In the Saturday Times magazine of the 18th January I read the column by Caitlin Moran, as I usually do. I like her irreverent somewhat sideways take on life. It makes you smile, but also it makes you think. In this particular column she starts with the Chinese Jade Rabbit mission and moves on to other projects of space exploration. Essentially she argues that we have enough problems to solve here on earth. That it’s too soon to be running away. That we shouldn’t be looking at planet earth as some sort of rehearsal for life elsewhere and therefore it’s alright to make a mess of it. Now there’s more to her argument than that and if you can read it I suggest you do, as I said it makes you think.
As a science fiction writer, as you might expect, whist I sympathise with the sentiment, I disagree with the conclusion. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do everything we can to maintain planet earth in a state fit for the coming generations. But as human beings we’ve always looked beyond our current horizon and wondered. Surely all science is driven by wondering, exploring. I love the fact that everyone outside Africa can trace their DNA ancestry back to a small groups (even perhaps one female) that left Africa some 90,000 – 130,000 years ago. I know, part of the reason will have been looking for new territory, food etc. But I also like to think that they left, at least partly, because they wanted to see what was out there, what was over the next hill, over the water. That desire to explore is key to what makes us so successful as a species. I know that space exploration is incredibly expensive and there is always an argument that the money could be better spent here on earth. And why take the risk and added expense of sending people, send machines. But what price inspiring the next generation, what price can you put on curiosity. Surely we will be much poorer as a race if we do not indulge something that is so much a part of us.
The Danes took their long boats to Greenland, Columbus took his ship to America, Cook sailed to Australia and New Zealand. They all knew they were taking a huge risk, there was no certainty about the journey or what they might find. But they went anyway, to discover, to find out. So why stop there? ‘Space the final frontier’ and all that. Why baulk at this potentially last great hurdle? The Apollo astronauts didn’t. They went to the moon with less computing power than a Sinclair ZX81 (for those that can remember that far back). Again they knew the risks, but it didn’t stop them. Sending machines ahead of us is fine, but as humans we want to see it for ourselves, touch it, experience it. So I believe we should and will ‘boldly go’ where no man has gone before. And, when we look back we’ll realise all the more how beautiful our home world is and perhaps that might make us look after it a little better.
As a science fiction writer I see it as part of my job to imagine what that future might be like. And as story tellers have always done perhaps we’ll help spark the imagination of individuals who will want to see for themselves the wonders that lie beyond our own limited horizons. I’m certain we’ll continue to push the boundaries and explore as far as our technology and abilities will allow, as we have always done. The barrier that is the speed of light will be seen as a challenge to be overcome and we will set out for those distant stars. And as those early explorers travelling to distant lands did, we will return with fantastic tales that will encourage others to follow and settle. Eventually such travel will become common place and then, as human beings, we will look for the next challenge.
Agree? disagree? please comment, share your ideas.