has the entire U.S. covered with buildings in 2010. The 2010 bit was apparently so that one of the characters could remember 1975. However, half of the people who will be alive in 2010 were already alive in 2010. You could achieve the population density she postulates for 2010 if everyone in the world had babies as fast as possible. I don't know if it was carelessness or simply literary ruthlessness.
My other gripe concerns a LeGuin environmentalist story in which people on one planet could no longer have individual transportation or air travel and endured other austerities, because they had been profligate with resources earlier. However, the planet gets its grain supply transported by space ship from another planet. The resources required for interplanetary bulk cargo transportation are millions of times that required for travel within a planet. This is another example of literary ruthlessness in which the reader suspends belief in scientific plausibility in order to enjoy the plot. It's ok unless you take these things as predictions.Up to: Future
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