How do today’s cutting-edge ideas, discoveries and inventions inspire the literature, art and games of tomorrow?
Ahead of their series of Into the Unknown inspired conversations between scientific and cultural figures, we asked the New Scientist to introduce The Tomorrow Club events.
First, author Adam Roberts discusses science fiction’s outward urge as we join The Explorer’s Club.
‘If I were a Martian I’d start running now…’
Exploration is so core to science fiction we might almost rename the genre ‘Exploration Fiction’. The genre is defined by, and packed with, stories of exploring space (‘to boldly go’ and all that), and of exploring time in the saddle of H G Wells’s time machine and its very many successors. Most of Jules Verne’s novels send characters exploring the world in balloons, submarines, trains and mega-boats. Occasionally they explore the world beyond Earth aboard ballistic capsules, or even on a chunk of Earth knocked off by a comet. I’m old enough to remember Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (1980), recently remade with Neil deGrasse Tyson, which used the notion of flying through the universe in a strangely under-furnished space-ship as a way to convey various galactic wonders. Here was the nineteenth-century scientist-explorer, extrapolated into the future. The British science-fiction writer John Wyndham defined humanity by what he called ‘the outward urge’.
‘Maybe it’s just in us: this desire to explore’
One striking thing about the way exploration figures in SF is that — with only a very few exceptions — it is almost always benign. I suppose we tend to think of ‘exploration’ as a natural and positive extension of our universal human curiosity about the world; that is, the curiosity that all children exhibit, A ‘why is the sky blue?’ school of thinking. Star Trek’s Federation operates according to a Prime Directive of non-interference in the cultures it explores. Verne’s Captain Nemo is a dedicated anti-colonialist. From Wells’ aggressive Martians to Doctor Who’s alien-invader-of-the-week, in SF it is vastly more likely that the imperial aggressors will be aliens coming here, rather than humans going there. When we imagine ourselves exploring the universe we tend to do it in the spirit of the Apollo landings: we go in peace, we tell ourselves, for all mankind.
‘You can’t colonise the world without some reconnaissance’
But the long history of actual exploration really doesn’t tell that story. I daresay from time to time people have explored the world with the same disinterestedness that Mallory proposed for Everest, ‘because it’s there’: a line treasured by the first man actually to climb that mountain, Edmund Hillary. But Hillary was hardly a typical explorer. Most exploration has been conducted by people, who are checking out which chunks of the rest of the world would be most lucrative to invade and despoil. You can’t colonise the world without some reconnaissance, any more than you can make an empire-omelette without breaking human-eggs.
European imperialists rarely put it in those terms, of course: they spoke of spreading civilisation. The disingenuousness of this is toxic because it does, as it were, the opposite of what true exploration should do. It conceals the truth rather than revealing it. It hides things away instead of mapping them out plainly. And it becomes habitual. Did I refer to Mount Everest, a few sentences ago, rather than Mount Sagarmāthā? Did I drop the name of the prominent white man, but omit to mention Tenzing Norgay, who stepped onto the peak simultaneously with him? More to the point, did my putting it in those terms ring any warning bells for you?
Exploration has never been neutral, and it’s hard to believe that future exploration of the cosmos will be different. So: doesn’t SF have a duty to flavour its fantasies of boldly going with a smidgeon of ideological honesty? ‘Exploration Fiction’ is, after all, better placed than any other kind of literature to explore exploration itself.
Adam Roberts is a science fiction writer and professor at Royal Holloway, University of London was joined in conversation by sci-fi writer Stephen Baxter and New Scientist editor Sumit Paul-Choudhury at The Explorer’s Club on Thursday 15 June.
See all the events in the New Scientist Presents: The Tomorrow Club series.
Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction takes place from 3 June –1 September.